Ask Me Why I’m Veg[etari]an (AR 2012 Guest Post)

I had the pleasure of rooming with Ethan Dussault during the four-day weekend craziness of AR 2012, and we experienced a lot of what the conference had to offer together. Ethan was able to attend quite a few more talks than I, however, and writes below about his experience. Ethan is a long-time vegan an animal rights activist from Massachussetts who first came on to my radar as part of Will Travel For Vegan Food back in March. I sincerely appreciate his time in writing this:

Greetings, friends. I write to you from my hometown of Allston, MA, while sitting in the new fully vegan ice cream parlor at what we locals have now dubbed ‘Vegan Corner.’ FoMu Alternative Ice Cream is a neighbor to Peace o’ Pie Vegan Pizza and a longstanding Pan-Asian Vegan restaurant called Grasshopper. Pretty Rad. I love Allston, but I also love getting out of town. I often wonder what people from elsewhere are thinking and doing. I went to the 2012 Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C., to find out. I don’t think I could fully do justice to these three days in one blog post so I will merely attempt a thorough scratching of the surface. As a newcomer at the conference, it was especially intense on the senses. Bear with.

I have been vegan almost 7 years now and I have been to many vegetarian/vegan food festivals but the Animal Rights Conference is a different story. If you have been to a Veg Fest, chances are you have seen tables from Mercy For Animals, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Compassion Over Killing, The Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Outreach, PETA, HSUS, Compassion Clothing Co., Tofurkey and more. Although the faces are the same, the focus is not on food and other vegan products, but on a different part of the vegan lifestyle: Activism.

Veganism is being embraced more and more each day. In the United States alone, a staggering increase in people identifying themselves as vegan over the last three years has turned the heads of statisticians and more. The trend doesn’t appear to be slowing either. This exponential growth is happening for a few reasons. Activists are more effective than ever at spreading the word about speciesism, discrimination based on species, and its negative impact on animals and the environment as well as human society and health. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs with their crews are creating an abundance of vegan food options and products. While attending a Rap Session mediated by Vegan Outreach’s co-founder, Matt Ball, he recalled a moment at the Tofurkey table when a representative of the grain and legume meat company asked, “What more can we do?” Ball replied, “Continue to do your part to create the supply and we’ll create the demand.”

Vegan Outreach is known mostly for its large leafletting campaign and promoting a brand of effective advocacy. And here is where the conference gets interesting. What is the best approach to advocating for the animals whose voices go largely ignored at present? How is the demand for vegan food and other products most efficiently grown in our society? This is why activists from all over come to assemble. Much debate occurs over the role of direct action, in its many forms (e.g. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Animal Liberation Front are both direct in action but also approach interpreting laws differently), versus less direct, awareness raising techniques such as leafletting (and T-shirt wearing… cute). Peter Young, most known for his direct action, began his plenary address by showing his solidarity with the animal rights movement regardless of the differences of opinion in tactics. He then passionately went on to express his support for direct action techniques, highlighting the immediacy of the lives saved and the social statement made as a result of this style of activism. In essence, the majority of the people in attendance all want to bring speciesism to a halt. A major point drilled home this weekend was to have your differences yet remain united. Sound familiar?

The heart of this movement is to spread compassion to all, regardless of species, race, gender, class et al. If we didn’t debate tactics, I would argue the movement to be dysfunctional. However, allowing the debate to break the many types of activists apart would be devastating and would play right into the hands of those who oppose our strides toward justice for the oppressed, namely profiteers of animal suffering.

Exactly who are these oppressed? Ethology, the study of animal behavior, is a branch of science which aims to answer this question. Jonathan Balcombe has written a number of books on this matter, (e.g., Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals) and was kind enough to share some of his findings in a light hearted talk. We left his presentation reaffirmed that animals are persons. That is, they are individuals with personalities; they are not automata. (Not) Sorry, Descartes. Some are honest. Some are cheaters. Some are jokers and some are very stern. They have memories and relationships; friends and families including even adoptees. They know fear and fearlessness. They know pain and they know pleasure. They know sorrow and joy. They know sharing is caring. Their lives matter to them. Remember, humans are in fact animals. We can relate.

