Unravel the Past and Craft the Future

By Charlotte Eure

The day before I woke to the nightmare of the post-election world, I finished reading a graphic novel about a different human disaster. Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, written by Anne Elizabeth Moore in collaboration with six different comic artists, offers a beautifully simple way of communicating extensive information about a very complex web of exploitation and oppression. In four chapters, Moore explores connections between the garment industry, fashion, sex work, and anti-trafficking NGOs. For me, the book served as part of the constant and necessary reminder that there is so much I don’t know and so much history lying beneath seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives.

While reading Threadbare, I saw many similarities to our culture’s animal use. We buy final products ready to cook, ready to wear. We don’t ever have to see the violent and exploitative processes that lead to their placement in stores for our convenience. Our consumerism is often the epitome of ignorant bliss, and oppressive systems encourage us to remain oblivious, an unfortunately easy task in an image-obsessed and superficial culture. Most of us really don’t like it when someone drudges up all the nasty shit at the core of our choices. Especially in a time when even a lot of social justice rhetoric centers personal choice and individualism, challenges to dearly held personal expression are typically unwelcome. The refrain often goes, “If something makes me feel good, how can it be wrong? I know everything is terrible. You don’t need to remind me. Just let me enjoy my bacon and H&M dress in peace. Let me hold on to my bigotry and prejudice. I’m not hurting anybody!”

But of course pleasure doesn’t exist in a vacuum even if it might feel that way in the moment, and even though pleasure matters, which it does – we are not here to just suffer and survive.

Our role as consumers is also only part of the design. Marginalized communities experience limitations that further complicate notions of choice. Dressing a certain way is often a key to accessing resources. Food deserts create disparities, and authorities may spread misinformation around nutrition and health. Connections exist amongst the animal agriculture industry and the medical industry as they do amongst the garment industry and NGOs. Corporations build factories overseas and move slaughterhouses and CAFOs to rural areas of the US in part to keep them hidden from the majority of white, middle and upper class consumers. This is painfully obvious in the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline from a predominantly white neighborhood through sacred Native land at Standing Rock.

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It can all feel overwhelmingly hopeless, as though we are powerless against an unstoppable force. And we need to forgive ourselves when we’re exhausted, when we’re scared, when we need time and space to heal and regain strength. But still, what we do matters, and it matters that we stretch ourselves to make imperative connections. Most of us don’t have to think about women in the garment industry, just as we don’t have to think about slaughterhouse workers or CAFO and dairy farm workers, but we can and we must.

The pain and suffering we are willing to allow others to experience for a singular momentary pleasure is one of the most heinous human traits. And the farther removed we are from each other, the more easily this exchange occurs. It doesn’t just take physical distance. We distance ourselves psychologically and emotionally with all kinds of mental gymnastics, often going so far as to acknowledge intellectually the harm we are doing yet refusing to empathize and imagine different ways of being and doing.

Empathy and imagination are crucial to not only our survival but to our ability to thrive. With Donald Trump’s election and a Republican majority, life is looking very bleak. But if there is one small sliver of comfort I take, it’s that more of us than ever are admitting this. The world of Donald Trump as president is one where horrors are revealed. Where once a postracial lens seemed to pacify so many (and will frustratingly continue to for some), I hope we heed this message in all its importance: we can’t keep ignoring our collective nightmares. We can’t keep pretending that all is well simply because so many of us don’t have to see where and when it is most certainly not. We have to confront our waste, our terrors, our injustice.

We may look for ways to alleviate the guilt that may come with admitting our complicity by placing the blame elsewhere or by justifying our behavior with desperate clinging to harmful traditions, just as Trump looks back to the past with the haze of nostalgia that it somehow used to be better, when we know it has been bad, it was never not bad. Resist guilt and instead take responsibility. As upsetting as it is to face the horrors of fast fashion or animal use or white supremacist patriarchy, it is also liberating. It is then we can begin to create a life otherwise.

In Threadbare, Moore writes, “Usually, an enforced culture of silence shrouds abuse and coercion.” To stop the cycle of abuse against our planet and each other, we must begin by acknowledging and speaking on the atrocities of the past – and I mean the past as recent as minutes ago. Be vigilant in this. Don’t let your fleeting pleasure and comfort excuse another’s oppression. Don’t let your ignorance fuel injustice. Move closer to empathy, to compassion, to movement and growth. If ever there was a time for us to learn and build new paths forward together, now is that time. If history has shown us anything, it’s that now has always been that time.

 

 

The Hypocrisy of a Butcher’s “Vulnerability”

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By Charlotte Eure, with Justin Van Kleeck

I recently read an article about the latest butcher/hunter being oh-so vulnerable by killing a defenseless being, talking about how super spiritual it is to murder someone as long as that someone is a different species and is culturally acceptable to cut up and eat.

I’ll share my favorite puke-inducing section from that article, and let me preface with a big LOL and some sobbing at the idea of respecting life as you rob someone of it but anyway:

“Both on paper and in person, Leigh’s respect for life and for the land shines through—as does, somewhat unexpectedly, her vulnerability. In her book, for instance, she includes a scene in which she prepares to slaughter a lamb named Hercules at a friend’s farm. ‘I drove all the way there with my troubles thick upon my back,’ she writes, and then describes the smell of hay in the barn, the look of the lamb’s eyes, and the mountains rising up in front of them as the lamb dies.”

Murder really heightens the senses, apparently. I’m pretty sure serial killers are on that shtick too. But who knew that as long as you choose the right victims, you can turn your sadism into vulnerability? The mental gymnastics! Humans are amazing.

People in positions of domination who exercise authority and power to enact violence often co-opt the language of vulnerability. This hurts me more than it hurts you. I do this because I love you. Lies. Domination is the rejection of vulnerability. Domination embraces power. It works to rationalize and excuse unnecessary violence as though it is in the best interest of everyone. It’s egoism. It’s how humans can make the slaughter of actual vulnerable beings all about their own feelings. “Ah, I’m so connected with the Earth now that I’ve denied someone else their connection to it. Especially now that the lamb is finally not screaming anymore, I can really take in all this beautiful scenery!”

