Love, Politics, and Veganism
Carla Alicia Suárez Félix and Philip McKibbin
This article was originally published in Love Notes: for a Politics of Love (Lantern Books, 2019).
‘Love’ has re-entered our political vocabulary. In Aotearoa New Zealand’s 2017 general election, the Green Party campaigned on love, with co-leader James Shaw declaring, ‘I’m proud to lead a party that stands for the politics of love and inclusion, not hate and fear’; and when it formed a coalition with the Labour Party, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the government would be ‘empathetic’. In Mexico, after a devastating earthquake in 2018, people banded together in solidarity with one another, against the lack of love shown by the government. And in the United States of America, a #LoveArmy, led by Van Jones, rose to resist the hate that allied itself with Donald Trump. Worldwide, ‘love’ is being used to promote inclusivity—to rally people for gay rights, as we saw with the slogan ‘Love Wins’, and to resist discrimination directed against women, ethnic minorities, and refugees.
One area of concern still receives little attention, however, and that is animal welfare. This is remarkable for several reasons. More than 70 billion animals are raised for food every year (that’s around 10 times as many animals as there are people living on the planet), and the vast majority of these live their lives in appalling conditions. On top of this, our use of animals is having a catastrophic impact on the natural environment. Animal agriculture is among the leading causes of climate change. So far, politics has failed to address this.
The Politics of Love gives us hope. It is a values-based politics, which expresses values such as kindness, responsibility, and trust, and it is actively inclusive, affirming the importance of people, and extending beyond us to non-human animals and the natural environment. That love should inform politics has precedents in the kindness we show one another in our daily lives, as well as in feminist, civil rights, and LGBTQI movement.
When we think about our treatment of animals, it is difficult to see how it could be considered loving. The seriousness of the problem is especially evident when it comes to our use of animals for food: the poultry industry, which every year rears more than 50 billion birds—the vast majority of whom are raised in appalling conditions—for meat and eggs pales only in comparison to our inhumane treatment of cows, who are repeatedly impregnated so that they produce milk, only to have their calves torn from them at birth. But the problem extends far beyond our diets: most of us wear animals: on our feet, around our waists, on our wrists; and we use them in a variety of other ways: as parts and ingredients, for testing, for entertainment, to carry us, and to carry our things. This not only causes suffering; it involves the subordination of other sentient beings.
And when we think about love, it becomes very clear that all of this is unacceptable. Love is a way of orienting oneself, or a political community, to the larger world. It can be thought of as a combination of care, concern, and commitment, and it is inclusive of all. Our understanding of the concept is informed by bell hooks, who characterises love as anti-racist, anti-sexist, and opposed to all forms of domination. In her book All About Love, she declares, ‘Domination cannot exist in any social situation where a love ethic prevails.’ Peter Singer’s work on animals helps us to see that our treatment of them constitutes another form of domination. In Animal Liberation, he states that unless you also oppose speciesism, ‘no basis remains from which you can, without hypocrisy, criticize racism or sexism.’
Love ‘moves toward’ suffering—it concerns itself with it—as loving values such as compassion and mercy help us to see. To ignore the suffering of animals would, then, be unloving. To continue to insist that we have a right to subordinate other sentient beings would be inconsistent with a conception of love that rejects all forms of oppression. When this is understood, it becomes clear very quickly that something must change.
This change must start with our diets. Since Carol Hanisch published her paper ‘The Personal Is Political’ in 1970, most feminists have asserted that the personal is, indeed, political: issues that are generally understood as personal, such as domestic work, reproductive decisions, and child-rearing, involve power relations, and for this reason should be understood as political. In her article, ‘The Personal is Political: Feminism and Anti-Speciesism’, philosopher Catia Faria extends this slogan to include what we eat. When we think about all of the implications of this ‘simple’ decision, we realise that it is not merely a personal choice: it has huge implications for the environment, for people, and—most significantly—for other sentient beings. In order to mitigate these harms, we must resist animal agriculture.
Vegetarianism is not enough. It is true that the suffering involved in meat production is abhorrent, and that by transitioning from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one an individual can drastically reduce the amount of suffering she enacts. Simply by ceasing to eat pig meat, for example, she will avoid contributing to the unnecessary suffering of these remarkably intelligent, highly social animals. However, the suggestion that by cutting meat out of her diet she is no longer complicit in animal suffering is false. A diet that no longer contains animal flesh, but includes, for example, eggs, dairy, and gelatine, still involves unnecessary suffering. If she is truly committed to avoiding unnecessary suffering, this individual will transition to veganism—a diet that eschews all animal products.
As millions of vegans worldwide are demonstrating, fears that we cannot thrive—let alone survive—without eating animal products are unfounded. Numerous organisations, including the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, now recognise vegan diets as suitable for every age and stage of human life. We can nourish ourselves without engaging in the unnecessary harm that animal agriculture requires.
