The Humane Myth of Ahimsa

“We could worship even animals but would not tolerate fellow humans to sit beside us.” Bhagat Singh, freedom fighter, in Issue of Untouchability, 1928.

“Do not keep contact with those who feed ants with sugar, but kill men by prohibiting them to drink water.” Babasaheb Ambedkar, chief architect of Constitution of India and social reformer, in What Path to Salvation? 1936.

We all want to align ourselves with what is good and kind, and we are only too willing to buy in to stories that reinforce our self-perception as ethical and humane. Myriad companies employ the strategy of “humane-washing” in an effort to capitalize on these instincts. Humane-washing is a way in which companies attempt to convince consumers that their products are less cruelly sourced than those of their competitors. A familiar example would be the label “cage-free eggs,” which might be accompanied by images of chickens living free in lush, idyllic pastures. To the contrary, “cage-free” often still results in thousands upon thousands of birds being crammed together in large warehouses; they’re just not kept in individual cages. The warehouse, in turn, serves as a sort of “mass cage.” In the entirety of their short lives, these chickens will never see a pasture.

Similar myths are propagated around “happy cows” in dairy production, deliberately obscuring the mechanics of the dairy industry— which include forced insemination, early culling of male calves, and a variety of other abhorrent practices about which we would prefer not to know. As long as we can be convinced that our milk or eggs are “humane,” we need not pursue the matter further. 

Kindness to animals can be used as a tactic in signaling a moral character in general.  In fact, Israel has been engaged in a more comprehensive “vegan-washing” in order to bolster its image as a just and peace-loving country. Along with other emerging social movements of interest to millennials, specific campaigns have been undertaken to promote Israel as a paradise for vegan living. Much has been made of the vegan options offered to the soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces, including vegan leather boots. Palestinian activists have of course pointed out the irony of compassionate vegan options when the state is occupying their land. They point out that Israel is one of the biggest consumers of animal foods in the world, and that proportion of vegans in Palestine is reported to be twice that of Israel.

In many ways, India’s famed vegetarian diet and promotion of “ahimsa” as a fundamental tenet of Hinduism has a flavor of humane-washing to it. Along with other spiritual practices and the prominence of MK Gandhi, much of the animal rights movement outside of India (and even within it) holds up Hinduism as a model of nonviolence and compassionate care. Leaders of animal rights organizations in the USA sign off their emails with “ahimsa,” name their organizations “Aum,” and are often pictured with its Sanskrit symbol or Mr. Gandhi displayed prominently behind them. However, when we look beyond the surface, we see that “ahimsa” is actually a humane hoax, a deliberate campaign of humane-washing that hides violence against other humans as well as animals. The academician Pratap Mehta stated that “The centrality of ahimsa in the Indian tradition was not a description of our non-violent history. Quite the contrary, it was a testament to the centrality of violence…. the discourse on ahimsa was more a sign of violence inherent in [our] society.”

The humane hoax of ahimsa is a little like Israel’s vegan-washing campaign, only hundreds of years older. Only a minority (about 30%) of Indians practice vegetarianism, and these are predominantly the privileged castes. Dietary habits are one of the most blatant caste markers today, both in India and in the diaspora. If the rest of the world thinks of India as a “vegetarian nation,” it is only because members of its privileged castes— who have had a public voice denied to those of lower castes— are vegetarian, and the privileged minority have been eager to represent India.

The priestly caste of Hinduism is called Brahmin, and the original precursor to what later became Hinduism was known as Brahminism. Scriptural sources indicate that both meat consumption and animal sacrifices were part of religious practices during early Brahminism (1500 BCE)— and that, at a later point, privileged castes (particularly Brahmins) switched to a vegetarian diet. Who were the Brahmins? Why did they establish a sacrificial culture, and why did they later eschew it for vegetarianism?

Various sources (including linguistic and genomic evidence) indicate that the Vedas were composed by “Brahmins”— identified in this case not as people indigenous to the subcontinent but as migrants from the Steppe grasslands of central Asia who began to settle in northern India 3,500 years ago.  The evidence suggests that the Steppe migrants imposed both sacrificial culture and the caste system on the indigenous peoples, who then began to rebel against both practices. Buddhism, the main opponent to Brahminical ideology, speaks against the injustice and irrationality of both the caste system and ritual animal sacrifice. In an attempt to overthrow the advancing threat of Buddhism, Brahmins decided to eschew meat in order to claim the moral high ground, as well as spiritual and bodily purity.

