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.