You Can Have Your Animal Rights and Eat Them Too

“Nobody can advocate for animal liberation unless they go vegan first!”

– agribusiness marketing professional

You don’t need to be vegan to advocate for animal rights. If I were in the animals’ situation, I would want everyone to share my story, even if they were partly responsible for my suffering. It might seem absurd for someone to argue for animals’ right to live while continuing to eat them, but in a world where eating tortured animals’ bodies is considered compassionate behavior, absurdity is never far away. We live in a world where it can be difficult for us to live in accordance with our values. We ought to accept that and figure out what to do about it. I believe that means embracing people with the right values, if not the best behavior, into my organizing efforts.

A revolution for animals begins with recognizing this injustice as a social and systemic problem, not just an aggregation of personal failings. If we want to win for the animals, we’re going to have to include people like my friend, who genuinely wants society to stop killing animals but still eats their bodies. She, like many others I know, feels awful about this and she’s trying to stop. But she is poor, and tired, and old, and lonely, and imperfect. And in spite of all of that she still speaks out for them. As far as I’m concerned, if you would stop her from going out to ask the world to stop killing animals just because she is complicit in that harm, then you might as well slaughter the animals yourself.

Yes, I think you should be vegan. And yes, I think you’ll be a more credible and convincing advocate if you are. But let me be clear, I would take an animal-eating activist any day over a strict vegan whose “advocacy” consists of buying “cruelty-free” toothpaste at Whole Foods.

This is a real problem for our movement. All the time, people tell me things like “I wanted to go to your meeting, but I’m not vegan” or “I wanted to say something but I’m not vegan” or I wanted to share your post, but I’m not vegan.” We have to change this. I will not perpetuate a climate where my allies are afraid to speak out and join the cause, out of fear of being branded as hypocrites. If you can talk about speciesism at the family dinner table, the classroom, or the Facebook wall, then you’re welcome here, no matter what any of the ingredient-memorizing vegan policemen might say. We’re going to win this fight together—with a lot of help from others who love animals but struggle to be vegan in a non-vegan world. That’s why we are going to make the world vegan, not one-by-one, but collectively. 

Imagine if the abolitionist movement didn’t allow anyone to speak out against slavery unless they completely boycotted slave-made goods. If they did, I’m not sure they would have succeeded in abolishing  slavery. The fact that most of us have never even heard of the “Free Produce Movement” (which promoted a boycott of slave-made products) is a testament to the fact that consumer “activism” is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to dismantling oppressive institutions. Joining in boycotts should not be a requirement for participating in the myriad other forms of advocacy.

Of course, while I hope my criticism is taken seriously by animal rights activists, I think the real blame for this problem lies elsewhere. After all, this norm of dismissing sincere but imperfect dissenters as “hypocrites” was not created by vegans. In the animal rights context, this vile rhetorical strategy is most commonly employed by non-vegans, who seek to delegitimize vegans’ sincere effort to do better while justifying their continued apathy towards the problem. For example, by pointing out all of vegans’ inadequacies (e.g. “but you still eat wheat which kills field mice!”), we all know that what they’re really saying is “I don’t want to change my behavior, leave me alone.” It’s obvious that this “gotcha anti-veganism”  is merely an attempt to convince us that doing nothing is the best alternative to perfection.

We don’t let the haters distract us in that context; but this rhetoric seems to have an insidious effect when it comes to activists’ unwelcoming approach to non-vegan allies. We have to realize this is precisely what those who oppose us would hope for. If I were Tyson or Cargill, I would rejoice every time someone didn’t show up to a protest because they weren’t vegan. I would be laughing myself all the way to the bank.

This all or nothing rhetoric is used to delegitimize and stymie all sorts of progressive social changes. Just think of how people who have no serious commitment to fighting poverty of any kind, say things like, “there are poor white folks in this country too,” when you’re trying to have a conversation about economic justice for black people. Again, this idea that “you can’t do anything unless you do everything” is designed to deflect demands for change and preserve the status quo. So my message to anyone who is still listening: Don’t let anyone tell you that doing nothing is better than doing something. And don’t listen to anyone that says you have to be perfect before you challenge injustice. That’s the rhetoric of privilege from someone who likes things just the way they are.

Finally, please don’t confuse this for gradualism or moderation. It’s the opposite: I fully intend to see a law passed in my lifetime that prohibits violence against animals; and that means we urgently need people to be speak out and confront this injustice now. So remember, for anyone out there who supports radical change for animals, I salute you and I hope you spread the word—whether you’re vegan or not.*

*Although I can’t promise that I won’t bother you about it from time to time.

P.S.: thanks to Wayne Hsiung and DxE for inspiring much of my thinking in this area:

Chickens and Other Endangered Species

broiler chicken

Are chickens an endangered species?

