“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: