Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the emphasis animal activists place on the assumed need to practice personal veganism so as to advocate public veganism. In its most basic form, the question that has been rolling around my head boils down to whether it should be acceptable for a meat-eater to advocate for animal liberation, a phrase I use to mean, as Ronnie Lee does, “an end to all persecution, exploitation and killing of other animals by human beings or for us to reach a situation that is as near to that as possible.”
While this issue has been rattling around my head for some time, a few readings and experiences have recently brought it to the fore.
One of these thought-provoking readings was Norm Phelps’ book “Changing the Game,” particularly those sections which dealt with the distinctions between movements that focus on private morality and those that focus on public policy. He listed regressive campaigns such as prohibition, the war on drugs and the anti-abortion movement as belonging to the former, while highlighting progressive campaigns like the civil-rights movement, second-wave feminism and the LGBT struggle as belonging to the latter.
“The public generally sees animal rights as belonging to the private tradition,” Phelps wrote, after pointing out the population of vegetarians and vegans in the United States has not grown or shrank over at least the past dozen years, fitting with the pattern he established of movements associated with the private tradition failing. “They believe this in large part because we place so much emphasis on personal dietary decisions and comparatively little emphasis on institutional and societal attitudes toward animals.”
Another of these readings was an interesting article called “Animal Liberation and Marxism,” in a recent issue of the Weekly Worker, a publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In a section of the article, members and supporters of Assoziation Dämmerung, an animal-liberation group informed by the Frankfurt School, were asked about the importance they place on the ‘prefigurative’ nature of personal veganism.
While all defended the prioritizing of personal veganism, for the most part they did so less strongly and for different reasons one might expect. None of them, for instance, did so because they believed a product boycott was a feasible way to end or limit animal exploitation, so far as I could tell. Susann Witt-Stahl summarized what seemed to be the majority’s defense of personal veganism as primarily necessary for unbiased thinking.
“If you accept our ideas yet continue to eat meat, it is also true that you remain trapped in a process of self-alienation,” Witt-Stahl said. “You cannot eat animals if you truly perceive them as tormentable bodies. If you eat animals, you will inevitably have a different relationship to them: they are just things, objects to you – not beings that strive for happiness or at least want to avoid suffering.”
Finally, one of the experiences that brought the question of the importance of personal veganism to prominence in my mind was attending a recent lecture by Rod Coronado at Skidmore College. For those not aware, Coronado is something of a legend in the animal-rights and environmental communities for sinking Icelandic ‘whaling’ ships and releasing mink from research farms, among other things. I had heard a few years back he had given up veganism, but thought perhaps he had adopted it once again, as he was launching a speaking tour that was heavily promoted in the animal-rights community and included stops at the 2014 Animal Liberation Forum. This wasn’t the case. I asked during the question-and-answer section whether he was vegan and he said he wasn’t.
While I briefly toyed with the possibility of centering this essay around Coronado, I quickly realized he was not an adequate test case for whether practicing personal veganism was necessary for advocating public veganism because I was doubtful he saw animal liberation, using the definition supplied by Ronnie Lee, as an end goal. My understanding was that he approved of pre-industrial methods of exploitation of animals by humans.
Ultimately, I’m still very confused about how I feel about the issue. For instance, what would the historical equivalent be, in another movement, to a meat-eater advocating animal liberation? Would it be an 19th-century abolitionist who used slave-produced goods? My brief research suggests the majority of abolitionists did not seriously engage in boycotting. Or would it be closer to an abolitionist who owned slaves?
Moving to the worker’s movement, with which I am more familiar, would the equivalent be a socialist who used goods produced in sweatshops? Well, as a socialist I can say that most comrades I’ve come across tend to view such boycotts as hopelessly naive and do not engage in them. Or would the closer equivalent be a socialist who owned a large business? Frederick Engels owned a mill, though he spent a good deal of his fortune bankrolling revolutionaries such as his intellectual collaborator Karl Marx. Perhaps there is no useful comparison.
A negative side effect of animal activists’ emphasis on the assumed need to practice personal veganism so as to advocate public veganism that I’ve noticed is that it opens us up to and, in fact, invites what I’ll call “gotcha anti-veganism.” Gotcha anti-veganism involves criticizing failures or inconsistencies in someone’s personal practice so as to ignore their public proposals for animals. For instance, an exaggerated example of this might include someone saying, “Oh, you didn’t know Cheerios have vitamin D3 in them, which comes from lanolin, which comes from sheep’s wool? Well, you’re complicit in the exploitation of animals and therefore have no right to complain about slaughterhouses.”
One might assume that gotcha anti-veganism is employed solely by domestication apologists. But animal activists reinforce this self-defeating standard all of the time. Gary Francione, for instance, frequently points out that there is little difference between the violence involved in the most egregious, prosecutable cases of animal abuse and everyday treatment of farmed animals. This comparison is a useful tool that I’ve borrowed. But the way in which it is frequently presented suggests that non-vegans have no right to criticize any form of violence against animals. On a practical level this has a silencing effect on potential allies who are critical of non-human abuse, which is ultimately detrimental to the animals’ cause.
So I’m conflicted. What do you think? Should it be acceptable for a meat-eater to advocate for a vegan society?
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at JonHochschartner.com.