Veganism is NOT Cruelty-Free
“Boycott Cruelty; Go Vegan.”
“Stop Harming the Innocent; Go Vegan.”
“Vegan Starter Guide to Cruelty-Free Living.”
If you are a follower of the animal rights movement, then you have likely seen veganism advertised this way—as a tool for people who don’t want to hurt animals to stop paying for animals to be hurt. Sensible enough, right? After all, isn’t that why many of us went vegan in the first place? Well, as intuitively appealing as that sales pitch is, the “cruelty-free” meme is neither accurate nor helpful to nonhuman animals. It is, if anything, actively harmful to the animal rights movement—and, by extension, to the animals themselves.
In order to explain why, we first have to face the bitter truth: Veganism is not cruelty-free. Veganism doesn't protect the countless mice, snakes, rabbits, etc. that are intentionally poisoned or carelessly run over so humans can harvest grains. Veganism doesn't save the frogs, fish, and other aquatic animals who die in the pesticide runoff from our fruits and vegetables. Veganism doesn't improve the conditions of exploited human farm laborers. Veganism doesn’t stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment (i.e. the home and food-source of innumerable nonhuman persons) for the sake of oil, precious metals, etc. that non-vegans and vegans use. Veganism doesn't even stop any living animals from being tortured or killed (with the exception of those who a new vegan stops hunting or fishing—if they hunted or fished in the first place).
For vegans to acknowledge this is crucial because so long as we live in this highly exploitative culture—one that Agent Smith from The Matrix and Philip Wollen have aptly compared to a virus—just about any dollar we spend will in one way or another pay for cruelty. Vegan or not, we all contribute to a culture that harms human and nonhuman animals alike, and we are all (at least those of us with sufficient economic privilege) capable of taking steps to reduce that contribution.
We are all involved, and we are all guilty.
The fundamental problem with the “cruelty-free” meme, then, is its denial of this collective guilt. Not only does it drastically understate the problem we face by ignoring the suffering of both humans and wild animals in the production of vegan goods, but it also propagates the message that eliminating, minimizing, or even just reducing one’s personal participation in systemic violence is enough to exculpate them from moral responsibility for its continuation. It makes vegans feel morally pure while benefitting from the destruction of nonhuman lives and homes because, in essence, “At least we aren’t paying for it,” “At least we’re paying for less of it than non-vegans,” “At least we pay for it begrudgingly,” and so forth. In short, the “cruelty-free” meme gives vegans comfort we don’t deserve by ignoring the harm we are collectively causing. (Sounds a bit like non-vegans, doesn’t it?)
As vegans, we bear the privilege and burden of recognizing nonhuman personhood. We recognize that there are billions more persons being victimized by our culture than most of our peers acknowledge. With such recognition comes duty– not a duty to step back from the problem, but a duty to step in; to be, in every way we can and everywhere we go, living reminders to those around us that right now, we are in the midst of an atrocity. That is where veganism comes in.
Living vegan is, first and foremost, a political statement of opposition to speciesism and human-supremacism. It is a public stance against the assumed and broadly unquestioned "right" of humans to de-home, commodify, exploit, and kill our nonhuman kin. It is the most basic action a person can take to show others what it truly means to care about nonhuman animals– to see them for who, rather than just what, they are.
It will take a lot more than basics to achieve animal liberation.
Vegans, it’s time to step up. Don’t just be vegan; tell people why. Don’t just speak softly; speak loudly and confidently. Don’t just boycott non-vegan goods; refuse to join non-vegan meals. Don’t just opt out of our culture’s violent norms; actively disrupt them. Activists around the world disrupted speciesism on January 11th, and follow-up demonstrations are anticipated throughout the month. Join us.
Within a culture as morally corrupt as ours, activism is the closest we can get to innocence.