Is Veganism Ableist? A Disabled Vegan Perspective

Photo of myself in my motorized wheelchair, Betty. It am outdoors on a sunny day at the piers in New York City. I am dressed colorfully with colorful striped socks, black combat boots and capris and a red t-shirt that reads “The Revolution Is Wheelchair Accessible.”

Disability is just another way for a mind and/or body to be. We are not broken.

Author’s Note: While I am still vegan, it’s been over a year that my primary focus (for many reasons) as an activist is no longer animal rights/liberation. As a disabled person, I remain intersectional in my support, but my focus is now disability rights. Since this change, I have heard of many instances of disabled people who experienced ableism from the AR community. While this was certainly not news to me, as I too have experienced this, I want to address the following question from the disabled vegan perspective: is veganism ableist?

By Michele Kaplan

Every time I delve deeper into the disabled twitter-sphere, without fail I come across tweets from the disability community talking about how ableist vegans are. Vegans calling a disabled person a liar when they state that they can not be vegan due to their disability. Vegans telling disabled folk that if they just ate a healthy whole food vegan diet, they would be “cured”. As if said vegans were actual doctors that specialized in that specific disability, and thus were properly educated regarding any possible treatment options (including medications). As if one size fits all and the vegan diet was a solution for every medical situation. As if by default, disability made a person “broken” and in need of fixing / being cured.

And as a disabled vegan, I often find myself between these two worlds. I cringe and facepalm when I read these tweets, as I try to do damage control: ‘Hey. I’m a disabled vegan and I just wanted to say that I am really sorry you experienced ableism from the vegan community. That is not cool’, in hopes of creating some sense of healing.

So, is ableism a problem within the vegan community? Absolutely. There are intersectional animal rights activists who have solidarity and who get it, but there are also activists who identify as intersectional, but miss the mark on ableism. There are also single issue animal rights activists who don’t even know the word ableism or who do, but don’t care because (to them) the only cause that matters is animal rights, which is just as problematic as it sounds.

Anyone who is involved in activism knows that single issue and faux intersectional activism, by default is indisputably problematic. However, it is only fair to note that Ableism is certainly not just an “animal rights thing”, since Ableism occurs in any cause where the activism is based on an able bodied model and/or the cause fails to acknowledge the existence of disability.

So, is veganism ableist? This is why I say no. Veganism at it’s root is a philosophy, an idea that the animals don’t exist for us. Just as a disabled person, I don’t exist to be someone’s inspiration nor target of pity, animals do not exist to be our meals and clothing. They have their own lives and exist for themselves. This may not be the mainstream way of thinking, but as with all forms of oppression, just because someone decided that a particular demographic is inferior, doesn’t make it true nor does it justify the oppression.

photo of Esther, The Wonder Pig who is napping with a highly content grin on her face.

It’s complicated because often vegans will come across people who say “Oh, I could never go vegan. I love cheese (bacon etc.) too much and I could never give that up.” This of course, is not a factual statement, as it is not oxygen in which their life depends on. So technically they could give it up. They just choose not to, which is different from the disabled person who due to their disability / chronic illness, may not have the choice. There are some vegans who fail to make note of the difference, who are unaware that the difference even exists. It’s as if they hear both answers and their bullshit meter immediately goes off, not realizing that the latter is actually valid.

Some vegans might argue: but what if the disabled person in question, is just using their disability as an excuse to not go vegan? This is incredibly harmful and triggering and so as a disabled vegan, I say: believe them every single damn time. I would rather let that one hypothetical person, that 1 out of 10,000 (assuming they even exist) “off the hook”, then give the remaining 9,999 people yet more crap to deal with. Disabled people often experience social and systemic ableism on a daily basis. The last thing the community needs is further discrimination.

It’s also complicated because there is this idea in the animal rights community, that there is no such thing as a half or partial vegan. You either do it 100% hardcore or you can not claim the label. And if you can’t call yourself vegan, then you are deemed as an unethical and a lousy human being. This in itself is ableist because if a person is legitimately not able to go the 100%, then they shouldn’t be shamed for that.

a model is hugging a variety of vegetables and holding them close to her chest. she is grinning and looking to the right

It’s also complicated because in truth, no one is 100% vegan. When I go to the market to get vegan food, I go to a market that has a whole section dedicated to meat, eggs and dairy. Therefore, I am essentially, though indirectly, financially supporting a business that profits from the animal agriculture industry. When I use a grocery delivery service (as due to my disability, I can not always make it to the store), they bag the groceries in plastic bags which (and I kid you not) contain additives that are derived from animals. My point being, that the system in it’s current state, makes it impossible to do zero harm and thus there is no such thing as the perfect vegan.

Veganism is thus about doing the least harm and the most good. And so if one can not go fully vegan due to their health and/or disability, it becomes a matter of doing what they can. Consider eating less meat. Not an option? Considering drinking a non-dairy “milk” (soy, rice, almond, oats, coconut etc.) instead of buying dairy milk. Or if changing ones diet is not an option, then consider purchasing products for your home and body that are not tested on animals, if not totally vegan. One can choose to buy clothing made from synthetic material instead of animal skins such as leather, fur and suede. If you already own a leather coat, as an example, and can not afford to buy a new synthetic one, then wear the coat but do less harm in other ways. My point being, it’s about doing what you can. It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t “qualify” you to accurately identify as vegan. It’s better to do some good and less harm than nothing at all.

photo is of the earth, a view from space.