A million myths exist to perpetuate our use of animals. One of the nastiest is that our hierarchical and exploitative relationship with them is naturally beautiful, spiritual, and loving. The idea that loving someone means violently killing them because we want to – for whatever reason – perverts the very meaning of the concept. Leigh saw “the look in the lamb’s eyes” like it was just another part of the scenery. What was that look? Why no mention of the inevitable struggle that ensued? Why no mention of the way in which Leigh killed the lamb? Instead the lamb passively died? Of course. In this story, as is often the case when the humane myth is at work, the horrific act of slaughtering an animal who wants to live becomes a mutual decision in honor of nature, one in which the victim participates willfully and in which the violence is somehow an act of respect and happens peacefully.

The only vulnerable person in the moment during which Leigh slaughtered a lamb was the lamb. Leigh, however, is eager to co-opt that experience and make it about herself and her anxiety surrounding her decisions to inflict violence and death upon the vulnerable, a despicably typical rationale for abuse of power. In this way, she clouds the hierarchical relationship that exists. She complicates her dominant position and her abusive behavior. She tells us, “It’s hard for me too!” Yet she emerges from that moment unscathed. In fact, she emerges with a prize! She now has parts to sell and to consume. Meanwhile, we’ll never fully know what the lamb experienced as they realized they were in danger, as they felt blade pierce their flesh, as they bled to death in the shadow of a killer who took solace in the beauty of the mountainside. (I mean, really??)

In another interview, Leigh fills out the sketch of her transition from vegan to “ethical butcher” (yes, you read that right). “High school exposure to horrific slaughterhouses, corporate domination, and empathy for fellow her fellow earthlings had turned her off meat. But everything changed after a trip to the third world—where she witnessed a population whose lives and livelihoods depended on animal protein (every last bit of it).” Confronting the very real fact of “third world” [sic] hunger and poverty, Leigh responds by seeking “ethics” in the American food system by booting living beings out of her field of ethical consideration and into the limbo of the absent referent.

We see the slipping away of living individuals for Leigh as she recalls asking herself, “We have hungry people in our country and we’re not going to eat something because we’re afraid to? Or because of regulation? Or because of whatever our culture has deemed normal?”

Whatever reasons Leigh has crafted to explain her decision to dominate, the least she can do is stop pretending that she is somehow vulnerable in that decision. The least she can do is acknowledge that the moment she willfully slaughters another being, she is fully in power. She is dominating. She wields a knife against the actual defenseless, vulnerable being.

Perhaps the most disturbing horror of Leigh’s “ethical” worldview is that her conscience can simultaneously feel a desire to care for and to treat “humanely” other beings, while also always already seeing them as dead bodies, as cuts of meat and grist for the gustatory mill. This sort of moral dysphoria takes for granted that other animals exist for us, and any nod towards individualizing them (and their concomitant “welfare”) becomes arguably the greatest betrayal imaginable—they each are equally someone and no one, a fragile life and a heap of carrion on the table.

This hypocrisy of perspective and narrative is enacted more and more, becoming normalized to the point of fetish in modern food culture: for example, a food co-op in Durham, North Carolina is celebrating community with a “farm to feast” lamb roast…but don’t worry, vegans, there’ll be vegan options too!

Leigh wields her power by the domination of true vulnerability, but through the logical twists of the humane myth, she can become an icon of compassion while committing murder. There is nothing vulnerable in her position…

And don’t even get me started on the nightmares experienced by oppressed groups coerced by capitalism into slaughterhouse jobs NOR on women trying to empower themselves by enacting traditionally masculine violence against other marginalized, vulnerable bodies. J/K, please get me started.

 

 

 

 

Microsanctuaries: A Micro-Manifesto

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By Justin Van Kleeck

As ethical vegans who are also interested in helping animals living in this world right now because of humans, my partner, Rosemary, and I began to rescue farmed animals in order to get them out of the agricultural system—not to give them “better” living spaces in which they were still exploited, but to get them out once and for all.

We thus started Triangle Chicken Advocates (originally Triangle Chance for All) and from that The Microsanctuary Movement, around two hens: Clementine and Amandine. All of our rescue efforts on typical “pet” species took on a new quality when we transitioned to farmed animals. Once we rescued these hens from a shelter and began to interact with them as individuals, not as abstract concepts, the notion of being “vegan for the animals” took on a profound new importance.

Living amongst such wondrous beings, we began to reconsider – and to deconstruct – the ideal of an animal sanctuary. In late 2013, we had moved to a three-acre property outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where our view consists of a wall of trees rather than rolling pastures. But, in the course of applying vegan ethical considerations to the two hens suddenly residing in our house, we decided that we could scale the model down and get creative with what we have, not what we think we “should have,” in order to provide permanent shelter and care to our rescues. We began to see ourselves as building a “microsanctuary.”

In every moment since then, the individuals who reside here with us remind us of the value and importance of every life—even the lives that a speciesist, commodifying, cravenly capitalist society tells us are worthless. Baby chickens cost a few bucks at most, and roosters are “worth” even less; in a throwaway culture that concocts all sorts of selfish notions about what is “good,” these beings are the lowest of the low.

But to us they are everything.

Let us be clear about this: A microsanctuary is as much about ethos as it is about property sizes and resident numbers. A microsanctuary is grounded on the idea that sanctuary is a state of mind, and building one’s (human) life around the well-being of (non-human) animals is not only important but central to the ethos and ethic of veganism.

A microsanctuary can be any space run by a vegan (or multiple vegans) that is home to rescued animals and emphasizes their health and happiness above all else. So someone with a rescued house rooster is just as much a sanctuary (by virtue of being a microsanctuary) as a million-dollar non-profit with hundreds of acres and hundreds of animals.