However, vegan diets do not completely avoid harm. Lori Gruen, a prominent ecofeminist, reminds us that even vegan diets necessitate the suffering and death of sentient beings. She writes:
‘Living today, even for vegans, involves participating unwittingly in the death of sentient individuals. […] We harm others (humans and non-humans) in all aspects of food production. Many are displaced when land is converted for agricultural purposes, including highly endangered animals… Animals, birds, and insects are killed when fields and plants are harvested. Though it is hard to calculate the harms to human and other animals from climate changes as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, it is impossible not to contribute to these harms and still eat. Vegan diets are less harmful than those that include animal products, to be sure, but the harms and deaths occur nonetheless.’
Rather, veganism involves a commitment to avoiding harm wherever possible. Recognising the moral centrality of veganism is necessary if we are to avoid domination. As Alice Walker has written, ‘The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.’ Veganism is the best way to resist speciesism—and it is much more than a personal decision. Understood as part of a loving political movement, it can help us to realise a less discriminatory and more fair society for all. Veganism, not vegetarianism, then, must be understood as the ‘moral baseline’ to which we should aspire.
It might be thought that we should simply leave animals alone—and in some cases, this may very well be the best course of action, especially when it comes to wild animal populations whose lives are not significantly impacted by human activity. But we want to suggest that, instead, we should cultivate loving relationships with animals. Just as children often take it upon themselves to nurse injured animals back to health, and similarly to how many of us have developed loving relationships with companion animals, we should develop loving ways of relating to animals. These relationships will take many forms, but they should demonstrate care, concern, and commitment. Veganism, with its commitment to reducing suffering wherever possible, can be understood as one facet of a loving orientation toward the non-human world.
As we have mentioned, love is not indifferent to suffering. Instead, it works to alleviate it. This is an area in which our spiritual traditions give instruction. Many diverse traditions advocate compassion for non-human animals. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Jainism. In this tradition, all life is considered sacred and inviolable. Mahâvîra, a Jainist teacher, claims in the Âkârâṅga Sûtra that:
‘All beings are fond of life, like pleasure, hate pain, shun destruction, like life, long to live. To all life is dear. […] All breathing, existing, living sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away.’
Jainism even has a ritual for repenting transgressions, which involves asking for forgiveness from all living beings. The idea that we should show compassion toward all forms of life is, then, not exclusive to veganism; it forms an integral part of longstanding human traditions. Nor is it sentimental; compassion is an act of love toward life itself.
Another spiritual figure who advocated compassion toward non-human animals was Mahātmā Gandhi. He preached non-violence, and insisted that the key to this was abandoning our own comfort for the sake of others—including non-human animals.
Gandhi promoted what we would now call a vegan diet (the word ‘vegan’ had not been coined then). And in the conclusion to his Hind Swaraj, he expressed his opposition to vivisection, or performing experiments on living animals. Gandhi thought materialism led to a lack of morality. Today, we can see that our so-called ‘progress’ has been built on the corpses of nature—humans’ and non-humans’. Gandhi, like Te Whiti o Rongomai before him and Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, showed us that non-violence can be more persuasive than violence. He believed that violence and evil are mutually reinforcing, and that non-violent resistance was the way to fight evil.
The Politics of Love does not exalt self-sacrifice. It does, however, insist that we act against injustice. We must work to be just ourselves, and we must stand up to the injustice of others. We can do this by refusing to participate in harmful practices (for example, by refusing to drink cows’ milk), by actively supporting the development of alternatives (for example, by switching to plant-based milks), and by engaging in other forms of strategic action aimed at exposing and overcoming exploitation (as, for example, Farmwatch—who conduct covert, often illegal, surveillance of farms, and who sometimes rescue animals—does in Aotearoa New Zealand).
Significantly, the Politics of Love gives expression to loving values, such as mutuality and moral courage. These can guide us as we work to realise love individually and collectively—and it is values like these that lead us to veganism.
We believe that different forms of discrimination are interconnected, and that they must be addressed together—which is to say that we look at speciesism through the lens of intersectionality. For example, we think that feminism without veganism is incoherent. Anti-sexist movement risks being undermined by speciesist ideology if we as feminists do not also condemn the oppression of non-human animals. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks writes:
‘Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.’
We know that some people will take exception to our assertion that you cannot be truly anti-sexism without also being anti-speciesism—just as some people still believe it is possible to be anti-racism while holding on to sexist ideas. We know that this claim will upset some people; we understand that it is confrontational. We make it deliberately, because positive change will not occur without confrontation. As feminists, we stand in solidarity with those people who are struggling against gender oppression. Our intention is not to minimise the work that has been, and is being, done to promote gender equality; rather, we are arguing that the feminist project will not fully succeed while other forms of oppression remain unchallenged.
