Content Warning: Rape mention, ableism, racism, misogyny
People tend not to respond well when individuals outside of a group criticize said group. So I’m here, a dedicated member of the animal rights community, to say this: we need to do better on inclusivity. Way better.
I’m not saying this to argue, and I’m not saying this to accuse anyone. I’m saying it because it’s absolutely necessary if we want to think of ourselves as good, compassionate people. I’m saying this because it’s the right thing to do. It can make us—and our movement—better.
Many of the animal rights activists I know do an excellent job of supporting other social justice movements and recognizing oppression. But some of us are so awful at it that it makes me cringe. I don’t believe that the vegan movement as a whole is intentionally racist, or sexist or ableist. But when so many of us say or do hurtful things and then don’t own it when called out, I can see why those outside of our movement say that. When we uphold activists with racist messages, or organizations that use (intentional selection of the word use) women’s bodies for media attention, I understand why so many people see our movement as uninterested in helping humans.
I remember a time when I was part of an online group dedicated to mentoring new vegans. One of the other mentors—a person of color—took issue with the fact that so many other mentors were alright with spreading the message of a very well-known activist who is particularly racist and sexist. I agreed, and thought it would be pretty straightforward for the rest of the mentors to listen. After all, this person took the time to explain why they, as a person of color, often felt marginalized within their own movement because of people’s willingness to support this activist. I was shocked by the response.
People immediately leaped to defend this activist, claiming that he “had done so much for the animals” and therefore was a good person. Others said that this was “about the animals, so those kinds of issues aren’t important here.” One person even told us to “take our intersectional veganism somewhere else.”
Newsflash: being vegan doesn’t give you a free pass to be an awful person. Fighting one form of oppression while actively supporting other forms of oppression makes absolutely no sense.
Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Imagine you’re at dinner with your family, and you are the only vegan at the table. Your uncle eyes your plate and decides to ask why you don’t focus on something more important, like human rights. You stare at him for a moment, stunned. How can he not understand this? You explain the many intersections between animal rights and human rights—connections between meat and environmental racism, farm worker abuse, the language used to make both animals and people seem like objects—the list goes on. You explain that animals also have lives that matter to them, and that regardless of whatever else we advocate for, being vegan minimalizes violence and is the right thing to do. He calmly apologizes and explains that he meant no offense, but that human rights are more important, so the animals will have to wait. And then he goes back to eating his steak.
Angry? I’d be angry.
Let’s imagine a second scene now. You’re at a coffee shop, explaining the moral inconsistency in loving dogs but eating chickens. Your friends are surprisingly interested, and you throw out an ableist term than many vegans still use: “moral schizophrenia.” One of your friends seems taken aback. She explains that she understands the point you’re trying to make. However, she also asks you not to use that term, because it implies that individuals with schizophrenia are inherently violent and immoral. She reminds you that she herself has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and like many with schizophrenia, she has never acted violently. She is, frankly, hurt.
So you “apologize” to your friend, but you don’t actually own up to the hurt you caused. Instead, you explain what the term is meant to imply, that you mean no harm in using it, and that sometimes we need offensive language to explain such an important issue. Then you continue the conversation, using the term “moral schizophrenia” again. You probably even expect your friend to listen to your message and be totally okay with it.
Oops. You just became the uncle who made you so angry a minute ago.
This is exactly what happens when people blow off human rights violations with the excuse that the animals are worse off, or use controversial language like “slavery,” or “rape” to describe the abuse endured by farm animals. We can argue all day about what does and what does not constitute rape, but the important thing so many people miss is this: it has been explained over and over that using this term in animal rights issues is offensive and even hurtful to many rape survivors. Several rape survivors have asked for the use of the term rape to be left out of these conversations. And since we can use other language to describe the reproductive manipulation and forced impregnation of farmed animals (I just did it twice) this hurt is unnecessary. That alone should be enough of a reason to stop using the word rape in those conversations. In fact, we ought to be willing to turn animal rights communities into safe spaces and fight all forms of oppression, simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Doing the right thing alone should be enough motivation. Our movement—a movement built on love and justice—ought to be concerned with all forms of oppression, not just the forms we know the most about. If you truly need another reason to be kind and inclusive though, here it is: making our spaces safe for people of all marginalized groups is one of the best possible things we can do for our movement. Not only is it right to stand in solidarity with people fighting their oppression, but our acts of solidarity will also help them feel welcome in our spaces and more open to our message.
For example, Collectively Free, a pro-intersectional animal rights group, counts New York Pride among their followers on Instagram. Now, I don’t know the exact reasons NYC Pride has for following CF, but I might speculate that this has something to do with CF’s continuous support of the LGBT community. In the words of Raffaella Ciavatta, one of CF’s co-founders:
“When you have groups like Pride NY follow you on Instagram, you must be doing something right. Unless of course, you simply don’t want to make the AR movement accessible to minorities…”
Building a pro-intersectional AR movement is the right thing to do, and it makes us better. Imagine what would happen if every vegan fought for LGBT rights? Not with any kind of ulterior motive, but simply to support our fellow human beings. We would add millions of voices to their cause. And what if the LGBT communities in turn supported us and joined our movement, simply to support the animals? They would add millions of voices to our cause. And when we join with even more groups, then what happens? What happens when animal rights and racial equality and feminism and LGBT rights and disability rights groups all join forces? Ideally, we could throw off our oppressions together. It suddenly becomes something more than fighting the issues facing each of us. It becomes an issue of liberation for everyone.
We’re stronger together. So let’s stand together.
This is part one of a series of posts on animal rights and social justice. Part two will outline some tips for being a better pro-intersectional advocate.
Aris Austin is an author, student, and activist who writes fiction and nonfiction that aims to dismantle oppression. Their fiction has previously been awarded with honors at Colorado State University, where they attend school and serve as president for the university’s animal rights group. Aris can be found on Facebook page and more of their writing is available on their website.