Today I saw the documentary Racing Extinction, which focuses on how climate change and the (sometimes) illegal wildlife trade are contributing to one of the largest mass extinction events in world history. It was extremely powerful. I cried…twice. They did a great job of portraying the stories of animals as individuals whose lives matter, not merely as tokens/exemplars of a species.

In one scene, they showed a shark stuck on the ocean floor, struggling to move. Her fins were cut off and she was completely helpless. It was agonizing to watch; knowing that she wanted to move, and thinking about the fear and confusion she must have felt by being immobilized. With this in mind, I have to ask: Does it really matter how many other sharks there are like her? When you are watching an animal being tortured, do you need to research her species and its population size to decide whether or not you should care? If we learned that the shark actually wasn’t from an endangered species, would it make a difference? Well, it definitely wouldn’t make a difference for the shark.

I can’t help but think that the documentary was somewhat confused and contradictory in this regard. Clearly, the activists in the film were deeply affected by the suffering of many of these animals–not about the species as an abstraction–but the actual lives of the individual animals. They were moved to tears by the horrors they saw. But then at other points, it seemed that their main concern wasn’t with the animals themselves, but the idea/form of the species as a whole. The worst example of this was the director’s joyful account of watching a tuna being ripped apart by a shark. I was horrified. One second he was literally crying about a dying fish, and the next he was smiling about it. Again, neither the tuna, nor the shark, knows nor cares about their status on the endangered species list. Similarly, the tuna presumably does not care whether he is being mutilated by a human being or a whale shark. I wouldn’t.*

A species doesn’t feel pain. It doesn’t feel join, or excitement, or fear, or anything. A species doesn’t want to avoid extinction. It doesn’t want anything. Species is a human construct: an idea, a way of categorizing real living beings (that do feel things and do seek to avoid death) in a way that helps us better make sense of the world. In that way, a species is like a baseball team. Just like a species, a baseball team doesn’t feel anything, even though it is comprised of players who do. This similarity to baseball teams is precisely why we shouldn’t care about species too much– not because baseball is really boring, which is objectively the case–but because baseball teams don’t feel anything. Let me explain: if everyone on the Yankees died in a plane crash and the franchise went out of business, it would be a great tragedy. It would be awful because all of these people would have suffered through the fear and horror of a crashing plane. It would be horrible that all of these people who enjoyed their lives and wanted to keep living are gone. It would be terrible because of all of the suffering and loss their friends and family would endure. Now for some people, at least for Yankees fans, it would also be really sad that the Yankees went out of business  and are aren’t going to play anymore. But I hope you’ll agree that the bigger tragedy would be that these players lost their lives, even if the end of the team is also tragic.  It seems the same logic should apply to species. Just like the Yankees fans, even if we care about a species going extinct, we know the real tragedies are the suffering and death of all the animals that didn’t want to die, and the loss experienced by their friends and family.

So what does this have to do with chickens? Well, chickens are arguably the most horribly treated animals on the entire planet. Every year, tens of billions of them are slaughtered after living miserable lives in intensive industrial confinement. Their numbers are large but they are endangered in any meaningful sense of the word. The are in danger of breaking their bones under the weight of their genetically manipulated bodies. They are in danger of being boiled alive. They in danger of being trampled to death. They are in danger of starvation, disease, and abuse. But who is there to tell their story? Are their lives expendable or meaningless just because there are so many of them? Why won’t the Audubon Society put a chicken on the cover of their magazine? Why do they care so much about grasshopper sparrows and so little about chickens? Why don’t we cry for them? It’s so easy for us to condemn people for eating shark fin soup and whale sushi. It’s so easy for us to bash poachers and smugglers. But to the chicken who never knew anything but suffering, we are all poachers. No, we are worse than poachers. At least poachers don’t torture animals for months before they kill them. If we truly care about animals as individuals, not just the “teams” they play on, then we should fight for domesticated animals with the same urgency and intensity that we do for endangered species.

For now, every time I see a chicken, I can hear them say: “Can I be an endangered species too?”

* Even if it is an inevitable fact of life, being eaten alive certainly isn’t something to be celebrated. What sort of message does it send when we rejoice for this suffering and death? As long as their torturous deaths are viewed with fascination instead of mourning, I will not be surprised that their interests are not taken seriously. Just imagine if the director was killed by a shark and everyone just talked about how awesome it was. It would be reasonable to assume that, most likely, nobody really cared about him and he had a pretty tough and dangerous life. And for everyone that likes appealing to nature, it’s just as natural for humans to be eaten by animals. If you sincerely believe that it is also “beautiful” and “majestic” for humans to be eaten alive, then I won’t bother to convince you otherwise. But if you aren’t willing to bite that bullet, then you’ll have to admit that “natural” suffering and death  in the wild is a tragedy. If you don’t, then you’re just blinded by speciesism.