Researcher Network member, Laura Buchenlicht, examines the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality in vegan activism.
As vegan activists, we strive to raise awareness about animal suffering and spread compassion. This article argues that in order to avoid our own cognitive dissonance, we must look at ourselves first and consider what we are not aware of enough.
The term intersectionality was coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, to describe how different aspects of a person’s identity affect how much discrimination or privilege they experience in society.  Some of the aspects typically named by sociologists and activists when talking about intersectionality, are:
- Biological sex
- Ethnicity, nationality
- Class, employment status, housing status
- Religious beliefs
- Physical Appearance
The aspect commonly forgotten by human rights activists is species – the fact that as human animals we enjoy a huge privilege in contrast to non-human animals. They forget it because of speciesism, meaning that they may not see non-human animals as persons. Moreover, we can add “ethical beliefs” to the list, knowing that vegans experience discrimination in our society.
Vegan activists, on the other hand, tend to forget about how activism and the problem of animal abuse intersects with other forms of oppression.    First of all, the activists themselves will come from many different backgrounds, each experiencing an individual mixture of discrimination and privilege. In order to prevent discrimination within any kind of movement, it is important for leaders and members to identify as intersectional and to work on making the activist space a safe space for members of all oppressed groups.
If a vegan campaign doesn’t identify as feminist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and queer-allied it fails in its responsibility to keep its members and volunteers safe and risks being torn apart by internal conflicts. A group which recreates the oppression of wider society cannot achieve social change. It is a paradox.
It’s concerning that we see the same patterns of oppressive structures and abuse infecting the vegan movement – from society perceiving veganism as white and for rich people, to sexual harassment/abuse of female activists and misogynous advertising. Given the fact that animal rights activism strives to end speciesism, it is remarkable that many forget the simple fact that humans are animals – which means that it must oppose the oppression of any humans.
After establishing a safe space of equality for its own members, animal rights groups need to think about how their activism affects other people in different ways. Many activist groups use a “one size fits all” approach, meaning that they try to reach everyone with one and the same thing, without considering that vastly different individuals will have vastly different responses to this. In my opinion, the most important aspect to consider here is that of ability.
When most people think of ability and disability, they usually first associate that with the physical aspect and then possibly also the mental one. However, there is a third one: emotional (dis)ability, which means to what degree a person is affected by psychological trauma.
Of course, every movement should be inclusive and safe for people with any sort of disability, but emotional disability gets forgotten most, as there is little trauma-awareness to speak of in our society. Instead, we’ve reached a place where all forms of intense distress are labelled as “disorders” and “illnesses”. Most mental health afflictions are due to trauma – hardly surprising, when we think of all the stressors in people’s lives. But instead of asking “What happened to you?”, our society asks “What is wrong with you?” We don’t realise that this pathologising of emotions is deeply dehumanising. 
2. Trauma Awareness
Trauma means to experience emotionally overwhelming distress with no adequate support (inner or outer one). Thus, we can think of infinite ways in which a person can be traumatised. It all depends on how easily they are overwhelmed. The most common trauma is childhood trauma, as we are most vulnerable at this first stage of life. Childhood trauma might stem from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, including emotional or physical neglect, or any other sort of frightening, painful experience. It might be the parents’ divorce or death, or something as simple as a big dog barking at the child – what creates the trauma is the lack of adequate emotional support, during and after the event, which is in the hands of the primary care-givers.
It is important to note that additionally to the individual upbringing, we all live in a traumatising world , with sensual overstimulation in urban surroundings, constant trauma of other people in the news, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, the pressure and exploitation of capitalism and our performance-society (at school, university, and at work), health concerns and access to health services, discrimination/abuse (based on social factors as discussed above, and including discrimination based on personal or universally human traits, which are often present in peer-bullying), work-related stress (such as professions with high risks for physical and/or emotional safety, professions with social low status, or fame and media-attention), crime and wars, climate change and environmental destruction, not to mention animal abuse.
