Book Review: A Vegan Ethic: Embracing a Life of Compassion Toward All, Mark Hawthorne (2016)

August 17th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A Concise and Compelling Introduction to Veganism and Intersectionality

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: Changemakers Books sent me a free book in exchange for an honest review. I also downloaded an electronic ARC through NetGalley.)

If, as the animal rights movement argues, there is no moral distinction between human and nonhuman animals—if animal rights are human rights—then it makes sense that we should be working for the liberation of all species.

In introducing the topic of intersectionality, pattrice [jones] asked the audience, “What is 6 times 7?” A few people yelled out, “42!” pattrice said, “OK, everybody imagine 42. Now, what is the 6 and what is the 7? You can’t say, can you? No, because the 42 is the product of the 6 and the 7 in interaction with one another.”

I think it’s safe to say that for most Black people in the United States, a polar bear on a melting ice floe is not the face of climate change—it’s Katrina.

“Compassion is a verb.”

Despite what 30+ years of PETA campaigns would have you believe, ethical veganism is not inherently incompatible with human rights. In fact, many of us vegans believe (passionately!) that the opposite is true, thanks to the concept of intersectionality.

First introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality is the idea that different forms of oppression don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather interact with one another. For example, Crenshaw coined the term to explain the myriad ways that racism and sexism interact, thus acknowledging that the oppression experienced by black women (“misogynoir”) is unique from and arguably more complicated than that experienced by black men or white women. The concept has since expanded to include all marginalized groups: women; people of color; immigrants; LGBTQ folks; those living with a physical or mental disability; sex workers; religious minorities; children and the elderly; the impoverished; and nonhuman animals.

While the animal rights movement has been a little too slow (imho) to incorporate the idea of intersectionality into its activism (see, e.g., PETA’s many problematic campaigns, not to mention their vociferous defenders), more and more vegans are expanding their circle of compassion to include human animals. In his third book, A Vegan Ethic: Embracing a Life of Compassion Toward All, Mark Hawthorne makes a concise yet compelling case for intersectionality and inclusivity. His argument is actually quite simple: “If veganism is about doing your best to not harm any sentient life, we must logically extend that circle of compassion to human animals as well.” What more is there to say?

Quite a lot, actually! The connection between animal rights, human rights, and the environment is a complex and exciting topic that could easily fill a twenty-four volume, encyclopedic set (and then some!). So it’s no small feat that the author managed to boil it down to a mere 171 pages. Less, even: The Q&A section commences at the 66% mark, leaving precious little space to the chapters on animal rights, veganism, human rights, the environment, and putting it all together. (See the TOC below.)

Yet he puts it to excellent use, exploring the many ways that the oppression of animals intersects with that of humans and the degradation of the environment. “Vegan” doesn’t always mean “cruelty-free,” for example; while it’s true that some of the worst abuses occur in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants – where workers are forced to dismember animals, many of them fully conscious, at breakneck speed; often for little pay and without bathroom breaks, even; and considering that this violence is often carried home, resulting in increased rates of domestic violence and alcoholism among workers – those who pick our fruits and vegetables are also mistreated, abused, overworked, underpaid, coated with toxic chemicals, and sexually harassed and raped. In South America, the lands of Indigenous Americans (and the homes to countless nonhuman animals, some of who belong to endangered species) are stolen and cleared to grow soybeans (most of which is fed to cows); in Borneo, it’s palm oil. Likewise, chocolate is often produced through slave labor, particularly that of children.

Food is an obvious avenue of exploration, but Hawthorne casts his net much wider: the prison-industrial complex and school-to-prison pipeline; the objectification of women (and the sexualization of meat and nonhuman animals); Black Lives Matter; cultural appropriation and the insensitive “borrowing” of imagery and slogans from other social justice movements; ecofeminism and the roots of patriarchy; the colonialist origin of zoos; and the link between interpersonal violence and animal abuse are just a few of the topics he touches upon. Hawthorne ends the main portion of the book with a look at coalition building and ideas for how vegans can reach across the aisle to find common ground with other progressive movements.

A Vegan Ethic is by no means exhaustive, not is it meant to be. Rather, it’s more of a broad-scope introduction to the idea that veganism is intersectional, too. While I would have liked to have seen a longer and more extensive conversation, I also see how the diminutive size of the book might better appeal to more cautious or timid readers. It’s a small investment, time-wise, but boy does it pack a punch!

