Why I Won’t Be Waving a Vegan Flag
On the wrist of my dominant hand is my only tattoo: the word “Vegan” in a legible cursive in black ink. Always visible, this tattoo initiates advocacy conversations when I least expect it. Signalling to those who are interested in veganism that I’m receptive to answering questions about being vegan, it has started conversations in the most unlikely of places where I normally wouldn’t have thought to advocate—on the bus, in coffee shops, in dance classes, in locker rooms, while out shopping.
There are three main problems with this flag as I see it: first, it centres vegans in veganism and vegan advocacy; second, the way in which it seeks to brand veganism is antithetical to veganism as a matter of morality and social justice; third, it creates a sense of false unity.
It’s quite troubling that we vegans so often place our focus on what it means to be vegan (and to centre ourselves or our groups in our advocacy) rather than on the message that veganism is the abstention from the avoidable exploitation of other animals. This kind of misdirected focus can be seen in the tendency of those who proclaim themselves to be ethical vegans yet who advocate primarily from the standpoint of health or weight-loss, or those who deem that any critique of their tactics is a personal attack, bullying, or shaming rather than a critical analysis of the best way to advocate for the victims of animal exploitation. And when we brandish a flag as a marker of our identity in relation to our moral position, this once again seems to centre vegans in veganism.
In an interview with Tivonews, the flag’s designer, Gad Hakimi, stated that he was inspired, in creating the flag, by the Rainbow Flag of the LGBT movement, and intended that the vegan flag would help create a sense of identity and unity among vegans. But vegans don’t need a flag because we’re not an oppressed group that needs to self-identify and forge community and solidarity; if you remember why we’re vegan, it’s because we don’t want to use animals anymore. Our advocacy is not self-advocacy; we are not marginalised.
Nor will veganism benefit from being turned into a commercial brand. Hakimi mentions branding in his intention to design a vegan flag, and, only a day after its launch, merchandise bearing the flag is already being developed. The commercialisation and branding of a moral position is worrying. I’ve written before about why I don’t think billboards and bus ads are either appropriate or useful in disseminating the vegan message, and I think that capitalising on this particular moral position falls prey to some of the same problems. But in this case, there are additional problems: a vegan flag on a dress turns a moral position into a fashion statement, when we’re already trying to shake off the perception among celebrities and their followers that veganism is a trend; the flag is freely available for distribution or resale and has been designed in consultation with a number of animal orgs, and so it will inevitably be used as a symbol of various moral positions and manifestations of moral confusion that frequently claim to be rooted in “veganism.”
Hakimi also concluded that the flag was not about animals, but rather about “our love for nature as earthlings”. Although he does make a nod towards the equivalent moral value of humans and nonhumans, the flag is most certainly environmental in its focus with the colours symbolising sea, air, and land, and it positions humans as protectors of this environment and animals as part of that environment rather than co-inhabitants of it, speaking of vegans’ love for nature and our desire for a clean environment. While Hakimi clearly recognises what is at the heart of veganism, the flag, perhaps because of the desire of the Facebook group in consultation with which it was developed, is far from clear in representing veganism as a moral position centered on the rights of other animals to be free from our exploitation.
Although I have no doubt that the intentions of Hakimi and of the individuals who will purchase and use this flag are good, the loss of focus on nonhuman animals concerns me.
All too often, we see vegans erasing other animals from their understanding of veganism. Veganism is not about us; it’s about nonhumans and their right to be free from our domination and subjugation–their right not to have their most basic interests taken away because “mmm, bacon” or because those shoes made from their skins are so comfy or look great with those trousers. Where we can, we should advocate our hearts out for the nonhuman animals who are exploited by the trillions each year. But as I have written again and again, we should not harm other humans in doing so; we ought not lose sight of whom our advocacy is for; and we must not centre ourselves in this.
Equally importantly, we must stop trying to pretend that we’re all unified and striving for the same goal. I, for example, don’t want meat reduction; I don’t want vegetarianism; I don’t want language that draws on human trauma; I don’t want violent tactics; I don’t want nonhumans first rhetoric; I don’t want property damage; I don’t want lettuce ladies or histrionics in supermarkets or restaurants. And I don’t want a flag that pretends that all vegans are in accord on these and other matters.
I applaud the creative efforts that went into designing this flag and I appreciate the obvious enthusiasm for veganism that led to its creation. As I wrote above, I don’t doubt the sincerity or question the intentions of its designer or its individual customers. But we need to be very careful about turning veganism into something it’s not. And it’s not about us; it’s not about marketing; and vegans are as different from each other in how we deliver the moral message (and what we claim that means) as we could possibly get.