Friday, March 26, 2010

Earning the Right to Be Vegan: On the Intersection of Ableist Privilege and Speciesist Power

Reading lately over at the always-provocative “Vegans of Color” blog, I had a bit of a mixed reaction. Reflecting on race conflicts, I can honestly say that I have been far luckier than most vegans of color, a few notable instances notwithstanding. The down-and-dirty guts of conflict in my lived experience is a little different than a lot of people of color because I grew up among other people of color, in a truly multicultural environment. Being part of a truly multicultural (omnivorous) family, any vegan/omnivore conflict has arisen almost exclusively from issues related to abledness.

The “other” that plays a major role in my political/social persona is that of disability: cerebral palsy means I have a diagnosed learning disability and I’m partially deaf as a result of a skating accident. Now, before you think “Well, cue the violins”, let me state that the sole purpose of this post is to examine interconnections of domination that plague so much of human relations; this is not, by any means, a new concept in abolitionist discourse, nor is it necessarily indicative (I hope) of philosophical pity-partying on my part. If you happen to be a differently-abled vegan who deals with the very real problem of depending on speciesists (no matter how understanding they may be) for your daily survival (dietary and otherwise), you’ve got some room to talk, even if it’s just in order to clear your head.

Speciesist paternalism towards the differently-abled may tend to be a lot more insidious than other issues of intersectionality, simply because it is far more logical on the face of it. Who can blame the harried parent that must make extra meals for the resolute vegan that is physically and/or mentally ill-equipped to do so? Ability prejudice can also play out in the even subtler forms of animal rights activism that demand a intimate familiarity with every single hot topic in the movement, or at least, the ability to show yourself well-versed any of a number of disciplines ranging from law to sociology to ethics. While each of these certainly is germane to the broader issue of animal rights, and can be used with great efficiency, might it not be conceivable that the vegan, who for whatever reason (e.g. disability), honestly and truly cannot engage these issues so deeply might read this demand as a slammed door in the face? I get really tired of my psychoeducational/ organizational issues being co-opted as the bullet in the brain of veganism’s logic. Veganism, with one patronizing pat on the back, becomes not an ethical position to be reckoned with but a gracious favor bestowed by the sensible and kindly omnivore upon the petulant and overly-sensitive “animal lover”.

The subtle assumption constantly at work here is that I need to “earn the right to be vegan” by gaining the forms of independence that would allow me to more quickly attain that happy day when my organizational skills, learning disability and memory all begin to function at some externally-imposed benchmark that bestows upon me the “right” to live as a non-speciesist. Do you see why no external criteria regarding veganism’s “permissibility” holds water? Not culture, not religious tradition, not ability, not an expensive or even extensive education. There is no deadline on an education in the abolitionist school of thought, and the cost of admission is shockingly low. All people owe it to the animals to go vegan, regardless of their ability status. Everyone’ s activism is important, and not in some patronizing “everybody’s a winner” sort of way, but, as I have stated repeatedly on this blog, because everyone is the only one who can reach everyone. I cannot do the work you do, you cannot do the work I do. Peter Singer isn’t exactly the figurehead for any sort of animal rights movement anyhow, but it’s telling that the purported “godfather” of the movement espouses views that might be called quasi-eugenicist. Are we really so eager to be a part of a movement made up only of those accorded worth by some predefined criteria, when it’s predefined criteria that we’re fighting against in the first place? We must refuse to engage in “practical utilitarianism” in our activism. We desperately need a radical reworking of what veganism means in social discourse, outside of a “trickle-down” privilege paradigm. Really, the corrective to all this is quite simple. The notion that I have a “right” (earned or otherwise) to be vegan is at its core powered by speciesism. Indeed, the opposite is true: I don’t have the right not to be vegan. Veganism is not a choice, per se. I “choose” it only in the sense in that I recognize that by living in a speciesist world, I am morally compelled to live abolition in my life.

Nor is veganism a philosophical halfpipe with which to show off your mad reasoning skillz. It is an absolute imperative that everyone, regardless of their eloquence, relative education and ability to effect personal decisions ought to embrace. It matters little to nonhuman animals that your stance can be backed up with cross-references to every piece of relevant literature, or even that you don’t cook all that well. The only ones who care about such trivialities are either speciesists or vegans with something else to prove.
Fellow vegan advocates, I humbly ask for a renewed awareness of the lived experiences of other vegans; veganism is simple; let’s let it be simple, and use that simplicity to attract everyone we can. Remember that we’re not combating stupidity, but ignorance; we advocate not secret wisdom, but common moral sense. Veganism is easy, we so often say, and so it is, as a general matter; but there are those of us who are making this journey with a little less skip in our steps and a little more grinding our heels against the dirt.

