Monday, July 4, 2011

Veganism as Social Somatic Response-Ability

Igualdad Animal Demonstration in Spain (
No one can deny the suffering, fear or panic, the terror or fright that humans witness in certain animals... the response to the question "can they suffer?" leaves no doubt… War is waged over the matter of pity... To think the war we find ourselves waging is not only a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, it is also a necessity... I say "to think" this war, because I believe it concerns what we call "thinking." --Jacques Derrida (1997, 2002)

The Ethics of Veganism: an Open Wound called Compassion
When I advocate veganism, I’m advocating it as recognition of a phenomenon, not as a prescription of a principle. That is, veganism is a recognition of the human condition of finitude, fallibility, and meagerness in a universe shared by other finite, fallible, and meager beings. As I wrote before, veganism as a social existence with animal others is not a foreign attitude. Rather, it is a mode we are “thrown into” when we become subjected to our own curiosity and compassion for other mortal creatures. Recognizing veganism as such holds us responsible to animal others’ interests, and holds us accountable for closing off this mode for relating to animal others as “killable” instruments for some so-called higher-value (i.e. profits, “life,” “humanity”). Thus, veganism as a social attitude motivates and is facilitated by vegetarian consumption. Veganism-vegetarianism are the means and the end of a non-exclusive social responsibility.

Veganism is therefore not the application of a principle of obligation, but the phenomenon of obligation from being addressed by the animal other to respond in return as a social being. I’m not saying that a pig or salmon speak to us or voice themselves as a human might, but that we experience the phenomenon of being addressed, being called to ourselves as social and ethical beings, by recognizing the others’ different perspective, interests, and shared vulnerability. This phenomenon is with us from infancy. Just watch the expression of wonder watching the expressions of other species. It’s similar to their gaze into the face of a human. Children are not born distinguishing the moral considerability between humans and many other animals. Just recently, psychologists Patricia Hermann and others found that anthropocentirsm is a perspective acquired around the age of five, not something innate.

The veganism I advocate fits well with Ralph Acampora articulation of ethics as a phenomenon of the body’s existence as an ecologically and socially interrelational being in contrast to popular thought that ethics is the product of transcendental principles of pure reason or codes intersubjectively consented to. Reason may be valuable in that it exposes latent prejudices and inconsistencies in how one treats others, but only by presupposing our existence as social, caring, vulnerable, and potentially violent bodies. From an ethical paradigm of the interrelational lived body, the “burden of proof” is not placed upon veganism as an extension of ethics, but rather the “ethical isolationism or contraction” of a an ethics based upon self-interest.

For example, reflect upon the times when reason has been used not as a preventative measure against violence and prejudice, but as an instrument against our sociality with and care for others (e.g. “just war,” “ethnic cleansing,” “honor killings,” vivisection etc). It is through manufacturing a code and imposing it upon the world that we can justify acting violently toward others because of the class we place them into. Arguments for fending off veganism and vegetarianism are usually no more than an elaborate game of logic to preserve one’s power and privilege over others by making violence reasonable. They defy our underlying capacity to recognize others as social beings.

Humanism's Double Standard: The Unreasonableness of Consistency
Veganism is the immanent, not the abstract, relationship we have to animal others as social beings. Although my description of veganism is abstract in form, in practice, the reasons we assign to violence are the abstractions. Animal others are exploited under the justification that they belong to a separate race we’ve created and called “animals,” and they are institutionally exploited for the good of something we call “civilization” and the “economy” for something called “capital.”
Theodore Adorno startlingly articulates this critical insight in Minima Moralia:
The possibility of the pogrom is decided in the moment when the gaze of a fatally-wounded animal falls on a human being. The defiance with which he repels this gaze—‘after all, it’s only an animal’—reappears irresistibly in cruelties done to human beings, the perpetrators having again and again to reassure themselves that it is ‘only an animal,’ because they could never fully believe this even of animals... Murder is thus the repeated attempt, by yet greater madness, to distort the madness of such false perceptions into reason.
What was first felt to be an injustice is assigned a justification in order to make violence meaningful and rational. Violence against others becomes a concrete possibility when we objectify them through categorizing them as radically Other. Through rationalization, violence becomes "reasonable;" and through its perfection, violence validates (i.e. self-fulfills) the expressionless of the Other. One excuses oneself after the fact, for not taking into consideration the expressed feelings and thoughts of others. The concrete, felt moral phenomenon of an animal other's subjectivity is thus abstracted when we use the concept "animal," which is a historical tradition to oppositionally differentiate from "humans."

