Elad Ben Elul

Anthropology, Digital Life & Food

Vegans, humanists and materiality – or : are vegans kinda racist?

What makes us human?

What makes us “human”?

While some vegans quietly change their eating habits, many others see their veganism as a bigger mission and as an ongoing battle against the evils of the world. Groups that publish phone numbers and addresses of ex-vegans and lead social media attacks on meat restaurants do not represent most vegan experience but do give us an idea on how committed vegans can become.

It has been suggested that the fundamentalist approach to veganism sets a type of a secular-modern religion. Anthropologists have de-constructed the elements that form a religion into three main parts: Ethos (A divine belief or ideology), Pathos (a congregation), and Theos (Tools, rules or methods). In that sense, vegans experience themselves as part of a community, differentiated from the rest of the world, and as followers of some sort of truth. Moreover, they feel it is their duty to spread the word and convert more people in hope of enlarging the impact of their ideology. But the vegan-religion analogy is a pretty obvious one. I would like to discuss something deeper regarding the social perception (held by vegans and meat-eaters) that eating only fruit and veg sets them in a higher moral status as humans*. To discuss this I will have to go back the 17th century and elaborate on the Western hierarchical division between human and non human.

Body and Mind- A bit of history


“They enslaved the Negro, they said, because he was not a man, and when he behaved like a man they called him a monster.” C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938)

J. Vining writes in an article on the distinction between man and nature:

“The Enlightenment brought with it feelings of domination over nature. Descartes (1637) advanced the philosophy that human minds and bodies were separate. Other forces in play made it a relatively short logical link to the idea that humans were separate from nature and dominant over it.”

So, although debates around what makes us human goes back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle, they really took off during the enlightenment era, when many people aspired to break free from the confines of Christian religion and establish a modern movement of philosophical and scientific thought. How do you come about explaining what it means to be human without turning to religion? It seems like in order to define ourselves as distinct from nature and from the world we had only to rely on our intellect, our rational, our minds. In the age of Enlightenment knowledge, manners and intellectual were not only added value but the very core of what makes us human and separates us from the apes.

This moment in time is also noted to be the moment when body and mind became separate- the Cartesian split (or “Dualism”): there is our material existence as physical substance, bodies and objects and there is our spiritual, immaterial existence- our minds.  This reductionist approach (led by René Descartes) is also the point where Academic disciplines split between Natural Science and the Humanities. But what does this got to do with vegans?

Well this new concept of what makes us human brought with it an entire classification system that was fundamentally hierarchical. First there is man, then animals, then plants. What distinguishes man from the others is not emotions, movements, desires or the mere fact םf being on earth (all these can be claimed to be shared by all groups) –  but his immaterial mind. Things got messy when scientific theories, influenced by this approach, began to justify institutions like slavery, by categorising Black people as sub-human. Because Black people did not obey their Enlightened definition of what it is to be human, it was possible and even necessary to treat them as animals or objects- move them around, breed them, cage them, enslave them. Laws that forbidden Black people to read and write are a classic example of how governments prevented groups from being “human” so that it is still moral to enslave them.

Anthropologists have long discussed how native and pre-capitalist societies do not distinguish body and soul, substance and spirit, immaterial and material in the same way. Native American, Australian Aboriginals and West African tribes, are just some of those cultures who do not follow this dualism (and sometimes simplistic) classification but a more fluid and complex system in which all “things” can have a life, a spirit, a name (Thank you Pocahontas…). Rituals are made when killing an animal, blessings are said when picking and seeding plants and much more.
How do we define humanity today?
Although we’ve grown wiser and see humanity in a much more diverse way, we still have a pretty limited notion of what it means to be a living creature on earth as we still hold a set of rules and ideas regarding the respect and treatment living creatures are entitled to. In a similar way to how Western society grew to understand that all humans are humans, even if they are different, we judge the “humanity” of all creatures by placing great importance on emotions. We are humans because we feel anger, pain, happiness, love. Once those emotions are reflected in other living creatures we are suddenly confronted with the idea that they should also be emancipated. The smiling eyes of a dog happy to see his owner, the crying of a cat hungry for food, the fear in the eyes of a cow led to be slaughtered. These emotions cuts through our hearts like knives because they reflect our own humanity and confront us with the “humanity” of other creatures. This is the point where vegans understand it is wrong to enslave the animal kingdom- because they are just like us and hence deserve the respect we deserve. We often hear arguments about how animals “think and feel” which means they shouldn’t be eaten- we even distinguish between different animals by saying a certain animal is very clever or sensitive and so eating it will be even worse.
A lot of these ideas not only come from a behavioural and intellectual reflection between us and the animals but from the bodily experience of being in the world- we have eyes like theirs, hearts, hands and legs, wombs that carry babies. The main point to be drawn from here is that in many ways we still define humanity according to similarity to ourselves. We still have a set of ideas related to how our bodies, our intellects, our expression of emotions and how it should all look like. These ideas determine if we are indeed living creatures worthy of “human” treatment.
What about Plants?
Alice in Wonderland- if they had a face would we still eat them so easily?

Alice in Wonderland- if they had a face would we still eat them so easily?

Just as research and history constantly shows us that all the “scientific” claims that races have better or worse intellectual abilities are imagined (e.g. smaller skulls mean smaller minds), and that animals have a rich and smart living experience beyond what we ever imagined (e.g. all those memes about dogs adopting hedgehogs are crazy right?), there is a lesser known school of thought regarding plants. Philosophers and Plant researchers have studied the amazing experience of plants, who have a desire to live, to mark territory, to breed, to communicate with other plants and animals, to pass on information, to use clever tactics and strategies of survival and growth and much more. Plants have a variety of “characters” that in human terms can be described as good and bad, generous and selfish etc. All these led many philosophers to state that plants have conciousness and even a notion of “self”.
Other studies discussed plant’s ability to feel pain when it is sliced or burnt. Mushrooms (which are a type of hybrid between animals and plants) are proven to be incredibly intelligent and posses an understanding of space and time, as well as the ability to transmit messages between each other. Books like “Plant-Thinking: A philosophy of Vegetable Life” by Michael Marder’s have pioneered an incredibly rich understanding of the secret life of plants. Truth is we judge them from our subjective (and even arrogant) humanist perspective of the world, as not worthy of human treatment. Because they don’t speak our language, because their bodily structure is different, because their notion of time and “self” is different and unknown to us- we deem them to a life of colonization. We refuse to listen to them.
My aim here was not to say we should stop eating plants and live on solar energy neither was it to say vegetarianism is wrong in anyway, but to try and challenge or de-construct the cultural, social and historical schools of thought that lead so many to believe that eating animals is not moral and that eating plants is. It is crucial that we do not continue the Dualist thinking of the 17th Century and try to expand and complex where we draw the lines between human and non-human, and what are the implications of those lines. If vegans want to understand why so many people do not feel as strongly as they do about the pain of animals, they should ask themselves similar questions about plants- it is a matter of empathy and how much I manage to see myself in someone (or something) else. I believe once these questions are further explored we will take the debate of morality, humanity and how we should behave in this world, to much more interesting terrains. This can be channelling the battles to how we do things and not whether we should do them or not (e.g. discuss the industrialisation and quality of meat and veg, the methods of killing, the quantities and consumption and more).
*Of course there are many other factors to discuss such as the link of Western veganism to White middle class and elites living in a highly secular and industrialised society as well as the health factors involved in the consumption of meat (although this are always subject to change by various theories).

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , .
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