* If you are a young person living abolition while under the guardianship of an omnivore parent(s), please know you have my deepest respect. Keep up the good fight – you are not alone.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised...It’s Going Straight to Home Video

A while ago, a coworker noticed that I was reading an article about some inane publicity stunt involving a naked woman that PeTA had put on. He was surprised when I agreed with his disdainful dismissal, because “I thought you were a vegan!” And that, in an unfortunate and regrettable nutshell, is the problem of uniting under a single “figurehead” of the movement. The corporatization of the animal rights movement is, in large part, what leads to the trivialization of the movement. When people think of animal rights, they think of PETA. And that is a tragedy, both for the broader credibility of our cause and for the concrete efforts against the institution of animal slavery as a whole.
The point here is not to castigate PeTA (though I’ve done so before and will most likely do so in the future, given their resistance to change). The point is to assert, as forcefully as I can, the importance of individual effort.

This might just be the social anarchist in me coming to the fore, but I strongly suggest that the worship of a figurehead is one of the quickest ways to start making people start losing their own heads. Like it or not, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the integrity of the message and the popularity of the message. To suggest that veganism will immediately become universally understood and embraced is to sadly underestimate the bang-up job that culture has done in instilling a speciesist ethos into the very fabric of human life. Why else is it so easy to draw the ire of speciesists for being “too hardcore”? Even if they finally get off a vegan’s back for the mere fact of his or her veganism, heaven help the uppity vegan who actually does a little preaching of his or her own.

But on our own is where we so often find ourselves. And that can be discouraging, frustrating and downright painful at times. I am not going to purr some platitude about how we are not alone, because, in a sense, we often are. But this reminder goes out to everyone of my fellow vegans: never let anyone convince you that you are ineffective or isolated. Number one, it isn’t true; number two, it has no bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity, or even the success or demise, of animal rights.

Individuals are powerful precisely because of their lack of capital, not in spite of it. I’m not saying that people whose paychecks come from the animal rights movement or vegan businesses are innately immoral, but it seems intuitive that if your bottom line is profit, you will thrive only when the majority opinion lines up pretty squarely with yours. That is why PeTA shacks up with mainstream animal-agriculture enterprises like KFC. Can you imagine the idiocy, from an economic standpoint, of a business plan that rejects animals as capital? By joining forces with the animal industry while paying lip service to the comfort levels of the industry’s slaves, PeTA (which is, make no mistake, an industry in itself) can have its 99.9% vegan cake and eat it too: railing against the industry it helps to function.

The rejection of this compromise is the whole point of animal rights. Our interest (and I don’t deny that some people feel they do indeed have an interest) in using animals for our purposes must get out of the way of the interest of nonhumans in living a subjectively meaningful and inherently valuable life. In other words, I shouldn’t eat/wear/use animals, even if I want to; I don’t have the right. The moral structure of a right is a boundary—back up off this person, he/she belongs to him/herself.

Thus veganism is, to the dismay of many, a complete surrender of power, at least on one level. At its root lies a new evaluation of our place in this world and our relationships to those we share it with. It resists organization into a hierarchy because it is itself a protest against a form of hierarchy. For vegans to take the tack of people like Martin Balluch and concentrate solely on the struggle between larger institutions, dismissing individual effort as ultimately irrelevant to the goal of animal rights has, whatever the original intent, exactly the same effect as refusing to go vegan because someone else will pick up your slack. There is, as unbelievable as it sounds, a substantive philosophical component to veganism: it is abolition, lived out in everyday life. To say that it is a symbolic protest is in no way to belittle it, but it is more than that: it is living abolition, making yourself proof that another world is possible. If going vegan means laying down one power, surely it entails picking up another: the power of one in the life of one. The smaller we are, the easier it is to remain authentic. The corporatization of the movement backs itself into the corner of fighting hegemony with hegemony. I haven’t the time, and certainly not the desire, to check in with Peter Singer every time I want to effect change on behalf of animals.

