Almost everyone would agree that our treatment of animals in factory farms is a moral catastrophe. Almost everyone also thinks that the catastrophe isn’t all that urgent, or that it doesn’t require them to change their behavior.
The question: How are these two views consistent?
Some people reject the premise of the question. They do so in two ways. That is why I said “almost everyone” twice. If you reject the views I stated at the outset, you can achieve consistency. This would mean accepting one of the following claims:
- “The reality of factory farming is not a moral catastrophe.” Defending this would require defending two separate claims:
- The animals that we farm have no, or not enough, moral value.
- The environmental damage that factory farming produces is morally unimportant.
- “The moral catastrophe of factory farming is urgent and does require us to change our behavior.” The people who hold this view are vegans. Some people are vegans for other reasons (most, in fact), but I am interested in the moral issues here.
Since almost everyone rejects (1) and (2), they must look elsewhere to achieve consistency. I will focus on one attempt to do it. A powerful and prevalent critique of veganism is the idea that it, its methods, or its impact are racist. Vegans should take the idea seriously.
From what I can tell, the critique proceeds along three different routes:
- Veganism is a movement solely for privileged white people. Failure to acknowledge how systematic economic marginalization affects the food choices and health of people of color is evidence of racism.
- Vegans make racist arguments. The most common examples are comparisons or analogies between factory farming and slavery or the Holocaust. Another example would be white criticism of Asian cultures that use dogs for food.
- Preoccupation with veganism shows a failure to recognize how destructive racism is. If a person surveys the problems of the world and chooses minimizing nonhuman animal suffering as their mission, they are valuing nonhuman animals above people of color.
My plan is to discuss each of the critiques in more detail. What exactly are they critiquing? If they consist of true claims, what are the implications?
This article doubles as a review of two books: Veganism in an Oppressive World, edited by Julia Feliz Brueck, and Aphro-ism by Aph and Syl Ko, both of which I highly recommend. There are significant disagreements between the two books, but my arguments are inspired primarily by Brueck and Syl Ko.
Before digging in I must issue an important caveat. I will be assuming that vegans have the burden of proof. THEY DO NOT. Veganism is the moral default. We need reasons to eat sentient creatures. We don’t need reasons to leave them alone. It is the nonvegan who needs to justify their actions.
The Logic of the Critiques
Remember, almost everyone holds that 1) their own behavior contributes to a moral catastrophe and 2) they are under no obligation to change their behavior. The critiques I list above typically have the social, political, or rhetorical function of making (1) and (2) consistent. Framed in this way, we make three discoveries:
- The critiques often point out genuine failures within some vegan activism.
- The critiques do not make (1) and (2) consistent.
- The critiques are often hypocritical.
Let’s consider the critiques in turn.
Brueck rightly points out that veganism is too often treated as a single-issue campaign (pg. 5). Vegan advocates might fail to see how racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, and capitalism intersect to influence how different groups of people relate to food and the oppression of nonhuman animals. When this happens, dominant perspectives get treated as default and universal. As a result, the vegan community is assumed to be white.
We should pause to ask whether it is actually true that vegans are disproportionately white. First, there simply aren’t very many vegans at all. Between 0.5% and 2% of Americans are vegan. The numbers are similar in the UK. Vegans also tend not to be wealthy. Most are at or below the median income (mainly because most vegans are fairly young), and the vast majority are women. What about other areas of the world? There is little reliable data on the race demographics of vegans.
So what is going on? When people talk about the whiteness of veganism, they aren’t claiming that vegans are white. The demographics aren’t the issue. They are saying that the narrative or image of veganism is white. Vegans of color—who most certainly exist—get excluded and silenced. The types of marginalization and oppression that they face in broader society are duplicated within vegan activism. The same happens in many social justice movements.
This critique is made most strongly by vegans of color like Brueck and her contributors, the Ko sisters, Dr. Breeze Harper, and veganvoicesofcolor.org. In other words, the critique is made from inside veganism. Therefore, the critique is not a critique of veganism per se. It is rather an attempt to improve veganism by showing how it fails in its own mission (See Ko, ch. 9, Brueck, 16-23). Hence, when nonvegans point out the perceived whiteness of the movement, it is difficult to see what they are claiming. The movement—or rather its white members—can certainly improve with respect to awareness of the relevance of racism, but that is at most an abstract charge of hypocrisy. Though serious, it isn’t a rejection of veganism’s basic tenants, which is what a nonvegan needs.
If you want to reject veganism, you must respond to its strongest arguments. You must find decisive problems with the intersectional veganism put forward by many people of color. Only one cogent pro-veganism argument is required.
Further, the critique risks contributing to the erasure of vegan voices of color—the very failure that seemingly motivated the critique. If your concern is that the image of veganism is white, you can combat that. Read and promote the work of vegans of color.
In sum, we find that the first critique points out a genuine failure within some vegan activism. The critique leads us to improve veganism, not reject it. And the charge that veganism is white, if not accompanied by a reference to the vegans who are challenging the perception, perpetuates the perception.
