The issue of intersectionality is sometimes raised in conjunction with abolitionist veganism. While it is important to see how different individuals and groups have different experience of the world, and how this can affect all their interactions in the world including veganism, the use of a lack of inclusion of “intersectionality” in a vegan post or poster as a justification for attack of abolitionist vegan advocates is suspect. This post means to look at these issues.
Intersectionality: What is it?
Intersectionality, as used in sociology and similar academic disciplines, is the study of the unique ways areas of oppression may interact. It arose primarily with the intersection of race and feminism in the 1970s. The agenda of feminists and feminism were often shaped by the fact that many prominent feminist writers and theorists were “white”. That agenda often didn’t reflect the realities for women of colour. Women of colour also found anti-racist groups were dominated by men, and the racist issues such groups frame also didn’t seem to reflect their concerns or needs as women. As a result, “black feminist” and other groups for women of colour arose. In a parallel usually not considered in the non-queer literature, lesbians sought to focus on their interests as distinct from “gay” issues, which were generally framed by gay men and as a result, “gay issues” reflected masculine issues. The concern for differentiation started as “gay and lesbian” or “lesbian and gay”, and has morphed into LGBTI(QQKA) and probably more letters as other groups sought specific inclusion and recognition.
The term “intersectionality” started to be used frequently in the 1990s, and has become something of a fashion in academic circles, rather like “queer theory” in the 1980s. Many academics found an interest in these issues, and papers addressing them were often popular. Intersectionality was a useful way to look at many sociological complexities, and aided the examination of differences of experience within social categories, or helped frame examination of certain groups that spanned more than one social category.
Also, to clear up confusion, intersectionality doe not mean that all forms of oppression intersect. It means that in specific situations, multiple forms of discrimination can create specific situations for a group not described by the forms of oppression that intersect. The primary example is the failure of racism and feminism to describe their intersection for women of colour. This intersection includes issue like the fact that it is harder for women of colour to raise feminist issues of dominance or abuse because they play into racist stereotypes that “black” men are violent or rapists. As people of colour, they need to address the feminist issues “in house” in a way most feminists don’t. Neither racism nor feminism really address that intersectional problem. So “feminists of colour” becomes a new, intersectional category. Technically, any intersection of oppression for a group which creates situations that are “more than the sum” of the oppressions intersecting is an intersectional issue.
Intersectionality: Strengths and Weaknesses
The major strength of intersectionality is in looking at complexities of oppression when tied to specific groups. Looking at the situation of older Hispanic women in the US, or young North-African women in France, or Nepali lesbian female sex workers in India, intersectionality allows a complex analysis drawing from literatures of race, class, nationality, religion, sexuality, “morality”, legality, and so on. Intersectionality allows a certain amount of deconstruction.
Intersectionality is less powerful when used in more theoretical form. Talking “about” intersectionality can descend into messy vaguery and inappropriate generalisation. Simply naming social classes or types of oppression, and seeking to find examples, runs the risk of “finding what you are looking for”, seeing situations through a lens of expectation. Intersectionality is sometimes used as a platform for attack of other writers for not (or not adequately) considering intersectionality.
Chief among the theoretical problems of intersectionality are the assumptions it makes about people, and about the way we perceive ourselves and our interaction with society. In looking at social classes, it falls into a form of social construction of identity that is problematic, and may not correspond well with the way people self-perceive. Sociological classes are, to a degree, created in academic literature and the policies of government and social organisations (welfare-related, religious, or whatever). There are also complexities of identification, self-identification, and social identification. A person may identify as gay or lesbian even if they sometimes have opposite-sex partners. They may not identify as bi, rejecting that identity strongly. A person may self-identify as a feminist, yet not be seen as a feminist by a local feminist group. What group are they in?
