Ethical Veganism as Anti-Intellectualism: Eurocentric White Masculinist Traditions of Intellectualism


James McWilliams wrote a new blog piece called Modest Proposal. He critiques the vegan movement as not self-reflexive and also makes the observation that the movement is rooted in anti-intellectualism. He basically asks if one can make an ethical argument for veganism that is based on intellectualism: the theory that knowledge is wholly derived from reason and rationalization; the theory that emotions cannot produce intellectually rigorous based knowledge systems.

How interesting….

If you have spent any time with academics involved in critical animal studies who practice veganism, you will find a rich canon of intellectually rigorous research that is pro-vegan– some rooted in Eurocentric traditional notions of intellectualism and some not. All of these scholars are very much part of the vegan movement, which is not a monolith, but like any movement, has a plethora of varying perspectives.

I wrote an award winning Masters thesis at Harvard University in 2007. I was deeply critical of the vegan mainstream’s “post-racial” practices of white supremacy…however, these intellectual inquiries did not lead me away from being vegan. My thesis critiqued veganism in a way that I hoped would help build a wider sense of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) for those who didn’t know that being ‘post-racial’ (i.e. ignoring systemic racism) is in fact an act of violence. In 2013, I received a PhD from UC Davis which also interrogated unconscious ‘normative’ whiteness within vegan food guides. After using social science based research, I did not find myself straying away from practicing veganism. If anything, the intersections of critical animal studies, critical food, critical race feminist, and critical whiteness studies that I used for the dissertation produced an intellectually rigorous analysis of vegan mainstream’s ‘pitfalls’ without proposing that vegans should stop being vegan for ethical reason. But most interesting, since doing my scholarship, which formerly started in 2002 at Harvard University, when mostly white vegans learned about my work, many made the accusation that critical race and critical whiteness inquiries were ‘too emotional’; that ’embodied knowledge’ gained through racialization (and other identities) was not part of the tradition of intellectualism found in anti-speciesist philosophy (like Peter Singer or Regan); and because it didn’t fit that rubric of intellectualism, they conveniently could dismiss my contributions.

I could propose that the coveted mainstream European philosophical canon of the USA academe is anti-intellectual if intellectualism is all about reason and rationalization based on non-emotions. After all,  white supremacist and masculinist logic are this canon’s underpinnings; it has an emotional and irrational obsession with being ‘objective’; with denying that racialized consciousness/embodied experience impact the knowledge that comes from the mostly white bodies that produce it (or at least are allowed to produce it in Global West/North academe). How much more emotional and irrational can one get than panicking, becoming enraged, angry, defensive at the notion that their white cisgender man centered & usually speciesist based privileges (at the individual and systemic levels) should be critiqued? And how convenient that those that hold and still create power and resources (systemically in the Global West and North) are those who are emotionally ‘on edge’ about the very prospect of losing that racialized-cisgendered-heteronormative based power? The power to dictate what is intellectually rational knowledge and what isn’t?  Instead, these intense emotional fears are masked as rational and intellectualism. I also think about the feminist vegan ethics of care traditions, started by mostly women, that was criticized for being ’emotional’ versus ‘intellectually rational’ as reasons for having love and compassion for non-human animals.  And let’s not forget who, in the Global West and North, were ‘objectively’ classified as being incapable of intellectualism (I’ll give you a hint: everyone except white cisgender men).  So, what’s going on here?

Perhaps he is deeply hurt that his chapter was not accepted and his initial reaction is that Vegan Publishers is anti-intellectual? And strange that Vegan Publishers, to him, epitomizes the vegan movement when it is only one small example of one vegan perspective. I know we all have these knee jerk reactions when we are hurt; hey, we’re human, so I get it.  However, to ask someone if being vegan for ethical reasons needs to be argued through intellectualism (probably defined by a white cisgender man-centric European Philosophical canon) is missing the point; it shows a lack of compassion and quite a bit of arrogance; it displays a lack of awareness and a lack of critical self-reflection of the white, Euro-centric, heteronormative, able-bodied and often speciesist underpinnings of intellectualism. Gathering from much of McWilliams’ writing, it is apparent to me that he draws from the mainstream European canon of philosophy found in the Global West and North’s academic departments and libraries; nothing wrong with that– But what I take issue with is the lack of self-reflexivity of this philosophical canon by writers like McWilliams. And let’s note the elephant in the room: his latest post shows the pain of being rejected and that the blog post is an emotional response to that (whether he admits it or not).

All traditions of intellectual inquiry and ethics have their shortcomings, including intellectualism. Take note: I come from the traditions of critical race feminism, critical whiteness studies, critical food studies, and decolonial theory, so that is how I read his writing. We have our shortcomings too :-). I would love to know, after reading his post, what are your thoughts on his modest proposal and intellectualism.

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5 thoughts on “Ethical Veganism as Anti-Intellectualism: Eurocentric White Masculinist Traditions of Intellectualism

  1. McWilliams falls back on the old tired trope of “It is impossible to live without taking life, therefore it is impossible to truly be vegan.” While it is true that some vegans quite incorrectly state that our lifestyle is “cruelty-free,” that doesn’t mean that the entire exercise of veganism is a lost cause. It’s a matter of causing the least possible harm. Which, as you point out, is the principle of ahimsa (“do no harm”) in action.

  2. Hi Breeze, my new book is actually titled, “A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.” The theme results from my years of critiquing problematic pathways in the movement; I have become so frustrated with the status-quo of animal rights, one that is based in nonprofit ideology, sexism, and racism with little to no respect for evaluation for efficacy. In doing so, I am careful to recognize that a “rational approach” must be handled carefully, lest it dismiss the role of emotional response and feminine & non-white ways of knowing. I am careful to explore how the rational system and white masculine knowledge has always been rooted in power and, as you say, masks the masculine perspective as “objective.”

    As for McWilliams, he has consistently supported the argument that veganism is not necessary, that animals are lesser, and that humans should be allowed to maintain the privilege of oppressing and consuming animals. In a recent article, he flat out says he is not against eating meat. Now why be surprised in the least when an anti-oppression publisher rejects his pro-oppression argument? Especially when that same argument dominates mainstream thinking and can find resonance in 99.9% of the social space? Entitlement.

    He has dug in his heels regarding the role of women, as well. Rather than practicing reflexivity on the impact his words may be having on vulnerable groups, he blames others as having the problem. It is interesting that you have unpacked his highly emotional response which he carefully hides under “anti-intellectualism” rhetoric. As with many male-identified leaders in the movement–when their entitlement to having a voice and opinion in every space is denied, when their entitlement to being an expert, or a hero worshiped in the movement is denied, he lashes out on those who have denied him this privilege. You may or may not remember, but I called him out on his promotion of sexism in the movement a few years ago and he launched an all-out witchhunt, encouraging his “fans” to harass me and insult me based on my gender. It was a horrific experience, and I’m sure completely “emotion-free” on his end (that was sarcasm). It was one of the most upsetting experiences in the movement for me –what I would now describe as a “wakeup call” to the reality of patriarchal violence in animal rights.

    Beside McWilliams, there are some even darker spaces in the animal rights movement where non-white/non-male ways of knowing are even more insidiously attacked…which has informed some of the writing in my new book..but does not need to see the light of day in this post. It would be too triggering. I think it’s enough to know that it exists.

  3. It’s wrong to inflict easily avoidable harm on the innocent. We know this intuitively; it’s basic decency. But some of the attempts to get around it are long-winded rationales which are emotional responses dressed up as logic. In fact, they might be attempts to block some of the emotions that are our best qualities, such as compassion and mercy.

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