The practice of food consumption is neither neutral nor devoid of politics. What one eats not only imparts the energy to survive but also informs the building blocks of one's ethics. In Rethinking Revolution: Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left, Steven Best writes, “When human beings…butcher farmed animals by the billions, they ravage rainforests, turn grasslands into deserts, exacerbate global warming, and spew toxic wastes into the environment.” To remain silent, to do nothing, to be idle is no longer an option. In fact, it is an acute form of human privilege to not speak against the speciesism of modern food consumption. One only has the luxury to do nothing if one has the privilege of not bearing the brunt of violence and discrimination. For the pig in the slaughterhouse, to not struggle is to die. For humanity to do nothing is not only morally reprehensible, but also speeds up the destruction of the planet and all life within it. Every time someone sits down to consume the flesh of another animal, one pays for the confinement, torture and slaughter of that animal. Beyond that, one also pays for the continual misdistribution of wealth, oppressive employment practices and the destruction of the environment that factory farms thrive off of. Yet, when the vegan at the table speaks out, he or she is often written off as simply being militant, inappropriate or overly emotional about animals. Even when invited to speak their viewpoint, vegans are forced to express themselves while watching their friends feast on the dead bodies of the very beings that are both the subject of conversation and the object of the meal. This is why a militant vegan politics is not purely an academic conversation. It is a conversation always already mediated by death and oppression that is all too real.
Certainly there is no shortage of carnivores who laugh at the mention of veganism and wish nothing more than for them die out. There are many more that critically engage the message of veganism by intelligently backing up their defense of flesh consumption despite the speciesism their rhetoric and actions remain drowned within. However, the claim that vegans should keep quiet is not isolated to people who eat flesh. In fact, many who support vegetarian and vegan lifestyles tell others to pipe down instead of speaking up. They argue that what one eats is a personal choice and believe speaking out is counter-productive. They contend that those who might be willing to go vegetarian will cling to their flesh consumption because of the militancy of vegan advocates. However, backlash should not be an excuse to keep silent any more than it should be used as a reason to remain passive in the face of racism out of the fear that it’ll anger slaveholders. Neither are personal choices. They are political ones. Not speaking out drives the problem underground.
All too often, society’s approach to social problems is to decrease their visibility. The result of our social efforts has been to remove the underlying problems of our society farther and farther from daily experience and daily consciousness, and hence to decrease in the mass of the population the knowledge, skill and motivation necessary to deal with them. Whether we defend the violation of another’s life through our denial of a reality which makes us uncomfortable, or through outright enthusiasm for oppressive power relations, the results are devastating. Such dynamics allow…those who wish to simply ignore the myriad problems and suffering inherent to oppression…[to] perpetuat[e]…the secrecy which surround the machinery of oppression. (The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery by Marjorie Spiegel)
For the animals that have their beaks cut off, their tails docked and their reproductive organs removed, remaining silent is not an option. The majority of the affluent world is already oblivious to how flesh comes to its plate. There is only a risk that speaking out may plant the seed that will produce change. Even if some people may lash out at being forced to meet their meat, to say nothing ensures that things will stay the same. In short, militancy has become the only option since simply leading by example will never provide the wealth of knowledge necessary to understand and alter the current course of food production. People must be made to feel uncomfortable when they consume the dead bodies put upon their plates. Otherwise, it is all too easy to remain complacent.
The desire to silence awareness about the mistreatment of animals and workers exists in state initiatives to pass Ag Gag legislation across the United States - laws that criminalize, for example, releasing undercover footage of factory farms. It has also been seen in the judicial branch’s upholding of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a federal law which labels demonstrating too aggressively against factory farms as economic terrorism, pressing extremely close against the edge of federally protected free speech. The result of such legislation is to silence militant vegans and imprison animal liberation advocates. If this happens, the speciesism of the status-quo will forever go unchallenged. Even if staying silent about the animals in the slaughterhouses may prevent some backlash, or cause a few people to go vegetarian, it won’t challenge the underlying tenants of speciesism. In fact, it would perpetuate the ongoing enslavement and murder of countless animals for purposes other than food. Food serves a gateway to challenging speciesism on multiple levels because the consumption of animals exposes how directly people participate in the violence on a daily level. Humanity’s participation exists everywhere, from food consumed to soap made from animal fat, the fur coat, make-up utilizing vivisection, to supposedly ensuring safety. Reframing the dinner table from the personal to the political provides the perfect opportunity to see the flesh of the dead animal while it’s still warm. To wait until dinner is over is too late; the animal will be gone and another one will be served in its wake.
