Back in the day…
When I went vegan in the mid-’90s, friends and I told ourselves that tubs of rice cream were as satisfying as the real thing and that veganism didn’t mean giving up a stitch of pleasure. The truth is, though, at the time cheese substitutes largely tasted like barf and the endless plates of white pasta and watery “red sauce” at our cafeteria were a drag. We were regularly plied with the question, “But what do you eat?”
For many omnivores, our meals were imagined as flaccid arrangements of iceberg lettuce, or as blocks of uncooked tofu, like menacing white monoliths, heralding bleak and lonely gastronomic days ahead. When Lisa from The Simpsons pleads for a party without meat, Homer, Bart and Marge form a mini conga line, and dance around her chanting, “You don’t win friends with salad! You don’t win friends with salad!” So ubiquitous was the stereotype of the pasty and self-righteous vegan that a friend and fellow herbivore ordered a custom-designed shirt for me that read, “Humourless vegan.”
I’m supposed to swoop in here and convince you things are different now: Veganism isn’t about scarcity, and meat and dairy analogues are delicious and easier to access. Dinner no longer looks like a couple of peas rolling around beside a small pile of dirt. That is true, but as I grew into veganism, I learned that the limited cafeteria choices, while they did provide certain constraints, were also reflective of my own limited understanding of plant-based eating.
What a load of beans
Veganism increasingly felt like an invitation to become more curious about my food: Where it comes from, who makes it, what kinds of possibilities exist — different kinds of grains, legumes, and veggies — beyond the standard North American diet. Unable to rely on routine ways of eating (which, let’s face it, mostly meant microwaving frozen perogies), my commitment to veganism gave me a good nudge to become more engaged with food politics.
Fortunately, public perception of veganism is changing, including an awareness that herbivorous foods have rich and varied global histories and that Western heavy meat-centric meals are a fairly recent phenomenon, which many people drawing from other traditions already know. Yet noting the persistent stereotype that veganism equals deprivation, vegans have responded with a cornucopia of lush cookbooks, food blogs, and enough food porn to convince the most skeptical among us that veganism can be just as exciting, decadent, and comforting as the most lavish Food Network dishes. Similarly, confronting the stereotype of the sickly and weak vegan, vegans have broken weight-lifting records, started fitness and bodybuilding websites, and lauded veganism as essential to their ultra-marathoning successes . Battling the humourless vegan stereotype, the “Healthy.Happy.Life.” blog emerges in its stead. Advocates for veganism often take a tripartite approach: It’s better for your health, for the environment, and for the animals. Below I dig into that last reason, and nibble at the lentil loaf of stereotypes that plague nonhuman animals. Questioning animal stereotypes is a crucial part of The Vegan Challenge, a challenge to think differently about who animals are.
But they’re just so tasty…
For me, animals dominate the “why?” question of veganism. They’re the main reason I’ve stuck with veganism for almost 20 years, and why I spent shy of an eon in grad school studying the historical, social, and political reasons why conditions got so bad for most so-called “food animals” and other animals exploited for profit. Yet, despite my previous decade-long commitment not to consume animal products, it wasn’t until I visited a farm sanctuary for rescued and abused animals that my consciousness most profoundly deepened. Which is to say, I met a pig and she rolled over for a belly rub, and I obliged. This was startling because it occurred to me that this pig acts like my cat, or maybe I should say, my cat acts like her.
Perhaps this seems like an insignificant point, or just a sentimental story. But if we consider that moment for a bit, it’s clear how much it rattles some rampant misconceptions about pigs, and potentially, other animals.
Intensive animal agriculture, what anthropologist Barbara Noske calls the “animal industrial complex,” relies on consumers not making the connection between what’s on their plates and the animals’ biographies. Yet, if we do entertain this thought, discomfort can often be dismissed with the knee-jerk reaction, “They’re only animals.” This rote phrase helps keep the system clicking, because while we might even know that pigs in Canada are crowded together in windowless sheds on concrete floors, and gestating and farrowing sows are commonly held in crates around the world that are so small they can’t turn around, we must believe there’s some morally relevant difference between us and them that somehow justifies their use and this treatment. We’re supposed to feel differently about the animals in our homes than we do about the dead ones on our plates. Sure, we might feel sad about it, but they’re only animals, after all. While Internet cat videos proliferate, so does the obsession with bacon-flavoured everything. This bizarre paradox acts as a kind of ideological grease that keeps the system running. Professor Una Chaudhuri argues,
Our relationship to animals is kind of the great open secret of our society and culture. Anthropologists have this theory about how cultures are often organized around certain things that you know not to know…. You are aware of something, but you do not acknowledge that you are aware of it.
The animal industrial complex offers a tradeoff between more affordable and widely available meat and dairy products and the welfare of animals whose existences necessarily become more confined, bleak and invisible through the intensive practices that dominate today’s agricultural landscape.