This is important: We have to question the conceptual cultural categories we vegans inherit—such as “food” animal and “pet”—and we have to stop accepting the agricultural model as the ideal for these beings we suppose to respect. This is what microsanctuaries are doing.

By throwing out the ideal of what a farmed animal sanctuary “should” look like, we began to understand what sanctuary means for the residents and the caregivers in situations like ours. It is a revolutionary relationship and way of living, for modern vegans; it involves completely rethinking our perspective on the world and redefining ourselves in the (radical) role of caregivers.

This sense of dedication to the direct service of rescued farmed animals, as a way to end their exploitation, is what lies at the heart of sanctuary—and on an individual level truly defines a microsanctuary. To understand ourselves as vegans in light of the relationships we have with these beings is not only what defines our existence as co-habitants of a microsanctuary, but also shapes our notion of why we do what we do and where our moral obligations as vegans truly lie: to the animals.

Seen in this light, veganism is no longer so much a negative orientation, in the sense that we are trying to not cause harm or not be part of exploitation. It feels so much more positive to have a direct role in the care of the very individuals for whom most of us went vegan.

Make no mistakes here: Microsanctuaries are meant to be radical spaces, just as microsanctuary vegans need to be a radical force.

What we seek is a world in which no individual being is used as a means to an end, and no individual being is made to feel (or be treated as) lesser than for any reason. That will only be possible with a staggeringly comprehensive overhaul of everything that we know in our modern life. It cannot happen if we keep bringing humans into the world as we do, and keep consuming in the ways and amounts that we do, and keep pretending that the human species has some special significance in the universe that makes it more valuable than any other, and keep rationalizing why it is okay for us to benefit from the suffering and exploitation of other beings so that our way of life can keep humming right along.

We as a species, as a culture, as a society, need to learn humility, and we need to recognize the value of other lives as much as we need to understand the tragedy of forcing them, without consent and for our pleasure, into existence.

Cleaning up chicken poop daily is a wonderful way to make that learning happen.

Go do it.

Originally published in Barefoot Vegan magazine, July/August 2016. Download a PDF version of the article here. This version has been edited from the original.

The Inescapable Speciesism of “Progressive” Media

By Justin Van Kleeck

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Having lived with chickens for several years now, I can quite clearly see just how impossible it is for mainstream America and the media serving it–whether far “right” or far “left”–to step back from a conceptual framework that positions non-human animals as lesser beings here for our consumption.

A rather jaw-dropping example is a recent article in Mother Jones about the problems with so-called “cage-free” eggs. As we all should expect by now, the article shocks no one in its shocking revelation that the “cage-free” label on a carton of eggs means much less than most starry-eyed egg-eaters think it does…

Articles like this are endlessly frustrating because they assume, reinforce, and depend upon the premise that non-humans (in this case egg-laying hens) are, inextricably, objects within the human food system, and thus they emphasize the details of treatment over the ethics of use.

That is, in ethical terms, they are asking the wrong questions because, in virtually every single case, they are depending on a conceptual framework in which chickens (like other consumable animals) are food, always and already and forever...

Every single journalist who wants to do a story on the “transition” (ha ha) to “cage-free” eggs (ha ha) should, instead, take a big step back and think about a few other issues, if they actually want to do some compelling (or “progressive” or even fucking less exhaustively trite) journalism.

1. Where are the boys? Chickens (like most species) give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female offspring. But where are the boys at these supposedly more “humane” cageless egg farms? Answer: they are dead. They are almost all dead (the few who make it out are usually dead, just at a later date) because hatcheries (where virtually every chick today is born) kill them outright…because no one wants them. Why in the name of profit would a farmer raise a boy–feeding and caring for (ha ha) them–the same way as a hen who will lay the eggs that farmer sells???

2. How many of these supposedly “happier” hens are going to lay like mad for a year or so, then lay fewer eggs, and then either be slaughtered *because* they are less productive or die because they develop one of the inevitable health problems laying hens experience as a direct result of selective breeding for egg production–including egg-yolk peritonitis, ovarian cancer, or one of the many other related conditions?

3. As long as major media outlets (as well as so, so many vegans…) promote the notion that there is a “better” (read “acceptable”) way to use non-humans for food, what you will encounter is a gentrification of the food system (“happy” animals are expensive animals, obviously) coupled with a continued exploitation of non-human animals for human food, to the utter detriment of the non-humans. There is no necessary (or even sufficient) imperative to stop eating animals in a narrative that says treating them “better” is less deplorable than treating them like Descartes’ automata.

To take the position that “nicer” exploitation is somehow acceptable means both condoning violence and excusing the vast number of humans who actively crank out endorphins over being “compassionate” animal lovers/exploiters, completely ignoring the paradox that recognizing the need to be “nicer” to animals necessitates asking why they deserve to be treated any nicer than cogs and robots. At all.

This happens all the time, of course… One glaring example is how NPR, the great bastion of liberal media, seemed to do story after story in the summer/fall of 2015 on how rough of a time the food industry was having because Avian Influenza was killing (or causing to be murdered) millions of laying hens, which meant egg prices were going up. GASP–chefs and bakers had to look at plant ingredients instead, or pay more for eggs as supply decreased!!!

The complete inability of supposedly progressive journalists and media to actually think about the underlying ethical problems and real-time implications (on the victims) of the exploitative, speciesist food system is borderline criminal. To watch instance after instance of it occur is as disconcerting as it is disappointing.

But then again, what incentive would the media outlets–catering as they do to a culture as pleased by bacon as it is by “happy” eggs–have to do otherwise than applaud mediocre measures that make everyone feel nice as they eat their omelette?

The answer: none.

Nonhuman Animals Are Others: On Learning to Judge and the Limits of Choice

By Charlotte Eure

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Everyday Feminism recently published a video that asks, “Does Feminism Require Vegetarianism or Veganism?” The editors introduce vlogger Celia Edell as “a feminist vegetarian who doesn’t apply her choice to others.”

