Vegan Interlopers

Fur Carcasses – photo by Sergey Maximishin

A long time ago a wise vegan activist, let’s call him Johnnycakes, once said in a meeting that veganism was not animal rights. At the time I balked zealously arguing that veganism was the embodiment of animal rights, they were one and the same. If there’s something I’m learning about the way my particular brain works is that it’s as slow on the uptake of new ideas as it is tenacious on the grip of old ones. I guess I get so happy to understand an idea that just I hang on to it for dear life. This poor stoopit, dense, abused brain of mine is barely hanging in there already as it is. Many ideas (like the one JohnnyCakes dropped on me) in the past have been coming home to roost recently. The death grip veganism had upon me is slowly loosening its grasp as its corpse cools and withers. Maybe, now after several years, I’m misinterpreting Mr. Johnnycakes words with a fair dose of confirmation bias but I think the salient nugget holds true.

While animal justice advocates often practice something akin to veganism it does not means that people who practice veganism are animal justice advocates. For many this is well understood but for me who was so bought into veganism, it was relatively recent that I was able to grok this. Veganism is not animal justice. In a movement, it’s important to understand who your allies are. If your interest is justice for animals, the quicker you realize that vegans are not your allies the less strife you will have. Let me illustrate:

Every year around the world, as some of you dear readers may know, people meet in cities on the Friday after Thanksgiving for a protest called Fur Free Friday. They march with placards along city streets stopping in front of local fur stores to chant and protest the despicable nature of fur. The way animals are oppressed and butchered for their skin is something even the few of the most ardent animals eaters can justify. I started my activist career as a participant at one of these events and I found it invigorating. It went beyond the passive nature of daily abstention of veganism and felt cathartically constructive.

And every year there is a Fur Free Friday protest, the vegan activists present public dissent over the discordant tactics of protest. They fear it is a waste of time to focus on the 1% of animals abused when 99% are involved in food. They fear that it turns the public off. They lament the effort of attendees at the protest who otherwise never commit to the vegan utilitarian brand of activism on the street day after day like they do. Valid concerns, no? Well let’s unpack a few things… (if this gets TL;DR for you, you have my permission to skip to the conclusion punchline)

On Vegans
And what population would better care about the issues a protest like Fur Free Friday drags out than vegans? For now, let’s just concentrate on ethical veganism. In this context, veganism has strong utilitarian underpinnings. Utilitarian-what? Sorry, I’ve spoken on it before but as a short cut lets say it’s a belief that hinges upon causing the least amount of suffering. As a philosophy, any action you take should conform to this general principle. People practice veganism to avoid contributing to the suffering of other animals so it’s a very utilitarian ideal. Sounds all good right? Right. The more people go vegan means the less suffering there is naturally. Within that utilitarian framework it behooves activists to hone their technique to go for quality not quantity. Dress nice, be non-threatening, read How to Win Friends and Influence People, “meet them where they’re at” by connecting to their own interests like health. Get people vegan – “Go vegan!”

On Animal Justice
Animals other than humans happen to inhabit this spec of dust we call Earth. We Earthlings have been constructing ideas of justice within our own particular tiny twig of a branch in the tree of life here. We’re noticing that it’s not fair to treat others of our species different for attributes that are a result of the genetic lottery. Slowly, as we discover more of our place here we become more apt to include others in our ideas of justice. How could we not?

On Activism
Doing something in support of a cause makes you an activist. Whether it’s camping out on the street or writing letters to representatives. It is something you do to affect a change. A movement is made up of activists who share similar goals. Sometimes these activists argue about tactics. After all, their time is precious and they want to be effective and efficient in spending resources. Done constructively this is a good thing. Ideas lead to acts. The acts that make up activism.

On Acts
Vegans judge by acts. It is their daily act that identifies them. Vegan activists who work to get other people vegan care less of ideas. Their utilitarian agenda makes acts the highest priority. Acts are good though. They are the tangible, real world, rubber-hitting-the-road difference in reality. As somebody who may be suffering in a cage somewhere, acts make all the difference. Get me the fuck outta this cage NOW!

On Ideas
Just because though somebody makes an act it doesn’t mean they have the idea that drives it. Ideas are important and they inspire acts. Sometimes people have done the thinking for you and decided what the proper act is for a particular idea but sometimes they could be wrong. It is one of human’s great strengths that we can take previous ideas and build upon and improve them. Also ideas are not sacred, they should be open to be challenged. To be open-minded one must ready and willing to accept a new idea if valid and discard one if not.

On Protest
When there is an issue people feel strongly about they tend to gather together and display their emotion through public protest. It’s a well-established and understood form of communication that shows that people are so passionate about something that they are willing to, in the very least, spend their time doing it. When bystanders are confronted by this they sometimes counter with derision or mockery but the reason for this is to resolve the strong emotional dissonance they are witnessing. This is not a bad response. Fancy monkeys don’t like the boat rocked. When that happens they take notice and sometimes they hoot ‘n holler and sometimes they come to aid. It’s the nature of fancy monkeys. Protest is an attempt to communicate an idea in the most primal and expedient way possible combining emotion and reason through act.

Vegan and animal justice advocates need to realize that they have different goals. In order to maintain friendly ally status it would do both parties well to recognize this distinction and respect the boundaries. Doing anything less will cause internal strife and stunted progress when each assumes something of the other. In the activist context, the arguments over tactics will never find harmony for the goals are deceptively different. Vegans have their goal of making more vegans. Animal justice advocates want justice. Veganism can be an expression of justice, but it is not the end-all-be-all. It is a tiny cul-de-sac in the animal justice movement township. Depending on the particular vegan abode it could reflect the greater ideology of said township or it can be a crazy cult holed up in the basement.

Protest is valid. Emotional reactions to injustice should not be shamed or denigrated as some utilitarian canon. It is ok for other people to be made uncomfortable, it is a goal of protest. Protest is also valuable for participants and can inspire future work. Whether or not they are vegan or come out the rest of the year should not be judged. Fur Free Friday is one of the few animal justice events that doesn’t shy away from the tenets of animal justice. Attempting to co-opt this protest with planning stage dissent or vegan literature supplementation threatens and waters down the important essence of the event. What does it say to bystanders who see a protest about fur and get inundated with literature on another issue like asking them to go vegan?

Ideas of animal justice stand on their own. They don’t rely on consumer habits. They don’t rely on a particular human’s propensity to love another animal. They don’t subtract justice from another or cause further injustice. Justice is not a zero-sum game. The effort to advocate on the behalf of a fraction of the total does not diminish the idea or limit its scope. Just as advocating on behalf of non-humans does not take away from doing so for other oppressed human classes. The same hold true for any animal oppressed whether it’s for fur or food.

So if you had any concerns about going to a protest for fear that it will delegitimize or work against the cause I hope you might feel better about it. There’s no shame in this game, get out there and make noise! It is not an outreach event, it’s fine to show your emotional reaction and don the madface. Vegan, vegetarian, meat eater, who cares. Be unabashedly rowdy and angry! This is your time to speak up for the millions who have died, the millions who have suffered, and hopefully contribute to a movement that will work to save lives of the future. The life of a fox in a cage is not less worthy of one in a gestation crate or battery cage. If numbers mean anything it is the long-term effects short-term gains will deny the movement. Don’t let your vegan buddies derail your fight. Empower the people, advocate for justice, free other animals. I think FFF is missing one more “F”.

Fur Free Fucking Friday!

* Post title changed to “Vegan Interlopers” to add crankiness. 🙂

21 comments to Vegan Interlopers

  • Fur Free Fucking Friday – does that mean everyone has to shave? 😛 Totally agree that fur protests are a good thing. So are circus and zoo protests. And raising awareness about animal testing, including for cosmetics. Know what? I was turned on to animal rights by a combination of the cosmetic testing issue and not wanting to kill fluffy baa-lambs, then at some point extended that principle to calves and chickens. I may have wound up vegan anyway if these things hadn’t been brought to my attention early on in life, but it would have been a lot later and I would have consumed a whole lot more animals and things that come out of them (including swallowing a fair bit of bullshit) in the meantime. I’m sure I’m not the only one it worked that way for. Rest assured that FF(F)F isn’t inconsistent with being a vegan, just with being Gary Francione…

    • Bwahahaha, bring your razors!

      On the other side of the vegan fence, the Francionians would have you believe that “single issue campaigns” (usually said with a generous sneer) are detrimental to the cause also. It seems to me that in both cases people are trying harder to justify their veganism than to advocate on the behalf of animals. In this sense I think veganism is a big #FAIL. It becomes especially insidious when they try to co-opt the cause.

      Thanks for the comment as always LiseyDuck! 🙂

  • Dave, this whole thing goes off the rails right when you tie together veganism and utilitarianism. Veganism can rightly be seen as an application of moral realism (proposition: causing suffering for pleasure is wrong), and as such is very much a rights position (no one should be caused suffering for someone else’s pleasure), and is very much at odds with any type of utilitarianism. Contrast the idea that no amount suffering of animals is acceptable for human pleasure versus the idea that suffering is desirable if it creates a greater amount of pleasure . The two philosophies could hardly be further apart.

    • TRV, I agree with you that a rights-based approach to veganism is way different than a utilitarian approach (and not just veganism – they differ as approaches to any ethical issue). I definitely hear what you’re saying. I also agree that the majority of vegans do come to their own veganism from a respect for rights. I think Dave was talking about utilitarianism as an approach to activism (vegans being concerned with making more vegans as opposed to striving for less tangible goals). Dave can correct me if I’m not reading that right.

      Where I disagree with you is that veganism (which is a mode of acting or being) HAS to be predicated on a belief in aanimal rights. I definitely came to veganism (and continue to be vegan) for reasons much closer to what I would call utilitarian. I realize that I’m in the minority among vegans. But I am in the majority when it comes to non-vegans and how they conceptualize what we should or shouldn’t do to animals. MY veganism is not at odds with utilitarianism.

      Another point is that utilitarianism isn’t just about pleasure. I think that is a less than honest way to frame it. When you say that “no amount suffering of animals is acceptable for human pleasure” it makes one seem pretty cold if they disagree with that. If you change it to “animal suffering can be acceptable if it creates a greater amount of good/utility/health/life for humans” you get a statement that better captures the relevant criteria in utilitarian philosophy and which way more people find to be a defensible position. It’s not just about base, selfish pleasures.

    • The Rational Vegan, I think SpeciesistVegan gets my jist whereby I think veganism as an advocacy position hinges upon utilitarian ideals. In this example of FFF it comes into conflict with animal rights groups as they argue that we shouldn’t be acknowledging the suffering of fur animals because the greater numbers are in food animals. I could be very well be missing something as philosophy is not my strong suit but that’s why I write and hope for commenters to steer me right. 🙂

  • First things first. On your second point, pleasure/happiness and suffering are the terms used in utilitarian philosophy. See Bentham, Mill, Popper et al. I see nothing wrong with framing using those terms. Also, your statement is a justification of animal use, not a rationale for veganism.

    On your first point of disagreement–what happens when the utilitarian equation calls for animal use? If my pleasure is greater than the suffering of an animal, I am justified in use–a non-vegan position. A hands-off position is a rights position. How are you reconciling these two positions? Peter Singer for example lays out a utilitarian rule argument but he does not try to tie it to veganism. He gives exceptions for animal use outside of need that are justified under utilitarianism.

    • I’m aware that pleasure and happiness are terms used in utilitarian philosophy. What I’m saying is that the scope of utilitarian logic isn’t only focused on pleasure and happiness. Sometimes it’s about life and death (as in the trolley problem). So for you to ONLY mention those things just seems a bit disingenuous. I am a vegan, so I find killing/using animals for my pleasure to be an unacceptable bargain. However, if my LIFE is at stake (or even if my health is in jeopardy), then I can justify animal use.

      I realize that my statement is a justification of animal use, not a rationale for veganism. That’s exactly why I said it. My point was to demonstrate that if we just frame this as animal suffering vs. human pleasure, that bodes really well for the argument for veganism. However, when we get into more serious matters like life and health, the scales start to tip more in favor of animal use (in my opinion). I’m well aware of what my statement means.

      See, I’m NOT trying to reconcile a rights-based approach with a utilitarian approach. I’m NOT trying to put forth a philosophy that says animal use is never justified. That’s the difference between MY veganism and yours. You’re looking for absolute arguments that “prove” something which is ultimately about values and priorities. I’m just trying to get people to see that they can do better by animals without having to utterly rework their worldview (and the vegan worldview is radically different than a typical person’s, no?). To me, it is absolutely not a problem that my position is not always a “hands-off position.”

      I’m not trying to start a huge argument here. I’m just saying that you can be opposed to a utilitarian approach and still be able to portray it accurately. It’s not just about human pleasure. How feeble of an ethical system would it be if it were?

  • SV,

    I don’t think you are characterizing utilitarianism accurately at all, not as defined by Bentham and Mill, or any of the other big names. What is moral is what brings about the most happiness. It is still defined that way when necessities are denied. It is a consequential philosophy and so an act that leads to less happiness–0 in the case of death, greatly reduced happiness for friends and family–is immoral. In the trolley example, it is still comparing X amount of happiness lost to 5 * X happiness lost. Contrast to moral realism where an act like murder is held to be wrong as a truth. In utilitarianism, it is always defined in terms of maximizing pleasure/happiness, or minimizing suffering in negative utilitarianism.

    As an ethical system, I think it stinks on ice. I would fear living in a society that operated on such a system rather than one that respected personal rights. Lucky me, utilitarianism has never taken much hold and would be a nightmare to codify.

    As for veganism and necessity, I would not argue for no animal use in the face of need, and I’d think you’d be hard pressed to find many that would. I can’t think of any major names that have made an argument like that. I could define “hands off” in veganism as simply “no animal use outside of need”. Would you agree with that then?

  • Okay, maybe it’s been too long since I’ve cracked a philosophy book. Or maybe I just don’t like the terminology (pleasure and happiness), even though the overall logic of utilitarianism is something that appeals to me as a tool to be applied to certain moral dilemmas (but not all).

    I don’t really “believe in” a utilitarian ethical system either. Like any system followed to a T, it might look good in theory, but show its weakness in practice (especially, like you say, if you tried to codify it into law). I, like most people, apply a utilitarian logic when it makes sense, and chuck it when it doesn’t, when it would lead to a conclusion that doesn’t jibe with my sense of morality, fairness etc. Most people understand the basic logic of utilitarianism even if they’ve never cracked a book in their lives (but many people still wouldn’t flip the switch to kill one person to save five people). I wouldn’t want a legal system based on it either. But, luckily, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Very few people think that they have a comprehensive ethical system that guides their lives. Most people just try to do what they think is right and they’ll accept or reject any type of philosophical justification or rationalization as they see fit. Just like different values can conflict with each other in one person, different ethical systems can conflict within a person.

    Yes, if you define “hands off” in veganism as simply “no animal use outside of need,” I would mostly agree with that, although I probably have a more expansive definition of need than most vegans. But I’m curious how you justify using an animal if you would need to (and how you define need). Why does your need outweigh an animal’s right to life or well-being? Isn’t that an example of a person putting their needs/life above an animal’s needs/life? How does that square with an animal having absolute rights?

    I’m aware that all the major names allow for animal use in the face of need. I just don’t agree that it doesn’t constitute speciesism to do so (this last point is sort of a hobby horse of mine, so feel free to ignore it if you don’t feel like getting into it).

  • I may be the Johnnycakes referred to in the first paragraph, and I have repeatedly said that animal rights and veganism were two separate issues, though I usually wrapped the statement in a fair amount of context.

    Fifteen years ago, I was a pretty diehard animal rights activist. At almost every animal rights protest in the Chicago area (Fur Free Friday events among them), I was one of the ten to twenty shivering souls holding up the bloody placards, and I have certainly been told to “get a life!” as much as anyone I know.

    This hit and run commentary, which is explained in the above On Protest section as well as I’ve ever read it, did nothing to soften my resolve, though. What ultimately turned me away from this kind of protest were those few precious moments when I actually did connect with a bystander and got into a heart-to-heart dialogue. The one particular exchange that sticks with me was with an anguished looking middle aged man in a business suit who took a flyer from me and handed it back, saying, “I don’t know what to do with this information! If you’re goal was to make me feel like shit, well, you’ve done that. But I don’t know what to do about it. What do you expect me to do, become a vegetarian?”

    Of course, that is exactly what I would have loved for him to do, but his exasperated tone, combined with his responses to my entreaties that vegetarianism is not as unattainable as he believed, demonstrated that an animal rights message was not going to change this guy.

    Vegan activists and AR activists argue a lot, but we really do need each other. Without a viable and attractive vegan culture, the AR argument leaves people empty and cold, now faced with distressing images and information, but without a sense of any realistic alternative. And without the animal rights protesters stirring people’s consciences, outsiders would likely see veganism is just an another empty trend, like cigars or bacon, to amuse people for a while before going on to the next thing.

    So yes, veganism is not animal rights, but for either concept to really take hold, both groups of proponents need to understand and respect the other’s goals and tactics.

    • Cakey! Yup, that was you for which I was referring. Thanks so much for chiming in. 🙂

      I agree with what you’ve said here. Your anecdote shows that the protest did exactly what it was supposed to do by: “stirring people’s consciences”. It starts a foundation upon they can construct an animal justice framework that works in their own lives. That guy doesn’t even have to go vegetarian (or vegan, or raw food, or fruitarian, etc etc)! We’re gonna need to be more dynamic than that if we are to weave the animal justice thread into mainstream culture.

      Your conclusion is exactly the point I was trying to make. Both groups need to respect each other’s boundaries and when it comes to Fur Free Friday, vegans need to stop trying to co-opt the event for their own cause.

  • Lorien

    Wow. Not really weighing in here, except to say: great post and excellent comments, especially by the eponymous Johnnycakes. And by the way, I’m a Francionian who gets what you say about FFFF, animal rights and veganism. I think Gary Francione’s logic and theory of animal rights are pretty impeccable, but in practice, there is room to protest things like fur farms, just as there is room to protest slaughterhouses. I think one of his recent points is that such protests haven’t been, to date, all that successful, thus his emphasis on theory (including veganism) — as a way of setting the moral baseline.

    Anyway, again, thanks for the post and the comments (including the utilitarian v rights dialog — takes me right back to law skool….)

    • Hey Lorien, thanks for your comments. Not to dwell on Francione too much but I wouldn’t describe his logic and theory as impeccable. He sure knows how to argue, I’ll give him that. It’s all bark though. For me, he pretty much embodies the result of trying to shoehorn veganism into animal rights. It’s a topdown approach that starts with an end result and works backwards trying to justify it. I think it’s corruptive and limiting. He’s even fractured the already niched ethical vegans into “new welfarists” and “abolitionists”. Animal justice doesn’t need any of that nonsense and it’s another example of how veganism is bogging down the few AR advocates we do have when they assume vegans are allies.

  • Lorien

    Dave, well, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m not sure AR doesn’t need a “top down” theory to inform it, even if (and, admittedly, Francione disagrees with this) the umbrella *can* encompass other approaches. In other words, his approach certainly may be limiting, but I disagree that it’s corruptive. I don’t think any of us would disagree with his baseline argument that sentient beings should not be property, or be used as resources. His emphasis on veganism comes out of that, just as an emphasis on justice for animals should.

    However, I agree with you that insisting on a vegan message at things like FF(F)F, muddies the water too much, people have different paths into an AR position, (I for one came from a rural family with hunting, fishing and rodeo riding members…while I got on board with anti-fur anti-factory farming campaigns pretty quickly, it took me a long time to apply the same logic to rodeo and hunting), and these paths should not be forced into a vegan lock down immediately. I do think that a baseline argument about the need for justice for animals (as opposed to purely compassion) *is* necessary up front though.

    So I believe that AR needs people like Francione, just as it needs animal activists, as Johnnycakes points out.

  • PeeWee

    I see two living people in that picture , I assume it’s their livelihood, and not fuelled by an ethos of “causing suffering”.

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