Classism from Vegans Doesn’t Help Animals, Nonhuman or Human
While I was in Columbia with Chance for her diagnostic tests and subsequently her surgery and hospitalization (she’s recovering well, by the way; I promise a more substantial update soon), I found myself wearing an old pair of shoes constructed, in part, of leather. Every single time I put them on, I was painfully aware of what I was doing. Every time I looked down at them, I cringed. I felt emotional about wearing them. I felt guilty and wildly self-conscious about it. But there I was nevertheless, procuring surgery for one animal, gritting my teeth at the “Food Animals” sign over one of the hospital’s entrances, casually finding ways to sneak animal rights and care-for-all-animals topics into conversations with staff and caregivers, and feeling deep disappointment over how most in this place seemed to look at cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more — while wearing my leather shoes.
I don’t buy shoes. I’m fairly anti-consumerist in general, and shoes are not something on which I’ve ever felt the need to spend my finite resources. I most often wear (vegan) tennis shoes, the same pair for a couple years at a time, until they finally wear out. I go years without buying new shoes beyond replacing that pair. But at the time of Chance’s surgery, the latest pair of sneakers was temporarily out of commission, as were my beloved hippie shoes (purchased two years ago and the most expensive shoes I’ve ever bought) for all intents and purposes — they don’t fit quite right and thus slip and trip me up fairly regularly, even when the buttons closing them haven’t popped off again, and thus are absolutely not an option for when I’ll be carrying a delicate dog. And as you all now know, money has been painfully tight for me lately while I work some things out; Chance and I got through her diagnosis, surgery, hospitalization, travel costs, etc. in one piece (physically and emotionally) only because of the love and generosity of this community. So new shoes? Not something I was going to invest in right now. Thus, packing my bag involved pulling out that pair of brown Reeboks — old but still in good shape — but not without plenty of discomfort, the same discomfort I’ve felt every time I’ve needed to wear them.
And I was reminded of a post — this post — that’s been sitting here in a draft folder since December. One of my final substantive contributions to The Previous Blog was titled “What If I Can’t Afford to Replace My Wool Coat and Leather Shoes Yet?” (now archived here, on this blog). It engendered some heated debate in the comment thread and elsewhere ’round the AR web. And though I approached the topic in perhaps a shorter, lighter fashion that I would have elsewhere — on this blog, for example — here is what I intended to get across with the post:
Not everyone has a lot of disposable income. Replacing a closet full of non-vegan clothing and shoes can be expensive relative to some people’s income and resources; replacing item upon item (think about it: multiple pairs of shoes, sweaters, belts, coats, gloves, hats) can add up quickly, even if the replacements are inexpensive or even thrift-store purchases. “Inexpensive” is relative — the same choice that is easy and inexpensive for one person can be quite complicated and financially prohibitive for another; too many people fail to recognize or are incapable of relating to the realities of some of their fellow humans’ financial situations. And so my recommendation to readers was, yes, to replace their animal-based (e.g., leather, wool, down) clothing as soon as they’re able — for a number of reasons, including their own peace of mind and the message the wearing sends — but to cut themselves some slack if they need to make this a process. I never condoned the wearing of animals — I’ve written numerous posts asking people not to purchase leather, wool, down, and so on (and there’s another one coming up) — but I did express understanding that the matter of already-owned items is a complex issue from the perspectives of income, consumerism, environmentalism, waste, and more, while admitting my own conflicts in this area.
Nevertheless, in the days following, some fellow vegans took offense to my post (and, in some cases, wrote responses to and summaries of my post that completely misrepresented what I had written or that even claimed I’d said things completely the opposite of what I’d actually said), and one of the responses in the comment thread included this:
There is absolutely no reason to keep this clothing. Some of you say you’ve kept these items for “frugal reasons” or to defy “consumerism.” These are weak excuses to justify keeping animal skins/wool/silk in your closets. You are looking for an excuse to wear these items.
There are other people out there that can’t find a matching pair of shoes let alone a fancy wool pea coat. You can donate these items to someone else who has less than you instead. Every single one of you, who posted here, has more than these people. If you can afford a computer and money each month to pay for your internet – you are not exactly poor. Trade it in for a vegan item. Do anything but “occasionally” wear it or leave it in your closet to rot.
And this comment, like others, floored me. In responses such as this, I heard ugly echoes of the classist, insensitive response to a newspaper photograph last year that showed a homeless man in line to get a free meal at a shelter — while daring to have a cell phone in his hand (Michelle Obama was volunteering, and he was snapping a photo of her). Absurdly, people seemed to think that his having a cell phone was proof that he didn’t need help, that he wasn’t hungry and in need of food, and that he was just lazy and not bothering to get a job. Just because he had a cell phone — you know, those rare luxury items that so few people have in the United States and that, apparently, you’re immediately supposed to hawk when times get tough and you need money. Who cares if selling the phone would mean giving up contact with loved ones or potential employers ? If you’re poor, you don’t deserve a phone and contact with the world. And that’s the privileged, unaware attitude I perceived in some of these responses to my post, even if the critics weren’t conscious of the implications of their statements.