So you know you’re in for a slimy ride into the more tender parts of hell: those rotten sections of our culture where we feel like everything is cool and totally a choice and all about personal preference. In those special caverns, we find endless excuses for our complicity in oppressive systems. We get there and love to say, “You know what? You do you. I can’t judge!” Which is especially funny when moments earlier we were banging the gavel to shut down fundamentally the same garbage we now find ourselves swimming in like it’s a private pool on a hot summer day.

If the video stuck to a discussion about why feminists are not required to be vegan, I likely wouldn’t have a problem with it. Unfortunately, Edell gets into the idea that being vegan/vegetarian (two entirely different concepts, by the way) boils down to personal choice. In fact, she says, some people can’t be vegan, so. …So what? So we just shouldn’t care about the horrific injustices of animal use? We shouldn’t care, for instance, that cows are impregnated over and over to continue producing milk until they can’t stand any longer, at which point they are killed? That the dangerous practices of slaughtering vulnerable animals and stealing babies from their mothers has serious psychological effects on workers, who are often demonized for abuses inherent to the work? We shouldn’t examine why someone might struggle to be vegan?

Institutions and ideologies exist which constrain our choices and teach us to engage in oppressive behavior, and the powerful often thrive on limiting our access to knowledge and alternative resources. Animal use doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the foundation of the exploitation and oppression of those marked as other. Vegans, including those with eating disorders and limited access to resources – vegans completely erased by the rhetoric in this video – have grappled with these issues and contributed to a complex conversation about power, privilege, and ethics that is absent from Edell’s video. Instead, we get a disappointing moral relativism and frustrating refusal to accept accountability.

When we speak on issues of injustice from a place of ignorance as though we are an informed source, we are more likely to reinforce oppression than to challenge it, especially when we occupy spaces of privilege and try to speak for people outside those spaces. A paltry discussion of animal rights is not necessary to make the point that feminists can be disengaged from movements for nonhuman justice and still be feminists. To leap from that point to one that minimizes nonhuman oppression and erases already marginalized members of the vegan community reveals a lack of care to truly understand the subject from more relevant perspectives and histories not the vlogger’s own, which is why her argument ends up being about opinions instead of systems.

It’s hard to discern at times when we might do more harm than good by speaking when we know the dangers of silence, but there is so much potential for growth in learning to recognize those spaces where we should listen before we speak. Before you feel you have to add to a conversation, you might find that others have already spoken on the topic with much more grace, nuance, and experience than you could have. And that should be a good thing! Our world needs more people willing to seek out the critical and creative voices who have devoted their time and energy to movements for social change than act like everything’s relative so they can stay comfy in complicity.

 

Veganism and the Problem of Props

By Justin Van Kleeck

Vegan advocates and activists face huge challenges on every front: a gargantuan industry and culture of non-human animal exploitation; entrenched habits, traditions, and taste preferences that support the aforementioned; and a willing suspension of critical thinking by basically everybody with a stake in the continued domination of other animals.

This makes any effort to change human behaviors and opinions a Herculean task, no matter which approach one uses to do it…while also making every effort all the more dire.

Unfortunately, as veganism has grown as a movement, the difficulty in reaching non-vegans has led to many problematic, and seemingly counterproductive, methods of advocating on behalf of non-humans. I will touch on a few in order (I hope) to highlight a general tendency of turning individuals into rhetorical props, whose existence and experiences are treated largely as tools due to their strategic efficacy.

A fierce debate is raging in many vegan circles these days around the issue of racism amongst vegan groups, leaders, and prominent voices. There are countless episodes on social media and the blogosphere where vegans throw down with overtly racist language, let alone the equally countless instances where racial violence is downplayed as a “lesser problem” than violence against non-humans. These manifest a deep misunderstanding of what racism is by vegans, and an inability to perceive how different systems of oppression reinforce each other.

However, an arguably more troubling trend (to me at least) is the ease with which white vegans want to utilize the oppression of other humans in order to make analogies with the oppression of non-humans for the sake of vegan advocacy. The language of slavery is mined to the depths, images of historical acts of violence are juxtaposed with gory scenes from animal agriculture, all for the sake of forcing non-vegans to “get” that oppressing non-humans is just as bad/unethical as oppressing humans through regimes of enslavement.

As my colleague Christopher Sebastian McJetters has written, this unflinching and unapologetic deployment of the S-bomb by vegans hinges on a disregard of the myriad ways in which black vegans (and black humans generally), in the U.S. especially, continue to live with the after-effects of slavery and white supremacy. As he puts it:

“Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.”

The comments on Christopher Sebastian’s article exemplify how quickly white vegans will defend their right to make rhetorical use of others’ experiences, despite having absolutely no need to share those experiences in their own lives. Thus white vegans actually believe they have the right to instruct black vegans on the history of slavery, simply to buttress their stance that any argument “for the animals” is a legitimate one.

Aph Ko’s experiences with Black Vegans Rock are also frighteningly indicative of veganism’s growing discomfort with alternative narratives and spaces. Aph has faced so much pointless vitriol–including charges of racism! It should not need to be said, yet it endlessly does: veganism is not a homogeneous realm of colorblindness and equality, simply because our human societies are so, so far from that utopia (as if that were even a desirable goal in the first place–which it surely is not). Further, one vegan does not exist in the exact same societal context as every other–which means a black vegan activist is going to have many, very important and potentially dangerous, cultural truths to take into consideration that a white vegan activist just will not. Their experiences are going to be totally different, and the reality behind that is something vegans too easily ignore or forget when engaged in propped-up advocacy.

Another example of how vegan advocacy relies on making individuals into props comes in the effort to clarify and counteract speciesism–the generalized prioritization of humans as a species over other species.

