Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

absolutely vegan, absolutely anthrocentric? December 21, 2009

This is my attempt to share some thoughts I’ve shared with my housemate and friend, R.

Ant & Aphids

1.

Veganism is the refusal to consume animals, or their byproducts. It is a simplified definition, and veganism is far more complex than just one simple sentence. But when I, and most people, explain what veganism is we generally use some variation of that sentence. Veganism is usually seen as an absolute— you either are a vegan or you are not.

Anthrocentrism is the belief that humans are, and/or should be, the center (of the world, the cosmos, culture, society, etc). This definition is also simplified.

As an ethical vegan I refuse to consume animal products to diminish the number of animals that suffer and die. My focus is on ending the suffering of animals.

And perhaps you were expecting an “and” at the end of that sentence.

“…and to end their use by human beings,” I should say.

But I’ll return to use in a moment.

2.

I know I will be vegan (or freegan, or fruitarian) because there is this system of factory-farming— this system that causes the deaths and suffering of billions of animals, but I don’t really need to tell you this. I will oppose the industries that kill animals, that enslave animals, that attempt to hide behind an ethics based in anthrocentrism.

But what about a time when the factory-farms do not exist. When the labs and fur farms don’t dot the landscape. When animals aren’t killed for glitz or glamour or taste. When there are no cages, no locks, no fences.

Would veganism make sense then?

Goby & Shrimp

This is what I’ve been debating within myself.

3.

When a goat, a sheep, a llama, a cow, a chicken, a bee, a dog, a cat is an equal member of my community. Do I have a reason not to consume eggs, dairy, wool when they are available?

I’m grossed out by the thought of consuming these things now. But as a  hypothetical I have no moral qualms about it. I’m only bothered by the fact that for a period of time my veganism was absolutist— that it saw itself as universal and not dependent on the historical, cultural, social, geographical moment.

I’m against the enslavement of animals— that is what exists right now, and what has existed for awhile.

Rhinoceros and Birds

4.

ME : What if none of the factories existed?

R: Then I assume the animals would be happier.

ME: Right. But would you eat cheese?

R: I don’t know.

ME: Why?

R: It would still be using them.

ME: That sounds insulting to the cow to me.

R: Haha.

ME: You have to assume that the cow isn’t getting anything from you.

R: True, but a cow wouldn’t need food from me if our/my ancestors hadn’t domesticated them in the first place.

ME: Again insulting. Don’t you think that’s sort of anthrocentric?

R: True.

ME: Why do assume that individual cows didn’t have some awareness of the benefits that came with domestication— as if domestication isn’t a two way street. It sounds like economics to me.

5.

Myth #1:

Man the Hunter dominated nature and led to human civilizations.

Myth #2

Man the Domesticator tamed nature and led to human civilizations.

“How horrible that our ancestors did this.”

Not: “Why would our ancestors and the ancestors of the cow (dog, cat, sheep, goat, chicken, llama) come to this point of mutualism?”

6.

We assume that humans are the only species that interacts, “uses,” or engages in an economy, with other species. It is a human exceptionalism, an anthrocentrism that puts humanity in the realm of unnatural. Then animality (already a ridiculous, anthrocentric division) is thrust into the realm of the natural. In abjecting everything else in the world, we’ve served to eject ourselves.

A universal, absolutist veganism, would deny that there are points in which human beings could interact with other animal species in a natural economy, that there can be a sharing, giving, mutualistic relationship between me and another animal.

7.

We must remember an animal abolitionist can still be speciesist and anthrocentric.

And if history has taught us anything abolition is only a first step.

Black Panther

8.

I’ve come to the conclusion that an absolutist veganism is one that ignores the possibility of communities not based on filial specialism, and that I wish to get beyond a anthrocentric exceptionalism that denies subjectivity to animals regardless of situation.

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28 Responses to “absolutely vegan, absolutely anthrocentric?”

