What is Veganism? (Watch)
Updated: Apr 14
Is veganism just about the animals? Or is it a part of a broader movement for peace and nonviolence?
A segment of the animal rights community have argued that veganism is an apolitical, single-issue movement for nonhuman animals. They say we can’t afford to split our time between causes, and that taking a stance on other issues narrows our reach. These folks mention how animals are forgotten in other social justice spaces, making it even more important for our movement to be focussed strictly on nonhuman animals.
For example, some criticised vegan solidarity with Black Lives Matter, like when they attacked this Animal SAVE post, or when some vegans started using the racist alllivesmatter hashtag in an attempt to draw attention to animals. In a rare moment of global solidarity against racism, not only did some of us fail to show support, some actually went out of their way to criticise and derail from the call for racial justice.
Though misguided, this stems from our legitimate frustration at other movements; despite the rise of intersectional thought helping to build bridges, other movements are mostly silent on animal oppression. And animals urgently need them, but we’re not going to create connections by targeting and insulting them. It’s gonna take some work, and we need to lead by example.
Taking a stance against human exploitation does not mean shifting our focus from animals. In fact, showing solidarity for other movements is how we remain consistent with our founding values. By looking back at the origins of veganism we can see how the movement for animals came from progressive social views and that our pioneering animal activists have consistently fought alongside other liberation movements because of our shared values.
The first written reference to nonviolence towards animals is from around 3000 years ago in ancient India when Ahimsa was being developed. Ahimsa is an ancient philosophy of nonviolence which applies to all living creatures (humans included).
It is central to Hinduism, Buddhism and most extensively, Jainism. It’s repeated througout Jain literature: "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being”, teaching that all life is intertwined and interdependent. “Nonviolence is to be observed in action, speech, and thought. One should not be violent, ask others to do so, or approve of such an activity.” It recognises the impossibility of avoiding all harm, and the focus is on the intention to inflict as little violence as possible. Ring any bells? (show vegan society definition)
More recently in Syria, poet Al-Maari wrote the first ever ‘vegan’ poem 1000 years ago. Blind from the age of 4, Al Maari was a pacifist who advocated strongly for social justice. He was an outspoken atheist who denounced material wealth and refused to sell his works. *recite poem*
From Buddha to Pythagoras, there were many more from the ancient world who included animals within their moral code. Ancient thinkers had a variety of different reasons for advocating for animals: to create a peaceful and just world, as part of the road to spiritual enlightenment, as the healthiest way to live, and as part of the belief in reincarnation, among others.
The modern western animal rights movement developed alongside and was strongly influenced by the antislavery movement. Slavery was often justified on the basis that slaves were more like animals than white humans. For example, in one court case where the captain threw 133 slaves overboard, the argument was made in court that it “was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” In 1791, a member of parliament defended slavery by saying that it wasn’t very friendly, but that neither was butchering animals. Some activists argued that humans are different and should not be treated like animals, as implied in this famous artwork showing a slave on a meathook. On the other hand, many questioned this assumed human supremacy over animals, seeing the similarities between humans and animals as a reason to liberate both. Anthony Benezet, who founded the first major anti-slavery organization, once responded to an invitation to eat chicken by saying, “would you have me eat my neighbors?” These activists asked themselves, if slavery is like animal oppression, and slavery is wrong, then why is animal oppression acceptable? The slave abolitionist movement would inspire animal advocates to seek more radical goals, and as Gary Francione has noted, informed the abolitionist approach to animal rights.
The first SPCA was formed in the 1800s with the aim of “the mitigation of animal suffering and the promotion and extension of the practice of humanity towards the inferior classes of animated beings.” Given that they ultimately believed that killing animals for food was acceptable, it seems fitting they had their first meeting at “Old Slaughters Coffee House”. One founding member, William Wilberforce, was a famous anti-slavery politician, however he was criticised for his incremental stance and harmful views towards women and workers. Wilberforce and his mates took active measures to erase the voices of female activists, believing it was ‘unwomanly’ of them. It’s no surprise then that we have very little historical accounts of women’s contributions to these movements. So forgive us for the lack of women in this video, we know women have always been instrumental in animal advocacy, and hopefully we can uplift their voices in our movement today.
