Coming out as vegan

by on September 11, 2009  •  In Uncategorized

Sherry Colb, a progressive feminist law professor at Cornell, has written a provocative essay for Writ (excerpts below), comparing vegan movement politics to those of the lgbt movement. A lot of gay non-vegans may find this offputting, but, as a purely intellectual matter, I've thought for years that this point was fascinating.  I wrote one of the problem hypotheticals (with which law professors love to teach) in my casebook on this topic more than 10 years ago, and I think that Sherry provides a very interesting angle, focusing on the expressive dimensions in the comparison.

Discuss among yourselves –

…One profound and ubiquitous form of subordination is that in which we humans engage with respect to nonhuman animals. At the present time, the law permits and condones the massive injury and slaughter that is inflicted on billions of animals for purposes of their consumption as food and clothing.

An increasing number of people have come to recognize the injustice of the injury and slaughter, but an overwhelming majority of the population resists this recognition. What lessons might the struggle for gay rights have to teach those who seek to end the systematic torture and slaughter of animals?

The first thing to note is that there is a risk in analogizing the struggle for gay rights with the struggle for animal rights. The danger that concerns me is not, as some might think, that of offending people. People were (and some continue to be) offended by comparisons between struggles against racial oppression and struggles against homophobia, but it is precisely the resistance to an unfamiliar claim (especially a claim that implicates one's own behavior) that makes it seem "offensive."

If inflicting terrible suffering and death on nonhuman animals who can feel pleasure, pain, and a wide range of emotions represents a real harm – and most people acknowledge, at some level, that it does – then no one should be offended by the suggestion that this harm must stop, just as other harms, once taken for granted as permissible, are now almost universally condemned.

The risk, though, is that of missing the real connection. The proper analogue to a gay person seeking gay rights is not a nonhuman animal, for the latter is not able to seek justice for herself (except by appearing, occasionally, in the public consciousness and awakening rare pangs of conscience and empathy). The proper analogue to the gay person struggling for gay rights is, instead, the vegan struggling for animal rights.

When I use the word "animal rights" here, I mean something very basic – an entitlement to have one's interests seriously considered in people's decision-making process. …[I]if a being's interests are taken seriously, then surely one may not inflict torture, misery, and slaughter on that being simply to satisfy one's culinary and fashion preferences.

Once we recognize that it is the vegan – rather than the nonhuman animal – who occupies the space parallel to that of the gay rights advocate, we immediately see some important commonalities. One is that, unlike race and sex, gay identity and vegan identity are, in part, chosen, [not in the sense that one can "decide" to be straight, but because] part of what makes the gay rights movement distinctive is that it is possible for a gay man or a lesbian to live (unhappily) as though he or she is straight.

Because [that decision] is possible for a gay person … , however unfulfilling such a life might be, the decision to acknowledge (to others but also to oneself) that one is gay or lesbian is a momentous decision that takes courage and often results in family tensions.

Similarly, ethical vegans make a decision that they will start consuming a vegan diet and wearing vegan clothing. Unlike the non-vegan majority, very few ethical vegans were born into veganism, and thus most necessarily had to question a status quo that treats the farming of animals for their dead bodies as an inevitable and fine state of affairs. Though vegans are routinely asked why they are vegan, non-vegans are almost never asked why they are not. It would, in fact, be considered rude to ask a non-vegan "why do you choose to consume animal products?"

Becoming a vegan often generates family conflicts, in some of the same ways as coming out as gay does. Family members can have a hard time accepting the change and may enjoy bringing up old stories of animal consumption by the now-vegan….


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