These academic moments continued. Ryan Shapiro is a historian and animal rights activist who has been chronicling significant events which have brought us to where the movement is today. He begins his talk with an attempt to ban Bull-Baiting in England, 1800, and weaves a tale through the birth of the anti-vivisection movement throughout WWI and WWII. Shapiro then denotes the beginning of the modern Animal Liberation movement and the subsequent reaction by profiteers to put a stop to the liberators actions. Highlights of the divisive tactics include entrapment schemes and myths perpetuated by the media. The most recent attempt to dissuade and or persecute certain activists can be seen in the legislation known as the Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act (AETA). This pertinent history (can’t wait for Shapiro’s first book!) acts as a great set-up for the presentation given by “Green is the New Red” author, Will Potter. Will gives a detailed description of tactics used to dismantle social movements and touched upon current events where these tactics can be seen in use; namely in the attempts to break down the Occupy movement and Animal Rights movement. These two presenters leave the attendees with a message of fearlessness and conviction. Our value of compassion is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. Know you are a caring individual and do not be afraid to stand firm. At least that is how I felt. Bravo, gentlemen.

On a philosophical note, I was pleased when activist, Bruce Friedrich used Socrates as an example of effective communication. I recently was nose deep in some Plato. As I read, ideas of how the Dialogues related to animal rights swirled in my thoughts. I agree Bruce; the Socratic Method is effective.

In a “rap session” moderated by Bob Lucius of the Kairos Coalition, a non-profit focusing on Humane Education of the youth, we debated the breadth of our individual ethics. It was too short a session to draw conclusions but it was provocative and I even brought the debate to the carpool ride home to Boston from D.C. (Thanks Humane League and crew for having me!) Is it ethical for an undercover activist to maintain their cover by engaging in animal abuse if the result of the investigation saves more lives?

And then there was Melanie Joy, authoress of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.” When I was first introduced to the word ‘carnism’ on the cover of her book, my interest was immediately piqued. The definition of and hopefully the demise of the world’s dominant ideology, carnism, is the centerpiece of her work. This talk was a summary and preview of the evolution of her ideas. In concise and compelling fashion, Melanie inspired us to embrace our veganism and to understand the trappings of the carnistic tendencies we have within us.

We all have tendencies. Don’t we? Those little habits, leanings, word choices that are just below the surface of our consciousness which are a product of our upbringing, and our privilege or lack thereof. A panel and topic I hope to see garner more attention at next year’s conference, although it was certainly well attended this year, was the Commonalities of Oppression talk. This panel focused on the common points seen across the social justice spectrum between women, minorities, animals, workers, etc.

A major point of this panel, the nail that stuck up [thanks, Ethan -Sam], was the position of privilege many AR activists come from. This was not meant to tear down the cause but to raise awareness of the biases that often come from being privileged. For example, I am a white male living in the United States of America. Whether I know of a specific occurrence or not, I have benefited thro.ghout my life based on my gender and race, and likely will unjustly continue to do so. Whether I like it or not these experiences have bred biases into my patterns of behavior. Also, privilege exists at varying degrees. Those who are less privileged than myself may be more privileged than others. Being sensitive to privilege will only strengthen the communities and the causes through improved communication.

More could be and will be said about this conference. I left with a saturated mind. I learned so much of human interaction and being a better activist. Though much of the facts, the who’s who and the what’s what, I already knew, I am still more inspired and more informed. If you are like me, a vegan of many years looking to do more. I urge you to head to the next conference. As I look forward to returning, even more importantly, I look forward to the rest of today and tomorrow and the next day. I look forward to the next year of wearing my new messaging shirts and the conversations that will begin with the question, “Why are you veg[etari]an?”

Justice is a single strand. It is one issue. No one or group has a monopoly on the pursuit of justice. The animal rights movement must not lose sight of this. Animal Rights are Human Rights. The basic goal, to reduce suffering, must be applied to all causes needing to be mended by the thread of justice. Go, Vegan. Go.

You can contact Ethan via e-mail at e…@g…

Photos from FARM.