Underground Non-Advocacy – Veganuary
I recently posted a piece discussing the issues surrounding PETA UK’s latest efforts on the London underground. In this piece, following the same format, we’ll take a look at Veganuary’s contribution to the poster craze centred around their efforts at Kings Cross station. A lot of the issues surrounding Veganuary have already been discussed. We published a couple of articles about Veganuary and the concept of vegan “challenges” as a general back in November; my own can be found here, and another by Eva Lampert here. Please also consider reading this important post by the Grumpy Old Vegans from back in early 2016 – it is still as relevant now as it was then.
On Monday 19th December, Veganuary’s first advertising campaign was launched at Kings Cross St. Pancras underground station. Where one may have expected serious advocates ready to engage the public and discuss veganism as a moral imperative, the public were instead presented with a “flash performance” by vegan pole fitness instructors Terri Walsh and Michael Donohoe. Because nothing says take animal interests seriously more than two vegans spinning on a metal pole. I’m forced to wonder whether William Wilberforce ever had a “no slaves in September” campaign set to a backdrop of juggling jesters. Somehow I don’t think that would have convinced those who owned slaves to take the fundamental rights of their slaves seriously; and it doesn’t in the animal context either.
Veganuary put out 2,500 posters in total which are comprised of four different designs. The first is a relatively plain poster with a calf, a piglet and a chick, presented with the words “Try Vegan This January.” In the top left corner there’s a link to sign up to Veganuary and on the bottom right there’s Veganuary’s logo.
There are then separate posters for each of the three animals on the main poster. The first is “Ernie” the piglet:
The second poster is for “Little Eric” the chick:
And the third poster is for “Rocky” the calf:
These posters are a mix of disingenuous advertising and speciesism. The disingenuous advertising comes from the fact that one does not simply “save Rocky,” or “save Little Eric,” or “save Ernie” by trying to be vegan in January. Veganuary are suggesting here that if all you did the whole year was “try” to be vegan in January, you would be saving these animals. That is simply false. In a hypothetical world of legalised child slavery, it would be like saying you can #SaveTheChildren by trying to stop beating them. Not only that, you would be trying as part of a fixed-term “challenge.” It completely denies the pervasiveness of the exploitation with the sole purpose of the hashtag to make us humans feel better for trying. Everybody wants to “save” a cute animal but playing on that through marketing teaches nobody anything about why we cannot morally justify animal exploitation in the first place. It completely trivialises the very real exploitation that nonhumans experience by the millions every single day. We would never suggest in a human context that someone who engages in fundamental human rights violations merely “try” and stop that exploitation. We recognise that there is no “try.” If something is fundamentally wrong we owe it to the victims of that exploitation (and the exploiter for that matter) to be clear that what they are doing is violating another’s rights. After being educated, they either accept that the victim has moral value and they cease the exploitation, or they continue exploiting them. Suggesting that someone tries to respect another’s rights, without educating them as to why the victim has rights that need to be respected in the first place, is as a moral matter a denial of those rights, and as a practical matter as useless as suggesting that somebody who has never walked on stairs take the stairwell in a 100 story building as opposed to using the fully functional elevator. They won’t understand why you’re suggesting that or why they should take your request seriously.
Unlike the PETA UK posters, the Veganuary posters make reference to forms of animal treatment. This focus on treatment adds another layer of confusion to the message because in a society where the default position is welfarism, the fact that animals are killed is already accepted as the norm. Therefore, the focus on treatment leaves the message entirely open to interpretation. People already know that animals are killed and most likely suffer in the process. Unless they are educated as to why use itself represents the true moral problem (and not treatment), the rational interpretation of Veganuary’s message is not a sudden realisation of the need to abolish animal exploitation. Rather, it’s merely stating that animals are treated badly (pigs castrated without anaesthetic), and that animals of no use are disposed of (male chicks and calves). Without a message explaining that yes, the treatment of animals is horrible but that this is not the core issue, these messages can and will be interpreted in ways that merely perpetuate the false idea that all we need to do to satisfy our obligations to animals is to “reduce their suffering.”
Indeed, if a traveler happened to follow up on one of the posters and head over to Veganuary’s website, they would be confronted with nothing but information on how each individual type of animal is able to “suffer” and what their level of “intelligence” is. Neither of those things are relevant when we are talking about the right all sentient beings possess not to be used exclusively as resources. It does not matter how intelligent they are; they are all individuals who value their lives as much as we value our lives. In focusing on factors such as intelligence Veganuary are implying that cognitive characteristics are somehow relevant when determining the moral value of life. Again, this is not a message that will lead to change. It will continue to perpetuate the speciesist idea that characteristics beyond sentience are somehow relevant or required in order to be a full member of the moral community.
Veganism, like recognising any human rights violation, is not something that can be tried. Whether or not you inflict unnecessary and unjustifiable suffering and death is not something you can test out to see if it works for you, as if dipping your feet in a pool of water to see if you wish to jump in for a few minutes. When we promote it as such, we effectively deny the violation of rights that we inflict on vulnerable beings.
For the animals sake, we are obligated to promote veganism as a moral imperative, and nothing less.