The other day I took a different path home from work than usual. The road was blocked, police cars swarmed around a house, and I saw the EMTs showing up in their stretchers. I am always a curious person, but I felt too much like a voyeur to get any closer. In my different path, I passed several broken and abandoned houses. Ivy covered the front porches, the red “Condemned” spray paint tags from the city only barely visible between the graffiti and the lead-based chips of paint. It’s amazing, saddening, really, to see how much this city changes in only a few blocks.
“Nobody must live on this street,” I thought. Every house was shuttered, condemned, or just abandoned, not a single light from a street lamp, a car, or a window. Not a single light, except for a bright pair of windows at the end of the block. From the distance, I thought it would be just another liquor store, maybe one that gouged the food-desert neighborhood by selling junk food and individual packets of laundry detergent. But as I approached, I noticed the striking mural on the side of the store: brash, sexualized Little Red-Riding Hood, strutting from a lush, guileless field to an angular, shadowed woods. I pulled out my phone and took a picture; it looked hand-made for a profile banner.
“Rustic Green Food Co-Op” the hand-painted, hand-carved sign above the door read, “Open” read the sign just below. I stepped inside, finally getting a clear view of the interior, which was blocked previously by a host of posters informing me about upcoming house punk shows, community meetings, advertisements for the services of Urban Shaman, and other curiosities. Within, shelves reached to the ceiling stocked with dried beans, barley, grains, and drums of goods I was uncertain how to pronounce. Imported cans with Cyrillic and Korean letters formed neat sets of rows in the back. Peanuts, heads of purple lettuce, apples for cider rested in hand-woven baskets in front of the shelves.
This must have been how the grocers before WWII looked, I thought. Nobody was in the store, not a soul. Adjacent to the main floor of food was a small room, “The Study” another hand-carved, hand-painted stated above the entrance. Among a few worn chairs, and a public computer from the time of the Bill Clinton presidency, I found a large collection of books, zines, and pamphlets. Everything from “Socialist Worker” to “EarthFirst!,” Feminist self-stapled photocopies to Aldo Leopold, the Autobiography of Assata Shakur to a self-published New Age instructional map to a pagan reconstructionist text. When sifting through these texts, known and obscure, a pocket-sized pamphlet fell onto the ground. “On the Carnists” it read. I was intrigued, I put it in my satchel.
Still, I heard nobody in the store. I felt an unease, looking at the dusty floor, the asymmetrical shelves. What had once been dusk now looked like night. I left. The door closed behind me. I turned the corner, the next street had no lights, either.
Later that night, I pulled the pamphlet out of my bag. It read, all typewritten,
ON THE CARNISTS
1 Accept the fundamental truth that the world consists of binaries. True or false, yes or no, black or white, savage or civilized, man or woman, wet or dry, light or dark, right or wrong.
2 The world has two ideological camps, vegans and carnists. The vegan refrains from exploiting non-human animals. The carnist reaps from the body and labor of animals. It is very clear which side of the binary they fall.
3 You must accept that you are fighting for 40 Billion. There is no argument otherwise.
4 Not only are carnists guilty of a grave systematic moral infraction, they are essentially wrong. You must never forget this.
5 The most wicked holocaust is the 40 Billion. The carnists commit this every year. The carnists complain about other things, but they commit this heinous crime every year. They are essentially misguided.
6 The carnists’ abuses are so ingrained so systemic, and so essentially to their character, you cannot listen too long to them. You must speak, but you cannot forget their doings.
7 The carnist will try to defeat you with their petty identity-driven politics. Do not listen, do not entertain. Their claims of suffering are nothing compared to their holocaust. You are for the 40 billion. Do not forget that.
8 They will tell you that you are “Privileged.” This means nothing. Carnists are the privileged ones; they are the oppressors. All of them.
9 It is about the animals, not you. Do not entertain their divisions. They create these problems for themselves, and their suffering is minuscule compared to the oppression that commit.
10 If they will not listen, move on. They are broken. You have the truth. Never forget it. This is for the animals. This is for the 40 billion.
I put the pamphlet down. It was unsigned. I had no idea who this was for, how many copies had been made. This unsettled me. I reached over to my nightstand for a pen, and then wrote a new title for the text: “How to be a Bad Vegan.”
Since 2011, I have been a vegan: I stopped eating all animal produces (occasionally honey slips through my guards); I stopped buying leather, wool, fur, and down; I became much more critical of the animal entertainment industry. There are several influences as to why I adopted this lifestyle, but the two major reasons I want to cover are an ethical argument, and a religious/spiritual conviction.
I am an ethical utilitarian; I believe that, very broadly, pain is bad, pleasure is good, and the extent of applied and normative ethics is a matter of investigating how experiences and structures either lead to pain or pleasure. One moral feature I think about quite a bit is the concept of POWER. Very broadly, power is the ability for a party to directly influence its circumstances. We can speak in terms of physical power, political power, social power, but in each of these instances, power is a matter of allowing one’s will to control factors for a desired outcome. Recognizing power is integral for any meaningful discussion about higher-order pleasures and pains. Having power itself is often a pleasure, as it often allows for additional choices or a social safety-net if fortunes turn. Likewise, being under another agencies power is often very painful, even if the material circumstances are well-off. For this reason, I am very critical of arguments that defend colonialism on the grounds that Britain, France, the Netherlands, or the United States introduced electric lights and asphalt to savages in exchange for their political, social, and religious autonomy. Imperialisms, colonialism, sexisms, and other forms of systemic oppression I like to call Empire, but that is my doing.