It is questionable how well the individuals in a group actually fit the descriptions of the group, and how they self-identify. Also, if examination and consideration of different applicable identities is meticulous, intersectionality tends to split and split social groups into smaller and smaller subgroups, until it reaches the level of the individual. Predominately English-speaking first nation women in Quebec can be divided into subgroups that are bi-lingual, trilingual, young, old, working-class, have a sensory disability (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc), a movement disability, a congenital disability, we could consider consider tribal affiliation, gender identities, sexual preference, religion, body shape, substance abuse, and how seriously any member of the group ranks any of these issues as applying to themselves. Deciding what differences intersect, which differences are considered? Where does one stop?
The issues of membership in a class is also sociologically vexed. As with queer theory, identity politics can be used as a way of dividing groups, drawing a line and policing inclusion and exclusion. This occurred particularly in feminism with various groups vying to be the arbiters of “true” feminism, who would tell people if they were “real” feminists, or condemn some women as “not real feminists”. In this case, many lesbian women were excluded, then included, then told that if they did “butch/femme” they were not proper feminists (or lesbians), and as lesbians-for-political-reasons invaded and colonised lesbian (women who prefer women sexually) spaces, women who had male partners were deemed suspect or excluded as “not real feminists”. This sort of identity politics was very often destructive, and used in games of power and control. Another classic example is the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which decided to exclude male-to-female transsexuals. This was highly divisive, and resulted in great insult to many women who identified as women, who fell under suspicion because they “appeared masculine”. Many of those women were female-identified, lesbian, born as women, and were not transgendered although the general public might frequently confuse them as men, and of course there were tranny-boi butches, “stone butches” and intersexed people. Thus, identity politics became a tool of oppression against women (and others) already facing discrimination in the wider world.
In queer theory, the problems of identity politics resulted in other theoretical models, like the topographical model of identity, in which rigid identities in which one is included or excluded are rejected, and a person is seen as existing on a identity “landscape”, closer or further from certain “landmarks” of identity. Every individual was seen, not as “lesbian” or “intersexed”, but as existing on a complex social landscape, in greater or lesser proximity to a variety of landmarks. The landmarks were also fluid, as identities changed and became more complex, dividing into sub-identities (“kink” might divide into “fetish”, S/M, D/s, etc). Likewise, landmarks might coalesce, like gay/bi/lesbian etc becoming “queer”.
The issues, then, are that sociological classifications are generalisations about groups, and don’t always reflect self-identity well, and that intersectionality can devolve into ever smaller classes, or else lump dissimilar people together as one. It is useful to deconstruct issues facing a specific group, but is less relevant and more problematic as it becomes more generalised or theoretical.
Intersectionality and Vegan Advocacy
Abolitionist vegan advocacy advocates the end of non-human animal use for food, clothing or any other purpose. It is a social movement to end the exploitation of non-human animals. It differs from most forms of struggle against oppression because the advocates are from the class that oppresses, not the class that is oppressed. It is an attempt to get us to change our own behaviour towards others. It is also an attempt to end the us/other split.
As such, intersectionality applies differently. Instead of seeing how different forms of oppression intersect (cats seen as both “pets”, and as “pests” to be eradicated), the best it can do is to look at any particular difficulty some human (oppressor) class might have with changing their behaviour and ending their oppression of other animals. It is the case that nearly all social classes of humans oppress other animals, and nearly all ideologies, cultures, religions, classes, races, sexes support that oppression.
Veganism represents a fundamental change in human behaviour and understanding. The fact that different cultures have different ways and understandings of oppressing non-human animals does not change the need to alter our behaviour and attitudes. Abolitionist veganism represents an attempt to alter all existent cultures.
Demands that vegan advocates consider various cultural difference becomes very close to the demand for cultural relativity, and the notion that veganism is a matter of personal and cultural choice. That is often raised as an objection to abolitionist veganism. Abolitionist veganism is social activism. One cannot consider veganism a personal choice, and be an abolitionist. The two are mutually exclusive. It is currently the culture of virtually all humans to use and kill other animals. Trying to end that is attempt to change individual and cultural practice.
