A topic I’ve seen come up frequently on Tumblr and other social media sites lately is about privilege and veganism, which actually encompasses a broad spectrum of issues. Some of these are more clear-cut than others. While I think it’s valid and useful to talk about economic privilege and the relative accessibility of vegan foods, I will not be focusing on that here. I think there is another very pressing issue that gets less visibility that should be constantly on our minds: appropriation of human oppression to describe exploitation of nonhumans.
You’ve seen it before. Pictures of dying animals used for food crammed into slaughterhouses juxtaposed with an image of mass graves in concentration camps, or a picture of a lynching victim next to a pig suspended in the air by rope to help drain blood after the throat is cut. These are common, visceral, and almost always used as graphics with little or no context or description.
People who use graphics or arguments like these as part of their advocacy frequently say that people won’t understand the exploitation and abuse of nonhumans unless it’s described in simple terms, or that we should “call it like it is”. Moreover, they say the only people who have problems with such comparisons are speciesist themselves; that is, if the person in question were vegan and a supporter of animal liberation, then they wouldn’t have a problem with such tactics.
To all that I usually say: “wow”. But I can be more specific about why these tactics are problematic, and why dismissal of arguments or anger against them is exactly the kind of privilege we should seek to expose and root out.
It is unethical to hijack narratives or tap into the pain of historical trauma for your “education” project, as seriously as you may take it; you cannot use a story or experience as a point of comparison when that very experience is not taken seriously on its own terms. People of color, and more specifically, Black people, see their current and historical traumas used by a variety of movements as selling points or as “helpful illustrations”. The pain of racism and the violence and damage it causes is objectified as a rhetorical tool, and not understood on its own terms or respected for its uniqueness.
And what we’re really saying, again, is the sources of comparison are really unimportant in the context of nonhuman suffering. It’s just used as a stepping stone to get to an item on our agenda, rather than a separate serious concern that we work on simultaneously with nonhuman liberation struggles. Lynching and the Holocaust become illustrative and figurative; this is continuing the violence and delegitimization the survivors have to continue to experience by our privileged oversight.
We only feel comfortable bringing up lynching and the Holocaust and epidemic gender and sexual violence because they are easy tools to appropriate. It’s easy to be against them, but not so easy to understand the specific conditions that support them, or the implicit attitudes that continue to inform them even in people with the best intentions. It’s not a fair comparison not because nonhumans don’t suffer, but because erasure of difference is not taken seriously and that does significant damage.
Speciesism did not kill Emmett Till, racism did. To deny that root cause by a simplistic graphic you whipped up on publisher in 5 minutes is why we still don’t take racism seriously as a deadly and oppressive force with a history and contemporary record of killing Black people with impunity.
Solidarity does not require us all to be the same. By definition, it implies there is some piece that is inviolable, unique, and worth appreciating from a perspective that will never fully understand its effects or implications. We have the vision of building better coalitions when we rely on true solidarity, rather than doing what’s been done by the very oppressive structures we criticize.
Oppression of nonhumans has a history and quality that is all its own. We do a disservice to the nonhumans we advocate for when we erase their specific experiences in order to hang them on the scaffolding of human experience. We imply that the only meaningful way to talk about pain and suffering is through human terms, and then only those human terms we feel okay with constantly appropriating and co-opting. This is not a good framework for the non-speciesist society we wish to envision.
This really demonstrates, in action, what Breeze Harper describes as the whitewashing of the vegan movement. Whiteness that is by nature, reductionist, consuming, and gains power by co-opting and appropriation is why advocacy tools like these are so popular. Not only does this misrepresent our larger goals of total liberation, it silences PoC vegans and animal liberation advocates who are alienated by such rhetoric and aren’t taken seriously when they promote their own tactics and work.
I’m not saying comparisons or analogies are 100% never helpful. I am saying that they are frequently used without care, without self-reflection, and with the assumption that being anti-speciesist automatically comes with a pass freeing you from checking relevant racial, economic, and gender privilege. I am saying that more often than not, most examples alienate the people you are appropriating for your cause and that does damage to all of our goals. Nuanced examples require research and thoughtfulness that seems impossible to do in a simple graphic or a tweet. So their use following these guidelines would be well researched, vetted for accuracy, come from non-privileged folk, and be used sparingly.
It is not speciesist to ask that your historical and contemporary trauma be respected. It is not speciesist to ask that “abolitionist” not be used to describe anything other than as relevant to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (especially when the people appropriating the term frequently know next to nothing about actual abolitionists or racial struggles).
The atrocities that non-humans experience are bad enough (and we have the pictures and the language to capture this horror) without constantly appropriating the pain of others, especially when explicitly asked not to.
We have creative methods that are non-exploitive that deliver our message. Pushing ourselves to do more, rather than relying what’s been done before, seems to be the most effective route to take.