De­col­o­niz­ing ve­g­an­ism

How ve­g­an­ism is con­stantly used to re­pro­duce clas­sism

The McGill Daily - - Contents -

Be­ing ve­gan in Mon­treal is easy. Lola Rosa is right around the cor­ner. Marché Eden has you cov­ered for most gro­ceries. The restau­rant op­tions are end­less and are never more than a slight de­tour from your usual route. Your friends prob­a­bly don’t even make that much fun of you. Be­sides the oc­ca­sional hic­cup, ve­g­an­ism is pop­u­lar and preva­lent.

Yet over time, I’ve no­ticed that ve­g­an­ism is ac­tu­ally a less fea­si­ble choice for many. The ways in which ve­g­an­ism iso­lates it­self from marginal­ized in­di­vid­u­als need to be ad­dressed and rec­ti­fied. When I say be­ing ve­gan in Mon­treal is easy, I need to clar­ify: it’s easy, un­less you’re lower-mid­dle class, dis­abled, liv­ing in a marginal­ized com­mu­nity, or ex­pe­ri­enc­ing or re­cov­er­ing from an eat­ing dis­or­der.

I first de­cided to be ve­gan ear­lier this year for eth­i­cal rea­sons. I thought that fight­ing against sys­temic op­pres­sion must at some point in­clude the fight against speciesism. I looked up ve­gan recipes, bought ve­gan gro­ceries, ate ve­gan food, and even­tu­ally re­al­ized it wasn’t that hard. By spend­ing time in “plant-based” restau­rants and “health- ori­ented” gro­cery sto­ries, I learned a lot about white ve­gan cul­ture. I learned about the huge va­ri­ety of rea­sons peo­ple choose to be ve­gan, and how pas­sion­ate many ve­g­ans are about spread­ing their be­liefs.

How­ever, I also learned that ve­g­an­ism is con­stantly used to re­pro­duce op­pres­sion. By con­stantly em­ploy­ing guilt tactics and pro­pa­gan­dis­tic ar­gu­ments to try and con­vince the pub­lic of the im­por­tance of ve­g­an­ism, many ve­g­ans ho­mog­e­nize hu­man­ity by ig­nor­ing the in­ter­sec­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent forms of op­pres­sion.

Ve­g­an­ism and set­tler colo­nial­ism

Indigenous pop­u­la­tions of­ten have the most no­table clashes with an­i­mal rights ac­tivists. Ear­lier this month, Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties gath­ered for an an­nual ob­ser­vance of the tra­di­tional Hau­denosaunee deer hunt in Short Hills Pro­vin­cial Park, and, as they have in the past, an­i­mal rights ac­tivists showed up in protest. Ve­g­ans are of­ten in­sen­si­tive to Indigenous tra­di­tions and his­tory in their ac­tivism, and thus un­know­ingly re­pro­duce set­tler colo­nial­ism by re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge their own par­tic­i­pa­tion in the op­pres­sion of Indigenous peo­ple. Many Indigenous na­tions are ir­re­duc­ible to sup­pos­edly nor­mal “hu­man so­ci­ety”, they view and treat an­i­mals dif­fer­ently. An­i­mal rights ac­tivists ig­nore the fact that do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals raised solely for their meat were rare in pre­col­o­niza­tion Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties, and that the hu­man/an­i­mal bi­nary didn’t ex­ist as a con­cept for Indigenous peo­ple. But col­o­niza­tion twisted these facts, re­sult­ing in the per­pet­u­a­tion of mis­con­cep­tions re­gard­ing Indigenous peo­ples’ treat­ment of an­i­mals. With­out rec­og­niz­ing the role set­tler colo­nial­ism plays in the lives of both Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties as well as an­i­mals, ve­g­an­ism of­ten fails to ad­dress the role col­o­niza­tion plays in an­i­mal mis­treat­ment. A fight for de­col­o­niza­tion is vi­tal in the strug­gle to dis­man­tle systems of op­pres­sion, and ve­g­ans must rec­on­cile with that in­stead of choos­ing to target Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties for their sup­posed “cru­elty.”