In other words, their reason for adopting vegetarianism was to ostracize others as “untouchable” and not compassion or desire for ahimsa. This is clearly explained by Dr. Ambedkar, India’s preeminent social reformer, in his book Who Were the Untouchables? (1948) and followed up by Dr Ilaiah Shepherd in the essay “Freedom to Eat” (Caravan India, 2019).[1] To quote Dr. Pratap Mehta again, “Behind the solicitude for the cow lay a visceral hate for beef eaters, as if the very gentleness towards the cow was merely a sublimated form of cruelty towards others.”  In addition, the scriptures are also very revealing with respect to how different human communities were ranked in relation to each other— and, most importantly for this context, how they were ranked in relation to other animals. In other words, certain communities were first degraded and banished, then further vilified for eating the only foods available to them, in an endless cycle of ritual humiliation. In the current day, the formerly “untouchable” are called “Dalit,” they number between 200 and 300 million and are among most oppressed people in India and the world.

Even if we choose to disregard the history of vegetarianism as described by Dr. Ambedkar and others, we know beyond any doubt that meat- and beef-eating is associated with the majority oppressed caste population (which includes Muslims as well as the caste oppressed), and it is very much denigrated in the present day by the oppressor castes. The tensions continue to play out as the current ruling party in India, the BJP, has applied stringent cow slaughter bans over progressively more and more Indian states. The BJP is the political wing of the fascist Hindu nationalist organization, the RSS, which proposes to impose Brahminical values on the people of India. Cow slaughter ban might look like ahimsa to outsiders, but actually the consequences of the ban are to further marginalize and criminalize Dalits, Muslims and other groups.  Over the last several years, the incidents of “cow vigilantism” have increased, where dozens of marginalized people have been killed and hundreds injured in mob violence upon the suspicion of eating beef or trading in cattle. Perpetrators of violence are punished by the government reluctantly, if at all.  

Not only are humans being harmed, but also neither cows nor buffalos are truly protected by the beef ban. India remains one of the top exporters worldwide of both cow and buffalo beef. There are many legal loopholes that allow animals to be slaughtered despite the beef ban. While small butcher shops run by the marginalized have been targeted and shut down, large slaughter plants continue to function. Recent reporting by The Caravan India indicates that oppressor Hindu castes (specifically Brahmins) are in charge of the surreptitious transport and selling of cows into slaughter. Taken together, the evidence indicates that the tenet of nonviolence undergirding Hindu vegetarianism is merely a “humane hoax” that hides violence towards animals— including humans. The beef ban and related vigilantism underscore the throughline of our history: using professed nonviolence towards nonhumans to oppress and brutalize other humans.

Many characteristics of humane-washing can be found in both modern US marketing campaigns and Brahminical vegetarianism. Let’s consider some of them.

The basic characteristic of the humane hoax is the manipulation of language to obscure the truth. The humane myth is essentially an example of doublethink: to have some intimation of the truth, but also to believe a carefully constructed lie that is its opposite. By definition, it uses language that obscures and even reverses the actual meaning of words. “Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron, as there is nothing humane about the involuntary and premature death of an animal. A product in the US can be “Certified Humane” but still allow many types of confinement and mutilation. “Cage-free” and “free-range” mean intense confinement; “happy cows” mean confinement, forced insemination and separation from new-born calves.

Cruelty, in other words, is termed as its opposite, kindness. In the same way, Hindu scriptures also contrived to turn himsa into ahimsa. While switching from animal sacrifices in the early Vedic scriptures to “ahimsa” branding, intermediate scriptures reinterpreted ritual killing as non-harm: “Manu asserts that animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, a that on ritual occasions is non-killing and injury as enjoined by the Veda is known to be non-injury.” The scripture goes on to add that Vedic sacrifices were not only not harmful, but a benefit that accrued to both the animals being sacrificed and the persons who are carrying out the sacrifice.

The second characteristic of the humane hoax is that is promulgated by groups or organizations who are otherwise predicated on the well-being of animals. The Humane Society of the United States, the most well-funded advocacy organization for animals in the US, is a major player in the humane hoax arena. HSUS (and similar organizations) often strike deals with the animal-killing industry and promotes its “happy meat.” By carefully crafting a brand founded on animal protection, the HSUS not only provides cover for the use and abuse of animals but also profits from it.

In the same way, being predicated on ahimsa, anything that a Brahmin does is automatically cleared of any suspicion. In recent times, having a Brahmin surname and identity has provided useful cover when smuggling cows to sell to slaughter. In the Caravan article on Hindu cattle-smuggling networks, Rajesh Prakash narrates:

“…the social worker… explained why Brahmins had an advantage when it came to transporting cattle. “It’s only the Brahmin caste that can come and go with the cow anywhere,” he said. “He will neither be caught nor killed in the name of cow protection, nor will the police arrest him. If a Brahmin is taking a cow to sell it for slaughter and someone stops him on the basis of suspicion, he can make an excuse that the cow has come as a donation from some village and he is taking it to some other village.”