Our argument is confrontational in another way. Some people find it offensive to compare human suffering with that of non-human animals. Marjorie Spiegel, in her book The Dreaded Comparison, writes on human and animal slavery:
‘Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist; one who has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by the comparison to a fellow sufferer have fallen for the propaganda spewed forth by the oppressors. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our oppressors, past or present, that we are similar to our oppressors, rather than those whom our oppressors have also victimized. It is to say that we would rather be more like those who have victimized us, rather than like those who have also been victims. Let us remember that to the oppressors, there is often very little difference between one victim and the next.’
As feminists, we understand the importance of confrontation to advancing social change. When women gained the vote in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1893—among the first in the world to do so—this success was attributable, in part, to confrontation: persuasion, protest, and petitions. As we continue to struggle against oppression, we must resist the cultural amnesia that characterises domination and privilege. We will not apologise for being confrontational, because we understand it as positive and necessary.
Importantly, this confrontation must be non-violent. The Politics of Love recognises that constructive dialogue and action are superior to violence, which causes suffering and often reproduces dominant hierarchies. We must ground our resistance in non-violence—regardless of whether it is for humans or non-humans. A contemporary example of non-violent resistance is the Black Mambas, an all-female, anti-poaching, paramilitary patrol. These women, recruited from local communities in South Africa, protect rhinoceroses and elephants from poachers, armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs. Every month, they spend 21 days patrolling on foot or by jeep at dawn and at dusk, looking for traps and footprints and listening for gunshots and other suspicious activity. This resistance group has contributed to a 76% reduction in poaching since 2013.
Increasingly, animal advocates are recognising the need to highlight the connection between our exploitation of animals and other forms of exploitation. In his excellent book Growl, Kim Stallwood writes:
‘Long a moral crusade, animal rights now needs to be a political movement as well, embedding itself fully within other social justice movements and drawing inspiration, support, and knowledge from the other activists. Advocates need to engage in these other struggles, not merely because it’s the ethical thing to do, but because we need to show that our struggle is the struggle of these other social movements and their coalitions as well: that animal rights is their fight, too. We’ve long expressed our bafflement at how other social movements fail to ‘get’ that animal rights is a social justice concern. We need to show them that animal rights is also about fighting food insecurity, protecting the environment and biodiversity, and opposing sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice.’
Some people mistake concern for animals as being against people. Far from being ‘anti-people’, the Politics of Love affirms the importance of people. It recognises the parallels between the way we treat animals and how we treat each other. As Carol Adams has written, ‘incorporating animals into the dialogue and activism of social change doesn’t eliminate humans from concern; it just reassembles the players by disempowering that human/animal boundary that enforces oppression.’
The Politics of Love holds that people are, essentially, noble. We believe that most, if not all, people want to be good, and actively strive to do the right thing. We think that, just as most of us don’t want to be racist or sexist, when they appreciate the connection between these forms of oppression and speciesism most people won’t want to be speciesist either.
In his little book How to Love, Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh argues that when we hurt others, often it isn’t because we intend to hurt them, but because we are unskilful:
‘Very often, our mistakes come from our unskillfulness, and not because we want to harm one another. I think of our behaviour in terms of being more or less skillful rather than in terms of good or bad. If you are skillful, you can avoid making yourself suffer, and the other person suffer.’
Veganism requires us to develop what we might think of as ‘loving skills’—that is, skills which enable us to act in loving ways—including, for example, the ability to select vegan products, which involves knowing what to look for, and the capacity to prepare nourishing vegan meals. It also requires us to develop sensitivity to the suffering of others (which might also be thought of as a loving value).
Importantly, the Politics of Love is understanding. It does not hold our past mistakes against us. Informed by the values of understanding, forgiveness, and humility, it seeks to contextualise harmful behaviour, recognising that there are many factors informing our capacity to love.
Lori Gruen makes a related point in explaining her stance on veganism:
‘Though most of us can readily eschew animal parts in our own diets, ecofeminists are mindful of the violence perpetuated in many gendered, racialized, and colonial contexts as well as the realities of a changing climate and thus forgo top-down, absolute universalizing judgments that everyone, everywhere should see “veganism as a moral baseline.” Instead, most ecofeminists argue for “contextual moral veganism” that recognizes both the moral centrality of a vegan diet and contextual exigencies that impede one’s ability to live without directly killing or using others.’
The Politics of Love is not blind to the circumstances in which we live our lives. Rather, it is forward-looking, focusing on creating conditions under which we can express love. Unfortunately, many people feel threatened by veganism, because it implies a moral judgment, and because its steadfast opposition to harmful practices is often mistaken for a condemnation of the people who participate in those harms. The Politics of Love does not seek to condemn people, and it is not interested in punishment. Rather, it asks us what we will do now, for love, to make our world a better place for all of those who share it.
Carla Alica Suárez Félix is a Mexican philosopher and activist. She is the organiser of the Circle of Antispeciesist Studies in Querétaro, and she works on the following topics: speciesism, animal exploitation, bioethics, feminism, ecofeminism, ethics, deconstruction, and posthumanism.
Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com
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