And do keep in mind that this goes beyond the animals. There are mainstream scientific studies that show that the animal agriculture industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change. This is big, considering since climate change is an issue that directly impacts us all, but particularly people who are poor and/or the disabled population. After all, who is often left stranded during and after a major storm (such as a hurricane)?

Or even just the impact of climate change on every day weather. Climate change is being linked to the increase in heat advisories which prevent people (like myself) who are medically sensitive to the heat, from leaving their home. I am vegan for many reasons, but one of them being is that I do not do well with being stuck in my apartment for a week. When I do my best to not support the animal agriculture industry, I lessen climate change, and thus I lessen the physical isolation that I experience, which impacts my well being.

That being said, the intention of this article, is not trying to tell people what to do nor demand change. I just wanted to address the question of “is veganism ableist?” as a disabled vegan and present you with the information from that perspective. Because in the end, it is never … ever okay when a vegan (or anyone) is ableist (or any other form of discrimination), but that doesn’t make veganism (or a variation of), a bad idea.

 

This essay originally appeared on Rebelwheels’ Soapbox on September 6, 2016.


me in wheelchairMichele Kaplan is a queer (read: bisexual), geek-proud, intersectional activist on wheels (read: motorized wheelchair), who tries to strike a balance between activism, creativity and self care, while trying to change the world.

whyveganism.com

Psychological Abuse in Animal Rights Advocacy

Man yelling into bullhorn at a protest

By Pooja Umbra

Since being diagnosed with an auto-immune neurological disorder and a mental illness as a vegan, I have been putting a lot of thought into the kind of vegan advocacy that can be categorized as psychologically abusive. I have myself partaken in this type of advocacy and I write this using my newly-acquired self-awareness and insight into psychological issues.

I’d like to state on record that I am not a mental health professional. I am articulating this as someone who has experienced psychological abuse from my early childhood and as someone who’s learning to tell the difference between emotionally healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

So what exactly is psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional abuse or mental abuse, is a form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxietychronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

It encompasses a wide range of behaviors such as, verbal aggression/ assault, domination, emotional blackmail, invalidation, gaslighting and blaming, among others.

Emotionally abusive behaviors by activists or any reminders of past emotional trauma can have debilitating consequences for survivors. Using guilt and shame for AR advocacy with the objective of elevating people’s consciousness to the plight of non-human animals may sometimes yield positive results, but it may also at times make survivors of emotional abuse relive the trauma of the past, feed their suicidal ideation, strengthen their ‘inner critic’, deepen their toxic shame, make the management of their illness difficult, or severely hamper their chances of recovery. Much has been written about certain damaging types of animal rights (AR) advocacy that is triggering to victims/survivors of violent crime such as rape. It is not much different for survivors of emotional trauma. Many in the AR movement, regrettably, still don’t see this as something to be rectified because of their anything goes approach to AR advocacy.

Before AR activists scream, ‘Meat is murder’ or tell non-vegans that they’re contributing to the death of shelter animals by purchasing animals from breeders, they need to stop and evaluate what they want to accomplish and why they’re using the kind of emotionally manipulative/ verbally aggressive approach that usually alienates people with mental disabilities and/or those with a history of trauma. Activists are better off using non-abusive approaches that don’t open up the emotional wounds of others. Furthermore, such non-abusive approaches are more likely to help non-human animals. Abusive tactics only serve to make abusers feel good by feeding off of the humiliation of others. It is self-serving and short-sighted. AR activists with able-minded and able-bodied privileges, as allies to non-human animals, need to recognize the imbalance of power between them and those with disabilities, and tailor their advocacy to be more compassionate.

Emotionality is an asset for bringing about lasting social change, but there is a difference between using corrosive tactics like guilt and shame, and encouraging self-reflection and accountability. All humans oppress non-human animals wittingly or unwittingly, to varying degrees. As those belonging to the oppressor group, we need to have more humility in our activism.

 


PoojaPooja Umbra is a multi-lingual vegan feminist from Bangalore who is fluent in four languages and semi-proficient in two others. She is a qualified accountant, though is currently on a break. She currently devotes her time to looking after her twelve and a half year old dog and to self- care.

Chère Nouvelle Vegane

Translation by Christophe Hendrickx. See more French translations of critical vegan essays by grassroots activists by visiting his blog, La Pilule Rouge. The original English version of this essay can be found by clicking here.

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexisme et violence sexuelle

Two young thin white PETA volunteers pose naked on a street corner with their bodies marked like meat cuts holding a PETA sign that asks viewers to go vegan
Chère Nouvelle Végane,

Prépare-toi, car un parcours mouvementé t’attend. Devenir vegane est, au début, une expérience très frustrante et traumatisante. Tu devras apprendre à manger autrement, ce que tu peux acheter ou non, comment gérer tes amis et ta famille, et comment gérer les sentiments intenses de colère et de tristesse qui viennent lorsque l’on ouvre son esprit et son cœur à la souffrance des autres. Rien de tout cela ne sera facile, mais, je te prie de ne pas abandonner, car cela deviendra vraiment plus facile au fur et à mesure de ton parcours. Cela deviendra normal et habituel avant que tu ne le réalises, je le promets.

Tu te tourneras probablement vers la communauté vegane pour t’aider lors de cette transition. Tu te feras beaucoup d’amis formidables et tu apprendras beaucoup des autres. Tu ressentiras un grand sentiment de paix en sachant que tu n’es pas seule et qu’il existe d’autres personnes qui sont aussi passionnées que toi pour changer le monde.