In recognizing the equality of other human beings through the ethics/politics of "human rights," the logic of domination has not been overcome but has simply been displaced onto those categorized as outside of the abstract, anthropogenic concept of "humanity." On the one hand, if human rights are justified by the capacity for moral agency or autonomy, then it excludes all those H. sapiens (i.e. “marginal cases”) who do not possess this power. On the other hand, if it is to be extended to all H. sapiens regardless of this power but to then exclude other being because of their different biological makeup and lineage, then human rights is predicated on racism--a prejudice thought to be antithetical to human rights foundation on individuality and equality. If the sanctity of individual life, of freedom, and of equality are to be taken seriously, there is no reason not to "extend" these beyond the human race. In fact, to create such an exclusion (i.e. an exception) sets up an enormous contradiction, opening up the future to more genocide and other atrocities. (How often we hear people committing violence against people because they did not recognize them as “humans,” who thought of them as “just animals”).

There is a popular critique among so-called radical ecological and humanistic thinkers (e.g. Paul Sheppard, Michael Pollan, Lierre Keith, etc) that vegans are death-deniers and subsequently ecologically illiterate, puritanical life-deniers. However, this representation of vegetarians and animal rights activists as alienated bourgeoisie city-dweller with a false ecological consciousness is nothing more than a popular motif in the arsenal of ad hominems romantic thinkers use to dismiss the moral arguments of others. It’s interesting that few people levy this accusation against humanists who advocate not only against unjust killing, but for universal access to and research into life-sustaining technologies.

This double standard is quite unfair if we do not take for granted human exceptionalism—that human animals are radically distinct from animal others. If “animal rights” are the consistent application of human rights, as Tom Regan suggests and Siobhan O'Sullivan, then the primary reasons people are suspicious of people’s aspiration not to kill animals of other species are more likely that a) veganism is not as hegemonic as human rights, b) people like to validate their belief in their exceptional significance in the world as human beings, and c) humans would like to protect their privilege from being extended to marginalized Others (often including other human beings).

A similar counterargument to veganism that it is (overly-)idealistic, an ideal that is impossible to achieve in a world in which death and violence are the fundamental structures of life. The implicit premise that leads them to the conclusion that "veganism" (or what I call vegetarianism), because it cannot exist with perfect consistency, is that any attempt is ultimately arbitrary, hypocritical, and meaninglessness. However, this logic could likewise be applied to any ethics based upon anthropogenic principles and values, including human rights. The question of who is human and what rights are given priority are questions that have no closure. Rights like “freedom” and “equality” are ideals that are essentially in conflict, yet we don’t give up on the ideal of either.

In any case, I don’t believe  in the sanctity of perfection. Ethics presupposes our mortality, our finitude and fallibility. An ethics that seeks perfection becomes totalitarian, a slave to its own logic, in which the moral agent no longer is a social being, but an instrument of the system it has created. If ethics were simply a social contract, a notion I have previously critiqued, it guarantees no consideration for the most marginal beings for whom we ought to consider if ethics is to have any radical meaning. Ethics may end up taking the form of a rational contract, however, given that comportment toward justice is not a God-given gift, but a product of evolution shared with other species, it is pre-rational (at least in the sense of being an invented and completed ethical system). If we follow Aldo Leopold's reasoning that ethics evolved to increase cooperation for the mutual benefit of interdependent beings inhabiting a community, it would be ideological rather than "rational" or "natural" to exclude all non-humans from moral considerability.

Veganism as I've described may not be a moral obligation because of some transcendental principle like God or Reason, but neither are human rights and prohibitions against cannibalism. The rhetorical and legal abstraction of "rights" are means to addressing the moral considerability of others. That is, they assign moral considerability a particular subject and form. This says little as to what motivates moral considerability besides hegemony and habit, and nothing as to its emotional genesis. Addressing, re-calling, conversing with the phenomenon that inspires us to grant and recognize rights is critical to understanding veganism as social modality and as an intersectional social justice movement. By being responsible for this moral phenomenon, we practice ethics responsibly, presenting ourselves with the ability and openness of response.

Executing Human Privilege: An Intersectional, Interspecies, Social Justice Movement
Since veganism is not obligatory from any objective standpoint and requires the forfeit of  much social, economic, and existential privilege, one may ask whether non-compliance with the oppression of animal others “is worth reducing the quality of my life.” This sincere response may not hide behind the ideological window-dressing of humanist rhetoric, however, it nonetheless assumes no one is valuable except in their utility to the self. It is symptomatic of self-centeredness and anti-sociality.

