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

Podcast #1: Fourth of July & Cat Poop

Vegan Fourth of July

Vegan Feminist Network turned 3 on July 1st. That weekend, we (Corey and Brian) recorded our first podcast of the series. What does the 4th of July mean for Nonhuman Animals and other marginalized groups? How many poops can one cat make on one floor in one day? All this and more.

This episode is not safe for work (contains cursing).

Show Notes

Vegan Dating: When Men Fake It to Make It

Heart-Beets-Arugula-Salad

I went vegan at 17, about the same time I started dating. Since then, I can probably count on both hands the number of men interested in me (I am straight) who declared themselves vegan as though it were the next level up from flowers and candy.

Many vegans consider themselves what obnoxious news journalists label “vegansexual.” That is, vegans like to date other vegans. For some, it simply comes down to the fact that kissing someone who’s just slurped down a cup full of frozen cow lactation is just gross. For others, dating nonvegans can be an intensely frustrating experience because veganism is such a strongly held political position. If someone able to do so does not care enough about the suffering of others to stop eating and wearing them, vegans will wonder if this is the kind of person they want to commit themselves to.

Of course, very few vegans were born vegans. Many were once those very same politically apathetic milkshake-drinking folks, easily in a position to be vegan but not especially interested in doing so. Of course, some are structurally marginalized from veganism and are never deserving of shame or exclusion; the “choice” to go vegan is not readily available to all. It doesn’t help to be close-minded. People can and do change. Circumstances change, too. “Vegansexuality” ignores the potential.

Another consideration is the inherent limitation of a small dating pool. At around 1% of a given country’s population, there’s just not many folks to pick from. Speciesism is still very much a social norm. I’ve been a country girl for most of my life, and you don’t find many vegans outside major metropolitan areas. This has meant for me that vegansexuality has not always been a realistic lifestyle.

While I have been relegated to dating nonvegan men without much choice, the other side of the coin is that these nonvegan men are probably dealing with a vegan for the first time and they simply don’t know how to act. For someone only loosely aware of what veganism is all about, it might not seem like such an offense to jump on the vegan bandwagon to get the girl.

In some ways, I can appreciate the gesture. Many of these fellas just want to demonstrate that they’re willing to be the man they think I want them to be. They want to show some sort of interest in my interests. Certainly, they’re a step up from the occasional macho-man wastes-of-my-time who felt the need to remind me every so often, “I eat meat, I’ll always eat meat, there’s nothing you can do to change that!” I also enjoy going to a restaurant and not feeling like an alien. The luxury of informing the wait staff that, “We’re both vegan!” when unfurling an order laden with special requests does not go unappreciated. Neither does a home-cooked meal prepared by someone other than myself for a change.

For the most part, however, the gesture backfires. It’s kind of like those movies where the male protagonist borrows a baby or a puppy to impress his lady love. Parenthood is a serious commitment. Much like veganism, it isn’t something you take on lightly. Speaking honestly, becoming vegan is a relatively big life decision—you’re changing most of your eating and purchasing patterns and you’re going to be the sore thumb at family gatherings for a couple of years at least until everyone gets used to it. I would think that most people might actually want to learn about the issues first and try to understand why doing something that’s initially such a pain is actually worth doing.

This lack of sincerity makes a difference. Inevitably, when the relationship fails to materialize or fizzles after a few weeks or months, these men generally return to consuming Nonhuman Animal products. When it’s clear I’m not interested in them, suddenly being vegan is “too hard” or it drops from their radar completely. I can’t help but assume that their putting on a vegan front is a red flag that they would be deceptive in other areas of the relationship as well.

carrot_heart

It is worth noting, however, that three men that I’ve dated went vegan and actually stayed vegan. What was the difference? In getting to know me, they also became familiar with the issues and my passion for social justice. They saw veganism as a political action and went vegan for the animals, not for me. In fact, two were vegan for months before they finally admitted their transition to me. One of them told me outright: “I didn’t want you thinking I was doing this for you.” Our relationship ended in 2007; he’s still vegan.

