Veganism and the myth of individual choice

I just came across this video via GOOD magazine. It’s a Mercy for Animals tape of pigs inside a factory farm, and though it’s incredibly hard to watch, it’s also really important.

I’m cynical and jaded. It’s hard for me to get truly angry or upset about the abuses of industry and the destruction of the natural world, because it’s so ubiquitous. But this video had me in tears. Climate change is distant and species extinction is abstract, but pigs screaming in terror and pain is awfully, disturbingly real.

I went to the Mercy for Animals website and clicked on their “Get Active” page, which made me even angrier. Here are their suggestions for getting involved in this issue, in the order they’re listed on the site.

1) Go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan.
2) Educate others about the horrors of factory farming and the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism.
3/4/5)Join Mercy for Animals by sending them money, volunteer for them and attend their events.
6) Spread the word about vegetarianism via Facebook, Twitter and your email signature.
7) Hand out leaflets about vegetarianism.
8) Organize a video screening.
9) Veganize local restaurants and cafeterias.
10) Write people in power about these issues.

Look, I get that individual actions are important. Feeling personally invested in an issue is an important thing, and many people get into broader forms of activism because they started out being vegetarians and then choose to look into food production more (oh hey there). So by all means, go veggie or vegan if you want to and spread the word to interested parties. But we all know that individual vegans are never going to end factory farming, and as a movement, we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending otherwise.

Most people will never be vegan. Selling people on reducing meat consumption is feasible—it’s probably healthier for them anyway. Selling people on vegetarianism is challenging, but doable. Selling people on veganism is really hard. Veganism, as far as I’ve seen, has a popular perception as a movement of ascetics who are interested in self-deprivation and having moral high ground. This isn’t completely accurate, obviously (I have vegans friends, I swear), but like most stereotypes, it contains grains of truth. Being vegan isn’t easy, and it isn’t practical or realistic for many people, especially people who are low-income.

I don’t believe we can sell the world on veganism, but I think we can sell them on not torturing animals. Pretty much any decent human would be saddened, angered or shocked by watching that video, or one of the many others documenting similar practices in the industry. I believe we do a disservice to those who will never be vegan when we list that as the first action step a concerned person can take. Individual choices can be powerful and empowering, but they won’t change the status quo. Framing the solution to factory farming as veganism disempowers people who aren’t willing or in a position to make that choice. It frames people unwilling to give up animal products as part of the problem. It emphasizes personal choice over political action, even though the latter can produce results on a much larger scale.

Existing power structures will not change or give up power without a fight. No one has ever stopped clear cutting because a bunch of people from the Sierra Club asked nicely. They stopped because radical Earth First and ELF people were busy chaining themselves to trees and monkeywrenching machinery, and suddenly a compromise with the Sierra Club seemed like a perfectly reasonable middle ground. And existing power structures have made factory farming a necessity for feeding the world, especially poor Americans.

Ending factory farming requires radicals and compromisers. It requires activists willing to break into slaughterhouses and film conditions inside of them. It requires people to build and support alternative meat suppliers, and policies which allow equality of access to those alternatives. It requires people who want to lobby Congress to pass more stringent regulations on factory farms, and it requires vegan anarchists who want to liberate pigs from their prisons. There’s no reason you should have to be a vegan to care about animal suffering or to be an anti-factory farm activist. We need as many committed people as we can get to fight back, and pretending that our individual choices are the most important tool we have won’t get us very far.

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One thought on “Veganism and the myth of individual choice”

  1. I just wanted to thank you for posting this, along with your criticism of "individual choice." I am a survivor of veganism who still completely agrees with the AR ethic. So, I'm not wanted in AR circles (or it would be extremely awkward for me to be there) but I'm also more in empahthy with animals than your average omni, and even some ex-veggies. Also wanted to say that I am glad you are getting something out of DGR. It's good to see someone posting about their thoughts on the book/movement.

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