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.