This can occur in some overt ways, like turning the suffering of one individual–a mother cow losing her calf, a chick being sent into the grinder at a hatchery, or a pig lying down inside a gestation crate–into an image for public consumption, even if we have never once met that individual or any individuals of their species. I am more sensitive to it now since getting into farmed animal rescue and sanctuary work: vegans who have no idea of what cows, chickens, or pigs actually endure every day of their tragically shortened lives advocate on their behalf, but the victims’ individuality quickly fades into the incomprehensible quantity of dead bodies.

I live with and care for rescued chickens (along with other farmed animals), and my every moment involves ameliorating the embodied oppression of speciesism that they have to deal with. My partner and I have lost beloved family members, and dedicated countless hours and dollars to their care, all because humans value them for what they have been bred to produce. I know how awful speciesism is for the individuals who suffer because we try directly to alleviate it every…waking…moment.

Yet no matter how we do it, we are fighting speciesism as proxies–the importance of that point cannot be overstated. And most of the time we get caught up in our own notions without a very clear idea of what speciesism actually means for the individuals who suffer under it.

Despite my close connection to non-humans, I would never dare use the experiences of others as a rhetorical tool in vegan advocacy. My devotion to sanctuary for farmed animals has nothing to do with downplaying the oppression of other humans, and vice-versa; to draw either line would be to participate in continued oppression, and that cannot be acceptable.

Equally problematic, vegan anti-speciesists tend to invoke the quantity of non-humans slaughtered by humans to counter criticisms of their rhetoric. But it is terribly, terribly dangerous to get caught up in the game of “Whose Oppression Is Worse?” Besides the fact that trying to quantify suffering and exploitation is an impossible task, it utterly devalues the lived experiences of individuals (human or non) suffering under those oppressive regimes and practices, the macro- and the micro-aggressions.

What we must prioritize in our advocacy is the indefensible violence that individuals have to endure, not the spin we put on their experiences–be it when confronting racism, sexism, ableism, speciesism, homophobia, or any other form of oppression. Why not advocate in a way that is pro-intersectional, not propping up other oppressions, when we can very readily do so?

Instead, engage with other humans and with non-humans, so that your advocacy can be based on a genuine understanding of contexts not your own. The fight for liberation becomes so much more meaningful and powerful when it is done collaboratively, with a recognition that we all still have much to learn from each other in order to strike at the roots of oppression.

Animal Rights and the Language of Slavery

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

For the past week, I have been following discussions in different spaces where white vegans are arguing about what I suppose is their inherent ‘right’ to appropriate slavery in order to further the narrative of animal rights. And yes, the vegans in question are almost ALWAYS white. That alone should tell us a lot. But unfortunately it doesn’t.

Let me share an experience from my own life that might explain why this is problematic. This past summer, I was with a very progressive white vegan and his family. An opportunity arose for him to bring up veganism again in front of his mother. I can’t remember what it was. A news story perhaps where she expressed some empathy for an individual animal or something like that.

Anyway, seizing upon that opportunity, the slavery comparison came out of his mouth. For a brief moment, nobody said anything. None of the three of us. We just sat there in his mother’s kitchen. And then she suddenly started falling all over herself. Handling objects, moving things around, cleaning furiously, with a worried frown on her face. She just kept muttering over and over about slavery. “What does slavery have to do with anything? Why would he even say that? What kind of a person does he think I am? I would never support slavery!”

And it eventually dawned on me that all of her fretfulness had to do with me. Me. As author Claudia Rankine would say, I was a black object immediately thrown against a stark white background. I was a prop in a discussion between two white people–one white person who was looking to use a history of blackness to make another white person understand a point he wanted to drive home and another white person who was deeply invested in not seeming racist.

In truth, this discussion stopped being about the animals. In fact, it might never have been about animals at all. It was about whiteness. Neo-liberal white guilt on the part of my friend. And white fears on the part of his mother. They had centered their white feelings to the detriment of the animal victims involved. And there, for all the world, sat me. With my own history laid bare and a voyeur to a scene where everyone was desperatey uncomfortable with my presence.

And this isn’t an isolated incident. This is what it often means to use slavery in the context of animal rights. His mother didn’t have his foundational comprehension of critical race theory. She didn’t share any knowledge of intersectional feminism or have a context of power, oppression, and privilege. She’s a homemaker. A woman who was raised in the bosom of capitalist patriarchy in the United States and who worshiped at the altar of American exceptionalism. She had no understanding about the reality of animal slavery whatsoever. All she knew in that moment was that she didn’t want to be racist. And in dealing with her white fragility, this conversation threatened her self perception.

Yes, there are times when the slavery discussion is productive. I don’t disagree with that. But overall, this is what we’re looking at. This is the reality of introducing slavery. It can help. It can be useful. But the dangers of letting the discussion center whiteness are very real. And don’t even get me started on how whiteness invokes slavery when having this discussion with black nonvegans. It’s nothing short of emotional blackmail. And emotional blackmail is one of “the master’s tools” as Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying.

For the record, I also keep hearing white vegans say that the animal rights community is unfairly singled out when making comparisons to human rights. But that criticism is also untrue. In the past decade, we’ve watched queer activists fetishize American blackness to win human rights for the queer community. Some people here might even recall The Advocate magazine famously ran a cover with the headline “Gay Is The New Black?” and black Americans everywhere doubled over with laughter.

This isn’t to say that queer persons don’t experience discrimination or are not meaningfully oppressed. We are! But to compare queerness to blackness is (bluntly stated) insulting. And I say this AS a queer black U.S. American. The ways in which I am oppressed based on my queer identity compared to how I am oppressed based on my black identity aren’t even in the same ballpark. And as with animal rights issues, blackness was (and is) left once again worse off than before (see: police violence). Meanwhile, white (and largely male) gays are victoriously picking out China patterns for their weddings.

And we see this reproduced over and over again in white feminism when celebrities like Patricia Arquette and Nancy Lee Grahn behave as if black people either owe white women something or opportunities for black people are equal across racial lines.

