We are Not Cruelty-Free

Hi, folks. No recipe today since the demands of college midterms have prevented me from doing much experimenting in the kitchen. I do, however, want to share with you some of my thoughts on the implications of the term “cruelty-free” and others like it that are often used in vegan and animal rights circles.

Both A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan and writer James McWilliams have recently touched upon the problems with using simplistic phrases to justify a vegan lifestyle. As McWilliams notes, such aphorisms “obscure a far more complicated reality” – a point that Harper effectively demonstrates in a post explaining worker exploitation in the strawberry-picking industry. Pointing out rhetoric among many vegans “about how one’s consciousness is more ‘clean’ by eating diets of fruits and veggies in North America,” Harper astutely reminds us that non-human animal slaughter “is always made visible amongst the vegan mainstream in the US, while…harvesting strawberries or other plants for human consumption under horrible and insufferable conditions is painted as something one need not think deeply about since non-human animals weren’t directly harmed.” Of course, as Harper notes, both practices are not the same (comparing oppressions is messy work at best, after all), though both cause substantial pain and suffering. I also don’t see this reminder as harboring a goal of making vegans guilty or demonstrating to us that we shouldn’t eat strawberries ever again. Rather, I think it provides a jumping off point for interrogating our own positioning, even while combating one instance of systemic subjection (that of non-human animals), in the societal hegemonies that normalize the pain and suffering of certain groups of people (such as Latino/a farm workers) by deeming such groups inferior or threatening to dominant (“normal”) groups.

Whether consciously or not, we all reproduce in our daily lives forms of domination that the social order has inscribed into our very bodies through a process of disciplinary power. Trans activist Dean Spade cogently explains the operation of disciplinary power in his book Normal Life (featured in the latest edition of Vegan Chews & Progressive News):

“The disciplinary mode of power refers to how racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism, and homophobia operate through norms that produce ideas about types of people and proper ways to be. […] Institutional locations such as medicine, the social sciences, and education—where standards of healthfulness, proper behavior, and socialization are established and taught—are key technologies of disciplinary power. In such locations, we learn how to view our bodies, how our actions make us into certain types of people, and how to practice techniques to modify ourselves to better fit the norms. […] The impossibility of matching the ideal types generates a lifetime of self- and external policing that keep us occupied with our personal reform efforts” (104-105).

Through virtually no fault of our own, we become socialized from birth to recognize certain people and behaviors as “right” and others as “wrong,” “inferior,” and “dangerous,” and this enables us to ignore the injustices perpetuated against the latter groups. Though animal rights activists have challenged a small aspect of this socialization by rejecting the inferior status of non-human animals and identifying their subjection, many if not all of us uphold our learned assumptions of norms in ways that we have a supremely difficult time recognizing unless explicitly pointed out to us (such as the ways in which the mainstream vegan and animal rights movements currently operate under racist, sexist, classist, and ableist rhetoric). Therefore, in the sense of working toward collective liberation for all beings human and non, none of us are living wholly cruelty-free lives, whether vegan or not.

I don’t mean for any of this to make readers feel guilty, depressed, or defensive, but rather to point out that we simply cannot claim moral superiority over others (such as through labels like “cruelty-free”) since we all exist in a world that implicates us in dominant structures of systemic violence. Instead of touting the very personal reform efforts that Spade describes as occupying our activist focus to consequently maintain the invisibility of such structures, we must replace this mode of individualized improvement with what political scientist Leela Fernandes– in her book Transforming Feminist Practice – describes as disidentification: a process that “rests on letting go of all attachments to power, privilege and control” with the goal of “creating a different form of self” that “contains within it a radical interconnection between all of us that necessarily transcends narrower forms of identification” (27, 36). Disidentification, Fernandes notes, “requires a complete dissociation from the ego-based investments in control, recognition and superiority which are mistakenly identified as self-interest” in order to “provide the kind of radical humility required to really manifest social justice in this world” (44).

I can see as one way to begin this process of disidentification a refusal to use blanket terms like “cruelty-free” that imply the moral superiority of certain entities over others. This of course isn’t to say, for example, that the choice between almond milk and dairy milk is an arbitrary one (since the latter is produced through an abhorrent process of reproductive exploitation), but to point out that both exist because of capitalist structures whose dismantling requires activism that transcends individual consumer choices by rooting itself in the radical interconnectedness and humility that Fernandes describes.

I apologize if all of this seems very abstract; working towards social justice is an immensely difficult process, especially if we understand it to require a complete transformation of who we currently know ourselves to be. Let’s keep seeking resources to provide us with models of how to do so, while working to embody radical interconnection and humility in our everyday lives.

In solidarity, Ali.

4 thoughts on “We are Not Cruelty-Free

  1. justmeactually says:

    I’ve been thinking along these same lines lately. All we can really do is try to cause the least harm in our power and with the knowledge we have. This is so refreshing to read. Thank you!

  2. Ellie says:

    In your opinion Ali, how would you succinctly describe your lifestyle without launching into a ramble on all the caveats? Do you have a “go-to” phrase to describe your choices?

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