Max is a member of SoLVe and a law student at the University of Auckland. He is heavily involved in debating, and is one of the Auckland University Law Review editors in chief for 2010.
Vegetarians and vegans are often also politically outspoken, socially active, and environmentally conscious. Of course, not all vegetarians and vegans are like this, and not all of those committed to social justice choose not to eat meat or animal products. But there is surely a connection between the two strands of thought: the cliché that vegetarians and vegans are ‘leftie greenies’ has a kernel of truth. It is worth asking why this is, and exploring how the connection influences our beliefs and behaviour. Understanding the relationship between vegetarian/vegan lifestyles and social justice impulses helps to shed light on both camps of thinking, and may also encourage further crossover and cross-fertilisation between these camps.
Vegetarians and vegans are attracted to ways of living and eating for the same reasons as they may hold progressive views – and this is one easy explanation for the connection described above. The people that end up being progressive and veg(etari)an are drawn to these intellectual positions by the same forces: an inkling that the present state of society is flawed and needs to be changed; an optimistic outlook that humans have the agency to redress these injustices; and a view that the ideas that need to be put into practice are of such importance that we should make them part of our identity, our outward projection of our selves, our way of living. It is no surprise, then, that the people sharing these underlying intuitions end up in the same place politically.
But the connection does not end there. In my view vegetarianism and veganism also motivate and mobilise feelings of social justice, just as social justice intuitions can drive the decision of a person to become vegetarian or vegan. In this sense the two camps are mutually supporting and reinforcing. In particular, vegetarianism and veganism can act as levers of social awareness, pulling us upward and onward towards further progressive agendas.
When a person makes a choice to abstain from eating certain products, whether these be meat products or dairy products, she begins to live out her values – and this is one way in which social justice becomes more possible in other spheres. Political principles and theoretical positions are lifted from the faded pages of textbooks and lecture slides into the urgency of the real world. To adapt the old feminist catchcry, the personal becomes the political. For some, this may be the first time that an idea or ideal has become a reality. The choice reveals to people the need to stop and think. It highlights the value of living life within a principled framework, in a critical and conscientious way. From this recognition of the need to practice what one preaches, it is no great stretch to more careful decisions being made about food that is bought or clothes made in unsavoury conditions; individuals recognise that failing to act in day-to-day life can be damaging, and that with a bit of thought and willpower, habits can be altered. The decision to be vegetarian or vegan may prompt people into reconsidering other actions, too, that might conflict with their generally-held political views. Politics becomes lived, not just thought about, read about, or talked about. In doing so, we become people with integrity.
Because vegetarianism and veganism involves bridging the visual gap between what you eat and the suffering that may be caused by these choices, vegetarianism and veganism can also help individuals to make the leap to begin to empathise with distant problems that do not directly tug at one’s heart-strings. One of the reasons that social justice problems linger, without resolution, is that individuals either cannot feel strongly enough about a seemingly far-off issue or believe that it is not worth fighting for an injustice in which they themselves are not directly implicated: hence the struggle, for instance, to increase aid contributions to alleviate global poverty. Being a vegetarian or vegan provides the resources to allow people to minimise these barriers to social justice. It gives us the powers of imagination to think outside of ourselves, and to imagine suffering of those not in an equivalent position to us; it helps us understand the need to identify injustice even when it isn’t directly in front of us; and it places weight on the protection of the weak and the voiceless. In short, the decision to change the way we eat can change the way we think, and broaden our minds in a manner conducive to positive change in the world of social justice.
Finally, being vegetarian and vegan embeds a set of skills that may also prove useful in fighting other political and social struggles. It means that people become articulate in defending a held view. It perhaps makes people more adept at persuasion and advocacy. And it often results in the formation of communities, like SoLVe, empowering people to work together to initiate change and underlining the necessity of coming together in achieving any kind of meaningful social change.
Where do all of these arguments leave us? What can we do with the knowledge that vegetarianism/veganism may give us a deeper philosophy, a broader mindset, and a set of skills? Perhaps the links between vegetarianism/veganism and social justice offer an alternative set of arguments for being vegetarian and vegan, to the progressively-minded individual not yet convinced by animal rights or environmental claims. Perhaps the connections, when laid out for all to see, can make vegetarians and vegans more socially active, too, given that their eating choices can be shown to provide the spur for social change. Most of all, though, and most promisingly, the overlaps and parallels across these two camps reveal the possibility for greater coalition-building and unity on the Left. This is a bold and exciting possibility: once it becomes clear that joining the dots between the movements might not be all that hard, we can begin to make out – albeit only faintly as yet – the picture of a more invigorated, fertile, and unified umbrella movement: a movement that is committed to holding out an eye to the prospect of social change, and an ear to the muted cries of the vulnerable and the voiceless, human and animal.