Par la suite, cependant, tu pourrais commencer à réaliser qu’être vegane est une chose, mais qu’être vegane et s’identifier1 comme une femme est tout autre chose. Si tu es en couple, tu pourrais t’apercevoir que ton/ta partenaire est hostile par rapport à ton choix. Surtout si ton partenaire s’identifie comme un homme, ta présence vegane pourrait présenter une remise en question de son autorité masculine. Il pourrait insister sur le fait que tu ne pourras jamais le changer (même si tu n’as jamais mentionné quoi que ce soit à ce sujet !). Il pourrait insister à ce que tu prépares des plats non-vegans, ou que tu l’accompagnes dans des restaurants non-vegans. En tant que femme, tu pourrais ressentir une pression importante à concéder cela. On apprend très tôt aux femmes que les intérêts des hommes passent en premier. C’est nul, mais c’est comme ça. Ne te sens pas mal si c’est le cas.

Woman looking outraged as her male partner scoffs down a burger

Si tu t’identifies en tant que femme, tu pourrais réaliser que tes amis s’identifiant comme des hommes sont également rebutés par ton véganisme. Par exemple, un post Facebook bien intentionné qui rappelle à tes lecteurs que les animaux non-humains comptent aussi, pourrait ennuyer des hommes qui sont prompts à répondre par des commentaires te décrivant comme quelqu’un de a) trop sentimentale ; b) grande gueule ; ou c) « folle ». La sensiblerie, le franc-parler, et la maladie mentale sont toutes des caractéristiques hautement sexuées. Les femmes sont vite rejetées comme étant soit trop féminines, soit pas assez féminines. Pendant des siècles, nous les femmes avons été stéréotypées comme étant « hystériques » et de là institutionnalisées pour nous contrôler et nous faire taire. Tu te trouveras souvent entre le marteau et l’enclume : ne sois pas trop sentimentale, mais, en même temps, surveille ton ton et ne sois pas trop agressive. Tu réaliseras qu’il est quasiment impossible de leur faire plaisir, et je suggère que tu continues simplement à continuer ce que tu faisais.

Male-identified vegan leader gives talk with microphoneMais tes combats en tant que femme végane pourraient ne pas s’arrêter là. Si tu décides qu’être vegane n’est pas assez et que tu veux t’impliquer dans l’activisme, tu feras à nouveau face à plus de violence masculine. L’activisme vegan est dominé par les femmes en termes de nombres, donc tu pourrais t’imaginer que c’est un espace sûr pour toi. De nombreuses manières, ça l’est. Tu trouveras de la solidarité féminine. En revanche, le mouvement vegan est fortement contrôlé par les hommes. Les hommes mènent l’activisme vegan – ils créent la théorie et ils définissent les tactiques qui sont acceptables. Ils occupent majoritairement la scène et leur voix sont les plus fortes.

Ce que cela veut dire c’est que tu ressentiras beaucoup de pression pour aider les autres animaux en ayant un rôle discret en coulisses en soutien de ces hommes. Tu pourrais aussi être encouragée à enlever tes vêtements pour certaines campagnes. Ce ne seront peut-être pas directement les hommes qui te diront de les enlever (les femmes t’encourageront aussi), mais les normes patriarcales du mouvement ont créé un environnement dans lequel on attend tout simplement des femmes qu’elles deviennent des objets sexuels « pour les animaux ». Tu pourrais commencer à penser que se déshabiller pour la cause est « libérateur ». Si tu commences à penser cela, wow, stop. Détrompe-toi. Songe également au fait que seules les femmes minces, blanches, cis sont autorisées à « s’émanciper » pour les autres animaux, et que réveiller les hommes sexuellement n’est pas réveiller les hommes sur le véganisme. Les recherches empiriques indiquent que faciliter l’oppression des femmes ne remet pas en cause l’oppression d’autres animaux.

Tu trouveras également beaucoup d’harcèlement et de violence sexuelle envers les femmes dans le mouvement vegan. Je ne veux pas te faire peur, mais c’est la vérité, et tu devrais être prévenue. C’est quelque chose dont on parle peu, mais c’est plutôt monnaie courante. Si tu es une femme, ne laisse pas cela te dissuader : rappelle-toi simplement que l’engagement pour la justice sociale pour les animaux non-humains ne se traduit pas nécessairement en un engagement pour la justice sociale pour tous. Vraiment, ces hommes qui insistent sur le fait qu’ils se soucient des droits et du bien-être des femmes, des personnes de couleur, et autres groupes humains désavantagés tendent à être tout aussi dangereux que ceux qui ne prennent pas la peine de s’en soucier. Si tu t’identifies comme un homme, je t’implore de travailler pour rendre les espaces militants plus sûrs.

Malheureusement, le travail du changement du monde est le travail des hommes. Si tu t’identifies comme femme, il est probable que tu rencontres de la résistance si tu souhaites participer à la sensibilisation au véganisme de façon plus significative qu’en faisant le café ou en te déshabillant. Cela ne doit pas se passer comme ça. Essaye de ne pas te perdre. Reste forte, prend la parole, et demande à être respectée. Insiste pour que le véganisme soit une expérience positive et ferme. Ne laisse pas les mentalités oppressives de certains t’empêcher de faire le travail important que tu avais prévu. Et messieurs, soyez s’il-vous-plaît solidaires des femmes. Un peu d’aide ne ferait pas de mal.

P.S. Si tu es une femme de couleur, c’est un ensemble supplémentaire de défis. En tant que femme blanche, je ne peux pas parler en profondeur de ces défis, mais je peux te dire que le mouvement vegan peut être un endroit vraiment désagréable par moments. Jette absolument un oeil au Projet Sistah Vegan!

– Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.