Lewis Gompertz, the only vegan among the SPCA founders, was seen as radical by the others and was forced to leave. He formed another group, started the first journal for animal protection, and wrote one of the earliest books on the moral case for animal rights, in which he also discussed the rights of women, prisoners, workers and more.
So strong was this association between progressives and animal rights, that flesh free diets were “denounced in the time of British empire building as markers of anti-imperial and countercultural allegiance”. Leo Tolstoy was an anarchist and pacifist who was influential in his ideas on nonviolent resistance, which inspired the likes of Gandhi and MLK. He believed that though it’s uncomfortable, we should get closer to those who suffer, and try and help them.
Another radical was Amos Bronson Alcott, a slave abolitionist and women’s rights activist who formed a socialist vegan commune named Fruitlands. He believed in nonviolence for humans and animals, which meant members did not use wool or slave labour cotton.
Inspired by Alcott, the socialist school and community Alcott House was created in the 1830s. They were the first to print the word ‘vegetarian’ to mean a completely plant-based diet. In 1847, they collaborated with the Salford Bible Christian Church to form the first vegetarian society. The Bible group understood vegetarianism as the abstinence from flesh, continuing to consume both eggs and dairy. Because they saw vegetarianism more as a spiritual practice than a call to justice, their vision was incomplete, and many animals were left out of this ethic. Unfortunately, as the Bible group took a greater role in the Society, their definition of the word vegetarian became the recognised norm.
In 1890s, pacifist, socialist and animal rights activist Henry Salt wrote on the relationship between socialism, humanitarianism and animal rights. He was a founding member of the Humanitarian league, a group “designed to change attitudes towards crime and punishment; the conditions of labour; the killing of animals for food, fashion, sport or profit; and the use of natural resources.”
Donald Watson coined the term ‘vegan’ in the mid 1900’s, though it wasn’t defined until a few years later. He was a conscientious objector to World War II, and strongly believed in the power of veganism to not only liberate animals, but also to create a future world free of violence and greed. The UK Vegan Society was then formed as an organisation which advocated for all animals. Co-founder Leslie Cross suggested the definition of veganism as “[t]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”, and that vegans are people “who undertake to live as closely to the ideal as personal circumstances permit.”
There were some disagreements about the definition, with some fearing the strong animal rights message would scare people away. it changed 13 times since then, and today’s definition is more focussed on personal responsibility, describing it as "a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals…” There are now lots of vegan organisations, and many other movements that fight for animal rights that don’t use the vegan label.
In 1972, the radical black liberation group and commune MOVE was formed, they demonstrated against animal enslavement, industrial pollution, police brutality and more. Their radical views terrified the state and they became targets of police brutality, imprisonment, and eventually, police bombed their commune, killing adults, children and animals. Though MOVE is often associated with the black power movement, less mentioned is their commitment to animal liberation.
As The Journal of American History states, the 70s “marked the start of an 'animal turn' that infiltrated the humanities and social sciences and drew heavily on feminist and Marxist theories."
Ecofeminists applied a feminist perspective to our relationship with animals, advocating for an “ethic of care” which recognises animals as individuals who are part of our community. They’ve criticised the hypocrisy in mainstream feminism, which calls out the objectification of women but views animals as objects of consumption. Ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant have traced modern power structures to their colonial roots, showing us how western thought has divided man from nature, using science to dominate all that is seen to be lacking in reason. Carol J Adams wrote The Sexual Politics of Meat to explore the way our gender politics is related to our view of animals, linking masculinity with society’s obsession with eating animal flesh.
Likewise, the anarchist ‘total liberation movement’ of the 90s highlighted the interdependence between all forms of inequality and oppression, calling for the alliance of animal, earth and human liberation movements. They’ve described how capitalism is behind these struggles, advocating for direct action to pursue a more just world.
Anti-race and decolonial activists have shown us how the animal category hurts nonwhite people and animals, arguing that animals should be part of the race conversation, and that race should be part of the animal conversation. In their book, Aphroism, Aph and Syl Ko show us how speciesism exists within a “project of racialization”, wherein “the further you stray from the ideal white homo sapiens imagination, the easier it is for you to be labeled “subhuman” or “animal””, and thereby creating “the conceptual vehicle for justified violence.”