For me, veganism is an intensely serious commitment. I am vegan because I am a social activist fighting oppression. I am vegan because I believe Nonhuman Animals deserve equal consideration. I am vegan because the consumption of Nonhuman Animal products is also a human rights issue; speciesist industries impose immeasurable suffering on marginalized humans such as immigrants, people of color, and disabled people who labor in their dairies, slaughterhouses, and tanneries. Poor people in Western countries are concentrated in food deserts where toxic processed animal products are forced on them, laying waste to entire communities. They are also most likely to bear the burden of environmental chaos perpetrated by animal agriculture. Veganism is a struggle of life over death, freedom over oppression, and justice over exploitation. I don’t think it’s very cute when men reduce it down to throwing out their frozen pizzas just for a shot with me.

It is also manipulative. Instead of an honest presentation, these men are fabricating an illusion designed to deceive. Veganism becomes another creepy tool of the pickup artist. Men’s vegan-fronting in relationships is a feminist issue, too.

But it keeps happening. So, I simply sigh, smile, and say, “Good for you!” After all, the activist in me holds out hope that maybe they’ll actually get interested in fighting oppression and stick with it. At the very least, their being vegan for the next few weeks or months will, theoretically, save a few lives. When it’s over, however, it’s no surprise to me when I run into them later and they’ve got their hand in a bag of cheesy Doritos. I just roll my eyes and feel satisfied that I made the right call in passing him over.

It definitely gets old. The original version of this essay was written some years prior, and my impatience with the nonvegan dating pool has grown. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m in a better position to negotiate. I’ve given vegansexuality a try. I met my current partner on a vegan dating site, and never once have I had to deal with manipulative pretenses of veganism with him or awkward only-vegan-at-the-table moments. Now my radical, rage-the-patriarchy feminism, on the other hand, is a whole different ballgame…

 

ARationalApproachtoAnimalRights

This essay is a revision of “Why I’m Not Impressed When Guys ‘Go Vegan’ For Me” first published on June 14, 2013 with a now defunct feminist blog. You can read more about gender and veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


Corey Lee WrennDr. Wrenn is the founder of Vegan Feminist Network. She is a Lecturer of Sociology and Director of Gender Studies with Monmouth 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. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory.

whyveganism.com

The Unapologetic Reality of a Vegan Feminist

 

Unapologetic Vegan Feminist

By Christine M. Dibiase

As a woman, I am constantly aware that I am a woman. While that may seem unnecessary to point out, consider that I have to be aware that I am a woman before I am aware that I am a person. Imagine a neon flashing sign on my forehead that reads “FEMALE,” and never ever goes off. When I wake up in the morning, I go on the internet and see the hate and inequality we accept as normal. I have to watch what I say and what I post, so as not to be deemed “crazy” or “emotional,” among worse things. When I walk to my car, I feel the eyes burning into me. I worry if my shorts are too short or if my top is too low cut. In class, eyes roll and people snicker if I am too opinionated on a subject.

When I get lunch, I have to make sure that I am not eating too much or too fast and that I am taking small bites and chewing with my mouth closed. I also have to try to sound as far from pretentious as possible when asked why I’m not ordering what everyone else is ordering, because saying, “I’m a vegan,” tends to cue the eye rolls. When I meet new people, I have to give a handshake that is not too strong or I will be viewed as manly and intimidating, but not too weak or I will be viewed as a joke. When I walk to my car at night, I fear the catcalls and the men who utter them. I fear what could be hiding around the corner or behind the bush. I am hyper-aware of each and every move I make throughout the course of a day. Being a woman is exhausting, and the worst part is that men have absolutely no idea.

How could they? Cisgendered, able-bodied, (typically) white men live in a harshly contrasted world. They have never needed to be aware of their gender, or live in fear because of it, because they are on the opposing side of the struggle. They are able to take everything for granted because their ignorance is bliss. They do not realize what obstacles women face in every aspect of daily life, and because they don’t realize they exist, nothing changes. When women do speak out, men hush us and tell us to stop being dramatic (playing on those stereotypes which hold us down). The system and institution were built against us, to keep us in a role of submission. Because of this, men today don’t even realize their ignorance. This way of life is so widely accepted as normal and never questioned that it is ridiculously difficult to get men, and even some women, to open their eyes and realize the imbalance of power, control, and comfort.

