Caregiving Is Activism: Microsanctuaries in Theory & Practice
This presentation will explore the role of microsanctuaries as a form of vegan activism. Microsanctuaries, which can be as small as one human caregiver providing sanctuary to one rescued nonhuman, are more accessible and dynamic sanctuary spaces founded on principles of radical antispeciesism and collective liberation. We will discuss the theory of microsanctuaries in the context of antispeciesist approaches to species who aren’t commonly seen as companions, as well as the practice of rescue, caregiving, and education. We’ll also look to the future of animal liberation to discuss how microsanctuaries can fit into existing models of radical human activism such as mutual aid networks.
About the Presenter
Alastor (Justin) Van Kleeck (they/them) has a Ph.D. in English and lives with their partner, Roz, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They spend most of their time working at the Triangle Chicken Advocates sanctuary, which Alastor and Roz founded in 2014, and which inspired them to start The Microsanctuary Movement together later that year. Alastor is a co-organizer of the Humane Hoax Online Conference and Chicken Webinar. They have presented at the Animal Rights National Conference, the Conscious Eating Conference, and the Humane Hoax Online Summit, and have been interviewed on podcasts such as Our Hen House, Beyond Species, The Bearded Vegans, and others. Much of Alastor’s writing is available at strivingwithsystems.com.
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5:45pm — virtual doors open
6:00pm — introduction from The Radical Companionship Project
6:10pm — presentation and q&a
7:10pm — event ends
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Today is World Egg Day, and I want to make a plea to my fellow vegan activists and advocates:
From this day forward, please make backyard eggs a part of your vegan activism.
It’s easy to get caught up in the atrocities of industrial egg farming. The images of hens packed into battery cages or crammed by the tens of thousands into so-called “free-range” sheds are grotesque and horrifying. And so blatantly wrong.
But the bucolic imagery and idyllic narratives of backyard egg farming mask untold horrors in their own right. I’ve seen, hundreds of times over, what happens to hens and roosters on these farms…how their bodies break down and are left unprotected from weather, predators, abuse, neglect…
Please: educate yourself about the impacts of domestication and selective breeding on chickens—how hens are forced to lay eggs even as their bodies break down because of it, and how roosters are killed because they don’t lay eggs at all. Learn about hatcheries and shipping chicks, about “spent” hens and dumped roosters, about “freezer camp” and “fry pan chicks,” about cancer and reproductive disorders and osteoporosis…
The problems of exploitation are not absent from backyard eggs—they just have a better packaging.
Their eggs, the hens’ eggs, are no more “gifts” for us in a backyard than they are in a battery cage. To see them that way is self-aggrandizing nonsense. Even though humans have forced hens to lay like they do, the eggs still belong to the hens, and always will.
Please: let us make backyard chickens and eggs an integral part of our vegan activism. Let us see it as a crucial component of responsible, anti-speciesist advocacy to talk about backyards as much and as fervently as we do battery cages.
Perpetuating or excusing “humane” animal farming does no good for animals in the end, and drawing arbitrary distinctions between models and scales of farming only keeps animals on our plates.
Celebrate World Egg Day by giving up eggs, or if you’re already vegan, by expanding your commitment to the animals by always including backyard chickens in your activism. ❤️
Back before I knew better, I used to believe it was very important to make distinctions when it came to the farming of non-human animals. Small vs. large. Pasture vs. confinement. Family vs. corporate. Barnyard vs. factory. Humane vs. cruel.
These are not superficially nonsensical lines to draw, admittedly. Not only does a backyard appear almost existentially in contrast to a CAFO, but our cultural narrative about farmers and farming strives to paint pictures of happy animals being loved on by wise, paternalistic farmers.
It’s good propaganda.
Over six years ago, two hens changed my life. We fell in love with them, started a sanctuary for them, launched a movement inspired by them. In the ensuing years, I’ve been on numerous farms, be they backyards or large “family” operations, and I’ve seen. I’ve listened.
I’ve seen and heard things, atrocious and offensive things, but more importantly I’ve cared for the unwanted individuals who are born on or brought to these farms every single day—the unwanted, the injured, the ill, the disabled, the less-than-useful…
It now makes no sense to me to draw lines between sizes, setups, or methods of farming animals. No matter where, things always ends badly for the animals.
If I seem to be making an argument from worst cases, in part I am. Usually what we hear about these sorts of farms are only best cases—the pleasing aesthetics of families tending to animals—so it’s important to understand the truth.
Besides that, I deal largely in these worst cases. Hundreds of them over the years. And even the less-than-worst cases have left deep emotional scars.
As long as these farms exist, as long as any farms exist, animals will be born and used and killed, and there will be those who get a chance to live and die with some dignity—not because of farmers, but despite them.
Death needs more attention than we give it. We need to ask, did an animal die by violence and for human benefit? If so, the loveliness of their prior life is revealed to be a farce. It’s a lie, a joke that the animals were never in on. If animals die by violence, or neglect, or apathy, or parsimony, as part of a system that benefits humans, if the entire point of that system was to prepare them for and bring them to unnecessary death, then how can we evaluate based only on how supposedly happy their life was? Death needs to impact our understanding of life as much as life does death—perhaps more so in the case of animals raised primarily for our consumption…
Before this sanctuary work I had minimal exposure to death. Emotional entanglement, with human animals and non-human animals, was something I kept away from.
Now, death has become far too familiar.
I’ve buried babies. I’ve buried old-timers who lived 3, 4, 5 times longer than they were expected to. I’ve buried those who died suddenly and without warning, and those who battled chronic illnesses until they could not fight any longer.
If you wish to argue that small farms—like your buddy outside of town or your neighbor or maybe you—that the small farms are the ones doing right by animals, come and dig the graves with me.
Pick up the shovel.
Dig a hole, in this infernal red Carolina clay, until it’s deep and wide and long enough. Scrape the sides, pry out the rocks, break the roots.