  1. Glenn Says:

    A very interesting post, and well presented too. Just a minor correction. I think you mean “anthropocentrism,” rather than “anthrocentrism.”

    I especially liked this:
    “A universal, absolutist veganism, would deny that there are points in which human beings could interact with other animal species in a natural economy, that there can be a sharing, giving, mutualistic relationship between me and another animal.”

    I’ve been wondering a lot about how we can learn to live with and among other animals, whether by building with animals and co-existence in mind, or by sharing space, or by simply respecting their life and volition like I would any other human.

    But I wonder, can we have any sort of mutually beneficial relationship without exploitation when there is such a wide gap in our understandings of the world (me and my cats, for example).

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post!

    • Glenn Says:

      Sorry, I guess I should have looked it up first. “Anthrocentrism” is a specific variant of “anthropocentrism.” Thanks Wikipedia!

    • Royce Says:

      I kept almost typing anthopocentrism, but only for the fact that my ears didn’t like the sound of it I changed it.

      I wondered about the removing exploitation, but then realized it is only exploitive if you or the cat keeps the other from being able to exit. But then a cat is an easy example, they’re only partially domesticated.

  2. Josh Says:

    Your points sound like Donna Haraway’s points in “When Species Meet” (2007, Univ Of Minnesota Press).

    She focuses on the dog-human relationship and how it is co-dependent.

    However, as a nearly-absolutist vegan myself, and a dog-owner (among other species), I’ve nearly vowed to never use “byproducts” of animals, my pets or otherwise. This includes a cow’s milk, or whatever may be useful for me from a dog’s body or labor. I do not see how taking a cow’s milk and making cheese benefits the cow. I easily see how walking my dogs benefits me and the dogs (co-dependency). If the cow’s milk must be taken for some medical reason, why not just throw it out?

    Our collective histories are highly intertwined, and many of us need each other to survive and be happy. But I see “respect” as understanding and responding to boundaries. I am morally opposed to taking a pig’s heart for my survival. I am morally obligated to donate blood for humans (and other animals if non-invasive science makes that possible). I also force my cat to give his blood for other cats.

    Invasive actions for personal pleasure are morally wrong. On the other hand, invasive acts to keep others healthy are morally right.

    I’ve come to an impasse in my thinking. Why would I not take a pig’s heart (nor suggest that anybody do it) but would force my cat to give up blood for other cats? Am I suffering a speciesist “guilt”? In other words, am I really saying “humans cannot take from non-human animals, but non-human animals deserve to take from us”? It is rather clear, though, that some human (or committee) would be the deciding party one way or the other whether to perform some invasive practice.

    • Royce Says:

      I guess my thinking with the cow is more underdeveloped. When my schools library reopens in January I plant to read about symbiosis, and communal economics.

      But from where I stand there are probably benefits that could occur between a liberated cow/goat/chickens and humans. We can not, at this point, know if a cow/goat/chicken would trade extra milk for protection from predators.

      We can’t talk to them, they aren’t free, many of us aren’t in situations where the dairy/eggs would be necessary for survival, and we killed off so many predators it wouldn’t be a fair deal for a cow or chicken.

  3. R. Says:

    Well put, my housemate and friend. I wish I were home so we could talk about it in person, but on the other hand sometimes writing makes me think better.

    Basically, I still don’t know. I get your point, and I think it’s a good one. “Freedom,” as in freedom from slavery, is not equality, and (as you said, historically speaking) it does not mean the end of mistreatment. The problem I have is one of communication. How do we know a cow would choose domestication? It makes sense to me, but my opinion (as a human who stands to benefit) isn’t really trustworthy. This isn’t to say that there is zero possible communication possible between myself and a cow- but is there enough to warrant milking, for instance? This is similar to what I’d say about a pre-verbal human child. They obviously have a subjectivity, their own desires, and the ability to engage in transactions. But without the only kind of consent that my feeble mind can grasp as being explicit (not just verbal, but in one of maybe ten languages), I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing anything to a child’s body. This kinda thing comes up a lot in discussions about intersex issues, childhood surgery, etc. Consensus on that seems to be that no matter how beneficial something may appear from one side, if you’re not sure you should just leave it alone.

