Saturday, November 22, 2008

Privilege: The U.S. Vegan Movement, Whiteness, and Race Relations (part 1&2)

My aim in this series on privilege is to examine the (not so) invisible whiteness of the “vegan” movement. In the subsequential posts, I hope to educate fellow advocates who have not thought much, if at all, about white privilege and how it not only ostracizes vegans of color, but also alienates potential vegans and allies from joining the movement.

“Are Animals the New Slaves?”
In the summer 2005, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PeTA] began a traveling exhibit entitled “Are Animal the New Slaves?” in which photos of American slaves in chains and nooses (among other things) were juxtaposed to photos of nonhuman animal bodies in like contexts. After only a month on the road, the exhibit was suspended after major outrage ensued in New Haven, Connecticut.

Not only did students begin shouting at PETA’s staff that the exhibit was racist, but predominant Afro-American organizations joined in the outrage at the juxtapositions being made. For instance, Dr. Cameron, the founder of America’s Black holocaust Museum and the man being lynched in one of the photos, asserted that "there is no way we should be compared to animals today… You cannot compare the suffering… I experienced to the suffering of an animal." [
1] In response , Ingrid Newkirk, the president and cofounder of PETA, wrote that she can and should make such comparisons despite the outrage of millions of Afro-Americans “because it is right to do so and wrong to reject the concept. Please open your heart and your mind and do not take such offense” [2].

What went Wrong?
After the hurt caused by the exhibit, one must wonder if PETA ever considered the feelings of those who’s ancestors may have been in the photos. Did PETA ever consider surveying some Afro-Americans to have any input? Were there so few staff and friends of color who could have even given them feedback? Who exactly was PETA targeting with its exhibit: people of color, everyone, or mostly middle-class white people? What does this say not only about PETA, but about the larger animal defense movement?

Few have attempted to examine where PETA’s (and others’) good intentions to facilitate empathy went wrong beyond marking others as “speciesists” or “racists”. There is, however, common agreement among those whose voices are too often invisible that this juxtaposition went wrong is its appropriation of others.

Johanna over at the
Vegans of Color blog believes that “part of the resentment comes from a feeling that PETA (/AR in general, since so many people seem to see PETA as synonymous w/AR) ignores POCs until they want something from them.”[3] While PETA does not lock up Afro-Americans into cages (or does it?), it exploits them through appropriating their images and suffering. Such “innocent” comparisons by people who otherwise ignore the oppression of people of color are actually counterproductive in rallying more support for veganism because they unfortunately come to represent the entire vegan movement as white and exploitative.

The outrage incited by PETA’s exhibitionist tactics cannot be said to only be rooted in speciesism. A recent suit against PETA makes this very apparent. The person suing them is none other than Marjorie Spiegel, author of The Dreaded Comparison (
1997)—a book which does nothing less than juxtapose human and animal exploitation. According to Spiegel, readers will “be forced to view it through the distorted prism that PETA has created, rather than on its own merits." [5] PETA's exhibit did nothing less than to "degrade and impair public discourse." Spiegel plans to make her case by juxtaposing the generous reviews her book received and the negative reviews PETA’s exhibit received. Having no history of “pimping” people of color and women and presenting a more credible case for the juxtaposition, Spiegel’s book is more worthy of credibility than instantaneous condemnation. Such sensitive and important issues must be addressed through inviting people into dialog, not inciting people into an argument. This is especially true when people with privilege enter a space belonging to people with less privilege.

Racism, Speciesism, and Cross-racial Misunderstanding
My understanding of the outrage of many of my black peers came first from hearing Breeze Harper (aka
Sistah Vegan) discuss her research into this issue on my favorite podcast, Animal Voices. Upon learning about the outrage, Breeze Harper investigated how fellow Afro-Americans responded online. Nearly all the comments she read on message boards were negative, very few sympathized with PeTA’s intended message. She related their distress to what Dr. Joy Leary calls “post traumatic slave syndrome” [8].

In conversation with a loved one, Breeze was given a much more personalized account of the trauma catalyzed by the exhibit:

“[A]s a black female from Jim Crow era, she...recounted the traumatic experiences of being called "animal”, "dirty", and/or "nigger" by her teachers during her kindergarten through high school educational experience". [8]
Further, from her standpoint as a dehumanized black female, her concept of “animal” is radically different than that of most white animal advocates.

Her perception of "animal" is connected to being called or seen as "dirty" or a "nigger"... It is absolutely impossible for me to explain to her the concept of speciesism because she has been so thoroughly traumatized by racism and what it "means" for someone to suggest that "her suffering" is the same as an "animal"... For her, "animal" has a different "meaning" than it does for many people like myself… They are caught in "trauma and survival mode [9]
The inability for her (and perhaps other people of color) to appreciate the concept of “speciesism” is not the result of a superiority-complex, but rather the colonization of her psyche from the trauma she experienced in childhood.

In other words, the neutrality of the word and idea of “animal” for white middle-class animal advocates means something quite different to people of color who are always at risk of not being fully human in our racist society. Thus, when white vegans say that because they are not offended at being compared to animals neither should people of color, they equivocate between two grossly different contexts. One veg*n of color explicitly addresses this point on her blog:

Many white folks are perfectly happy to insist that *they* have no problems at *all* being compared to animals–but it is not white folks that are being killed on genocidal turkey shoots either... this comparison of brown human beings to animals/insects, is not something in the past that is occasionally drawn on to make a point. is something that exists in the very fabric of our current society and as such, carries very real repercussions [10]
Just as racism has not been defeated, neither has the collective trauma of the Afro-American community.

Breeze speculates that, perhaps because of the trauma whites have experiences witnessing non-human animal suffering, they too “are unable to ‘see’ past non-human suffering.” Surely, a part of the reason some white animal advocates subordinate other oppressions to animal oppression is because they perceive it being the most traumatic. On the other hand, this inability to see past non-human suffering is sometimes related to self-esteem. While we all need self-esteem and we all try to make the world a much simpler place, white middle-class animal advocates need to acknowledge their privilege and become more conscientious about how they approach people who, because of historical and geographic contingencies, are not quite as fortunate.

Towards an Inclusive Vegan Movement
“Are Animals the New Slaves?” ought to cast the vegan movement into dire reflection. The reaction the exhibit received signifies a severe shortcoming in the general movements tactics and social consciousness—even for those who do not generally like PETA.

Much of vegan discourse and tactics are engendered with implicit racism and classism. The racism and classism are not of the hateful type, but of the preferential kind that caters to a white middle-class audience. Such preferential treatment marginalizes the value and perspective people of color have to offer. It is assumed that only white, English-speaking middle-class people really care about animals; only they are the enlightened heroes. Not only is the construction of vegans as white middle-class English-speakers very uninviting to “Others,” like vegans of color, but it also makes invisible the voices and contributions of those “Others” to the vegan cause.

I can imagine some people still thinking “Wait! Most animal/vegan activists I know are not racist, don’t like PeTA, and would never use these tactics. The racist, sexist, and discursive practices of some vegans don’t represent the whole vegan movement!” Perhaps this is true, but I am more inclined to disagree. If anything the inverse is true. The general vegan movement is obliviously “white;” it has neither condemned the racism of demonizing and/or fetishizing foreign nations and cultures nor has it put forth significant effort into respectful vegan outreach in communities of color. The animal/vegan movement(s) systemically ostracize people of color (which is arguably a symptom of institutional racism)—most often without any consciousness of doing so.

Animal Rights or Animal Whites?
If anyone took the time to reflect upon race within the vegan movement(s), it would become pretty clear that the general movement is at best ambivalent and at worst indifferent to its own
whiteness. Whatever the general position on race in the movement may be, it is almost certainly not merely a case of na├»ve innocence. The veg*n movement(s) is so “blindingly white” that some outsiders and insiders suggest it could just as easily be called the “animal whites movement.” [15, 16, 17]

While the majority of the vegan movement(s) has been reluctant or indifferent to address the whiteness of the movement, vegans of color have been more outspoken. After all, they “don’t have the luxury of being single-issue.”[
19] Breeze Harper, most notably, has been asking relevant questions in regards to the constructed whiteness of the vegan movement(s) for several years. For instance, Breeze wonders why a "[v]egetarian festival is 95% white though the city is very ethnically diverse" and that “all the top selling books that have been written about veganism, 'ethical consumption' and animal rights have been by whites (mostly male)"?[20] These are statistics that (I assume) the majority of vegans take for granted, that is, unconscious of. The majority of vegans either never dwell upon these figures or the figures trigger little of their concern.

