Watch your vegan language
The following excerpt is taken from my book Fat Gay Vegan: Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give a Shit.
I was inspired to share this excerpt after being confronted by the language being used to promote veganism online by a few high profile vegans this week. It is our responsibility as vegans to not use harmful language to spread our message. We must look to challenge ableism within our vegan circles. Our movement is not as compassionate as it could be if we allow toxic ideas of masculinity to be thrown around and used as a promotional tool unchecked.
I couldn’t list the ways in which mainstream veganism objectifies women and powers sexism and misogyny. Men dominate speaking panels, women are expected to silently organise, and veganism is sold particularly to women as a weight or body modification tool in order for them to live up to unrealistic physical expectations.
The plight of women who are sexual assault and abuse survivors is appropriated to inject emotion into the animal rights struggle by equating forced insemination of dairy cows with human rape. Women’s bodies are used as props to both grab attention for campaigns and titillate consumers into buying plant-based food and clothing.
Basically, we vegans do to women what the rest of the world is doing to them but we dress it up as compassion.
Ableism within the vegan community isn’t always as obvious as people using oppressive language and slurs, although of course you should be all over any situation like that or look for support if you need it when challenging people. As allies of people with disabilities we should be addressing lack of representation and visibility in what is advertised to us and the events we attend and host. People with disabilities are rarely asked to participate in panel discussions or consulted for perspectives on vegan campaigning, meaning their life experiences and opinions go unvalued and unnoticed.
Some vegan campaigners will also denigrate non-vegans living with illness as if they are responsible for their situation for not living completely plant-based. I’ve seen this first-hand when a vegan man publicly shamed a celebrity who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This man’s take away was not in any way compassionate, instead he used his platform to suggest the celebrity would not be in the situation if she had cared about animals and stopped consuming them. In how many ways can we agree that is horrific?
Toxic masculinity is a buzz term thrown around a lot but you had better believe it is ripe and rampant amongst vegans and activist circles. This culture of hypermasculinity erodes social cohesion by promoting the dominant view that to be seen as masculine is the most desirable trait in a human. An approach like this leads to the ridiculing of LGBTQ+ people and women.
Vegan advertising and representations of vegan men in the media collude to perpetuate this damaging approach by championing ‘tough’ athletes, using sexist and misogynistic language to demean men who do not conform to ideals of masculinity, and even making suggestions that you are less of a man if you are unable to please women sexually.
It all comes together in a ‘toxic’ cocktail of oppression that harms all society including cis-gendered men who identify as straight.
Please consider the negative impact your words and actions can have when promoting veganism.
If you find yourself involved with organising any kind of vegan event, consider employing an inclusive policy to ensure people who are traditionally excluded from vegan spaces are given preference. You never have to look very hard to find a white vegan to speak on a panel but always turning to the usual suspects is not inclusive or equitable. Look for presenters and speakers who will give a broader representation of what being vegan means. Be sure to have a policy of inviting LGBTQ+ vegans, women, women of colour, vegans of colour, and people living with disabilities to be part of organising committees and to be voices addressing mainstream vegan events.
Don’t appropriate language that has historically described the suffering or death of an oppressed group in order to add drama to your animal rights campaigning (such as slavery and the Holocaust). Be active in reminding the vegans around you of how this erases, minimalises and denigrates survivors of historic and current abuse and acts of oppression.
Don’t sexualise food. This is one of the simplest ways to be an inclusive and thoughtful vegan. Apart from there being zero reasons to call a donut sexy or label your dinner as #veganfoodporn, this use of language can actually work to perpetuate systems of oppressions that marginalise and objectify women. I know this is a tough topic to get on board with because we are so very used to every aspect of our lives being repackaged to us in sexy ad speak. But take a moment to think of exactly what messages are being transmitted when food is framed within the language of hyper sexualisation or fetishisation. There are clear similarities between the salacious language used to describe sexual fantasies surrounding women and the phenomenon of sexualising meat. It is sometimes difficult to know what is being described by the use of words such as juicy, plump, succulent and naughty and this is clearly the point of food advertisers. There are countless ways in which you can celebrate your love of food publicly without relying on these tired and unhelpful phrases.
Elevate minority voices. Look to see if people who are most-often marginalised and silenced are being called on to speak or are in organising roles. If you have the opportunity to ask the opinion of someone living with oppression, listen carefully and magnify what they have to say. Be sure to share insights and opinions about multiple oppressions without erasing the voices of the people who are living those very lives. Use your own story and the stories of others to explain how a vegan can work at being a better person who doesn’t only concern themselves with improving outcomes for animals.
If you feel safe and able to do so, call out people who are using oppressive language at vegan and non-vegan events. Ask a friend or someone willing to help you if you do not feel safe. People sometimes do not understand how their language and actions can make those around them feel threatened, excluded or targeted. If you are a white vegan, make it your responsibility to help educate other white vegans about racism, privilege and colonial attitudes. If you identify as a man, tell other men how their language and actions can make women feel unsafe in vegan spaces. Call people out for ableist, transphobic and body shaming language and take the time to explain how it affects people if they genuinely don’t understand how words oppress. We have a responsibility to keep other vegans and non-vegans (yes, they are people with delicate feelings too) safe from harm and oppression. It is not the sole responsibility of the oppressed to speak out against the oppressor, rather it is the job of all of us to stand up together. Be considerate and find ways to challenge these behaviours when possible.
Become an expert letter and email writing champion in order to tell vegan food companies that oppressive language and images have no place in advertising to our community. Use social media to make them aware of the fact that you do not appreciate or accept the use of sexism, body shaming, toxic masculinity and white exceptionalism as tools to sell veganism as a concept or vegan products to the world. It perpetuates harmful forces that make people feel bad about who they are while cementing long entrenched power imbalances that favour very few.
Support charities and activist groups that do not rely on sexism, racism, misogyny, body shaming and homophobia to sell veganism. As discussed earlier in this chapter, PETA often relies on shock advertising tactics at the expense of real humans. If you have money or time to offer a charity, search around for organisations that do not participate in using violence and oppressive acts to garner attention to help spread the vegan message. Question anyone who asks you if vegan men can still be tough and sexy by turning it back into a discussion of toxic masculinity. We don’t need to accept this dominant discourse that is damaging all of us, especially those of us already at risk.
Don’t use oppressive language traditionally employed to denigrate people with disabilities and mental health challenges in your fight to promote veganism. This might come across as slightly trite when first being confronted with this idea, but look for more inclusive language when attempting to describe your intentions and thoughts. Factory farming isn’t crazy or mental. It is an upsetting systemic form of suffering and death. Consider where your first choice of language originates and always push yourself to do better each time.