This reasoning stems from a system of competition and domination that favors a society of winner and losers. It is a narcissistic reasoning most popular amongst males and the affluent who, have the most privilege to lose, or rather, share with others. Is this not how white middle-class males a couple of centuries reasoned against extending equal rights to blacks, women, and other minorities? Is this not exactly the argument affluent U.S. Americans use against reducing anthropogenic GHGs despite the devastation global climate disruption will have on communities across the world? I think it is crucial to highlight that the very logic that is being used here that puts the “burden of moral proof” on veganism to make an argument against (rather than for) domination and violence, is the very logic that held (and holds) back recognizing the equality of the colonized, laborers, women, pagans, and other Others. For this reason, such reasoning may in fact validate veganism as a project, because veganism holds us responsible for caring for others. By resisting veganism, one is on the way to resisting other social justice causes which threaten one’s privilege and convenience. Veganism is social responsibility, one that does not deliberately excuse itself when it becomes convenient to do so.

If everyone thought “Poor me. What am I ever going to do? I am one person. There is nothing I can do to stop all this, therefore there is no point in making myself miserable in trying," no social movement would ever begin and the world would be a much more awful place. The focus on individualism and identity (i.e. being a “vegan” or not) rather than animal others is doomed to failure. It is so easy for this to be reversed, for one to realize one can get as much self-esteem from eating animals and rationalize speciesism on the basis that it is too enormous of a project to successfully oppose. I’m reminded of Cypher from the Matrix who is conscious of reality, but a reality that is so insurmountable that he becomes complicit with oppression for the comfort of ignorance.

Ultimately, it’s naive to reject veganism as if it were a matter of independent lifestyle activism, rather than a social movement (especially given the critique of consumption-based veganism). Vegans are demanding institutional change, not merely personal change. This is because, as David Nibert notes in Animal Rights/Human Rights, speciesism is not merely an unjust prejudice but an institution that operates as a hegemonic norm:
[A]n oppressed group shares physical, cultural, or economic characteristics and is subjected, for the economic, political, and social gain of a privileged group, to a social system that institutionalizes its exploitation, marginalization powerlessness, or vulnerability to violence...[Oppressions are ideologies,] a set of socially shared beliefs that legitmates an existing or desired social order. Prejudice, on the other hand, is an individual predisposition to devalue a group of others... Prejudice is a tool of oppression and not its cause... When the psychological and moral (or immoral) bases of oppression are accentuated, social structural forces are downplayed or overlooked entirely... they tend to stifle any realization of the need for social change.
[S]eciesism is also an ideology—that is, a set of widely held, socially inherited belief... Oppression requires rationalization and legitimation; that is, it must appear as the right thing to do, both to the oppressing group and in the eyes of others... the ideology justifying that action is promulgated throughout the social system in order to garner public acceptance and reduce dissent. Over time, these socially constructed ideas will come to be accepted as real and true, and the ‘lower’ or ‘special’ position of the oppressed groups will be viewed as the natural order of things, promoting ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism... (6-8, 10, 13, 17)
As a movement, vegnanism is a collective political force organized to raise consciousness and oppose exploitation through campaigns and policies. It’s not comparable to changing one’s light bulbs or inflating one’s car tire. Veganism is a revolutionary praxis: “an anti-oppression framework that views the abolition of animal exploitation as part of a wider struggle for social justice” and “leads to a way of life (or lifestyle) that is based on noncooperation with, and divestment from, exploitation." "When a vegan abnegates the products of exploitation, they are giving up privilege, as opposed to engaging in a 'boycott,'" writes Ida Hammer (my emphasis).

Furthermore, as I've reiterated, veganism is about entering into less violent and more dialogical relationships with other beings, especially humans; it is responding as a social being to others as social beings, and re-thinking social structures which obstruct moral response-ability. Veganism as interspecies and intersectional social justice is therefore not just about animal others; it is also in support of ecological and global justice. That the animal industrial complex is amongst the worst culprits of global ecological injustices is just one example of the intersections of animal exploitation and the exploitation and destruction of fellow humans and biocultural diversity. The best example I know of the intersectional veganism that I advocate in action is The Food Empowerment Project whose mission is
to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one's food choices. We encourage healthy food choices that reflect a more compassionate society by spotlighting the abuse of animals on farms, the depletion of natural resources, unfair working conditions for produce workers, and the unavailability of healthy foods in low-income areas.
The FEP, hopefully signals a new wave of veganism that further inculcates veganism into social justice, in which human rights and animal rights meet in ever more powerful ways.

It’s my hope that my re-articulation of veganism will attract more people from other social movements to veganism and attract more self-identified vegans toward social and ecological justice work. By working together, activists motivated by care and social responsibility will discover the relevancy and value of each other’s work in-and-of-itself and also in its support of their own. The greater solidarity these interrelated social justice movements have, the greater the numbers and creativity we will have in dismantling institutionalized oppression. I hope transforming the definition can transform vegans, their potential allies, and the precarious world we all must share.

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