The unfortunate (but not wholly undeserved) perception of vegans as self-righteous whites infers upon them a colonial or even a white supremacist identity. The implication of this combination is that a vegan—like GW—“
doesn’t care about black people” (or any other people of color). An example of this perception was expressed in the comments following a passionate post attacking the weak rhetoric of “white privilege.”[27] After several vegans accused the author of “speciesism” (because he had made an analogy between distribution of privilege and fried chicken), a person (presumably of color) charged the vegans (who were “undoubtedly white or white-identified”) as distracting people from discussing the original topic of white privilege:

Whitey gets on a forum challenging their white privilege and therefore they have to distract it with some other "superior" ideal… This is a discussion about white privilege, whitey! This ain't about animals whom you consider above people of color, and yes, I mean that like it sounds and I am saying it because it is true. It's not white people you think of as being beneath animals. You don't discuss white privilege on forums about racism and white privilege, you discuss speciesism you RACIST bastards… Get off of your high white privileged horse and get to really discussing your white privilege because your white privilege IS KILLING PEOPLE! (my emphasis) [28]
Privilege has to do with the (often) invisible unearned power one caries (over others) simply by being a member of a ruling class. In this instance, white “vegans” entered a space and interrupted, thus obstructing, a conversation on white privilege. To the poster, this was an act of silencing people of color (and whites) from discussing the taboo subject of privilege. Not only were the vegans perceived as interfering with a constructive dialogue, they also dismissed the relevance of their privilege (over people of color) by coming in as an outsider to tell black people that they were just as much oppressors as whites.

Vegan Colonialism
Just as (presumably) white vegans had been ignorant or indifferent to the untactfulness of their posts, so to are vegans (even some vegans of color) untactful in some of their efforts to challenge animal uses in “foreign” cultures. For instance, most vegans are at least somewhat aware of the sensitivities surrounding the Canadian seal hunt every year—they know it is primarily done by indigenous peoples who have historically used furs for survival and culture as well as have been oppressed by colonialists. [
29] Still, one often hears words being thrown around like “barbaric,” “savage,” “inhumane,” etc. All of these words are adjectives that describe people as sub-human.

Instead of sending an anti-oppression message, which used to be inherent in the definition of veganism before its appropriation [
31], many vegans come across as the enlightened colonialist exercising his/her privilege over Other cultures. Johanna at Vegans of Color describes how animal activists come across to many people of color allover the world through the methodologies employed in anti-whaling campaigns:

[W]e in the West feel it's our high-and-mighty duty to go & tell other countries, with which we have had an adversarial & racist relationship, what to do. Instead of listening to local activists & supporting them if & when they request it (& in the manner they request), US activists love to barge in, without thought to cultural ontext or self-determination & autonomy for folks in the countries they're horning in on… There's a difference between not entering "the international debate" & doing so in a way that is helpful, respectful of other cultures & people [32]
Just as vegans had barged into the comments of the post on white privilege, so to does the general animal protection movement(s) barge into other countries telling them how to run things. Instead of respectful, empathetic, and constructive dialogue with people in the communities they are attempting to change, activists instead get on their “high horse” and condemn foreign Others from a standpoint of Authority and privilege. Thus, the issue of institutional racism is not confined to a few white vegan bloggers or PETA members, but is widespread throughout the movement.

Some animal advocates may be quick to respond that nations such as Japan and China should criticize the U.S. when they commit egregious acts against people and animals. Yet, this response perfectly encompasses advocates’ obliviousness to white-American privilege. White cultures not only have a history of trampling all over people of color, they also have the power and privilege of living in the North (aka the ‘First World,’ ‘Post-industrial/Developed Nations’) which dominates over
the South with its markets and technologies. As is evident from the war in Iraq, the U.S. can get away with imperialist wars and state sanctioned “terrorism”; this is would not be true of countries in the South if they were ever to do the same to the U.S. Such a belief ignores history and power-relations.

