Friday, April 22, 2011

‘Vegan’ ≠ ‘Vegan’ ≠ ‘Vegan’

Why is there no consensus about the definition of ‘vegan’? Are abolitionists using the term differently than Vegan Outreach? What role does utilitarianism play in that group's positions? Continue reading to learn what this hominid thinks.

Activism and theory are inseparable. Gary Francione wrote about this recently, and I'm glad he did. Regrettably, many ‘animal people’ aren't interested in theory. Although I was once among their ranks, I have learned that ignoring theory doesn't alter the role it plays. All activism stems from a set of ideas about what is true and appropriate. These ideas can be your own, in that you understand them, or someone else's, if you follow a group's program without much thought.

While I admire the impulse to ‘just get active’, things aren't that simple. Fortunately, they aren't much more complex. Some reading and thinking are required, but it's not as if every activist needs to earn a fancy degree at an elite college.

We must first acknowledge that the ‘animal movement’ is not united, either by an ultimate goal or by activist tactics. There are currently several distinct camps of advocates working independently. For example, ‘welfarists’ envision a future where we exploit nonhuman animals ‘humanely’. This camp, which has existed for over two hundred years, pursues legal regulations of exploitive industries. In recent decades, ‘new welfarists’ have used this tactic to achieve different goals. Many hope regulation will significantly reduce the number of nonhumans we use and kill. Their concern is often limited to specific animal species or forms of exploitation. Other new welfarists believe regulation is needed to eliminate all exploitation of sentient nonhumans. Their long-term vision is shared by abolitionists, a camp opposed to regulation on both moral and practical grounds.

My position, as an abolitionist, is that all sentient beings have at least one right: not to be treated as property. In the words of Francione, recognizing this right demands that we, as a society, "stop our institutionalized exploitation of nonhuman animals; cease bringing domesticated nonhumans into existence; and stop killing non-domesticated animals and destroying their habitat" [0].

To move society in this direction, abolitionists focus on a simple message: become a vegan. This is because veganism involves avoiding all forms of nonhuman exploitation in our daily lives. It encompasses our decisions about food, clothing, entertainment, and more. Abolitionists view veganism as the moral baseline of any effort to rectify human/nonhuman relations. In other words, because using and killing nonhuman animals is wrong, veganism is obligatory. Activists should be vegan and deliver an unequivocal vegan message to the public.

Not everyone supports this use of the term vegan. For instance, the group Vegan Outreach (VO intermittently hereafter) doesn't base its work on rights theory. Matt Ball and Jack Norris, who formed VO in the early 1990s, have been adherents to utilitarian theory for over a decade. This shows up in everything their group does today — from its pamphlets and newsletters, to its definition of ‘vegan’. The guidance VO associates with this term has very little in common with that of the abolitionists.

As the title of this essay suggests, ‘vegan’ is not used with much consistency. A wide range of definitions is offered by dictionaries, the news media, animal advocates, and other sources. It can be a confusing scene for both new and long-term advocates. This helps me understand the temptation to ask, as many have: if both Vegan Outreach and the abolitionists promote veganism, why aren't they united?