Vegan Conversion Trajectories

Vegan Conversion Trajectories

EDIT: the day after we wrote this I was directed to look at something on Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV)’s social media, after a long time of not engaging with it at all. It was a post about “why intersectionality has no place in the animal rights movement”, and is filled with offensive harmful single-issue nonsense. So any reticence about criticising AV in this post can be erased in the reader’s mind and replaced with a single-finger salute.

V

You and I are both fairly critical of the ways that some animal activism has become: monolithic, superior, patriarchal in the way it presents itself. Something I realised as we were talking about the people in our lives’ various journeys to(wards) veganism was that this something mainstream animal activism doesn’t seem (to me at least) to take into account. There is a huge richness and variety to the ways people discover non-human justice. And, like so many things in society, it has fallen prey to the idea that there is one linear trajectory that people will take (hello relationship trajectories! Hello monogamy!). I think this really influences the way that activism has this huge focus on showing people violent images of slaughter and factory farming – it assumes that this is where the journey starts.

It assumes that the trajectory goes like this:

  1. Person is ignorant of animal abuse
  2. Person is presented with the horrific reality of farmed animals’ lives and deaths
  3. [Person is perhaps in denial]
  4. Person makes steps towards vegetarianism, they ask “what will I eat now!”
  5. Person reaches out to the vegan community and finds the plethora of delicious nutritious vegan options.
  6. Person is converted!!!!

 

This trajectory is rooted in a series of assumptions: firstly, that the problem is that people simply don’t know what goes on in animal ag. To be honest, a lot of people DO know. Farmers certainly know. It also assumes that the journey will look like a series of problems presented to us, the enlightened vegans, which we will solve for them. Like most trajectories, it is full of potholes.

 

AV

 

 

J

Yeah, I definitely agree with what you said about there being an assumed trajectory by a certain kind of vegan activist (Anonymous For The Voiceless, we’re looking at you…). In our conversation earlier you talked about it as a “bully circle”, which while also being a very funny way of describing some very earnest and sombre white vegans stood around wearing entirely black and handing out soy milk samples, it’s also an image I found really gets to the core of it. It describes the assumptions that those kind of vegans make and if only people could be shamed just enough by us they’d go vegan on the spot. But like you said, “going vegan” is so much more complicated, contextual, and varied.

Reminded me of a Susan Sontag book I just read about how violence and warfare are depicted, particularly in photographic and film journalism (the book is called Regarding the Pain of Others). She basically starts the book by referring to a piece by Virginia Woolf, who is trying to make the argument that anyone seeing images of suffering in war would feel compelled to then be anti-war. Sontag then spends another 100 pages talking about why that apparently simple idea – show someone horror and they’ll have a moral response against it – is waaaaaay more complicated and fraught.

Yeah like, someone might see an image of someone fighting and be like “they’re a freedom fighter” e.g. an antifascist in the Spanish Civil War. The same person (cough me cough) would look at images of a Nazi soldier fighting and be driving to anger and repulsion. In the same way, back when I used to eat animal products, I used to see images of the way non-human animals were (ab)used and justify it as necessary, or less cruel, or ecologically sound, etc, etc. The imagery wasn’t it for me. I knew what was going on, and I justified my involvement and complicity.

V

It’s almost like humans are motivated by emotion as well as by reason.

I think the thing is, this trajectory I described earlier is not how most people I know found their way to veganism. In fact, this conversation started by us discussing a friend of mine who, despite still eating meat, has started to root out speciesism in their language by accepting the importance of referring to animals with “they/them” rather than “it”, so as to acknowledge their subject, rather than object, status. (Eg. “the pig eats their delicious lunchtime snack” not “the pig eats its delicious lunchtime snack”). For this person I imagine their journey to(wards) veganism will be influenced far more by a deepening interest in and understanding of ethics than in watching YouTube videos of chicken slaughter. I’m sure there are plenty of people whose journey is as simple as watching Cowspiracy and giving all their cheese away the very next day and never looking back, but this just hasn’t been the case for the majority of people I know. It’s been much more beautiful, subtle and personal than that.

In fact, I am realising now that perhaps this is one of the reasons I take such an interest in how people went vegan (apart from having been cruelly denied a vegan transition story of my own by my ruthlessly compassionate parents who raised me vegan of course).

J

[laughs at this]

V

I love to hear the fascinating and often unusual paths people found to going vegan. Often there are stepping stones along the way that they’ll look back on and realise was a foundational moment which began to open their eyes, but from which they returned for a time to the bloody arms of carnism. I think you had a moment in a butchers like this?

