As animal liberation activists in solidarity with our beyond-human relatives in their fight for freedom, one of our most powerful instruments of allyship is unquestionably our voice. We use it to amplify the adversity and suffering of those whose voices are silenced or ignored. But without clear, precise, and intentional language, we easily overlook the root causes of this societal injustice and hinder our ability to work toward effective solutions.
Throughout history, when promulgating our demands for change, deliberate language has been crucial in mobilizing communities and sparking important conversations about social justice. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, for example, demonstrate the capacity of our mindful considerations of language to create solidarity, challenge authority, and reclaim power previously denied.
These considerations are also imperative for our fight toward animal liberation. We must understand the importance of validating veganism as a sociopolitical framework—at what cost do we continue to reinforce veganism as a dietary boycott? Do we make the animal liberation struggle infinitely more difficult to understand and regard as urgent by touting veganism as it is frequently incorporated into trending consumerist lifestyle themes? It’s time for our community to squarely confront dominating vegan narratives.
Despite a growing number of periodic declarations—“VEGANISM IS NOT A DIET!”—we continue to concurrently use phrases such as “vegan food,” “vegan restaurant,” “vegan shoes,” “vegan purse,” and “vegan haul.” In these examples, one could fairly infer that “vegan” is merely a category of goods. Now consider the phrases “vegan-friendly shoes,” “vegan-friendly purse,” and “vegan-friendly restaurant”: The wording distinctly suggests that “vegan” relates to a standard or identity.
Given the pervasiveness of “tips for going vegan” lists consisting entirely of food- or consumer-related suggestions, the prevalence of folks “adopting veganism” but ultimately deciding to abandon their commitment should come as no surprise. Though diet change can be a catalyst for further ethical consideration, centering diet in our discourse reinforces the misguided narrative that veganism is capable of being frivolously picked up and put down, inconsequentially.
We must also carefully consider the intent behind our words and the lasting impact they can have. When asked, “When/how did you go vegan?,” most of us respond by making direct and immediate comparisons with the diets of our past: “I was a pescatarian for (x number of) years… and then went vegan.” But in this answer, intentionally or not, veganism is being explicitly classified as a diet, whereas, “My veganism began with transitioning my diet” implies that dietary changes are but a component of the identity. Similarly, “I was Catholic for four years before going vegan” would suggest that veganism is a religion. Though animal liberation may be in its infancy by comparison, we stand to learn much from other social justice movements about the dedication to the radical reframing of our language and dialogue. When we center the well-being of our beyond-human relatives and our wounded planet, we recognize the urgency to continue developing empowering and mindful language suitable for the nuances of identity, power, and culture.
Veganism is neither the first nor the last movement for justice to be watered down and made “more palatable” within a mainstream, capitalistic society in order to be co-opted for cash. But without consciously making these shifts, we do little to effectively communicate our movement’s focus on power dynamics. By centering ourselves, we overshadow our supposed allyship with those we fight for, and we undermine veganism’s potential to be an engine of liberation and justice.
*This article was written by a grantee of The People’s Fund and reflects their original thoughts and perspective. All questions or impressions of their work can be directed to their social media linked at the end of this piece.
Yvette Baker is a writer, a social critic, and an animal liberation activist. She has devoted her work and activism to analyzing the intersections of human and beyond-human oppression through an Afro-Indigenous lens. She aims to empower the vegan movement as one for total liberation.
Mercy For Animals is proud to support Yvette as a People’s Fund grantee and grateful for her partnership in our mission to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system.