Hi there, folks! Today, I’m more than thrilled to share with ya’ll the first “From the Community” piece published here on Chickpeas & Change. Penned by Dubliner-turned-Londoner Julie Gannon of the blog Pint Sized Vegan and founder of the London Freethinkers for Animals Meetup group, this piece encourages self-identified animal rights activists to think and act beyond non-human animals, to understand the urgent need to work in solidarity with activists of all stripes.
If I may add my own two cents, interpreting “our struggle” as separate from those of our fellow working-class folk is exactly what the ruling class of the capitalist system wants. In doing so, we prevent ourselves from understanding the interconnectedness of oppression under capitalism, and diminish our chances of uniting in revolutionary uprising. But, if we work in solidarity with one another, we have the best possible odds of dismantling the systems and structures that keep us from living in a free and equitable world.
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Rethinking Veganism Beyond the Lives of Animals
by Julie Gannon
When I walk by these lights in New Cross, I think about the type of person I want to be. I imagine a brave and beautiful woman: a red-haired Celtic warrior, ready to stand up for herself — and for others — when it matters. To show solidarity for animals, vegans choose to step outside of the social norms that cause animals harm, and boycott the industries involved in their exploitation. But does a similar mindset frame our choices where human exploitation is concerned? And if not, are we not then denying humans the same considerations we afford to animals? Does it even matter, anyway?
I’ve participated in enough vegan-led events to see the slogan “Animal Liberation • Human Liberation” faithfully woven into campaign manifestos and sewn onto flags. And while I don’t doubt the sentiment, at times I’m not wholly convinced of our ability to manifest it—and I leave feeling disheartened and empty. Perhaps this feeling is more a sober recognition of the part I’ve played in side-stepping issues around human exploitation, or maybe it’s a manifestation of my wavering belief that the vegan movement alone can challenge the societal values that commodify life, and the institutions that gamble with it.
Take the world’s largest corporation, for example (Dullforce). Apple’s commitment to human rights has come under fire amidst allegations of exploitative working conditions at its supplier factories in China (China Labor Watch, SSACM). The poetry of former Foxconn employee Xu Lizhi (1990-2014) provides a glimpse of what life is like for workers on iPhone assembly lines at the factory’s facilities in Shenzhen, China. Problems linked to suppliers in Indonesia have also surfaced, with reports claiming that tin used to manufacture iPhones is being sourced from unregulated mines rife with dangerous working conditions, child labor, habitat destruction and environmental pollution (Friends of the Earth).
While conditions such as these are not atypical within the electronics industry, senior Apple representatives insist that the company is doing more than its rivals “to ensure fair and safe working conditions” (Williams). To further the perception of the company’s “corporate conscience” and its commitment to sustainability, Tim Cook (CEO) launched Apple’s “Better” campaign on Earth Day in April, 2014. Manufactured in Silicon Valley, California, this brave new world seems light years away from the daily reality of factory life experienced by workers further down Apple’s supply chain—and Xu’s story is a testament to how easily the most vulnerable individuals become invisible in a system that safeguards profit over people. If Tim Cook’s shoulders feel heavy, however, I don’t think he is solely to blame. (I know I can’t claim immunity as I sit here typing on my Apple Mac…).
So what’s this got to do with veganism?
The Apple case — and Xu’s story in particular — has led me to question whether we’re justified in flying the cruelty-free flag of veganism if we financially support or remain silent about companies or industries that we know contribute to the harm of others—beyond our dinner plates. At the risk of getting tied up in ethical knots over every single thing we do, this raises the thorny question of what it really means to be vegan: is it enough to remove animal products from our lives and to shop ‘cruelty-free’, or is veganism something more than a zeitgeist consumer lifestyle with health benefits?
Rethinking veganism in this way does not mean losing sight of the billions of animals exploited on farms, locked in labs, or caged in circuses and zoos, but it does mean examining how our own attitudes and behaviors affect individuals other than animals, and questioning whether we’re committed to standing up against all forms of oppression and violence. If we say veganism is “for the benefit of people, too” then it’s incumbent on us to consider our footprint beyond the lives of animals, and to understand how our work intersects with other social justice causes–whether we’re helping or hindering. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing credibility as a legitimate movement, being dismissed as a disconnected social club or, worse still, tokenizing issues such as workers’ rights and environmental sustainability for our own agenda, with manifestos that amount to little more than empty rhetoric—in a similar vein to Apple.
Recognizing the shortcomings in our movement starts with recognizing those in ourselves, and realizing that being vegan is a means, not an end. We don’t lay sole claim on trying to create a “better” world: whether it’s childbirth (Suzanne Arms), chocolate (Lauren Ornelas), or corporate finance (Brett Scott), there are lion-hearted individuals far beyond our movement working hard to shake the structures of society that prop up and perpetuate unjust divisions and exploitative relations between us. Despite differences in our thinking about animals, recognizing the good in other social movements can provide a starting point for opening up conversations about potential ways of working together in our capacities as activists, artists, educators, citizens, community workers, or political campaigners, toward a shared goal of cultivating a non-violent world, where everyone is counted and everyone is loved. In his message about standing up to injustice, Henry David Thoreau said, “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.” The challenge, as I see it, is to face those conversations and new beginnings with grace, with guts, and with our eyes wide open.
Julie Gannon is an animal advocate based in London trying to challenge conventional ways of thinking about human-animal relations. She gives talks on animal ethics and vegan cookery demonstrations in schools across London. She first started thinking about animal liberation after seeing the 1987 film Project X. She went on to study environmental science at Trinity College Dublin and has postgraduate qualifications in sustainable development and third level learning and teaching. She created the London-based network #freethinkers4animals to examine how animals are represented in philosophy, literature, art, science, religion and popular culture. When not campaigning for animals, she’s out exploring South East London on her bike, eating dates and listening to electronic music.
You can get in touch with Julie at pintsizedvegan [at] hotmail [dot] com, or connect with her on Twitter.
DISCLAIMER: Chickpeas & Change publishes submissions whose overarching political message I support, not necessarily those whose every word and idea I agree with wholeheartedly. I welcome all submissions created with a goal of contributing in some way– large or small — to dismantling dominant structures of violence and oppression, and that include non-human animals among the beings whom we need to include in a struggle for collective liberation.