Wayne Hsiung
Published on
January 10, 2014

Buying our Movement

I'm known for being a skeptical vegan. I'm committed to the lifestyle, for sure, and have been for  years (at times, it was perhaps counterproductive. There was a time when I refused to ride in buses or cars because of the stearic acid in rubber). But I've also publicly declared my misgivings about the vegan consumerist approach -- that is, celebrating, advocating, and enhancing the lifestyle of the vegan consumer -- to animal liberation. There are sound reasons for thinking that vegan consumerism is not a good frame for achieving animal liberation. But sometimes, I go further and describe it as an obstacle to the movement's success and growth. Why might that be the case? I'm reposting a recent discussion below: 

The danger is the same one that William Lloyd Garrison pointed to in advocating for (human) slaves almost 200 years ago. Transforming an urgent social justice movement into a tawdry consumer movement ("Please buy fewer slaves! You'll be such a good person if you do!") re-establishes the "anchoring point" for the movement from "We have to stop all violence" to "let's reduce violence a tiny bit -- but realistically, maybe not at all -- because we can't really expect anything more." 

That normative anchoring point, in turn, will transform the number and type of social messages that are circulated in local communities by activists, i.e. the crucial conversations on the ground between friends, relatives, and co-workers. They're suddenly not talking at all about (much less judging their peers for) the horrors and injustice of animal holocaust -- but instead about adding a vegan option, or a "humane meat" burrito, to the menu at Chipotle.

The movement's demand for change for animals is lost in a spiral of vegan self-indulgence. And individual supporters of the movement are dis-empowered from speaking more confidently against animal abuse. "Don't be one of the militant vegans," people say. "After all, you got your vegan burrito, didn't you? Stop complaining!" 

The lost normative framing -- and the cascading impact this has on effective meme spreading in local social networks -- is the most important casualty of a shift towards vegan consumerism. But there are a number of other detrimental effects:

- Public dialogue is dampened or eliminated because the changes demanded, and controversy generated, suddenly become less compelling.

"Protesters storm into the streets to demand freedom" is an inspirational story and effective meme. "Protesters make polite request for a vegan burrito" is not. 

- To the extent public dialogue is created, it fails to sustain itself because multinational corporations and other institutions manage to convince the public, and even activists, that the problem has been resolved by offering humane alternatives (vegan or otherwise).

Campaigns, just like any good story, require conflict and continuing tension. Indeed conflict and tension are what feed an effective campaign/movement cycle. Efforts to mediate these sorts of conflicts douse the fire of a movement with cold water. Vegan consumerism, by offering faux alternatives and compromise, can have exactly that effect. 

- Even to the extent that alternatives ARE necessary, those that are created under the umbrella of vegan consumerism are susceptible to backsliding.

Whole Foods is perhaps the best example of this. It started out as a vegetarian grocer. Now it's one of the largest animal killers in the world. Alternatives that don't have sufficient structural and institutional separation from current structures and institutions are easily reshaped to serve status quo interests. The most obvious way this is true: the USDA regulates all food, not just meat production, and it has a long history of being controlled by Big Ag interests that have no incentive to implement genuine reforms for animals. The less obvious example is the countless successful vegan businesses that eventually sell themselves to Big Ag interests. (I see Native Foods going down this path, for example -- they recently hired Chipotle's former CFO and are no longer owned by animal advocates. It would not surprise me at all if, within 5 years, they start selling dead animals.)

The upshot: this isn't a consumer movement for vegans. It's a justice movement for animals. And don't let the trappings of vegan consumerism distract you from our central message and goal: not a vegan consumertopia but a world where every animal is safe and happy and free. 

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