Saturday, August 3, 2013

Rape Hyperbole and the Problematic Nature of Universal Veganism

Content warning:  This essay contains sexual-assault related hyperbole as well as descriptions of animal agriculture and abuse.

So there's this song called "Nailing Descartes to the Wall" by Propagandhi.  It's an animal liberation song containing the lyric "meat is still murder, dairy's still rape."  It's a musical rendition of a very common belief among vegans:  Dairy is "basically rape" because in order to get dairy you need to impregnate a cow, which is often done through artificial means.

In fact, vegans seem to love using sexual assault hyperbole.  Look at this street performance (warning that this has roleplayed sexual assault in it) in which men forcibly "milk" a woman.  This is by no means new, but of course people keep acting like it is.  Yesterday I read an article called "Consuming Bodes: The Women We're Leaving Behind" (Note, 11/15/15: The original article is no longer there, the link has been changed to the Wayback Machine version) which was posted on Choice USA.

Mind you, the whole thing isn't bad.  Animals absolutely are victims in oppressive power structures, and the treatment of animals in these industries is a legitimate concern that is constantly being undermined by legal structures that favor cheapening those industries and using facts about PETA to derail real discussions on animal rights and welfare.  It really isn't out-of-place to talk about animals in these terms.

But there are two serious problems with this that are constantly overlooked by vegan activists:
  1. Rape hyperbole is practically always shitty and underthought.
  2. Universal veganism is incompatible with worldwide social activism.
Shitty rape hyperbole has been used by radical feminists ("transition is raping women's bodies somehow!") and anti-feminists ("being accused of rape is like rape for men!") and gamers (who use "rape" to mean defeat) and nostalgic people ("rule 43 is raping my childhood!") and so many others.  The reason using rape as a hyperbolic comparison is so problematic is that rape itself is such an underreported, dismissed, and ubiquitous crime in addition to being one of the most traumatic things somebody can go through.  It's the traumatic nature of rape that makes it appealing to use as a comparison among both assholes and well-meaning social activists alike, but in the process this usage implies that rape is less serious than it is or that certain behaviors are more traumatic or harmful than they are (example: the implication that male-to-female transition is somehow traumatizing cisgender women when it literally does nothing to affect them at all).

In the case of ethical vegans, the dairy/rape hyperbole may seem more acceptable because raping a woman and impregnating a cow look superficially similar... that is, if you cut out literally every emotion that goes with it.  Farmers aren't inseminating cows for the same reason men rape women, and cows almost certainly are not experiencing the traumatic emotions women usually do when they are being raped.  Animals don't perceive things the same way humans do.  So vegan activists who apply these comparisons are not really thinking through the comparison except to understand that rape is a powerful hyperbole that gets people angry.

Here's where vegan hyperbole--not just rape hyperbole, but murder hyperbole and slavery hyperbole and so on--gets even more disturbing:  Vegan philosophy so inconsistently applied that vegans break the comparisons long before non- and ex-vegans do.

So say somebody is making a strong comparison between reproductive choice--keeping in mind Choice USA is not just about the freedom not to reproduce, but the freedom to reproduce--and animal rights.  It's worth remembering then that the vegan community is very much in favor of spaying and neutering companion animals.  If we did to humans what animal rights activists proclaim we should do to our dogs and cats, there would hopefully be a major uproar among reproductive choice advocates.  So the idea that one can be a consistent vegan activist purely by comparing it to a reproductive choice framework is laughable.  Vegans are just as likely to rationalize human treatment of animals based on human needs as non-vegans are.

Vegan concern for the reproductive choices of animals only applies to humans.  David mentions that dolphins have been granted "non-human person" status in India as an opener before using this cattle rape hyperbole and other reproductive justice language... but dolphins themselves have been described as "rapists" by humans for their mating strategies, which look coercive and rapey to human eyes.  This in itself is hyperbole--forced copulation among animals is interpreted as rape by humans even though it really isn't the same thing--but I'm talking about a dreadful lack of consistency here.  If you are going to demonize the dairy industry by comparing insemination to rape, why are ethical vegans not going on campaigns to prevent dolphin-on-dolphin rape or duck-on-duck rape?  Why are they not attempting to find ways for wolves and lions to go vegan?

The usual explanation usually relies on intent.  Animals do these things because they're instinctual, or--especially in the case of carnivores eating meat--they have to to survive.  And here's where I've going to change my focus a bit... until now I've been talking primarily about how vegan activists (and others) appropriate the language used to describe crimes against humans to refer to human use of animals.  One could, of course, continue to advocate for universal veganism while simply scrapping the problematic language.  I would actually argue that universal veganism itself is problematic.