One Word: Empathy
The point of this critique on popular animal defense rhetoric, discourse, and tactics is not to suggest that we be either silent or moral relativists. Single-issue politics and an (uncritical) utilitarian mode of thought are what drive the wedge between vegans and their potential allies. Many vegans, in their efforts to hurry the process along often resort to bullying and coercing people with less institutional power and opportunities. Understanding that veganism is not only a goal, but a process of living with others (as is Health) means that we must remain patient and work it through with Others. Otherwise we seem to be suggesting that oppressive means are justified by an anti-oppression end, which is kind of like “
fucking for virginity.”

We must not barge into other conversations anymore than we should barge into the biology departments of universities and yell, “YOU ANIMAL TORTURING ASS HOLE!” One, because it is ineffective because, two, it is disrespectful and obnoxious. In order to cultivate change in other communities, we must sit down and have an empathetic dialogue. Collectively, people will never be permanently persuaded by either attempts to shame, discipline, or reason-through the facts. Cross-cultural communication involves empathy and understanding. This can only be achieved through respectful dialogue and race-consciousness.

Read the full versions @

Friday, November 21, 2008

Princeton hosts Friedrich and PETA protest

Here are pictures from Princeton's human BBQ demonstration in November and a subsequent discussion with PETA Vice President, Bruce Friedrich:

A great way to create a buzz on campus during demonstrations is to write an op-ed for the school paper set to run on the same day. PAWS decided to address the environmentalism angle during this demonstration and wrote this op-ed that day.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Victory on November 4th: Let's Make it Happen

A week from today Californians will vote on Proposition 2, a landmark initiative for animals. The measure would improve the lives of 20 million calves, sows, and hens by banning the cruelest confinement systems in factory farming: veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages.

This is a HUGE and unprecedented moment in the history of our movement. Never have we had the opportunity to help so many animals with a single vote. Cali is a top ag state, so the passing of Prop. 2 would send seismic ripples of reform across the nation and bring us a big step closer to the end of the cruelest practices in factory farming.

Big agribusiness is spending millions to defeat the initiative. We need to fight back!

If you've got just a few dollars to spare, please please please consider donating to the campaign. Every dollar will help get the truth about factory farming out to California voters. The campaign is struggling right now to pay for critical T.V. ads, so funding is super vital.

You can contribute at the Prop. 2 donation page, or my personal fundraising page.

Let's make November 4th a historic day for animals!

P.S. If you still need convincing, take a look at this undercover footage released by Mercy For Animals of Norco Ranch, Cali's largest egg farm. This cruelty would be ended with Prop. 2.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Contest Begins...

Schools are starting to get pledges signed up at their schools. Princeton's in the lead right now with 72 pledges, with Arizona State close behind. Over the next month, each of these schools (plus the others below) will work to get more pledges to get the message out to as many people as possible.

Check back here next week to see which school is in the lead...

Princeton: 72
Arizona State: 66
Other: 32
Dartmouth: 14
Kansas State: 13
University of Vermont: 13
Brown: 9
Case Western Reserve: 6
Total: 225

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

18 Schools Now On Board

We have 18 schools officially signed up to make College Veg Pledge a hit at their schools. Email to sign your school up!

Arizona State
Kansas State
Penn State Law
University of Vermont

And new as of 10/5/08:
New School
Southwest Mn. State University
Pace University- White Plains
City College
James Madison University

Thursday, September 11, 2008

College Veg Pledge 2008

The second annual College Veg Pledge is getting started. We want as many schools to participate as possible. Whether you are involved in a college animal rights group or just on your own, email to officially get involved.

“As a university student, I realize that I am a leader for my generation and an example for society. I am concerned about the suffering of farm animals and the impact of meat production on global warming, the environment, and my health. By signing my name, I pledge to abstain from consuming meat on November 19th, 2008 and commit to exploring a more ethical diet in the future.”