Cul­tural in­sen­si­tiv­ity

Ve­g­an­ism has also iso­lated it­self as a white branch of the an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion move­ment, by re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge and cater to peo­ple of colour. The per­cep­tion of the ‘clas­sic ve­gan’ be­ing white isn’t ground­less. Ve­gan restau­rants are more likely to ex­ist in up­per-class white com­mu­ni­ties, which al­ready lim­its ex­po­sure and ac­cess for com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple of colour. This lim­ited ac­cess is a di­rect con­se­quence of much of the op­pres­sion peo­ple of colour face, yet an­i­mal rights ac­tivists of­ten shame peo­ple of colour for not be­ing ve­gan.

Ig­nor­ing the lived re­al­i­ties of peo­ple of colour of­ten leads to ve­g­an­ism be­ing cul­tur­ally in­sen­si­tive. Many cul­tures use meat as a cen­tral in­gre­di­ent in their dishes. White ve­g­ans are of­ten un­con­cerned with this fact and try to re­duce eth­nic re­liance on meat, lead­ing to the ap­pro­pri­a­tion and di­lu­tion of eth­nic recipes. In a su­per­fi­cial ef­fort to “in­crease aware­ness” of ve­g­an­ism, white ve­g­ans will cook ve­gan eth­nic food to show how it can be done. In my short ex­pe­ri­ence with eth­nic ve­gan food, white- owned ve­gan South Asian restau­rants have done more harm than good, as their in­sen­si­tiv­ity to­wards cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal ties to food is alien­at­ing at best. “Ve­ga­niz­ing” eth­nic food must nec­es­sar­ily be the ini­tia­tive of f peo­ple of the eth­nic­ity in ques­tion. It is also rel­e­vant to keep in mind that many an­cient re­li­gious cul­tures have his­tor­i­cally had large veg­e­tar­ian pop­u­la­tions, such as Jain­ism, Hin­duism, and Bud­dhism, to name a few.

Ableist ar­gu­ments

It isn’t just race and cul­ture that ve­g­ans tend to be in­sen­si­tive to. In many ways, ve­gan an­i­mal rights ac­tivists en­gage in ableist ar­gu­ments and prac­tices. The amount of times I’ve heard an­i­mal rights ac­tivists de­scribe them­selves “a voice for the voice­less” is un­count­able, and is a prime ex­am­ple of the con­fla­tion of an­i­mal­ity and dis­abil­ity. As Arund­hati Roy writes: “There’s re­ally no such thing as the ‘voice­less.’ There are only the de­lib­er­ately si­lenced, or the prefer­ably un­heard.” An­i­mals con­stantly ex­press them­selves; they might cry out with pain or gasp for oxy­gen. As­sum­ing that the ‘voice­less’ can­not speak “be­trays an ableist as­sump­tion of what counts as having a voice.” One of the ar­gu­ments that convinced me to be ve­gan is di­rectly in­ter­twined with dis­abil­ity: the moral as­sump­tion that hu­mans are val­ued over an­i­mals for their in­tel­lec­tual ca­pa­bil­i­ties and high­erorder think­ing is ableist. There is no in­tel­lec­tual ca­pa­bil­ity that all hu­mans have but all an­i­mals do not. Not all hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of higher-or­der think­ing or of speak­ing a lan­guage. Does this as­sign them a lower moral value? Upon re­flec­tion, this

ar­gu­ment lacks nu­ance and per­pet­u­ates ableism. While an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion tries to de­stroy the hu­man/an­i­mal bi­nary, it too of­ten re­lies on the in­stru­men­tal­iza­tion of dis­abled peo­ple. When you com­pare the sit­u­a­tion of an­i­mals to dis­abled peo­ple, you put dis­abled peo­ple’s moral value up for con­sid­er­a­tion. They have noth­ing to gain from this ar­gu­ment. By pit­ting the in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled against an­i­mals, ve­g­ans and an­i­mal rights ac­tivists im­ply that if an­i­mals go down, so should in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled peo­ple.