Notes:

1. Cet article parle de l’expérience féminine, qui peut inclure celle des femmes trans, femmes intersexuées, et femmes gender-queers. Il faut prendre en compte le fait que les veganes trans, intersexuées, et gender-queers font face à un nombre supplémentaire de défis dans le mouvement.

This piece was originally submitted to an advocacy anthology designed to introduce new vegans to the movement, but did not make the final cut. For more information on sexism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, please stay tuned for my forthcoming release, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory to be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. Please also see my publication with the Journal of Gender Studies, “The Role of Professionalization Regarding Female Exploitation in the Nonhuman Animal Rights Movement and my essay for The Feminist Wire, “Gender Policing the Vegan Woman.”

 

Corey Lee WrennMs. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. She is an instructor of Sociology and graduate student at Colorado State University, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.

Dear New Vegan

TRIGGER WARNING: Discusses sexism and sexual violence.

Two young thin white PETA volunteers pose naked on a street corner with their bodies marked like meat cuts holding a PETA sign that asks viewers to go vegan

Dear New Vegan,

Brace yourself, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Becoming vegan is, at first, a very frustrating and traumatizing experience. You will have to learn what to eat, what to buy, how to deal with friends and family, and how to manage the intense feelings of anger and sadness that come with opening your mind and heart to the suffering of others. None of this is going to be easy, but, please don’t give up, because it will definitely get easier the longer you stick with it. It will become normal and habitual before you know it, I promise.

You will probably reach out to the vegan community to help you through this transition. You will make lots of great friends and learn a lot from others. You will find great peace in knowing you are not alone and that other folks are out there who are just as passionate as you are about changing the world.

Eventually, however, you may start to realize that being vegan is one thing, but being vegan and female-identified1 is another one altogether. If you are in a relationship, you may find your partner is hostile to your choice. Especially if your partner is male-identified, your vegan presence may present a challenge to his masculine authority. He may insist that you can never change him (even if you never mentioned any intention of doing so!). He may insist that you cook non-vegan meals, or join him in non-vegan restaurants. As a self-identified woman, you may feel considerable pressure to concede. Women are groomed from early on to put the interests of men first. It stinks, but that’s how it is. Don’t feel bad if you do.

Woman looking outraged as her male partner scoffs down a burger

If you are a self-identified woman, you may find that male-identified friends are turned off to your veganism as well. For example, a well-meant Facebook post that reminds your readers that Nonhuman Animals matter, too, may aggravate men who are quick to respond with comments about how you’re a) too sentimental; b) loudmouthed; or c) “crazy.” Emotionality, outspokenness, and mental illness are all highly gendered characteristics. Women are easily dismissed for being either too feminine, or not feminine enough. For centuries, we women have been stereotyped as “hysterical” and subsequently institutionalized to control us and shut us up. You’ll often find yourself between a rock and a hard place: don’t be too sappy, but at the same time, watch your tone and don’t be too aggressive. You’ll find they’re pretty much impossible to please, and I suggest you just keep doing what you do.

Male-identified vegan leader gives talk with microphoneBut your struggles as a vegan woman might not end there. If you decide that simply being vegan isn’t enough and that you want to get involved with activism, you are going to come up against more male violence. Vegan activism is dominated by women as far as the numbers go, so you may think it’s a safe space for you. In many ways, it is. You will find female solidarity. On the other hand, the vegan movement is very much controlled by men. Men lead vegan activism—they create the theory and they define what tactics are acceptable. They take up the most space and their voices are loudest.

What this means is that you are going to feel a lot of pressure to help other animals by taking a quiet role behind the scenes in support of these men. You may also be encouraged to take your clothes off for some campaigns. It may not be men directly telling you to get naked (women are in on it, too), but the patriarchal norms of the movement have created an environment where women are simply expected to become sex objects “for the animals.” You might start to think that getting naked for the cause is “liberating.” If you start thinking that, woah, stop. Think again. Consider also that only thin, white, cis women are allowed to “empower” themselves for other animals, and that turning men on sexually is not the same as turning men on to veganism. Empirical research shows that facilitating the oppression of women does not challenge the oppression of other animals.

You will also find a lot of sexual harassment and violence against women in the vegan movement. I don’t mean to scare you off, but it’s true, and you should be warned. It’s something that isn’t talked about a lot, but it’s actually quite common. If you are a woman, don’t let this deter you; just remember that commitment to social justice for Nonhuman Animals does not necessarily translate to a commitment to social justice for all. Really, those men who insist they care about the rights and wellbeing of women, people of color, and other disadvantaged human groups tend to be just as dangerous as those who don’t purport to care at all. If you identify as a man, I implore you to step up and work to make advocacy spaces safer.

Sadly, the work of changing the world is men’s work. If you are female-identified, you are likely to meet resistance if you want to participate in vegan outreach in ways more meaningful than making the coffee or stripping. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try not to lose yourself. Stay strong, demand voice, and demand that you be respected. Insist that veganism be a positive and affirming experience. Do not let the oppressive mentalities of some prevent you from doing the important work you’ve set out to do. And men, please stand with women in solidarity. We could use your help.

P.S. If you are a woman of color, that’s a whole extra set of challenges. As a white woman myself, I can’t speak to the depth of these challenges, but I can tell you that the vegan movement can be a really nasty “color blind” place at times. Definitely check out the Sistah Vegan Project!

– Corey Lee Wrenn, M.S., A.B.D. Ph.D.

Notes:

1. This piece speaks to the female experience, which may include that of trans women, intersex women, and gender-queer women. It should be acknowledged that trans, intersex, and gender-queer vegans have a number of additional challenges faced by the movement.

