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:

http://directactioneverywhere.com/theliberationist/2015/7/27/why-activism-not-veganism-is-the-moral-baseline

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19 thoughts on “You Can Have Your Animal Rights and Eat Them Too

  1. this is complete and utter nonsense. THIS kind of insane rationalization is the TRUE downfall of the so called AR movement. it would make just as much sense to have a man who beats his wife speak out against spousal abuse or a child molester speak out against pedophilia. why not also suggest KKK members speak out against racism?

    to claim to care about non-human animals and speak out against abuse, torture and murder while at the same time supporting these atrocities on a daily basis in the name of habit, pleasure and convenience is the epitome of irony. words and beliefs are completely meaningless unless one’s actions back them up.

    it is in no way a case of not doing anything because you cannot do everything as being vegan is the MINIMUM standard of decency. if one truly cares about non-human animals, the very LEAST they can do is stop paying others to murder them in the name of a momentary taste sensation.

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    1. Hey Mark, I can understand your frustration. As I mentioned above, I agree that there is something absurd about advocating for animals while continuing to eat their bodies–you don’t have to convince me about the irony here. The allies I have in mind, like my mom, would recognize that as well.

      And I’m sympathetic to your analogies to the KKK and child molesters. For the animals, we are all the KKK. But I do believe that we should encourage members of oppressive culture, like the KKK, to speak out and try to change their cultures, even if they still participate in violence. I think we can still be unequivocal that their continued participation is bad while supporting their efforts to speak out against the oppressive system.

      “words and beliefs are completely meaningless unless one’s actions back them up”:

      I believe that speaking out against violence IS an “action” that “backs up” a belief. In fact, it is a MUCH MORE IMPORTANT and effective action for actually helping animals than the decision to stop eating them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think veganism is important, effective, and necessary. I just think that this private action is vastly less important than public action that is more likely to have effects on the system as a whole.

      “being vegan is the MINIMUM standard of decency. if one truly cares about non-human animals, the very LEAST they can do is stop paying others to murder them”

      I appreciate your anger. I really do. I think it is totally justified. But I don’t think we should concern ourselves with “minimum standards of decency.” If we “truly care about non-human animals,” we should be interested in making sure that we save every one that we possibly can. That means we have to stop wasting our time focusing on the LEAST people can do and start emphasizing the MOST that people can do. That’s how we’re going to change the world.

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      1. words alone are NOT an action. anyone can say anything without any effort but unless the person follows the philosophy they claim to support, their statements are meaningless. i am all for interacting with non-vegans in order to educate them but to suggest that their speaking out against violence while willingly supporting the exact same violence themselves on a daily basis is in any way acceptable is ludicrous. in fact, even though going vegan is the least people can do, it is also by far THE most powerful and impactful thing anyone can do to help non-human animals.

        when people at a protest ask the person protesting if they are vegan (and this happens quite often in my experience) and the answer is “no”, the message will be written of as hypocritical. unless and until people confront their own personal exploitation of non-human animals, they have NO foundation or justification for calling out others. i believe Will Tuttle said it best:

        “To meditate for world peace, to pray for a better world, and to work for social justice and environmental protection while continuing to purchase the flesh, milk, and eggs of horribly abused animals exposes a disconnect that is so fundamental that it renders our efforts absurd, hypocritical, and doomed to certain failure.”

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  2. Great post. Also, I have met many, many activists and supporters that are helping the cause that are not vegan right now. They are sharing videos, protesting, handing out leaflets, etc. If we can continue to draw on the assistance of people who aren’t vegan, the animal protection movement could be much more powerful. I’ve also found that when people start volunteering and advocating for animals, they are much more likely to move towards a vegan diet and lifestyle.

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  3. I agree with a lot of the points on this article but it its mainly apply for affluent countries such as USA. If we go beyond these countries this article erases the activism and experiences of a lot of vegan folks. Unfortunately, in this world to be vegan for must of the people remains a HUGE challenge so the act of committing to be vegan is itself and ACTIVIST act.

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    1. I think there’s a lot to be said for veganism as a sacrifice that promotes solidarity with other activists and a vehicle for introducing animal rights discourse into daily life. In my opinion, the best part about being vegan isn’t the direct impact we have on reducing demand for animal products, but it’s the social statement we make. To the extent that veganism creates opportunities to discuss animal rights–like when people ask you why you are vegan–I think veganism can be rightfully called activism.

      It’s interesting that you think my arguments apply more in contexts where being vegan is easy. I would think that the exact opposite is the case. My point is not that “being vegan is easy, so we have to do the REAL hard activism.” My point is that being vegan is only one of many ways we can challenge this oppressive system–and vegan or not, we should be engaging in public acts of resistance. I would think this is an empowering message for those in circumstances where being vegan is so difficult. It doesn’t cost a dime to tell your classmates that killing animals for food is wrong.