I’ve been struggling lately to pay my bills and pull everything together, but with the help of friends, tax money, and yes, credit cards, I’ve still managed to feed myself healthy foods and feed my dogs and get them medical care and stay in my home while I work this out. I am still lucky. I am still privileged compared to many. But there are other people — good people, ethical people, hardworking people, people who want to do the right thing — whose circumstances are far, far more difficult than my own. There are impoverished vegans and potential vegans, people who can’t pay even the basic bills each month, who buy the cheapest food they can (organics, for example, are completely out of the question) and still must skip meals regularly, who are at constant risk of having their power shut off or their eviction notice delivered, who can’t afford any kind of health insurance, who don’t have even the spare five-dollar bill to buy a used item at a thrift shop, assuming there’s even a shop they can get to. And the elitism and presumptuousness that underlie bold statements not only about what people can or cannot afford but even about what people’s private motives and thoughts are sadden me. I wrote that post in the spirit of reaching out to and welcoming people, no matter their circumstances, and hoped that some people who could relate would end up reading it. So it was horrifying to see some vegans use the post and responses to it to engage in privileged, unaware shaming. And then we wonder why people think of veganism as something for the privileged.
So here are some bullet-point responses to the critiques of my original post, some of which I included in that comment thread:
* The clear assumption underlying some of the comments was that vegans must be financially stable and that those struggling must be “other people.” It’s not possible to be battling personal poverty and be committed to animal rights? To be someone who is both compassionate and in need of a little help and compassion?
* Having access to a computer and the Internet says absolutely nothing about someone’s financial state and ability to replace her wardrobe. As I said in the comment thread, there are plenty of vegans and potential vegans who don’t own their own computer or have an Internet connection but who go to the library to use a computer or to cafes to use the Internet on cheap (or hand-me-down) laptops. And so what if someone does have his own computer and Internet connection? Are we seriously going to argue that someone should have to forgo these tools for communication, networking, advocacy, job-searching, and more because it’s more important that he immediately pitch-and-replace according to our standards? Are we really going to play the vegan police and the poor police and judge vegans and potential vegans in this way? And when the hell was it determined that Internet access should be reserved for the middle and upper classes?
* Having a “fancy” pea coat also says nothing about someone’s current financial state. That “fancy” coat may have been purchased years ago in different circumstances, it may have been a gift, and it may have been purchased from a thrift store in the first place. Even a wardrobe full of wool, leather, and down is not proof that the person spent bookoo bucks on those items in the first place or that, if she did, she still has those kinds of financial resources.
* While we’re telling people to donate their animal-based clothing and then buy non-animal clothes from those same organizations and stores if they can’t afford new, we’re forgetting that options are limited at thrift stores. Even if you have one in your area and have the ability to get there, they’re not like department stores, with consistent offerings and sizes and styles. Raise your hand if you want to be the one to tell the already frustrated, stressed, and depressed vegan (longtime or new) who’s struggling to get by in the dead of winter that if her options are limited, she must choose and wear to the bus stop the not-very-warm vegan coat that’s two sizes too small or buy and wear on her bike ride to work the bulky vegan coat that’s three sizes too big because the used wool coat that’s just her size will earn her the ire of other vegans, the ones who have the time, resources, emotional energy, and arrogance to go around tearing into the vegans with less.
* Refusing to take into account the environmental impact (which also causes harm to animals!) of our discard-and-buy, discard-and-buy society — even when what we’re buying is technically vegan — is irresponsible.
Again, I do believe and argue that we should eliminate our use of clothing made from animals. But I stand by my argument from December that it’s acceptable to make this a process, that it isn’t necessary for — and shouldn’t be expected of — those without ample means to attempt to replace everything all at once or feel shame for not being able to. These issues of what and when to purchase and what, when, and how to discard are not black and white. Environmental impact matters. Sweatshop purchases matter. Individuals’ personal financial situations matter. And people matter.
But of course, let’s talk for a moment about the impact on nonhuman animals here too, given that the inexcusable suffering and death we inflict on them is at the heart of this matter, and given that we all share the wish to eliminate their exploitation and our participation in it. Food is something we consume quickly and have the opportunity to replace quickly. Except in the cases of the uber-privileged, this cannot be said of a closet full of clothes, shoes, and accessories. We don’t have the built-in opportunity to make new clothing choices every few weeks. So show me a person who’s doing her best to live a compassionate, nonviolent life and who is kind to her fellow animals of all species, humans included, but who’s wearing an old pre-vegan pair of leather boots and can thoughtfully, respectfully explain why — why she is still wearing them and why she plans to replace them and will never buy animal products again. Then show me a person who’s wearing expensive vegan garb but who pauses from her own advocacy for compassion and nonviolence to deride the first woman, calling her a self-justifying hypocrite and figuratively clasping her hands over her ears while the first woman tries to explain her perspective and situation. Which person are people going to be willing to talk with and learn from? The person who can explain her process and be sympathetic to their situation, while encouraging them to start making the changes they can? Or the person who apparently can’t relate to their circumstances at all and is intent on shaming even the person who is already in the process of changing what she can? From my vantage point, the answer is obvious.
Photo by Flickr user nicole