Why Being Inclusive Helps Advance the Vegan Movement

Essay 3 of 4

Dr. Melanie Joy

First Published on: 

Many vegans believe that outreach that's inclusive, meaning that it reflects privilege-literacy and sensitivity to forms of oppression other than animal oppression, is unstrategic because it would cause them to sell the animals short. Most, if not all, vegans who feel this way are those whose privilege-literacy is limited. The assumption that we must be strategic or inclusive – that we can't be strategic and inclusive – is a false dichotomy. In fact, the very opposite is true: our unexamined privilege prevents us from recognizing the strategic importance of inclusiveness, causing us to act unstrategically as well as unethically, so that we end up with a lose-lose model.

#ARmetoo: An Example of How Being Non-Inclusive Damages the Vegan Movement

#ARmetoo is a good example of the damage a lack of inclusiveness can do to the vegan movement. Unexamined male privilege, and the insensitivity to the oppression of women it causes, has created a climate where widespread sexism is the norm. This kind of environment is toxic for all involved; privilege is inherently non-relational, disconnecting us from one another and causing those who have it to harm those whom it oppresses. In such a climate, true unity among advocates is impossible and the costs of interpersonal dysfunction and injustice siphon much-needed time, energy, and money out of the movement.

Sexism in the movement has led to sexual violations, including sexual harassment, which have ruined the lives of countless women and driven many committed advocates out of a movement which needs all the help it can get, and it's caused significant damage to important farmed animal protection organizations. And the more subtle manifestations of sexism, the day-to-day sexist attitudes and behaviors which have created a chronically unsafe environment for many women and pushed them to the sidelines of a movement in which they actually make up the majority, is perhaps no less damaging: it siphons off a tremendous amount of energy that could otherwise be directed toward helping animals, prevents women's contributions from being recognized and implemented, and destroys morale. (And on top of the internal disconnections it causes, sexism in the vegan movement turns off privilege-literate non-vegans and prevents the vegan movement from uniting with other social justice movements.)

For example, despite the fact that I'm in a position of leadership in the movement, which affords me authority and provides some protection from sexist attitudes and behaviors, I nonetheless have felt the constant weight of sexism from within (and outside) the movement pulling me down, even as I have striven to be as effective as possible in my activism. Like most women, I am no stranger to my sexual boundaries being violated, to being demeaned in a variety of ways because of my gender, to being verbally assaulted for being openly feminist, and also to having to plead and strategize and caretake in the hope of being taken seriously when I share my experiences of, and concerns about, sexism in the movement. (One male vegan even said he would stop my "feminist rantings at any cost" and threatened to disrupt a talk I was planning to give, which led to me spending the entire event focused less on raising awareness of carnism and more on scanning the crowd, in a state of anxiety.) I have often found myself feeling frustrated, saddened, and demoralized. I can only imagine the impact of such a sexist environment on women who aren't protected by the layers of privilege I have – those not in positions of leadership, or who are women of color, or who are otherwise more vulnerable to the impact of sexism.

In addition to the aforementioned problems, consider the financial cost of sexism to the movement. Dr. Lisa Kemmerer has pointed out that just the legislative fees due to sexual harassment charges are tremendous. Add to these expenses the cost of staff time – salaries used for staff to focus their efforts on managing executives' misconduct, involving board members, human resources personnel, public relations and communications officers, and so on. Key staff spend much time and money engaged in damage control, managing the problems caused by sexist offenses, rather than doing the work they're funded to do – helping animals.

Being Inclusive Doesn't Mean Taking Resources from Animals

A number of vegans believe that being sensitive to oppressions other than animal oppression in their organizing and outreach would shift resources away from veganism and therefore harm animals. For example, one activist told me, in response to being asked by another activist that their (all-White) group to be more racially conscious, "We believe that won't be fair for the animals. There are so few resources for the voiceless that sharing them with all the other isms would be a great injustice."

One reason for this sentiment is that the violence inflicted on animals is so extensive and intensive that it can overshadow that inflicted on other victims of oppression, especially for vegans who aren't well informed about other oppressions. Another reason is that many vegans don't distinguish between working for other oppressions and not reinforcing them. Obviously, any individual only has so much time and energy to dedicate to a cause, and we have to choose which issue we want to focus on. But we can nevertheless work for a particular cause and still commit to not harming others in the process. Consider how some human rights advocates argue that they can't be vegan because they don't have the energy to focus on yet another issue – as though it's not possible to work for human rights and not eat animals in the process. To avoid the same kind of contradiction, vegans can focus their advocacy on animal oppression, while also being privilege-literate enough not to simultaneously reinforce human oppression.

