Friday, August 23, 2013

On Veganism

Fulminations against veganism and animal liberation are ubiquitous these days. Sometimes I'm amazed at just how aggressive they are. They're aggressive for reasons I'm still trying to comprehend. Sometimes they seem to appear completely unprovoked, some random and angry rant about the whiteness of the practice, the lifestyleism of it, the bourgeois snobbiness, and oh, the privilege. These rants may also come complete with warnings about the health perils of veganism, about how Dr. X (don't mention his relationship with the dairy and/or meat industries) says it'll destroy your bones and rot your flesh and drive your mind into a permanent fever dream. As a rule, these bouts of aggression are poorly argued and are therefore predicated on some form of resentment that is not obvious. I'm still unsure as to the resentment's nature. I've toyed with the idea that it is typical carnivore defensiveness, some inner, unwanted guilt about the fact that a creature screams while being mauled and mutilated in order to provide them with a meal they consume simply because they like the taste of it. I've encountered that a lot in my years as an herbivore--some meat-eater finding out somehow I don't eat like them and launching into some preemptive justification for their eating habits. That occurs when I'm lucky. When I'm unlucky, I'm forced to re-enounter zingers like, "You don't eat meat? Haha, more for the rest of us!" Or, "What about plants? You eat those, don't plants have feelings?" But the defensiveness doesn't do it for me by way of explanation. I'll have to think about it more.

In the mean time, I'll address one particularly obnoxious anti-vegan blog post. It was posted ten months ago, but I just encountered it via a Facebook friend today, and it's fairly representative of what I'm describing. A lot of bullshit is packed into this brief post, so I might take a while. But I think this is important. When I read the blog's bio, I knew I wasn't going to like the accompanying text. It reads like a Tim Wise book sleeve: "Nothing said here is heroic," it goes, letting dumb white readers, in jarring contrast to the smart white writer, know that they're receiving lessons from a person of humility--who, weirdly enough, feels the need to press upon the reader from the jump that they're not a hero. I do wonder how these Tim Wise Jr.'s--self-appointed deans of POC Opinion--get on when a disagreement emerges, if ever they do emerge. Is a POC hired as a referee? In any case, I have a negative visceral reaction to whites who walk around profoundly convinced that they know what and how the natives think, for a variety of reasons.

Our white guide to the native mind tells us it's problematic to insist that humans exert any kind of "privilege" over animals. Ideas of animal liberation don't actually extend from privilege discourse, though I don't think, generally speaking, the "p" word is without relevance here. Speciesism was discussed in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation as problematic in utilitarian terms. Society does a bunch of terrible things to animals it doesn't have to, and it is for this reason that Singer recommends a vegan diet and it is from this phenomenon that you get your "ism." Animals are treated the way they are because they are thought of differently, as lesser, as expendable. Clearly, our helpful white writer thinks this way, too, given the objections to any comparison of speciesism to racism. But more on that in a moment.

The utilitarian argument is hardly the only argument in the canon of animal rights theory. Also popular is Tom Regan's subject-of-a-life approach. The main principle is simple enough: a consistent application of value is not limited to "rationality" (keeping in mind that society consistently and thankfully ascribes value to infants and the mentally impaired), but is expanded to all of those that are subjects of lives.

Some of my favorite writing on animal liberation can be found in Jason Hribal's Fear of an Animal Planet, which documents stories in which animals rebelled against the conditions in which they were held and showed discrimination and signs of intent in their choices of targets. I recommend Jeffrey St. Clair's introduction to that volume, which suggests that animal liberation might not be a plain progression, but a philosophic reclamation of values held before Descartes and Marx, both of whom regarded animals as automatons, the latter's opinion following the developments (more like the demands) of capitalism with a glaring admiration for the attendant "productive forces of history." For those who wish to contend that advanced thinking does not harken back to former eras, I'd ask you to survey the consequences of the injury done in recent times to Magna Carta and civil liberties in general. Mind you, I feel the need to mention these books because I don't think the blogger I'm responding to has read any of them. Neither do most people who bash advocates of animal liberation, at least in my experience.

There's no such thing as speciesism, our blogger friend tells us. We know this is true, because there are more animal shelters than shelters for abused women. Here, the blogger is engaged not in an argument with vegans, but with vegan straw men who don't care about rape victims. Actually, I'm more inclined to believe the blogger is engaged in an argument with a fanatical pet owner they know. I believe this is the case, because vegans are very likely to be critical of the people's responses to the cultural conditioning that allows them to view dogs and cats--the likely occupants of animal shelters--as having more worth than pigs and cows. That could be a reason they became vegan: they couldn't specify a substantive difference between Sparky, whom they love, and a pig found dismembered and fried on their breakfast plate. This makes for an interesting challenge, because there is no substantive difference.