Place in the body, noticing how death robs these individuals of life, while robbing your memory of someone you’ve gotten to know and grown attached to, as they stiffen and begin to decompose.
Scoop the soil, and toss it in, over and over and over, until they disappear.
Then plant a tree, a bush, a flowering plant, to live as a memento to them as they become soil.
Come and dig the graves with me.
Will you sit through the surgeries with me, go to the vet appointments with me, give medications, monitor and fret and attend through the death watches with me…?
Come and dig the graves with me, over and over, year after year, and speak with me of them in tribute of who they were and how terrible it is for them to be gone.
When your body hurts, and you feel the futility of grief so much that it becomes nearly impossible to process…tell me then why none of this matters.
Come and dig the graves with me and tell me this is all worth it: An egg. A glass of milk. A wheel of cheese. A drumstick or pork chop or burger or steak…
Tell me these things as you wipe the soil and the sweat from your hands, as you water the memorial tree, and help me understand how the individual we’ve buried forever together deserved to be part of this.
And tell me how you’ll gladly come to dig the next graves with me, too.
You might have seen this image floating around the internet for a while. It’s not a new image. But every few months, someone reposts it and it gets a new life.
Last week, it showed up again on social media and a few people had a good chuckle. Of course they were chuckling at the expense of middle class people with middle class problems. But several dissenting commenters also showed up to the discussion to present a different perspective. There were plenty to choose from. But this is one [very white] example.
At first, I conceded the point and flogged myself for being an ableist dirtbag who hates all people with physical disabilities and vowed to do better. But then I thought about this more objectively and came to a different conclusion. The church of social justice demands that we all share the same party line, and if we don’t we face immediate, harsh, and permanent retribution for that sin.
But I think there’s a better way to look at this. And here’s why.
First of all, I’m confused about why this commenter invoked food deserts. It seemed like a strange place to go considering that two of the key indicators for what constitutes a food deserts are based on 1.) affordability and 2.) lack of geographical access. The avocados in this viral image were being sold in Sobeys, the second largest grocery store chain in Canada, for more than double the price of an un-packaged avocado. Therefore, they miss the mark on both indicators. At best, I feel like we’ve just gotten comfortable with throwing the phrase ‘food deserts’ out there whenever someone is having a discussion even remotely related to food justice in some type of intersectional feminist jargon bingo.
It’s like the recent pre-peeled oranges fiasco in Whole Foods. Sure, people with physical disabilities can benefit from them. But Whole Foods is a gentrifying organization who was selling those oranges at an extortionate price. The physically disabled were not collectively sighing with relief at their newfound good fortune. They were trying to pay their electric bill and drinking dollar store orange juice instead because Whole Foods was already stunting on them.
except there’s no evidence that marketing infomercial products to clumsy white people with too much money was a noble effort to help people with disabilities. It’s most certainly true of SOME of these products but by no means all of them and not even the majority. Included in that claim is the urban legend about the Snuggie being originated for people in wheelchairs. But that’s been (repeatedly) debunked.
Third, I feel like we jump to apply the phrase ‘people with disabilities’ very liberally, but it doesn’t have a lot of value. No two people with disabilities are the same EVEN if two people have exactly the same condition.
Taking on disability rights advocacy is the right thing to do. But choosing which disabled group to prioritize is completely arbitrary in this circumstance. In the case of pre-packaged avocados, the people who benefit from them are already in a seriously privileged position versus the people who are hurt by their production. The amount of waste generated alone is a net fail based on the damage done to already overburdened ecosystems. And this has a disproportionate impact on indigenous human and animal populations, many of whom have physical disabilities themselves.
And I don’t mean that in a tangential esoteric way. I mean a direct and measurable real-time impact!
And in general terms, a huge number of infomercial products are manufactured in places where labor conditions are so abominable that they literally CREATE physical disabilities among workers and then lock those workers in cycles of poverty.
So when referencing ‘physically disabled people,’ it’s more productive to speak with greater intention and clarity about who we’re talking about instead of reaching for a hypothetical person. Because which people and what disabilities is so obscure here as to be completely lost.
Fourth, let’s talk again about affordability. The pay gap for people with disabilities in the United States alone is at least 13%, and I’m being generous for the sake of discussion. Some research places it at 37%, and the average pay gap climbs even higher still depending on what state you live in. In fact, people with physical disabilities often earn what’s called sub-minimum wages. And that’s before you factor in pay gaps based on race, gender, and type of disability. In short, these avocados are not the hill I want to die on.
If, as suggested by the screen-capped comment, you have some condition that allows you to dice onions and tomatoes and cilantro for guacamole…but lack the dexterity to cut an avocado…yet can still gnaw your way into this exceptionally restrictive packaging that would challenge a very able-bodied person, then I completely empathize with you. I won’t question your disability or interrogate your desire to make this bizarrely specific food. However, if you’re buying all these pre-packaged ingredients in order to enjoy the satisfaction of making your freshguacamole (which was also a suggested possibility), I might ask you for a loan. Because I’m a baller on a budget, and you’re clearly a Rockefeller making the guacamole of millionaires.
And last but most importantly, I feel like we’re arguing for disability rights from the wrong perspective. If products like these are marketed to rich, clumsy, lazy, entitled white people in order to make them affordable to people with disabilities, then that plan isn’t working because 1.) most of those products remain inaccessible based on their price point and the low incomes of the people who need them and 2.) people with disabilities should not have to rely on the purchasing habits of incompetent white people who like mass-produced convenience goods frequently manufactured in slavery conditions by people in economically disadvantaged countries.
At the end of the day, we collectively want to do right by everyone. And that’s not a bad thing. But this whole situation reminds me that a lot of our activism is wrapped up in performance. And we are assuming a dangerously prescriptivist nature in our interactions with one another. We don’t need to be in a competition to appear to be the most woke, gang.
