Elitism and “The Movement”

There are two updates slapped on to the beginning of this post because of spamming and threats, to skip them please scroll past the last bit of italics and read the post.

note to readers (an UPDATE): someone banned from this site due to increasingly offensive and defensive comments, the bulk of which were not approved, is trying to drag me into a flame war over this post and center herself in the discussion rather than the issues of intersectional oppression and animal rights.  Pls read my post thoroughly as many people have either come here to rant about her misrepresentation of me and this post without reading it or have simply used her space as an uninformed pile on having not even bothered to look at this post.  When you READ the post instead of the privilige +ego-driven post(s) that the other blogger has written about it, I think you’ll find that most of what has been said, including that I am “a non-vegan” “judging” “real vegans” is simply not true, much like her assertion I asked not to be named on her blog. I don’t participate in flame wars and I never spoke to her about my blog or my name being used there, she chose to represent my blog name with a derogatory name she made up and when called on it, said I had asked not to be named to cover it up. (END UPDATE)

(UPDATE TWO) – A reader let me know that after being called out vocally by myself and other vegans of color and allies around the net several of the more offensive pieces of the banned bloggers assault on this blog have been removed, though some remain. It will be hard for readers moving between these two blogs to understand the level of my reaction as a result. But let me be clear, at one point those posts included: (1) a derogatory name for me and my blog, (2) they intentionally mentioned my sexual orientation and mocked my partner (who does not write here or anywhere else on the internet) in ways that could easily have instigated homophobic attack, (3) they blatantly lied about conversations the author and I supposedly had that she used to say she had confirmation from me about my politics and my social background. Editing those items out of her post, does not change the level of emotional violence and potential physical violence that her comments encouraged or engaged in outright, and (4) trotted out her adopted daughter’s race to prove that she was not having issues with a black blogger over race, even though this post does not mention race once. Had these posts been left as written, they would have been the most damning evidence for my point about what happens when privileged single issue vegans are asked to think about the broader implications of their choices and act according to the base principles of their philosophical-political choices like the rest of us. (END UPDATE TWO)

I am a big, BIG, fan of Vegans of Color blog. The questions they ask and the discussions they have are often some of the finest examples of intersectional analysis and respectful engagement out there. And I especially appreciate the way their engagement with Animal Rights runs counter to the public face of the movement, aka PETA, to remind people that issues of oppression are interconnected and that the people engaged in including animals in that matrix of oppression are not all willing to mobilize for animal rights along existing oppressions in a one up, one down hierarchy that negates, recreates, or capitalizes on others suffering.

My respect for the blog and the community it has built are part of the reason I found the conversation about PETA’s latest move so jarring. At the heart of Mcquirter’s post, does second-hand figure into your ethics equation?, was a question about freeganism vs. veganism and which of these better serves animal rights. Unfortunately, the question was couched in unexamined class privilege in which the choice presented for readers was to decide whether homelessness would “complicate their ethics”, ie if they were in the same situation as the homeless women, would they accept animal product donations from PETA (freeganism) or buy designer vegan clothes at the store (veganism). Not only did this question ignore class differences between homeless women and upper class vegans but also was accompanied by the author’s anecdote about freezing for a few hours in winter because she chose to wear vegan shoes rather than support animal cruelty. Her choice to have cold feet while walking to and from heated buildings or a heated car were thus compared to the “failure” to make similar choices on the part of a population who spends 18-24 hours a day outside, unwelcome in most businesses and heated buildings, and thus has a high rate of disability and/or death related to hypothermia regardless of the clothing worn. (UPDATE: Mcquirter has since reframed her argument on her own blog, taking into account much of the discussion at Vegans of Color blog, to shift the focus to issues raised in PETA’s action rather than one of choices in which middle class choices are centered. It is worth looking at how she, as an engaged writer and participant, in the conversation clarified her own thoughts and moved past the paradigm I am deconstructing here.) END UPDATE

My contribution to the conversation was to raise issues with how the concept of choice was being mobilized by the author and the comment makers. I drew a distinction between the class and survival issues of homeless women vs. the class issues of PETA and blog readers (who seemed to think homeless women had the choice to buy anything, let alone winter coats and shoes made all the more expensive because they came with designer labels) and encouraged people to reframe the discussion in terms of intersectionality based on class privilege or antagonism. Essentially I asked why the burden of ethics had been placed on homeless women who were choosing clothes from donations rather than on the people with the power and privilege to donate, ie the people with similar choices to those expressed by post author and comment makers alike.