Let's move the discussion over to pigs and cows, for sake of argument. How are they living? Well, 10, 153 million land animals were killed for food in the year 2011. Since factory farming has the monopoly on meat production, we can assume most of those animals--some cows, some pigs, some goats, some chickens, and so on--were stuffed into boxes and cages to shit on each other, have segments of their faces ripped off to be better force fed whatever bizarre hormones capitalism is concocting these days, to have contents of their bodies force-pumped from them, to be skinned, to be beaten, you name it. If this were done to human beings, it'd be pretty easy to label these conditions what they are: Auschwitz-like. But call them Auschwitz-like and people will say you're getting a little out there. Why? What accounts for the difference--the substantive difference, when it comes to treating sentient beings like that? And if it should be discovered that all differences on offer are arbitrary, can't we safely assume we're dealing with an ism?

This is the task that opponents of animal liberation and its language must face, regardless of whether animal liberation movements look to rights discourse or describe the plight of animals in terms of subjectivity. So what's the difference between animals and humans, then? Here is where Regan's call for consistent ethical application is put to the test and performs quite well. For some people intelligence is the difference. The problem is, pigs perform about as well as or even better than some humans. Is it about human social life? The thing is, orcas and dolphins hold some of the same social practices you do. They have long-lasting life memories; they call each other by name; they recognize their own image; and they engage in fads, an example of which found in the wild is using the nose to tip floating objects. This is the case, and yet they're kidnapped from the wild to be divorced eternally from their families, held in bath tubs, and forced to perform tricks for a lifetime. Much like fur coats, this is merely for human amusement. One thing that all the above mentioned animals have in common is awareness and the capacity to suffer, and that's what I base my own approach on. Reasonably, if I do say so myself. Keep in mind, if you cannot provide a substantive difference between human and non-human animals, and take note of the suffering both parties experience in response to oppression and pain, you must concede that your proposed differences are arbitrary. And know that such a concession would put your philosophic convictions and intellectual method firmly in the tradition of every kind of bigotry ever.

The funny part of the post is that while it concludes saying "millions of domesticated animals eat better than millions of POC in poverty"--a truth mentioned to imply there's no such thing as speciesism--it concedes quietly that animals are typically treated deplorably in order to make the point that speciesism cannot be compared to racism: "When white vegans compare the consumption of certain animals to racism, they are drawing a figurative comparison between human beings (who 'oppress' animals) and white people (who oppress POC). By that white logic, they are also drawing a figurative comparison between animals ('oppressed' by human beings) and POC (oppressed by white people). This means they are reproducing the same kind of racist arguments that equate white folks with human beings and POC with animals." One wonders, why would a white racist compare POC to animals? Because it's understood that animals are low and are treated as such. It'd be fantastically depressing to walk away from this reality with the feeling that it's only imperative that whites cease to treat POC like animals (read: like they're lowly creatures), it'd be perfectly fine for humans to persist in treating animals like animals (again: like they're lowly creatures). Still, beyond all that, this belief that veganism is based on racist premises is largely the result of the writer not having done the relevant reading. As a cursory glance at, say, Regan's rationale demonstrates, animals are not being compared to POC specifically. They're being compared to humans generally. This is easily understood for those capable of understanding things. With this understanding, the idea that anti-speciesism is racist evaporates pretty quickly.

Not that I expect this blogger to care much. After all, they write, "claiming animals deserve the same civil/human rights as POC suggests that their experiences are identical..." Um. What? How is that? Can I introduce you to the phrase "whoppingly fallacious inference"? Or maybe explain to you that to compare is not to equate? You see, our anti-racist educator won't have it from white vegans because they "are not qualified to compare or equate [note the slide-by conflation of these words] racial oppression with other forms of oppression." I doubt, then, that the blogger is willing to argue with Frederick Douglass, who wrote, "When purchased, my old master probably thought as little of my advent as he would have thought of the addition of a single pig to his stock! Like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage. Indeed, I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken--such is life." I invoke Douglass to supplement an actual argument I'm making--I've found his words to be helpful in clarifying my own thoughts and feelings about both racism and speciesism. The white educator has, on the other hand, freed themselves of having to make arguments, bothering only to parrot what they imagine to be the monolithic take of POC. I sense Douglass' comparison, and the existence of POC vegans ("white vegans" functions as "vegans are white" throughout the piece), might send our white educator back to the drawing board.