This piece was originally submitted to an advocacy anthology designed to introduce new vegans to the movement, but did not make the final cut. I suspect that the piece was accepted but later rejected due to its political undertones. It is reproduced here because I feel strongly about bringing honesty and accountability to our movement as a matter of justice for marginalized women. For more information on sexism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, please see my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Please also see my publication with the Journal of Gender Studies, “The Role of Professionalization Regarding Female Exploitation in the Nonhuman Animal Rights Movement and my essay for The Feminist Wire, “Gender Policing the Vegan Woman.”

 


Corey Lee WrennWrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network and also operates The Academic Activist Vegan. She is a professor of Sociology, council member with the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association, and an advisory board member with the International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. In 2015, she was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.

Of Breeders, MOOs and Overpopulation: Eugenics in the Animal Rights Movement

Trigger Warning: Post contains potentially upsetting discussion of eugenics, forced sterilization and racially insensitive commentary from the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights community. Also references sexist, classist, and ableist positions that are responsible for considerable structural harm to vulnerable demographics.
Large crowd of people

By: Dr. C. Michele Martindill

Stories about overpopulation appear so often in the news and op-ed essays they are barely gets a second glance. Overpopulation is blamed for all the ills of the social world, everything from obvious social problems such as poverty and hunger to less known concerns such as climate change and deforestation of the planet. Rarely is the concept of overpopulation questioned or defined beyond citing the overall population of planet earth or particular nation states. It is easy enough to find the figures—earth now has an estimated population of 7,318,275,998 as of this writing (Current World Population, 2015) and the United States has an estimated population of 324,907,247. Whenever news stories question how to dispose of the vast amounts of garbage generated by such numbers or to address an environmental hazard such as carbon emissions the first thought is to reduce the population that is destroying the planet. Sociologist David L. Altheide, author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis (2002), argues that such stories are morality plays that unfold in “news reports, reality TV shows,…and documentaries,…it is the world of predators and prey, criminals and citizens,…Stories tend to be told from the perspective (voice) of the victim or criminal justice agents; seldom do we see or hear the accused outside of a prescribed role, for example, in handcuffs (193).” In many respects overpopulation is a morality play, pitting the dominant elite white culture against Persons of Color, women and anyone living in poverty, those who are handcuffed.

Vegans are divided in their response to overpopulation stories, but they seem to agree something must be done to save the planet and the lives of animals. Some vegans are vocal in their belief that if the human population was reduced or even eliminated then animals would no longer be slaughtered for consumer products, and the environment would heal. In an effort to counter overpopulation scare tactics, there are other vegans who quickly assert how livestock production contributes to water pollution, desertification of the land, displacement of Native populations and carbon emissions, but they become mired in point-counterpoint debates over environmental science, giving scant attention to the human groups most affected by the overpopulation morality play. They suggest the solution is more education and accessible birth control so that women can make better choices and stop having such large families. The problem in each instance is the absence of critical thought regarding the use of the term overpopulation. Specifically, as long as the vegan animal rights movement frames the discussion about human procreation as a choice argument grounded in pseudo-concern for the fate of the planet and economics, the movement ignores a far more serious threat and deep contradiction to veganism: the advancement of eugenics, the belief that the human gene pool can and should be improved through selective procreation and forced sterilization.

Any overpopulation claim that fails to address eugenics and simply demands that humans have to stop procreating because the planet and its resources are threatened is nothing more than a pseudo concern for the planet, a concern meant to disguise racism, classism and sexism. Overpopulation is a socially constructed concept with a long history of being promoted by the white man cis gendered elite scientists and corporations of the world. Stripped of polysyllabic terminology and statistical arguments about environmental damage, overpopulation is nothing more than a nameless, faceless scare tactic. Its aim is to objectify the so-called unruly masses, to deny them their rights, and to glorify the wealthy elite by encouraging them to procreate and populate the world with their precious gene pool. Those who assert that no one should procreate regardless of social status still fail to acknowledge the sexism and racism of such a demand.

Cartoon with oil well exploding with people, reads, "The well is dry, but we've got a gusher of new customers"

Certainly there is an element of truth to the overpopulationist propaganda, e.g. climate change is real, but it has little to do with the number of humans on the planet and everything to do with the overpopulation of cattle (McKnight, 2014). Oil spills, deforestation and global poverty are not the result of overpopulation; rather, they can be directly linked to corporate greed, capitalism that regards the earth as nothing more than an endless supply of materials for consumer goods and the military-industrial complex that values war over investing in real peace keeping efforts such as feeding the hungry. Arguments against these and other overpopulationist claims can be refuted statistic by statistic, but such debate will do nothing to reframe the issues in a way that accentuates the hidden agenda of overpopulationists—their racism, sexism, ableism and classism. Any future dialogues need to focus on individualism, social darwinism and eugenics, the ideologies that underpin the entire overpopulation perspective.

The rift between overpopulationists and social justice advocates both within and outside of the vegan movement is growing, thanks in large part to the hatred of humans so frequently espoused by animal rights leaders such as Gary Yourofsky and his loyal followers. Off-hand comments about humans not deserving to live because they are responsible for all of the suffering brought on other animals are expressions of the overpopulationist dogma and based in individualism. In order to understand how social darwinism and eugenics work it is necessary to first look at the concept of individualism (see Note 1).