J

I definitely parkoured around various degrees of complicity in animal abuse before making a commitment to veganism. I initially stopped eating beef because of the environmental impact. Then I went very casually veggie for similar reasons (but still ate meat when it was convenient or felt like I didn’t have a choice [spoiler: I did, I was just a lazy lil privileged Oxford undergrad]). I think the disengagement from eating meat gave me space to connect and understand the fucked-up things I had learned and been drilled into me about our relationship to animals. And from there start to feel like I needed to doing things differently, at least in my own life. Anyway this led to the situation you’re referring to.

I went on a holiday to south Spain with some university friends. A big part of traditional Iberian cuisine is jamón (literally “ham”), which is sold pretty much everywhere as a cured pig’s leg. I’d seen plenty of butchered animals in my life. Fuck, I’d even done some of that myself in occasional and limited capacities. But I was in a supermarket, and ended up in the section where the jamón was sold. I found myself genuinely transfixed with horror at this disembodied leg in front of me. I remember really understanding then that this used to be attached to someone, and that an act of extreme violence had brought it here. I left the shop crying. I don’t think I ate any meat after that.

Anyway, a few months later, after having that experience of connecting my emotions to what I understood about animals used for food, it was a small push into veganism.

V

I think your story of going vegan speaks to how powerful the normalisation and justifications of carnism actually are. It was not a case of not looking, it was a case of not seeing. You knew about it, you thought about ethics. Hell, you were studying biology at Oxford. Please tell the story about not knowing how milk was made. Allow me this gentle ribbing??

J

Hahaha, ribbing permitted. Yeah I was literally studying biology at one of the oldest and most renowned institutions of higher education in the world and didn’t know that cows had to be pregnant in order to produce milk. Ridiculous right.

V

We joke but it does show the terrifying power of speciesism and its hold on misinformation.

J

Definitely, it’s so scary. It’s got me thinking as well about how speciesism is bound up with the other forms of hate and oppression, and how in somewhere like Oxford, which is institutionally racist and built and maintained by money derived from colonised and enslaved African peoples (look up the Rhodes Must Fall campaign), these situations of apparently educational elitism exist alongside and are complicit in the abuse of those identified as less-than-human. But that might be a topic for a different time.
V

Back to going-vegan stories: I often think of the story of a friend of a friend who became vegan after a seagull fell from their roof and landed dead outside her window. She was overcome with emotion for a pointless death, realised she ate chickens and that was not only pointless death but ceaseless exploitation, violation and murder, and went vegan. To my knowledge she didn’t also interact with a load of people wearing black hoodies with vegan slogans on and holding laptops earlier that day, but I could be wrong. Obviously I’m not saying there’s no place for activism and we should just wait for seagulls to drop in front of peoples’ windows. Activism is vital. I’m just saying there’s a richness to the experience of discovering animal justice which is personal and often happens in peoples’ subconscious over time. Internal changes are not a mathematical formula that can be applied to everyone.

J

I love how you described the process as “beautiful”. I think it’s a very non-patriarchal/decolonial way of thinking about an individual’s process of veganism. It makes me think of it being a pathway to understanding, a deepening feeling of values you already held, rather than being aggressively guilted and shamed by some dude holding a laptop in Norwich market square making you feel like a PoS.

[We really have it in for these vegans wearing black hoodies and holding laptops? Maybe we’re the bullies now?] {at this point during writing we took a few minutes to watch the Michell & Webb sketch “Are We The Baddies?”. We considered putting that meme at the top of this post, but figured the optics of comparing well-meaning vegans to SS Officers wouldn’t be ideal}

I think a big part of my own thinking with regard to how I advocate for and enact veganism is an acceptance that I don’t think I can ever really be vegan in this system. And probably no-one can. Christopher Sebastian made a really interesting point about speciesism somewhere – we’re all speciesist, we all enact those behaviours, but that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to right those wrongs too. I think moving away from that notion of a trajectory from “non-vegan scumbag” to “enlightened messianic tofu chomper” allows one to accept the messiness and unfairness of the capitalist, globalised, racist, sexist, speciesist food system we’re all trapped in. That there’s a lot more to our decisions than just recognising animals are entitled to their own lives.

V

 

And tbh even that fundamental last point is missed by loads of welfarist vegans. But whatever, there’s plenty of other times for slating welfare apologism.

I’m also reminded of an interesting conversation we had the other day about the idea of “baddies” in films. We had watched a really shit film and this baddie character who is just…evil. And seems to have no motivations for being evil. It’s such a weird thing that we all accept, the idea that someone would just wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to be a right nasty bastard today”. In reality, there’s so many complicated factors that lead to someone causing harm, and most of them are because of systemic oppression in some shape or form. People wanting to control, coerce or hurt others are often because they themself have been hurt, coerced or controlled – ie. trauma.

We were saying about the ways that our constant exposure to this type of character can help prop up the State’s agenda in painting people as irredeemable criminals, rather than allowing us to empathise with them (because they recognise that then we’d be at prison gates demanding justice for traumatised incarcerated victims of white supremecist capitalism I guess).

