Most of the vegetarians I know are specifically against the act of killing. They do not want to eat the products of death. Presumably, killing is wrong because it is cruel: it is cruel to take another creature’s life away. But you don’t have to kill another being in order to take his or her life away. An animal confined to a metal box in a factory farm is not really different from a prisoner serving a life sentence. They are still technically alive, but some fundamental aspect of life is missing.
So here we have the imprisonment of the innocent. I find that cruel, along with killing.
When I first became a vegan I had three main reasons for doing so: ethics, my health, and care of the environment. Most arguments for the vegan diet revolve around these three poles. And all of these reasons on their own are tremendous, and more than sufficient. But there’s something that unifies them that I haven’t been able to articulate.
It always pained me when people would dismiss veganism as “merely about animals”. In light of all the human suffering on earth, animals were too small and trivial to care about. But it’s not just about animals, I thought. It’s about everyone. It’s about how we relate to everyone. I’m sure this is not an original idea, and I am not the first one to put these pieces together. The way we treat animals is a huge problem, and it’s a symptom of an even bigger problem: in our society, bodies are disposable.
We treat animal bodies as disposable. We extract what we want from them (muscle, skin, milk, eggs, even performances and submission to experiments), and then, we discard them. But we also treat human bodies as disposable. We’ve done this for centuries, and are slowly, grudgingly coming to realize the pervasiveness of this kind of oppression. It wasn’t too long ago in this country that you could buy and sell human beings. You could extract labor from them, drain them of life completely, and then dispose of them. Actually, you can still do this, it’s just clandestine and illegal. Human trafficking, sex slavery, indentured servitude, and other forms of forced labor proliferate in this country and all over the world.
We live in an economy of extraction. Its main tenet says, “if you are different from me, if you are different from the norm, then you are inferior to me. And if you are inferior to me, then I may do whatever I want with your body. I may extract from it whatever I want for my own gain.” This line of thinking is used to justify all kinds of atrocities: slavery, genocide, rape, the degradation of women. What racism, sexism, and speciesism all have in common is that they are ways of constructing differences that justify exploitation. You are different, you are inferior, and therefore, I can consume you.
There are very eerie parallels between our treatment of male and female animals and our treatment of male and female humans. To kill animals for food is an outright, universal violence. But to use animals for other products involves a very specific, gendered violence.
Part of what makes milk and eggs so problematic is that they are products of the female reproductive system. They are what is called “feminized protein,” and they involve the confinement and artificial, forced insemination of female animals. Are there not already enough human women who are confined and violated in the world? Do we really need to be repeating this pattern with other female beings? Of course, there is violence against males as well, and it is just as wrong. In the dairy industry, female calves are raised to become dairy cows, and imprisoned for their sex. But male calves are sent off to veal crates, and they are slaughtered for their muscle. Likewise, in the poultry industry, female chicks are raised to become egg-laying hens, again, imprisoned for their sex. And male chicks are ground up alive. They are obliterated because they are merely protein, as opposed to producers of protein. This reminds me of the ways in which male bodies have been systematically exploited: for labor and combat. If women are disposable sex, then men are disposable muscle, in the service of industry or in service of the state. Think of the ways soldiers have been recruited throughout history, fed to the war machine. Do we not already consume enough male bodies in our wars? Do we not already funnel enough disadvantaged men into the most acutely perilous jobs (while we reserve a more chronic style of degradation for women?) Do we really need to repeat this pattern of obliteration with other male beings? This is not to say that women are not also exploited for hard labor, and men are not also exploited for sex (as they both most certainly are), but rather to show that the overall patterns of gendered violence wrought against humans are echoed in our treatment of “food animals.”
The economy of extraction also declares that if we cannot use you, then you are useless, and we must hide you or destroy you. This is another pattern of violence and oppression that is mirrored in our treatment of both humans and animals. What do we do with older people in our society? Don’t we hide them and confine them? Don’t we say that if you are no longer productive to us, if we can’t make a profit off you anymore, then you have no place? Our treatment of people with disabilities is similar. “If you don’t move the way I do, or perceive the way I do, or think the way I do, then you are different, and therefore inferior. And, you must not be productive, in which case we must hide and exclude you.” In the last century, massive programs were undertaken to wipe out people with differing abilities. It wasn’t long ago that people with mental illnesses were relegated to the status of animals, and subject to all kinds of abuse. Still today, these people get shunned and excluded. Again, with animals, I believe there’s a parallel between this kind of exclusion and extermination of those who are not considered productive. When we come across animals that are no longer productive – laboratory animals, performing animals, cats and dogs that no one wants to adopt – what do we do with them? We confine them to “shelters,” and then, we exterminate them. We have no regard for wild animals for whom we have no use, and so we go about wiping out their habitats and driving them extinct.
We can’t stop at “meat is murder.” We have to acknowledge the other crimes. Meat is not just murder, it’s a kind of genocide. It’s an animal holocaust. Fur and leather are murder as well. Dairy and eggs are torture and rape. It’s a shame to acknowledge these crimes against humanity and not see the way the pattern echoes, the way it applies to all living things. Not just animals, the environment and the earth as well.
Veganism is just one slice of the pie. It is just one step on the path.
But they’re just animals, some will say.
Yes, they’re just animals. Just like they’re just women. Just blacks. Just workers. Just soldiers. Just immigrants. Just whatever it is that’s different enough from you to not merit your consideration.
But we need meat, some will say.
We need milk and eggs, some will say.
Yes, we need these things just like society needed slave labor. Or like we needed women to be subservient and not engage with the world. Or like indigenous peoples needed us to ‘civilize’ them.
We do not need animal products for our health. But the status quo needs them. The people who profit from these things need them.
So this, really, is why I strive towards the ideal of veganism. I do not believe that any body is disposable. I don’t believe we have the right to exploit the bodies of those who are different from us. To me, to do so is just to continue the cycle of oppression that far too many human beings have suffered under. For instance, in my own case, I am a small female animal. Why should I support the subjugation of other small, female animals? As thinking, feeling, living beings, why should we support the subjugation of other thinking, feeling, living beings? Patterns of human oppression are echoed in our treatment of animals. I believe it’s time for our patterns of compassion and justice to be echoed in our treatment of animals as well.