Basically what we’re looking at is a pattern whereby blackness is used and commodified at different times and by different groups to further an agenda without offering any type of real solidarity on black issues. And if animal rights doesn’t address this, our activism will be no different.

I have said repeatedly (and still maintain) that I don’t think the language of slavery should be entirely abandoned or that certain people are forbidden to use it. Some resources like Marjorie Spiegel’s classic The Dreaded Comparison make these connections respectfully and forcefully without compounding racial aggressions. Three tips for how to be a good ally against racism and speciesism:

1.) Stop being too liberal with how we apply such incendiary language, and learn to employ better sensitivity and discernment when approaching these discussions.

2.) Amplify the voices of marginalized people who talk about these issues themselves instead of appropriating their histories or experiences to further our agendas. Noble though your intentions may be, what does it say about your activism if you need to say incendiary things when you don’t have those experiences?

3.) Make an attempt to understand how layered oppressions impact different groups to maximize our impact and build a broader, more inclusive community.

Lessons in Applied Speciesism

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By Justin Van Kleeck

i.

The memory of picking up Orion and Hikaru, our first rescued roosters, from the shelter is still vivid, albeit with the fuzzy edges of most past memories. In contrast with Hikaru’s vibrant reds and oranges and blacks, Orion was essentially white. His personality was a similar study in contrasts: whereas Hikaru was often ferociously forward and likely to peck you if you got too close, Orion was just scared. We could not get within ten feet of him for months.

Both of these roosters had their own medical issues that needed tending to: Hikaru had a horrid case of scaly leg mites, and Orion had a nasty bumblefoot on each foot. The foot issues never slowed Orion down as he ran, for many long minutes at a time, away from us as we tried to catch him to take him inside for bed every evening. (Getting him out for the day was a less-extended process, simply because his makeshift pen in the basement was smaller—making it easier to catch the flashing white roo.)

Memory is tricky not just for being fuzzy—especially fuzzy in places where you want it to be sharpest. It also tends to be infuriating for its proficiency in adding much later the proper emotional significance to moments, to events, to routines, that we would be all the better for if we could catch them in that moment of time when they are most relevant.

It was only after days of watching Orion nearly constantly as he weakened, sickened, showed his age, and eventually died that memory imbued those moments—now long gone, fading as quickly as they gained greater significance—with the sort of heart-breaking weight they suddenly had for me. And still have, now, several months since Orion died.

In my head, which is as damaged as my heart after losing too many dear companions, the year-plus that slowly-yet-quickly unfolded after my first ride home with Orion is not strictly linear. The X-axis has twists, crinkles, folds in upon itself. Early moments ripple forwards and touch upon later ones, yet always remaining past, further back along the unforgiving, unrelenting X. It becomes unbearable at times.

You see, no longer is Orion just the fleeing, fleeting white feathered biped who squawked and screamed if we got too close. As he learned to trust us, and as he took his rightful place as the great grand alpha rooster of our homeplace, he started to recognize us as belonging along with him here, in this place, with the other hens and roosters over whom he cast such a watchful eye.

I never really realized the impact of this evolution until the edges became far too fuzzy. I could not have known in the moment how much it would mean to me that, for weeks before he became too sick to walk steadily, or be on his own in his yard as normal, he would walk up to me when I came around to pick him up and carry him in for the evening. Perhaps I am just a failure at this whole chronology thing, but the evolution of our mutual trust over time seemed to be just a simple fact of the present. It simply was, alive in all its momentousness much as Orion was bigger than life in his roosterly presence.

His waning was too much. His death was impossible to process. His burial was more than enough to break me in places I did not know remained to be broken. His absence is a void that memory tries desperately, blindly and haphazardly, to fill with something approaching the reality of what he was.

Always, it fails.

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ii.

The death of Orion the rooster takes place within a larger matrix of chicken care, of course, that makes his experience (and ours) so much more tragic. This past summer, we lost a number of chickens over a period of a few weeks, in what were (are) without doubt the most difficult times of my life.

After thousands of years of domestication for food and entertainment purposes, chickens have only recently started to receive any sort of moderately adequate medical care. And after thousands of years of domestication for these human ends, much as with purebred dogs they are born with a whole host of inherited health problems. Modern hens breach their shells already “programmed” to lay 250-300 eggs each year, and the males who make it out of hatcheries alive are born from that same mutated, hijacked gene pool as hens. To put it bluntly: modern chickens are bred to live fast, lay lots, and die young.

This is all worth mentioning because it throws into relief the sickness, attempts at treatment, and death of Orion the rooster—and so many chickens like him who are fortunate (and rare) enough to receive some level of reliable veterinary care.

When you take your dog or cat into the vet’s office with some ailment, you assume that you will be given a reasonable diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a potential outcome. We take this as a given; we believe, with the sort of faith most gods would envy, that our medical caregivers will offer us something accurate to work with.

Not so with chickens. There is almost nothing like that with chickens.

iii.

Speciesism is the belief that humans have a primary universal significance giving them the right and power to dominate other species for their own ends. There are many ways in which speciesism dictates and shapes our everyday experience; human society as we know it would not exist without an unquestioned belief in the predominant glory of humankind. Even amongst those who fight for “the animals,” the ascendancy of humanity is a nauseating “of course” that is as impossible to challenge as it is to uproot—even rhetorically. It permeates us, and all we build, because it is at the foundations of everything we know. Even a glimpse at that foundation from above is enough to induce a vertigo that none of us can handle.

Beyond blatant anthropocentrism, of course, is an extension of valuation based upon what is more or less worthwhile for humans. This can be most clearly seen in the (horribly arbitrary, yet indelibly pernicious) division between “companion” and “food” animals. Culturally, we value and accept certain species of non-human as members of our family, as outside the realm of consumable (though even they get “consumed” in various ways—but I digress). In contrast, a culture’s “food” animals remain forever beyond that horizon of simple companionship. They cannot shake the ascription of consumable, even for humans who choose not to consume them.