Taking an interdisciplinary approach to our food justice requires us to think more critically and investigate further than just outrage based on what we think is right. We should look past the immediate situation and see the global consequences for oppressed communities instead of just seeing at individual products through a strictly imperialist worldview. Sometimes a pre-packaged avocado is just a white people answer to a white people problem. Don’t believe me? See avocado hand. Apparently it’s a real thing and it’s hilarious…although considering that we’re calling it a medical condition, that’s probably ableist to say. Even if we’re talking about people who I guess cut their avocados like a serial killer.
P.S. I actually did run this by a friend of mine with multiple physical disabilities (including issues surrounding hand mobility). When I asked her if she felt like the lives of people like her were improved by pre-packaged avocados, she laughed in my ear. To quote, “Child, leave me alone. Avocados are the whitest thing you could be bringing in my face right now. You know what improves my life? Pre-made guacamole. You know what else improves my life? Jars of salsa. I don’t need to make that either. And nobody campaigning for my right to do it. In fact, I don’t need to cook any of my own food in order to feel validated as a person in a wheelchair. What I NEED is FOOD.”
For the record, she also tried a Snuggie once. And you know what she learned? That trying to operate a wheelchair while being draped in yards of fabric with sleeve holes is a goddamn catastrophe. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
As I type this, a weeks-old baby has snuggled up on my wife’s shoulder, where they (we’re not sure about boy or girl yet) had crawled up of their own volition in order to “perch” while also seeking comfort, warmth, and safety. All these are natural behaviors of a young one, though Angelica has never known their mother. All that Angelica has known of humans—up until a truly miraculous effort in the past few days—is at best horrifying. And yet now they find comfort while sleeping against a human face.
This is a life that was destined for death—that had nearly every cog of the human cultural machine turning against its continuance. And yet, here Angelica is with a future unfolding ahead of them.
While I was on a long rescue trip the other day, someone told me—commenting on a post I wrote to mourn the loss of another individual—that I had convinced them the emotionalism of individual animal rescue was fruitless, and general vegan education is what matters.
I sometimes wonder if veganism is just an argument to some people, a theoretical position in a field of debate, untethered from actual lives. I don’t see how any of this matters if we devalue individuals so much right now in the hopes of someday saving thousands from peril. I don’t see how we can have any actual attachment to thousands if we don’t want to see the one.
What is clear, at least, is that Angelica did not ask to be here but is, right now, and wants to be. I guess I’ll always prefer to respect that and see injustice in terms of individual harm, knowing all too well how much injustice we do to them…and how hard they fight simply to be, despite all of our nonsense.
Their desire to live and our connection with them are not phenomena that we can quantify, or measure for efficacy, and the reality of who they are is lost to us when stretched to billions and billions–to terms beyond our ability to viscerally comprehend. Connecting with individuals can greatly galvanize us as we fight for justice, building outwards from these relationships in ways that challenge the computational commodity-mongering of capitalism.
Justice is not a currency and will not be found in our wallets or our rhetoric. It is forged in the connections we make and the willingness we have to mediate our power by the sort of personal respect for others that directly challenges our wielding of it.
I’m in Chicago O’Hare airport right now, I’ve been on a trip that included New York, Philly, and suburban Illinois. This is the last stop. I’m on my way home. I’m about to catch my flight. But before heading out this morning I paid a visit to an old family friend.
An auntie as we say. Of course it’s always an auntie or a cousin. People who have been in your life for years, but don’t have a biological link, have to fit in some category. So if they’re close to us in age, they’re a cousin. But if they’re significantly older, they need some designation that establishes a type of respect. Hence auntie.
My auntie is in her 70s. Like my grandmother, she smokes Pall Mall cigarettes (and she pronounced them Pell Mell). And when she doesn’t have a good enough reason to leave her home, she wears her dressing gown all day.
As far as I’m concerned, #GOALS.
She muted the tv as we sat down and asked how I was doing. (I’m fine.)
She asked if I’m seeing anyone. (I’m still not.)
She didn’t ask if I was seeing a girl. She knows I’m gay, but we don’t talk about it. She’s not exactly homophobic. But she doesn’t really know what to do with this information. So instead of asking about boys specifically, she just plays the pronoun game. Which is hilarious considering where we collectively are with pronouns for trans people. But I digress.
We spent about 15 minutes with her getting me caught up on Days of Our Lives. Personally I gave up on ‘the stories’ in the early 2000s. But she keeps me in the loop so I’m not lost in case I come back to the fold. I was devastated when Stefano DiMera died. The actor’s death in real life reminded me that all my faves that I grew up will age and pass away.
Eventually we were both on our phones because ~21st century. I’m mildly surprised she uses her smartphone as much as she does. But auntie ain’t no goddamn punk. She might not own a computer. But she uses her phone nonstop, and she knows how to DVR better than I can.
Somehow we got on the topic of social media. She follows me on Facebook. She doesn’t know wtf I’m talking about half the time. But she thinks I’m pretty popular.
We talked about the piece I put up on Thursday. I told her the Internet was hauling me up over it. A couple of folks were pressed about the main gist of the essay, but mainly people took issue with the trigger warnings part.
Now all this social justice talk is pretty boring to her. So I did my best to explain in brief what all the terms and catchphrases meant and why I said wtf I said.
Not a week passes by in which I don’t have at least two messages from people either telling me that something I said in conversation online should have had a trigger warning, and two more messages from people telling me words that I should not say at ALL when talking about other animals regardless of the circumstances (btw, the list includes, among other words: slavery, rape, kidnap, abuse, captive, refugee, and prisoner).
At one point, I found myself trying to hold space in my head to accommodate this rapidly accumulating list of words while speaking and trying to monitor for anything that might remotely damage someone else. In some ways, it’s like my Czech language classes…except there’s a penalty for getting it wrong. And in some cases, that penalty is severe. Every single day, I could feel my anxiety peak with the understanding that I would inevitably fail and end up in an even worse depression than I am already experiencing (and for longer and longer periods, these days).
She sat calmly reading her phone, not even looking up. To the average person, it probably appeared as though she wasn’t even listening to me. But to a veteran smartphone multi-tasker, I knew she heard every word. Patiently she asked, “Sebastian, who are the people that are worrying you?”