We, of course, recognise that it is a long process. And we are committed to non-violence. In 1944, Donald Watson, the person who coined the word “vegan”, encouraged others to take a “broad view of what veganism stands for”, reminding us that far beyond diet, veganism embraces the principles of non-violence. This includes vegan advocacy.
That said, of course the shift to veganism is best accomplished for any group, by people within that group, using the language and telos of that group. Hence, there may be a Hindu vegan movement, or an Australian vegan movement, or a Maori vegan movement. But that is like adapting anti-HIV education to different groups; gay, straight, African, US, Chinese. Different approaches are useful, necessary, but general information is good, and accessed and used by people everywhere. In the same way, general vegan advocacy is useful by anyone, and is not specific to any group. Only where specific groups are targeted does it risk being inappropriate to other groups.
Targeting groups makes sense. Educational information about “Ahimsa milk” is an example. But general posters/comments are appropriate, and many advocates online are speaking to their own communities, eg, UK urban, or “developed world general”. My comments are general, and applicable to other English-speaking nations at least, including the US and UK, even though I’m in rural Australia. The only place where intersectionality seems particularly appropriate is to make sure that in targeting one group, subgroups (eg, women) are not ignored, though clearly a campaign for islander Polynesians should not be expected to include references to town-based Inuit. If advocacy seems to suggest ideas or practices that exclude, or antagonise some group, than it is good for people to raise those issues, remembering of course that social change is bound to antagonise someone.
What is not useful is criticising the expression of general principles. It is not appropriate to criticise advocates simply because they belong to some group of humans. When I said “Donald Watson, the person who coined the word ‘vegan’”, I called him a “person”, not a “man”, not a “white man”. That’s because he was speaking as a human, not as a member of other classes, and his expression is unlikely to have changed if he was a member of some other class. It is not appropriate to think or impose class characterisation on that statement.
“Intersectionality” as a form of attack.
I find it discouraging and unfortunate when I see “intersectionality” used as a fuel for abuse, especially within the abolitionist vegan movement. As humans, we are oppressors of other animals. It does not matter what sub-group we belong to, (other than vegan). As vegans, we personally try not to oppress other animals. The principle ethos we espouse is not to use other animals as things, meriting no consideration, as means to our ends. There is no consideration around any special subgroup of humans that negates that ethos.
On the other hand, how we talk about veganism, and what else we do, matters in terms of changing others perceptions and practices. If we are racist, or sexist, in our language, then we risk alienating others, or making them antagonistic. And as people who are fighting a very fundamental oppression, the oppression of other animals, we also should consider the end to oppression of human animals, oppression of various kinds. This is why some abolitionist vegan pages may frequently include posts on racism, sexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, and so on. These issues are seen as a logical extension of the sense of justice that motivates veganism, but these issues are not veganism, nor are they intrinsic to veganism. And advocacy of veganism, while being onside with other issues, does not necessarily include those other issues explicitly, especially in short posts and on posters. Omission of other issues is not, in itself, a problem, though consistent avoidance, or non-speaking about some issue, like Islamophobia and international aggression, is an issue when it becomes so common that it becomes complicit with oppression. https://www.vegantrove.com/2014/11/28/vegan-trove-podcast-0005/
The problem comes in where vegan advocates say something explicitly racist, or sexist, or explicitly advocate an approach that leaves some group out. The Australian stop live export campaign targeting Indonesia is an example, where it becomes positively racist and Islamophobic in it’s literature. The answer, in that case, is to take the issue up explicitly, and call racism as it is seen.
What doesn’t work, and is actually oppressive, is the way some abolitionist vegans on social media jump on other abolitionist vegan advocates for little or no reason, calling names and making accusations without any valid reference to the issue they are accusing them of. Also, in itself, accusations and name-calling are useless. Even better than being very explicit in critique of a comment that has negative implications for some group, is to be explicit about the problem with the comment, and also do some education about the oppression of that group and how to approach it differently.