This is why you would think it pretty typical to adopt a dog or cat for your household; if you mention adopting a chicken for a new family member instead, you will surely encounter raised eyebrows, even amongst other vegans.

Through speciesism, our culture’s food animals remain consumables, others, inextricably intertwined with the notions of slaughter, disassembly, preparation, and consumption. A part of what defines our culture is what beings we consume—for example, we do eat cows, but we do not eat dogs. Doing the latter will reveal you to be as problematic a part of Western society as will not doing the former.

iv.

Thus the sheer paucity of reliable veterinary care and medical expertise for chickens (and other farmed/food animals). Imagine the horror of the rare vegan who rescues a farmed animal and finds that every book, veterinarian, and online forum is devoted to a level of care warranted only by the ends of exploitation.

This is what we faced in trying to treat Orion. Our vets could find and show us instances of his decline—failing kidneys, neurological problems, labored breathing—and point to whatever pathogens their diagnostics might show.

But because of a millennia-old, speciesist approach to chicken “care,” our context for treating Orion felt limited at best, medieval at worst. We had no fucking idea what was going on, what we could do, and how we could keep this dear member of our family alive. Indeed, attempting to get veterinary care may have done more harm than good, in Orion’s case and in the cases of others, thanks to the limitations in knowledge about chickens and the relative inexperience with extended treatments.

Needless to say, the irony of this situation never escaped our attention: one of the oldest domesticated species is still one of the most enigmatic, and most difficult to treat, precisely because of humanity’s pathological effort to create a bigger, better chicken.

v.

As hard as the limitations of medical care were, even more challenging and insulting were the regulated restrictions in potential care that we encountered while trying to treat our chicken family members.

Imagine going to your veterinarian when your cat is sick. The vet runs some tests, drawing blood and doing a fecal culture and possibly pursuing an ultrasound or radiograph, and discovers the cause of your companion’s ailments. Voilà—thanks to the tests, your vet gives a diagnosis for your cat and knows the specific medications that can successfully treat her.

Now imagine that your vet stops you short after the diagnosis, explaining that while there is a medication available to treat your cat’s condition, federal and/or state regulations prohibit her prescribing that medication for your cat. Essentially, the well-being and SURVIVAL of your cat must defer to a mandate on what drugs can be administered for X, Y, and Z reason.

Surely you would be whipped into a frothing fury over such utterly absurd nonsense. When your companion, your family member, is sick, the only thing that matters is getting them well.

Unfortunately, applied speciesism carries the companion animal/food animal divide into the realm of what drugs are available for treatment. The “Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank,” or FARAD (not linked here because FUCK YOU), is the Food & Drug Administration’s effort to protect human consumers from possibly harmful chemicals entering the sacred human food supply.

Or, put in slightly less speciesist terms, the FARAD exemplifies how U.S. consumers prioritize their own health concerns over the well-being of the animals they pay others to needlessly breed, raise, fatten up, slaughter, process, and serve by withholding certain drugs (chemicals) that could possibly impact human health.

The frenzy over drugs in animal products does mean something: antibiotic-resistant organisms are not things you want to fuck around with, and in large part we have the agricultural industry to thank for an ever-increasing resistance in bacteria and viruses. You might as well see most modern animal farms as infernal cauldrons from which Orcs are born…because they ARE.

However, applied speciesism relegates forever certain species such as chickens to the “food animal” category, thus dumping them into the buckets that FARAD (i.e., the FDA and USDA) determines cannot receive certain drugs. No matter what.

The problems with speciesism’s influences on available medical treatment arise when those of us who rescue chickens, take them out of the food chain, and refuse to use them or any of their parts for human benefit run headlong into the wall of FARAD. Even if we know what particular pathogen or condition a particular chicken has, and we know what particular medication would successfully treat it, we very well might not be able to administer said drug because some humans somewhere are eating others like our particular family member.

Because of speciesism, because of human consumption habits, every member of a particular species is condemned to “food animal” status and the correspondingly circumscribed options for care we give to beings we intend to ingest.

The idea that someone might have ever eaten Orion or one of our other companion chickens is enough to induce a fugue state. The inescapable fact that we are forced to treat chickens like Orion as if they were to/could be eaten is only insult piled on to injury.

vi.

The perniciousness of speciesism becomes clearer when we see some of the (many) ways in which it grinds up the bodies of individual beings within the cogs of human culture. Abuse, murder, and consumption are only the more obvious ways in which speciesism gets applied through, and onto, the bodies of non-human animals.

We likely will never know what exactly happened, biologically and pathologically, with Orion the rooster. But it is still painfully clear that the ignorance we encountered, and the restricted care options we were forced to navigate, had their roots in the sickened soil of our speciesist culture.

And perhaps even more painful is my recognition that, cast in this light, the many months during which Orion came to shape me, teach me, and trust me are nearly meaningless because he was little more than a throwaway and a commodity to so many other humans.

With my last breath, I will refuse, resist, and refute this self-serving sickness of the human species. Orion’s life was worth more than that, as is the life of every “farmed” animal we selfish humans have forced into existence.

Their worth shall not be measured by the paltry marks of human myopia.

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White Vegans Need Intersectionality

By Justin Van Kleeck

The vegan and animal rights movements have failed at many, many things. Despite what large corporate organizations are saying, the evidence that “we are winning” is pretty damn sparse. Veganism is slipping more and more quickly down a slope of consumerism, while the many ethics-based activists try desperately to cling to principles and strategies that are part of an actual ethical framework rather than on (slightly) altering consumption habits.

“The movement” has also done an outrageously horrible job of ridding itself of most of the privilege-based biases that allow oppression(s) to persist in human culture: racism, sexism, nationalism/xenophobia, anti-gay and anti-trans heteronormativity, sizeism, ageism, ableism, and a disturbing amount of speciesism as well.