Many of the people on Vegans of Color blog made similar points about class and other intersecting oppressions without actually addressing the problem of the original scenario in the post. For instance, the comment below, and the subsequent thread it initiated, asked for intersectionality not only in the specific instance of PETA donating furs to homeless women but also in the ways their various anti-fur campaigns work together to uphold oppressions:

I think another factor to consider in this is the intention of PETA in “donating” furs to the homeless. They are doing so to associate fur with people perceived as abject in our society. Rather than a charitable act, it might better be seen as misogynistic, classist, and sometimes transphobic (as Ida @ The Vegan Ideal has pointed out). Whether it perpetuates animal exploitation and/or ecological degradation are only two factors.

While this led to a productive discussion about classism, sexism, and transphobia (albeit marred by anti-intellectualism and potential transphobia), someone later denied the efficacy of intersectionality in ways that should seem all too familiar to women of color working in the feminist movement:

If I were a child advocate, no one would say: “OMG, you mean you hate adults?! Why don’t you speak out for women’s rights as well? Men’s rights?” I do see a connection among oppressions, but when I choose to work on helping a chained dog over helping out at a homeless shelter that’s not because I don’t think homeless people don’t need help, it’s that time is limited and that non-human animals is where I feel I can best make a difference. I get it that humans are offended by this, but working extra-hard to make sure that humans aren’t offended: no thanks.

Much like the white mainstream cis feminists who argue that their focus on themselves with an occasional nod to women of color, trans women, immigrant women, etc. is really about focusing on “women’s issues” and not being distracted by “other issues” because there is so little time in the day … single issue vegans believe that they can somehow parse out animal oppression from the circumstances that uphold that oppression. For single issue activists intersectionality is an affront to their politics because it seemingly moves them beyond their immediate goals, but when one thinks intersectionally, they realize that oppression does not exist in a vaccuum, or as others have put it more succinctly: when one group is not free, no group can know freedom.  Example: When a multi-national agrobusiness takes over all of the viable farm land in rural India, Africa, Asia, or Latin America and then pollutes the ground water, levels forests and mountaintops for roads, arable land, and other infrastructure specific to the company but not the community or the state, many working class people, especially indigenous or other racially marginalized groups lose their livelihoods and become dependent on either the exploitation of animals or people (including themselves or family members) to survive. In the case of the latter, women and girls are usually first to be exploited. They become all the more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, trafficking, forced child or unsafe labor, or early pregnancy (which comes with a series of economic and health complications the younger the mother is) and often get pulled out of schools to work. Uneducated women and girls are all the more exploitable and their conditions often used as a marker for international relief and lending agencies alike. One of the major internationally sanctioned solutions to these issues has been to provide women and girls, and/or villages, with a small animal who can be exploited for both its milk and its meat (ie a breeding program). So by not addressing class exploitation, racism, and sexism because “there is only so much time in the day” you actually help pave the way for more, not less, animal exploitation.

Another comment maker who dared to actually call vegan politics elitest for its failures to examine class privilege while still supporting veganism and its ideals was met with increasing vitriol:

so in order to afford non-organic fruits and vegetables..one has to be privileged? Considering the cost of non-organic veggies such potatoes to the cost of meat…I would think almost anyone can afford to be vegan ( or at least vegetarian ). Also non-leather jackets/shoes are typically cheaper than the animal counterparts.

and this comment

Oh no, I am so tired of hearing how veganism is elitist. It is the least elitist way of eating, far superior to “local” and “happy meat,” and all that other crap.

Certainly there are aspects of vegan eating that can be expensive, but by and large the non-processed foods are a lot cheaper than eating chunks of animal flesh.

These responses, like the original choice offered by the post, assume rather than interrogate class privilege. While fruit and veg is often cheaper than meat, this is not always the case. The cheap-and-subpar-product-stocking -grocery-stores that typify what is available in working class neighborhoods often have meat products on sale for much cheaper than fruit and veg when bought in bulk; and while they can often hide the condition of the meat with packaging and other tricks, they cannot hide the condition of wilting or moldy fruit and veg from their consumers. With regards to cost alone: fruit and veg for a family of 4 costs more than the $1 menu at any fast food restaurant which is mostly meat products, soy or almond milk costs more than cows milk, and prepackaged frozen foods provide a meal for the entire family at a moderate to low cost both in terms of money and labor (tho minimal nutritional value) while similar vegan prepackaged foods cost as much as fine dining. Not to mention that vegan bread and other baked goods can cost up to 5 times more than bread made with eggs and milk and that the same holds true for vegan cheese, yogurt, and other similar items. Even if this weren’t generally the case, and there are always exceptions, most vegan options, beyond fruit and veg, are not available in low income neighborhoods nor are the stores that cater to vegans generally set up to be inviting to working class people or people of color. There is also the issue of cultural costs, in which many working class families base their economic status on the ability to eat meat, ie to afford meat; it is better to eat cheap bad tasting meat for some families than to eat a bevy of produce (when that produce is also bad – wilted or spoiled or spoiling) it makes meat seem all the better. While vegans talk about the social status of meat, they do so from the moral high ground;  rather than effectively address the specific social-cultural meanings of what we eat (ie social capital) and its ties to class (economic capital), many single issue vegans simply disparage working class and poc populations as ignorant and their choices as disgusting. (If someone calls you a fool and the lifestyle of generations of your family and neighbors evil, are you more or less likely to listen to them?)