The humane hoax offers exceptions for cruelty if they are supposed to serve some greater purpose that is vaguely but reverentially described. Authors like Michael Pollan talk about the intelligence and moral virtue of animals even as they relish hunting and eating them because it satisfies some delirious, quasi-spiritual concept of the Circle of Life. Some of the mystical language in the Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, may come right out of the Rig Veda or the Upanishads. For instance, Pollan writes, “Sun-soil-oak-pig-human: There it was, one of the food chains that have sustained life on earth for a million years made visible in a single frame, one uncluttered and most beautiful example of what is.”

In the Vedic literature, sacrificial rituals were undertaken to impose order on the universe. Even the creation of the cosmos was through sacrifice of Purusa, the primordial being, which gave existence to the four castes as well as the rest of creation. It says, “It was Purusa, born in the beginning, which they sprinkled on the sacred grass as a sacrifice.” The Upanishads, considered the most supreme and lofty of the Hindu scriptures, begins with comparing the sacrificial horse to the parts and processes of the material universe.

In the current day, a reworking of the humane myth certifies the cow (“gho”) as the “divine mother” to allow us to consume dairy despite the inherent exploitation.

“To the Hindus, the cow is sacred because it represents life and fertility. On account of the manifold usefulness of the cow, India has conferred a religious role upon the cow, having raised her to the status of a goddess, mother to one and all and an object of worship. In the appellation gho-mata, mata (mother) is more attached to cow than any other goddess in Indian mythology.

Owing to this reverential labeling, the cow becomes the most abused animal in the subcontinent. Even though Brahminism has eschewed meat sacrifices, it has adopted the use of dairy products in religious ceremonies— which is no less cruel. Cow’s milk, ghee, and yogurt are routinely used in temple ceremonies in copious quantities.[2] Because of the slaughter ban, dairy farmers who would normally sell “spent” dairy cows to slaughter are forced to set them free to roam because they cannot afford to feed them. These cows wander onto busy streets and fields where they suffer abuse. One of the most insidious and uniquely Indian form of abuse is “acid attacks,”  where stray cows are severely burned in an attempt to protect crops. 

In the Western animal rights community, we hold up Indian vegetarianism as a beacon of hope for animal protection. However, when we look beneath the surface, it appears that Hindu “ahimsa” is actually a humane hoax, because it was originally intended to marginalize human communities; that it continues to do so under the cow slaughter ban; and that, ultimately, it does not really protect animals. “Ahimsa,” like “cage-free eggs” or “happy meat,” is just another humane-washing term, intended to distract us from the underlying violence against sentient beings, humans and other animals alike. We do not do the animal rights movement any favors by continuing to adhere to this hypocrisy. The people oppressed by the professed “ahimsa” number in the hundreds of millions, and they are only too aware of the duplicity. They hold in contempt the bogus value ahimsa, which claims to protect animals at their expense.

As the animal rights movement continues to claim “ahimsa” as its slogan, the people who have been oppressed by it increasingly see the movement as hollow, superficial, and misguided. As freedom fighter Bhagat Singh as has said, we need to look behind the reason why Hindus worship nonhuman animals, but won’t let a fellow human sit next to them. As Dr. Ambedkar has said, we need to understand why Hindus have fed ants sugar while they deny Dalits drinking water. Ultimately, the animal rights movement needs the support of all humans, not just the privileged ones; and it is not going to get it with humane-washing terms that are used to alienate and degrade humans.

[1] See also Jotiba Phule’s 1885 book “Gulamgiri” (Slavery) for a similar account.

[2] * Dr Kancha Ilaiah has termed these wasteful practices  “anti-surplus generation mechanisms” – a way to prevent accumulation of surplus keeping the oppressed masses hungry and engaged in perpetual food production.

Rama Ganesan lived in Chennai until the age of 10, when she emigrated to the UK with her family. She then moved to the US in her twenties with her spouse. She received her BA from University of Oxford, a PhD from the University of Wales, and an MBA from the University of Arizona. She has two grown children, a dog and two cat companions. After reading “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, Rama began to explore the philosophy of animal rights and veganism. Over time this developed into an interest in the common roots of oppression of both humans and animals. She can be found on Instagram and Medium.

For The Planet’s Sake: Unpacking Common Reactions To The Word Vegan

When I saw that the ocean was literally on fire in July 2021, besides experiencing a wave of panic because – the ocean was literally on fire – I was seeing a lot of discussions about what good are individual acts of accountability (such as recycling etc), when we have these giant corporations who cause this horrific level of destruction. That activists who care about the earth, need to focus mostly if not solely on corporate accountability. That the emphasis on individual actions places more of the responsibility and blame on the shoulders of the individual than the corporation.