I am not going to change the world, no. But I am doing my damnedest to change my world. And the funny thing is, I’m finding out every day (if we want to focus on the numbers) that thousands upon thousands of animals are being killed on behalf of just the people I know. If I believe (and I do, very strongly) that animals are individual beings with interests separate from our own, how am I supposed to believe that they don’t have interests separate from each other? That the 2 or 3 lives I save every day aren’t worth something to the animal who has an interest in continuing it?

Animal liberation – I mean real, substantive change that fundamentally alters the place of nonhumans in our culture – is a zero-sum game. When you tell me that I will not make a difference because I can save only X number of animals, you are forgetting something. You forget that every animal is more than a statistic. Yes, I want the concept of animals-as-property to disappear as a social construct; but in the meantime, I can’t ignore the very individuals who bear the consequences of that idea. We worry so much about missing the forest for the trees that we forget that we aren’t fighting for the rights of trees. We are fighting for the freedom of sentient beings. Sentience, by its very definition, presupposes the existence of an individual self, a unique moral entity. Of course I won’t topple animal exploitation by myself...but how exactly does it follow that I shouldn’t even try? And the point of a truly abolitionist perspective is that this “trying” isn’t merely “making the best of a hopeless game”; it is making a difference in a single life, a life that means literally the world to its holder. That isn’t a failure, of veganism, of vegans, or of abolitionism: it is an affirmation that a single life saved makes a lifetime of individual effort worthwhile.

Go vegan, today. Never forget the value of the one: the value of every new vegan, the value of a single animal's life to itself.
And then, remember not to let anyone do your fighting for you. A great many of the battles are fought not in university lecture halls or in front of fur stores, but at the dinner tables of everyday people, because it is everyday people that know how to reach people they know. The revolution will not come from the top down, but from the ground up. It will move among the people, apart from corporations and companies and trends and traditions. It will unite professors and scholars and priests and salespeople. It will make a theorist out of the commoner and a commoner out of the theorist. It will open your mind and your mouth and your arms to think, to speak and to embrace your fellow beings. The revolution will not be televised, because people are switching the channel. It’s going straight to home video, where it effects real transformation, here and now.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“Does This Idea Smell Funny to You?": An Open Letter to Omnivores

(Preface to my fellow vegans: By now, if you’ve paid any attention to the semi-regular essays I post here, you’re well aware that they’re generally comprised of critical observations of vegans pertaining to how we relate to the Big Other: omnivores. I hope I haven’t come off as the “supervegan”, or conveyed the notion that I feel myself in any position to lay down the law in the movement, or implied for a moment that most vegans I know are somehow misguided in their approaches to activism. Quite the contrary: most of the people who read my blog are active in media of various types that, frankly, put my puny efforts to shame. A lot of my posts thus far have been preaching to the choir, and I hope that hasn’t been offensive. My approach is born mostly out of my experiences as a very isolated vegan; thus, I relate the methods and thought processes that have been effective, useful, or sanity-saving in my interactions with omnivores.)

Okay, my omnivorous friends, let’s chat.

Most omnivores I’ve met (and considering I’ve never met another vegan face-to-face, that’s no small number) are beset with an ideological xenophobia that is quite disheartening. The single most common response I get to the question “Why can’t you go vegan?” is (after the religious response) something to the effect that “vegans are just too weird”. There is utterly no engagement with the ideas of animal rights, because every omnivore I’ve ever met seems to think that calling veganism “weird”, “radical”, “fanatical” or “liberal” is the incontrovertible logic that leaves the position of animal rights in a logical shambles. Omnivores always seem to get tangled up in some barely-germane issue of the ideological aesthetics, not of veganism, but of vegans. Despite living with a vegan who did not substantially change his personality after going vegan, my parents somehow seem to fear that my veganism means that all their hard work in rearing me in such a way that I am not predisposed to arson and throwing red paint on people has been for naught. After all, aren’t such behaviors “what vegans do”?
Please, let me be the first to disillusion you. What really matters to the good of the movement you are so scared of is not how many fur coats are ruined, but that animals are spared because no one wants to wear them in the first place.

Be honest with yourself -- which kind of vegan are you more comfortable with: the one who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t articulate his or her stance to you? Or the one who shows you veganism for what it is: logical, doable, ethical, moral, and ultimately, joyful? That’s us. We are vegans. We were once like you; ignorant (willfully or otherwise), happy to be on the top of some nebulously-conceived “food chain” that conveniently left us grinning at the pinnacle, with every conceivable bird, mammal, fish and reptile under us. But the thing is, after sleeping for years, we woke up. We ripped off the down comforter of culture and emptied the hot water bottles of our educations. Many of us paid a price to do so, because getting out of bed lets in cold air of which the still-dormant are not appreciative.

