“Justice should not be so fragile a commodity that it cannot be extended beyond the species barrier of Homo Sapiens.”
- Carol J. Adams
Whether you’re already a proud member of the vegang or not, I’m sure you’ve heard about Vegan January, or 'Veganuary', a vegan celebration that has kick-started every new year since 2014. This month is dedicated to raising awareness of plant-based principles and the aim is to encourage people to eat more plant-based food and use plant-based products.
Now, before you roll your eyes and exit this article, I’m not here to try and convince you to become a die-hard herbivore. I want to simply highlight crucial aspects of veganism that are often overlooked and misunderstood.
Then you can decide for yourself how you live your life…
What does veganism actually mean?
The Vegan Society, who coined the word “vegan” back in 1944, defines veganism as a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and feasible — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
Simply put, veganism is a social justice movement promoting the simple idea that non-human animals should have the right to live and to be free irrespective of their species, especially when consuming or using them is not a necessity for our survival. Therefore, vegans try to avoid any product, bi-products or activities that would take their life or freedom away. This includes eating certain foods (containing their flesh, their milk, their eggs etc..), using certain clothing (their skins, fur, wool, feathers, silk etc..) and using them for research (e.g. testing products on them) or entertainment (bull fighting, zoos, circus etc..).
For centuries, many communities have abstained from using animal products, due to their belief systems rooted in nonviolence and health. For example, many Rastafarians, Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of Jainism avoid the consumption of animal flesh, fish, eggs, and dairy to stay spiritually connected to the earth and lead a healthy lifestyle.
This avoidance of animal-based products is entrenched in anti-speciesist values. Anti-speciesism refers to beliefs against speciesism.
So, what exactly is speciesism?
Speciesism is the widely held institutionalised belief system that human animals are morally superior to non-human animals, and therefore have every right to own them, exploit them, abuse them, trade them and kill them, simply because they do not belong to the human species.
Peta defines this term as “a misguided belief that one species is more important than another.” This ideology is part of the social hierarchy that is imposed on us from birth. The one that conditions us to believe that certain races or genders are more “favourable” than others. Alongside race, gender, sexuality, etc., the hierarchy also dictates what non-human animals are more valuable than others.
For example, in contemporary Western society, humans (who would be positioned at the top of the hierarchy) are closely followed by household pets that we consider to be companions, such as dogs and cats. Towards the bottom of the hierarchy are animals such as cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep, who are trapped in hellish conditions on factory farms all over the world. Alongside them are animals like rats and mice who are considered as pests and are used for scientific experiments. Or even fish and other sea creatures, whom most of society believe are unable to feel any pain at all. However, I want to stress that ALL life on this planet (apart from plants and fungi) are sentient beings, meaning that they, like us humans, feel joy, love, fear, and pain.
The assumption that humans are superior to all other life forms has been deeply internalised throughout our lives. From a young age, most humans are conditioned to view certain species as worthy of care and compassion and others as unworthy. This is all based on arbitrary human preferences, meaning that most of us are taught that human desires, needs, and interests always surpass those of any other species.
Why is speciesism the missing piece in the fight against inequality?
Anti-speciesism is an aspect of vegan thought that is often forgotten about, and yet is probably the most crucial to fully understanding it. This angle of veganism rejects not only the consumption of non-human animals, but also the way humans have objectified and oppressed them to become part of an industrial supply chain.
In the 1990s, Carol J Adams released a highly influential feminist book called The Sexual Politics of Meat, where she proposed veganism as the only logical solution to a social system that reduced both women and animals to desirable, but disposable, flesh. She further explains that the words we use when talking about animals protect us from the moral consequences of carnivory and lead us into cognitive dissonance (a conflicting psychological state where our actions do not align with our beliefs). For instance, we eat 'beef', not cows... 'pork', not pigs... thus creating an imaginary distinction between the object we consume and the living being that loses its life. This means that turning our back on meat-eating is not as simple as moving from corpses to plants: it requires us to reject some deeply entrenched societal values. For this, self-evaluation and introspection is key.