Individualism is the belief that each person is only responsible for their own self and will receive rewards—wealth, salaries, social position, education, access to medical care—based on individual merit. This belief system is used to support capitalism and to keep the working class motivated while performing mundane tasks in dead end jobs. As long as workers believe if they work hard enough they can rise in social class and accumulate wealth, they will continue to show up for work, not complain about working conditions and tell anyone who will listen that the company owners are heroes. Those who do not succeed are easily dismissed as individuals who did not work hard enough or long enough; it is their own fault for being failures. After all, the evolution of society can be summed up as survival of the fittest, just like in nature, right? Well, no.

Ever since the work on evolutionary theory by Charles Darwin became known there have been attempts to identify patterns of evolution in society similar to those found in plants and other animals. Policy makers have long thought it obvious that those living in poverty or with mental health problems were not as evolved as the wealthy elite class. Such a belief depends on a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Darwin was interested in how plants, for instance, adapted to a changing environment and described the process as natural selection (not to be confused with artificial selective breeding), he also observed how such processes occurred slowly and could not be seen in any one generation. He did not initially see the processes as some sort competition in which only the fittest survived or were rewarded in some way by nature. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is credited with coining the term survival of the fittest in relation to society, and then Darwin later used the term to refer to local, immediate adaptations to a given environment. As time passed, Darwin’s theory became equated solely with survival of the fittest rather than natural selection, and sociologists tagged the phrase survival of the fittest as social darwinism, usually used as a pejorative term. Sociologists were pitted against politically conservative policy makers who were trying to justify discriminatory legislation by claiming only the fittest humans should survive. Social darwinism—a pseudo-scientific claim—thus became the rationalization for individualism and the social policies that were based on individualism.

Darwin

Individualism also decries charity as unnecessary for the lower classes since they are responsible for the consequences of their own laziness, for financial troubles and for having big families or too many children. While capitalism depends on having a ready supply of workers willing to accept low pay and to sing the praises of the economic system that entraps them, capitalism bears no responsibility for the hardships related to poverty. What a perfect economic system!! The wealthy elite exploit the workers, cast aside the humans deemed unfit and manage to get the exploited masses to defend the entire system by keeping the hope alive that anyone can achieve THE AMERICAN DREAM!!

This whole notion of individualism or the American Dream, which is now a global belief system, can be seen throughout the industrialization and modernization of the States. Eugenics, the belief and related practices that any animal population, including the human population, can be genetically improved through controlled reproduction, dates back centuries, but became closely linked to individualism in the 19th century. Scientists who promoted eugenics or the eugenics movement of the 20th century were at first interested in controlled reproduction as a way to eliminate mental illness and other hereditary diseases. After all, if scientist Gregor Mendel could trace patterns of inheritance in pea plants in 1865, later scientists reasoned similar patterns might be traced in humans. Eugenics was the cornerstone of the Immigration Restriction League which was founded in 1894 to prevent those of certain races who might contaminate the superior American gene pool from entering the country. Literacy tests were proposed as early as 1897 to help identify inferior immigrants. In 1910 Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office and within the next twenty years the goal of the organization became preventing unfit humans from having any children.

By the late 1920s forced sterilization of those deemed unfit was widely accepted and laws based on a 1914 model statute were passed:

Advocacy in favor of sterilization was one of Harry Laughlin’s first major projects at the Eugenics Record Office. In 1914, he published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws (Lombardo, n.d.).

It is estimated that between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized. Women were the main victims of forced sterilization, and at first many who were sterilized were already committed to mental institutions and labelled imbeciles. As sterilization became the norm, some victims were taken from their homes and reasons for sterilization included pregnancy while unmarried, general promiscuity, having a sexually transmitted disease or being a pauper. The reasoning by the thirty-three states with forced sterilization laws was that it was a way to prevent people from becoming a burden on society, especially if they had to be housed in a state run mental institution, receive some kind of public aid or be held in prisons. Also, at this time in history more and more immigrants were arriving in U.S. cities and they were being blamed for the rise in crime and poverty. Eugenics was heralded as a solution by medical professionals and city officials alike (Norrgard, 2008).

The majority of the country is shaded to indicate presence of laws

It is an understatement to say racism and eugenics are historically and inextricably linked. Throughout the eugenics movement Black women were regarded as responsible for passing traits to their daughters that would lead to a future of doom, lives of “poverty, delinquency, and despair (Sebring, 2007).”

During the 1950s in the US South white women faced economic, legal, and medical obstacles to their access to reproductive services such as contraceptives and sterilization procedures. During this same time family planning initiatives targeted women of color (particularly black women) encouraging the use of contraceptives and sterilizations in the interest of reducing the growth of the black population. Family planning initiatives were politically espoused by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond, as a racialized form population control in the interest of limiting black voter strength in the US South. State funding for family planning clinics frequently received popular support when associated with women of color, though the same was not true when associated with white women. Or, in the words of Louisiana judge Leander Perez, “The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born.” (Sebring, 2007)

Who were the women who were involuntarily sterilized? The overpopulationists have managed to objectify them as populations, robbing them of their names, faces and voices in the process. Efforts to compensate victims were and continue to be met with disdain as well as arguments that the state funds are better spent elsewhere. Such was the case in North Carolina until 2013 when the victims were awarded $10 million dollars after a prolonged battle with legislators. Elaine Riddick is one of the victims.

Elaine Riddick and Son

Riddick and Son

Elaine Riddick was raped and impregnated at 13 years old and, after giving birth to her baby boy Tony, she was sterilized against her will. Afterward, she lived for years in shame, but had something to prove.

“People need to know that injustice was done towards them and they need to be compensated for that,” said Riddick,…

Riddick has been a formidable advocate for her fellow victims, pressing North Carolina to make amends. But multiple attempts at compensation have not come to fruition.