J

Yeah that was a cool chat! I related it to the trope of the Big Bad in stories. That baddies are just bad and they are bad because they are bad and that’s that. Sauron (literally the Dark Lord) in The Lord of the Rings is a classic example of that. Voldemort is another good one (again, the Dark Lord). The little bit of humanising he gets is that he was an orphan, and even then it’s implied that he killed his parents (or something, my Harry Potter lore is weak folks, dont @ me Potterheads I don’t care).

 

VoldemortSauronGrid

V

 

Hahaha we’ve riled enough vegans without taking swipes at the Potterheads as well.

But yeah I agree. It also really erases the lasting and complicated effects that trauma can have from our vocabulary/from our minds/from our society. It’s almost as though that same society wants to make invisible the people who most often experience trauma (PoC, poor people, trans people, disabled people)…that couldn’t possibly be true could it @ConservativeGovt ????

 

J

 

I won’t get too much on my fantasy lit bullshit right now, but I remember we talked about alternative depictions of “villainy” in fantasy stories, and that they offer a more empathetic and nuanced response to those who do harm, and acknowledge that the line between Good and Evil is most often blurred. For example, in one of my favourite inversions of the Big Bad trope (if you haven’t read Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson then skip to the next section), the arch-villain is literally called The Lord Ruler who is an immortal super-being who controls an apartheid society. Don’t get me wrong, this guy is pretty fucking shit. But he’s also deeply hurt, and angry, and trapped. You eventually find out he gained his godlike powers by overthrowing his oppressor, and sought to make the world a better place but couldn’t handle the powers properly. He’d actually been waiting 1000 years so he could try again, and had been living in deep misery at the lives and planet he’d ruined at his first attempt. It doesn’t make the harm he caused any less, but it shucks off the rhetoric that bad people are bad and do bad things because they are bad.

 

V

It’s good that you read fantasy cause you can do clever summaries like that so I don’t have to read any of it.

I think we all carry this notion with us more strongly than we acknowledge – the idea that some people are just bad. But more than that, that they have no justification for doing bad things. To bring us back to what we were saying, I think that a lot of animal activism is based on this idea that non-vegans won’t possibly be able to justify what they’re contributing to once we show them The Truth. Ie showing people gruesome footage or verbally telling them what it’s really like for animals in farms. Some people don’t know, and obviously they have both a right and a responsibility to know what a trashfire of pointless cruelty and exploitation they’re contributing to.

But back to what I’ll call the Vegan Conversion Trajectory that is rooted in an assumption that people cannot justify their actions – it’s such a reductive way of looking at peoples’ behaviour. People always have ways of justifying what they do – whether or not we agree with their justifications or whether they’re shit justifications – because the fact remains that they literally have to live with themselves.

It links to what you were saying about the Susan Sontag thing that everyone is going to react differently to an image/to a piece of information – where I see a slaughterhouse as systemised daily mass-murder someone else will see it as the unfortunate but mundane functionings of a workplace. It’s not that those people have no justification. I happen to think their justification is a pile of speciesist-capitalist bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have one. Like I said, people don’t do the things that they do because they think it’s fun to be evil. Even if they say they do, it’s probably a protective cover for the fact that they do, in fact, care.

Book Review: Beasts of Burden – Sunaura Taylor

Book Review: Beasts of Burden – Sunaura Taylor

Sunaura Taylor writes about injustice with an acute and precise emotionality and intelligence that is all at once piercingly distressing and warming. Taylor is an artist, writer, and disability and animal rights activist. In this book she explores the ways that concepts of disability and animality overlap with one another.

She picks apart the truism that disabled people are treated like animals, and explores what this says about our perception of not only disabled people but also animals. After discussing a long history of being compared to a monkey for the ways that she eats and uses her mouth to do everyday tasks instead of her hands, she writes that “animals make powerful insults precisely because we have imagined them as devoid of subjective and emotional lives that would obligate us to have responsibilities towards them”.

Taylor finds power in identifying as an animal in the face of a society that tells her that this is the last thing to aspire to, particularly as a disabled person. She reclaims a connection with other animals in a way that is transformative to disabled people and animals alike – but also to all of us. She writes that “we are animals. A fact so boringly commonplace that we forget it – perpetually”.

Acknowledging that disability is more a part of all of our lives than the binary and othering mainstream narrative would have us believe, as well as learning to honour the animal parts of ourselves, will liberate the playful, the creative, the erotic, the parts of ourselves that are shamed and limited in society.

Beasts of Burden is a two-fold exploration into disability and animality that, as you turn the pages, disentangles itself into gorgeous and endless threads which lead us all to liberation.