The first comment maker also assumes that working class people are walking around in animal products rather than synthetics. In most, though not all, cases this is simply not true. While vegans may be intentional about not choosing leather, many working class budgets simply don’t allow for it. In fact, letting go of elitism might open the door for vegans to learn how to transition from animal products cheaply and efficiently from the working class and subsistence level people that they seem to be stigmatizing in this conversation.

(Note the comment maker, like the post author, makes no distinction between working class people and middle class people, so with the exception of the scenario that asks us to question homeless people no one is intentionally singling out the poor. The classism lies in the hegemonic failure to recognize class differences and availability of choices based on class which equates working class people with 1 or 2 pairs of leather shoes -with middle and upper class people with closets full of leather shoes and hand bags. While all are guilty of owning leather in this scenario, part of unexamined class privilege is to sit in judgment of the people with the least for not making choices people with the most can and do. This in turn creates tension between working class non-vegans and middle and upper class vegans along class lines that prevents veganism from appearing to be a viable or relevant option while making it that much harder for working class vegans to impact their communities. The failure to interrogate class, and the willingness to intentionally or unintentionally target and stereotype people with less options as the culprits, once again leads to more animal exploitation not less.)

While the back and forth on the blog shows the caliber of discussion at Vegans of Color blog, and the willingness to engage in heated debate, it seemed to me that by reframing the initial question we might be able to recognize the elitism so many were evading and move forward in a discussion of the issues at hand.

This is how I reframed the question:

When we think about choice, or agency, we have to remember that choices are not made in a vacuum in which power and access are constant.PETA has much broader choices than homeless women do and those choices contribute to the availability of ethical options for homeless women.

So perhaps the better question here is: if you were to donate to a homeless shelter, would you donate the animal products you are clearing out after having gone vegan b/c of a commitment to challenging consumption and waste or would you donate vegan items so as to make available ethical choices to people in need?

In my mind, the new question posed deconstructed classism and moved us to the heart of the matter: freeganism vs. veganism and its place in social justice work. It encouraged readers to continue to think in complex ways about these two positions while moving away from judgment of a population who receives services but often has no say in how those services are offered.

Instead of taking up the challenge to refocus the discussion through the lens of class awareness rather than class privilege, the conversation died almost immediately following this response:

… as I sit here looking at pictures of rescued animals on my calendar I wonder sometimes why human animals still are the major factor for people advocating for non-human animals. Or where those who advocate for both draw their lines? Obviously those of us who call ourselves animal rights activists focus mainly on helping non-humans. Because this has been my focus, and in all honesty I see this continuing, I wonder how others have managed to split the balancel how *do* you balance things between those with absolutely no voice and those with a whisper? Those who, at least on paper, have legal rights and those who do not?

In other words, privilege evasiveness won out. By avoiding addressing elitism and instead repositing a hierarchy of needs in which I was the guilty party for putting human rights first, this comment maker reaffirmed that vegans are “good people” who care about defenseless animals and intersectional animal rights advocates are not because we really only care about humans. Yet if you read my reframed question, I did not put human rights first. What I did was point out that choices are complicated by class and that when we discuss freeganism vs veganism in the context of social justice giving, we need to discuss the choices of the people doing the giving not the people who are freezing to death every single day in this country who take what is available to them. In other words, to support animal rights, we need to ask the people donating products why they are donating animal products when they claim to be animal rights organizations rather than questioning the choices of people who go to the clothes closet and take from it what has been donated.

Underlining the comment maker’s criticism was the not so hidden belief that my pointing out class divisions was some how proof that I don’t care about animals or animal rights. The other side of the coin of course, is that her failure to address classism is acceptable in the name of animal rights. And yet as I pointed out above class inequality in the world is a key factor in the exploitation of animals because of the interconnections between class and animal exploitation; classism in the movement is also a  key factor in the continuation of animal exploitation on the ground because of the failure to reach and/or work in conjunction with working class and subsistence level communities. Thus combating both structural and individual classism is critical to creating lasting global commitment to animal rights.

