Content note: homelessness, death, racism, holocaust, cannibalism, war
It's no secret that I'm vegan, so people often ask me why I'm not an animal rights activist. After all, the arguments for veganism are clear: it's better for the environment, better for our health and better for the animals at the receiving end of our quest for meat and animal byproducts. I'm an activist, so why don't I fight veganism's corner? Why don't I do more animal rights activism in any sense of the term?
I'm walking down a busy street in central London, when I bump into a friend of mine. Carrie* is homeless, and has been for about six months. I ask her if I can get her something to eat, because I know the local cafes and restaurants throw her out if she enters to buy food, some bullshit about her homelessness "upsetting other customers." She says to me that she'd like a chicken burger.
I have never hesitated in buying Carrie a chicken burger. But I have thought about how this aligns with my principles.
Principle 1: Kindness. I try to support others where I can, particularly those who are in a situation that makes them vulnerable.
Principle 2: Veganism. I decided to become vegan because I never again wanted a penny of my money to go towards the exploitation of another life.
If I was to buy Carrie an avocado sandwich, or some falafel, or a veggie burger, I would be adhering to both of these morals. But I always buy her what she asks for, therefore consistently disregarding the first. I know that vegan food can provide every nutrient and every ounce of protein that a person possibly needs. So why don't I ever suggest buying her something vegan?
The answer for me is easy: because although I fully support animal rights, I think human rights are more important.
This is not to say that I am not a supporter of animal rights, or that I've never participated in animal rights activism. I often speak to people about my veganism, and up until recently I helped run a stall for animal shelters and animal rights charities in my local area. I promoted petitions against cruel sports like horse-racing, talked to people about snares, and gathered petition signatures against repealing the hunting ban. I wouldn't call myself an animal rights activist, but I've definitely participated in that kind of activism.
So where do I draw the line? Some animal rights activists, particularly vegan activists, have compared the exploitation of animals to eating children, racism and the holocaust.** I just find it all a bit unacceptable. I believe in showing love and acceptance to all forms of life, and I wish I could also believe that all life is equal. But when it comes down to it, if I had no choice but to choose between saving a baby's life or a chicken's life, I would save the baby. And if I had no choice but to choose between a cat's life or a baby's life, I would still save the baby.
I am what some would call a "speciesist" because I value human life the most. This doesn't mean that I think human beings are good for the earth, or good for other animals, or good for anything. In fact, I think our evolution was possibly the worst thing that ever happened to this planet. But I will fight for equality amongst all human beings before I would fight for equality between my sister and a chicken. I'm being a bit silly here, but you get what I mean.
I'm a believer in fairness and kindness between all species through and through. That's why I eat a meat-free diet, and am trying to eliminate all forms of non-vegan products from my life, from soap to medicine to the shoes I wear.
But let's go back to Carrie for a second. She's cold, she's got an infected wound on her hand, the police keep moving her on and she doesn't know if she'll have somewhere to sleep tonight. For me to go over to her and tell her that a plant based diet is what's best for her, and sorry but I don't buy meat, would be, in my opinion, just wrong. I would be taking away her right to decide what food she puts into her own body, and that would be completely dehumanising.
Some vegan activists would argue that I've used an extreme case, that those who aren't homeless could all make the effort to be vegan. But let's not forget that veganism is a privilege in the UK, where meat is so readily and easily available, and we've all been socialised into eating it. Such a big dietary change requires a lot of effort, a lot of time, and a lot of money. There's no point in a middle class kid like me telling other people that "it's so easy" and you "just do this." There's no point in me investing in clothes that were made without any animal by-products, if those clothes were made in some factory in Bangladesh which used child labour and paid the workers 3 pence an hour. And although I never agreed with what happened to Cecil the lion, I am disappointed in every person who signed that petition without giving a second thought to all the human beings being killed right now, from Syria to South Sudan.
So yeah, I'm vegan. And yeah, I love animals. And yeah, I'm proud of it. But there's only so much time a person can give to campaigning for change, and my time will go to human rights first.
*I've used a fake name to protect the identity of the woman I'm writing about
**This is not a representation of all animal rights or vegan activists, or all those who believe in animal rights or a vegan lifestyle. It represents a minority.