      That being said, I recognize that even though there are no direct monetary costs for speaking out, their are very real social and political consequences (that come with economic effects) that make it difficult for marginalized people anywhere to publicly challenge injustice. To that extent, any call for people to speak out and challenge injustice assumes a certain level of privilege, and I accept that I might be guilty of obscuring that fact. I certainly didn’t intend to diminish the difficulties people might face in other less privileged circumstances. I firmly believe that, in light of the vast differences in privilege, we can’t hold everyone to the same standard. I believe my argument reaffirms that point by dismissing the idea of veganism as the minimum requirement (that applies equally to everyone) for showing solidarity with/being apart of the animal rights movement.

      The last thing that I’d add is that if veganism is truly so demanding for anyone, they should be careful that it doesn’t take so much willpower that they lack the energy to engage in other more effective forms of activism. We’ve got to do the best we can to help these animals, and trying to remain pure at the expense of effectiveness is only hurting those we are trying to help.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. extremely absurd isn’t it Kimberly? i can just imagine a person doing a shout out action with DXE at Chipotle and then immediately turning around to order a meal there which contains the flesh of a tortured cow, pig or chicken. how is anyone going to take anything about AR seriously if the person themselves does not even follow the most basic precept of what they claim to be espousing?

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    2. “Those campaigns are about shaming meat-eaters into not eating meat.”

      That’s not my understanding. While they might have that effect, their primary purpose is to force a public dialogue on animal rights and galvanize activists into doing the same.

      “Suddenly eating meat is okay?”

      If you take another look at the article, you’ll see that I never said eating meat is okay. I think it’s bad. My point is that not engaging in other more effective forms of activism is even worse. Instead of judging people by how little harm they cause, we should judge them on their overall impact. The indisputable fact of the matter is that a non-vegan activist can easily save more lives on balance than someone whose advocacy stops at merely not causing harm.

      “how is anyone going to take anything about AR seriously if the person themselves does not even follow the most basic precept of what they claim to be espousing?”

      Again, if you look back at the article, I acknowledged this point. I think not being vegan makes our advocacy less effective. It dilutes and confuses out message. It is not ideal. But I think even the non-vegan activist, however flawed, is more likely to produce a positive effect for animals than many vegans I know who engage in no public advocacy at all. That’s the point I would like to discuss, if you have any thoughts on it.

      Furthermore, we could equally ask, how can anyone take us seriously if we are not taking to the streets and frantically, urgently calling for an end to violence? How can we expect anyone to take us seriously, to believe that we think there essentially billions of people being tortured and slaughtered in our own backyard, when the primary form of activism we promote is to privately remove our complicity. If there was a mass genocide of human beings in the US, would we react in the way that we commonly do? Would we hand out leaflets asking people one by one to stop killing people? Or would we band together and disrupt the killing in direct and provocative ways. What does it say about our commitment to our principles that we mainly ask people to take actions that we believe involve no real cost to them? Is this what resistance to genocide looks like? Is veganism more important for being taken seriously than direct actions that are plausibly proportional to the magnitude of the harm we claim to be fighting against? How can anyone believe me that modern agriculture is worse than the Holocaust, when I spend most of my time doing schoolwork and arguing with people on the internet? It seems that our concerns about being taken seriously with regards to veganism are wildly out of proportion to other things that prevent us from being taken seriously.

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      1. “if there was a mass genocide of human beings in the US, would we react in the way that we commonly do? Would we hand out leaflets asking people one by one to stop killing people? Or would we band together and disrupt the killing in direct and provocative ways.”

        but what you are arguing is that if there were a mass genocide of human beings, it would be better to have people who willingly participate in the genocide to also try and educate people about why it is wrong to kill people and that this would be more effective than merely refusing to directly support the genocide themsleves. using your example of the holocaust, a guard who’s job it was to murder jewish people and who willingly did so would then tell others how it is wrong to murder jewish people instead of refusing to do so himself.

        my point is that if one willingly participates in a violent act, they have no foundation what so ever to at the same time speak out about how the violent act is wrong. should a serial rapist speak out about how raping women is wrong while continuing to rape them himself because he is too ” lonely, and imperfect” to stop?

        “The indisputable fact of the matter is that a non-vegan activist can easily save more lives on balance than someone whose advocacy stops at merely not causing harm.”

        how is this in any way an indisputable fact? it is impossible to quanitify either case so this is merely a personal opinion based on the “do what i say and not what i do” idoum.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great thoughts, Jay.