The moral argument is as follows:
MY MORAL ARGUMENT FOR VEGANISM
P1 One needs very good reasons to inflict pain on another sentient creature (e.g. self-defense; in a consensual activity for greater pleasure, like a surgery). (Principle of First-Order Utilitarianism)
P2 There has not been a single historical case in which Party A held total, non-consensual dominion in all matters (life, death, bodies, labor, reproductivity, and otherwise) over Party B, and Party A was justified by the moral tribunal of future generations. (Principle of Second-Order Utilitarianism)
P3 The way we treat animals is a total, non-consensual system of dominion, which includes inflicting a great deal of pain, both in physical and psychological terms.
P4 Following from premise 3, the principles of First- and Second-Order Utilitarianism are not met to justify our actions.
C Therefore, we humans are not justified in our treatment of other animals.
My argument for veganism is similar to my argument against other forms of Empire, including the Police State, the Prison System, Colonialism, Sexism, Racism, and a host of other oppressions that are often grouped under the oft-derided title of “Identity Politics.”
This pamphlet reminded me of some of the vegans I have met in my life. Vegan Reductionists, I have noticed, live in a Manichean World where all actions are black or white, right or wrong. The sins of the carnists will always be more pressing and more troubling than the issues of every other oppressed group in the world. I have seen vegan reductionists racism doesn’t exist anymore, that women have more rights then men, that immigration from Muslim countries raises the crime rate, that IQ is genetic and that discrepancy in crime and income between black and white Americans is rooted in a lack of objective intelligence, that rape is wildly over-reported, that virtually all police shootings of black men are justified, and so on, and so forth. When pressed on any of these issues, the Vegan Reductionist immediately resorts to speaking about the 40 billion animals killed for food and clothing every year. “You are the privileged one!” The Vegan Reductionist responds. The Vegan Reductionist ignores the manifold of intersection in environmental problems. Capitalism, racism, imperialism, militarism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and unsustainable environmental damage are all connected. There is no keystone that, when punched away with your endless social rambles and self-righteousness, will topple the edifice.
The Vegan Reductionist is similar to the Eco-Reductionist, who employs similar tactics. Derrick Jensen and Loirre Keith of Deep Green Resistance are Eco-Reductionists, and are irredeemably transphobic, as well as grotesque appropriators of indigenous cultures. I will go as far to say that Derrick Jensen is an abject moral failure, an intellectually dishonest man, and cut from the same cloth as a fundamentalist preacher. Likewise, the Vegan Reductionists. These reductionists will not listen, they will not recognize the diversity of experiences, or the depth of pains. They will not entertain the complexity of life, and how power complicates all moral activity. But the Reductionist does not care. They relish in being right, rather than being in right relationship. And as a Utilitarian, the inert morality of obsessive purity is a pathology to overcome.
In attempting to be the good vegan, I strive to recognize the connection between my vegan principles with the other ethical issues in my life. I do notice a fundamental issue in reconciling animal ethics with my approach to other power- and oppression-based topics: because I believe it is good in principle to have power, and to check the authority of those who have too much power over others, I accept that I often cannot prescribe a particular course of action for a group that does not have power and would like it. Rather, it is better for me to allow the particular group to advocate for themselves, and attempt to help on the sides, or if asked. This act of allowing self-determination is empowering, and in my model of normative ethics, a source of higher-order pleasure.
The trouble comes in recognizing that humans and non-human animals have a fundamental communications problem: we cannot directly communicate with animals; we do not know exactly what it is they would like from us, or how they would want to be treated. Since animals have literately no voice in the discourse around power, they cannot lead their own movement of liberation. Thus, the vegan activist takes the matter of animal liberation as their own movement in a way I would find distasteful, if not immoral, in another context. Consider how colonialism, slavery, the subjugation of women, of intersex and transgender persons, the Russian intervention in Syria, the Vietnam War, and the genocide of Native Americans have been justified by a powerful group claiming to protect and defend a group with very little power. To be the external liberator, the “Cyrus the Great” for the Other, puts you in a long history of other oppressors, because you were more interested in fulfilling your own perceived moral duties than making yourself vulnerable to the Other, by releasing your privilege and power. The Bad Vegan wants to have the power of the liberator, but not the love to support the liberated.
I don’t know the best way out of this “Liberationist’s Paradox.” But I do have hope: recently, I spoke to a graduate student in linguistics. They mentioned that human and non-human animal communication might not be as stark as originally thought. Pet owners know the emotions of their animals, they said, of course we can find ways to communicate, even if we cannot directly understand the syntax or make make the phonemes of our dogs and cats. Perhaps animals really are giving us testimony every day about how they would like to be treated, what they would like from us, and how we can live together, without dominion, without the manifold Empire creeping in. As a Christian, I believe in the world-to-come that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Perhaps then, the moral tribunal of animals will judge me, and they will say they liked it the most when I listened to their words.