False divisions in the fight for equality

Why veganism is a social justice issue (and social justice is a vegan issue)

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Flavia Dzodan in her 2011 essay proclaimed “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” in response to the continued sidelining of women of colour by white feminists. Despite recognising the oppression which all women face, white feminists have largely ignored the experiences of women of colour, trans and gender diverse individuals, individuals living in poverty, individuals with disabilities, or any combination thereof. This is true of all social justice movements including veganism and it occurs at the detriment of our movements.

Firstly, and this is important, intersectionality is not ‘identity politics’. Numerous disingenuous commentators have set up straw-man arguments decrying intersectionality as ‘oppression olympics’ in order to discredit those who push for all social justice movements to be inclusive. They also suggest that that all systems of oppression come from the same source, and that single-issue campaigns aren’t ‘allowed’. None of these are accurate, and yet they are repeated as social memes by prominent vegans.

Intersectionality is a framework through which power structures and their impacts are explored and understood. Having privilege does not mean the individual is an evil oppressor, merely that there are situations and experiences they will not face and that they should be mindful of how their privileges may shield them from some aspects of life. Some have more privileges than others, and these are fluid across circumstances.

Many vegans have dismissed the concept of being intersectional as they view it to either be a personal attack on themselves or irrelevant to the fight for animal liberation. It is neither. Attempts to enact animal liberation without understanding the mechanisms of oppression and how they manifest, and without broader societal inclusion and engagement, are not going to achieve this goal. Veganism has been derided as a rich, white person movement due to poor engagement with other members of society and indeed, under our current systems many resources required to be vegan are less accessible. There are vegans of colour using veganism to reclaim their traditional diets and fight the impacts of colonialism in addition to their commitment to animal liberation yet we have not amplified their voices. Is this because we find discussions of colonialism uncomfortable? Or simply because we don’t know enough to seek these vegans out?

Even within single-issue campaigns, vegans of colour, trans vegans, queer vegans, vegans with disabilities etc do not have the luxury of leaving their ethnic identity, gender or sexuality, or disabilities at home while they go out to fight for animal liberation. This does not mean that any animal rights focused event must also be an anti-racism focused event, for example, but at the very least it should not be racist.

It is simply not good enough to engage in sexist, homophobic, racist, ableist or other discriminatory rhetoric to further the rights of non-human animals. By doing so, you are enabling and assisting the very same pillars of oppression you oppose. You may not have the lived experience, or even the capacity, to actively fight all issues equally however it is unacceptable to designate these as unimportant or even worse, to engage in these oppressions.

The division within the vegan movement in regards to intersectionality may also reflect a division in the belief of what constitutes animal liberation. For non-intersectionalists, animal liberation may mean legislative change that prevents harm to animals but ostensibly does not alter the social systems under which we live. For intersectionalists, animal liberation is part of dismantling power structures that favour and enable abuses of power. The latter is where I fall and what I believe is necessary for animal liberation.

Understanding circumstances where you may benefit, especially at the expense of others, is essential in dismantling these structures for a fairer society. Often, immersion in a system in which you do not experience friction renders the system itself invisible and for some, inability to see the mechanisms of oppression makes criticisms of the system feel like a personal attack.

An example of an invisible system that many of us have not been made aware of, and thus are participating in (often without realising), is carnism. Carnism is the illegitimate domination and oppression of non-human animals, specifically for food production. It is an extension of the broader oppressive model of speciesism, in which humans are viewed as being wholly dominant to other beings and therefore the exploitation of these beings is justified by our society.

Three trillion animals a year are slaughtered for food alone, while numerous others are used for their hides, furs, or feathers. They have cruel experiments performed on them, they are tortured for entertainment, and they are neglected by the very same consumers who demand their unnatural existences. To ignore these acts or to hand wave away efforts to end these oppressions is human supremacy, the false belief of human superiority over other sentient beings.

Just as we recognise that the arbitrary points of difference between humans make no meaningful difference to their moral worth, we must also recognise that no differences between humans and other species that warrants the cruelty and exploitation we inflict on non-human animals. The systems which perpetuate marginalisation of humans through racism, sexism, and ablism etc., such as our legal, education, and criminal justice systems, also further entrench speciesist notions.

This does not ‘lower’ human victims of oppression, rather it raises the non-human victims. Never forget that dehumanisation — that is denying the moral worth of a human being — is the method by which atrocities have been perpetuated.

This process of dehumanisation, however, is only effective because we have internalised an unnatural hierarchy, partially rooted in colonial-era thinking. Those who fall outside this ‘in-group’, often a narrow group of humans who are treated as the ‘default’ or ‘prototypical’, are stripped of the moral rights we grant the in-group. We see this especially in the cases of asylum seekers who are treated literally as numbers and used as examples to others to intimidate them into not exercising their human rights to asylum.

The perceived divisions in social justice movements are mechanisms to prevent collective power. Intersectionality strives to create open communication within and between movements, fostering communication and drawing in allies. It is not a stifling of free speech, it is the opportunity to learn from others who’s experiences may be wildly different to yours. Listening is just as integral to free to society as speaking. There is no reason for social justice movements to be in opposition, or in isolation, when ostensibly we are all fighting the same fight and want the same goals — that is, life without oppression for all. We want total liberation.

Further Reading and viewing:

“Veganism should always “Trump” intersectionality: Make veganism great [and white] again!” — Dr A. Breeze Harper

Why I’m a Pro-Intersectional Animal Advocate — Professor Casey Taft

A Privileged Vegan — Response to “Why I’m not an intersectional vegan” by Unnatural Vegan.

Angela Davis on Veganism