This is all quite evident in most online vegan/AR discussion forums, as well as in mainstream vegan marketing. The appeal is almost always to an audience that is presumed to be fully capable of accessing and purchasing an endless array of “cruelty-free” consumables. In the activism and advocacy arenas, the expectation is that “anything for the animals” is available to everyone equally.

I am a perfect example of how problematic these biased assumptions can be. I went for twelve years as a white male vegan before I encountered, purely by chance and my own curiosity in researching, any real challenge to my assumptions as a privileged person in society and in veganism.

That challenge was intersectionality, and its emphasis on the interconnected nature of oppressions made instant sense. “Intersectionality” as a term had been around since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined it back in 1989, but it (and the associated awareness of other experiences and perspective than my own that it required) had played no part in my conceptions or advocacy as a vegan.

My experience also reflects well the general arc of theory and praxis in mainstream veganism. You see the effects in a variety of ways, from tokenizing of non-whites in marketing materials and prototypical “progressive” liberal efforts to be “inclusive” that reek of corporatized diversity plans, to outright racist (et al.) microaggressions that either downplay or overlook the truly remarkable work being done outside of the mainstream by activists of all makes and models.

Thankfully, intersectionality is gaining traction in veganism and animal rights, and more and more powerful voices are speaking up about the need for intersectional discussion and activism. Of course, and not surprisingly, there is an equally vigorous backlash burgeoning amongst many vegans–predominantly white, male vegans, I should add.

Two recent examples: Aph Ko’s groundbreaking article “#BlackVegansRock: 100 Black Vegans to Check Out” suddenly became an occasion for beating of the racist vegan bushes when The Vegan Society shared it on their Facebook page. The chants of “we are all vegan” and “it’s all about the animals” and “why you being so RACIST?” had that dreadful echo of “All Lives Matter” that exemplifies the failure of vegans to understand why intersectionality is so essential for actual long-term gains for the non-human AND the human animals.

Another recent article likens intersectionality to a “cult” because, well…cults do not have acceptable editorial standards among other things. While the rise of intersectionality is also a good occasion for all of us to remain extremely intentional and reflective in how we do theory and practice, there are some real persistent problems with (white) (male) vegan privilege being used to respond to intersectionality with any number of conversation-ending laments and tears.

Generally speaking, whatever points are being made in these and other similar criticisms about pro-intersectional advocates forgetting the non-humans rely not just on privilege. They also function by de-contextualizing what intersectionality is and addressing it as if it is like a camp of the movement. Doing so is a fundamental failure because of the impact that a pro-intersectional approach has on the real lives of non-white, non-male activists. Even if lip service is paid to the interconnection of oppressions, it is damn touchy as a classically privileged person/activist to wag your finger and mutter, “Animals tho.”

The movement has done a pretty shitty job for the animals in general, but it has perhaps done even worse for non-white non-males. I personally find intersectionality to be a powerful and long-overdue corrective, and it offers what is a truly revolutionary imperative, all because it challenges the hegemonic privilege of most of the vegans who currently hog the mainstream’s spotlight.

In Memory of Autumn

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This is Autumn the rooster. I want you to know his name.

Autumn died suddenly yesterday after what appeared to be a brief illness, seen mostly in a mild runny nose. I took him to the vet just a few days prior, and with medications was certain that his recovery would be swift.

But chickens are masters of hiding their suffering, and it seems there was much more going on than he let on.

Autumn is dead, so I suppose I should have said, “This was Autumn the rooster.” The problem with recent and unexpected deaths, though, is that past and present coexist. They mingle together; they dance and flirt in a sort of chronological vortex that pulls in your mind, little by little.

Soon nothing seems quite clear and concrete; everything exists in a liminal state, swirling.

Lurking around all of this dysphoria, of course, is a recognition that roosters specifically (along with chickens in general) fall very low on the scale of moral consideration for most people. Whereas hens lay eggs that humans can eat, making them at least “worth something” to the many humans who love to eat eggs, roosters do not do a whole lot that humans find particularly useful. In fact, roosters are mostly a pain in the ass–a kicking, biting, intimidating whirlwind of feathers and fury that your average human wants to avoid.

These interrelated attitudes of apathy and aversion towards roosters lead to some devastating consequences. Female and male chicks are born in about equal numbers, but males are, as a policy, killed at hatcheries. If they are not ground up alive or suffocated in a trash bin, you might find their dead bodies used as packaging material and insulation for the chicks you ordered for your backyard flock and your “happy” eggs. The horrors faced by these young boys are just unfathomable, but we know what goes on. For example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ–faib7to

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukWtsY04cAc

Those boys who do make it out alive typically end up, like Autumn, unwanted and abandoned; many end up killed once they reveal themselves to be male with that first crow.

I remember getting a message that police in a local town had picked up a stray hen, and the only offers to “rescue” her came with a promise to eat her. I got in the car, drove to where she was being held, and got her out of harm’s way. For several weeks, in fact, we believed Autumn was a she. Until that crowing started.

He was always an affable fellow. While not obviously craving affection, he would very quickly fall asleep on your shoulder while being held, and he loved a good scratch on the neck.

Autumn and Salem of Triangle Chance for All. Photo by Rosemary Van Kleeck.

Once he arrived at our place, he quickly became attached to another recent rescue, Salem. They were virtually inseparable. One of my fondest memories is bringing them outside to their yard and watching them greet each other with a rooster dance. Where one was, you would find the other. Their bond was profound.

Autumn’s last days were spent inside, for what we thought would be a short recuperation period. I held him to help give him his medications on what would be his final morning, scratched his neck (like a Narcoleptic, he quickly nodded off as I stroked him), and gave him a kiss.

The dysphoria of sudden death is in many ways centered on a clumsiness in transitioning from present to past tenses. We experience this transition with every breath, but changing tenses for individuals and our relationships with them is a much harder process to navigate: I still feel out of balance and teetering, as does the rest of the world…

This was Autumn.

I want you to remember his name.

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