“Intersectional vegans,” I answered quickly.
“No, I mean are they white?”
And I thought about it. Yes. Yes, they are white. Every single person rolling up through my DMs—of whom there are dozens—rolling up through my DMs with new demands is white. One hundred percent. And I don’t mean some approximate percentage that is close to one hundred. I mean every last one of them. I told her this.
Seemingly unsurprised, she asked further, “No black people at all?”
“A couple of black voices, to varying degrees, responded to my post that they had a dissenting position. But none who were particularly pressed. Mostly questioning or adding to the conversation. But no, I never actually received a message from a black person requesting a trigger warning or telling me what words I should use or avoid.”
“Sounds to me like you don’t have a problem with trigger warnings. You have a white people problem.”
And right there was the crux of my situation in fourteen words.
She smiled that smile of people who BEEN knew shit that you just now finding out and said, “Sebastian, black people have been dealing with trauma in this country for hundreds of years. We know what it looks like. We’re used to managing it. Even if we didn’t have the language to articulate it. Unfortunately, we were never afforded the privilege of avoiding these ‘triggers’ that traumatize us.”
She said ‘triggers’ in that tone people use when they don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and would just as soon use the word ‘who-zee-wutz-it.’
“What frustrates you,” she continued, “Is that white people are finding new ways to dominate the conversation by making demands upon blackness to make them comfortable while they are learning to deal with it.”
She sat there staring at me like you’d stare at a child who is figuring out that there ain’t no damn tooth fairy. Like, “Come on. Did you really think some white woman was coming in your house to pick up body parts that have fallen out of your face and pay you money for them?”
It seems so obvious now that I think about it. Of course nobody deserves to deal with trauma. And everyone should be afforded the space to manage it. But what I didn’t like was whiteness appropriating the intellectual property of black women, i.e., intersectionality, to prioritize their needs or otherwise avoid feeling offended.
Not prioritizing the needs of black women. Certainly not prioritizing the needs of other animals. Themselves.
That’s not the fault of trigger warnings. That’s an issue of white supremacy and white entitlement.
And here before me was a black woman without the trappings of a university education. Who didn’t define herself as a goddamn intersectional anything. And who wasn’t even vegan.
And then I felt ashamed and angry with myself for relying on her counsel. AGAIN. I’m yet another person using the emotional and intellectual resources of black women to unpack my own struggles.
So two things I learned from this experience. Number one, I need to more closely examine what I’m feeling and why in order to write with greater intention. Number two and more importantly, always check in with black women. Not for myself, but for them.
And as I left, the television still sat muted in the background. On the screen, the news was reporting the unfolding story of white supremacists waging war in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The trauma doesn’t end.
Author’s note: To everyone who participated in the conversation on Facebook from a place of loving engagement, thank you. I’m sorry. I appreciate having a community that wants to build instead of promote toxic behaviors and for understanding that ALL YOUR FAVES ARE PROBLEMATIC. Even and especially me. So we have to rely on each other to get through this. And as with all things, I’m leaving that previous post as is. Because if we don’t fucking allow people the space to evolve and change (spoiler alert: we don’t), then basically we’re saying that oppressive behavior is the default position forever, which is of course absurd. Otherwise nobody would ever be vegan…and I wouldn’t have written this post.
Author’s Note: I covered this in part during my October 2016 talk at VegFestUK on Queering Animal Liberation. But I wrote the following piece for anyone who doesn’t have time for a 30-minute presentation and just want an easy read that focuses specifically on this issue. Personally, I do NOT use rape in my own advocacy (perhaps not for the reasons you probably think), even though some ecofeminist vegans have done historically and still do. My views are not meant to silence anyone else or tell any reader how to conduct their advocacy. These are merely MY OWN reflections on MY OWN approach and why I choose it.
When it comes to discussions of rape, I commonly see two main positions. The intersectional vegan position frequently argues that use of strong language about rape diminishes human victims and frequently triggers women. Conversely, the mainstream community argues that omission of rape against other animals is speciesist against animal victims. Taking a radical position on this, neither of these arguments come across as entirely accurate or productive for me. Here’s why:
Rape discourse most often occurs with the dairy industry in mind.
And why wouldn’t it? Milk production for human consumption is an emotionally traumatic experience for parents and an ecological disaster for the planet. And although some people might call it emotionally manipulative, a nursing parent is a powerful image to connect with. But when we center dairy as the pinnacle of parenthood in the exploitation of reproductive autonomy, we unintentionally risk minimizing the experiences of non-mammalian parents who have their reproductive autonomy stolen as well because the same type of painful penetration is largely absent against them, namely chickens and fish who are exploited in far greater numbers. And speaking of penetration…
Rape discourse centers penetration, which feels inherently reductive.
If we go by the strictest definition of rape (and we all love a good dictionary definition), then yes it’s defined as unlawful and nonconsensual penetration. By that standard, there should be absolutely no argument that the dairy industry meets the standard of raping animals (and frankly, not just dairy animals, but all mammals who experience nonconsensual penetration for human interests). However, when we examine the larger social constructions around rape, I’m very reluctant to apply the strict definition.
Socially speaking, rape is less about penetrative sex and more about the one-on-one performance of power and domination against a vulnerable individual. So far as dairy production is concerned, this is often absent. The theft of reproductive autonomy is performed out of economic interest. Is it sexual violence? MOST DEFINITELY. And we should call it that unapologetically. But I don’t think rape actually even begins to cover how the scope and horror of that sexual violence. And centering penetration is also reductive with regard to the bodies who are molested in order to procure the sperm for impregnation. By the way, notice that I’m using the term bodies instead of male or female. Why? Because…
Our rape discussions unnecessarily genders bodies, which promotes gender conformity.