College did not gently shake me on the shoulders to make me see clearly, it beat me over the head with a two-by-four and ran me over with a steam roller. I was unaware of the issues with this system until recent years. Of course, I knew that women were treated like this, but I never understood that it was a systematic mistreatment, built into the very foundation of our society, and not grounded in any truth or evidence. After repeatedly being treated like I was a lesser being in society over the years, I began to question what was actually going on here. From attending too many misogynistic frat parties in grimy basements and getting treated like an object to be controlled and won, getting educated about and involved with feminist groups online, and then taking a Gender Studies course at my university, I finally realized that this is disgusting and needs to be fought against.

On top of all of this, I am a vegetarian and transitioning to veganism. I have been a vegetarian my whole life, which has forced me to learn to deal with the criticism. This adds a whole other piece to the feminist struggle. Not only do people typically see it as a silly life choice, but they never seem to understand why. They joke about it and shove meat in my face, asking if I want any. I don’t do this because I feel like a special snowflake, which is what they all think. I do this because the treatment of animals at farms is disgusting and unacceptable. I share the graphic videos and images online, then get harshly negative feedback from my Facebook friends that it is inappropriate and too sickening to watch. Do they not realize that they are living it and contributing to it every time they eat one of these animal products? The dissociation is so severe that they do not even realize the huge role they play in those videos. They are why the events in those videos happen. Without a consumer, there would be no market for these products. Why do I get taunted for my compassion?

A link between my feminist struggle and my vegan struggle is that animals are objectified the way I am. People don’t see a hamburger as the remains of a dead cow in the same way they do not see me (a woman) as a person. They ultimately understand that they are the same thing, but there is no instant, conscious link between the two ideas. As Carol Adams discussed, the idea of the absent referent plays a prominent role here. It requires thought to understand that they are one in the same.

This mistreatment and misrepresentation is something that now, after getting an education on the inner-workings of the system, I am fighting. I no longer second guess what I say or do, I am unforgivingly opinionated and outspoken. I will eat what I want and stand up for those without voices. I dress how I want and do what I want. I am not sorry for being a woman. I am not sorry for having a mind and a voice. I do not care if you have something to say about it. I identify as a woman and that is not something I should spend my life asking forgiveness for.

 


Christine Dibiase

Christine is a senior Elementary Education and English major at Monmouth University. She has been a vegetarian since age two and an animal rights activist in training since shortly after. In her teenage years she became increasingly involved in the animal rights movement, and is now transitioning to veganism. Since college, Christine has discovered her growing interest with the feminist movement and discontent with society’s inequalities.

whyveganism.com

When Social Justice Ignores Marginalized Vegans

Dejected pony ignored by larger herd of horses
Shunned pony image from viral AmazonUK commercial.

By Lauren McGrath

Along with defending animal exploitation, asking repetitive questions, and constantly derailing arguments, a favorite pastime of non-vegans as of late seems to be their use of the Social Justice moniker in order to justify their non-veganism. Instead of attacking systems that exploit human and non-human animals alike, the warriors of the almighty keyboard are far more interested in using poor campaigns to justify the torture and murder of innocent non-human animals. They are more than happy to speak over the voices of marginalized members of society who choose to lead an ethical lifestyle in order to assert that no, they are the most ethical of all because they are acting as true allies. Or… something like that. Either way, imagine the energy these blue-in-the-face talkers could be expending on helping to make veganism mainstream and accessible? It’s an interesting combination of trying to play The Ultimate Ally and simple bacon obsession, and there’s no way around this.

Let’s get an uncomfortable truth out of the way; there are certainly vegan organizations who take part in all sorts of bullshittery. From the rampant sexism of PETA to DxE’s constant struggles with racist members, (links for both back to Ecorazzi pieces) the animal rights community does not always act in the best interest of all species. Unfortunately, this is a widespread phenomenon that all activist movements must face and deal with in the same ways. Singling animal rights out, however, is unfair. It’s singled out because of cultural norms of violence and a societal obsession with meat consumption, undoubtedly. Veganism is such an easy target because society at large has created such mountainous misconceptions about it as a social movement. Every time an article critiquing veganism from a non-vegan is released, the author seems to expect vegans from marginalized backgrounds to take the attack lying down.