Book Review: Chav Solidarity – D Hunter

Book Review: Chav Solidarity – D Hunter

Chav Solidarity is a thorough analysis of class that is grounded in empathetic, methodical critical thinking and is thick to bursting with rage. It’s certainly the slap round the chops that a middle-class person like me needed to more fully comprehend what it really means to be anti-capitalist. The honest memoirs in Chav Solidarity of growing up in precarity and violence certainly cement a loathing of this system and the multitude of wrongs it does to people every single day.

But the lasting impact was what I felt was Hunter’s sustained points about the power dynamics of who ends up leading a group of organisers. As he writes, middle class people should never be deciding the course of anti-capitalist action because “they simply have less skin in the game, and their survival is not at stake. Undoubtedly they will carry the psychological scars from existing in a capitalist society, but they will also receive wide and varied compensation for this”.

Chav Solidarity articulately asserts that knowing the leftie jargon doesn’t make you any more of a revolutionary; that the revolution is already in motion (though so far largely unrecognised and unsupported by anti-capitalist groups) in poor and working class community; and that any wise anarchist/anti-capitalist organising group will seek to hold these experiences, skills and wisdom at the centre of their approach.

If you have power of any sort in this messy society, even your good intentions to cause positive change in the world are perpetually at risk of succumbing to ugly classist and exclusionary norms. That’s why this book is a must.

There’s no Cowspiracy, it’s just capitalism

There’s no Cowspiracy, it’s just capitalism

chickens

It’s not a comfortable thing to take responsibilty for wrong-doing. It never is, and nor should it be. Discomfort is a necessary step in recognising our privileges. At slight risk of paraphrasing Yoda: discomfort leads to frustration, frustration leads to anger, and anger leads to…activism (no Dark Side here folks).

Take the transition to veganism for example. While my transition to a vegan lifestyle has involved many positive and beautiful moments, it has also come with deep discomfort and negativity. I have had to face up to the deep wrongs I committed and was complicit in during my animal-eating past. Many vegans I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences.

I’ve been thinking recently, however, that there is a very public and popular strand of vegan activism that has the effect of reducing those feelings of discomfort. I’m talking about the environmental argument.

cowspiracy

The environmental argument is the third in the trinity oft-quoted by vegan advocates: “For the planet, people, and the animals”. It’s been heavily popularised by documentaries such as Cowspiracy and, alongside the health argument, receives perhaps the most mainstream media attention. There are indeed many solid and urgent reasons that veganism should form part of a consistent environmentalism. However, the popular strand of vegan environmentalism is deplorably narrow in focus, and often subtly shifts the responsibility for the damage caused by animal agriculture onto the vicitims of that system.

Take Cowspiracy. It’s central message is that cows raised for “beef” and “dairy” are the largest greenhouse gas emitter, and consquently they are a principal driver of climate breakdown. The promotional material puts images of cows front-and-centre; a quick scroll through their Instagram shows many infographics where cows are shown alongside their emissions statistics; hell, the film is called COWspiracy. Another example is the movie Okja, which got people really talking plant-based diets and environmentalsim. The poster (below) shows the eponymous mega-pig with, curiously, a stack of smoking chimneys on her back. You can find similar imagery used to convey the idea that farmed animals are polluters, big-style.

okja

The problem with framing the issue in this way is that farmed non-humans appear to be responsible. Fundamentally, they simply are not. Like the free-living non-human communities and marginalised human communities that climate breakdown threatens and will threaten, they are victims, not culprits. The responsibility lies with humans, in particular the animal agriculture industrial complex that is propped up by state power and violence. Capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and those that benefit from those systems of oppression, are the ones reponsible.

The consequences of this framing are twofold. First, it lets consumers and, more importantly, corporations, off the hook. It gives us a convenient, simplified, singularised idea to focus our attention on. It distracts from the much more complex role of non-human exploitation in environmental destruction, and its interplay with other forms of oppression. It lets us feel just a bit more comfortable, when we really shouldn’t be.

Second, this framing reeks of single issue-ism. The blame-shifting onto farmed non-humans exposes the ethical vaccuum at the heart of single-issue environental veganism. It boils down to: if only these damn animals weren’t chucking out so much CO2 we could keep eating them! Because “the enemy” is not identified as the power hierarchies that justify oppression and murder on the grounds of arbitrary difference, but rather as “emissions from animals are bad”, there is no demand on the individual to question those power hierarchies. We can stop eating animals to “save the planet”, but are not challenged to go any further. Nonhumans and humans alike are still threatened because, if at some future point we can negate the environmental damage, we can go back to eating animals. Without a consistent approach to anti-oppression that necessarily includes veganism, the safety and autonomy of marginalised bodies will always be at risk.

I acknowledge however that such images are powerful, and the concepts behind them can be difficult to convey. Such simple graphical illustrations are enormously helpful, and hopefully lead people to identify the true culprits, as well as their own responsibility. But we must be cautious of the message these images present, and the risk they pose to our conversations and activism around the role of nonhuman agricultural exploitation in environmental destruction.

By Jack Common