Info on how to take the pledge coming soon. Last year we had over 3000 participants nationwide--let's aim for 5000 this year!

Take the pledge NOW right here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Confined to the "Animal Welfare" Label

Debate over proposition 2 in California is waging on. The newest opposition, however, is not the owner of a large industrial slaughterhouse, but a member of the animal rights movement. Gary Francione’s recent blog post urging animal advocates to vote against proposition 2 (or not vote at all) has once again opened up the welfare versus rights discussion brewing in the movement. Francione argues that by working to reform the conditions of slaughterhouse animals, we leave open the unquestioned assumption that it is right to have animals in those slaughterhouses at all. The only thing we should do, he argues, is work for total abolition of the commodification of animals through vegan promotion.

While I think there is value in the way Francione has forced a lot of activists to think about the efficacy of their methods, I disagree with Francione’s analysis of proposition 2.

Francione and his cohorts suggests that meat producers support proposition 2 because it will help their bottom line as people feel more comfortable consuming meat they think has been “humanely” slaughtered. However, his list of small farmers who endorse the move is not representative of the stance of large scale industrial slaughterhouses. In fact, the USDA and the America Egg Board have allocated over $3 million to fight against the enactment of this measure. The misleadingly named “Californians for Safe Food” has been established by the industry to purport lies about the dangers of proposition 2. There is no way around it: the welfare standards outlined in proposition 2 are going to put a dent in the industry, costing them millions and decreasing their ability to raise and slaughter as many animals as they currently do. Large scale agribusiness is investing money to nip this measure in the bud, because they know its passage will be a huge economic blow.

Change through legal mechanisms will work for animals. The mainstream media does not pick up on cases of animal cruelty unless the practices are illegal. The recent exposure of footage relating to the abuse of downer cows did not come into the public sphere because the abuse was uniquely horrific, but because it broke the law. Had downer abuse measures not been in place to protect the welfare of those dairy mothers, the images would have been cast aside in the same way footage of debeaking, castration, and confinement are written off as “standard industry practice.”

Francione seems to miss the historical precedents showing us that legal shifts occur before widespread ideological ones. Equal protection laws for women came into place before universal recognition of the equal interests of women. Liberation of slaves came at a time before their oppressors had overthrown racist ideology. If we had waited for slave owners to decide to boycott the slave industry, liberation may never have occurred. Changing the laws that institutionalize oppression give oppressed groups a mechanism to change mindsets. Paul Shapiro of H.S.U.S. asks:

“Could you imagine environmentalists opposing stricter emissions standards for vehicles, saying that they just make people feel better about driving even though they’re still polluting (although less)? Of course not. They recognize that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should applaud steps in the right direction while continuing to move the ball even further down the field.”

While we can appreciate Francione’s Sisyphean attempt to throw the ball permanently down the hill, we should be wary of his calls to do nothing unless you can everything. Francione is setting up a false dichotomy and forcing many advocates into either a "welfarist" or a "rights" label. These two mechanisms of change can coexist. Abolition happens incrementally and proposition 2 is a step towards turning these tiny cages into bigger cages into empty cages.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

California Ballot Initiative

Check out Wayne Pacelle's blog today for an update on the California ballot initiative -- potentially the biggest reform to improve conditions for animals ever! This blog talks about the "perfidious fraud" of a new group that has sprung up to campaign against the initiative in order to keep animals in gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages. It's sickening. The factory farming industry is huge, powerful, and capable of raising massive amounts of money.

If you're in California, you can help out with your time (just email me!). Otherwise, consider donating $20.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

PAWS website

Check it out!

Friday, April 11, 2008

VegFest 2008

8:00 pm this coming Saturday @ Terrace F. Club

Do you like food, the environment, music, free t-shirts, and terrace? Then come to Veg Fest!

VegFest 2008 is a celebration designed to bring students together through a common interest in food and environmental sustainability. Keynote speaker Wayne Pacelle, President of Humane Society of the United States, will discuss the relationship between agriculture, vegetarianism and the environment. Food from Princeton restaurants and stores that promote environmental sustainability and animal-friendliness will be served during Wayne's talk.

8:00 Saturday, April 12 @ Terrace

*FREE Organic t-shirts to the first 40 people who show up*

Sponsored by Princeton Animal Welfare Society, Greening Princeton, and Princeton Slow Food. Co-sponsored by the Fund for Intergroup Collaboration, ODUS, Projects Board, and the Pace Center.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jaded Yet?

Through my involvement with animal rights over the past several years, one of the things I’ve wrestled with has been maintaining a level of empathy that is strong enough to keep me attached to the movement, but controlled enough to allow me to be an effective tool for change. Many of us have battled with either feeling such an overwhelming sense of the abuse that we fall into a state of sympathy fatigue, or allowing our outrage to simmer so much that we become detached and unmotivated. As it becomes clear that my involvement with animal rights will extend beyond phases of college idealism and radicalism, I’m trying to figure out how to keep from becoming another disillusioned and jaded former advocate.

Julie Lewin, animal rights lobbyist and founder of NIFFA (National Institute for Animal Advocacy), recently spoke to PAWS members about advocating for animals within the political realm. She is a critic of the protest and demonstration tactics that PAWS often employs, because she believes they place too much emphasis on the activist, while not actually helping get laws passed. I disagree with Lewin’s argument. One of the ways I recharge my interest in the movement is by rallying around other like-minded people in these acts of demonstration. These methods not only provide us with an outlet for our pent up energy, but also change attitudes, especially on college campuses, where the issues surrounding a demonstration are so rigorously dissected. Many people are forced to reconsider their habits through the revelations that emerge in these subsequent discussions.

Although I disagree with Lewin’s argument about the most effective way to implement change, there is validity in her characterization of animal advocates. She explains that “[T]he initial excitement, optimism, and anticipation give way to frustration and disillusionment when worthy goals remain unachieved. There may be a period of retrenchment and lack of vigor. Some activists withdraw, and many who remain are more moderate and less visionary than those who leave.” While we are right to dismiss the false stereotypes of the angry vegan who cares about animals at the expense of humans, we should take seriously Lewin’s more nuanced and realistic image of what we may soon become. It is important to be aware of this phenomenon in order to prevent ourselves from falling prey to it. It seems as though many of the most passionate animal advocates eventually resign themselves to the inevitability of factory farming, after failing to attain enough of the lofty goals they set out to achieve. This doesn’t have to be the path we follow.

Although I’ve had moments where the sacrifice to social interactions and the marginal utility I gain from eating a tasty animal product makes veganism not seem worth it, reengaging myself with the animals that suffer always helps take me back to the heart of the issue. Rereading sections of Animal Liberation or watching Earthlings helps me remember that every meal I eat is making a decision about the relationship I want to have with those animals and the commentary I want to make about their suffering. It’s difficult to motivate myself to rewatch the videos and reread the material, because I know that I’ll immediately fall into a paralyzing state of depression that precludes action. I’ll be hypercritical of my carnivorous friends for being unaware, my vegetarian friends for not going far enough, and myself for not devoting every breath I take to stopping the abuse. But eventually, these bouts of self-hatred and alienation subside and I can use the power of those intense emotions as I work in realistic, and often tedious, ways to make change.

There is no easy way to deal with translating all the outrage and passion we have into the slow and realistic mechanisms of change. But learning how to do this is important if we are to extend our advocacy beyond these early phases of inspiration and excitement.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Meatless Mondays

We’re proud to introduce PAWS’ latest campaign to get students to eat less meat: “Meatless Mondays.” Meatless Mondays is a simple pledge to commit to go vegetarian one day a week for the spring semester. We’ll be tabling at Frist and dining halls to get students to sign up. You can sign the petition here.

The pledge reads:

“As a thoughtful member of the Princeton community, I realize that my daily consumption choices do not only affect me, but also the animals I consume. I am concerned about the cruelty associated with eating meat, and its impact on global warming, the environment, and my health. By signing my name, I pledge to eat vegetarian every Monday for the remainder of the semester.”

