On some feminist blogs, there’s been good discussion about veganism and larger issues of race and class. Here’s Elle, BFP, and BFP again. The last of these posts deals with the much-ballyhooed “three-week vegan challenge” that Oprah Winfrey recently completed. There’s a lot of PETA-bashing that goes on, but that’s all-too-common on feminist websites, and I’m not interested in dredging up that old issue once more.
What is valuable in these posts is the discussion of whether or not veganism is, inherently, a cruelty-free lifestyle. Those of us who, like myself, don’t consume animal products in any form (food, clothing, etcetera) tend to describe our modus operandi as “cruelty-free.” When my wife and I were buying our new cars, we went out of our way to special order vehicles without any leather in the interiors whatsoever, a request that led to several months wait and not-inconsiderable expense. Of course, not only was our ability to make that choice rooted in privilege, in some sense it was imperfect — animal byproducts end up in tires and other places. We spoke to the car dealers about our desire to be “completely cruelty-free”, but we both knew as we did so we were pursuing an imperfectly attainable goal.
A vegan lifestyle, of course, doesn’t automatically mean an absence of connection to death. When even organic farms are tilled, little field mice are not infrequently cut to pieces. Most organic vegetables are grown with animal manure, usually collected from farms where animals are raised for meat. Trying to avoid all complicity with the machinery of death is, alas, nigh on impossible. Most vegans know all this, of course. They don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, however, and with the limited options at their disposal, they seek to exercise the best possible choices available in any given situation, recognizing that few if any choices they do make will be truly “cruelty-free.“
The key thing that BFP and others drive home is the responsibility that vegans have to extend that concern to the human beings who work to provide food for us. The vegan community has often spoken up about the appalling conditions for human workers in slaughterhouses and meat-packing facilties. We have made the case, time and again, that those whose job it is to “process” other living creatures often face unsafe, unsanitary, and psychologically traumatic conditions. Few industries are more notorious for exploiting undocumented workers than the meat-packing business, and this is a point that cannot be repeated often enough.
But here’s the problem: when we celebrate the vegan lifestyle, we often buy into the illusion that non-animal agricultural work is done under humane conditions for the workers involved. BFP tells the story of her father, a strawberry picker, and the pain he endured. And anyone who is familiar with the history of farm labor activism in this state knows that the biggest battles in California were for better conditions for those who picked lettuce and grapes — two foods very compatible with a vegan diet. Not eating animal flesh or animal secretions certainly reduces one’s “personal cruelty footprint” dramatically, but in and of itself, it’s not quite good enough. We have to ask hard questions about who picked our wonderful organic kale, or harvested our special coffee beans, and under what conditions those workers labored.
I am an animal rights activist because I believe, well, that animals have rights. These rights are not conditional on their utility to humans; they are inherent in their status as sentient beings. Those who have the capacity to feel pain, sadness, and fear have a right to be free from pain, sadness and fear. The pain of a pig or a child or a rat is ultimately the same — the nerve endings are just as exquisitely sensitive in each. I do not have an automatic preference for the human over the animal, because my moral system is linked to the idea that all those who can suffer are equally deserving of protection from suffering.
That said, I don’t believe that animals are more deserving of protection than people. If I concern myself only with the chickens and the pigs and not with those who slaughter them, then my morality is indeed skewed — not because I acknowledge the moral standing of the animals but because I am ignoring the status of the human worker. And if I assume that all agriculture that doesn’t involve animals is “cruelty-free”, then I am turning a willfully blind eye to the appalling abuses of farm workers in this country and elsewhere.
There are many bloggers out there who give the lie to the claim that veganism is only for affluent white people. A vegan lifestyle is easier to attain than many understand, and is not only for those with considerable economic resources. But the elitist image that many vegans have is in some sense tied to an unwillingness of many vegans to think more holistically about their choices. The pig is not worth less than the human, we argue — but neither is the human animal worth less than the pig.
Many feminists, both white and non-white, have pointed out how useless it is to privilege one oppression over another. A black woman in America today is going to be a target of both racism and sexism, and it’s absurd to ask her to prioritize her oppressions. Oppressions intersect, we say over and over again, even as some of us (ahem, me) sometimes have a hard time grasping that. For those of us who care about both animals and people, we mustn’t buy into the idea that one obscenity (the slaughtering of animals for food) is somehow worse than another (the exploitation of poor humans). In contemporary agriculture, these oppressions too often intersect as well, and we can and must struggle against them simultaneously.
I am a vegan longing to be cruelty-free. But that’s more than eating a plant-based diet, wearing synthetic fabrics, and ordering a completely leather-free Volvo. Real “cruelty-free” living involves connecting the struggle of the voiceless animals with the struggle of the voiceless workers, many of whom suffer to bring the plants we vegans so smugly eat to our tables.
It is a lot to contemplate, but contemplate — and act — we must.