Sometimes, you have a point: we do some pretty weird things sometimes. Yes, there are those of us animal advocates who seem bent on making this whole business as miserable as possible. I know. I don’t like them either. I wish PETA would just stop. I don’t think it’s clever to crow over horses kicking people trying to shoe them. And I do wish some vegans didn’t act as if eating iceberg salad while you eat steak makes death on a cross look like climbing a tree to pick apples.

Still, cut us some slack. Remember, we do silly and even harmful things, just like you. We’re still human; it’s just that we don’t think that fact gives us the right to do whatever we please with the rest of our fellow beings. Cut us some slack: vegans are collectively presumed guilty by association; and omnivores are only too happy to play jury, judge and executioner. It’d be nice if you’d stop.

May we make this perfectly clear? Veganism is far, far more than the sum of its weirdest, whiniest and rudest adherents. For every chakra-aligning, crystal-toting, om-chanting vegan out there, there are 50 who can lay out the perfectly logical, scientific basis for veganism as the only ethical choice. By picking on the disagreeable aspects of vegans at large and extrapolating them to veganism itself (a purely subjective process, by the way), you are doing nothing but taking the easy way out, thinking critically with half your brain. Don’t do that. Veganism isn’t a faith, but we have faith in it. We know that it is both an obligation and a gift; both the right thing to do, but also wonderfully expansive, encompassing all sorts of people, some of whom are not going to make you happy. But so what? Not getting along with everyone didn’t turn you off omnivorism, did it?

This habit of stuffing new ideas into little conceptual boxes labeled “Too Scary/Weird/Radical/Liberal/Anti-traditional to Consider Seriously” is, on the largest scale, what abolitionist veganism is trying to combat in the first place. The conceptual box of “Animals as Means to Human Ends” must be stripped of its gildings: of tradition, of convenience, of apathy, of social acceptability. Because that box, seen in its hard and ugly nakedness, apart from centuries of social sanction, is nothing less than a cage.
It smacks of the worst sort of intellectual laziness, this practice of hopping on the slightest irritating, quirky or offensive trait of veganism and refusing to look past it to the blatant logicality of the idea itself. Remember, if you will, that it’s the ideas that matter. If you don’t like sanctimonious vegans, it’s up to you to be the most unsanctimonious new vegan you can be – start a trend! Just do your judging from the inside out, please.

For every Crown Shakur that “proves that veganism is unhealthy for children”, there are one thousand and one healthy vegan children proving you wrong. For every violent, machismo campaign based on intimidation and belligerent posturing, there is someone who will spend their time (often years of it) to explain the indispensability of nonviolent abolitionist vegan education...and do so in a way that renders the stereotype of “grouchy judgmental vegan” utterly moot.

Do yourselves a favor. Look past the fact that many vegans are left of center politically. Look past the fact that soymilk tastes sort of funny the first dozen times you try it. Look past the hippies at the Whole Foods and the tattooed, pierced punks and look at the ideas – we believe in them and their power to transform so strongly that we’ll let them speak for themselves. And please, please, please, look past PETA. Most of us don’t like them either.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It Will be Six Years 'Til They Coincide Again, But I'll be Vegan in the Interim: On Occasion-Based Activism

As it turns out, this year my birthday falls upon that (in)auspicious day notorious among vegans for its richness in Nonsense From Omnivores. A vegan Thanksgiving was pretty high on the birthday list, this year especially. Until I paused and thought for a minute. Why? Because it happened to be my birthday? Because it would make me more comfortable? Because a turkey would be spared, and for once I might not have to sit there wishing that I lived with vegans?

Come Thursday, November 26, I will sit, somewhat meekly and somewhat morosely and not a little bit uncomfortably as thanks are offered for a country I hold no particular allegiance to, for food I do not think we have a right to be eating, and for family who I love deeply, but who will probably tease, bribe, complain and wheedle me concerning the things I do or do not put in my mouth this Thursday, November 26.