Racist Vegan Arguments
When we view veganism as a single-issue campaign and thereby ignore intersectionality, we are forced to negotiate priorities. Activism is preceded by a choice: fight speciesism or fight racism. Not both. This leads to comparisons—the so-called “oppression olympics.” To convince others to favor fighting speciesism, vegans make arguments in favor of their choice.
It is here that many nonvegans object. There are plenty of racist or, at best, insensitive arguments for veganism. Examples include:
- Comparisons. “We kill tens of billions of animals each year, far more than died in the Holocaust.”
- Analogies. “Our treatment of animals in factory farms is like slavery/the Holocaust.”
- Different cultures. Arguments that assume the superiority of western cultures. An example would be the preoccupation with Asian societies that eat dogs or critiques of indigenous cultures.
- ‘Post-racial’ arguments. “Why can’t we just be vegans? Why bring race into it?” (See Aph Ko, ch. 3 and here)
Broadly, there are two types of arguments here:
- External. Sometimes racist arguments are used to convince people to become vegans or contribute to vegan causes. They are directed outside veganism. 1, 2, and 3 are examples.
- Internal. Vegans sometimes make racist arguments among themselves, inside veganism. 4 is an example.
I will set aside the bad internal arguments. They don’t allow nonvegans to achieve consistency because they presuppose obligatory veganism.
What exactly makes the bad external arguments bad? By ‘bad’ here we could mean socially ineffective or logically invalid. The arguments are almost always ineffective. Insofar as vegans want to be convincing, they should avoid offending people. But sometimes ineffective arguments are nevertheless perfectly valid. So, are the above external arguments also invalid?
Let’s consider the three external arguments.
We should all be able to recognize the moral catastrophe of factory farming without needing to compare body counts or methods of violence. Linking the experience of animals in factory farms to the experience of enslaved people or victims of the Holocaust reflects a shameful misunderstanding of the history and nuance of human violence. Conversations should focus here, not on simplistic comparisons.
Yet if, for some reason, a nonvegan’s ethics operates through such comparisons, they would be hypocritical for not recognizing the severity of speciesism. This would be the only legitimate use of the comparison argument. But it is a small admission. It would be better to discuss the ethics directly. The comparisons would probably still be ineffective.
The crucial critiques of farming/slavery analogies are metacritiques—that is, about the political context of the analogies. As Brueck points out, comparisons and analogies between people of color and nonhuman animals “have been traditionally used to dehumanize oppressed communities of color” (21). They have an undeniable destructive social impact. For this reason, no one should draw farming/slavery analogies.
With that said, I think analogies deserve closer attention. They are more sophisticated than comparisons because they point out structural similarities between cases. The problem is that people often think that an analogy also involves a comparison. It need not.
Consider a (possibly triggering) example. In response to a question about “humane” treatment of animals, vegan writer Gary Francione says,
Imagine a world in which children are molested and a world where they are molested and also beaten. A world in which they are just molested is better than a world in which they are molested and beaten. That’s a no brainer.
It is also harsh. You might object to Francione’s use of example, and perhaps rightfully so. The argument would be effective on almost no one. But if you think his analogy fails because it compares the experience of children with animals in farms, that would be a mistake. His point is that we cannot move from ‘it could be (or was) worse’ to ‘it is (now) acceptable’. The example is meant to draw out the abstract structural similarity between cases. Saying “but children aren’t animals” misses the point entirely.
This doesn’t mean that all analogies are good. The structural similarity must actually exist, and the dissimilarities, structural or otherwise, must be irrelevant to the specific argument. Here is where we must be careful.
There is a difference between factory farming/slavery analogies and speciesism/racism analogies. The whole concept of ‘speciesism’ exists because human treatment of nonhuman animals is structurally similar to other forms of prejudice. They involve dominant groups subjugating and marginalizing others through violence and ideology. Analogies are useful when theorizing about oppression. At the same time, there are many morally relevant differences. So we should draw two conclusions:
- To nonvegans, recognize that at an abstract level, speciesism and racism share certain structural similarities. Insofar as you think racism is wrong because of its ideology of oppression, it would be inconsistent not to acknowledge that speciesism is wrong. Recognize also that this is not to claim that speciesism and racism are the same or even equally destructive. There is no comparison at play here. See Syl Ko’s argument that speciesism and racism share a common root in white supremacy: “when we make use of the human-animal binary to justify our attitudes towards other species, we are in fact using the very same racial logic that posits the ‘human’ as whiteness” (27, see also ch. 8, 14, 15).
- To vegans, recognize that, despite the structural similarities, there are many morally relevant differences between racism and speciesism. They have practical implications and cannot be glossed over.
My partial defense of analogies is not a suggestion that vegans should use them in external arguments. It would be a better use of time to develop a more nuanced understanding of racism. We might, at that point, use the structural similarities between racism and speciesism to recognize that the two cannot be disconnected. The analogies (not comparisons!) makes sense because the oppressions have a common source. As Syl Ko suggests, “The human-animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy” (45). Once we commit to combating oppression, we discover how “humanizing” individuals buys into a moral hierarchy that sets the white male human at the top and everything else below, with the nonhuman “animal” at the bottom (Aphro-ism, 66). Anti-racism and anti-speciesism (i.e. veganism) must become linked. “The best case in favor of defending animals from violation is going to be generated from within the anti-racist commitment” (49).
