How identity politics destroyed yet another movement

by Rozali Telbis

Years ago, upon hearing I’m vegan, a former colleague quipped, “But what about all the people suffering? Don’t you care about them?” At the time, I was working for an immigrant and refugee-serving non-profit, so it was obvious to both of us that I cared about both people and animals. Even if I had chosen a different career path (which I since have), this line of accusatory questioning doesn’t make sense. It presumes that I can only care about a single issue — that I am unable to care about humans and non-human animals simultaneously. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it’s still a gotcha people use to recuse themselves from the cruelty they support. It allows them to carry on with their cognitive dissonance. My colleague did, indeed, walk away rather smugly after our exchange, proud of herself for living another day in denial.

I was reminded of this exchange when I stumbled upon the intersectional vegan side of Twitter. For the curious, I do not recommend traversing these waters. It’s a complete assault on the senses. Every Twitter profile is a replica of the one before it: it’s primarily composed of early 20-something ideologues who reduce every issue to identity, every emotion to an emoji, and every critique to an act of microaggression.

Some of the common mantras touted by intersectional vegans include a variation of the following: “If your veganism isn’t intersectional, it’s just a diet,” and “If you’re transphobic, racist, ableist, etc. you’re not vegan.”

According to the Vegan Society, veganism seeks to “exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” By definition, there are no additional prerequisites needed; vegans are not required to subscribe to a number of additional causes in order to adhere to this belief system that centers non-human animals.

But intersectional veganism is no longer being promoted in niche online communities only.

It’s now being more accepted across vegan communities and organizations in which vegans must undergo a loyalty test to prove they too, care about x, y, and z to prove their allegiance to veganism. Many adherents are also what can be called the bourgeois left who value identity politics above all else.  

Intersectional veganism demands that vegans must not only be vegan, but they must also advocate for every other marginalized group and issue that emerges in current discourse. It demands that vegans must publicly announce their allegiance to such causes, lest they be labeled as ‘-ist’ or ‘phobic.’

This line of thinking does a huge disservice to the animals who obviously do not have the means to advocate for themselves – they do not have rights nor do they have a voice.

For one, veganism is the only movement that centers non-human animals.

To take attention away from this in any way, even if it’s for other well-meaning causes, undermines the very ethos of veganism.

We can’t afford to further complicate or dilute the only movement that centers animals — and that is the risk we take if we apply an intersectional approach to veganism. To this day, while veganism as a term seems to be more well-known in Western society, it still remains one of the most unpopular movements, especially when you compare it to other trending social justice movements.

We’ve already seen what happens when you apply an ‘intersectional lens’ to other movements. Other movements that have adopted this framework have completely lost credibility, and lost sight of their original mission. The environmental movement is a good example. Environmentalism was once primarily focused on efforts to slow climate change, but it has since morphed into a catch-all movement, co-opting a number of other issues that have little to do with the environment at all. Many environmental organizations are now singularly focused on identity politics at the expense of the climate. In some local groups I’ve been involved in, we spent the majority of our time talking about gender — we nourish our own egotism at the expense of the planet, whose very destruction is caused by the egotism of the ruling elite.

Indeed, our obsessive focus on identity creates a ripple effect in other areas. Focusing on the self allows us to consume more and mutilate our bodies for the cause du jour, and then we publicize the results online for all to see.

Many modern environmental groups are also woefully narrow minded in their thinking (many believe that technological progress will eliminate environmental destruction, which could not be further from the truth, but that is a topic for another time).

Veganism has taken a similar turn among faux progressives. Intersectional vegans co-opted a movement that was once meant to center the animals, and puts the ego center stage once again.

But it is our ego — our very existence that is the ultimate oppressor on this planet. Mother Nature does not care about our obscure, socially constructed and increasingly esoteric identities. Intersectional veganism has effectively devolved into an amalgamation of social media buzzwords and sound bytes consolidated into a catch-all concept. It’s clear that humans, no matter which group we belong to — including social justice groups — will always seek dominion above the non-human animal.

Secondly, language matters (as some ideologues repeatedly like to remind us).

When you insert nebulous elitist buzzwords plucked directly from academia, it clutters language. Language quickly becomes more confusing than clarifying. And we are in no position to further confuse a term that has already been co-opted by flexitarians who call themselves “sometimes vegans” or “mostly vegans” or “part-time vegans.”

This qualifier also makes veganism appear even more unattainable to the ordinary person. It demands every vegan to not just be vegan, but they must also be a feminist, a trans ally, a climate activist, and so on. Non-vegans are already armed with a myriad of excuses not go to vegan. It would be hugely counterproductive to add more prerequisites to this list. Identitarians have already co-opted so many social justice movements — we can’t afford to have it co-opt a movement that centers animals.

Thirdly, some vegans may actually disagree with some contemporary social justice concepts today that have been deemed to be universally true and are not allowed to be questioned. Vegans come from all walks of life, belief systems, politics, and interests.

Adapting this intersectional framework requires vegans to be a one-dimensional carbon copy set of each other, which as I’ve noted above, is exactly what is happening in the intersectional vegan space. There is an alarming trend occurring among anti-oppression advocates — they blindly jump onto every cause without giving much thought to the issue. The problem here is that a groupthink culture quickly forms, and any form of critique or questions is met with unilateral condemnation.

Interestingly, other movements don’t have these same unwritten prerequisites. Women who campaign for reproductive rights aren’t expected to also advocate for racial justice, workers who fight to increase the minimum wage aren’t also expected to fight for climate legislation, and so on. But perplexingly, vegans are expected to take all of these issues on — and the oft-touted reason is that veganism is rooted in an anti-oppression framework, meaning vegans must fight against oppression of all living beings. But this anti-oppression framework in itself is based on a certain framework or ideology. And this catch-all approach can be paralyzing and lead to nothing being done.

Adding an additional barrier for non-vegans will just make veganism appear more inaccessible — ironic considering intersectional ideologues often emphasize how important ‘accessibility’ is.

So, when intersectional vegans ask: ‘What about the humans?’ I’m reminded of the comment my colleague made. Her line of questioning is not dissimilar to intersectional vegans. To them, there’s an unwritten expectation that I must publicly declare my support for all causes and all marginalized groups. I can’t simply say I’m vegan. I must also announce I am anti-racist, I’m an LGBTQ+ ally, I’m an environmentalist, I’m pro-immigration, I’m a feminist, and so on. To them, being a single-issue vegan is the ultimate transgression. But veganism isn’t a movement about people, though of course, it certainly does have an added benefit of reducing exploitation of animal agricultural workers, for example.

If vegans want to subscribe to intersectionality, of course they have every right to do so, but to tack this on as a prerequisite to being vegan is entirely unproductive and dilutes and undermines the entire movement.

Veganism is the only movement we have that centers non-human animals. For once I hope we can keep it that way.

Featured Image Credit: Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)