I don't mean to complain. I, of most, if not all people, have precious little to complain about. There will be vegan food. There will be tons of vegan food. I will not go hungry; indeed, I will probably not want to move for 2 hours afterwards. There will be family, and when they aren't teasing me or eating dead animals, they will laugh, make jokes, kiss me, feed me and flop on the carpet with me for cutthroat carom board tournaments.

But this is the way it always is (except for the carom board tournaments). I always deal with these issues because I am always vegan. I am no more vegan on Thanksgiving, because the property status of animals is no more wrong on Thanksgiving than it is on any other day of the year; to be vegan is no less imperative. To be vegan is to really be vegan: to carry the knowledge you have both as a burden and a weapon; and to carry them always. When you know the truth, you can never unknow it. If the truth has done its proper work, you cannot switch it on and off to suit the current holiday. I don't care any more about the death of a Thanksgiving turkey than I do about the hotdogs eaten in the summer or the leather jackets worn in winter. Rodeos are as wrong as zoos are as wrong as hunting are as wrong as vivisection are as wrong as eating animals. All the time.

That's why I'm not much interested in the occasion-based campaigns favored by PETA (though that, admittedly, is the least of their offenses.) I roll my eyes along with my fellow vegans as a solitary turkey is pardoned while countless others are sent to their deaths. But this year, I'm a little more aware that, on any other day, if it were any other animal, there would be no reprieve. Why should vegans care (in the long run) that we convince one family, on one day, to spare one turkey? Why use this day to do what we ought to be doing with the rest of our lives -- lives that should be dedicated to the struggle for universal justice, fighting it on every front we encounter?
Occasion-based activism is nearly as vapid as the "ethical sexism" activism in the vein of the State of the Union Undress, or whatever they're calling the cheap stunts they're pulling this year. Not as offensive, mind you, but just as vapid.

Being vegan is, as we might tend to forget, more than not eating, wearing or otherwise using animals. It is more than rhetorically beating up every belligerent omnivore we come across. It is more than looking offended and pious when a holiday puts us face-to-face with the dead animal in the center of a table, even though it really is offensive. Veganism, though it can't help standing out a little more on days like these, is a moral imperative that demands our entire lives; and in return, the rewards go beyond the annual litany of stupid questions and little plates of vegan stuffing and cracks about Tofurky and cries of "Well, the Native Americans did it!" Veganism is morally static: it is always, at every point, the right thing to do. It remains right, regardless of the current holiday, regardless of how awkward the social setting is, regardless of how big the cages get, how free the chickens range, how painlessly the cows are executed. It is immovable, immutable, indispensable. This moral stasis, then, cannot but hold true, even as PETA cries over the turkeys while killing unwanted animals. Ethical integrity demands more of us than a single meal or the use of one single occasion to speak the truth. My solidarity with animals is not based on the extra sentiments that might be aroused by having my birthday fall on Thanksgiving. I want my family to go vegan, because I want the world to go vegan, forever. Not just for me, not just "for the turkeys", and not because the barrage of activism is slightly heavier today than normal, but because it is the right thing to do. Because, in the end, it is really what we do in between Thanksgivings, in our day-to-day existences, that will make any worthwhile difference in the way we relate to nonhumans.

Go vegan, today. But I hasten to add, stay vegan. Don't spare a turkey today and kill a pig tomorrow morning. And after you've spared that single turkey, keep going; grab veganism with both hands. Explore, read, think, write, argue, cook, bake, connect and LIVE. That, in the end, is how we build animal liberation, and that, as much as anything, is something to be thankful for.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I Spat out the Kool-Aid, Threw Away the Linen Robes and Grew My Hair Out: Breaking Free of the Cult of Veganism

(Do I hear a collective gasp from my vegan friends at that first clause after the colon?)

It seems these days that I’ve been hearing a lot about veganism from very non-vegan sources. Of course, living with two omnis means that I’m never lacking their two cents on the issue. I pick up stuff on the radio on the way to school – via the Rush Limbaugh show (I don’t get to pick the station -- captive audience, I swear!). At school, I sit and listen to professors tell me that humans were placed in hierarchy over animals. It’s Aquinas College and apparently Mr Aquinas had it out for animals: due to some stranger blurring of “soul theory” it’s actually perfectly acceptable to put creamer in your coffee and carry your stuff in a leather briefcase.