On Thursday Riddick said she was amazed to learn of North Carolina’s plans to compensate victims.

“I tip my hat to North Carolina, finally they came to their senses and decided to do what’s right,” she said.

Still, Riddick added, the money isn’t enough.

“You can’t put a price on someone taking your womb or castrating you, it’s humiliating,” Riddick said (Naggiar, 2013).

It was not until after WWII that forced sterilization began to fall out of favor with proponents in the United States. People learned that Laughlin’s Model Sterilization Law was the inspiration for the law adopted by Nazi Germany in 1933, a law that legally sanctioned the sterilization of over 350,000 people. Laughlin was even awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work in “the science of racial cleansing” (Lombardo P. A., 2008). So, it was not the racism of sterilizing Black women that launched the move to halt the sterilizations, nor was it forced sterilizations of girls as young as ten. Furthermore, the laws were not changed based on the lack of informed consent. No. The laws were not challenged until it became embarrassing to be associated with the genocide carried out by the Nazis, a genocide that ran concurrently with a genocide of POC in the states.

Eugenics and forced sterilization remain in the news today. In 2013 it was revealed that 148 women prisoners in California were denied their right to informed consent and sterilized between 2006 and 2010. On September 25, 2014 California passed Senate Bill 1135 to “prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility… (Senate Bill No. 1135, 2014).”

In September of 2014 the vice chairperson of the Arizona Republican Party and former state senator resigned his position after making comments about the sterilization of Medicaid recipients:

“You put me in charge of Medicaid, the first thing I’d do is get Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations,” Russell Pearce said on his radio show, according to a transcript from the Arizona Republic. “Then we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol, and if you want to [reproduce] or use drugs or alcohol, then get a job (McDonough, 2014).”

Similar stories continue to be reported from around the world, including comments by self-described vegans. A recent Facebook discussion among vegans on the topic of over-population shows how someone in a position of privilege can become defensive at the mere suggestion of racism in the language they use to discuss procreation:

Commenter #1: I am always skeptical around blanket statements about procreation. For too long it’s been a form of racism to talk about POC women as “breeders” or “welfare queens.” Demands to end procreation also come from a classist perspective in that rural white women and POC women have been targets, including decades of pressure to be sterilized or in some cases being sterilized without consent. Which leads to the observation that arguments against procreation contribute to sexism when they silence the voices of women. Yes, women should have access to information about birth control and adoption, but not at the expense of a patriarchal society doing so simply to perpetuate patriarchal values. What we’re really talking about here is the need to realize how corporatism and capitalism combine to create all of these products that are destroying the environment and marketing them to the point people think they can’t live without them. It’s not procreation that is the issue, but rather how consumption is promoted as a way of life

Commenter #2: Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.

Commenter #1: …did I really just read these words? ” Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.” I’ll play nice and ask: Why in your opinion should everyone stop “breeding”? Also, the word “breeding/ers” is problematic in terms of socially reproducing racism.

Commenter #2: The world is severely overpopulated period. We need to give it a rest. Too many ppl too many unnecessary selfish problems. Breed means procreate nothing racist. [emphasis added]

It is common to find the words breeders and moos used among certain vegan overpopulationist factions in reference to women who give birth to children, and there can be little doubt those terms are both racially charged and sexist.

Banana Girl Freelee, a self-described vegan, uses similar racist, sexist and classist language in a recent YouTube video:

We need drastic action or else we’re goin’ down the shitter and we’re takin’ the rest of the species with us. We’re destroying all the other species, including ourselves. So obviously the load needs to be lightened on Mother Nature. We need to stop draining the f*cking resources until they’re all gone and so here’s what I propose: is that people have a test. They need a license, a permit before they procreate, before they have children. They need to pass a test…So, what does that test consist of?…They definitely need to have a stable income so they can actually look after children…have money in the bank that’s for sure (vegan, 2015).

Freelee Banana GirlAt a time when voting rights for Persons of Color are being challenged with voter identification laws and literacy tests, it is not surprising to find the script for the overpopulation morality play includes a test for the right to procreate.

Ironically, members of the upper class are encouraged to have as many children as they want, as shown in a recent story about how large families are now “the ultimate status symbol” among wealthy women from New York City’s Upper East Side. Wendy Martin, Ph.D., author of Primates of Park Avenue, is quoted as saying:

When you think about it, it’s logical that a big family equals a big status symbol: It’s expensive to raise kids anywhere, and especially in New York City, where full-time nannies, private school, and summer camp are standard expenses. In the US, the average cost of raising a child is $245,340, according to a recent government report. But that figure more than doubles — to $540,514 — when that child is being raised in Manhattan (Zeveloff, 2015).

Thin white women in a park tending to childrenClearly, as long as the interests of the upper class are at stake, they must be defended and presented in a way consistent with individualism, with the notion that they earned the right to have as many children as they want and can afford. There are no suggestions that the wealthy need more education about birth control, nor is there any implication that they somehow are not smart enough to understand how large family size must surely lead to poverty. And what about all of those scarce resources that these children will consume over the course of their lifetimes? All is well as long as they can afford the steaks, fur coats, servants and fancy cars that burn an exorbitant amount of fossil fuel? Population expert Fred Pearce argues that rising consumption is the real problem, not overpopulation:

“Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising head count as a threat to the planet,” Mr. Pearce wrote in Prospect, a British magazine, in 2010. “And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet.”

“Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest current concern because of climate change,” he continued. “The world’s richest half billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent of the population are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions (Haberman, 2015).