What does not work is simply shaming, bullying, and distorting words. It is also not an adequate argument of wrongdoing to say “they ignore intersectionality (or intersectional issues)”. What does that mean? That they don’t mention that phrase? Why should they? If there is some intersectional issue, then that should raised. If what is said is sexist, or racist, then say so, pointing explicitly to what is said. But it is not sexist to advocate for ending non-human animal use without mentioning sexism. Advocating an end to the use of other animals is unaffected by the sex of the speaker or the listener, unless it is something like “Girls, do hubby and your family a favour. Serve them vegan food tonight.” That would be sexist (and wrong in so many ways). As are the commodifications of female bodies in PeTa ads.
The statement, “The fact that we don’t need to use other animals renders all arguments against veganism invalid.” is not sexist, or racist, or “white”, or homophobic. It is not a male statement, not racially-based, not specific to any sexual orientation or gender-identity. It is a statement from a human animal about non-human animals. Targeting the gender, or the age, or the nationality of the writer is effectively discriminatory, and an ad-hominem attack.
Intersectionality, or its lack in a post, cannot be a basis for a charge of oppression in itself. “Intersectionality” means nothing without context. Either someone is ignoring some specific issue of intersectionality or not, and that issue should be the focus of critique. “Lack of intersectionality” means nothing in itself, since no-one includes all forms of intersectionality. Not including race or gender issues does not make a person a racist of sexist, and accusing someone of racism because they didn’t include it, would make the accuser guilty of homophobia because they focussed on race and sex and left out sexual orientation issues. It is the same lack of intersectionality. The accuser privileges racism or sexism. It makes the accuser guilty of religious discrimination, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, nationalism, classism, heterocentrism, cisgender-centrism, ableism, ageism, body-shapism, etc, etc. You can’t claim a person is doing wrong by not including one general intersectional issue without being equally wrong for not including all the other possible intersectional issues. Who are we to say somebody’s intersectional issue is irrelevant?
A note on “privilege”, intersectional discrimination, and a note on “passing”.
People also sometimes throw the notion of “privilege” at others to invalidate their words, especially in relation to intersectionality. Privilege is a real issue. Those in a dominant class may assume in their speech that the conditions for the dominant class are normative. That is wrong. That is also not always the case. Just being a member of a “privileged” class doesn’t make everything one says wrong or oppressive. In groups, a person of privilege may have more access to speak and be heard. That doesn’t mean that’s what happens. That does not invalidate what they say. It just means that under those conditions, it is important to ensure others have an equal say. Sometimes, it is important that an oppressed group not have members of the dominant group around. Women sometimes need to speak without participation of men. Racial groups may need to be free of participation of “white” people. But that doesn’t apply everywhere. It cannot, if there is to be communication.
It is true that anyone in a dominant class tends to get a better, easier deal than those of us not in that class. That’s not their fault. We’re all privileged in some way. If we are not blind, we are “sighted-privileged” and there will be a lot of things that are easier for us. If we are any age other than “old” or “children”, we are privileged in some circumstance more than someone else. If we have a computer, and language, we are privileged relative to those who don’t have those things. There will be other areas where we are not privileged. An obese, poor, old “white” man may face more problems and discrimination than an attractive, middle-class professional “black” woman. The problems and discriminations will just be in different areas.
The issue is not what we are/have by chance, genetics, parentage. The issue is what we do with it, and whether we treat others oppressively, or with empathy, respect, and a sense of equity. The fact that someone is male does not make them sexist, or guilty of oppressive behaviour, even though the fact someone is female means they are subject to oppression, whether or not they recognise it. It is a person’s behaviour that establishes whether they perpetuate oppression, or seek to remedy it. Oppression can be unconscious and subtle, however, especially when it comes out as normative assumptions; “white”-centrism, US-centrism, heterocentrism, cisgendered-centrism. Unconscious oppressors can often be made aware of their assumptions and may change their behaviour.