Being Inclusive Can Expand, Rather than Limit, Our Audience

Sometimes vegans believe that if we are inclusive, our message won't resonate with members of the mainstream and we'll seem even more removed from the norm than we already do. However, being inclusive is not an either-or phenomenon, but a matter of degree: we can aim to be as inclusive as possible, such that we do our very best to avoid reinforcing other oppressions, just as we strive to avoid triggering unnecessary defensiveness in a mainstream audience. Rarely, if ever, is there truly a conflict if we are willing to think creatively and are committed to finding a viable solution.

Furthermore, as marketing experts know, effective outreach is rarely geared toward a wide, general group, such as the mainstream. Rather, it is focused on specific demographics. Effective vegan outreach is typically targeted at those who are most allied with veganism – the "low-hanging fruits" –  and those in positions of influence. In terms of the low-hanging fruits, we know that people who constitute this group are socially and politically progressive (and often female), so they are likely to be at least somewhat privilege-literate and therefore offended by language and outreach methods that reflect a lack of such awareness. Influencers, which include philanthropic donors, politicians, business leaders, technological innovators, and leaders of other social justice movements, are less homogeneous as a group. While some influencers are uninformed and unconcerned with issues of privilege and oppression, many hold progressive values, and if we are not inclusive, we risk alienating them. One of the best ways we can deter those in our target demographics from supporting our movement is by coming across as ignorant and bigoted – unaware of, and unconcerned with, any privilege other than human privilege.

Our lack of privilege-literacy can also make us come across as hypocritical. The "product" our movement is "selling" is values, integrity. So when we promote compassion and justice while seeming to dismiss the experience and needs of oppressed groups in the process, such mixed messaging presents us as ethically inconsistent and, therefore, as untrustworthy and unattractive.

Being Inclusive Helps Target the Roots of Oppression

On a more abstract but no less important level, being inclusive is strategic because it helps ensure that our outreach (and our interpersonal dynamics, as vegan advocates and as people) targets the roots of oppression – the oppressive mentality – rather than just the manifestations of oppression. The same mentality that enables us to exploit nonhuman beings enables us to exploit human beings. As long as this mentality stays in place, the content – the victims of oppression – may change, but the process – oppression itself – remains intact. The oppressive mentality constantly seeks a target, a victim, an "other." If we don't shift this mentality, we might liberate farmed animals, but other animals – human or nonhuman – will remain targets for victimization. When our efforts help shift the oppressive mentality (or at least don't reinforce it), we can work toward social transformation on the deepest level, on the level of process.

Being Inclusive Helps Us Think More Creatively and Strategically

When we're inclusive, we avoid ending up with homogeneous groups that limit our creative and strategic thinking. Homogeneous groups are made up of people who have many of the same ways of processing information, the same cultural language and values, the same types of assumptions, and the same areas in which they're uninformed or unaware. People from diverse backgrounds, on the other hand, bring different ways of thinking and being, and enrich outreach that needs to reach a diverse audience. For example, White vegan outreach, which focuses largely on consumer choices, don't resonate with many people of color, whose concerns include systemic injustices in food production and distribution, such as the unavailability of healthy foods in lower-income communities and the exploitative sourcing of foods that harms workers.

Our privilege keeps our analysis shallow, and once we start to think outside the box of privilege, which limits our awareness and stunts our creativity, we can find that there are plenty of powerful ways to conduct vegan outreach that do not require violating anybody. For example, we can design our outreach to ensure that it doesn't include only images and experiences of White people and that it doesn't use male-dominant language or objectify women. These approaches are simple and straightforward and are used by many organizations already. With a commitment to inclusiveness, all vegan outreach can more fully reflect the compassion and justice our movement is built on.  

This essay is part of a four-part series  Continue reading -- see Essay 4 here.

Dr. Melanie Joy

Dr. Melanie Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist, international speaker, organizational consultant, trainer, and relationship coach. She is the author of the award-winning book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, as well as Strategic Action for Animals and Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters. Dr. Joy has developed and implemented vegan advocacy trainings for more than a decade, and she specializes in effective communication, organizational leadership, the psychology of social change, interpersonal relationships, and preventing and treating burnout. She has trained vegan advocates and given her acclaimed carnism presentation on six continents and her work has been featured in major media outlets around the world. Dr. Joy is the eighth recipient of the Ahimsa Award – previously given to the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela – for her work on global nonviolence, as well as the Empty Cages Prize – previously given to Tom Regan – for her contribution to furthering the cause of animal rights, and the Peter Singer Prize for strategies to reduce the suffering of animals, and the video of her recent TEDx talk on carnism is in the top one percent of the most-viewed TEDx talks of all time. Dr. Joy is also the founding president of the charitable organization, Beyond Carnism, a co-founder of ProVeg International, and the co-director of the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA).

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