What is universal veganism?  This is the philosophy that veganism is an ethical baseline and that all people are morally obligated to go vegan.  People who adhere to this philosophy are likely to be the people who insist that conferences (feminist/anarchist/environmental/etc.) only serve vegan food and have ample platforms to talk about veganism even when it's not necessarily relevant to that particular struggle.  It's different from just being a vegan, which is a personal choice that may or may not be connected to animal rights ideology.

Notice I say veganism is not relevant to that struggle and not animal issues in general.  Animal abuses are woven into the fabric of capitalism and oppression just as sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, racism, ableism, and all other -isms are.  The problem isn't animal issues, whether you choose to arbitrarily call them "welfare" or "rights."

It's that framing it as vegan issues--as practically all mainstream animal rightsists do--is problematic for a number of reasons.

So one thing any ovo-lacto vegetarian who hangs with ethical vegans will realize pretty quickly is that vegans view ovo-lacto vegetarianism as being pretty much exactly as cruel as eating meat.  The reason is that dairy and egg industries inflict some of the worst abuses on animals you will find today.  And these industries kill thousands of animals.  Dairy cattle and laying hens are slaughtered when their production wanes and made into ground beef and chicken soup.  Male chicks are thrown into grinders by the thousands.  Veal calves are a byproduct of the dairy industry.  Vegans love bringing these things up to shame ovo-lacto vegetarians into going vegan.

There's some cognitive dissonance here though, because vegan diets also unintentionally kill animals.  The foods that generally make up a vegan staple diet--corn, wheat, soy--are industrial monocrops that kill thousands of animals just in the act of being harvested.  People who eat fully pastured animal products and avoid these monocrops in contrast wind up killing fewer animals.

I'm sure vegans have tuned out by now (if they haven't already) because these are things vegans learn to counter early on.  They're usually snarked out by people who consist on McDonalds cheeseburgers and factory farmed bacon to feel better about themselves.  My point isn't to insist I'm all high-and-mighty meat-eater who ironically kills fewer animals (I'm not perfect and this is almost certainly not true).  I'm only pointing out that the line between vegan and not-vegan itself is ethically arbitrary.  A freegan could just as easily make the case that vegans are only as good as ovo-lacto vegetarians or meat-eaters because they still buy from animal-killing companies, and vegans would rationalize a dozen reasons that's not true and nobody would be in any better a position for having the argument.  There are more extreme forms of vegetarianism than veganism, why aren't they the moral baseline?  Why is plain old consumer veganism?  Arbitrary line.

Not only is it an arbitrary line, it's one that flips the bird at human biology to boot.  Veganism requires supplementation just to keep you from dying a horrible death (which neither meat-eating nor ovo- or lacto-vegetarian require).  This is a fact.  Vegans are aware of this fact and take great pains to warn each other to supplement.  But supplements aren't a panacaea.  There are hundreds of cases of people quitting veganism because it didn't make us feel well.  People leave veganism over B12 and iron deficiencies, excessive weight loss, constant tiredness, and fertility issues among others.  I left over excessive weight gain and the realization that my body hates most vegan staples.

When a very famous vegan quits veganism, there is often a violent response.  Death threats are not uncommon; Alex Jamieson of Super Size Me fame and Tasha from Voracious Vegan/Voracious Eats both got death threats.  Lierre Keith was assaulted on a stage for being an ex-vegan (and if there's one thing I hate is people forcing me to pity or defend Lierre Keith).  The people in attendance cheered the assaulters on rather than even question it.  Those who aren't violent are still dismissive and ableist, calling ex-vegan arguments for why we began eating meat again "silly" and dismissing our health concerns as "faked."  Even universal vegans who display compassion toward non-vegans and ex-vegans are presuming that vegan diets are more healthful than those including animal products and that if we just try hard enough we'll be able to do it.

This is why universal veganism is incompatible with universal activism.  It inherently assumes that veganism is attainable to everybody and ethically superior.  But it's not possible for everyone to maintain it without getting sick.  It's not ethically superior.  So universal veganism maintains that an arbitrary diet and lifestyle that has never been practiced in any traditional culture (no, it hasn't) and is inaccessible to hundreds of people simply because our bodies don't like it is a "moral baseline." But it just isn't.  As an ex-vegan I find this prospect personally demeaning and insulting.