It is also important to recognise that while certain classes exist sociologically, or legally, the reality is highly subject to appearance. Where there is social inequality, “passability” matters. “Passing” is a term used by African-Americans during the period where race and miscegenation laws applied. It meant someone technically classed as “black” (one drop of coloured blood) appeared “white”, and could function as “white” in society. In many ways, it meant that in spite of being legally “black”, these people in the US had access to “white privilege”. Likewise, in the pre-stonewall era bars for queer people (as a designator, not an identity) were mainly refuges for those who really didn’t/couldn’t “pass” well as straight, and faced social, physical, and legal oppression. Other gays and lesbians could “pass”, and had “heterosexual privilege”, although that creates its own form of internalised oppression. Today, homosexuality is more accepted, but people who don’t pass as straight still have a harder time, and today “twinks” (slight, effeminate gay men) face a certain amount of discrimination, even in the gay male scene, while very masculine looking women have a mixed reception everywhere.
We should also be aware of the inverse of “passing”, where some people are judged on appearance and perceived to belong to marginalised groups subject to discrimination. A small, slight man seen as effeminate may be perceived as “gay”, and subject to assault and discrimination as gay, even if they are straight. People who are Jewish, Romany, Southern Mediterranean, or Levantine Christians and some Latin Americans are often subject to discrimination as Muslims in several countries due to the prevalence of Islamophobia propaganda.
It irritates me greatly when someone who is “white”, or certainly passable as “white” and therefore has “white privilege”, as well as being a highly educated professional, leads the charge pointing fingers at others for “white privilege”. It is ironic, and seems fairly hypocritical when their attack seems to be only based on claims some other person has “white privilege”, and doesn’t raise raise race as an issue in their vegan advocacy, and then the conclusion is that they are “obviously” racist. Such irrational assumption is like assuming anyone who calls the attacker on this behaviour is white, without bothering to check. That is demeaning, as some people of colour have rhetorical ethics and may simply disagree with the attacker, may not believe that not continually raising race as an issue makes a person racist.
Intersectionality, the way different forms of oppression interact for groups of people, has its place, and is a valuable tool sociologically. It is also something that should inform our understanding of social movements, including veganism.
Veganism, however, is not about oppression of humans. It is oppression by humans of non-humans, and that oppression is practised regardless of most human social divisions. Vegan advocacy should therefore be taken as statements about human oppression of other animals. Unless the advocate makes their statement somehow about sub-groups of humans, their membership or non-membership of any human group should be taken as irrelevant. Unless the advocate makes racist, sexist or other discriminatory remarks, attacking them on the basis of their race or gender is an ad hominem attack.
Essentially, unless shown otherwise, we should treat other vegan advocates as acting in good faith. There are few enough of us. Abolitionist vegans, like other groups of people, can form groups capable of attacking someone nominated as “victim” and ganging up, attacking them to make themselves feel better or part of a group. Even high-profile abolitionist vegan advocates are sometimes guilty of this. This is bad behaviour even among adolescents, and clearly adults (and many adolescents) know better. Before joining in such an attack, vegans should consider:
- Has the person actually done anything wrong? Has that been identified?
- Are you making the critique/attack against the behaviour, or the person?
- Is the reason for attack clear?
- Does the person attacked have a real ability to reply, put their side of the story, state their intentions, or is that seen as irrelevant?
- Is the intention to shame, ostracise, or drive the person away, or to educate them? Is the attack/critique appropriate to the intention?
- Will the attack help advance abolitionist veganism, or will it make the movement weaker by alienating advocates and people considering veganism?
Veganism is an aspect of non-violence, and part of the non-violence movement. Non-violence should guide our actions, including those with one another. It is also part of the social-justice movement, addressing one of the greatest forms of oppression humans commit. We should not forget other aspects of oppression, that of humans against other humans, and if we support justice, we should oppose other forms of oppression, even if veganism is our central focus. Minimally, this means being aware, and not contributing or supporting other forms of oppression with our words and actions. It should include, at least, liking other people’s posts against other forms of oppression, even if one does not include those issues in one’s own posts.