Reform and small scale change is not enough. We must push for dismantlement. Humanity can no sooner slaughter humanely than a rapist can rape conscientiously. In both cases, an individual’s bodily integrity is violated in reprehensible ways. Part-time strategies of raping a little less, or only raping after 6pm, are as absurd and offensive as being only partially committing to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Yes, it’s better that you raped less. No, it doesn’t excuse you from every other rape you commit. Every time someone pays for dairy, they have paid for a cow to be placed in what the industry refers to as “rape racks” for the violent process of artificial insemination. She then must watch as her child is torn away from her, to be imprisoned on a veal farm for slaughter. To condone these actions under any circumstance is unacceptable. What one eats is always already a question of ethics and politics. Even if someone transitioning to veganism cheats on his or her way, that slip up should still be called out for what it is. This is not to say someone who is trying is just as bad as someone who joyously eats flesh. However, it is to say that the only way to move forward is to not comfort ourselves with the belief that cheating on being vegan is okay. One can always push themselves to do more and to be better instead of coming up with ways to put up boundaries on when once has to consider the ethics of consumption. To take partial steps at this moment participates in the silence surrounding speciesism, since no ethics can ever create a framework for when it is unacceptable to challenge oppression. All too often, reform for the sake of reform enables individuals to backslide or prevent progress. Reform can be effective, but only if that reform keeps the end goal set on dismantlement. Any deviation from dismantlement should serve as motivation to struggle harder, and not as an excuse for looking the other way because one has "done enough."
Fortunately, we all have the power to undermine the central tenants of speciesism and immediately save billions of lives. In Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money, Erik Marcus argues that all it takes for “the agonies suffered by all these animals…[to] be re-deemed and given meaning…[is that] one person looks at the rampant injustices fundamental to animal agriculture, feels horror, and begins working for dismantlement.” Some may seek to produce that change through legislation, others through direct action, and others still through personal politics or academia. It is beyond the scope of this essay to say which is more valuable. However, regardless of which path one embarks upon, the only way any tactic advancing animal liberation will succeed is if it refuses to shut its mouth in the face of injustice. The bottom line is that animal agriculture fears exposure. The industry can exist in its present form only as long as the public is kept in the dark about animal treatment. Activists must therefore stick relentlessly to exposing cruelty on farms, and seeking out the audiences most likely to respond. The days are ending when animal agriculture can evade responsibility for its cruelties. No industry can prosper in the face of rampant public distrust, and there is the possibility that, within our lifetimes, animal agriculture will be thrust into an irreversible decline. Whether or not this happens will be determined by the strategies that we choose today.
Every moment matters because in every moment countless lives are lost. No forum is the wrong forum, even if every forum has its own unique tactic for producing change. Regardless of the tactic, in order to produce change militant vegans must work to spread knowledge, increase momentum and build coalitions with diverse populations. In building these coalitions, they must intimately care for the concerns of the populations they’re working with, while at the same time not giving up their call to abandon animal agriculture and speciesism. All oppressions are interconnected, and it will take an intersectional approach to successfully challenge them. However, for this challenge to have any meaning, it must first be heard in concert, and never left on the backburner. In the essay "The Face of a Dog: Levinasian Ethics and Human/Dog Evolution" Karalyn Kendall argues that ultimately the foods before us are the “victims of ‘the humanist and speciesist structure of subjectivization’ which…not only assumes ‘that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species’ but historically has been ‘available for use…against the social other of whatever species–or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference.’” No one being should be forced to stomach the oppression of another, and no one should sit idly by as it happens. All oppression is humanity’s ethical obligation. Sitting down at the dinner table after six doesn’t abdicate us of that responsibility.
JL Schatz is a Professor of English and Feminist Evolutionary Studies at Binghamton University where he also serves as the Director of the Speech and Debate Team, which was ranked 1st in the nation in 2008. He has published essays on technology and apocalypse, environmental securitization, and the influence of science-fiction on reality.