    My worry is not with allowing or encouraging omnivores to protest the suffering and killing of animals. I think it’s just okay, it’s a weird but perfectly acceptable (and morally intriguing) position to preach something you don’t practice. It may, in some circumstances, be more powerful than practicing without preaching. In the specific case of veganism and AR, we would need more evidence to back up the claim that this is an efficient tactic, among others, but I don’t think there are good principled reasons against that.

    So far so good. My worry has more to do with what you seem to establish as a meaningful contrast, viz. between vocal and/or collectively organized advocates and activists on the one hand, and those who restrict their ethical behavior to personal veganism. I think it’s a false dichotomy. I don’t believe this is what you meant to say, but when you write: “I would take an animal-eating activist any day over a strict vegan whose “advocacy” consists of buying “cruelty-free” toothpaste at Whole Foods,” you’re reinforcing a false dichotomy and thereby undermining the efforts of those for whom it may already a big deal to change their individual behaviors. There’s a myriad of ways in which so-called vegan consumerism can actually have a diffuse impact on others (“why don’t you want to buy Colgate toothpaste?” “well, are you aware that blah blah blah…”); there’s also a myriad of intermediate cases between the purely consumerist vegan and supposedly more radical or genuine advocates. I have actually *never* met a purely consumerist vegan. It’s obviously anecdotal evidence, but I’m waiting to see a visible fraction vegans who don’t give a shit about animals and will never explain why they are vegans publicly. There are such cases, but they’re self-interested people caring about health or fitness. Whoever cares about cruelty-free products will inevitably if reluctantly become a form of advocate given how perversely weighted the burden of proof is: vegans consistently, and unfairly, bear to burden to justify their choice while those who routinely cause immense suffering do not. It’s of course unfair, but it has the welcome implication that merely shifting your consumption patterns propagates to others, friends, foes, family and strangers, not just consumer goods companies.

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    1. All good points. I agree that this is a false dichotomy and I could have been more precise. My hope though was partly to shake people out of what I see as an overemphasis on the consumption part of veganism and move them towards the advocacy part. I’d like to write a follow up piece that addresses your concern. Something like “The best part of being vegan is telling people about it.”

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  5. I have am a staunch activist against Animal and Environmental abuse. I have lived closely with nonhumans all my life. I was bought up in a meat eating family. I still eat a little of it now and again, my partnership with a omniviorian can make change more difficult, but he is eating more vegan meals then he realises. I am slowly adjusting my life towards veganism. So I am not like some who stop eating dead animal parts straight away. Does that mean some would say that I have no right to fight against animal torture abuse and their habitats destruction. I applaud and respect those who have become full time vegans. I am changing at a pace that I can handle, which is better then none at all. I am a human, therefore also imperfect. I will continue my fight, grow and learn as I go. At the end of the day, “What other People think of me is none of my business” Rere Huia

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    1. “I applaud and respect those who have become full time vegans”

      there is no more reason to applaud and respect people who are vegan than there is to applaud and respect humans who refuse to exploit, torture and murder other humans. it is a fallacy that veganism is some kind of extraordinaire effort-it is in truth the least we can do if we are against violence, injustice, oppression and murder.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s so interesting. Thanks for sharing. You seem to really understand what I’m getting at with the distinction between behavior and objective. Unfortunately, I think that point was lost on a lot of readers.

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  6. I am witnessing so much doublespeak here! People professing beliefs… yet not willing to walk the talk. People too focused on the “imperfection” of humanity and making endless excuses for their “baby steps in the right direction”… rather than being wholly focused on how easy it is to do something once a full conviction arises. Our culture sets the stage for those endless “just try your best” excuses, and we are all entrenched in it; most of us beyond what we are willing to address, confront, and ultimately overcome. Truth is, we lack the courage of real conviction, which is what will bring about the BIG changes that we claim we desire. Changes in the line of justice for all.

    There is much truth in this simple statement —

    “With full conviction, there is no sacrifice.”

    … And in this one as well:

    “To thine own self be true.”

    … Meaning that IF you are not fully convinced yourself, you should not be “educating” others on the rights and wrongs of life. Work on yourself first — i.e. strengthen your own convictions FIRST, and live those out in your daily life — and all the rest will follow. Examples of courage and conviction are powerful tools of change. Perhaps THE MOST powerful. We need MORE of those kinds of examples, as they are INDEED an in-your-face everyday direct action that cannot be compared to any other. The good news is that there is no better time to start strengthening your own convictions than this very moment.

    May we all strive to say what we mean and mean what we say.

    Thank you.

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