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.


  1. Fantastic article. Nuff said.

  2. You have said, quite eloquently, something important that needed to said and which bears repeating:

    "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?"

  3. mille merci! you have said what is needed for all those who begin to doubt their "right" to also go out and educate and foster understanding of emancipation for all beings.

  4. Thanks to you both for your kind comments!

    Thanks, as well, Deborah, for your service...I have relatives in Paris, but unfortunately was not vegan the last time I was over there. If I should ever return, I will make sure to pay you all a visit!

  5. Thank you Nathan. I know I am getting very sick of the rhetoric I also hear that if one would just go vegan, then they wouldn't become a dreadful burden on society by becoming "fat" (sizeism); or "the only reason you have able bodied problems is because you aren't eating a properly planned plant based diet." I am engaging in analyzing vegan mainstream using critical race theory. I am seeing that the movement continue to define a 'healthy' person as 'white middle class able bodied' person. It's the same benchmark in which all have been measured, since colonialism; that is, 'the most superior and ethical human is a white middle class able bodied [heterosexual] ' person. Very annoying.