Veganism has long been considered a worthy ethical lifestyle choice, and many believe it has finally entered the mainstream. But are extreme anti-meat tactics doing more harm than good?
Veganism, they tell us, has gone mainstream. It’s no longer a fringe movement reserved for hippies and Hare Krishnas; even Beyoncé is singing the praises of a plant-based diet. Whether exposing the public to graphic footage of animal slaughter or storming steakhouses chanting ‘there’s no excuse for animal abuse’, the point of confrontational vegan activism is to persuade people to become vegan. Or at least reduce meat consumption.
This strategy of building consumer demand for veganism is itself ineffective. Veganism is a new market for capital to exploit in its perpetually expanding scope of accumulation, but no substitute for the considerable profits of animal agriculture. Within capitalism, more vegan options will never mean any meat.
Eliminating the use of animals for food will require fundamentally transforming global economic and agricultural systems to work for human and non-human animals, not profit. Shifts of such historic magnitude require mass political movements. But the tactics of confrontational vegan activism restrict the possibility of such a movement emerging.
Their narratives construe veganism as a moral red-line – justified by ecological breakdown’s immediacy and/or animals’ right to life – alienating and excluding from that movement so many with deep, legitimate cultural commitments to eating meat. Capitalism makes it impossible to live and consume with total moral purity. Producing activist cultures requiring so much of participants means shooting ourselves in the foot before the marathon begins.
It is right that successful social movements confront the status quo and dominant narratives. However, by focusing on ordinary people’s behaviors vegan activists’ target is misdirected. If our ambition is to transform our food system, our target must be governments and corporations propping up business-as-usual. Our terrain of struggle must also move beyond just changing hearts, minds, and specific laws, and towards advancing proposals and demands for structural alternatives.
In one sense it's understandable to have that type of emotional reaction, but if someone is doing egregious harm, the goal is to find an effective way to get the harm to stop.
But there are good reasons for thinking that extreme methods are counterproductive. This includes some non-violent acts, such as vegan protestors storming a Melbourne steakhouse shouting anti-meat slogans in the dining area earlier this year.
One of the challenges facing anti-meat advocates is that the consumption of animals is so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Of course, the fact that a practice is pervasive in society does not imply that it is morally acceptable. But the less common a moral view is, the more likely its proponents will be dismissed as kooks who don't deserve to be taken seriously.
And while vegan and vegetarian diets are growing in popularity, the position that consumption of animal products is a heinous act is still a minority view. This makes it easier for meat eaters to ignore the arguments and to stereotype vegans as self-righteous virtue signallers. When animal activists decide to vandalize, intimidate, and harass, this only exacerbates the problem.
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