Much of the recent criticism around veganism has stemmed from the reduction of veganism to a diet, so it seems useful to reflect that the vegan diet and other vegan practices originate in the vegan philosophy; and that the philosophy itself represents a justice approach through the recognition of intrinsic rights of non-human animals.
Following from this, the concept of ‘speciesism’ has been used to describe how non-human animals are given less value or worth, and given this status, humanity has deemed it reasonable to imprison and cause great suffering to animals merely because they are considered less than human. The resulting exploitative systems are not grounded in necessity, so there isn’t a justification for perpetuating these systems of wholesale suffering toward non-human animals. The question then becomes how we go about increasing awareness to counter the myth of ‘necessity’, and this has been the focus of much debate, especially where broader entanglements of oppression and the exploitative nature of capitalism have appeared to create an issue of complexity. However, the answer is not to reject veganism on the grounds that these issues are too difficult to articulate, the answer instead is to look at the history and philosophy of veganism to better understand its ethos.
When aspects of the vegan diet have been brought into contention, there seem to be two contrasting ideas. One is that food consumption forms a major part of animal suffering, so it is natural to look at this area and the changes we can make ourselves. The other is that we spend too much time looking at food and ignoring philosophy, when instead we could be discussing how the justice movement for non-human animals is tied into *all* other justice movements (total liberation).
So when we are undermining those ‘vegan myths’, food does play a substantial part, especially regarding the propaganda of the deed, so this can be identified as significant when introducing other people to aspects of veganism. However, issues arise around the message in our advocacy, and how it is that we introduce new ideas in a way that plants seeds, encourages, supports, and allows for a transformation from treating animals in a certain way, toward a recognition that animals don’t exist for us to use, and a realisation that they have their own lives to live.
On this theme recent concerns raised by DxE have been loosely constructed around the myth that ‘veganism = cupcakes’, which has the effect of erasure in regard to the vegan ethos. Contemporary descriptions of veganism have tended to be practice oriented rather than philosophy oriented, and one particular example includes the ‘You don’t have to be vegan to consume vegan products’ campaign The Vegan Society ran in 2014. This particular approach has created issues within the movement, because instead of being informed by the philosophy, people have pointed to certain ‘limitations’ of practice based upon the reconstruction of vegan myths and stereotypes, with the aim of legitimising their own particular brand of animal advocacy.
This has led to perpetuating certain negative vegan stereotypes such as ‘extreme’, ‘purist’, ‘all or nothing’, ‘inflexible’, ‘exclusive’, ‘divisive’, in order to suggest that we need to advocate for animals in a way that mainstream society can relate to. However, mainstream society is itself based upon exploitation, so constructing campaigns around this issue merely entrenches those ideas yet further (instead of perhaps focussing on understated values in society such as liberté, égalité, fraternité (1)). So instead of relying on myths to construct theories, advocates might look to the vegan definition and find ways to articulate a more authentic understanding that is based on philosophy and lifestyle, rather than the reduction of veganism to the consumption of cupcakes.
The following statement is the generally accepted definition of veganism, with some emphasis added.
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
(1) Mutual Aid is a better term than the patriarchal implication of fraternité.
Animal Rights, Multiculturalism, and The Left. A talk by Will Kymlicka.
‘‘The Greatest Cause on Earth’: The Historical Formation of Veganism as an Ethical Practice.’ Written by Matthew Cole. Featured in “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre.” Edited by Nik Taylor and Richard Twine (2014).
Veganism Defined by Leslie Cross.