Let us know ( if you want to help sign people up. It’s a quick and easy way to get involved with PAWS and make a real impact on the level of meat consumption on our campus.

Friday, February 01, 2008

When Humanitarianism and Animal Justice Diverge

This Christmas, my parents (knowing my distaste for consumption and love of social justice) decided not to give me “stuff” but instead made a gift to an organization on my behalf. The group is called “Kiva,” and provides ‘micro-loans’ for third world entrepreneurs. It has been touted by the likes of Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton (so you know it must be good) as a model for efficient, ground-level aid to the poor.

The exciting thing about Kiva is that it actually connects people, at least insofar as donors determine exactly to whom their money is loaned. I can, for example, choose between a motorcycle shop in Azerbaijan or a clothing tailor in Pakistan, and I even get to know a little bit about each entrepreneur in the process. All in all, Kiva seems like a pretty good deal: poor individuals are empowered to effect positive change on a local level, and rich (at least, comparatively) donors get to feel good about themselves for a relatively small amount of money, which is eventually repaid (so it’s not a ‘handout’).

As with nearly all things I discover that, on their face, make me feel like the world is not entirely going to hell in a hand-basket, there’s a catch. That is, many of the people requesting loans are looking to expand operations based around animal exploitation. Norah Nabulya in Uganda is looking for money so she can slaughter pigs more efficiently. Jonathan Kipngeno would like a loan so he can purchase more cows to produce milk for his business in Kenya. Pardahol Satto in Tajikistan is looking to improve his stock of animals for agricultural labor.

None of this intended to detract from the undeniable good that groups like Kiva do (for the record, I loaned my $25 to a fruit vendor in Pakistan). The fact that economic empowerment in many cases comes on the backs of animals should in no way be an indictment of the well-intentioned people who loan or the hardworking people who have every right to seek to better the situation of themselves and their families, and are likely unaware of the harm they are causing. I certainly cannot attach such a high value to animal life that I can begrudge any of the individuals on Kiva, or that I could deny them opportunities offered to them from birth.

Nonetheless, the paradox of Kiva – helping humans and harming animals – does speak to a broader conundrum for the animal liberation movement. Saving a human beings almost invariably allows that individual to continue or expand their use of animals. And the problem is not just in animal testing, where there is an often touted trade off between humane treatment of animals and medical advances. Every persona added to the global population adds to the global demand for animals for food, clothing, and entertainment. What’s worse, when people become better off, animals are eventually the victims – it is no coincidence that the United States has the world’s most voracious appetite for animal products, or that, as nations like China develop, they increasingly seek to emulate our consumption, to the extent that their animal abuse only expands. On a more individual level, it is almost inevitable that Ms. Nabulya in Uganda’s pigs will be worse off once she expands her operation and begins to make more money for her family: not only will there be more pigs being slaughtered, their lives will be increasingly mechanized and confined. Whether committed in the name of profit or survival, abuses of animals only increase when we raise people out of poverty.

Certainly, animals have been abused in all sorts of societies – socialist and capitalist. To acknowledge this, however, does not mean that the character and scale of animal abuse does not vary depending on the economic system. While this essay is not intended to be a wholesale indictment of capitalism, I think that the above anecdotes suggest that we as animal activists do need to think not just about the system of production of animals, but this system of production in its entirety. We in the developed world are rich because we have excelled at exploiting our fellow human beings, natural resources, and animals. Now people in the developing world want our privileges, and, with many of their natural resources already exhausted by colonialism and mismanagement, and already at the bottom of the human hierarchy, their economic empowerment comes at the expense of the only individuals valued lower than themselves – animals.

As long as exploitation of anything is the basis of our economic systems, animals will always get the short end of the stick, since they will always be the easiest to exploit. Animal activists need to think seriously about the systematic changes that are required in order to help both humans and animals at the same time. Until we find an economic model in which people can get ahead without causing harm to others, animal activism will always be vulnerable to appearing anti-humanitarian. No movement can ever attract widespread sympathy if its followers busy themselves with telling Cambodian farmers to raise arugula instead of cows.