The sad part about this exchange, besides the obvious, is that it shut conversation down completely on the post. Where some participants had been raising issues of complexity between freeganism and veganism prior, there was now only silence. As if the spectre of oppression, and the potential of having participated in it, however intellectually, was too much to overcome. The fear of being a bigot, or worse the self-righteous denial of oppression in the name of one’s own cause over that of equality, is one of the major reasons why movements fail. When we tell ourselves that our position is right and just and therefore we cannot make mistakes, benefit from inequality, or otherwise uphold a system of oppression, we make it impossible to grow beyond ourselves and engage in radical social change for the equality of everyone. Growth, requires the willingness to fail. It requires the willingness to struggle with other people rather than against anyone who dares to disagree or hold up a mirror. And justice requires complexity and the willingness to look beyond a single issue into how oppressions works across issues. In the same way that the failure to confront racism in mainstream feminism means that women will never gain equality as long as the mainstream is in control because they have already eliminated the rights of the majority of women from the struggle and/or the definition of women’s equality, the failure to address elitism and/or classism in veganism means there will never be animal rights because there will always be poor people whose survival is reduced to engaging in animal exploitation because no one has bothered to create a world in which alternatives are available to them or the alternatives they already engage in are reconstructed as resistance and justice rather than necessity to overcome.

My girlfriend was homeless for a few years during her teens because of homophobia and sexism in her parents’ home and many of the teens we work with in the drop in center are experiencing similar kinds of homeless now. Much of her social justice work has involved confronting elitism and classism on the left and providing tools to grassroots, non-profit, and for profit social change organizations to address class antagonism in the workplace, the communities in which they live and serve, and their movements. And like me, she has come to the conclusion that while most people claim they care about intersectionality and are engaged in their various causes in order to create a just world, the reality is most people are only willing to go as far as their own cause takes them. When things become uncomfortable they retreat to accusations (your critique is proof you really don’t care about X like I do) or to silence. Since many social movements are dominated by the middle class, because they have the free time and the resources to engage regularly in the work, class is a major stumbling block to inclusion, change, and justice.

As a vegan, my girlfriend has often rallied against the elitest space in which vegans often come together like: expensive grocery stores, high priced restaurants, gentrified neighborhoods, and expensive conferences. She points to how these spaces intentionally or sometimes unintentionally police class boundaries so as to be inhospitable to working class people as well as to people of color and how hard it is to examine space within the vegan movement. As she says “space is seemingly neutral and should therefore be an easy place to start”, and yet it never is. If your movement cannot look at the spaces you occupy or in which you move and build, then how can it look at the people and the choices inside those spaces?

My girlfriend’s own experience of homophobia and sexism related homelessness also highlights another key set of intersections missing from single issue vegans’ understanding of animal rights. According to an elitest version of veganism, class is a non-issue and any discussion of intersectionality threatens animals and the environment. Yet 1000s of kids end up homeless every year because of homophobia and transphobia and many young girls end up on the street because it is seemingly safer than their own homes. Most of these “throwaways” (kids cast out by their parents) do not have the economic support systems to find alternative housing with other relatives or friends and many are too young and inexperienced to know how to access the system in ways that benefit rather than disempower them. When these youth are cold or hungry, they access donations and cheap food options. And as we have already established, unless donors with more economic choices make ethical donations, that means that homeless youth are participating in animal exploitation in the clothes they select from the clothes closet and the food they are given. So that while the single issue vegan activist is staring at her pics of abused animals and refusing to address classism or rallying to rescue a defenseless and abused dog all the while claiming there is not enough time in the day to address homophobia, sexism, classism, racism, etc. what they are really doing is helping to ensure that animal exploitation continues by failing to address either the people with the choice to do things differently or the circumstances that encourage people with fewer choices to unwittingly participate in animal exploitation. By not looking at the big picture single issue vegans are part of the very problem they organize to end.

I began this post by saying what a truly revolutionary space I think Vegan of Color blog is in a sea of other status quo spaces. The conversations that go on there certainly indicate an ability for blog writers and comment makers alike to address class as a critical intersection within the animal rights movement. While I am sad to see the way this conversation came undone, I do still believe that Vegan of Color blog can and will address classism better than it has been addressed in the past. This momentary lapse into recrimination and silence is really a mirror of the larger movement and its ongoing failures than it is about the women who write the blog and the people who work out complex ideas there, so I hope this post nudges them to keep talking. And as proof of my optimism, here is another comment I initially missed:

when i worked in this area there were a lot of non veg decisions i’ve made because it wasn’t about my politics. i did my best to create choice so all needs were met on what was available. there were a few recent vegetarians in the group due to the fact that one big area (not being homeless) had been taken care of. i made sure there was food to take care of their needs too. being veg sometimes is a luxury.

Update: The author of the original post on Vegans of Color blog, has written a more complex series of questions and thoughts about the PETA giveaway on her own blog as well. Like others at Vegan of Color Blog active participation in the conversation and taking time to think through the complexities raised seemed to help her deconstruct the initial classism and reconstruct the post with out it as a result. The new version of the post also seems to be more in keeping with other themes on her own blog by and about black vegans. check it out here.