October 1, 2018
The day I accidentally stumbled upon my first dairy farm video was the day I became a vegan. I could not, in good conscience, remain complicit in a system of food production that was inherently barbaric and gratuitously cruel. I was equally as horrified by the things I saw as well confounded that I could remain oblivious for over four decades. The sheer nature of an industry that forceably impregnates cows to produce milk and then sends their babies to slaughter in order to steal that milk is insidious. How could I not have seen it? The truth is that I never thought about it; never considered from where my food came. It’s funny how we have disjointed memories of seemingly-irrelevant moments in life. One of mine is being in elementary school and listening to my teacher tell us that industrialization allowed our society to progress because it made food readily available. That was the extent of my negotiating how food appeared on my plate.
Once the blinders were removed, however, there was never any moral dilemma about having to change my behavior. I earnestly wanted to cleanse myself, purify my body from the 43 years I’d spent consuming animal products. The only issue for me was, how? When we decide to abstain, the process is identical to an alcoholic who wants to stop drinking. How can one possibly go through life without another beer? What about New Year’s Eve? How does one go through life without another Big Mac? What about Thanksgiving?
Rationally, I made a decision to eat differently. It was an incredibly easy transition; a simple matter of learning what products to buy, learning to be aware of ingredients, and eventually exploring faux meats. I could not escape the fact, though, that while I was shopping for my ethical meals, I was salivating at the scent of the barbecued chickens roasting in the deli section. My mind was saying “tortured animal” while my body was saying “food.” A recovering alcoholic must find it difficult to walk into any store without having to pass a 6-pack or a bottle of wine. This simple truth in and of itself demonstrates that we cannot just educate people and expect that their behavior will conform. We’re dealing with a meat addiction in which 99% of the population is immersed. It took me some time to re-educate myself and establish connections between what was sitting on a plate and from where it had actually come.
I’m glad that I came to my own conclusions about veganism before I had any exposure to the activist community. Once I connected, however, I was congratulated, welcomed, and baptized with the recitation of “you’re saving 300 animals a year.” Wow! I had no idea. And, trust me, I was feeling pretty good about myself now. I asked about how they arrived at that number and was told that they think it’s an algorithm. It took me almost a year to understand that we were talking about theoretical animals. Not a single animal has ever escaped death in the ten years I’ve been vegan. Absolutely, if the entire world went vegan, we would eradicate factory farming. But as long as carnists are born at exponentially greater rates than every vegan convert, it seems strategically incoherent to adopt vegan outreach as the holy grail of Animal Liberation.
Most vegans have built an entire ideology and strategy around those nonexistent 300 animals that every vegan saves annually. I don’t seek to debate this idea again. It serves no purpose except to illuminate one single issue: is our veganism more about our own identity or is it about actually making a difference for animals? My veganism is a moral imperative without consequence for the animals. I am an ethical vegan because I refuse to take part in a global paradigm of commodified genocide. My activism, however, is about directly helping animals, compromising the industrial abuse infrastructure, and educating. I’m finally comfortable that this is the optimal contribution I can make to the struggle as an individual.
Many believe that vegan outreach is the greatest contribution one person can make and I take no issue with that. Education is essential. We can’t change perceptions if we don’t pull the curtains back to expose the bloody machinery. But I think that there’s a point at which our vegan identities begin to take precedence over being vegan for the animals.
We’re challenging a global addiction to animal products that defies any one simple approach and we all need to weigh our positions. Where is the merit for the struggle in our vehement condemnation of vegetarians? I hate to quantify suffering, but I think dairy and egg production is far more insidious than meat production. If there were a blueprint to arriving at veganism, I would want for dairy to be eliminated first. I’ve browbeat vegetarians myself. Once I became a part of the movement, I adopted the arguments, the mindset, the contempt for all things not vegan. But I did so at the expense of negotiating what was in the best interest of the animals to, instead, solidify my identity as a good vegan.
That’s where the problem arises. Vegetarians are arguably our closest allies. They’ve already made a decision to live more ethically, are likely open to learning more, and we should be embracing them. That is what’s in the animals’ best interest. So when I sit back these days and watch vegans pounce on vegetarians, I no longer think “yes, you’re right. vegetarians are just another part of the problem.” Rather, I think “so it’s all about you”. Rather than bring in to our circles as many animal advocates as possible, we would rather drive them away so that we can maintain our non-negotiable vegan identities.
I’ve always believed that there is no room to negotiate with abusers. I have zero tolerance for animal exploitation (human or nonhuman). But I have plenty of tolerance for those on this side of the fence whose ideas don’t align with mine. Because it’s not about me. It never has been. It’s about doing what’s in the best interest of advancing the struggle.
This issue of purity irks me. I am starting at the point of understanding that my veganism does not benefit any animal. So all of the arguments about what is or isn’t vegan, whether we embrace or decimate vegetarians, whether or not cultured meat can impact factory farming, and an infinite number of other issues are all decided by one single factor for me: how does it affect enslaved animals?
I strongly believe that vegans who want to eradicate animal slavery need to align themselves with small farmers against factory farms. It’s not because I think small exploiters are ethically any different than bigger abusers. It would simply be in the best interest of the animals to eradicate industrial factory farms first. If an animal needs to be liberated, I welcome the help of non-vegans at the expense of being criticized by ridiculous vegans who’ve never left the kitchen. Of course I want everyone to be vegan! But I’m unwilling to compromise an animal’s safety until I can find another vegan with whom to work.
We all need to be aware that we have many messiahs running around in this movement whose primary concern is establishing cult followings while infecting them with ideas that are counterproductive to what we are all wanting to achieve. My whole intent in writing this essay is to encourage my comrades to think critically about some of the ideas that permeate our community and follow their conscience. When we see our community rallying around some blowhard or another, please ask yourselves what’s in the best interest of the animals.
I cannot imagine ever being complicit in the nonhuman slave trade again. I’m vegan and I’m proud of that. But my vegan purity will never outweigh the practical implications of my words and actions in working to achieve Animal Liberation.