Why Beyoncé Going Vegan is Bad for Animals
By Brian Burns
This Monday, Beyoncé announced a vegan diet as her key to weight loss on Good Morning America. And while her fans rushed to the blogosphere to voice their disappointment, animal rights groups proclaimed victory. This announcement, along with many others this week - including Ben and Jerry’s soon-to-come vegan ice cream and Miley Cyrus’ similar dietary change – is hailed as strong evidence that the animal rights movement is winning.
But it isn't. Why? Because veganism for its own sake is not good for animals. Instead, the promotion of the vegan diet without animal rights messaging actively harms the animal rights movement. Moreover, the movement’s focus on mass consumer dietary change has little historical or empirical basis, despite being our movement's main strategy.
To be clear, both I and DxE believe nothing short of a vegan diet is morally permissible, because killing and eating others is wrong. But we must acknowledge that focusing on getting people to go vegan, rather than other tactics to help animals - such as protest, community building, or simply encouraging people to talk to their friends about animal rights - is a deliberate choice by the animal rights movement, and this choice is not optimal. We can do different and do better than hailing celebrities such as Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. Below are a few reasons why we should consider other options for advocacy rather than simply focusing on consumer change.
1. Veganism frames society’s conversation about animals suffering as one of consumerism and dietary choice rather than justice and equality.
When presenting any issue, framing is extremely important. Is climate change about saving people and the planet, or do-good liberals interfering with productive industry? Is high defense spending about imperialism and killing, or ensuring defense for a strong America? We should ask ourselves, then, how we are framing the suffering of animals - and the answer is that veganism and dietary choice frames animal rights in favor of our enemy.
If you've ever argued with someone who eats or kills animals, you must have heard, "it's my personal choice to eat meat!". Why then, are we making this argument for them? By framing animal rights as an issue of dietary change - titling animal rights leaflets "Your Choice", for example - rather than one of justice and equality, we set ourselves up for failure.
2. This framing disempowers vegans from speaking strongly for animals.
By focusing on creating individual dietary change rather than communities for activism, we create a dispersed nation of lonely vegans. This loneliness is extraordinarily disempowering, and causes vegans in best case to remain silent on animal rights, and in the worst case to go back to eating animals again (84% of the time, in fact).
Moreover, consumer vegan messaging induces complacency and stops vegans from helping animals. Because the central focus of our movement is to "go vegan", many get the sense that once they change their diet, they're done, and need to do no more for animals. But animal rights, as we all know, only begins with our diets. We need to inspire people to do more for animals by not just believing in animal rights themselves, but by bringing animal rights to their family, their friends, and the world.
Finally, say they decide to do just that. With a focus on veganism for veganism's sake, animals' lives often get lost in the message. For example, consider an interchange of which I myself have been very often guilty: you're eating with a friend, and they ask why you ordered the veggie burger rather than the steak. "I'm vegan", you respond. Not, "Animals deserve to live, they are not our food". Not, "In all ways that matter, animals are like us - and violence against sentient beings is wrong". A serious opportunity for dialogue and change is missed, and the personal choice framing is reinforced.
3. Veganism as a strategy has no basis.
Simply put, the vegan boycott as a tactic for helping animals - in place of others, such as protest and community building - is failing. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2012, the number of vegetarians has declined in the last decade, and "Vegetarianism in the US remains quite uncommon and a lifestyle that is neither growing or waning in popularity".
Perhaps then we're just not there yet. Perhaps with continued efforts at vegan advocacy we will reach some critical mass of vegans, which will in turn create a social cascade for animal rights in society. Unfortunately, this model is tried and tested - look at the nation of India. Some regions report as high as a 40% vegetarian population, yet animal rights is fading as violent western habits spread into the country. Vegetarianism, historically framed as a personal or religious choice, is an outdated fad. And while enormous change is beginning to happen for animals, this is due to grassroots animal rights organizing in contrast to - rather than in support of - the consumer vegan messaging so present in the movement today.
Finally, boycotts on their own have not succeeded in other social justice movements without the accompaniment of direct action campaigns. The best possible example of this is the Free Produce Movement in the early 1800s, which sought to fight the American slave trade by boycotting all goods made by slaves. The boycott was tried, then decried as a failure by the leaders of the antislavery movement, who moved on to much greater success by building chapters across the country that held meetings, debates, and protests centered on the lives of slaves in the US, and not the quality of their cotton coats or tobacco cigars. We should think about what we can learn from these past efforts.
In summary, the centering of veganism for its own sake - exemplified by our movement's universal hailing of Beyoncé, Miley, Ben, and Jerry, despite little to no words from them on the subject of animal rights - is a stumbling block for our movement. What, then, do we propose instead? Simply: treat animal rights as an issue of social justice. Focus on creating activists instead of consumers. Build community centers for animal rights rather than making dispersed, lonely vegans. And most importantly, stay on message: animals and their lives, rather than humans and their diets. In doing so, we can create enormous positive change for animals. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for an updated strategy piece with much more information on this issue.
EDIT: It was pointed out that using Beyoncé’s name and image in the title of the piece comes in the context of the movement’s history targeting and policing black women, of which I was sorely unaware as a white man.
While the intention of the article was to discuss strategic problems with consumer framing in the animal rights movement (using news items such as the movement’s recent hailing of Ben and Jerry’s, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé as lead-ins), the choice of Beyoncé as a title and image is indicative of implicit bias on my part, and certainly has aggravated much of the already existing hate towards black women (or all women) in the movement. I seriously apologize for some of the horrifying comments that others made after the blog was published, either as a consequence of the article or as a consequence of the context in which the article occurred - for example, the selective targeting of women wearing fur rather than men wearing leather with hateful language such as “fur hag”, or some of Gary Yourofsky’s violent statements towards women and people of color.
In that respect, I hope that people can discuss the substance of the post - that vegan celebrities are not our messiahs, and more importantly that the animal rights movement must think seriously about consumer veganism as a strategy to help animals - rather than selectively target certain individuals, especially when that targeting is selective on the basis of race, sex, or other group membership. Not only is it factually inaccurate to say that animals are suffering as a result of individuals rather than systems and social norms, but it is harmful in a very real way to people, and makes our movement weaker and less inclusive.