We’re so used to gendering animal bodies that we completely invisible-ize animal identities in the name of protecting them. But we don’t need to do this. Bodies with uteruses are exploited. Bodies with penises are exploited. Referring to them as male or female unnecessarily reinforces outdated language around masculinity and femininity. We can talk about sexual violence without erasing the diversity of sexuality and gender presentation present throughout the animal kingdom. Sexual violence against animals destroys families and creates trauma irrespective of gender. And what body parts they have doesn’t change the fact that it’s all bad. Also…
Reproductive autonomy and sexual autonomy are related but different.
When we talk about stealing reproductive autonomy away from animals, we often conflate that with sexual autonomy. But the theft of sexual autonomy is sexual violence of a different nature, and it deserves to be recognized on its own. For example, animal companions (most frequently dogs and cats) are forcibly sterilized. This robs these individuals of their sexual identities and the range of their sexual expression. And if you think forced sterilization against other animals doesn’t impact our attitudes toward other humans, it happens to vulnerable humans all the time. See the prison industrial complex, the forced sterilization against Native women in the United States, and more.
Sexual violence manifests in more than just penetrative rape.
When we consider the sheer scope and breadth of sexual violence that we commit against other species on this planet, rape only constitutes one part of a truly terrifying system. In the United States alone, virtually all male pig babies are routinely castrated without anesthesia. However, we don’t discuss that an act of genital mutilation, which we should. And lest we forget, anal electrocution is a common method of executing animals on fur farms.
Now throughout all this talk of rape, readers might have noticed that I haven’t once used a single trigger warning. And this might be the most contentious part of this post. But here goes…
The common usage of emotional triggers in online spaces is unsupported by the data.
After witnessing a particularly tense online exchange in which a person argued against using the word kidnapping to describe animal victims because they had themselves been kidnapped (and human victims of kidnapping are an oppressed minority, I assume), I decided that I wanted to look more into emotional triggers. After all, this person’s potential to be triggered shut any further discussion down.
Full disclosure: I am a two-time victim of rape and I am diagnosed with both clinical depression and social anxiety disorder. I know what my emotional triggers are, and I know how to manage them. This is obviously not true for everyone, but these are my experiences. That said, when I looked for scholarly sources about emotional triggers, I came up with very few accessible resources.
Undeterred, I consulted with two vegan psychiatrists who specialize in various types of trauma. One white and male, the other black and female—both of them doctors, and both with more than 10 years experience. On condition of anonymity (come on y’all, everybody don’t want their professional name associated with an obscure blog that has some distinctively liberal views on vegan activism), both separately agreed that avoiding emotional triggers is the absolute worst thing you can do for your recovery and that triggers are often overused and misrepresented by laypersons. At best, there is no consensus within the community. As such, I choose not to employ them and unintentionally enable anyone who abuses them.
Of course, when all is said and done…
None of this should imply that rape against other animals does NOT occur.
Nonconsensual sexual contact with other animals is not only real but pervasive. At the time of this writing, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the current definition of bestiality only included penetrative acts and a VICE article about an orangutan who was shaved and used as a sex slave has enjoyed a disturbingly long life on social media. So rape against other species unequivocally happens. I just think that it is applied too liberally and should be discussed in a much broader context that recognizes sexual violence is foundational to industrial animal agriculture. And focusing on only one aspect of it is like cleaning up a stain on the carpet when the house is on fire. Regardless of whether it’s for profit or sexual gratification, it needs to be abolished.
During a debate last month over a bill amendment to protect LGBT people, Republican lawmaker Rick Brattin stated, “When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Qu’ran, of other religions, there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”
I’ll repeat that last part again for the folks in the cheap seats. There is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being. That’s right. Brattin believes homosexuality makes someone inhuman. And hes’s not alone.
I was going to be stunned at this remarkable quote. But then I remembered that these words are only the latest in a long and proud history of conservative U.S. politicians making inflammatory statements about queer people, and I couldn’t even be bothered to raise an eyebrow.
See, ‘human’ is coded language for normative whiteness. Access to that whiteness is only granted by jumping through a lot of flaming hoops. And guess what? Such access is fleeting and can be revoked at any given time. Anybody who is not ‘human’ by the standards of normative whiteness is either collateral damage, inferior, or an exploitable resource (and that last one can include animals who are not human, black people, pretty much anybody with a working uterus, low wage workers, or all of the above at the same time!).
White gay men get to join the club…but only sometimes. The protections of whiteness for them are limited based on their ability to perform heterosexual masculinity. And as we can see from Brattin’s remarks, buttsex will occasionally get them thrown under the bus.
And if the comments on the Pink News article are any indication, they’re not too happy about it.
Of course, being animalized under the gaze of normative whiteness is nothing new to any person of color. Folks have been comparing black people to animals since forever. Ask Serena Williams or Michelle Obama. There’s no shortage of examples. And if you’re a queer black woman, well then you just got hit with a triple whammy because you stand smack dab at the cross section of race, gender, and sexuality. And the bus is coming FAST. Btw, don’t even think about being trans too because, well…[trails off in exhaustion at the thought of writing 14,000 more words].
Of course the trap we fall into is continuing to allow whiteness the benefit of maintaining this hierarchy. Human (read: whiteness) can’t sit at the top of the heap if we abolish the heap altogether. When I stopped seeking to prove my humanity in the eyes of whiteness and instead allied myself with all marginalized persons to include animals, I gained a more cohesive sense of solidarity. Longtime vegan and queer activist pattrice jones explores this theme in her talk about the commonalities of oppression, which was pivotal to changing my framework.
As a femme-of-center queer black person who cares about human rights, I contend that our collective understanding of such rights has shifted to gaining our own access to whiteness as opposed to seeking justice. And since that still maintains the hierarchy of oppression, I’m not interested. This is, in part, why the focus of my activism centers animals instead. We already know that oppression thrives in isolation. So using our privilege to align ourselves with more marginalized groups is a direct threat to the institution of white supremacy.
Although realistically speaking, queer white people (men in particular) can’t even be bothered to find solidarity with queer people of color, the most recent example being the viciously racist criticisms of queer people in Philadelphia who unveiled a new variation of the pride flag in their local community. So maybe I’m just praying for a miracle.
