This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com
“Why can’t we all just get along?” “Don’t you realise that we’re working towards the same goal?” “You’re being divisive!” “Purist!” “Absolutist!” “Vegan Police!”
How often have we heard these kinds of clichés from animal people who believe that some kind of animal movement exists? In case you’re labouring under any misapprehension, it doesn’t. We have those who are working towards reforming the current system of animal exploitation, those who are focussed on ending it through promoting nothing less than veganism, and those who are content to persuade people to eat less meat, and everything in between. We have those who consume animal products but campaign for some concessions for some animals, those who are openly misanthropic, those who employ discriminatory tactics under the guise of putting nonhuman animals first. In short, what is often described as an “animal movement” is, in fact, at best a muddle and at worst a mess. We’re not pulling in the same direction at all. And even where we claim to have the same goal, the means of moving towards that goal are not always consistent with the ends.
We often say that we’re concerned with “animal rights,” but many advocates reject the idea of rights and focus on other issues instead. Those who do promote animal rights in its true sense, who call for an end to animal exploitation, and who advocate in a way that respects the rights of animals (by not promoting welfare reform, and by advocating veganism as a moral imperative) often use analogies drawn from human contexts to demonstrate how much animal advocacy is speciesist. Those who claim to support human rights but reject the concept of animal rights (specifically, the right not to be used as a resource, without which all other rights are meaningless) can only be deemed to think of other animals as our inferiors, on some level at least.
Instead of being able to debate these ideas, our goals, and our strategies, so much discussion about animal issues turns to mud-slinging, ad hominem attacks, or other diversionary tactics. Animal advocates, it seems, don’t like to have their speciesism (the very thing they claim to want to end) brought to their attention.
We’re all speciesist by virtue of the fact that we’ve grown up in a speciesist world (just as we unconsciously hold other prejudiced views by virtue of our own privilege). We have to dig deep to excavate these oppressive attitudes so that we may examine them and learn to deconstruct them. If we can’t do that with ourselves, then we’re not going to be very successful in educating others how to do the same.
Yet, so many of us are unwilling to reflect critically on our own prejudices and how they manifest themselves in our animal activism, and all too often we redirect attention back onto the person who brings them to our notice with accusations of “shaming.” But here’s the thing: lives are depending on our advocacy, and any sense of pride that we may feel in being active and trying to bring change ought to be tempered by a desire to do the right thing. We‘re going to need a massive social shift to end the system of animal exploitation, and in order to achieve that we’re going to need to make justice our focus, combat our own speciesism, and stop being preoccupied with defending our own advocacy at all costs.
Most of us were not raised vegan, and so we’ve already proven ourselves to be willing and ready to challenge received ideas, cultural and societal norms, traditions and habits. Yet, perhaps because we perceive the stakes of our advocacy work to be so high, many of us are resistant to our advocacy being challenged in the way that our direct participation in animal exploitation once was.
When we take offence that our activism has been critiqued and resort to claims that we’ve been shamed by the Vegan Police, we centre our advocacy firmly on ourselves: we suggest that we’re the ones who matter in all of this. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Any true social justice movement needs to reflect constantly and critically on whether its tactics uphold the principles that it seeks to apply. But we have a tendency to invest our vegan education with a sense of self-worth, to rank our “effectiveness,” to become result-oriented (even though those results are often incapable of being measured, considering the scale and pervasiveness of animal exploitation), and to lose sight of the moral tenets that ought to guide what we do.
Failing to self-police is dangerous: through our advocacy we’re at risk of unwittingly reinforcing speciesism or perpetuating the idea that animals are ours to use in some ways. As vegans, nonvegans expect us to be a model of what true moral concern for animals looks like. If we present that moral concern as anything less than abstaining from eating, wearing or otherwise using them, if we peddle “humane” exploitation or “veggie days,” then we’re sending out a message to the public that we, as vegans—as people who truly care about animals—think that a little exploitation is okay.
We therefore have a duty to interrogate ourselves about what we want to achieve and whether our means of pursuing our goals are consistent with those goals themselves. If our aim is to seek justice for nonhumans by urging others to reflect on and reject their own speciesism (as far as is possible in a speciesist society), then we must educate in a way that’s consistent with antispeciesism, reject campaigns that perpetuate the speciesist paradigm (e.g. welfare reforms, Meatless Mondays, meat reduction), and urge people to opt out of speciesist practises themselves. If our aim is to improve treatment of exploited animals, then we must be honest about the fact that, in doing so, regardless of our asserted long-term goals, we’ve bought into a system that keeps animals oppressed. If we choose to pursue strategies that urge others to consume a little less meat, then we must not pretend that we’re advocating veganism.
We all recognize that combatting speciesism will take some time, but the means of our advocacy must reconcile with the ends. We cannot claim that promoting variants of nonveganism now will lead to veganism in the future; that’s nonsensical (since we are already living in a nonvegan world), unverifiable, and misguided.
We have a responsibility to those whose lives are affected by our advocacy to be morally honest and consistent in what we seek for them. We need to let go of unfounded and unverifiable preoccupations with effectiveness and advocacy-scoring, and instead model in our education those ethical principles that we embrace in our own lives. Rather than claiming that we‘re being shamed when our education efforts are critiqued, we have a duty to become the Vegan Self-Police: to reflect on our methods and reinvestigate our aims periodically, to attempt to unearth and combat the last vestiges of speciesism in our own thinking, to seek and consider feedback from those around us, and to prize the principles of justice that we claim to embrace.
Justice is not a larger cage. Justice is not a journey through a slaughterhouse without a beating. Justice is not one steak dinner fewer per week or per month. Justice is not a fixed-period trial. Justice can only be found in an end to the system of oppression that keeps others subjugated, and this, in terms of animal advocacy, is manifested in veganism.
Where we advocate for anything else, we sell them, ourselves, and those to whom we speak short. And we need to stop centring own feelings when this is pointed out.