Maybe the time has come for vegans who double as overpopulationists to think critically about whether they want to continue supporting a racist, sexist and classist ideology or consider how consumerism and consumption impact planetary resources.

Even if all the eugenics laws in the world are struck from the books, the ideology of individualism and the American Dream will continue to drive our social world and a large segment of the vegan movement. It is far easier to hate all humans for what they are doing to other animals than it is to examine how we all participate in systems of oppression. Go ahead and blame oppressed and exploited humans for speciesism, for rampant consumerism and for being selfish. Individualism tells us we have no responsibility for other humans, so why not hate them and objectify them? Know this one thing and know it well: We all serve the interests of the white man dominated elite class as long as we do not take the responsibility to challenge the racism, sexism and classism of the overpopulation myth. As long as we are preoccupied with directing hate toward other humans, we will not be demanding accountability from the capitalist leaders and major corporations that are responsible for environmental degradation, the murder and torture of animals for profit, the formation of the school to prison pipeline and the growth of the military-industrial complex.

Being against eugenics is NOT taking anything away from working for the animals or ending the oppression of other animals. BUT ending speciesism will not end the hatred of humans for other humans, the bigotry directed toward Persons of Color or the ideology of individualism that tells everyone to turn their backs on those deemed unworthy. The ultimate manifestation of speciesism occurs whenever humans objectify and dehumanize other humans by denying them their rights while at the same time claiming they are anti-speciesist because they think the rights of all animals must be respected. What a contradiction in terms!! Humans will work to universally grant rights to other animals and simultaneously direct hatred and blame toward other humans, toward breeders and MOOs, unless every effort is made to expose the overpopulation morality play for what it is: unadulterated bigotry.

The words of writer and animal rights activist Christopher Sebastian (personal communication, 2015) offer an eloquent summary of how individualism works and how deeply racism strikes in the animal rights movement:

Animal Rights Friends:

How come when I am talking about human privilege, most of my vegan friends understand I’m talking about living in a society structured to advantage humans…where humans are granted greater levels of access based on arbitrary biological distinctions outside of their control? Indeed, they’re even quick to abdicate such privilege and discuss ways in which we need to alter our society for greater levels of inclusion and sensitivity to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters.

But when I start talking about how white privilege disenfranchises people of color in the same way, it’s a goddamn showcase showdown. Suddenly, my white vegan friends are quick to point out how they worked hard and sometimes they experienced adversity. None of this matters!!! You still hold power in a structure dominated by and cultivated to center whiteness. Some days, I’m just so damn tired of having to talk about this. But seriously, can we not make a space to understand how life operates differently for POC animal rights activists and allies? Damn.

 

Note 1: Individualism is not to be confused with individuality. The former is an ideology that supports capitalism; the latter refers to someone’s personal preferences and tastes.

References

Altheide, D. L. (2002). Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Current World Population. (2015, May 31). Retrieved from Worldmeters: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

Haberman, C. (2015, May 31). The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/us/the-unrealized-horrors-of-population-explosion.html?_r=0

Lombardo, P. A. (2008). Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lombardo, P. (n.d.). Eugenic Sterilization Laws. Retrieved from Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement: http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html

McDonough, K. (2014, September 15). Arizona GOPer quits after disgusting comment — but there’s a catch . Retrieved from SALON: http://www.salon.com/2014/09/15/arizona_goper_quits_after_disgusting_comment_but_theres_a_catch/

McDonough, K. (2014, September 15). Arizona GOPer quits after disgusting comment–but there’s a catch. Retrieved from SALON: http://www.salon.com/2014/09/15/arizona_goper_quits_after_disgusting_comment_but_theres_a_catch/

McKnight, T. (2014, August 4). Want to have a real impact on climate change? Then become a vegetarian. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/04/climate-change-impact-vegetarian

Naggiar, S. (2013, July 29). Victims of forced sterilization to receive $10 million from North Carolina. Retrieved from the Grio: http://thegrio.com/2013/07/29/victims-of-forced-sterilization-to-receive-10-million-from-north-carolina/

Norrgard, K. P. (2008). Human Testing, the Eugneics Movement, and IRBs. Retrieved from

Scitable A Collaborative Learning Space for Science: http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/Human-Testing-the-Eugenics-Movement-and-IRBs-724

Sebring, S. (2007, November 19). sterilization — black women. Retrieved from mississippi appendectomy, a developing online archive of information about women of color and coercive sterilization: https://mississippiappendectomy.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/black-women-in-the-1960s-and-1970s/

Senate Bill No. 1135. (2014, September 14). Retrieved from California Legislative Information: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB1135

vegan, p. a. (2015, May 14). Why “overpopulation” isn’t the real problem (Freelee response). Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nulTqmHH7eg&feature=youtu.be

Zeveloff, J. (2015, May 25). The ultimate status symbol for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side is not what you’d expect. Retrieved from Yahoo! Finance: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/ultimate-status-symbol-among-millionaire-164732256.html

 

Michele Spino MartindillDr. Martindill earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri and taught there in the Sociology Department, the Peace Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Her areas of emphasis include political sociology, organizations and work, and social inequalities. Dr. Martindill’s dissertation focuses on the no-kill shelter social movement and is based on ethnographic research conducted during several years of working in an animal shelter. She is vegan, a feminist and is currently interested in the stories women tell through their needlework, including crochet, counted cross stitch and quilting. It is important to note that Dr. Martindill consistently uses her academic title in order to inspire women and members of other marginalized groups to pursue their dreams no matter what challenges those dreams may entail, and certainly one of her goals is to see more women in academia.