Don’t Let Veganism Make The Same Mistakes As Feminism


Published in The Daily Banter, 24th February 2016.

Are you a feminist? Unfortunately, the number of people who respond ‘yes’ to this question is currently falling off a cliff. The belief that men and women should have equal opportunities represents one of the most direct routes towards a more humane society, yet the name for this concept and the movement that has fought for it is currently drowning in vitriolic spats. I don’t want to see “veganism” endure the same needless plight. It will always be easier to slime a label than it is to clean it off, and a few are currently wrecking it for the rest.

The word “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, the cofounder of the Vegan Society, which defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals…” Like the central tenet of feminism, avoidance of the unnecessary suffering of animals is something only the most heartless among us would disagree with. So why are both feminism and veganism, whose core principles are so obvious, currently facing such heated opposition?

As psychologist Steven Pinker has pointed out, “Feminism is often derided because of the arguments of its lunatic fringe”. This fringe is based on false premises, marred by faulty logic, demands unreasonable conclusions and associates itself with other bad ideas. False premises in the insistence there is no biological basis for differences between men and women. Faulty logic whenever we are led to believe that any gender imbalance in occupations or earnings is entirely due to the malicious intent of dominant males. Unreasonable conclusions drawn when one demands women must represent exactly 50% of every section of the workforce. Association with bad ideas when we hear the assertion that rape has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with a culture that glorifies violence against women.

When ideas such as these are put under the microscope, what we see does not reflect the claims. Humans are not indistinguishable blank slates waiting to be inscribed upon by parents and culture, but have innate differences (however large or small) by virtue of non-identical genetics. Although women still face discrimination in many sectors today, repeated studies show the genders, on average, differ in cognitive talents and personality traits that cause them to gravitate towards certain fields of work. Evolutionary biology and the demographics of perpetrators and victims shows that sex (and the underlying reproductive drive) has a very large part to play in rape.

Sex equality is not dependent upon the assumption that all groups of humans are identical; it is the moral principle that people should not be judged or inhibited by the average properties of their group. Sadly, by embracing bad ideas, a minority of feminists jeopardise this self-evident fact by throwing all their money on losing ideological horses in a race that includes economics, neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary psychology.

When we shift our attention to a section of veganism, we witness the same mistakes occurring: False premises, faulty logic, unreasonable conclusions, and association with other bad ideas: Meat-eating is an absolute moral wrong; Humans evolved as herbivores; The use of animals for any use should be banned; “Natural” plant-based remedies can cure everything from colds to cancers.

Again, these so-called facts are riddled with fiction. Some remote tribes clearly rely on animals to live, so removing their access to local animal products would likely lead to starvation, displacement or further environmental impact of importing other food sources. The biological sciences are replete with evidence that shows humans evolved to eat some meat, as seen in our dependency on Vitamin B12 that cannot be gained in large enough quantities from plants alone. Abolitionism – the doctrine that all animal usage by humans is wrong – does not take into account any nuance in various scenarios, such as some hugely beneficial lines of medical research. In my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, I find it difficult to walk into a vegan store without being slapped in the face with the hand of stupidity; Flyers for crystal healers and protests against GMOs.

To some degree, bad arguments for veganism and feminism are reactionary. If a conservative confirms a feminist’s worst fear by conjuring dubious sex differences to condemn the choices of women, too many will react by saying innate sex differences are a myth. If a meat eater defends their right to eat meat by virtue of evolution, too often vegans retort that we didn’t evolve to eat meat. Both sides of these arguments commit the naturalistic fallacy: If something is natural it must be good. Feminists and vegans who slip into this logical sinkhole can only counter an “it’s natural” argument by denying the proposed facts. If the facts are not in their favour, their thesis is doomed.

Rather than stimulating deserved introspection, backlash against a subsection of feminists and vegans conjures a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that strengthens the narrative of their cause. Though recent critics of feminism rarely oppose women voting, driving, or having control over their reproduction, any confrontation tends to be conflated with overt patriarchal oppression. Likewise, many vegans are too easily tempted to interpret any criticism as people’s rabid bloodlust for torturing defenceless creatures. The terms for these movements become a symbol of negativity; Tribal attitudes are inflamed and progress is retarded.

Many people realise this, which is why support for feminism among women has been in steady decline. In 1987 just 40% of women considered themselves feminist, 30% in 1997, and 24% in 2005. Of incredible interest is some specific findings of that latest poll, which asked two separate questions:

1. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not?
2. A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not?

65% of women identified as feminist when an equal-rights definition was provided, but only 24% of women considered themselves feminist in the absence of a definition. Another poll from 2005 found that only 12 percent of women and 10 percent of men consider the label of “feminist” to be a compliment.

Labels are problematic – whether one is a feminist, vegan, liberal or Muslim. As soon as one attempts to constrain a philosophy or way of life with a title, it generally fails to convey variation within. As a result, ideas that fall under the shade of a label’s umbrella become superficially homogenised to the casual observer. With this false uniformity set in place, the loudest and most extreme voices tend to come to represent the group. However, I am an optimist: Rather than euthanising the term “vegan”, I believe we can find a cure.