And disclaimer: before you find it within your heart to say that black people co-sign on these shenanigans too, we are already well aware. This is why I stress the phrase normative whiteness. You don’t have to actually BE white in order to identify with or perpetuate it. Anti-blackness is a helluva drug. And ironically, addiction to it isn’t limited to skin color.
Speaking of which, can we go back to Ben Carson for a minute? I mean, we really need to do something. This man is a brain surgeon. An actual BRAIN SURGEON. I feel like y’all should be more scared than I think you are.
When I wrote the post preceding this one, I thought I was committing social justice suicide. So I admit I didn’t put a lot of thought into describing what Radical Veganism is or what it should look like for anyone other than myself, except for writing up the brief list of recommendations to be radically vegan. But here are nine key ways in which I would further define radical veganism.
Animals are persons of a marginalized community.
The most foundational aspect of radical veganism is the one that I thought should have been the most obvious, but it is somehow the least agreed upon: not only are humans a species of animal…but animals are people. Why is this important? Well, in response to a recent action she was engaged in, vegan Mike Stone told black vegan activist Brittany Lynn,
“Maybe I should just bring my entire vegan family over to your protest on Thursday so I can explain to you how veganism actually works. It’s not a social justice issue. When you include veganism as a social justice issue, you throw it into a slosh pit of loud minority groups and the animal advocacy gets drowned out.”
Like, okay, holy fuck. Setting aside the fact that a white man issued a veiled threat against a woman (and man-oh-man that is HARD to set aside, so we might make a whole future post about that), this illustrates 1.) that many people DO NOT fundamentally understand that animals are themselves a disenfranchised minority group, 2.) white people on the whole are pretty contemptuous of ‘minority groups,’ and 3.) the pervasiveness of white savior complex in veganism is real.
This is why I use the language of de-personifying marginalized communities instead of de-humanizing them. Human is not a useful rubric by which to confer personhood. Animals have language, culture, society, and complex emotional relationships. And not recognizing them as a marginalized community of persons is itself an erasure.
Furthermore, seeking solidarity with a broad coalition of other minority groups is not only prudent, it’s necessary. Because on the other side of this, part of the reason why we have been so limited in our success as a movement is that other social justice groups don’t realize that animals are an oppressed minority! It would be much harder to dismiss veganism if we forced ourselves as marginalized people to stop looking at animals as food and acknowledge that we are committing atrocities against marginalized people of all species. Also, speaking of those loud minority groups…
Radical veganism elevates the perspectives of marginalized persons who can speak authentically about our experiences of oppression as they relate to undoing speciesism.
For a very long time, the movement for animal liberation has relied heavily on the perspectives of cisgender straight white men as leaders, which is an unusual approach to liberation. It makes much more sense for people who come from oppressed backgrounds to be the architects of freedom. We tend to know what we’re talking about. And those architects aren’t limited to black voices. I’ve learned a great deal from activists like pattrice jones, Sunaura Taylor and Zarna Joshi. So there is a broad scope of female, queer, fat, Muslim (and more) voices to hear from.
Intersectional feminist theory is an important aspect of radical veganism. But as I stated in the previous post, intersectional feminist theory rightfully belongs to and should center black and brown femmes. Black vegan women should do whatever they want with regard to their veganism and their feminism. But anybody else copy/pasting their framework into a dialogue of animal rights feels TO ME like an act of appropriating black female scholarship. Radical veganism seeks to center animals but necessarily supports intersectional feminism.
Radical veganism is political.
A lot of people (once again, usually white) think it’s prudent to de-politicize veganism because attaching veganism to politics makes it complicated and fussy. “Veganism should be simple. Veganism isn’t political. People from all political backgrounds can be vegan. I don’t even like to talk about politics.” But that’s probably the most unsophisticated thing I’ve ever heard.
Radical veganism is an extension of the current vegan philosophy that honors the history of veganism that pre-dates introduction of the word ‘vegan’ into western society.
When a lot of us reach for the definition of veganism, we head straight for the one provided by Donald Watson in the 1940s (possibly with updates by The Vegan Society in the 1970s). There’s nothing wrong with this definition. But identifying veganism in this singular context without any mention of previous cultural influences doesn’t resonate for me because it feels incomplete. Rastafarianism predates Watson. Shakahari predates Watson. And it’s important to decolonize our veganism by recognizing and exploring those influences.
Radical veganism embraces the broad spectrum of social, cultural, intellectual, and scientific advances we’ve made since the mid-twentieth century when European veganism was popularized.
Since Watson rolled onto the scene more than 70 years ago, a lot has changed. The scope of discoveries of animal sentience and intelligence has broadened immeasurably. Our cultural understandings of gender and sexuality have expanded. We’ve learned so much more about gender presentation in animal societies. Conversations about food justice…legal protections for agricultural workers…medical discoveries about health…climate change science has altered dramatically. It’s unproductive to exclude these shifts in our conversations around veganism.
Radical veganism necessitates that we deconstruct white supremacy.
Why? Because we have to deconstruct the institutions that create oppression in the first place. And white supremacy is itself one such institution because it was whiteness that politicized ‘human’ as an identity separate from and superior to ‘animal,’ a shift that allowed for the enslavement of black people because we were (and are) dehumanized, nee de-personified, in the eyes of whiteness.
Now there’s an important distinction to be made here. Notice that I did not say, radical veganism is anti-racist. Obviously, most of us already subscribe to the notion that racism is bad and that we should oppose it. But very few of us understand white supremacy or how we contribute to it every single day. When you mention white supremacy to the average white person, vegan or not, they think you’re talking about isolated cases of extreme racism committed by people who wear white hoods, and they think themselves far removed from personal culpability.
Below is a comment from a YouTube vegan activist in response to me explaining the pervasiveness of white supremacy.