Last week, I wrote about former vegan Mickey Z.’s anti vegan tirade, and his blatant erasure of non-white, non-male, and poor vegans. “I’m sure plenty of you are itching to assure me that none of your friends behave like this. (None, you claim!) Hey, I personally know some amazing humans who happen to follow a plant-based lifestyle but sorry, that doesn’t alter the overall reality,” he wrote, using a brush to paint one of the most broad takedown attempts I’ve ever seen. “As someone who was immersed in the inner circle of veganism for two decades, I can speak from vast personal experience. So please spare me and everyone else the “not all vegans” defense.”

It’s the #notallvegans bullshit that really sets me off. The “out” vegan movement is diversifying at a rapid rate, with oppressed groups carving out their own spaces. Many of these groups have been at work for years publishing essays in regards to critical theory an animal rights, applying it both to the animal rights movement, and larger societal systems. Believe it or not, vegans can examine the world while also being reflective!

In terms of feminist theory, feminism with a focus on animal rights has existed for decades now. With theorists and strategists such as Corey Lee Wrenn’s The Vegan Feminist Network, Carol J. Adams, and organized efforts such as Collectively Free that highlights grassroots feminist-vegan movement and thought, one must be willfully ignorant in order to not know how powerful vegan feminism is. Many feminists object to feminism and veganism being used in the same breath. They claim that our discussion about the female reproductive system and how it is exploited is taking part in biological essentialism. In truth, it’s the animal agriculture industry that has worked so very hard to gender the animals that they exploit. I would love to speak in more gender neutral terms when discussing the rape of dairy cows or fixation on chicken’s ovums. Unfortunately, farmer’s obsessions with feminizing “their girls” makes veganism a feminist issue whether we’re attaching gender to individual animals or not.

Everyday Feminism recently published an article called “4 Ways Mainstream Animal Rights Movements are Oppressive.” What I found the most disturbing about the article is that it rushes past minority, non-male and queer led movements without really celebrating or giving credit to the hard work they are doing. Author Mahealani Joy lists ways that the “mainstream” movement (defined in the article as groups such as PETA) is oppressive without examining veganism itself. Critique of the mainstream movement is so incredibly important, but it was a huge failure to simply name drop three grassroots movements that are inclusive as a means of “covering all the bases”. “The thing is, those people and the work they are doing is not what most people think of when they think of veganism, vegetarianism, and animal rights,” writes Joy. It’s because of commentary that focuses so strongly on PETA above all else that this problem exists to begin with, and Joy is participating in the silencing of progressive vegan movements by speaking over inclusive vegan movements. To their credit, the piece does highlight that as vegans, less focus needs to be put on aligning ourselves with large organizations and doing more work from the bottom up to prevent misconceptions from taking on lives of their own.

Friends, I’ll take one for the team here. I’ll be the one who says “not all vegans,” because it is so very true. Non-white, non-male, and poor vegans have been thrown under the bus for far too long and used as props and tools for anti-vegans to continue to mislead members of the social justice community. It’s time we stand together as a movement to move past the lies that are told about us.


Click here to visit the author’s website.

whyveganism.com

How Veganism Became an Integral Part of My Feminism

Woman lying in snow with a bear
Photo by Katerina Plotnikova

In Carol J. Adams’ 1990 groundbreaking eco-feminist text The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, she takes the reader on a journey that touches on patriarchy, meat-eating, feminism, veganism (though Adams calls it vegetarianism, as a vegan herself she addresses dairy and egg production), and the ways in which each influence one another. One of Adams’ most pervasive theories compares the ongoing oppression of women and consumption of animals as influenced by their roles as “absent referents,” which divorces the consumable object (figuratively as the female body and literally as the animal body) from the individual.

When I was first introduced to this text in college, I was an active and enthusiastic meat-eater. I once had a fleeting thought that I could try vegetarianism, but it was quashed pretty quickly when my breakfast sausages arrived. I even teased a friend of mine for being vegetarian. I didn’t give a second thought to the ethics of eating animal products because I cared about problems already! I was active in the feminist group at my university. I understood systemic oppression and as I learned more my eyes were opened to the most insidious injustices that faced humans. In sum: I cared deeply about addressing my own internalized biases, but only if it didn’t involve an upheaval of my everyday behavior.