In a confined social setting such as the one I live in, it’s pretty hard to remain anonymous as a vegan (not that I try very hard). I interact with very few people outside of the conservative, Christian, Catholic, carnist (not necessarily in that order) community in which I work, study, live and be vegan. Yet, I am not fundamentally so different from these people (apart from being a leftist Quaker-leaning Christian with scary and radical ideas about social equality and nonviolence and populism and an affinity for the anti-hierarchical Reformation and serious misgivings about the dangers of blind traditionalism).
Except I am vegan. Do I think that the Christian religion, Quaker theology, and leftist politics somehow mandates veganism? No. Do I think every Christian and every leftist should be vegan? Yes, I do. Not because it makes you a better Christian or a better leftist (though you might make a case for both), but simply because it is the morally right thing to do. Every Christian ought to be a vegan for the same reason that every atheist, agnostic, Hindu and Pastafarian ought to be vegan.
Veganism does not make you better at your religion.

What veganism does do is free you. No, you aren’t supposed to grow a beard and stop using deodorant or pierce your septum, buy a bunch of Earth Crisis and ink a paw/fist on your bum. You can if you want. But you really don’t have to. You are vegan and you are you – just vegan. And you are exactly what the movement needs. You are exactly what the omnivore you live with, work with, play with, needs.

The gloriously indestructible thing about veganism is that it leaves the accidents of your personality, your background and your life alone, while fundamentally changing the way you interact with the world. And that is why it has something more than a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving the pierced-punk, the bald-Buddhist and the crunchy-hippie stereotypes that say nothing about the ethical essence of veganism, nothing about the social potential it has to effect genuine cultural change. Animals do not care who isn’t enslaving them. And vegans ought to care as little as ethically possible who isn’t enslaving them either.

And so I continue to be vegan, not shy, not embarrassed, and definitely not changing my mind. Vegan, like those tattooed, pierced liberal atheists that somehow coalesced into the nightmarish bogey-vegan of the conservative omnivore’s worst nightmares. Vegan, and I can’t even skate. Or do yoga. Oddly enough, when Nathan Gilmore went vegan, he actually kept being Nathan Gilmore. Just...vegan. Just a quiet guy with a penchant for staying up late drinking too much coffee and thinking about these sorts of things. Just an aspiring writer who tries to put this stuff together and maybe make you think about an issue that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Just a Christian trying to hash out the pertinence that AR has and doesn’t have, and should have, but doesn’t have, and might have, and can have, with his faith. Just a half-Asian trying to negotiate the messy cultural issues of food and hospitality and the property status of nonhumans. Just a college student bringing history and philosophy and ethics to bear on this mostly-ignored but terribly important issue. I am, in the end, just me. But I am, for anything at all that it is worth, a vegan. Join me? I’m pretty sure you’re better at arguing with somebody out there than I am.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Killing a Future Vegan: On Vegangelical Persistence

The old adage “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, is not exactly the most vegan turn of phrase around, but if you’ll indulge me for a minute, I want to offer a small reminder.

I have been vegan for 2 years. That’s 2 years down, the rest of my life to go. I can say that with complete and total confidence; I’m in this thing for keeps. Still, as my parents sometimes ruefully like to remind me, I was, once upon a time, an unrepentant, unashamed omnivore. And not always your bland, unassuming “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” omnivore. My speciesism was much more varied than that. I was almost an archetype of every misguided, naive, hostile, prevaricating and plain old willfully ignorant omnivore out there. I have a vivid and cringe-inducing memory of a cookout my senior year of highschool. The point of the affair was, in a hip and ironic sort of way, for the senior guys to do the most stereotypically masculine things we could think of. Which turned out to be grilling hamburgers and watching Clint Eastwood movies. I can only plead ignorance.
And yes, I was one of those people who was incapable of surviving without cheese.

2 years on the other side is apparently enough time to make me pretty cynical. If I try to start a conversation, I either get Scripture or Catholic tradition or welfarism thrown at me. I’ve never successfully gotten anyone to go vegan in my life; indeed, oftentimes, I don’t even argue the case the way I mean to. I have yet to meet an abolitionist vegan face-to-face, and meeting someone who pronounces the word “vegan” properly is still occasion for great rejoicing. I have jokingly said that the day my parents go vegan is the day the revolution has come. Well, if that’s the case, shouldn’t I work twice as hard to make them see the truth?