Ve­g­an­ism and food polic­ing

Many ar­gu­ments in favour of ve­g­an­ism ad­vo­cate for its health ben­e­fits. Face­book videos of peo­ple roam­ing the streets to ag­gres­sively con­vince peo­ple to go ve­gan have gone vi­ral re­cently, and are of­ten quite trou­bling. Polic­ing food can be trig­ger­ing for many peo­ple, in­clud­ing those re­cov­er­ing from eat­ing dis­or­ders. Watch­ing peo­ple con­vince oth­ers of the “health ben­e­fits” of ve­g­an­ism and having some­one tell you what you can and can­not eat is not some­thing ev­ery­one is or should be ready for. Again, ve­g­ans and an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion ac­tivists must ac­knowl­edge this and be aware that some peo­ple need to take care of them­selves first. Food sham­ing and polic­ing is un­nec­es­sary and un­help­ful.

The price of ve­g­an­ism

Ve­gan restau­rants are of­ten ad­ver­tised as “healthy,” “raw,” and “or­ganic.” The en­vi­ron­ment they cre­ate is one of “clean eat­ing” and self-care. How­ever, it’s easy to be turned off al­most im­me­di­ately by prices. Ve­gan restau­rants of­ten dou­ble the price of a meal by us­ing lo­cally-grown pro­duce and or­ganic in­gre­di­ents. A sim­ple take-out meal can be fi­nan­cially tax­ing, es­pe­cially for stu­dents on a bud­get. This is par­tic­u­larly true for peo­ple of lower so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus, as it of­ten not fea­si­ble for some to spend ex­tra on plant-based prod­ucts when an­i­mal prod­ucts and byprod­ucts are of­ten cheaper and more widely ac­ces­si­ble. Yet many priv­i­leged ve­g­ans con­tinue to as­sume that fight­ing against speciesism “tran­scends” this bar­rier, ig­nor­ing the re­al­ity of clas­sism and eco­nomic op­pres­sion. It is not un­com­mon for ve­g­ans to de­cline to ac­knowl­edge that class dif­fer­ences are an ob­sta­cle in becoming ve­gan, which ends up re­pro­duc­ing clas­sism in many ways.

Not ev­ery­one has a po­si­tion priv­i­leged enough to be ve­gan. Gov­ern­ment pro­grams of­ten strate­gi­cally place In­ten­sive Live­stock Op­er­a­tions — other­wise known as fac­tory farms — near Black or Indigenous com­mu­ni­ties, mak­ing an­i­mal prod­ucts read­ily avail­able in these ar­eas, and of­ten forc­ing peo­ple of colour to work jobs in these fa­cil­i­ties. Even crop farms tend to have a large num­ber of marginal­ized and mi­grant work­ers, and are of­ten sub­jected to low-wages and abuse. It is es­sen­tial to rec­og­nize that not all plant-based prod­ucts are “cru­elty-free” when you con­sider the treat­ment of food/farm work­ers. “Food deserts,” ar­eas with de­creased ac­cess to fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles, are also char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally in ar­eas with low-in­come and mi­nor­ity res­i­dents, mak­ing ve­g­an­ism much less vi­able for marginal­ized in­di­vid­u­als. To be an ef­fec­tive move­ment, an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion ac­tivists need to rec­og­nize how cap­i­tal­ism and white supremacy op­er­ate to op­press peo­ple of colour. Marginal­ized in­di­vid­u­als are of­ten not able to even con­sider be­ing ve­gan, due to the struc­tural op­pres­sion they face ev­ery day. Ig­nor­ing these systems of op­pres­sion will not fur­ther the an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion cause, only hin­der it. Con­sult­ing move­ments such as anti-racism and anti-ableism can pro­vide a deeper un­der­stand­ing of con­cepts such as vi­o­lence and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion, and en­sures that one move­ment doesn’t negate or im­pede an­other.

For peo­ple deal­ing with sys­temic op­pres­sion and dis­crim­i­na­tion, ve­g­an­ism can of­ten be the last thing on peo­ple’s minds. In­stead of the “go ve­gan or go home” ap­proach, an­i­mal lib­er­a­tion ac­tivists must ac­knowl­edge and par­tic­i­pate in the fight against op­pres­sive struc­tures such as cap­i­tal­ism, white supremacy, and set­tler colo­nial­ism.

It is not un­com­mon for ve­g­ans to de­cline to ac­knowl­edge that class dif­fer­ences are an ob­sta­cle in becoming ve­g­ans.

Yasir Piracha Left of the Left

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