3. Different cultures
Here the issue is different and simpler. Preoccupation with other cultures probably fails on two counts:
- If the activist thinks that the animals farmed in other cultures (like dogs) are more valuable than the animals farmed in the west (like cows or pigs), that is speciesism.
- If the activist thinks that non-western cultures should be brought to resemble the west, that is racism.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that factory farming dogs is acceptable. It means that vegans should be extremely hesitant to criticize cultures that aren’t their own. They should also examine themselves for speciesist preferences for certain animals.
Now that I’ve considered the nonvegan critiques of the three racist external arguments, let’s step back and consider their logic. We find the same points that we found in critique #1. In sum, certain arguments for veganism are racist—though I have tried to be precise about how and where. This does not at all make it acceptable to reject veganism. The alternative to racist veganism is not nonveganism. The strongest forms of veganism are anti-racist. The critique doesn’t justify a rejection of veganism but rather, when we examine the roots of racism, the opposite! Therefore, it doesn’t allow the nonvegan to achieve consistency.
My suspicion is that the two preceding critiques, at bottom, end up here, with the notion that some forms of oppression are simply more important than others. When vegans make their arguments, something feels inherently insulting because they appear to place nonhuman interests ahead of human interests. In a deep and visceral way, we know that is wrong. We will listen to human rights activists. But vegans are just annoying. Francione’s analogy can be dismissed out of hand because nonhuman animals are animals. Humans are people. Maybe once we’ve fixed all the human problems we can get to the animals.
The two other critiques do not accomplish what the nonvegan needs. Will this one fare better?
The problem is that, to achieve consistency through this route, the lives of nonhuman animals must be devalued to such an extent that the reality of factory farming ceases to be a moral catastrophe. At that point, we’ve rejected the framing of my guiding question. Almost everyone does take factory farming to be a moral catastrophe. We must keep that point fixed.
The nonhuman animals do have value. Just not as much as humans. Therefore, the oppression of nonhuman animals isn’t as urgent as human oppressions. If that is true, what does it tell us?
In critique #2 we saw that we shouldn’t be comparing oppressions. In response, intersectional arguments for veganism do not rely on comparisons. If this is true, comparisons made by nonvegans, even if humans come out on top, don’t affect the viability of moral arguments for veganism. Plus, it was the nonvegans who urged us to stop making comparisons! We thus find the hypocrisy. The critique comes from a putatively anti-racist position, but it is premised on a rejection of intersectionality.
Further, even if we reject intersectionality and play the comparison game, and even if humans come out on top, it still wouldn’t constitute a challenge to veganism. The nonhuman animals must merely have some value. When they do, human oppression of them would still constitute a moral catastrophe that should end. Insofar as our behavior contributes to the oppression, our behavior should change. That means becoming vegan. We could then be vegans who spend our time fighting racism.
In sum, the third critique might point out a failure in some pro-veganism arguments. But the failure doesn’t particularly matter. The critique is also hypocritical.
It is time for some blunt honesty. If the critiques that I’ve discussed do nothing to challenge the moral viability of veganism, then why do people return to them time and time again as justification for rejecting veganism? How can a nonvegan point out racism in veganism and then confidently continue their lifestyle? Why do people end up with critique #3?
The answer is unfortunate and simple: speciesism.
To be sure, the answer is unsatisfying and irritating. Most people—if they don’t dismiss the whole concept or give circular arguments (invoking speciesism in the attempt to avoid speciesism)—eventually resort to biting the bullet. They accept their speciesism as something that doesn’t demand self-improvement.
Here is some of the work that speciesism does in the debate about whether veganism is racist:
- It explains why the non sequiturs in the critiques get ignored.
- It explains why people are inclined to make the specific critiques I outline.
- It helps explain why nonvegans are comfortable living in inconsistency.
- It explains the feeling that species has no part in intersectionality.
- It explains why nonvegans are so confident that human oppressions would come out on top of comparisons with nonhuman oppressions.
- It explains the reactions to analogies—i.e. why people jump to invoke the animals/people distinction, while people are typically fine with talking about abstract structural similarities between, for instance, sexism and racism (whether they are right to is another issue).
Veganism—as the fight against speciesism—must be a part of a broader intersectional movement against oppression. Racism and speciesism should drive us to grapple with the ideologies that lead to such oppression. When we do so, we see that a movement that lacks either anti-racism or anti-speciesism is incomplete—precisely because it has an incomplete understanding of oppression.
Nonvegans ought to recognize that their anti-racist critiques do not free them to reject veganism. To the contrary, the critiques often point towards veganism. The two views at the beginning are still inconsistent.
What we need now is a fuller picture of the relationship between racism and speciesism. I alluded numerous times to an intersectional, anti-racist veganism. What would that look like? To see, buy and read Veganism in an Oppressive World and Aphro-ism.