[Video description: Part of the ocean is on fire and there are several people that are trying to put it out via what looks like boats with hoses on it. The footage is being captured via a helicopter which you can hear in the background. The next thing we see is from the helicopter again, this time a closer look at the fire itself. It is weird to see a body of water on fire.]

And to a certain extent, this is true. The powers that be will often promote individual acts while they approve new pipelines.

Related: Pipelines? Fracking? This is Fracking 101

Personally, I see individual acts of solidarity for the earth, as empowerment. So often we need to petition the powers that be to do the right thing, and keep protesting till they cave to public pressure and/or lack of profit (as we should). But with individual acts, we don’t need permission. We have the power to create change in that moment and that is powerful – especially when done on a collective level. That being said, are single acts like recycling enough? No. I think because we are at this level of destruction, we need as many tactics as possible.

That said, let’s discuss one tactic in particular that some people have this instant negative reaction to. It’s one of the largest contributors to climate change. Science has been saying this for years, and yet when the topic comes up? There is often these strong emotions that arise. What is it? Refraining from supporting animal agriculture aka: veganism or plant based. So, let’s break it down & unpack some of the most common reactions. No judgment. The topic of food is complicated, emotional, it’s tradition, it’s cultural and sometimes even religious, so it makes sense that it can bring up strong feelings for people. But if we can address and unpack the root of these feelings, it’ll be easier to embrace a plant based lifestyle (as much as one can) and that’s one more tactic in our tool box.

In the end, animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change and so we really can’t afford to let these feelings get in the way of saving the planet.

Feel free to skip the questions that aren’t applicable to you.

Wait a minute, so you’re vegan?


Photo source: vegan food and

So aren’t you just imposing your beliefs on people?

While I am vegan for various reasons, what I am talking about here is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of science & facts.

Related: Chili On Wheels was started by Michelle Carerra and provides vegan meals (and more) to those in need.

Yeah, but how are burgers etc. harming the earth?

It’s not just about cow farts, though that is part of the problem, as US Methane emissions from livestock and natural gas (fracking) are nearly equal.

It’s a matter of land. Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.

It’s a matter of water usage. Agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of US water consumption. 56% of that goes towards growing crops for the livestock.

It even contributes to world hunger. 82% of starving children live in countries where the majority of crops are fed to animals, and the animal product is then sold to and eaten by western countries.

There is so much more to say on this, and I don’t want to inundate you with statistics as I know that can be overwhelming. If you like, you can read more. The point is that it’s absolutely devastating to the environment.

Yeah, but don’t humans need to consume animals for proper nutrition?

According to science, humans are not obligatory carnivores, meaning that we don’t need animals for proper nutrition. We can get enough via plant based sources.

Photo source:

There is often this myth that if you don’t eat meat, then you’ll become weak, but there are so many professional athletes and bodybuilders who are vegan. And if they can perform at this professional level, then us average people will do just fine.

How much protein do we need?

According to a Harvard health blog (and what seems to be the consensus), “To determine your daily protein intake, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36“ That said, if you go on fitness websites, they will often have protein intake calculators that you can use to get a number that is more specific to your level of activity. For an example, I once knew a vegan who ran marathons, so he consumed more protein (and calories) than I did.

Because of my health / disability, I can not go fully vegan, but when I say that, vegans call me a liar. Some of them give me unsolicited advice, saying that a vegan diet could “cure” me. As a result, the topic of veganism brings up bad feelings.

Unfortunately, I hear this far too often. I don’t know why some vegans think they’re this instant specialist that is qualified to give advice to all people. Or why some think that a healthy vegan diet is this cure all, as it’s not. I eat a fairly whole food vegan diet, my spine still requires that I get around via a motorized wheelchair. There is nothing wrong with that. I am disabled and proud. I need my rights and access, not a cure – and certainly not unsolicited health advice.

I think part of the reason some vegans don’t believe people, is that sometimes people say things like “I could never live without dairy cheese” (as an example) but they could. They just don’t want to, which is different from someone who legitimately can’t for medical reasons. So it leads to some vegan activists to be skeptical, but they are forgetting that not everyone is able bodied and needs do vary. In the end, if someone says I can’t do this thing for medical reasons, I believe them because I’m not a doctor and it sucks to not be believed.

Photo source: PETA

My advice is to do what you can. Not everyone can contribute at the same level of intensity, but everyone has something to contribute.

This is also true for people who live in food deserts and don’t have the same access to some vegan foods that others do. Or those who live in areas where dairy/meat is cheaper than the plant based alternative and you’re on a tight budget etc.

Related: Why Banning Straws Hurts Some People (Video)
Related: Is Veganism Ableist?
Related: We Need Power To Live: One Way Climate Change Impacts The Disability Community

Photo source: inspired

So you’re saying because I eat meat (etc.), I’m a bad person?!

