Sunday, September 6, 2009

Veganism as Intersectional Social Justice (part 1)

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday...Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?--Derrick Jensen[*]

[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… speciesism is also an ideology—that is, a set of widely held, socially inherited beliefs… 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.” –David Nibert[*]

The discourse of vegetarian and vegan advocates is saturated with personal choice. Perhaps more persistently than any other social justice movement in America today other than the pro-choice movement, animal defenders emphasize the individual: the individual animal who suffers, the individual person who chooses three times a day to choose compassion over cruelty, the individuality of the movement, etc.

It is the individual who is responsible for the suffering of each individual animal because of some irrational prejudice. If only these people were just more enlightened about animal sentience, about nutrition, they would leave cruelty-free lives. It is also the individual who is responsible for world hunger because they selfishly feed the world’s grain to livestock. If only each individual chose a vegetarian lifestyle, there would be enough food for everyone.

When the individual person is not totally responsible for the suffering of each individual animal, it is because vegetarianism is too inconvenient and the law is too permissive of cruelty. If only restaurants and grocery stores offered more vegetarian foods (especially faux-meats), people would stop eating meat. If only there were stricter penalties for animal cruelty, less people would harm animals and there would be more justice. Thus the irony of the dominant discourse is that animal liberation is possible so long as humans become more rational and less self-interested; but, so long as people are self-interested, we ought to make vegetarianism as convenient and non-threatening as possible and make animal cruelty as inconvenient and punishable as possible.

In this post I will lay-out the myriad of ways the most popular forms of animal advocacy (at least in the USA) privileges a white, middle-class audience at the expense of including people of color and people of low-income. Drawing on the vast, original works over at The Vegan Ideal [TVI], I wish to demonstrate 1) how focusing on punishing, shaming, and dehumanizing individual animal exploiters a) draws attention away from the institutional oppression (i.e. speciesism) in favor of vice (i.e. cruelty) as well as b) how such punishment is often part of ethnocentric and nationalist projects, and finally, c) how such projects merely seek to substitute human cages for animal cages.

Further, I would like to point out 2) how focus on individual action and lifestyle changes often centers around "voting" with one's dollar, which a) privileges the middle-class at the expense of marginalizing low- and no-income classes, b) privileges non-profit dissemination of literature at the expense of real social organizing and mobilization that empowers people and communities, and c) encourages conservative discourse by said non-profits that target "mainstream" audiences with money that can be used to support said kind of campaigns.