    I feel like I’ve rambled, but you get the idea.

    • Royce Says:

      I guess I’d say we’d have to learn to communicate with cows, or even a cow.

      I’m also going to have to say that an analogy of a child makes sense, but I’d question a super-imposing of a child’s subjectivity onto an animal’s.

      I also wonder about a privileging of human (or in the case of the ten you’re talking about, dominant-human) language.

      And I wouldn’t want future-humans in my thought-world to take anything unless they were certain there was consent.

  4. Anon2 Says:

    Royce, re ‘When a goat, a sheep, a llama, a cow, a chicken, a bee, a dog, a cat is an equal member of my community. Do I have a reason not to consume eggs, dairy, wool when they are available?’

    Are we to assume at that point the chicken is talking and says “My eggs are for humans and it gives me great happiness if they are consumed”. How do we know that the animals want us to have their ‘products’ or ‘consumables’ as many people label them?

    The veganism philosphy still includes whether the animal has any say so in their self-determination and happiness.

    IMHO, this is not much different than any thought than what humans have been doing to other humans and animals for millions of years– assuming they know whats ok or better for another human, animal, culture etc.

    • Royce Says:

      I can see why you would say that it is the same as what humans have been doing (though I question which humans, and if it has really been million of years).

      I’m not assuming what is ok for any animal, or human really. I’m just questioning whether or not it is anthrocentric to say that we can never be in a community with other animals, and whether or not there are mutualistic exchanges.

      Is it anthrocentric to privilege what we consider as language as the only means of getting consent. I provided images in my post to bring up the point that other animals live in transpecial communities where they all gain benefits from each other. I don’t believe in a disneyfied existence where animals of different species can talk and do dance routines together, but obviously there are means of transpecial communication.

      I guess my larger aim is to dismantle anthrocentrism. Yeah, I won’t live in this post-special paradise, and who knows if anyone ever will. But I’m not questioning if veganism is morally viable, it obviously is now, but I’m questioning if it is anthrocentric. Why are we so different from the goby and the shrimp or the ant and the aphid or the ocean cleaning stations or the rhino and the birds? Because we can philosophize and moralize and have language? Because we think we exist outside of nature? Because we are special? That all sounds like anthrocentric thinking to me.

      I was arguing for a community of equals, not a system that forces animals. In a world where there are no fences and free association why would an animal stay with you, me, a dog, a guinea pig, another member of its own species, unless it wanted to? Why do we think we are the only animals that can choose?

  5. Karan Says:

    Having lived on a small family homestead type farm, I have a few points to add regarding the cow. The cows on our farm had many acres to roam and eat freely from, yet when we called them they came running for the treat of grain. They also stood without restraint while they were milked, by hand. They each have their own personality and quirks. I would say that in this type of one on one situation, the cows quite happily gave milk in exchange for the grain treat. I dislike seeing how animals are treated in ‘factory’ farms. We have become too disconnected from the land and all that inhabit it.

  6. R. Says:

    I wasn’t trying to privilege human verbal language, merely to state a fact that is subject to change. Consent given in some other way is still valid, I just wouldn’t get it, at this point.

    Also, I worry that a certain human assumption may have some truth in it. I’m referring to the assumption that the only thing that makes the relationship between the rhinos and the birds symbiotic, rather than parasitic, is coincidence. The birds don’t care whether or not the rhinos benefit from their relationship– they’re just looking out for themselves, being birds. Obviously I have no idea if this is at all true, but it seems equally anthrocentric to assume that the birds and rhinos have a consciousness of consent as it is to assume they don’t.