This is not an exhaustive list. So given this enormous amount of possible stressors in life, everyone will have experienced some form and some level of trauma. The big question is how well someone was soothed and supported in childhood, because the nervous system of a child is configured by how safe the attachment to their caregiver(s) is. An emotionally neglected child will be traumatised by everything that frightens them, because no one is there to regulate their emotions. And the more someone was traumatised in childhood, the more often they will be re-traumatised in adulthood.
How does all of this apply to vegan activism? First of all, activists need to assess their own level of trauma. It will be different for everyone, though all can start by asking themselves how much the awareness and the witnessing of animal suffering affects them. The key is to learn about trauma and dissociation (disconnection from one’s own sensations and emotions), and ideally any activist organiser should offer trainings/workshops on this.
How much they are affected will depend on the amount of previous trauma they’ve experienced, as mentioned above. It’s important to note here that the more traumatised a person is, the harder it will be for them to notice it, because they will habitually be disconnected from their emotions. This is why psych-education is crucial.
Then there is the question of the people activists try to reach. We need to be aware that they too have different levels and experiences of trauma. We must start by asking ourselves: How well are we protecting the rights of the most vulnerable members of society, not just of non-human animals, but also of human ones?
It is strange that animal rights activists want to stimulate compassion in others, and yet so many fail to think about how their public sharing of violent information might affect children and other vulnerable people (like traumatised or naturally sensitive people). Forcing photos and descriptions of violence being done to animals through large banners and loudspeakers onto anyone passing by, or even playing video footage, is a form of emotional violence. The terrifying images and sounds are damaging. The activists being able to look at these photos, listen to these descriptions, and watching/hearing those videos for long periods of time alone is a symptom of trauma (they have to dissociate in order to stand it). It is from this place of dissociation that they aren’t able to empathise with the others around them any more.
This is a classic example of the ends not justifying the means. Vegan activism should be first and foremost non-violent, most of all for ethical reasons, of course, but additionally because of simple logic (the harming of humans is animal abuse too and a violent campaign advertising for compassion is absurd). We need trauma-awareness in order to be non-violent.
Additionally, trauma awareness is also necessary to understand people’s reactions to veganism and animal rights activism. Anti-veganism is not just an expression of our society’s speciesist brainwash, but also an expression of an individual’s level of comfort with being challenged and people being different, which will have to do with their personal upbringing. Victims of childhood abuse typically have great difficulties in these areas.
To sum up: If vegan activism wants to be about justice and compassion, it needs to be intersectional, which includes trauma-awareness. Both the safety of its members as well as that of external people depends on this. Moreover, this approach ensures reaching much more people in the right way. If we want social change, we need to be deeply social.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.
 Kimberlé Crenshaw, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics: University Of Chicago Legal Forum, issue 1, article 8, volume 1989 (https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgireferer=&httpsredir=1&article=1052&context=uclf)
 Lisa Kemmerer, Why Feminists Should Be Vegans and Why Vegans Should Be Feminists: VeganKanal, September 12 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66eU3ceikCM)
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 Laura Buchenlicht, On The Intersection Of Abuse Survivors, Veganism, And Feminism: FemVegTrauma, 28 October 2022 (https://femvegtrauma.wixsite.com/blog/post/on-the-intersection-of-abuse-survivors-veganism-and-feminism)
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 Pete Sanders, Janet Tolan (editors), People, Not Pathology – Freeing Therapy From The Medical Model: PCCS books, 12 January 2023 (https://www.pccs-books.co.uk/products/people-not-pathology)
 Laura Buchenlicht, Dissociation And Trauma Part 1: DI Without The Disorder, 28 January 2023 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TNYG021ZOA)
 Jade Miller, Trauma And Attachment, Part 1 – Understanding Attachment Theory: Beauty After Bruises, 31 August 2017 (https://www.beautyafterbruises.org/blog/attachment1)
 Stepanie Lee, The Wisdom Of Trauma: Drgabormate.com (https://drgabormate.com/the-wisdom-of-trauma/)
 Shiri Raz, The Vegans' Trauma: All Creatures, July 2019 (https://www.all-creatures.org/articles2/act-vegans-trauma.html)
 Laura Buchenlicht, Carnism And Dissociation, FemVegTrauma: 29 January 2022 (https://femvegtrauma.wixsite.com/blog/post/carnism-and-dissociation)