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.


  1. Excellent blog post, Nathan!

  2. This is such a great post Nathan! I have never seen this exact angle covered before and you do it so well.

    I recently read a great article on change.org about how veganism/animal rights is NOT extreme but mainstream, and your thoughts reminded me of that. The act of abstaining from killing something when you don't have to kill....could there be anything simpler? More basic? More common sense?

    Sometimes I feel stressed to memorize every single fact about veganism or animal rights that I come across. 50 billion killed a year, so many acres for a vegan diet versus omni diet, the size of the latest dead zone in the ocean, cancer rates, etc, etc. My head starts to spin and I worry that I won't be a good vegan advocate if I can't remember everything.

    But your post has reminded me that I don't need to be an expert or hold a symposium every time someone asks me a question about veganism. I just need to be genuine and sincere and be myself!

    Another great post, Nathan.

  3. Yes, I totally agree. My worst experiences in this regard have been those instances where I have to juggle ethical, medical, nutritional, theological, political, environmental and religious arguments, all the while sounding brainy! Veganism is simple enough for anyone, and vital for everyone.

 Thanks, as always, for reading.