First and foremost, we have to scrutinise ideas wherever we find them. Bad ideas are corrosive, even those that are purportedly in favour of your position. If the rationale for veganism rests on a flimsy idea (“humans are the only animal that drinks the milk of another animal!”), the slightest breeze of reason can send it tumbling. Foolish arguments also repel rational individuals by misrepresenting the motivation to adopt the practise. By analogy, imagine scientists discover that cosmic rays bombarding our brains is the leading cause of dementia, but can easily be avoided by lining the insides of hats with a thin sheet of aluminium. However, what if this practise was largely known because some wear gigantic tinfoil helmets claiming it is protecting their brains from being hacked by aliens? These are not the people you would want on your PR team.

To challenge foolish arguments unapologetically we have to foster pluralism; no single person is a “true” vegan. You and I may both be committed to reduce the needless suffering of animals, but to what ends? I am sure any vegan I meet could further minimise their impact on other creatures. Does that mean they are not really a vegan? If so, the concept of vegan would be akin to a mathematically perfect circle; something only possible in theory but not in practice.

Ethics is not like euclidian geometry. Moral philosophy is though, and we can continually remind ourselves of the perfect circle we are striving for: reduction of the needless suffering of animals. To me, this lies within the bounds of utilitarianism; The barometer of your ethical decisions is the resultant well-being of all conscious creatures. With this end-goal in mind, each individual decision can be made without falling back on dogma. Factory farming can be banished without dooming Inuits to starvation or displacement. Subjecting rabbits to having their skin burnt by cosmetics can be outlawed without all animal research being shut-down. Health and environmental motivations can remain primary drivers for behavioural change without being an animal lover. We can encourage a reduction in others’ meat intake, rather than scaring off commitment-phobes by issuing an all-or-nothing ultimatum. You and I can debate each of these details whilst still in agreement on the goal.

In advocating for veganism we should not hesitate to scrutinise within for some romanticised ideal of ‘the greater good’ or fears of undermining the moral project. We should strive to overcome tribal attitudes that compel us to consistently protect the in-group whilst attacking the out-group. We should be able to ridicule the ideas of other vegans without being branded a “traitor” or  “collaborator”. Ultimately, vegans have to decide which is more important, an ideology that professes to advance the interests of the animal wellbeing, or what actually happens to animals in reality.

Perhaps there is an efficient way of calling out problematic vegan ideas: name it and shame it. A recent example where this tactic has proved to be immensely useful is the “Regressive Left”: A term coined by Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz that identifies a section of the political left that tolerates illiberal principles for the sake of multiculturalism. This term is helping reclaim liberalism, by providing an efficient means of flagging a recurring issue within journalism and social media. In this vein I say we identify, call out and separate problematic, unscientific, strident and asinine forms of veganism. A possible term for this could be “Voodoo Veganism”.

Veganism has the facts on its side, but as we’ve seen for feminism, planting false evidence at the ethical crime scene will risk causing a mistrial in the minds of others. By consistently using science and reason we can have our cake and eat it too: We can fight ardently for the rights of creatures less fortunate whilst maintaining intellectual rigour in the process. To achieve this, vegans should be as critical of arguments for veganism as they are for those against. In other words, our bullshit detectors should be scanning the in-group as well as the out-group. Whether on Facebook, Twitter or at the office water cooler, it’s time for us to reclaim veganism from Voodoo Vegans. Don’t let veganism make the same mistakes as feminism.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Your “definition” of “feminism” actually is a definition of antisexism (while feminism is sexist). cf. “I am a vegan antisexist”

  2. superspooky78 says:

    You make the mistake of assuming that animals are non sentient beings that don’t have feelings, which is untrue, since you want to use science as a defense. Animals are useful, no doubt about that. What gives humans the right to use them in any quantity and any way they choose, without regard to taking a life, our torturing them? You can’t make a valid argument for science downing rats just to test how they react.

    Aa vegan, I will defend meat eating to a point. Humans did evolve to be able to eat meat when necessary, which it no longer is for western civilization. A for b-12, there are vegan forms of methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin.

    1. “You make the mistake of assuming that animals are non sentient beings that don’t have feelings” – Is that directed at the author of the article?

  3. Erwin Vermeulen says:

    Quick comment on your ‘starving Inuits’ point. The Arctic reality is that in for instance Greenland the population has increased tenfold in the 300 years since first European contact. A population density the fragile Arctic ecosystem cannot support. This has resulted in the decline of beluga, musk ox and Arctic char numbers, to name just a few. The Inuit are not the noble wild, they live in westernized societies with most of the expensive perks, like supermarket food. The killing of wildlife is mostly defended from the point of economics (cheap, free food) and from the culture/tradition aspect that reason cannot accept as an argument in itself.

