EDITORIAL: Politics, personal conduct, & the Vegan Police


From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2012: (Actually published on November 1,  2012.)

Long before the Scott Pilgrim comic series introduced the Vegan Police duo,  a male hippie and an apparent Buddhist monk who metamorphized into a more conventionally police-like pair in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World;  long before there was a Vegan Police blog site discussing the interface of race,  politics, gender,  and diet;   and decades before the term “vegan police” entered mainstream usage,  the vegan police vigorously critiqued animal advocacy.

Exactly how and when the vegan police came to be named is obscure,  but they emerged almost immediately after the animal rights movement differentiated itself from the much older animal welfare and antivivisection movements by reaching an initially wobbly consensus that–among other things–eating animals and animal byproducts is inherently exploitative of animals and therefore to be avoided. Older organizations that moved toward an animal rights position often balked at the idea that it required giving up meat,  but the first organization to incorporate specifically to advance “animal rights,” Animal Rights International,  founded in 1976 by the late Henry Spira,  advocated and exemplified veganism from day one.

By the 1981 debuts of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,  Animal Rights Mobilization,  and Trans-Species Unlimited, who together brought the phrase “animal rights” to mainstream recognition,  veganism was already intrinsic to the self-image of many of the participants.  Even then,  the vegan police were scouring menus and interrogating restaurant staff with a minute focus on avoiding all trace of ingredients of animal origin,  no matter how incidental.  The vegan police emerged at a time when fish and chicken were often touted at restaurants as “vegetarian” options,  and otherwise non-meat items on menus and grocery stores shelves contained animal fat in the form of lard.  Such seemingly innocent foods as saltine crackers and oatmeal cookies listed lard as ingredients on box labels.  Lard was used to fry all manner of restaurant and store-packaged foods,  including donuts and French fried potatoes,  and was used as a flavoring to prepare vegetables such as green beans.

But even now,  when almost all baked and fried foods have been purged of cholesterol-producing animal fat,  finding food that does not include dairy products or eggs is still as difficult for determined vegans as vegans’ anxious questions are difficult for waiters and chefs.  It is understandable that people sensitized to the animal suffering inherent in animal agriculture should want to avoid any feeling of participation in it–even when becoming as obsessive as vegans who avoid tap water lest it flow through bone charcoal at a city filtration plant.  It is consistent with the activist axiom that “Change begins with oneself” for newly awakened and energized animal advocates to pursue building a perfect world by trying to become perfect themselves.

Though the vegan police came to be widely perceived as tiresome or tedious,  they have never been as extreme as some Indian Jains who mask themselves to avoid inhaling insects,  do not eat after dark to avoid accidentally ingesting insects,  and sweep the paths in front of themselves–or hire others to do it–so as not to step on insects.

Few if any vegans would be as resolute as the Cathari of medieval Europe.  The Cathari refused to eat anything made of animals,  including meat and cows’ milk,  with the exception of fish, whom the Cathari did not consider to be alive.  Exterminated as alleged heretics by the Inquisition in the 13th century,  the Cathars were not killed because they were largely vegan,  but whether or not they would eat meat was sometimes used as a means of identifying Cathars to be killed.  Witnesses wrote that the beliefs of the Cathars were so strong that they would throw themselves into the fires in which they were condemned to be burned.

Vegans today may be of any religious persuasion or none,  and are not viewed as religious heretics by any major faith–though family,  friends,  acquaintances,  and colleagues may treat them as if they are social heretics. Where vegans may create conflict is at the intersections of private personal conduct,  public policy,  or politics,  which are sometimes defined as “the arts of compromise.”

Successful public policy requires voluntary compliance by most of society–95% or more.  Disobedience must be rare enough that government has the resources to pursue law enforcement against the scofflaws.  Introducing change through public policy requires at least a widespread agreement that change is necessary,  even if the specific change mandated by law is awkward and unpopular.

Most changes that are introduced by law accordingly arrive one hard-won step at a time,  a process which sometimes comes in planned phases, but can be as protracted and difficult as the struggles for racial equality,  the emancipation of women,  and yes,  the abolition of cruelty to animals.

About 97% of Americans eat some meat.  According to the most optimistic recent survey of eating habits,  7.4% of Americans are now “vegetarian inclined”;  2.3% are vegetarian.  Just .003% are vegan. That means only 13.6% of committed vegetarians are vegan,  though the percentage of Americans who are vegan has doubled in the past ten years.  The passage of legislation to enforce or even mildly encourage vegan principles is simply not in sight.  But this does not preclude winning more people over to veganism by making it an attractive lifestyle.  And neither does the distance from here to a vegan world preclude passing legislation to reduce animal suffering here and now,  or preclude eventual legislation supporting veganism when public opinion permits.

Insights from Vegan Outreach

“Being vegan means one thing to me:  an attempt to reduce the intense suffering of nonhuman animals,”  says Vegan Outreach cofounder and president Jack Norris on the Vegan Outreach web site. “It is not about personal purity,  but rather reducing suffering.”  Adds Vegan Outreach executive director and cofounder Matt Ball,  “A friend of mine (and long-time vegan) once wrote to a member of the vegan police:  ‘I grow weary of the term vegan.  It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.'”