Hawthorne addresses his appeal to two groups: vegans (who maybe haven’t given much thought to human rights), and everyone else (though a general predisposition to social justice is assumed). When an author targets such disparate groups, there’s a real danger of spreading yourself too thin and not properly serving either group. (This was my primary complaint with Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism and Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres. As a vegan, I’m already familiar with the horrors of animal agriculture. Let’s skip over that so you can tell me more about the psychology of carnism / anti-capitalism and anarchism, please!) Yet I think he did a really good job of balancing the two, as well as combining and distilling them into a cohesive argument.

THAT SAID, of course there were certain things he omitted that would have went in my own (dream world) version of the book. Using Holocaust imagery to promote veganism is offensive to many people, but it’s also inaccurate to call what’s happening to cows, pigs, and chickens in animal agriculture “genocide”. Genocide is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group”; and it certainly isn’t animal ag.’s goal to exterminate “food animals,” since that would impact their bottom line. (The treatment of wolves in the Western United States, on the other hand…)

And while it’s true that many domestic violence shelters don’t accept companion animals – with tragic results – some are starting to come around. I’d like to add “donate or volunteer to foster for a DV shelter” to the appendix! I volunteer for one of two such programs in the Kansas City area, and I cannot tell you how rewarding (and fun!) it is (babysitting dogs? sign me up!). Fostering animals who already have humans is also a great alternative for those who, like me, are apt to want to adopt ALL THE DOGS. (And thus quickly adopt yourself out of being able to foster.) I won’t lie and claim that I’ve never fallen head over heels for any of my foster furkids; but it is a wee bit easier to let them go, when there’s really no other choice. Similar programs also exist for the companion animals of deployed servicemembers and those requiring temporary hospitalization.

One major complaint I have with the book lies in the endnotes, or rather how they’re organized. Normally you indicate to the reader that there’s supplemental information or a citation available with a number, placed within the text. To find out more, the reader references the corresponding number at the bottom of the page (footnote) or the back of the book (endnote).

2016-07-29 - A Vegan Ethic Endnotes - 0001 [flickr]

In A Vegan Ethic, the endnotes are omitted from the text entirely (for aesthetic reasons, I assume?). They’re included at the back of the book and organized by chapter but, without a corresponding endnote number (or even a page number!) to go by, it’s very difficult to match text with note. The endnotes do quote a line of text, but it’s still needlessly difficult to locate it in the text. In the ebook version the endnotes are at least clickable, but this still doesn’t solve the main problem: this isn’t how people typically use endnotes. You flip from text to endnote, not endnote to text!

I was also a little disappointed with the Resources list, which doesn’t include very many books on intersectionality and veganism. Hawthorne mentions ecofeminsim and Carol Adams’s work on the sexualization of animals and the corresponding objectification of women, yet I only spotted a few ecofeminist titles, and The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat are nowhere to be found. Instead of sorting the books into categories like activism, support, cookbooks, and veganism, I think animal rights, anti-racism, feminism, anti-capitalism (etc.; similar to the chapter organization) would have been more helpful, with a generous section on veganism and intersectionality. (I haven’t updated it in a few years, but I do have a reading list on my own site.)

I waffled on the rating for several weeks, vacillating between four and five stars. Though I do think the topic merits a much lengthier exploration, I’m just excited to see fellow activists talking about it at all! Yet the more I think about the endnotes, the more irritated I become; ultimately, they’re what tipped my hand. Either way, it’s a nice intro to the topic.

Give it to: your vegan acquaintance who thinks “the Chinese” (yes, all 1.357 billion of them) are “barbarians” on account of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival; your SJ friends who scoff at your veganism as elitist, anti-human, and/or a waste of time.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgements

Introduction

Chapter 1 — On Animal Rights
Chapter 2 — On Veganism
Chapter 3 — On Human Rights
Chapter 4 — On the Environment
Chapter 5 — On a More Compassionate World Chapter
Chapter 6 — Q & A

Appendix A: Ten Ways You Can Help Animals
Appendix B: Ten Ways to Make Veganism Easier
Appendix C: Ten Ways You Can Encourage Someone Else to Go Vegan
Appendix D: Ten Ways You Can Help Humanity
Appendix E: Twelve Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Quotations
Appendix F: Resources

Notes

 

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Mark Hawthorne explores veganism and animal rights from an intersectional perspective, discussing the ways that human rights are animal rights (and vice versa). Among other things, he writes about the objectification of women (and the sexualization of meat and nonhuman animals); the prison-industrial complex; Black Lives Matter; the exploitation of immigrant labor in animal agriculture (and agriculture in general); and food deserts.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes! Obviously!

 

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