Adams’ work was presented to my feminist group during the spring semester of my sophomore year. The woman presenting showed us images and advertisements in which farmed animals and women were interchangeable, treated as equal players in the eyes of the intended (meat-loving, heterosexual, male) audience. With warning of violence, we briefly watched footage from Earthlings (I closed my eyes). We were shown a White Castle advertisement in which a pig dances seductively and pours on herself barbeque sauce (described as “sweet, saucy, and oh so naughty”), resulting in the hooting and hollering of the male audience. In one heartbreaking photo, a pregnant sow documented in an undercover investigation of Iowa Select Farms was in a crate she couldn’t move in, attached to which was a card that described her as a “FAT/SELFISH BITCH.”

Sows crammed into gestation crates; identification paper attached to the top of the cage reads, "FAT/SELFISH BITCH"
Image from Mercy for Animals

We were captivated by the presentation. But, of course, following the meeting the majority of us did nothing to change. That would require too much effort when we could, alternatively, do nothing. We were engaged in learning more about and fighting human injustice, and adding farmed animals into our circle of compassion felt more like a chore than a choice. We didn’t want to acknowledge that refusing to eat animal products was as much a rejection of participation in suffering as anything else we strove to do. While outwardly agreeing the presentation brought our attention to disturbing information and offered avenues for action, we were internally defensive due to prior exposure to vegan activism. We perceived PETA to be the face of veganism and therefore extended our judgment of the organization onto all vegans. PETA’s alarming willingness to objectify women to make a point required us as feminists to dislike them and, consequently, all vegans.

Despite our skepticism, we had living proof that at least two vegans, Carol J. Adams and the woman presenting Adams’ work to us, cared about both feminism and veganism. To justify our unwillingness to make fundamental changes in our behavior, we claimed excuses that many people make when encountering veganism for the first time. We lived on campus and had to rely primarily on dining hall food, which had vegan options but certainly not as many as there were non-vegan options. And vegans have so many health concerns, right? (We couldn’t be certain the speaker didn’t have protein, calcium, and B-12 deficiencies!) We really couldn’t live without cheese—being vegan was an ascetic lifestyle that some could handle but most couldn’t, and we feigned sadness when conceding we were part of the latter group. Our friends liked to get burgers and go to the local ice cream shack, and we would be left out. Plus, our families ate animal products, what would we do when we went home? We had a laundry list of excuses that sounded really convincing and we hid behind them. I remained staunchly non-vegan, but all the information I had been exposed to during the one-hour meeting stayed in the back of my mind and slowly ate at me.

At the end of that year I found myself eating a hamburger as my mother boasted about how much I had always loved animals. I never played with dolls, but I had piles of stuffed animals and absolutely loved cats, dogs, horses, and even hamsters (I have pictures of myself as a child with nearly every animal I ever met as proof). I looked at my hamburger and it was no longer simply beef. It was an animal who was killed, ungraciously and without necessity, to become an object for my consumption.

Well, shit. Here I was halfway through a burger, uncomfortably burdened by two distinct realizations: 1) the list of excuses I began making nine months earlier suddenly seemed entirely inadequate and 2) Adams was right (she, too, realized her hypocrisy while consuming a hamburger). For the first time I understood Adams’ politicized version of the absent referent.

One does not eat meat without the death of an animal. Live animals are thus the absent referents in the concept of meat. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present. (51)

The absent referent allows us to buy prepackaged meat at the grocery store without reflecting upon the living animal it was part of not long before, and what conditions she lived and died under. It allows us to order ice cream without recognizing that milk can only be obtained by (typically artificially) impregnating a cow and separating her from her baby, and without considering what happens to that baby, or his mother. We can eat an omelette at brunch without thinking of the millions of male chicks who are ground up alive or suffocated each year because they are worthless in the egg industry, chowing down with nary a thought that the “cage-free” eggs we’re charged extra for might only be a marketing tactic. The role of living animals as absent referents means “I want these leather shoes!” is rarely followed with, “I love the feel of animals’ hides and skin on my feet.” We celebrate the success of one cow escaping the slaughterhouse and the kindness of a family rescuing a piglet found in the snow but have difficulty applying that compassion when considering the approximately 140 million cows and pigs that are slaughtered throughout the course of a year in the US. We see the individual animal when she presents as a fighter—as desperately wanting to live—and only then does she deserve her life. When she doesn’t earn that recognition, she ceases to deserve any thought at all. Without a publicized escape attempt she is not an animal who may have desperately wanted to live, but a product to be bought and the absent referent at the dinner table.