    I definitely remain undecided on this topic, which to me means it’s a good one, ie one worth thinking about.

    • Royce Says:

      I just don’t know if it is anthrocentric to think that the bird and the rhino (or any collective of animals) could be communal or individualistic in their behavior, but I just thought it was anthrocentric to assume that we cannot also have similar types of collective systems/communities because we are human.

  7. R. Says:

    P.s. I like your ruptures :)

  8. Josh Says:

    Are questions about what is or what is not anthrocentric themselves anthrocentric, by legitimizing the idea? What kinds of thoughts would we have if we do not allow the question of anthrocentrism? That is to say, what if we assume that there is no way to look at animals [sic] in a human-centered way nor not human-centered way, but instead consider humans animals like the rest?

    • Royce Says:

      The only way I can even think about this is with analogy:

      Are questions about what is or what is not eurocentric themselves eurocentric, by legitimizing the idea? What kinds of thoughts would we have if we do not allow the question of eurocentrism? That is to say, what if we assume that there is no way to look at people of color in a white-centered way nor not white-centered way, but instead see all people as people.

      Which is right, because it is still privileging humans/Europe as a focal point of discourse, but how can one speak to begin dismantling power if one refuses to talk about it? Is a critique of anthrocentrism, or eurocentrism anthrocentric or eurocentric, sure because it privileges those things as the center of its discourse.

      The heliocentrists had to talk about geocentrism before the Earth could just be another planet.

      I think, as long as there is a human/animal division backed human-supremacist power there can be no way for a human to look at another animal in a non-anthrocentric way. In some future world where all animals are liberated, and humans have given up on the idea of dominion, and there are possibly communities/ecosystems; where homo sapiens interact with other species as equals in their desire not to suffer, wouldn’t that be a time when a human could look at an animal in a non-speciesist way? What is to say that there are people that don’t see the special line like we do right now? (I’m certain there are many who don’t and we routinely call them crazy or primitive). Just as not all white folks are Eurocentric I think it is possible for there to be humans that aren’t anthrocentric.

  9. annabelle Says:

    I’m calling wikipedia out on this one and saying that the correct word really is anthropocentric. But that’s only really relevant if we accept dictionaries as determinative of true language and true meaning. I still kind of do (unless the neologism adds a new/alternative meaning, in which case I’m more than happy to invent away).

    While I agree with you (Royce) that it’s relatively moot to argue that using the framework of anthropocentrism is in itself anthropocentric, I do think there is a separate aspect of your hypothetical world that it worth investigating. This would be your conception of freedom and equality. My sense is that your conceptualization of these institutions is not only anthropocentric but, and perhaps more importantly, entirely normative in a distinctly Christian, occidental fashion. The vision you leave your reader is essentially a Christian democracy in which mobile creatures constitute citizens and are free (and obliged) to make war and peace in the hallowed halls of the open market. Your “animals,” equal in rights, desires and communicative abilities have become as human as those of us type-typing away on our blogs.

    Envisioning all creatures as versions of ourselves (and placing this hypothetical future as the teleological goal, implying their desire to live as we live and engage with the world as we engage with the world) strikes me as more anthropocentric than the current abolitionist approach, which is socially, economically, environmentally and historically contextualized and – at least in my practice of it – in no way intended to be a canonized as the sole way to live life on this planet, no matter how it changes.

    But I enjoy your thoughts and appreciate you sharing them with all of us.

    • Royce Says:

      You must have had Christian democracy on the brain, I fail to see how anything I wrote could suggest that that is what I am envisioning. I don’t know if every reader got the same thing out of it that you did. My notions of freedom are more of a “freedom from” sort of thing as compared to a “freedom to.”

      I sort of imagine animals having the freedom from being exploited, freedom from being enslaved, freedom from being caged. I fail to see how “citizens” (I would have said members, myself) would be free to make “war and peace in the hallowed halls of the open market”.