No. Unless you were born into a vegan family, you grew up eating meat and/or dairy. My family is Jewish so it was considered a treat to go to the local deli and get a sandwich that literally had a pound of meat in it, that was given to me as a child. I was told as a kid that cows need humans to milk them or they will explode (which I kind of laugh at now, because that’s just now how it works. They’re mammals. They only produce milk when they have a baby to feed.) The point is, it’s all very normalized so, I get it. There’s a lot of misinformation that we are told as kids about animal agriculture, but like a lot of things we were taught as kids, that just weren’t right, as we get older and hopefully wiser, we can choose to level up. This is part of our responsibility, especially since this isn’t just about us and a sandwich, this is about the planet and thus about us all.

Related: Why Is Climate Change a Racial Justice Issue?

I once met a vegan who made derogatory comments (towards myself and/or people I care about / have solidarity with) and now I associate a plant based lifestyle with that behavior.

I hear you. I’ve certainly met my share of vegans who were blatantly and un-apologetically ignorant. I’ve also met people in the anti-war movement and people in the environmental activist movement etc. who were also like that. In any case, it’s not okay.

I think it’s extra complicated though with veganism because it is such an emotional topic to begin with. But in the end, I think it’s important to separate the person(s) from the cause, meaning that just because I meet someone who is a prick and/or ignorant etc. it doesn’t make fighting climate change or war a bad idea. It doesn’t make veganism a bad idea either.

Also keep in mind that while some vegans (or vegan-ish people) get into Animal Rights and take it to the streets, this is not a requirement. You can just go about your life and be as plant based as you can and that’s fine.

Related: The Sistah Vegan Project is a great resource.
Related: UK based Fat Gay Vegan has a great blog and podcast
Related: Vegan Bodega Cat is a NYC based vegan youtuber with Arab roots.

Photo source: well and

Related: Jenné Claiborne from Sweet Potato Soul wrote “Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul : a Cookbook“

But food is part of my culture, it’s tradition and/or in some cases, part of sacred rituals in my religion

As far as tradition and culture goes, there are a lot of people like Sweet Potato Soul who are taking traditional meals and making them vegan, so that might be one route.

There are also some people who are religious and are taking traditional recipes and making them vegan.

But at the end of the day, that’s something that you need to figure out how you want to navigate. And if there are some things that are sacred and can’t be made vegan, then try to be vegan in other ways

Photo source: veg out

Where do I even begin?

Vegan Kit is a free resource. Keep it mind that it was put together before all these realistic vegan meats alternatives came out. Now you can go to Burger King and get a vegan burger. You can get vegan fried chicken at KFC. It’s actually become quite common to see vegan options at fast food restaurants (depending on where you live).

There are also a slew of accidentally vegan junkfood that you can get in stores.

A lot of people find Meatless Monday to be a great way to dip their toe in the water. It’s also a great resource for recipes.

Speaking of recipes, there is also an abundance of vegan meal and snack ideas online that are available for free. In addition to Sweet Potato Soul, and Vegan Bodega Cat, I also enjoy: The Unhealthy Vegan (who makes decadent but easy vegan food), Candice from The Edgy Veg , No Egg Craig , Tabitha Brown and Lisa from The Viet Vegan.

Photo source: the viet vegan .com

So, that’s it. I know there is a lot going on right now in the world, but I do hope that when you can, you will really think about this and add this tactic to what you are already doing. It doesn’t have to be this huge instant change. Start by eating one plant based meal and go from there. Thank you for your time and I shall “see you” in the fight.

This essay originally appeared on Rebelwheels’ Soapbox in 2021.

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.

V-Rated: Sexualizing and Depoliticizing Veganism

After much ridicule and resistance, veganism seems to be reaching a tipping point in popularity, cultural assimilation, and institutional accommodation in the West. Indeed, the 2021 Veganuary event pulled a record 600,000 registrants, while hundreds of stores and restaurants eagerly provided new products and specials to facilitate the trend. A year prior, veganism was even recognized as a protected belief in the United Kingdom.

Yet, with any successful political movement comes the predictable countermovement tasked with troubling mobilization efforts and preserving the status quo. For the vegan movement, its opposition takes many forms. This has included newly formed laws designed to protect the secrecy of animal agriculture (Martin 2015, Simon 2013), recharacterize vegan activists as terrorists (Wright 2015), redefine common food terminology and labeling to exclude plant-based options (such as “mayo,” “milk,” and “burger”) (Kleeman 2020), and cast doubt on vegan healthfulness with state-funded marketing campaigns (Nibert 2003). Opposition also materializes in the cultural realm with vegans routinely mocked, marginalized (Cole and Morgan 2011), and feminized (Adams 2000; Gambert and Linné 2018).

