This is a question that is raised quite regularly in response to discussion of vegan rights. As vegan advocates, and thereby animal rights advocates, shouldn’t we be focusing on the rights of other, non-human, animals, rather than putting the focus once again onto us humans; after all, speciesism and a humanocentric perspective is the root cause of animal subjugation and exploitation?
I think this is a valid question, but I believe that if we ensure that we keep non-human animals front and centre in everything we do, we can use the human rights of vegans to promote positive change for vegans and veganism itself, thereby promoting animal rights. This is not difficult, as discussion of vegan rights of necessity puts the focus on other animals.
Vegans live according to the moral conviction that it is wrong to use and kill non-human animals unnecessarily. It is that conviction or fundamental belief that gives us protections under international, European and UK law. This means that when we talk about vegan rights we are, of necessity, talking about our fundamental belief that it is wrong to exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily. This creates unusual and potentially very fruitful opportunities for vegan advocacy, where other animals are the focus and the misconception that veganism is nothing more than a dietary choice or lifestyle has no space.
The results of the recent Go Vegan Scotland (GVS) survey into discrimination against vegans in Scotland illustrates very well the real dilemma vegans face when relying on the state and denied access to suitable essentials. This dilemma exists for vegans because they are trying to live in accordance with the rights of other animals. If veganism was merely a dietary choice, that would not arise. If veganism was a diet respondents to the GVS survey would not have: discharged themselves early from hospital following operations or child-birth as there was no vegan food; abandoned medication because they could not get animal-free versions; refused to participate in experiments on animals even although they would be penalised for doing so; avoided work and student events involving animal use, and exempted their children from school activities involving animal use. (See GVS Survey Results here)
Veganism is the rejection of the exploitation of animals; it is the refusal to support the use of living beings as if they were things; it is the recognition of the basic right of animals to live their own lives free of subjugation. That veganism is the way in which we recognise and respect the rights of others sets it apart from other social justice movements. It is not we vegans who are used and killed; it is those whose rights we recognise by living vegan. It is they who are subjugated, exploited and killed in their billions and trillions year on year. It is they who are denied the basic right not to be treated as a commodity and the right to live.
By focusing on our moral conviction, which gives rise to our rights, we can draw attention to the rights of other animals and create excellent advocacy opportunities, while also working to defend vegans from discrimination and harassment. Every discussion we have about the rights of vegans, whether with our government, hospitals, schools or universities will involve explaining that what is protected is our right to live according to our moral conviction that it is wrong to subjugate, exploit and kill non-human animals unnecessarily. That will often lead to a discussion about the subjugation, exploitation and killing of other animals, and about the fact that it is all unnecessary. That discussion will help the state entity to understand what vegans need and why we have protections, but it may well also result in the individual state representatives reconsidering their own relationship with non-human animals.
If we keep other animals as the focus in our vegan rights work I think we can avoid making this about us. I do appreciate the danger of our doing so, particularly in light of recent activities focused on the supposed identity of vegans as a group, such as the “vegan flag” and the recent “vegan march” (not a march for animal rights, but a march to celebrate vegans, a very important distinction), which no doubt have the intention of unifying vegans and projecting positivity, but to my mind put the focus on us, rather than on other animals, and mistake veganism for an identity rather than what we do when we recognise the rights of non-human animals.
This raises another danger, of suggesting an equivalence between the instances of discrimination against vegans and the systemic rights violations inflicted upon groups of humans. While vegans do experience discrimination and harassment, and there are stark examples of this highlighted by the recent GVS survey, there is no equivalence between such incidents of discrimination and harassment and the dreadful systematic, state-sponsored rights violations inflicted upon groups of human beings based on immutable characteristics such as race, sex and sexual orientation. The work we do to oppose the commodification and slaughter of non-human animals should always be done in a way that also respects the rights of other humans, avoiding and challenging, for example, racism, sexism, classism and discrimination in all its forms. Many vegan animal rights advocates are of course also participants in other, related, struggles for justice.
Discrimination against vegans denies them the ability to live in recognition of the rights of non-human animals and thereby supports and perpetuates injustice against other animals. By working to defend and promote the rights of vegans we are using the law to ensure that vegans are able to live in accordance with the rights of other animals. Vegan rights are therefore important to vegans, to ensure that we are able to live according to our fundamental conviction, but they are also very important tools in our work to promote the rights of other animals.