It is true that I have limited amounts of time and energy, and therefore, I have to choose my battles. But when the battlefront itself is limited, I have no choice but to engage speciesism where I find it: at my house, at my college, in my church, in my job. If I wait until I find the perfect “target” - some open-minded quasi-vegetarian with an interest in social justice, empathy for his companion animals, a working knowledge of basic animal theory, and who hasn’t been turned off or sideswiped by PETA-style antics – I am going to be one disappointed and cynical vegan. And cynicism is a form of reverse speciesism, is it not? We should never underestimate the capacity humankind to empathize- and more importantly, think rationally. We as humans deserve credit for that – and we as animal advocates must use it to bring about animal liberation.

By writing people off we damn our movement; in effect, we decree that those animals that would have been saved by a future vegan aren’t worth our time or effort. Does this mean taking someone’s crap when you really don’t feel like it? Answering the same stupid question for the thousandth time? Having to be Frederick Douglass, Gary Francione and Mahatma Ghandi rolled into one? Not putting on your snarky vegan face when someone breaks out the “People Eating Tasty Animals” line as if they were the first? Sometimes, yes. And sometimes, that should be okay. Like it or not, killing a future vegan is sometimes as easy as letting one omni make you mad. Successful vegan outreach might take time; it will probably take a bit of thick skin. But isn’t that okay?

To my omnivorous friends, I say “Come on in, the water’s lovely.” To my vegan comrades, a respectful reminder that nobody was born knowing how to swim – let’s not dunk people or pee in the pool.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Elitism and the Utility of Not Being Gary Francione

I think one reason why vegans are often labeled elitists stems partly from the fact that the logical arguments usually made in defense of animal rights run directly counter to the anti-intellectualism that is prevalent, especially in America. Lay out a beautifully-reasoned and perfectly-argued position and you are likely to be ridiculed for your snobbery and eggheadedness. The pressing problems of a nation opposed to logic and rationality aside, the aversion to a familiarity with "anything that's too complicated" is a block to many omnivores who might otherwise, if not go vegan, at least think twice about the whole matter.

Yet the beauty of abolitionist animal rights theory is that it is both deeply complex and baldly self-evident. The issue is not new: 500 years prior to the birth of Christ, Greek philosophers were hashing out the same questions. Everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Michelle Malkin has thrown in their two cents on the issue. Careers have been made, prison sentences have been served, books have been authored, songs have been written. Yet, all stems from this one fact: animals are our equals in the interest of not suffering and living a life that is valuable to them.

No amount of ridicule, rage or red paint will ever change that fact. And that is all you need to know.

There is a fine line between confidence in one's ethical stance and snobbery. I have the former in spades: abolitionist veganism
is completely, beautifully watertight. Yet, it ought to be ingrained as a basic social value integral to the commonest standards of everyday ethics. If we can teach our children the inherent right that humans have to their own persons ("Keep your hands to yourself!"), we ought to make it clear to them that animals are every bit as worthy of that right. The only way for veganism - as a fully integrated ethical system and not merely a "lifestyle"- to break out of its cocoon of cultishness and into the mainstream, where it belongs, is for it to become an ethical koine for everyone who realizes that nonhumans have any significant interests, a universally common currency that informs every single social interaction on the planet.

That is not, of course, to say that the message needs to be dumbed down, or worse, diluted. What I am trying to say is that the message in its undiluted form is logical enough that it needs no dumbing down. Educate yourself, by all means. But there is no excuse for a lengthy education to become an extension of a life lived upon the blood of other sentient beings, nor is there any reason why age or education should serve as a blank death warrant for nonhumans.

I do not intend to denigrate the amazing amount of (excellent) theoretical material out there; I have read and reread a good number of the major pertinent works and have a decent working knowledge of the major branches of AR philosophy. Doing so has made me more confident in my stance and more sure of myself when discussing the issue with omnivores. But I have never yet made any headway in convincing them to sit down with a copy of "Your Child or the Dog" and "Rain Without Thunder". If I have made any progress in this area, it has come from the one thing easiest to do: living openly as a vegan, answering questions politely and simply - being a human textbook. No one in my current social network is at this point going to listen to what Gary Francione or Bob Torres is going to say; I have no choice but to be Nathan Gilmore, because that is the only person they will listen to right now. As ineloquent and relatively uneducated as I am, I have both a privileged position and a heightened sense of responsibility: I am the only available voice for those who have none.

Go vegan, and ground yourself in solid theory. But don't ground yourself so firmly that you cannot meet people where they are with the truth.