The list of radical animal advocates gets longer every day.
Non Vegan leftists are either ignorant of, or deliberately turn a blind eye to the history of animal advocacy from their own spaces. And unfortunately, some vegans have helped this erasure of our history, creating more distance between us. This slows down progress for animals, as it pushes them even further away from conversations about justice and equality.
Veganism is a movement against the biggest power imbalance of our planet’s history. Today’s view of animals exists within an insidious web of oppressive systems. They rely on each other, necessitate one another and they all benefit the same small group of humans.
Any vision of justice which doesn’t include animals is inherently limited; it leaves out the majority of those who are suffering, and will not lead to the changes society needs to truly transform. Animal oppression is at the root of so many struggles, from racism, to sexism, to the climate emergency; and just like feminism is incomplete without anti-racism, all of these movements are incomplete without anti-speciesism. This is what makes animal rights the most powerful call for justice: it provides a consistent philosophy of nonviolence which applies to the most oppressed, and encompasses everyone in between.
It's understandable that some of our responses as a movement have been reactionary. The enduring suffering that animal advocates stare into has pushed many of us to a breaking point. We act with urgency to try and end animal enslavement as fast as possible, and some people believe narrowing our justice claims will help us get there faster.
But the need to hold steadfast to our root values has never been so important. Animal
oppression is on the rise, and those harmed by industrial externalities are growing. It’s legitimate for animal rights activists to focus on animals; but it is also important for us to understand how humans and animals are fighting the same struggles, and to build alliances to overcome them.
So, is veganism a movement for nonhuman animals? Well, of course it is. But our links with other progressive movements are undeniable, having grown out of the sense of justice and compassion for the human community. By applying our values consistently, we saw that animals are deserving of moral consideration, and that our failure to do so has created an atrocity of epic proportions. Our founding thinkers have taught us how the domination of animals, humans and the natural world rest on the same oppressive ideas. They’ve shown us that consideration for other animals is key to humanity’s spiritual evolution; that we will never achieve peace among humanity whilst oppressing animals.
By abandoning our root values, we’re creating distance from our closest allies. People who have experienced oppression are much closer to understanding and sympathising with our cause than white supremacists. For example, in the states, Black Americans are going vegan faster than any other demographic. On the other hand, folks with racist and other discriminatory tendencies more strongly endorse animal exploitation.
In Aotearoa, it’s clear which side of the political spectrum our allies are. (videos, judith and farming, gareth hughes, chloe). Some politicians are actively working against our cause, and protecting the ability for the powerful to exploit animals and the land for profit. Though all our political parties support animal exploitation in some way, some are much worse than others. backing our enemy’s cheerleaders would be counterproductive.
For those of us that can see ourselves and other animals being oppressed by similar forces, the connection becomes impossible to ignore. And for people that face racism as a daily reality, ignoring it is not really an option. Asking them to leave those issues at the animal rights door is asking them to erase parts of themselves, as well as erasing valuable knowledge and experience of the systems we’re fighting. It’s a privilege for some to be able to avoid human rights issues, and our diverse movement cannot be based on their perspective alone. This lack of perspectives has led to some issues within our own movement, where discriminatory and abusive behaviour gets overlooked, at times creating an unsafe space for women, nonwhite, and disabled activists.
Ultimately, no one person or organisation gets to dictate the bounds of the animal movement. ‘Veganism’ is just one, modern manifestation - and as we rally behind it as a representative of the wider push for animal rights, we need to draw inspiration from the many great minds around the world, across all schools of thought. Limiting ourselves to the UK Vegan Society definition narrows our thinking, and this has arguably led to some problematic habits. Our obsession with consumption has drawn attention away from the wider philosophy of nonviolence at the heart of veganism, towards a narrow focus on individual behavioural change. This makes veganism look like a private lifestyle choice, as opposed to the revolutionary goal of . Veganism could be the healing medicine for a sick society which sees animals, their homes, and otherized people as resources for profit and power. Or we could let AV take the lead and march alongside Trump supporters. We get to decide.