If a prominent animal advocate “were to eat a dish that contains hidden dairy,”  or if a sanctuarian eats eggs laid by the hens she has rescued,  Ball asks,  “should our limited time and resources go to judging and labeling them?”

The whole of the Vegan Outreach program,  as the name implies,  is introducing more people to veganism.  Vegan Outreach is not engaged in seeking or promoting humane legislation.  Though Vegan Outreach works to raise awareness of animal suffering in connection with animal agriculture,  it describes conventional practices only to the extent necessary to interest university students,  in particular, in undertaking the transition to a meatless diet.  Shock is not the Vegan Outreach modus operandi.  Yet while Vegan Outreach is not directly involved in politics,  the Vegan Outreach web site offers many insights into influencing personal change that apply as well to bringing about political change.

“Few people have any interest in engaging a religious zealot bent on converting them,”  Ball writes,  “Similarly,  when animal rights advocates give the impression that they are trying to convert people,  people resist the message.  In general,  people do not want to believe that they are supporting cruelty by eating animal products. They don’t want to give up convenience and their favorite foods,  and they don’t want to separate themselves from their friends and family.  So it is unlikely that people will even listen to our message-let alone think about changing–if they perceive vegans as joyless misanthropes.

“There often appears to be a contest among vegans for discovering new connections to animal exploitation.  Of course links can be found everywhere if one looks hard enough.  This attitude makes us appear fanatical and gives many people an excuse to ignore our message.

It is imperative for us to realize that if our veganism is a statement for animal liberation,”  Ball emphasizes,  “veganism cannot be an exclusive,  ego-boosting club.  Rather, we must become the mainstream.  Fostering the impression that ‘it’s so hard to be vegan–animal products are in everything,’  and emphasizing [the presence of] animal products where the connection to animal suffering is tenuous,  works against this by allowing most to ignore us and causing others to give up the whole process [of becoming vegan] out of frustration.” In the political context,  Ball’s statement could be rephrased as recognition that no proposed legislation with a chance of passage is likely to be perfect from an animal rights or vegan perspective.  Much legislation that might help to reduce animal suffering is flawed even from a “welfarist” perspective.  The appropriate question about legislation,  however,  is not whether it is perfect,  but rather whether it is the best that can be won through the political process at the present point of public awareness and legislative motivation to respond.

Whether proposed laws can be enforced requires consideration, along with who will do the enforcing and whether the proposed legislation might impede further progress.  Certainly animal advocates must think about the ways forward from the passage of any proposed humane law.  Questions to ask include whether the proposed law can be strengthened by amendment,  enforcement regulations, and/or litigation. A proposed law may ultimately hurt more than it helps if it is an obstacle to achieving future progress.  If the proposed law is part of a long-term reform strategy leading towards abolition of animal exploitation,  how can animal advocates get from here to there,  and what resources will be needed?  Conversely,  what must be done to prevent animal use industries from weakening or evading the proposed law?

Principled individual behavior may include the notion of “no compromise” on what the individual considers to be the most important aspects of ethical conduct,  but a successful political strategy accepts compromise as the essence of the process,  and seeks the most possible incremental gains as result of each compromise.  The goal, usually,  is not to win everything one wants,  since this usually is not possible,  but rather to improve one’s negotiating position for seeking another round of concessions.

“Buying meat,  eggs,  and/or dairy creates animal suffering,” Ball points out.  “Animals will be raised and slaughtered specifically for these products.”  Byproducts,  however,  such as those that go into pet food,  are incidental to animal industry profits,  and are not profitable enough to sustain animal agriculture if people did not eat meat,  eggs,  and dairy products.  Therefore, in Ball’s view,  “There is no real reason to force other people to worry about byproducts in order to call themselves ‘vegan.’  We want a vegan world,  not a vegan club,”  Ball says,  meaning a world in which preventing animal suffering is an omnipresent consideration, not merely a shibboleth admitting the utterer into the company of the holy.

“We need an articulated and actionable plan for bringing about animal liberation,”  Ball continues.  “In the current view,  we spend our resources and energy ‘fighting battles,’  where they occur and on the exploiters’ terms.  We need to move beyond this war imagery to a constructive approach.  If there is to be a fundamental change in the manner in which other animals are viewed–if there is to be animal liberation–there can be no ‘us and them.'”

Read as a statement of political philosophy,  Ball’s perspective contradicts the partisan perspectives presiding in recent years on Capitol Hill.  Wedge politics,  seeking to motivate voters by splitting them into warring camps,  are the dominant political strategy of our time.  But much social progress has been achieved despite wedge politics,  including on behalf of animals,  when causes have managed to popularize ideas to the point of winning acceptance across a broad portion of the political spectrum.

“Instead of approaching with a ‘fighting’ mindset,  which necessarily makes people defensive and closed to new ideas,”  Ball concludes,  “we should provide people with information that they can digest on their own time and act upon at a sustainable pace.  Only then will real progress be made.”  The political corollary is to pursue what can be won now,  and then keep building on it,  in what Henry Spira termed “a stepwise,  incremental manner.”

Worth remembering is that police exist to defend the status quo.  The ironic humor in the term “vegan police” derives from the unlikely role reversal it postulates.  The hidden danger in the vegan police role is that purist attitudes may be inadvertently defending a status quo in which vegans allow themselves to become a self-isolating and counter-productive faction,  unwilling and unable to participate in effective political give-and-take.

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