To furnish the piece with the charge that veganism is simply privilege, the blogger writes that we must "consider the the racial and class privilege white vegans have when making dietary decisions in the midst of a numerous farmer's markets, or accessible concentrations of grocery stories period." The writer insists white vegans have privilege over "human beings of color who contend with...being segregated into neighborhoods without grocery stores." This is the one point on the entire post in which there's some truth, although, as far as the case with which I'm most familiar goes, that truth does not fall along the simplistic racial lines that are presented. To insist that it does is actually to feed structural racism.

First, a couple of caveats. I do not know everybody's circumstances, nor can I. I'm inclined to believe the kind of poverty that would prevent access to vegan foods prevents access to food period. The lack of access might be caused by lack of transportation to food places or just lack of proximity. Also know that it is difficult to get a firm grasp one the author's charge here, because it's a broad anti-vegan swipe as opposed to a studied observation, much like the entire post. I can, however, bring up a specific situation, in which the claim being made by the author has been used to racist ends.

In my time living and working in Detroit, I heard constantly about how the city lacked a major grocery chain store and just how appalling this fact was. I recall during my time working at the Detroit Metro Times my colleague linking to a piece by James Griffioen busting that narrative into tiny fucking pieces. He provided a map highlighting each of the many independent grocery stores in the city. He also wrote helpful descriptions of some of the more notable ones. To be clear, as is documented here by urban planner Robert Linn, there were at the time large swathes of territory in the city in which no grocers were in operation; that territory includes about 90, 000 people, which is a lot. These areas are mostly black, with some whites, Hispanics, Arabs, et al. This is territory that could be called, according to a definition provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a "food desert": areas in which "the nearest full-service grocery store is more than one mile away." These kinds of territories make up about 10% of the city's total square mileage. The thing is, those territories aren't simply devoid of any of the city's 111 full-service grocery stores or 20 produce markets. They also lacked any of the city's 58 butchers, although, yes, they might in some cases have some fast food stores. This seems to me to verify that food justice entails access to food which entails access to ingredients for the option of a vegan diet.

But that's only part of the story. The other part is that the majority of Detroit's population (mostly black) has geographic access to decent, relatively cheap food. In the words of Griffioen "all this pervasive talk about the 'food desert' is insulting to the large swath of the population that does have transportation and does make an effort to forgo fast food and cook with those healthier options that may be a few steps or blocks further down the road, but are nonetheless there." In other words, Detroit is a city of 700, 000. That's a lot of people. Down the years, the city has been portrayed by racist big media as a city filled with blacks (labeled incompetent mismanagers, always) and a ghost town. If you want to sharpen that ghost town image so Mike Ilitch can swoop in and bring the (white) people back with the aid of tax dollars while city pensions are slashed for the betterment of Bank of America's Merrill Lynch, a good way to do that is to claim it's a black city that can't even put together a goddamned grocery store.

Does my blogger friend have anything else to offer? Let's see: "refusal to wear animal products like skins, furs, and/or leather does not free white vegans from wearing clothing made by oppressed people of color in sweat shops..." Oooh! You hear that? Vegans don't care about sweat shops! Seriously, is this even an argument anymore? This is a variation on that worn nonsense about how animal liberation supporters don't care about people. I don't recognize myself in that criticism because the majority of my political energy is put into antiwar stuff, although I don't shame those who do put their primary focus on animal liberation by means of direct action. The white educator of whites forwards this myth based on a belief that "personal consumer choices" aren't a solution. What's annoying about that is that they actually in this case could be. I know of animal liberation activists who've in recent years turned away from direct action because of the success they found in persuading people to turn to veganism based on a simple presentation of the facts and obliterating the myths--about economics and health--that are so often told about it. Not that I feel the need to justify it in those terms. For me, it's always been a basic anarchist principle to abstain from involvement in murderous routine wherever possible. Just as an antiwar activist might not want to give Ben Affleck ten dollars for CIA propaganda against Iran, I'm not much interested in giving a circus money to watch some chained and beaten elephant dance. Or, for that matter, to masticate the corpse of some bludgeoned and sliced cow because I couldn't be bothered with eating a veggie burger or I imagine "sitting on my privileged white ass eating a hamburger" is somehow pursuant to my self-appointed role as an ambassador for POC.


  1. Have you read Capek's War with the Newts? Anticipated this kind of speciesism and punctures multiculti capitalism waaay before the 90s invented it.

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