But I could never give up cheese…
Generally speaking, we’re not supposed to think about farmed animals as relational beings who have great capacity for pleasure, enjoy the company of others, have preferences and desires, form friendships, and suffer not only physical but also psychological trauma through common industry practice. (These are practices that are exempted from our animal cruelty statutes because they are common.) The animal rights organization Mercy for Animals, who just made headlines with their Quebec veal farm investigation, gives us some reasons to cry over spilt milk:
Cows are extremely gentle and affectionate animals. They form strong bonds with one another, particularly between mother and child. As Michael Klaper M.D. recalls: “The very saddest sound in all my memory was burned into my awareness at age five on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. A cow had given birth to a beautiful male calf… On the second day after birth, my uncle took the calf from the mother and placed him in the veal pen in the barn — only ten yards away, in plain view of his mother. The mother cow could see her infant, smell him, hear him, but could not touch him, comfort him, or nurse him. The heartrending bellows that she poured forth — minute after minute, hour after hour, for five long days — were excruciating to listen to. They are the most poignant and painful auditory memories I carry in my brain.”
As a sociologist, my task is to analyze social relationships, but the discipline tends to assume that humanity defines the boundaries of the social, and therefore the importance of nonhuman animals’ social relationships remains beyond the reach of analysis. Similarly, sociology’s sister discipline, anthropology, overwhelmingly begins with the assumption that culture is strictly a human phenomenon, despite the growing evidence that many nonhuman animals possess their own cultures. For sociology and anthropology, the challenge to address these dynamics is a major hurdle, because society and culture are largely thought to be key phenomena that make us human. Although the bulk of my research and teaching considers the social relationships among humans and other animals, and among animals themselves, these dynamics are mostly unthinkable to my discipline.
Drawing on the work of naturalist Charles Darwin, cognitive ethologist and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff argues that emotions evolved in group-living animals to enable social bonding. Although we are largely willing to grant evolutionary continuity with nonhuman animals, given our similar physiology and neurobiology, to recognize that evolutionary continuity also implies emotional continuity is a much tougher sell because it involves some unavoidable ethical ramifications.
All right, let’s just stop there for a minute. Discussions like this can quickly slip into a sense that what we’re talking about is “good people” who acknowledge animals’ emotional lives and their suffering and who become vegan, and “bad people” who heartlessly eat animals and animal products. Arguments about veganism are often experienced as judgments about identity, as comments about people’s characters.
This is another big challenge of the Vegan Challenge: To wrest the conversation away from “what are you saying about me?” (nothing, I swear!) toward one that asks “how might we respond to the profound objectification and commodification of animals’ lives?” given that factory farming is now the rule rather than the exception. There’s a necessary and difficult reckoning with forms of violence that many of us help enable, but that almost no one supports just because they really love hurting animals.
Veganism is a good fit for me because, while it’s not the only way to be a more compassionate person, it’s been an important way to minimize my negative impact on others. I carry around mental images of cows straining against fences to get to their babies, and it makes giving up dairy feel like not giving up anything at all. I hear the voices of slaughterhouse workers I’ve interviewed, who are also brutalized through their labour, and I know there are harms inherent in a system that treats pleasure-seeking and social animals as unfeeling as concrete blocks. Animals’ lives are much richer than industrial agriculture can possibly acknowledge and accommodate. And that’s not a mistake: The ideology that animals are lesser beings, less endowed with the potential for rich emotional and social lives, and less conscious of pain, must hold for the system to function.
Off the soap box, onto the springboard
Animal advocates who expose the suffering of animals (activists who are increasingly criminalized for their efforts through “Ag Gag” and anti-terrorism legislation) must also challenge the pervasive belief that there’s something so different about animals that allows them to be treated as solely means to an ends. That animals destined for agriculture, and other industries, are born exclusively to serve human interests is so naturalized that Homer’s response to Lisa, “All normal people love meat,” continues to resonate (before breaking into a conga line).
Veganism doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, but it can offer a springboard into rethinking human-animal relationships, help resist the objectification of animals’ lives, and interrupt the idea that animals exist for us.
When I first started writing about animal issues, I was accused of growing up on Sesame Street and being naïve to life’s harsh realities. Yet it was my experiences of witnessing violence and participating in other social justice movements that motivated me not to consume animal products. This individual daily boycott, when tied into a larger analysis of structural inequalities and domination under capitalism, unsettles animals’ degradation as property and the ways other groups, such as women, have been subjugated because they are seen as animal-like.
The Vegan Challenge for many animal advocates has been to build coalitions across social justice and environmental movements, develop a stronger analysis of capitalism as a key driver of animal exploitation, and centralize the analyses of those who have always made the connections. In absence of these understandings, veganism is destined to stay a fringe activity of those who want their soy lattes free of animal products, and thus “cruelty-free,” but saturated with other forms of misery. Veganism isn’t about being better than anyone else, but about more closely aligning with animals who resist, grieve, and long to live full lives. “When we keep animals in impoverished conditions — such as factory farms, laboratory cages, and zoos — we deny animals the opportunity to express euphoria, exultation, and excitement,” argues Jonathan Balcombe, author of Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good. “And when we kill animals we cause harm by denying them the opportunity to experience rewards that life would otherwise offer them.”
Lauren Corman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brock University. She is a former host and producer of the animal advocacy radio show, “Animal Voices” on CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto, from 2001-2010. She lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @laurencorman.