      To be honest I don’t even know what that statement is supposed to mean exactly.

      I never said the animals would be equal in communicative ability, rights, or desires. Again whatever that would mean. Equal in their “right” to do what? Equal in which desires?

      I didn’t envision all animals as versions of ourselves. Rather I wanted to know if a human can be like an ant, aphid, rhino, rhino bird, etc etc. That is be an animal engaged in mutually symbiotic relationships— economies or ecosystems take your pick for the terminology.

      I fail to see how I made out animals to be like humans, I felt this was more of a practice in becoming-animal. And again I don’t know what you mean by become like us. How exactly do I suggest that?

      My main goal was shaking this phantom of an idea from it’s perch— that humans cannot interact with other beings. The goal of most animal abolition and animal liberation seems to be not just the ending of animal suffering, but the continued abjection of the natural and animal, through the separation of humans from all other animals. Is there not a way for human beings to interact with, be in an ecosystem with, other animals— interacting with them in the ways that other animals interact with each other already?

      So perhaps I didn’t make my views clear. I’ve tried to find ways of vocalizing a refusal of human exceptionalism, but folks seem to read it as a humanizing of animals, which is really the direct opposite of my goal which is the re-animalization of human beings.

  10. annabelle Says:

    Oops! That should read “to be canonized…”

  11. mama Says:

    royce, i feel like you are posting really good strong posts in the past couple of days. and then the conversations, imho, go in odd circles. so im kind of perplexed. like, maybe i am just reading from a very different persepective.
    we know that trans species communication is possible and common. we know that trans species communication with humans is possible. we dont have to privilege specific human languages in order for us to communicate across species.
    perhaps part of my confusion is that i live in africa. and have lived in communities in which almost no products used in the village are tied into the factory farms. because they are herders and farmers. and live ‘off the land’ so to speak. yes, it is anthrocentric. some animals do suffer. and there is a sense of mutuality in their relationships with other animals that i dont see in the n. america. i am not romanticizing, just stating that the industrialized west need not be centered in this conversation either.
    and speaking to the subjectivity of animals. and one of your previous posts about plant life. i think that vegans are sooner or later going to have to come to terms morally with the subjectivity of plants.
    also, the idea of supply and demand is not how the global economy really works. what i mean is: boycotting products does not necessarily mean that the supply will decrease. so i wonder about this being a moral basis for veganism. would folks still be vegan if they realized that their veganism (not buying animal products) does not decrease at all the suffering of animals in the world?

    • Royce Says:

      I agree that the conversations seem to go in bizarre circles, and I’m not a hundred percent certain why.

      Yeah I’ve realized there has been a privileging of a very specific segment of humanity. I find decentering the industrial west/global north to be difficult, because I don’t actually know anything else.

    • Noah Says:

      would folks still be vegan if they realized that their veganism (not buying animal products) does not decrease at all the suffering of animals in the world?

      When I see veganism reduced to being a boycott, I feel discouraged and disempowered.

      Veganism is the principle from which a vegan diet flows, the theory behind the practice. To me, veganism is a positive force for change.

      Veganism is about building a world in which animals do not have to be exploited by humans. Veganism seeks to create nonexploitative systems to replace systems of exploitation. We take it upon ourselves to build the kinds of communities and structures we want to see in place. It is a social justice movement, not a boycott.

      In Veganism is Anti-Oppression: Not a Consumer Activity, Ida wrote:

      “veganism is actually a philosophy of non-exploitation that applies to the societal level, and that this leads to a way of life (or lifestyle) that is based on noncooperation with, and divestment from, exploitation. … veganism is about liberation, not consumption. So when a vegan abnegates the products of exploitation, they are giving up privilege, as opposed to engaging in a ‘boycott.'”

  12. C Says:

    “But what about a time when the factory-farms do not exist. When the labs and fur farms don’t dot the landscape. When animals aren’t killed for glitz or glamour or taste. When there are no cages, no locks, no fences.