  4. Harrry says:

    Veganism has absolutely zero bad arguments because how is the attempt of saving lives of living and breathing beings at all illogical.
    Feminism, on the other hand, was not introduced because woman were being killed on a scale worse than that seen in concentration camps. Therefore it will have arguements against it as they’re goal is basically to have the right a they want. They already ha their basic rights in most places but animals have absolutely zero.

  5. Vlad says:

    I don’t understand how can someone decide to ignore obvious cruelty just because there are some vegans with bad arguments.

  6. Any “movement” tends to be tainted by their own sub-lunatic fringe. The Factual Feminist is a pretty cool series by a philosophy professor bringing sanity back to that social quest.

    This article has great points, but also some I disagree with like equating crystal healers with anti-GMO activism. GMO’s are garbage, specifically the ones copywritten by Monsanto and made to withstand industrially produced neurotoxins that crap on the environment, shrinking babies heads, cancer and the like. Non-GMO’s use these in lower concentrations so I prefer organic.

    I am personally not full-blown anti-meat, more conscious of the excessive amount of meat in our diets due to subsidies, livestock eating GMO or non-GMO grains less efficiently than feeding a person not a cow, the cruel and inhumane treatment of livestock, and the devastating effects on the environment (try watching Cowspiracy). I would eat meat that is hunted and I have raised/slaughtered my own chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits.

    Never saw this milk = autism propaganda and think that is horseshit. I do not think milk is as good for your body as we are told, osteoporosis is highest in top dairy consuming countries. That milk is for a baby cow to become a few-hundred pound animal, not people, plus all the chemicals. I guess we are becoming cow-like weight-wise. Autism is a likely result of the toxic slew of shitty chemicals so complex we do not understand it. No surprise since a tiny fraction of chemicals is ever tested as they should be for the hard to the environment and our bodies.

    One thing I find strange, in respect to a logical vegan approach, is using petrochemical alternatives to animal products, they end up subverting the objective of respect to life with displace injustices. Eating tofu for example can end up promoting just as much deforestation and environmental damage that cattle ranches create. To those half-ass crusaders I say To-Fuck-You. I do believe our diet is a major factor in society, how we treat each other and ourselves.

    Anyways, there are some of my thoughts from a 2-year 99.999% vegan-dieter perspective, but I also have a leather jacket inherited from my grandfather, etc so some vegans would give me grief who eat GMO-soy and wear Crocs. Can’t satisfy everyone, but cannot attack everyone who doesn’t think like you either.

    Jason Robo Oh and another thought, I think feminists who eat dairy are hypocrites since those cows are fist-raped and the babies jacked. I find that amusing and inconsistent.

  7. Great article. Now Im trying hard to not come across as reactionary, being a farmer of livestock but ‘the facts’ within full context are far far far more nuanced than factory farming or naught. This is a long article that I understand can’t cover everything. I would like the author and notable thinkers venturing into vegan/vegetarianism to be carefully of their own cognitive dissonance. The ethical arguments for eating less or no animals are indeed well studied. However, we are only really just beginning to understand some of the what seem to be incalcuable ecological & greenhouse benefits of new techniques of managing and eating animals in specific environments. Sometimes its a simple matter of what that livestock operation is replacing. ie. A wheat farm that uses a mountain of chemicals, energy & greenhouse intensive practices in an unreliable climate, producing wheat that is contracted to a starch mill which then sells the starch on to be the main ingredient in jelly beans? V’s the farm next door which produces a higher cash flow, zero net carbon emissions, higher food output in terms of nutrition, employees more people both directly and indirectly, is drought proof, supports wildlife….and its primary product is grass fed lamb. This is my farm in the context of my particular geography/demography.

  8. Excellent article, Steve. I do love the idea of calling pseudo-scientific arguments for veganism “Voodoo Veganism”.

    I particularly appreciated the eloquence of this point: “Veganism has the facts on its side, but as we’ve seen for feminism, planting false evidence at the ethical crime scene will risk causing a mistrial in the minds of others.”

    We must not ignore the erroneous arguments made by some vegans such as the naturalistic fallacy just because they are using it as a means to an end (veganism) we agree with. False evidence such as the naturalistic fallacy and other unscientific approaches must be confronted regardless of whom they are used by. It is indeed time for us to reclaim veganism from Voodoo Vegans.

    Thank you for this article.

  9. carl r spurrier says:

    Did you honestly just use “remote tribes” as an argument against veganism?

  10. vegan angle says:

    Good article but feminists abandoned equality as an aspiration once they had gained it (in Britain by the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act). Since then it has been about female supremacism (ie misandry), complaining about ‘patriarchy’ where it doesn’t exist, in secular Western democracies with universal adult suffrage; whilst ignoring those countries and cultures where it does. Every feminist who complains about ‘male privilege’ invariably herself comes from a privileged background (Harriet Harman, Emma Watson, Laurie Penny aka ‘PennyRed’ etc).

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