A disturbing illustration has been doing the rounds on social media recently. As soon as I see it I feel a little sick. On the left, it’s a familiar image, although one that will always be disturbing: a man, presumably African-American, hanging from a tree. But next to it is a pig strung up in the same way. The caption reads: “Then we had racism: Now we have speciesism.”
I became vegan three-and-a-half years ago, and it’s the best decision I've ever made. I’ve always been disgusted by the abuse of animals within the food industry, and as soon as I realised its full extent I stopped supporting it. That said, images that juxtapose the era of black slavery with animal farming deeply disturbs me. Yet the tree hanging image isn't an isolated incident or accident. There are a number of images I've come across online that all make the same comparison, and are alarmingly common within the vegan community's activist groups, which I've now began to avoid.
On one hand, there is a fair argument to be made that the treatment of animals within the food industry resembles a form of slavery, and everything that usually accompanies it: murder, torture and abuse. Female cows are forcibly impregnated on a routine basis, and separated from their newborns. When they can no longer produce milk they're then disposed of, which is at a relatively young age. If they're female, newborn calves are born into a life of being harvested for their milk. And if they're male, they're killed. This horrific process is solely for the production of dairy, when there are plenty of delicious and healthy non-dairy alternatives.
The fate of chickens is also no secret: images of emaciated birds trapped in battery farm pens are circulated pretty regularly. Perhaps not so well known is that so-called “free-range” farms are little better than battery farms. And you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in this day and age that openly endorses animal testing.
So if you think about the gruesome realities of the meat, dairy and cosmetics industries, then it’s pretty clear – if you consume animal products in any form you contribute to the captive breeding, forced labour and murder of millions of sentient and loving creatures. It’s not entirely wrong in itself to say that this is a form of slavery.
However, there's a moral limit to how far you can take this argument. Or more specifically, where you can take it. No matter how strongly you feel about the rights of animals, it’s still so wrong to use images of other people's slavery to make your point. This isn't because it’s offensive to compare a human to a cow – the whole point of veganism is that animals are equal to humans, after all – but it's hugely offensive and insensitive to co-opt another group's history of brutal oppression.
And aside from offending people, what do the vegans behind the images even think they're achieving by making such comparisons? Veganism is a long and difficult process. I was fortunate to have had a head start, being a vegetarian already. But meat is a huge part of many cultures and religions and it is very hard to move away from that. For anyone thinking about changing their eating habits, it’s not going to help if they see vegans circulating sick memes with lynching comparisons. Also, no matter how much you disagree with the meat and dairy industry, it's important to keep in mind that comparing black slaves will only insult and hurt a hell of a lot of people.
What vegan activists should be doing is telling people directly what the issues at stake are. We can't go on ignoring the fact that animal cruelty is a disgusting part of modern life. But we should be able to fight against it without exploiting the still-open wound of slavery, and the horror that it inflicted on black bodies.
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