Do Vegans Enjoy a “Vegan Privilege”?
People adopt a vegan lifestyle for various reasons: some do it for their health, others out of environmental considerations, and some people – ethical vegans – do it to show their opposition to animal suffering: they adopt a vegan diet as an ethical alternative to an animal-based one.
Ethical veganism in particular is often discussed with regard the notion of “vegan privilege”. Interestingly, the term “vegan privilege” comes up in both non-vegan and vegan groups. The paper challenges the notion of this term from both perspectives. In doing so, the author makes use of the theory of intersectionality.
Vegan Privilege As Construed By Non-Vegans
The paper notes that one focus of vegan privilege is the high cost of packaged vegan products. While it is true that some products like mock meats and dairy substitutes are pricey, the author notes, it is not the case that veganism requires wealth. There are vegans that are unemployed as well as vegans that are, of course, wealthy, and their respective fridge contents will look different. However, the same holds true to unemployed and wealthy non-vegans.
Furthermore, the author says, many other diets such as gluten-free diets can also be pricey. These, however, are not the target of the same kind of criticism. This criticism works to dismiss the vegan ethical life in order for nonvegans to be able to continue to enjoy their animal-based diets without questioning their own values and privileges.
Instead of affluence being a vegan privilege, the author argues that the ability to make food choices constitutes the privilege. So, not just vegans, but everyone who is able to access information about their food, find out how it affects animals or who is able to shop at a supermarket and choose various food options is privileged. (Although not everyone is privileged in the same way.) It is only vegans, however, who have made the privileged decision to live on an ethical diet.
So, the author argues, not having to think about the effect of your food choices on animal wellbeing constitutes a privilege. However, as the paper points out, this privilege is also detrimental to people as it encourages mindless eating. Consumption of animal products contributes to a multitude of health problems which include the top three illnesses of our time: cancer, diabetes and heart disease. This is also harmful to the socioeconomically vulnerable part of our population who have no option to choose what to eat.
What’s more, mindless eating is systematically encouraged by the food industry: corporate advertising campaigns, for example, are used to convince people that dairy and eggs are essential for a healthy diet. And government subsidies on meat, dairy and eggs as well as crops for livestock conceal the true cost of these products. They make animal diets seem cheaper than the vegan alternatives. However, the author points out that we all pay the true cost in our taxes. Therefore, the accusation of vegan privilege hides the investments made by political and economic elites.
Another aspect that does not coincide with the notion of vegan privilege is that vegans are often laughed at as being strange: they are seen of deviating from the norm, as being ascetic, oversensitive or hostile. According to Johnson, ‘‘To have privilege is to be allowed to move through your life without being marked in ways that identify you as an outsider, as exceptional or ‘other’ to be excluded.’’ This is the direct opposite of what is seen as a vegan privilege. As above, by pointing out the vegan privilege, non-vegans are able to deflect from their own privileges and continue to enjoy their non-vegan lifestyle without regrets.
Vegan Privilege As Construed By Vegans
According to the theory of intersectionality all system of domination, such as racism, sexism and speciesism, work together. In order to eradicate one, one must work to eradicate all together.
However, the author argues, some animal rights organizations such as PETA promote in their campaigns use white, thin female bodies in pornographic ways in order to advocate veganism. In doing so, they are creating the image of a white, thin heterosexual body as the universal vegan and are thereby exposing the racism, classism and sexism in the movement.
Similarly, PETA uses over-muscular white men as male models for veganism so oppose the patriarchal view that masculinity requires the eating of meat. Even vegan cookbooks presuppose a race and class neutrality, meaning that vegans are white and privileged. All of this is off-putting for people who do not fit these criteria.
Critical Animal Studies (CAS) scholars are using the theory of intersectionality to criticize these campaigns. They argue that we should focus on the interlocking of human and animal oppression instead of focusing on nonhuman animals alone. It is ineffective to try end speciesism if you’re at the same time encouraging sexism or racism.
Additionally, CAS scholars argue that we should expand out circle of compassion to people instead of just focusing on equality and justice for animals. As mentioned before, not everyone is privileged enough to afford or get access to vegan food due to income or geographical location. Alternatively, some people work long hours and might not have the time to prepare home-cooked meals or might not even have access to a kitchen. We should broaden out compassion in particular to those people too.
Vegan privilege as construed by non-vegans is harmful to the vegan movement. It is not that vegans are privileged; everyone who has the ability to make food choices is privileged. However, the focus on vegan privilege disguises speciesist ideologies that are deeply embedded in our economical and political system and is detrimental to our society. Non-vegans should realize their privilege and should understand that animal liberation is required to combat other inequalities such as issues of food justice.
Likewise, the vegan community should also understand the intersectionality of oppression and should therefore, in its fight for animal welfare, broaden its circle of compassion to people as well.