This blog post owes an intellectual debt to the article “Veganarchy” by Brian Dominick.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Recently I wrote a paper for Peter Singer’s course “Practical Ethics” that attempts to answer the question: “does taking morality seriously mean alienating oneself from some of the most essential aspects of human existence?”

The quick answer for most people I think is of course a definite “No.” We can all think about modern moral issues without becoming completely absorbed in them to the point that we lose focus on other interests—art, athletics, careers, etc. Most of our blog readers, I bet, are vegetarians or vegans who have made that serious ethical commitment without separating themselves from anything else important in their lives (except, perhaps, a carnivorous boyfriend.)

But what about taking morality so seriously that it begins to take over other parts of your life? One philosopher we read thinks that moral saints (people whose actions are as morally worthy as possible) cannot lead a full human existence. They cannot be world-class violinists or into high-end fashion or excel at athletics because to pursue these nonmoral interests would take time away from moral actions. A moral saint can’t even take a nap because she could be using that time to serve soup to the homeless. A world of moral saints would be a sad, unfulfilled, and boring place.

And, more importantly, a moral saint would not create positive change in the world because her sad life would not inspire others to make ethical choices. Being a moral leader requires living a happy fulfilled life that others want to emulate.

So moral sainthood is not good – but does that give us an easy way out? Can we stop feeling guilty for not living up to the utilitarian theories that tell us we are ethically obligated to donate 10% of our income to the impoverished or to be completely vegan (or dare I say, even completely vegetarian)?

We can't be self-righteous moral saints if we want to create positive change in the world, be we also can't take the easy way out and be moral slackers. What we can, and should, do, is strive for a different kind of perfection, one that looks at overall impact rather than individual actions. A life that has the most positive impact overall is a life of ethical moderation that others will want to copy.

So what does this mean for animal rights ethics? Should an animal rights activist aspire to perfection? To veganism? How can our lifestyle choices have the biggest impact both in terms of individual impact and the indirect impact it has through influencing others? Is veganism, "the moral baseline of the movement," the obvious answer?

Or sometimes—like in certain eating clubs where the only vegan food day in and day out is old hummus and wet spinach leaves—is veganism too much of a sacrifice that will turn observers away from animal rights? In these cases, might striving for “perfection” be counterproductive?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

PAWS 2008

Happy 2008! After spending the day on a purifying juice fast contemplating the upcoming year, I have a solid list of New Year’s resolutions, and I’d like to share a few with you.

My first resolution is to improve my vegan cooking skills. This is not only for my own health and satisfaction, but to be a more effective influence on others. We all know that good food is the way to a man’s (and/or meat-eater’s) heart.

Another one of my resolutions is to lead a healthy, satisfied, and cheerful vegan lifestyle that will serve as a good example to others. This includes being in good shape, eating well, and not complaining about the pathetic vegan options at my eating club or lusting after pizza.

My PAWS-related resolution is the one I really want to share with you. In less than a year since we formed back in April 2007, we’ve had an amazing amount of success. PAWS is now a well-known campus name, has gotten national media coverage, and has changed quite a few hearts and minds. In 2008, I want PAWS to reach a new level of influence and achievement.

Your PAWS officers have come up with some great ideas for PAWS 2008 and we’re working hard to make them happen. Here are some of them:

o Develop an impressive PAWS website
o Focus on delicious free vegan food!
o Table in Frist regularly with vegetarian literature and PAWS event information
o Take a trip to the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary
o Rank the Eating Clubs on their vegetarian and vegan food
o Host Veg Fest 2008 on April 10, 2008 featuring keynote speaker Wayne Pacelle and tons of vegan food
o Team up with unrelated groups to introduce a new batch of people to veg food & info
o Continue to pester Dining Services and eating clubs to serve us better veg food
o Create some type of pledge that people can sign up for on an ongoing basis, like Meatless Mondays or just a pledge to think critically about food choices (ideas for what kind of pledge would be useful would be most appreciated!)

What do YOU want PAWS to accomplish this year? Please leave us your comments so we can get to work on making it happen. With your help, PAWS can be the most active and influential group on campus.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and animal-friendly new year!