I've got to confess: as a vegetarian for more than half my life and a vegan for two years now, I have yet—in all my years of animal rights (AR) activism and theory debates—to meet anyone who likes PETA. I've never met a single person who thinks they get it right. Therefore, I never lose sleep over their misogynist "be naked/don't wear fur!" campaigns that exploit women and seem to exist only for shock value. I know they have way too much money and all sorts of persuasive power, but having never met a rational, socially conscious person persuaded by their bizarre ads, why would I worry about their influence?
[Aside: May I suggest, for the record, that as a resident of a country still wholly obsessed with fur (I live in Denmark), PETA could perhaps outsource some of their anti-fur passion to regions where this remains a serious, everyday offense that I have to endure in public? I am confronted on a daily basis by women in floor-length seal coats, carrying around their dead fox stoles—complete with a tail and face—to the point that I've started to become physically ill when I see carcasses treated as accessory. When was the last time you saw an ordinary woman waltzing around in a giant mink overcoat, complete with matching furry hat in the U.S.? Fur-hating PETA folks in the U.S. have no idea how good they have it when their biggest problems are hosting elaborate Fashion Week parties.]
So while I abhor a bunch of naked women proclaiming that fur is bad—all the while continuing to eat meat, as if one animal life or species is inherently more valuable than another—I generally ignore PETA. They annoy and bore me, and I have other issues that concern me far more than their outdated, celebrity-infused antics.
Similarly, I tend to ignore the efforts of groups like The Humane Society, and more recently, Farm Sanctuary. Having worked at a farmed animal sanctuary in the past, you might wonder why I'd write off the efforts of the largest farmed animal advocacy group in the United States. To be clear, I don't wholesale dismiss their good work, and I end up emailing a lot of legislators and being better informed, legally, because of their action alerts. They also do incredible alliance work with other farmed animal sanctuaries and help organize transport for animals between locations when space is limited at a particular refuge space or shelter. I have nothing but love for any of that.
But here's the thing that a lot of activists—regardless of your chosen cause(s)—know: the larger your organization becomes, the more sacrifices you have to make. Your original ideals are compromised, your concerns turn to fundraising instead of doing advocacy work and outreach, and inevitably, you become a watered-down, mainstream version of the force for justice you set out to be. Is compromise the price of growth? Maybe.
Last week, I got a message in my inbox: Starbucks is now selling vegan cookies!!!! Vegan revolution OMG!! And my cynical first thought was, "What revolution? And why the hell should I patronize an organization I lovingly refer to as Starfucks?" Vegan cookies on demand is a lovely idea, but what about labor rights or local businesses that are run out of business by a corporation's ability to saturate a market, even if they lose money in the process? Do folks really not know the gross corporate history of the nipple-less, navel-free mermaid; their attacks on freedom of speech, the Christian outrage over her seductively spread fins? (That second part, though obviously very real to some folks, was meant to be a joke—and meant to point out that very little the company does is seen as innocuous, depending who you ask, of course.) Don't get me started on Starbucks's serious issues with coffee growers' rights and trade. Maybe I'm an anomaly as a vegan, or maybe I'm just an idealist, but I care about liberation for all, not just the animals. We shouldn't have to sacrifice one set of rights for another.
Let's go one step further. Is a homogeneous culture—one marketed and triumphed by Starbucks—one we want to support, even with anti-establishment vegan ideals? Will said vegan cookies be available beyond select hip urban locations? I'm from a small town that got its first Starbucks circa 2006. Could I really hope for a vegan cookie in central Indiana next time I go home? Because in my adopted home city, Boston, I don't need vegan cookies from a chain café. I go to the locals for my goods, and nothing's gonna change that.
Farm Sanctuary in particular has a history of championing vegetarian and vegan "successes" without analyzing the larger picture. One of the organization's early victories was getting Burger King to sell veggie burgers. That could, in theory, raise some awareness, but am I really supposed to get excited enough to patronize a chain known for low wages and factory farm-produced food? Some people would call that pandering, and similarly, getting energized about dairy-free cookies at Starbucks is just not the way to my heart.
Do you think these kinds of efforts are satisfying, or is this just another marketing ploy by an influential animal rights group that builds up their own cause more than it actually works to save animals?
Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres