Sunday, June 12, 2011

Socially-centered Veganism vs Consumption-centered Veganism

Owen (right) & Mzee (left) @ Haller Park (Malindi, Kenya)
The most fundamental difference between the veganism I advocate and that advocated by others is focus. Veganism as a purely vegetarian lifestyle typically focuses on consumption practices associated with the individual, abstention, and identity; however, I’m interested in veganism as a social practice, a mode of being with others, that is relational, affirmative, and transformative.

I understand veganism as a social modality, an affiliation and solidarity with others beyond (species) boundaries, in which animal others are regarded as someones, not somethings. The origin, the means, and the end of veganism are being in “conversations” with others. Veganism, in other words, is fundamentally an affirmation of and care for the “voices” of animal others through “listening” (i.e. receptive curiosity and regard). Since careful listening takes place between particular responsive beings, not abstract or inanimate ones, killing animals irreversibly terminates conversations, silencing animal others. Exploiting animals may not terminate conversations absolutely, but enables and is enabled by an emotional “deafness” to their resistance whenever it becomes inconvenient to using them. Like a good conversation, a vegan social modality is incompatible with asserting oneself onto and over others. If their singularity and agency are to be recognized, affirmed, and cared for in conversation, we must act least violently toward them. By baring us to the responsibility of our care for animal others, veganism is the practice of intersectional and interspecies participatory justice, not personal purity (i.e. cruelty-free, body-as-a-temple), moral pragmatism (i.e. “the best choice for our health, the environment, and animals”), or political protest (i.e. economic boycott).

This alternative understanding of veganism may seem out of left field and overly abstract. In terms of clarity and simplicity, the mainstream definition of veganism certainly has me beat. To be more concrete, I’ll describe my reasoning behind it. Marti Kheel’s excellently articulates the direction of my inquiry into the social, cultural, and psychological conditions for veganism and the consumption of animals:

the arguments for why someone should be vegetarian may have little to do with the actual factors that influence people to adopt vegetarianism…the focus on developing compelling arguments for why it is morally correct to become vegetarian may be missing the mark. The more important question, I suggest, is: what are the factors that support the practice of meat eating and that give meat eating its compelling force? (2004: 325, 338)
Kheel’s shift of inquiry, I believe, is of the utmost importance, as I will explain in a bit. First, however, I think we should consider the question at hand: given how few self-identified vegans are raised in vegetarian (friendly) households, how and why are people persuaded into an alternative, less convenient and respected lifestyle?

I don’t believe it is because people simply choose to be vegan by a commitment to logical consistency. To choose to abstain from animal products and the exploitation of animals may be deliberate, but it presupposes that their relationships to animals are something they are already concerned about. Rather than “choosing” to be vegan, people come into veganism—as they would a conversation—through a transformation of their previous social relationship with an animal other. Animal others become someone other than a resource. Thus, people come into vegan practice through an affirmation of the care and regard for animal others that preceded the event of deliberation.

Veganism as a social modality is not something people are normally subjected to by other people. On the contrary, it is something we identify with from within our particular relationship with animal others. Veganism only has the appearance of being a threatening foreign element to the self because we live within a society in which popular opinion is on the whole antagonistic to veganism. Nonetheless, veganism is a condition—our concern for the well-being of animal others and our suffering-with them—that invites us to inhabit it more maturely when we witness the disturbing social reality of human-animal relations (i.e. debeaking, veal crates, vivisection, etc). Often, people are so discomforted by the social reality of human-animal relations that they are overwhelmed by guilt. The sheer magnitude of the guilt they feel from transgressing their own modality of care may move them to anger directed at the culprit or situation and/or remorse for the animals. These affections are productive and transformative; they inspire personal as well as social change.

However, more than likely, people stagnate in their fixation on their self and privilege. They try to alleviate their guilt that calls them to responsibility by either completely disavowing (i.e. “I don’t care”) or reactively asserting themselves against their modality of care for animal others (i.e. “they are just animals,” “we are at the top of the food chain”). Through a superimposed foundation of rationalizations, people can secure themselves from being vulnerable to being transformed by others. I think Chloë Taylor is spot on when she writes that

the reason that only a fraction of those convinced [by arguments for vegetarianism] transform this conviction into a practice does not correspond to the moral superiority of some or the weakness of will of others, but with the sort of selves that the individuals in question wish to be. (2010: 87)
It is simply not the case as Francione argues that people eat and exploit animals because of “pleasure, amusement, and convenience.” Eating and exploiting animals is permeated with cultural narratives that give people a sense of identity, meaning, and self-worth. And this is a large factor in why people feel so threatened when they are confronted by the disturbing reality of our relationship to animal others, by the inconsistency in their professed care for animal others and their actual social relationship to them. Not only is their personal “freedom” at stake because it is in conflict with their other values, but also their self-esteem because it becomes difficult to reconcile one’s belief in the goodness of their society and self with the reality of the terrible things done to animal others that they are complicit with.

People do not like to renounce all the privileges they have accumulated in society at the expense of (animal) others’ subordination; they do not like to feel insecure about who they are and how they live; they resist the responsibility they are called to by a world that challenges their self-certainty and goodness. This is why a disavowal of their care and/or rationalizations become necessary to reconcile this discrepancy in their values. Through focusing on one’s guilt rather than one’s care for the other—a pre-condition for the guilt—, the human self becomes the subject of veganism, not the animal other.

Certainly, the same criticism applies to many self-identified vegans—like consumption-based vegans—when they dogmatically dismiss moral consideration for non-“animal” others (i.e. insects, plants) or when they attempt to secure their theory and practice as consistent by confidently excusing or simplifying very complex moral issues (i.e. the removal or killing of insect “pests”, managing companion animals’ diet and sexuality). Whatever someone’s identity or consumption practices, when they rationalize their indifference toward the existence of others, disavows their own fallibility, and disallow their own personal and social transformation, they have privileged themselves or their ideology above particular animals. This is counter to veganism as I understand it.

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