Of course I replied with very recent and blatant examples of white people holding institutional power in western society through housing, education, and policing (note: I used British examples because this person also subscribes to the poor assumption that extreme racism is limited to the United States). Still steadfastly unconvinced by factual documentation, I abandoned the conversation. You have to recognize when to cut your losses.
Radical veganism is the difference between emancipation and liberation.
As I previously mentioned, veganism needs to move into a more revolutionary space than we know it to exist based on our twentieth century understanding of it. We need to move past the point of asking ourselves if animals are worthy of moral consideration because that question is outdated. The existence of animal welfare laws and protections demonstrates that we already do think animals are worthy of moral consideration. The concept of moral consideration still meaningfully objectifies them. We need to stop talking about them in a philosophical and conceptual way and describe them accurately as political prisoners because THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE.
Twentieth century veganism focuses heavily on emancipation. Emptying the cages is a familiar battle cry. But empty cages is only one aspect of liberation, and one that has proven to be a poor way forward for any marginalized group. As has been historically demonstrated, emancipating individuals from enslavement does not produce freedom from oppression. The system only finds new ways of enslaving us. In the United States, that includes everything from sharecropping to the prison industrial complex to wage slavery of any kind. Which means that…
Radical veganism is DEFINITIVELY anti-capitalist.
As I mentioned previously, the mainstream understanding of veganism is at best a consumer boycott and at worst a dietary fad. A lot of this has to do with the effect of capitalism. Many of us think capitalism is perfectly okay. That if we simply create a demand for vegan products and abandon animal products en masse, then all of the cages will be empty and animals will live happily ever after.
Agribusiness does not give a fuck about animals. Nor does it give a fuck about you. Agribusiness only cares about money. If torturing animals and chopping them up into little pieces isn’t immediately profitable, that doesn’t mean they will not still be exploited. It does not mean that we will not still colonize their lands. It does not mean chickens’ reproductive organs will magically stop killing them prematurely because decades of eugenics have turned them into egg-laying machines. And it does not mean that we have learned to provide healthcare and housing for animals whose lives and families have been destroyed by aggressive industrialization.
I’ve said this before and I will say it again here. Please enjoy your vegan products. I am not telling you that you’re a bad person if you don’t eat a whole foods plant-based diet. Personally, I’m very glad that we have now developed vegan cheeses that tastes as good as dairy. But if we do not curate our movement, capitalism is going to swoop in and pretend to save the day when it was capitalism that got us looking fucked up in the first goddamn place. Capitalism will only find different ways to exploit them and us. It is neither revolutionary nor radical.
And speaking of radical, some final words on radical veganism. Usually I am not one to attach qualifiers to veganism because qualifiers can create factions instead of more solidarity. However, sometimes more clearly defining ideas provides us with greater understanding of ourselves and our goals.
Furthermore, qualifying our veganism as radical reclaims ‘radical’ itself. Western society has taught us to fear radicalization by attaching it to things that are bad, e.g., radical Islam. But the core meaning of radical is to get to the root. And that is what we want in our veganism. To get to the root of oppression and become liberated from it.
Where this goes from here, I don’t really know. I’m literally making this up as I go along. And yes, there’s a lot I left out. There are plenty of places where I could expand on much of this. But this is a blog entry, not a book. If you made it this far, I’m surprised. I just wanted to provide the basics for people to get a better understanding of where I’m coming from and why. In the future, I want to discuss tools and strategies for the radical vegan activist. So maybe we’ll pick up there.
Almost two years ago, I recall a conversation in the Facebook group Intersectional Vegans of the World where a white female vegan was mulling over whether or not it was offensive to use the word speciesism.
I decided to bite my tongue and watch while that dialogue unfolded. Apparently because a black female vegan made a series of YouTube videos talking about how the notion of speciesism was absurd and racist, it was enough to cast doubt on the idea of other animals being a marginalized community.
Just let that sit with you for a second.
Because of the existence of systemic racism, other animals who are literally tortured and killed by the millions could not be a marginalized community.
Mind you, this YouTube vegan (her videos have since been taken down and she deleted her account) drew from zero academic theory to make such a claim. And she held this position despite feminist academics like Carol Adams, Corey Wrenn, Breeze Harper, and pattrice jones building phenomenal bodies of work that directly contradict it.
Yet when pressed about why it was so easy to dismiss the combined writings of ALL these women, this vegan basically stated that she still wasn’t comfortable talking about speciesism because the truly intersectional thing to do was defer to a black woman (even though one of the academics I cited was herself a black vegan feminist, and even though what this woman said made absolutely zero sense).
So, um, yeah.
It was around that time that I decided I was no longer going to self identify as an intersectional vegan. If this is what intersectionality meant, I didn’t want any part of it.
A few people noticed that I dropped the label. Most didn’t. In fact, although two years have passed since I even mentioned the word intersectionality, people still insert my name into conversations about it.
Not that the label matters to me anyway. I hold myself accountable for staying consistent with the goals of intersectional feminist theory, and I read up on it inside and outside of a vegan context because it has so much value.
But although I strongly and very enthusiastically endorse intersectional feminism, I don’t think it’s necessary to claim a mantle of it for myself. After all, I’m not a black woman. Besides, I strongly draw from the influence of anarcho-communism as a theory as well, but I never labeled myself as an anarcho-communist.
Some days I adhere to intersectional feminist principles successfully, most days I don’t. Fact is, activism is messy. It’s imperfect. We’re all shit. We’re just trying to be LESS shit.
Once again, let me reiterate—this is not an attack on intersectional feminism or a rejection of it. This is not a critique of intersectionality or black women. And this is not an instruction on what you (dear reader) or any other activist should do. My journey into intersectional feminism is mine alone. And frankly, it became a pretty lonely one. As the months passed, I found myself engaging less frequently in online spaces that I once embraced. I couldn’t identify with a community that was becoming increasingly toxic to me. Instead of trying to foster meaningful dialogues, a lot of us were obsessing over language and looking for opportunities to score points by outing someone as being less woke. This activism feels very performative, and I felt isolated and alienated.
