name dropping, being too cool for school and relationality

Over the last few years, a ‘trend’ has emerged amongst animal activists. It seems that to be considered a ‘real’ activist, the words one uses — even the names one drops — are more important than anything else. Visible are the emergences of aspects of a boys club, a clique, even a cliché in circles of people/activists. Irrespective of whether one acts (and it seems many talking the talk do not), it is how one can express themselves in these terms that is seemingly more important. Activist cred is based on the words used, not the actions and involvement in seeking outcomes for animals.

Sadly, as is present in other movements, activists are relationally positioning themselves. We are seeing people define themselves by what they are not doing as opposed to having a solid and critical reflection on the key issues which would enable them to define what they are doing. For example, deference to ‘bigger cages, longer chains’ to dismiss other perspectives, or the more common, I am an abolitionist, are often very hollow. These terms/phrases are not backed-up with a solid understanding (sometimes very little, if any) of what they are trying to portray — they are merely counterpoised to what are blankety labelled as welfarist.

I do not see this relational approach as affording much positives. If anything, it is tarnishing the sound ideas and engagement that does exist. The emerging cliché-esqueness of such word dropping can negate the potential and influences of nuanced and open discussion and debate. My aim here is not to dismiss or marginalise those new to veganism, outreach and activism. Rather it is to highlight this trend and illustrate the implications of this, and some of the roots. Through exposing roots, differing approaches that do not foster or reinforce this trend, rather providing a solid baseline for discussion, engagement and action can emerge.

Relational positioning, of defining oneself by not being a welfarist, for example, is a huge area that requires substantial reflection and unpacking. It is an issue that has been the focus of substantial reflection in social justice circles (challenging racism and whiteness for example). The roots are very much there to challenge this given the awareness of speciesism amongst vegans — even if this requires much more engagement.

How prominent such relational positioning is is clear in how the term abolitionist is regularly dropped as a means to dismiss other viewpoints —without solid exposition. Being an abolitionist has become ‘cool’, even if (some of) those claiming the title have little real understanding of what it means, how to promote it and what is required. Accompanied with the increasing liberalism (i.e. individualism, self-centredness) and arrogance which is far too common and prevalent in many contemporary movements, this intersection is fostering an holier than thou attitude. This attitude exists on (at least) two levels — one located within the abolitionist movement. Alongside veganism positioned as the more righteous approach (as opposed to vegetarianism for example), the arrogant individualism has a further masculine edge. Veganism is revolutionary, it is even self-seen as militant. Notions of militancy are visible amongst certain groups who promote direct action — some more-so than others. Those who are involved in such actions often see themselves as more righteous (and revolutionary) based on their individual risk. Quite often blasé.

A recent freelance opinion piece, which is doing the rounds in the Australian press this week, prompted me to pen some thoughts. The piece is by Katrina Fox and titled Call meat happy, but it is never humane. It is generally a good piece, notwithstanding derisive comments it has received. Alongside being well written and making solid distinctions between use and treatment, there are moments that fit within the trend. Of name dropping, pushing the right buttons, and use of the ‘right’ words to be considered valid.

The distinction made between use and treatment is very clear and one that needs to be expressed. It is made in particular to address and counter the approaches of animal welfare organisations — those same organisations promoting free range and organic meat. The (re)emergence and active promotion of a movement towards notions of small scale farms that are portrayed as animal friendly (i.e. happy meat) have marked and foster ‘a shift in cultural consciousness from a focus on animal use to that of treatment’. More exposition of this is needed.

Fox’s exposing of key issues like use v. treatment are tempered, however, in what appears to be the inclusion of name dropping and (shallow) key words. You could even consider the permeation of this, of what are quickly becoming almost clichés, to be (increasingly?) panoptic. There is a pressure to confirm, there are sanctions to not conforming. Vegan circles are already small, and challenging what are becoming dominant ideas can leave one ostracised. I know of many examples of people seeking to challenge unquestion assumptions, the lack of reflexivity, amongst the new cool kids on the block. It does not take much for the questioners to become the target of reactionary derision.

Even with veganism being an individual act, it requires a collective shift to foster the changes we seek. The liberalism central to contemporary movements (animal and environmental more broadly) in the ‘west’ is a key root or this. Moving away from the notion of individual acts, of focussing on the individual (both those taking vegan action, and those not) towards the structural — and hence away from being cool, name dropping and the (shallow) subcultural capital of new language — provides an interesting tension. I think it is one that requires more thought.

I may be overly critical (of Fox) here, though the trend visible in her piece is far too widespread, damaging and needs to addressed within, rather than from the outside. Espousals of veganism, and the key issues it addresses, needs to move from being (not only seen as) an at-times cliquey subculture towards what it should be (and at times is): a movement progressive social and ecological for change. More broadly, the individualist liberal notions common in contemporary movements (the exceptionalisms), need to be reflected on given the implications.

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