Recently, on a vegan forum, I commented on the use of the term “vegetarian” or “veg*n” rather than “vegan” while promoting animal rights. It seemed to unleash a storm of criticism and ad hominem attacks: “Someone is VERY NEW….,” ”so fundamentalist in nature,” ”is there ANY evidence base whatsoever…? ” My comment was in response to the posting of a Huffington Post article by Bruce Friederich, Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as well as a suggestion to develop the inclusive “veg*n” culture on the same forum. Mr. Friederich has stated before that he no longer advocates in vegan tee shirts, because people respond better to the vegetarian message. That may be, but it is not a message that will help animals. In fact, it may even create more suffering for the animals. How can an animal advocate promote the dairy industry? I think of the abuse of babies, little newborn calves; and mothers who are forced into servitude of being milk machines, with distended udders, infected and dragging the ground. Then there are all those newborn chicks ground alive in massive machines because they cannot lay eggs. THAT is something for animal advocates to support?
The message Mr. Friederich was giving was that it is indefensible to eat meat. Unfortunately, his last line reads,
Put another way: If we believe that people should try to protect the environment, OR we believe that we should try not to cause people to starve OR we oppose cruelty to animals, the only ethical diet is a vegetarian one.
Wrong. This following many salient points in Friederich’s article is so disappointing. Why is there such a great fear of the word “veganism?” It is a simple word, much more simple and clear than “vegetarianism.” There is so much ambiguity in the term vegetarian that it leaves people thinking giving up meat for dairy products will somehow be less cruel. Even if one is focusing solely on the dietary aspects of veganism, then why not support incremental veganism? At least doing so would leave a clear impression in the minds of the audience that veganism is the goal, not vegetarianism.
Mr. Friederich has another contradiction or two on his hands. It is difficult to be accepted as someone who values animal life while working for an organization that kills a higher proportion of animals in their “shelter” than most other shelters. It is also an organization that owns stock and profits from animal agriculture, gives awards to slaughter house designers, and uses some questionable tactics which diminishes the level of dialogue regarding the significance of animal rights. Again, so disappointing. One young animal rights advocate, Beckah Sheeler, recently posted on the site Animal Writes an article titled, PETA: A Hurdle for Vegan Advocacy:
What we are faced with is the split between abolitionists and welfarists, and this will always exist; however, (as cliche the saying as it may be) with the amount of power Peta has, comes a great amount of responsibility, meaning the lives and welfare of animals, the planet, and the indirect meals able to be fed to the hungry due to this lifestyle, are resting in its hands. Bruce Friedrich, VP of Peta, also has stated in a recent post that being an absolutist is the worst way to attract people to this cause. The members of Peta should, of course, not give up their strong convictions of remaining not only meat free, but egg and dairy free, but being that Peta is so big, I believe that it is the organization’s responsibility, with all of its money, resources, and recognition, to advocate in such a way that helps the most amount of animals being that this is its perceived cause.
Ms. Sheeler then goes on to support widening the appeal rather than clarifying the message that PETA spreads. However, Dan Cudahy, on his blog Unpopular Vegan Essays, reports on the failure of such tactics that are contradictory at the root (from the article PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions):
PETA’s contradictions in philosophy, rhetoric, and activities – which have led to profound public confusion and fortification of the utilitarian-welfarist status quo that has been in existence since Jeremy Bentham – have been a barrier to progress in advancing animal rights, and will continue to be a barrier as long as they continue as an animal welfare organization.
For a clear look at the problematic nature of the confusion in such welfarist rhetoric, Professor Gary Francione states in a post on his blog, Animal Rights: The Abolionist Approach (Some Comments on Vegetarianism as a Gateway to Veganism):
It is clear: if you explain that there is no distinction between flesh and other animal products and why we should go vegan, and the person with whom you are talking cares about the issue, she will either (1) go vegan immediately; or (2) go vegan in stages; or (3) not go vegan and adopt some version of vegetarianism (or “happy” meat/product consumption). But she will at least understand that veganism is the aspiration toward which to work. She will understand that the line between flesh and other products is entirely arbitrary. If you maintain that going vegetarian is morally meaningful and that there is a distinction between flesh and other animal products, then you increase the chances that her progress toward veganism will be impeded.
In other words, you do not need to advocate vegetarianism. It is completely unnecessary, morally meaningless, and, as a practical matter, it impedes transition to veganism.
While I appreciate the sincere motives of individuals like Mr. Friederich and do not challenge them, it does seem important to continue looking at the tactics of the animal rights movement. This is very different than disparaging individuals. I fully admit to many shortcomings and work on them; I have my own blind spots. Assuming that all animal advocates sincerely want what is in the best interest of nonhuman animals rather than promotion of their individual animal organizations, then looking critically at tactics and contradictions that may become barriers (Dan Cudahy) or hurdles (Beckah Sheeler) or impediments (Gary Francione) would seem a positive way of helping advocates learn to help animals achieve true rights as living, feeling beings. While listening to a podcast today, I heard someone interrupt a speaker discussing vegetarianism and interject “a lacto-ovo vegetarian — that is pretty much the same thing as a vegan.” No, no, no.
Another way of stating this was posted by Tim Gier in an article titled, Is Half A Loaf Better Than None?
If you do intentionally participate in the subjugation of nonhuman animals, it does not matter that your participation is infrequent, or irregular, or occasional. Whenever you eat the flesh of a nonhuman animal, a life is ended for your pleasure, and for nothing else. The same is true whenever you wear the skin of another as clothing, or you patronize the zoos and circuses that cage others for life, or you support the medical, scientific or commercial experimentation on others as well. Cutting back on those things, while better than not, still amounts to participating in them. There is no “half loaf.”
By spreading vegetarian education rather than vegan education, we collaborate in the subjugation (however unintentionally) of nonhuman animals. The baseline is veganism. The fact that it is not immediately appealing for 100% of all people everywhere is not the point. Veganism is the goal. It can be incrementally achieved, but it remains the goal. To ask for anything less, anything with wider appeal, anything that appears to be a more popular message, is to sell out the rights of animals. Want to make veganism more popular? Start by talking about it.