Last month, Researcher Network member, Catherine Oliver discussed her vegan-related research in the area of history, feminism and friendship in part 1 of a special three-part series. This month, she continues this exploration within the context of present-day veganism in Vegan presents; or embodied truth and contemporary veganism.
Becoming vegan, whether for health-based, environmental or ethical animal reasons, requires educating oneself on new practices of consuming, exploring the evidence for veganism, as well as navigating the world in new ways. As part of my PhD research, I interviewed vegans who began or became ethical and political vegans, primarily (but not only) motivated by the desire to end the abuse and killing of animals for human ends. For these vegans, new knowledge was known not only in theory, but felt in their bodies, with veganism becoming an embodied knowledge, experienced as an inviolable truth. Often, vegans told this story as a ‘return’ to the truth that eating animals is wrong and that they had been socially, culturally and politically conditioned and distanced from animals since their childhood.
Veganism can thus be understood as a return to a ‘truer’ self. Far from a peaceful transition, this knowledge is for many riddled with guilt and anger over their past behaviours, which in turn influence animal activism and outreach, especially through education, as a means to share their new truth. In particular, this re-learning of truth is practiced in quiet forms of activism as revolutions of everyday life, with everyday spaces of work, home and relationships being spaces of activism through conversation and sharing as much as exceptional sites of protest.
The contemporary landscape of veganism has experienced what feels to be a large surge in recent years. Although tracing the actual size of a vegan community in any country is difficult, we can see a huge growth in the interest in veganism, the numbers of people taking up vegan challenges (such as Veganuary) and those joining organisations like The Vegan Society. What is certain is that the mainstream attention given to eating in particular (over other practices of ethical veganism, such as clothing and entertainment) is that the growing interest in veganism is tangibly linked to and situated within our bodies. Interviewing vegans across Britain, my research brought up questions of truth or, more specifically, about how coming to the truth of veganism was painful, necessary and felt within our bodies as disgust and peace. This truth was not understood, for many of the vegans I interviewed, as a new truth, but rather as a truth being returned to. For Matthew[i], this “ended up at this kind of amazing place where I’ve kind of been reminded of something that has always been inside me actually, as a little kid”. This feeling of returning to truth is an important narrative in stories for many vegans, in peeling off layers of guilt and complicity of violence and pushing this outside of themselves, ‘as a younger person I didn’t think there was anything cruel, I didn’t understand’ (Sean) and understand their pasts of eating animals as ‘completely social conditioning’ (Amy).
Understanding veganism as a return to a truer self allows for the conditions for closer and more meaningful relationships of care with animals – both actually and representationally – through painful and peaceful renegotiations across space, time and species. The painful comes from recognising the violence of our histories: ‘[there’s a] farm and there’s these really big fat pigs. I look at the pigs and think why should someone kill that animal so I can eat parts of it? I have this very visceral feeling of feeling sick’ [Charlie] which led to one interviewee, Rachel, to share that ‘I look back with feelings of guilt really’. Guilt and disgust are parts of these painful realisations of truth, where ‘fresh waves of horror just washed over me’ (Rachel). For many of us who are ethical vegans, coming to change our lives to inflict less violence, these feelings of pain and grief will seem familiar.
The second negotiation of who we are and the worlds we inhabit will also be familiar: that of a peacefulness within our bodies, our multispecies relationships and vegan worlds after we have made the choice to change our lives: ‘I feel more peaceful that I am not contributing to the cruelty to animals’ (Sheila). This sense of peace with the world transforms interspecies encounters, for Alf: ‘I feel like I could go up to any animal whereas before I might have been a bit wary, I think my mind has changed, because animals have personalities and lives. The way we treat them, without harm, you wouldn’t think they would do any harm to you. [I feel] very comfortable’. This ‘heightened sense of the sentient nature of other animals’ (Matthew) is entangled with guilt and pain of the past, and the peacefulness of the future through veganism, constructing the practice of veganism as always in the present, rather than past or future, and as such demanding that vegans live in this present where transformation of the world is possible.
Because this truth is experienced as a feeling originating in and of the body and body-senses of pain and peace, amongst other emotions, its power to transform behaviours in quiet revolutions of everyday life is also enacted in various ways, mostly defined through refusal and activism. The first, refusal, is essential to veganism in the ending of consuming animals when we become vegan. The second, action (although of course refusal is an action too) is here understood as those things beyond simply refusing animal products. This may be quiet activism in the performance of veganism, where eating vegan foods in non-vegan company is a disruption of the normality of eating animals: ‘sometimes by going and laughing along, eating something off the menu with everyone else, somewhere in their subconscious they think it can’t be that hard, she’s here with us and seems to be enjoying her meal and is happy’ (Sheila). This quiet revolution therefore has transformative potential to bring veganism to those previously unfamiliar with it, through family and friendship networks. For Remi, ‘being vegan has been a real education for my friends and family because they ask a lot about it, ask our reasons for changing and when we stay with people, they’ll ask what we can eat and they get it for us’.
These quiet revolutions of education and activism stand in stark contrast to mediated constructions of vegan activists as radical, ‘everyone still has the image in their head of the 80s and 90s activism as it was’ (Alf). For contemporary vegans, it was abundantly clear in the interviews that activism was conceptualised as already a way of life for vegans, in their disruptions of space and species in their everyday spaces of work, home and relationships being as valid as exceptional sites of protest. However, moving forwards as a vegan collective community, these interviews with vegans foregrounded the importance of an umbrella of strategies to undertake vegan education, activism and outreach within and beyond our immediate spaces and networks.
The third and final part of Catherine's series will be published next month.
[i] All interviewees are given pseudonyms.