Originally posted on Medium on October 30, 2017.
It is not just the practice of inequality that contributes to environmental and transspecies violence; it is the construction and persistence of ideas that maintain these inequalities.
David Naguib Pellow, Total Liberation
“Pragmatic” vegan advocacy can entrench the assumptions of the audience, confirming the very ideas in need of uprooting. Encouraging others to adopt alternative practices without confronting their deep ideas may (I repeat, may) have the ill effect of further productifying nonhuman animals. The more advocates prioritize the health, environmental, and especially taste perks of plant products over animal products, all under the banner of pragmatism and all the while downplaying animal and total liberationist discourse, the more they risk reinforcing the commodifiability of nonhuman bodies.
This can happen whenever one casually compares the protein content of “chicken” to black beans, or the water usage for “cattle” to a crop for human consumption. Meeting the audience “where they are” by casually juxtaposing two “products” obscures the injustice enabling the juxtaposition. My suggestion is not that advocates refrain from making health and environmental arguments for veganism, but that they deploy these arguments extremely carefully, “meeting people where they are” without legitimating the idea of nonhuman productification. This caution also applies to advocacy centering the tastiness of plants-only foods.
The danger of idea legitimation haunts contemporary vegan foodie culture and its exaltation of taste pleasure. Leaving aside the controversial emphasis on products (which is distinct from their inclusion) in outreach efforts, one of the most common talking points in both vegan and animal liberation advocacy is how human interests in elaborate taste pleasures pale in comparison to nonhuman interests in not being manipulated, mutilated, and killed. However, mainstream vegan foodie culture, specifically as depicted in advertising and social media, routinely reinscribes the assumed weightiness of privileged palate pleasure. This occurs through its promotion of extra tasty, boutique, vegan foods that tout food hobbyist pleasure more so than simple nourishment.
Professing to “meet people where they are” by reveling in food fetishism, vegan foodies perpetuate the sacralization of taste experience. This is no surprise as they are foodies after all, enjoying and defending food hobbyism like their nonvegan counterparts. However, and ironically so, vegan foodie culture sells the importance of taste pleasure while simultaneously depreciating the pleasures of nonvegans who admit to eating animal bodies because “they just taste SO good.” Vegan foodies can legitimately, though not comprehensively, defend their own foodieness on the grounds that their taste fixation is uniquely animal-free, and for that reason justified (but is it?). Regardless, this advocacy angle affirms the taste-driven, animal-commodifying perspective of their audience, which is preceisly the foundation that requires destabilization.
I admit that occasionally a well-designed food lure can kryptonically penetrate the outer armor of nonvegan baconism, the shell that so often resists any serious discussion of animal liberation. This is why I have repeatedly used the words “may” and “can” in this piece. But when the “pragmatic” approach refrains from illuminating, not to speak of criticizing, underlying ideas, it comes at a very high price. Product taste-offs wager on animal bodies and secretions pleasing less or almost less than their plant competitors. They solidify the foodie assumption that heightened taste pleasure really does matter, and in this case perhaps even more so than the basic interests of nonhuman animals. What happens if and when plants-only products fall short in these taste battles (see: vegan cheese debates)? Are nonhuman animals then productifiable? Of course not.
Without a foregrounding of nonhuman animals as individuals, the moral criminality of including their bodies in these competitions at all is obscured. So, once again, can we not “meet people where they are” without legitimating the productification of nonhumans? We surely can, but this requires not only a confrontation with “them” over the deep idea of speciesism, but also with “us” over the assumptions and values of vegan foodie culture.
Mainstream vegan foodie culture commonly praises specialty items and rarely plants in bare or relatively simply prepared forms. High-end vegan restaurants and gourmet markets constitute a significant part of its material and digital landscape. Here I am not covertly championing a raw vegan diet, a plants-only freeganism, or some ascetic minimalism, but rather indicating how the designer presentation of some vegan foodieness undercuts the total liberationist foundation of any so-called “ethical veganism.”
In a world where the vast majority of human and nonhuman animals are eating to survive and avoid suffering, and addressing their basic needs with our available resources is a crucial component of total liberation, vegan foodie culture lends little support. With high priced niche items and destination festivals, the culture communicates that not only is enthusiastic palate attachment a non-issue, but actually a great reason to shift to a vegan diet. In sum, through its aggradizement of taste pleasure, vegan foodie culture communicates that the only important question after “Is it vegan?” is “Is it tasty?”, without interrogating obsessive taste gratification, sourcing, and privilege. Little mention is made of the problems associated with food hobbyism and tourism, vegan or otherwise.
To clarify, I am not calling out everyone who lives above a bare minimum, plants-only subsistence, and certainly not those who eat “unhealthy” vegan products (I’m right there with them both). One’s weekly vegan pastry is not the problem. Sharing tasty homemade vegan meals is definitely not the problem. Nor am I discouraging a multifaceted and flexible approach to advocacy. Instead I spotlight the excessive public glorification of a taste pleasure-driven, consumerist, foodie culture that checks off the “vegan” box and postures as if the all of the ethical concerns of animal and total liberation have been satisfied thereby (see: “cruelty-free”). Not only does the overvaluing of taste pleasure frame the discourse in terms of human desires and not animal liberation, but omits the expansive problem of privilege essential to any project of total liberation. The persistence of these deep ideas — animal productification, food fetishism, privilege — must remain primary targets of any truly accurate and pragmatic total liberationist advocacy.
(on my uses of “vegan,” “vegan diet,” and “veganism,” see this essay.)