    Would veganism make sense then?”

    Veganism was defined prior to the spread of factory farms. Therefore it “made sense” prior to factory farming. It was defined as a principle of non-exploitation, regardless of the enormity of intensive systems of exploitation of other animals. So even if industrial animal agriculture (or testing labs, rodeos, circuses, etc) no longer exists in this hypothetical future, the vegan principle of non-exploitation would still apply to not exploiting or using other animals for human purposes.

    “When a goat, a sheep, a llama, a cow, a chicken, a bee, a dog, a cat is an equal member of my community. Do I have a reason not to consume eggs, dairy, wool when they are available?”

    You may have different take on this (because you may attempt to justify any “reason”) but for me it’s clear that humans cannot get consent from other animals to use them for human purposes. How could they be equal members of your community if you are exploiting them for their hair or their reproductive secretions meant for their young without their consent? Without getting consent, would you take the milk of a human mother or shave her hair off (for sheep this is their protection from weather) and consider her an equal? That human milk and hair would be available too, right? It’s clear to me that these examples violate the principle of non-exploitation that veganism was founded upon.

  13. C Says:

    “A universal, absolutist veganism, would deny that there are points in which human beings could interact with other animal species in a natural economy, that there can be a sharing, giving, mutualistic relationship between me and another animal.”

    You’re just plain wrong, Royce. You obviously never did read much into forest gardening, as Eric recommended. You can look into the work of vegan forest gardening pioneer Robert Hart if you are interested.

    http://www.pfaf.org/leaflets/gdlovene.php

    http://www.ecobooks.com/books/forgard.htm

    Environments can be created (say, as large forest garden) that are self maintaining and that will attract and become the home of other animal species that will help keep that ecosystem intact, working in harmony with nature, not outside of nature. This could be considered a mutualism with other animals without exploiting those animals.
    Have you read much about the original aims of the vegan movement? Or is your idea of veganism what is currently advocated by animal advocacy organizations?

    • Royce Says:

      I’m glad you took a few days to come back and tell me how wrong I am.

      I never said all veganisms are like that, but that an universal, absolutist veganism is.

      Thanks though.

  14. C Says:

    Sorry for my tardiness, but if it makes you glad then it was totally worth it ; ) Sometimes I can’t get to my computer, and when I do I don’t always get online. I’ll try harder in the future.

    I should have worded what I said differently and I apologize. I mean no disrespect.
    I study veganism and what I meant to say was that your assertions reveal a lack of historical understanding about veganism, as defined as the principle of non-exploitation. I have given you an example of human-other animal mutualism that would not violate the vegan principle of non-exploitation. So I feel it’s erroneous to assume that a universal, “absolutist” (simply adhering to vegan principles?) veganism would “deny that there are points in which human beings could interact with other animal species in a natural economy, that there can be a sharing, giving, mutualistic relationship between me and another animal.”

  15. Erica Says:

    “boycotting products does not necessarily mean that the supply will decrease. so i wonder about this being a moral basis for veganism. would folks still be vegan if they realized that their veganism (not buying animal products) does not decrease at all the suffering of animals in the world?”

    Well, I certainly hope they would continue boycotting animal products, since regardless of the economic factor, it still does not make it morally OK. To me it seems natural that supply would decrease the more people opposed something, but perhaps its more complicated. (oh ,wait, it always is, isn’t it?)
    Can anyone provide some example(s) or further reading on this?

    Really thought provoking conversations! I have been following along with the last few posts and everyones comments. Thanks!

  16. mcreavyhouse Says:

    Hey, I just typed in anthrocentric as a search word, to see if was a used word, and ended up here. A nice conversation. A friend just introduced me to Daniel Vitalis, via Youtube. Bet you’d find the line of thought and research interesting.

    Daniel Vitalis: Indigenous Nutrition & Physical Evolution 1/6
    http://www.youtube.com


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