Carol J Adams states, “Our lives are a meaningful stand against injustice, and we can make meaningful choices every day. Your food choices are far more powerful than you imagine. Veganism offers a daily way to enact your values while helping to protect the environment and enhance your health. It becomes a daily reminder that change is possible(….) Social change is not just something we must work for; it is something that constantly asks us to change.”
Whether it be speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia, all forms of oppression are linked because they are all rooted in the same supremacist mindset: the mentality that some lives matter more than others because of arbitrary criteria like skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion or even animal species. This is the root of all injustice and the cause of the biggest crimes against humanity.
It is for this reason that actor and animal right activist Joaquin Phoenix once said: “Whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity.”
Feminism is about rejecting systemic male supremacy, while racism is about rejecting systemic white supremacy; thus veganism is about rejecting the systemic human supremacy. Being vegan is therefore simply about being morally consistent with the beliefs that we already have.
This is precisely what inspired Black civil right activist Dick Gregory, who advocated for the rights of black people with Dr. Martin Luther King. He said,"Because I'm a civil rights activist, I am also an animal rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and vicious taking of life. We shouldn't be a part of it."
This understanding also pushed Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s wife, to become vegan after her son, Dexter Scott King, convinced her that it was the next logical step to living a non-violent lifestyle - an ideal at the core of Dr King’s philosophy. Other notable mentions include Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Angela Davis, who were vegetarians, but not vegans.
Dr Corey Wrenn, Sociologist and Social Justice Activist and founder of the Vegan Feminist Network suggests that oppression itself is wide-ranging and connected. Dr Wrenn has identified one problem that arises across different social justice movements: the struggle to think outside of the particular movement one is so passionate about and see its links to other movements. She believes it’s because “we think so single-issue, and we can’t think intersectionally.”
Although all forms of oppressions are linked, it is important that each movement remain dedicated to the victims that they aim to defend. Feminist movement should still focus primarily on women rights (not men's rights, although their rights matter too), anti-racism movements, such as BLM, should centre people of colours' rights (not white people's rights, although their rights matter too), and lastly, veganism should prioritise non-human animals rights (not human rights, although human rights matter too).
For me, feminism, anti-racism, and all other anti-oppression movements are about equality, kindness, and justice. A true activist would never trade the pain for awareness for the comfort of denial. So, if we truly advocate for freedom from oppression, and we truly understand the essence of what we are fighting for, shouldn't we all be vegan?
What can you take away from this?
Now, I’m not saying that ALL vegans are perfect, of course not. Perfection does not exist, it’s simply about moral consistency. Racist and misogynist vegans unfortunately exist, however their mindset is deeply flawed and conditioned by these systemic forms of oppression (racism and patriarchy). Consequently, their actions and their values are not morally consistent.
To paraphrase Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, the most important principle is to be as ethical as possible, cause the least amount of suffering possible, and minimise harm as much as possible.
If someone asked you today, “Do you advocate for animal torture?”, you would probably respond with an immediate ‘No.’ and reject any association with animal suffering. But do you pay for animals to be tortured through the food, clothes, and products that you buy? Take a moment to think about this: Do your actions on a day-to-day basis align with your moral values?
Many different types of toxic mindsets are deeply ingrained in our society, and they result in all kinds of negative consequences for other beings and for ourselves. It is our duty to question them and everything we have been taught in order to detoxify and unlearn these beliefs, and I believe tackling the issue of speciesism will open the door to true freedom for everyone, human and non-human.
We must work together to be kind to ALL kinds.
Cover picture credits: SaveArtSpace
Dénia is our Lifestyle & Travel Editor and a recent graduate from the University of Leeds. She is pursuing a career in international relations and diplomacy and is planning on studying a Masters in these subjects in September. Dénia is also interested in foreign languages and cultures and filmmaking. Her Instagram handle is @denia_beidaoui.