It is veganism’s feminine association that has become its greatest point of vulnerability in a society that is, according to some feminist sociologists (Dines 2010), increasingly pornified, commodified, and antagonistic toward all things feminine. This begs the question: how can the popularity of veganism be reconciled within a patriarchal marketplace?

I suggest that veganism is regularly described by advertisers in fetishistic terms, likely as a means to resonate with audiences that have been increasingly cued by pornographic and androcentric scripts of consumption. In this way, it is reduced to a hedonistic, capitalist-friendly practice of pleasurable consumption that is very much in line with existing unequal social relations. Drawing on vegan feminist theory, I argue that the veganism—a political position that fundamentally challenges narratives of domination—poses a threat to patriarchal social relations. Subsequently, veganism is depoliticized by patriarchal practices of sexual objectification and capitalistic practices of commodity fetishism. Sexualization, I conclude, transforms veganism from a mode of resistance into a mode of complicity.

This talk, presented at the British Sociological Association’s Food Study Group Conference, is available to view here.

Works Cited

Adams, C. 2000. The Sexual Politics of Meat. London: Continuum.

Cole, M. and K. Morgan. 2011. “Veganphobia: Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers.” The British Journal of Sociology 62 (1): 134-153.

Dines, G. 2010. Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon.

Gambert, I. and T. Linné. 2018. “From Rice Eaters to Soy Boys: Race, Gender, and Tropes of ‘Plant Food Masculinity’.” Animal Studies Journal 7 (2): 129-179.

Kleeman, J. 2020. Sex Robots & Vegan Meat. London: Picador.

Dr. Wrenn is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She is the co-founder of the International Association of Vegan Sociologists. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and is a member of the Research Advisory Council of The Vegan Society. She has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute and has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Environmental Values, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis.

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Vegan Sustainability

The term ‘sustainability’ has been critiqued as being performative and devoid of meaning. Sustainability at its core is understood as the drive towards maintaining ecological balance. It is a word that inspires strategies that are greener and considers the consequences and potential impact of extractive industries and depletion of natural resources on future generations. However, sustainability as a term has been misused, manipulated, and commodified. As vegan organizations grapple with critiques of colonialism and white supremacy, it is imperative to do the work to decolonize this movement and imagine a just vegan sustainability framework.  In this piece, I offer recommendations on how to decolonize sustainability and fight for land justice, animal liberation, and food sovereignty in order to save the Earth and ourselves. It is time for a total overhaul of our food system itself.

Sustainability for Who?

This question of ‘sustainability for who’ is at the heart of this conversation. While affluent countries in the Global North emit the majority of emissions behind global climate change, countries in the global South not only face more consequences, but also are scapegoated in discussions of climate justice. If sustainability is operationalized as prolonging the current economic system and keeping things ‘business as usual,’ marginalized communities, both human and nonhuman, will continue to suffer.

In many ways, sustainability has been weaponized against the Global South and other communities that have been historically harmed by colonizing nations. The most obvious and insidious use of sustainability as a continued form of colonialism concerns population control. This discourse posits that the current amount of resources on the planet cannot sustain the current population and, therefore, countries with high birth rates should introduce population regulations. This discourse is saturated in white nationalism, is built on the continuing legacy of genocide and eugenics, and is integral to the contemporary ecofascist movement.

Usually this ‘family planning’ rhetoric is espoused by white environmentalists from the global North, such as Carter Dillard, Senior Policy Advisor to the Animal Legal Defense Fund who founded the family planning organization Having Kids, concerning rising population in the Global South. Dillard’s argument for a family planning modeled built with equity in mind posits that the most vulnerable population: children, specifically future children. As he argues, a human rights based approach “would protect [children] from being brought into the world beneath a particular threshold of well-being,” meaning that an unborn child would be more ethical, under this framework, than a poor child.

Dillard is aware that there is “a lot of history — around eugenics, foreign aid, welfare reform, etc. — [that] supports [the] argument…[that] focusing on population is actually a way of targeting the poor and people of color, rather than targeting the rich white men driving the fossil-fuel industries” but decides to instead focus on the to-be-born who he believes ethically should stay unborn. This continuation of colonial logics saturated in sustainability rhetoric illustrates that a new conception of sustainability is necessary to move forward towards a just future. I believe that integral to this conception of sustainability is an analysis of what historic harms have been done to previously colonized countries, how capitalism continued to propagate extractive industries in these nations, and how the Global North will hold itself accountable for this legacy of climate change.

