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How Political Science Helped Me to Understand the Vegan/Animal Rights Movement and Become a Better Activist

By Alessandra Seiter — April 21, 2014
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“Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America” by Frances Fox Piven

One of my very best friends and I share an interest in contemplating mainstream human conceptions of non-human animals. We both reject the notion that humans are a superior species, and that non-humans exist for our purposes. We both read literature with an eye toward human-animal relations as showcased in texts. We’ve both infused a number of our academic papers with deep considerations of non-human animals. And yet, I am vegan, and my friend is not.

When I could no longer quiet the nagging voice in my head that wondered how our similar mindsets yielded such disparate habits, I approached him – not in an antagonistic manner, but out of genuine confusion. To my surprise, he explained that he is not vegan because he doesn’t believe that his personal dietary choices can significantly impact the social institutions that contribute to the enormity of animal agriculture.

Honestly, I don’t either. Even a lifetime of my choosing soy milk over cow’s milk in my morning green smoothie won’t put a noticeable dent in the economic success of the dairy industry. Of course, the personal need to not implicate myself in an oppressive system of animal exploitation plays a large role in my veganism, but so too does joining a larger social movement – defined in the world of political science as “a set of people who […] commit themselves to a shared identity, a unified belief, a common program, and a collective struggle to realize that program” – of animal rights and veganism.

But why am I quoting political scientists here? Well, because for me and others who seek to effect large-scale change for non-human animals, veganism is a highly political lifestyle. Rather than finding this fact intimidating, I see it as opening the door for us in the vegan/animal rights movement to apply certain political theories to our activism, so that it reaches far beyond our individual choice to scramble tofu instead of eggs.

I first began to view veganism through a lens of political theory while reading a book by celebrated political scientist Frances Fox Piven, entitled Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). By spotlighting periods of egalitarian reform in American political history brought about by on-the-ground activism – namely, the abolition movement and the 20th-century labor movement – Piven argues that successful social transformation lies in the hands of regular people who band together to advocate for their beliefs and values. When I reached the section of Piven’s book that lays out certain practices shared by triumphant social movements, I couldn’t help but compare them with those of the vegan/animal rights movement.

Practice #1: disruption (boycotts, riots, mass demands for policy changes) of institutionalized cooperation dependent on a population’s continuing contributions. The institutions from which we animal rights activists are withdrawing our cooperation include animal agriculture, vivisection, and the zoo industry, and we’re doing it in a number of ways: boycotting food, clothing, cosmetics, etc. that contain animal flesh and secretions. “Rioting” in the form of organized protests. Demanding policy changes, with the help of national organizations, by challenging ag-gag laws and seeking legal personhood for non-human animals. And of course, animal activists everywhere are constantly finding new ways to change the world for animals (where have I heard that before?), helping to grow our movement in scope and efficacy.

Practice #2: (actually, not so much a practice, as a necessary context): societal circumstances friendly to a specific sort of change. Perhaps because of a deeper understanding of oppressor-oppressed relationships, an ever more urgent concern with the ecological state of our planet, or other factors, the mainstream really does seem posed to accept veganism. According to a recent poll, 2.5 percent of Americans currently eat a vegan diet, and it only takes 10 percent of a population to do or believe something in order for it to significantly affect a society. We can see veganism’s fast-growing popularity in its becoming a trend, a cuisine, and a household word; in the outspokenness of respected vegan celebrities; and in increasing discussions in mainstream publications of changing relations between human and non-human animals (Nicholas Kristof, anyone?). With the continually mounting disruption mentioned above, reaching that 10 percent threshold seems like a tangible goal.

Practice #3: a confidence in the power of ordinary people and their coordinated behaviors. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Reminding those who are not yet involved in the vegan/animal rights movement of this under-acknowledged fact can help to challenge the notion by which my friend abided – that individual veganism has no measurable effect on societal practices. Additionally, reminding ourselves of this fact can prevent us animal activists from losing hope when change doesn’t come as fast as we’d like.

Practice #4: a willingness to break the rules and accept the consequences of doing so. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean breaking the law. Indeed, engaging in such perfectly legal forms of disruption as discussed above can constitute “breaking the rules,” and “willingness” to do so involves a commitment to not back down in the face of opposition or difficulty. Just as veganism/animal rights must be a collective endeavor, finding the strength to continue the trying work of social change must involve a community of determined activists.

As exemplified by my friend’s hesitancy toward veganism, many people don’t yet understand it as a legitimate social movement, and as such tend to cause us animal activists to doubt whether our lifestyles are having any far-reaching effects. However, reading literature in the realm of political science, including Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, can effectively suppress that doubt by helping us to view our lifestyles as coordinated action within a movement that is constantly gaining power.

With this view, I believe that we can become better activists by reminding others that veganism doesn’t just involve adding soy milk to our morning green smoothie, but exists as a necessary aspect of an exciting form of progressive change.






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