The absent referent is eagerly upheld by eateries who have a stake in the willing naïveté of their customers. The “farm-to-table” movement gets its popularity from its we-put-our-foot-down demand of “humane” meat, dairy, and eggs. Restaurants participating in this movement strive to only serve “antibiotic-free pork” and “pasture-raised dairy” as if they have a garden patch with flowers that spurt cows’ milk and bacon that grows like a root vegetable. The terms hide and further prevent us from acknowledging the experiences of “happy” cows, who are forcibly impregnated as often as possible so we can enjoy the milk they’ll produce as a consequence of pregnancy. Once these “pasture-raised” cows have had a few calves and are “spent,” they’re killed as well.

Animals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them. Our culture further mystifies the term “meat” with gastronomic language, so we do not conjure dead, butchered animals, but cuisine.” (51)

Neither Adams nor I mean to imply people don’t know the general source of food. Rather, we critique the widespread and harmful adoption of fantasies like grassy hills, happy cows, and harmless slaughter. It is the willful ignorance on the part of the consumer and the encouragement of ignorance on the part of the provider that play an important role in the continuance of consuming animal products. Animals are given positive emotions for marketing purposes, but we refuse to believe they can and do suffer.

Without its referent point of the slaughtered, bleeding, butchered animal, meat becomes a free-floating image. Meat is seen as a vehicle of meaning and not as inherently meaningful; the referent ‘animal’ has been consumed. (59)

The living animal becomes an object to purchase and consume, experiencing unimaginable conditions throughout his life before parts of his body hit shelves in time for the Sunday rush. The living animal loses his identity in the food process, advertised only as “grass-fed steak” or “pasture-raised beef,” already an object when describing a time during which he was very much alive and not yet butchered body parts. As the absent referent, the animal never lived nor was he slaughtered, he was only a dozen cuts of meat in a field, patiently waiting for his time.

Despite initial resistance, my feminist roots eventually brought me to vegetarianism and then veganism. I began noticing the shared language surrounding the treatment of women and animals. Objects to be consumed. Loss of identity during objectification. Mouth-watering breasts, legs, thighs, and rumps. Being reduced to body parts for others’ enjoyment. Adams offers additional insight regarding how the absent referent relates to the politics of reproductive justice. Adding to Adams’ politicized concept of the absent referent, I conclude that human suffering, like the suffering of animals during the process of objectification, is a hidden cost of the consumption of meat. I watch how we not only ignore the routine suffering and death of the animals when choosing a package of chicken wings, we also turn a blind eye to the serious health implications of working in a poultry slaughterhouse. The absent referents are slaves in the seafood industry, and families affected by factory farm pollution. The mechanism that allows us to overlook injustices like these against humans is the same that allows us to sit down at dinner without considering the lives, suffering, and deaths of the animals that made it possible.

Being a feminist vegan is not changing the world single-handedly; the real changes take a group effort and for that I’m thankful for activists who understand the prevalence of human and non-human animal  suffering and strive to address both. However, my participation in both movements did change me: it made me more aware of the world I live in and how I can act within our current society to avoid contributing to systems of oppression.

My veganism has been a reconciliation of existing ideologies and concepts I once could not adopt because they were so inconvenient and unfamiliar. Already a feminist, veganism was a step outside the path I was already comfortable taking. Adams opens The Sexual Politics of Meat with, “My becoming a vegetarian had seemingly little relationship to my feminism—or so I thought. Now I understand how and why they are intimately connected, how being a vegetarian reverberates with feminist meaning” (23). Like Adams, I also realized my vegetarianism had and my veganism has everything to do with my feminism and the reality is clear: the parallel suffering of women and animals in their roles as the absent referents will continue to exist as a consequence of objectification so long as we continue to deny their fundamental interconnectedness.

 

This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi on February 22, 2016.


Anna Varga is a feminist and vegan advocate living in Washington, D.C. with her partner and two cats, and is particularly passionate about the ways in which vegan politics and theory can and do address both human and non-human animal suffering.