Decolonizing Sustainability

What would a sustainable future that encompasses the needs and considerations of the Earth and nonhuman animals look like from a decolonial perspective? Any future-oriented vegan organization must be focused on acknowledging its pattern of centering white male voices from the Global North and espousing damaging colonial rhetoric. Doing this work—not to perform solidarity but to enact it – begins the slow process of building relationships with communities that the vegan movement has marginalized and tokenized.

While not a vegan organization, groups could learn a lot from  Soul Fire Farm. Soul Fire Farm is a Black-led multi-racial sustainable farm that challenges injustice in the food system and it is also leading a reparations movement for Black farmersCase studies like Soul Fire Farm offer examples of how to do food justice right:

  • Build community and partner with activists, networks, institutions, and indigenous tribes.
  • Create spaces to heal from generational trauma.
  • Offer solidarity-shares and distribute to your communities.
  • Tell stories and raise historically marginalized voices and histories.
  • Engage in radical self care and create a healthy work culture.
  • Participate in regenerative farming practices based on respect for non/humans.
  • Create workshops that equip marginalized folks with the tools to create their own movements.
  • Collaborate with and act in solidarity with indigenous communities.
  • Give your land back to Black-Indigenous farmers.

It is only through true, non-performative reparations that we can undo the harm of food apartheid together.

This work is necessary in order to grow regional partnerships with sister organizations and begin working towards sustainable farming, environmental stewardship models, and food justice. Consider language justice and indigenous land ownership throughout entire project, build a portfolio of insights from model organization’s programming, and consider the advice of land and farm elders. Always ask, “How will the work stay grounded in truth and reconciliation between black and indigenous people? How will these communities be provided access to power building opportunities? How can my organizations create autonomous spaces for these communities?”

Vegan Sustainability

This conversation concerning sustainability is tackled directly in the new film, “We Fly, We Crawl, We Swim” by the collective Just Wondering and has been celebrated in film showings across the world. Just Wondering creates animations that make posthumanist and critical animal studies theories digestible and understandable. Their videos also challenge the status quo and illustrate how normative power structures are inherently oppressive and marginalized people, nonhumans and the planet “We Fly” argues that environmental justice cannot be accomplished without challenging the current systems at fault for pollution—capitalism and its obsession with consumption and commodification. Just Wondering’s solution: creating a multispecies society that views the more-than-human world as kin and changes our economic system with their needs and consideration in mind.

A true sustainability—one that not only regulates harm but abolishes it—is predicated on the embracing of a multi-species liberation. Performing sustainability in order to continue extractive practices only reifies the structures that support this exploitation of people, non-human animals, and the environment. In order to build a multi-species solidarity future, it is imperative that we not only predicate social justice movements on environmental justice, but that we also reform our current economic system towards a more just commons-based society that includes the needs of non-human actors and actants. I view this framework as a ‘vegan sustainability’ and believe this is the sustainability we should work towards in the future.

Vegan sustainability is built upon the following tenants:

1) Animals and the environment are worthy of care and moral consideration.

2) Capitalism is the underlying current that is behind the current commodification and exploitation of people, nonhuman animals, and the environment.

3) Nonhuman population deserve recognition of their autonomy and should be viewed as political persons.

4) Harm has been wrecked on non-human and marginalized human communities and these population deserve accountability and reparations for this harm. 

5) A just world and just future outside of our current system is possible and attainable.

Just Wondering’s main argument is one of idealism, not self-defeating pessimism. They posit that it is not only conceivable but achievable to imagine and create a society that is anti-capitalism, anti-specieisism, anti-white supremacy, and anticisheteronormativity. It is through this framework of vegan sustainability, an off-shoot of the revolutionary potential of vegan politics, that we can move towards an economic reformation outside of our contemporary systems of violence and towards total liberation.

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar, co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, and the founder of
Sparks & McNeill

COVID Masculinities and the Meat of the Matter

On Super Bowl Sunday, households across the nation ignored Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice to only enjoy the iconic game with their immediate household. Instead, Super Bowl parties are expected to be ‘mini super spreader’ events with COVID-19 infections projected to grow exponentially because of these gatherings. Like cockfights in Bali (a case study often used by anthropologists to understand gendered politics in the region), Dr. Jan Huebenthal has argued that the Super Bowl similarly says something about masculinity in America. The potential for Super Bowl parties, often facilitated by men, to increase COVID-19 infections is not the first time toxic masculinity has been criticized for exacerbating the harm caused by COVID-19. Salon has written that “toxic masculinity has become a threat to public health,” the New York Times has argued that men’s “aversion to common sense protections” is inherently intertwined with men’s fear of seeming weak, and Wyoming News has simply stated that “toxic masculinity [is] a big reason for spread of COVID-19.” However, the implications of toxic masculinities and pandemics does not stop at COVID-19; toxic masculinity also increases the risks for future infectious disease outbreaks caused by animal agriculture.