I moved my conversations to my own space and only interacted with the people who interacted with me. In the meantime, I was (and am) enjoying the education I was receiving. Most of the people who come to my space and to Striving with Systems bring with them links, advice, insight, and knowledge that have contributed to making me a much better activist and person. So a year later, here’s where I’ve landed:
Intersectional feminism belongs to black and brown femmes.
I have had countless interviews over the past year where people would ask me to define intersectionality, sometimes even after I repeatedly requested that they would not put me in that position. Not only is it hard to define something so complex in a 30-second elevator speech, I AM NOT THE RIGHT PERSON TO DO THAT. Intersectional feminism was conceptualized and developed BY a black woman to give black and brown women language by which they can discuss the multiple layers of oppression they experience from their own perspectives. Making the argument as a man is deeply uncomfortable for me.
I read an interview from Kimberle Crenshaw recently where she was discussing how it has been growing in popularity in recent years. Don’t ask me to link it because a.) I’m too lazy and b.) WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO EDUCATE YOURSELF (just kidding, I’ll find it later and update this post because I’m not an asshole). Crenshaw expressed that although she was happy to see her theory taking off in new and exciting ways, she was keenly aware that the very people for whom the work was developed were still experiencing the same outcomes that they were having THIRTY YEARS AGO.
This tells me three things. First, white people are not applying intersectional feminist theory. They are appropriating intersectional feminist theory and marketing it as a new and hip thing. Second, the white people who were NOT capitalizing on it are hopelessly lost on what role they have (if any) in decentering whiteness. And third, if black and brown femmes are still being left behind, then they are desperately in need of a movement that centers THEM.
And you know what? That’s okay. Intersectionality should center black women. They deserve it. But if that’s the case, then…
Animals need a movement that centers them, as well.
I personally thought a lot about what a movement would look like that centered animals but was committed to being inclusive of marginalized human communities as well (and not just claiming to). It certainly isn’t happening in mainstream vegan spaces. But it desperately needs to happen because marginalized human communities are often shut out of the discussions that occur there.
And it’s patently absurd to think that we should keep our movements separate or that we shouldn’t observe the commonality of racial injustice, poverty, gender, class, ability, bigotry against animals, and more. If you recognize the influence of animal agriculture on issues like climate change, indigenous people, reproductive autonomy, or human health, you clearly know that our fates are hopelessly intertwined and you already believe in intersectional justice.
So cue what I have come to call radical veganism. Perhaps veganism alone was a radical concept 70+ years ago without having a qualifier. But it’s been reduced to a consumer boycott at best and a dietary fad at worst. Furthermore, we’ve learned so much more since the days of Donald Watson that it’s almost passé. Adhering to an outdated understanding of veganism shows a dogmatic resistance to shifts in society and culture.
So what is radical veganism and what does it mean to me?
Radical veganism isn’t a departure from our existing understanding of veganism. Nor is it an exclusion of intersectional feminist theory (sorry anti-intersectional bigots, go fuck yourselves). Instead, radical veganism should be about building upon those frameworks. It should incorporate all that we’ve learned in the decades since the word vegan became popularized. Likewise, it should honor and curate the history of animal rights which pre-dates that popularization.
Radical veganism is for people who go hard for racism and sexism, but go equally hard if not more so, for speciesism. Radical veganism doesn’t just talk about being anti-oppression, it demonstrates anti-oppression. Radical veganism isn’t about being the most woke vegan in the room and singling out those who ain’t woke like you are. Radical veganism is about building communities instead of cannibalizing our own. Radical veganism is solutions-oriented.
If this sounds like it’s for you, then here are ways that I embrace it:
Discern the difference between people who genuinely want to learn about systemic oppression of marginalized human communities and the sea lion who is wasting your time.
If you don’t have the spoons to educate, then don’t. Sit this one out and let someone else do the heavy lifting.
Remember if you do tell someone to educate themselves, your mileage may vary. Google is sometimes an evil genie who gives you EXACTLY what you look for. And assuming that everyone is clever enough to do a minimally biased google search can be ableist.
Talk to people about the impact of systemic oppression against human animals and other animal communities.
If you screen shot a conversation, ask yourself what your motive is. I GUARANTEE that at least 50% of the time, your intention is not to “warn” people or educate them. And if the goal is educating, consider redacting names to keep the focus on what was said and why it was wrong instead of creating a lynch mob.
Minimize your use of the word ‘trigger.’ Triggers can be any goddamn thing. ANYTHING. And making triggers about feeling discomfort or taking offense trivializes the experiences of people who actually suffer from emotional trauma.
And while we’re on the topic of buzzwords, try ditching ‘problematic.’ Bottom line, everything is problematic. And when everything is problematic, NOTHING is problematic.
Whenever you can, go into your own spaces and advocate against speciesism. DO NOT let people get away with speciesist aggressions. Period. I understand that we can’t always do that in all situations (when we are disempowered due to social or economic disenfranchisement in relationships or workplaces). But for god’s sake, you can call it out in vegan groups at the VERY least.
Last, do not use speciesism to pivot and talk about race. Learn to hold conversations about how speciesism and racism interact and how we can dismantle oppression for ourselves and each other.
At the end of the day, my whole thing is this—if your activism is intersectional, people will see it. If your activism is performative, people will see that too. You don’t have to wear your intersectionality on your sleeve in order for it to be real. I fully embrace intersectional feminism in theory and in practice, but I’m veeeeery through with intersectional vegans.
Author’s note: This post only reflects my own views, Christopher Sebastian, and where I’m currently at in my journey. It does not reflect the views of the whole SwS collaborative team, nor will I necessarily feel this way in the future. Activism is alive and organic. It changes and should be discussed authentically as you move through different stages. Even as I write this, I know it will impact relationships I have with specific people and organizations that I partner with. For those of you who continue to support me, don’t worry…I’ll be right back to dragging white people next week for being completely awful. For those who feel like we can no longer work together, I’ll muddle through.