If we look at issues in the human world, the two biggest issues are the general destruction of the global environment, and the wars of aggression, mainly focussed currently on Islamic-majority nations, and fuelled by a steady stream of propaganda designed to foment hatred of Muslims and Islam. In the last 13 years, it has been used to justify invasion after invasion, bombing, drone and other assassinations, killing of civilians on a huge scale, interference with other governments and the process of democracy, as well as creating environments of fear and discrimination in many “developed” nations, This fear has further been used to erode civil and legal rights in home countries, and to support the militarisation of police, leading to race-based murder and violations, not only against “middle-eastern looking” people, but against African-American and other minorities. If people are really interested in intersectionality and ending human-on-human oppression, it seems to me that sexism in developed countries might be less urgent (and I say this as a woman) than wholesale slaughter of people, men, women, and children, in Gaza, Afghanistan, Yeman, Syria, and Iraq and the culture of hatred that supports this destruction.
Overall, the call to end racism and sexism is important, as is the call to end the massive skewing of wealth and power under capitalism. However, it cannot be pursued at the expense of veganism, or oppression of other animals will never end. Again and again, I’ve seen people say “veganism is a result of capitalism, we need to stop capitalism first.” The same applies to other massive systemic forms of discrimination, racism and sexism being two of the largest. But when that is seen as precursor to veganism, I think we need to see it as yet another excuse. Ending war, sexism, racism, oligopoly is important but change will only happen when society as a whole is affected. Veganism is something we can do now, and convince others to do now. It will only result in large social change when there are enough of us, but every single vegan has an impact on how many deaths occur, and it is something we can all do, right now.
Veganism is not the only issue in the world. But it is a worthwhile issue, and an such a fundamental issue of oppression that, if incorporated as ethics, it should inform our actions in relation to all other forms of oppression. It does not need to wait for any other social movement to succeed. It does not need to be exclusive, and we can certainly support other struggles against oppression at the same time, without talking about all of them every time we open our mouths. Veganism is not an umbrella issue, and should not be forced to include all other issues. Other issues lie parallel to veganism. Veganism is not the province of any race. Just because a majority of online vegans are “white”, that does not make it a “white” issue. I’d guess the majority of people commenting on police killings in the US are also “white”, even though the victims are generally “black”. I’d guess that’s an artefact of internet participation and availability of time, …and it’s changing.
There are few enough abolitionists that we really should do something other than try and tear each other down. Unless someone is genuinely actually making a racist of sexist remark, there is no reason to assume racism or sexism. We rarely know the reality of each other’s lives. Assumption will almost always lead to mistakes.
The qualities of good communication include first, listening, then addressing what is said, then listening again. Accusation, blame, and shaming are not helpful, especially where they are not based on anything real. Disagreement does not make another wrong.
I look at this issue, the current scurrying to shame abolitionist vegan advocates as racist, with dismay. The promotion of the idea that there are “exceptional” circumstances for people of colour, and that it is racist not to address these circumstances, is not helpful, …and I think it holds a certain contempt for people of colour. The issues of veganism are not different for people of colour. Our thinking is not different. We either recognise the autonomy, the moral personhood, of other animals, and respect them enough not to use them as things, or we don’t. There are no “special” economies for people of colour. Plant-based diets are cheap diets, and traditionally the diets of the poor. There are no “special” cultural conditions for people of colour in most parts of this global consumer world. “Cultural foods” may differ, but all cultures traditionally use animal products. It’s not different if your “traditional” diet is goanna, or yak, sashimi, dog, or “bacon”. Veganism represents a change for us all.
Lets work together, and change the world.
End of Part I
I notice that Corey Wrenn has just written a blog on intersectionality and veganism. Since it exemplifies some of what I’m talking about, I’ll write a response, parsing that, and responding, as Part II