Though the origin of COIVD-19 remains unknown, it has been argued that there are “many unshakeable links between modern animal agriculture and COVID-19.” COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means that it originates in animals and can jump to other species, such as human beings. The root cause of zoonotic diseases is  often animal exploitation;  modern agricultural practices, such as factory farms, are involved in high-risk interaction between humans and animals and pose a serious risk for future outbreaks, such as avian flu. This is why organizations, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, have published white papers on the relationship between COVID-19 and animal agriculture in the hopes of reducing the likelihood of a future global pandemics.

In addition to necessary policy changes that the white papers discuss, we must also interrogate the relationship between toxic masculinity and meat consumption, specifically in the context of COVID-19. Toxic masculinity has been a hot-button term for the past few years and is used to describe how what society deems ‘being manly’ is can be harmful to women, as well as the men themselves. Similarly, hegemonic masculinity is the practice of structures and institutions that legitimize men’s dominant position in society and encourage toxic masculinities. In the autumn of 2020, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies posted a call for papers concerning the masculinities of COVID-19 in which the journal contended that “political and social appeals to act responsibly seem to be intertwined with different assumptions of what a good man should and should not do, not only among politicians but also in everyday encounters between obliging and obstructing citizens.” It asked scholars to research why men are dying at higher rates than women from the COVID-19 pandemic, how toxic masculinities played out on the federal level through policy creation, and in which ways fear of seeming weak and vulnerable have affected some men’s usage of commonsense COVID-19 protections, such as wearing masks.

These traits of what being a strong man means, which Salon described as “individualistic, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric,” has been reified by Trump’s re-election campaign. As the Washington Post reported, Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be “This potentially deadly illness is something to dominate or be dominated by.”  These anxieties about seeming ‘weak’ are an example of toxic masculinities that directly affect public health, especially as men have refused to wear masks in fear of being seen as weak and have “turned mask wearing into a battlefield in the culture war,” as argued in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. This threat of emasculation by something as simple as wearing a mask has made “flouting public health guidelines became synonymous with manliness,” as reported on in Mother Jones.

Not only do toxic masculinities put people’s physical safety at risk, but COVID-19 has also exacerbated mental health crises. In “Men, Suicide, and Covid-19: Critical Masculinity Analyses and Interventions,” Khan et al. found that “Excessive pressure to conform to traditional modes of masculinity increases the risk of men’s suicidal behavior.” Over 75% of men in a Cleveland Clinic survey reported increased levels of stress and worsened mental health. As Healthline reported, “When asked about their own health priorities and stressors, the men surveyed cited the economy and their family’s well-being ahead of their own personal health.” This is troubling, especially as men attempt suicide at higher rates than women and that suicide rates are increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is well accepted that toxic masculinities hurt men themselves and that this harm has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic itself—as well as the potential for future pandemics—can also be blamed on hegemonic masculinity. The connection between meat consumption and masculinity has been well researched, and have inspired books like Carol Adam’s keystone work, the Sexual Politics of Meat, in which she argues that “white supremacy and misogyny together upheld meat as white man’s food.” Simply, men consume more animal products because meat and masculinity are inherently intertwined because meat is seen as a stand-in for power and strength. Not only does this form of masculinity have an ecological and ethical footprint, but it also hurts the men themselves who face health risks connected to meat consumption, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  

In an interview concerning COVID masculinities conducted by history PhD student Matthew Sparks, an interviewee explained the anxieties COVID-19 created for their masculinity:

Men are supposed to be the protective, providers, go out and hunt the boar and bring back the meat, go out and fight and defend the home, protect the home and the hearth and all that kind of stuff, it’s kind of ingrained in us, even if we don’t necessarily relate to that kind of behavior, it is ingrained in our way of thinking and in our society…So, here we are in survival mode, and those perceived gender roles are just sporadically going everywhere…We’ve redefined and rearranged our roles in the household to where it’s like “what the fuck are we supposed to do right now?”

This confusion over identity and purpose illustrated above, as well as the perceived failing many men currently feel for not being able to provide for their families as unemployment rates rise, is another example of toxic masculinity harming men themselves. However, as explained earlier, toxic masculinity has a body count—when men see wearing masks as ‘feminine,’ people get sick and masculinity literally threatens public safety and health. When eating meat is seen as manly, zoonotic disease outbreaks can occur that can detrimentally harm our global community, when men feel pressured to uphold the ‘right’ kind of masculinity, men’s mental health suffers. In order to mediate future pandemics, it is imperative that we as men question what it means to be ‘manly.’ Toxic masculinity isn’t helping any of us—give yourself the freedom to pursue healthy forms of masculinity and let’s redefine what being a ‘man’ means together.  

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar, co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, and the founder of
Sparks & McNeill