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Vegan protesters reject righteous domination



On Monday, a coordinated series of animal rights protests took place across the country. Vegan protestors occupied abattoirs in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, and blockaded one of Melbourne's busiest intersections. To say these protests were controversial would be an understatement.

Promotional image from the movie Dominion shows a cow about to be slaughtered.Social media was flooded with angry meat-eaters posting photos of their meat-based meals, which they claimed were inspired by the 'vegan terrorists' or 'vigilante vegans'. The Prime Minister called the protestors 'unAustralian', arguing: 'This is just another form of activism that I think runs against the national interest, and the national interest is [farmers] being able to farm their own land.'

More intriguing, to me, was the reaction of many progressive people, who expressed responses ranging from discomfort to outright rage. The protestors were accused of using coercive tactics to force their personal views on other people, and of choosing tactics that didn't help their cause because they were either disruptive to traffic, trespassed on private property, or harassed farmers. Others accused vegans more broadly of being racist, classist, ableist and blind to their privilege.

Frankly this topic is a minefield, and it's impossible to respond thoughtfully to all of these critiques in the space of a short column. So, let me briefly address one issue upfront: the concerns around white veganism and its blindness (and worse) to other systems of domination and oppression are completely legitimate and deserve serious attention, but they do not fundamentally undermine the central ethical arguments of veganism.

Furthermore, white people didn't invent veganism — the ethical concept of Ahimsa, or compassionate nonviolence, for example, is a key tenet of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and has led many to adopt essentially vegan lifestyles.

In apparent contrast to the principle of Ahimsa is the biblical call for dominion. This occurs at several points in the Christian Bible, but the most relevant is Genesis chapter 1 verses 26-28: 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'

While theological debate continues as to the true meaning of these verses (with many arguing — convincingly to my mind — that the original text implies a kind of responsible, even compassionate, stewardship), the fact is that our culture has largely adopted a concept of dominion that equates to righteous domination over the earth.


"Veganism is a key part of a broader attempt to reject this damaging ethos of domination and to fundamentally challenge the structures and practices that normalise and uphold it."


It is this concept of dominion that is portrayed and challenged in the Australian documentary, Dominion, the 12-month anniversary of which prompted Monday's protests. Only a sense of righteous domination could justify the structural and systematic violence that is inflicted on nonhuman animals in the overwhelming majority of animal agriculture — violence that is captured in excruciating detail in frame after frame of the film.

Similarly, only a sense of righteous domination could justify our pillaging of the earth for timber, minerals and other 'resources'. Tellingly, the words Morrison used in response to the vegan protests were eerily similar to the words government ministers used to condemn the successful litigation against Adani's Carmichael coal mine. Those litigants were also labelled 'vigilantes' and condemned for acting against the 'national interest'. This ethos of domination is foundational to capitalism and to the colonial project it spurred.

And the results have been devastating. By arrogantly holding ourselves above nature, we have caused untold destruction to the ecosystem and ourselves.

For me, veganism is a key part of a broader attempt to reject this damaging ethos of domination and to fundamentally challenge the structures and practices that normalise and uphold it — and so I do understand the reactions of the angry meat-eaters and our Prime Minister. This system under which (certain) humans exercise dominion — or righteous domination — over the rest of the planet has gone unquestioned for so long in our culture that it seems as natural as the air we breathe. The foundational role that it plays in our way of life and our identity makes it inevitable that any challenge will be met with controversy, even anger.

And this brings me back to the progressive critiques I mentioned above, since very few of them would be levelled against other kinds of environmental activism. Nit-picking about tactics or the ethics of 'forcing your choices on others' is most convincing if you see veganism as an apolitical, personal choice. But many vegans are not seeking the right to individually step outside of a damaging system of domination, they are fighting to dismantle it.

Personally, I have hesitated in the past to adopt such a hardline attitude — believing that a holistic approach that recognises the value of incremental change might be more effective. But, ultimately, I changed my mind and have even started to wonder if giving out cookies for supporting 'humane' slaughter does much more than help to perpetuate the entire system.

Of course we are all going to fall short, but if systematic domination is both damaging and unethical, then the only defensible goal is to reject it wholesale. We are just too good at making excuses for ourselves to aim for anything less.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Promotional image from the movie Dominion shows a cow about to be slaughtered.

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, climate change, veganism



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Existing comments

I thought you might find it interesting that Genesis actually only allows a vegan diet (Gen 1:29-30) until after the flood when God gives Noah permission to eat meat (Gen 9: 3-5). Mainly because humans were just so hopeless at doing the right thing, God had given up. This is a little known fact and most Christians find it confronting when told about it (Western Christian being big meat eaters). I recently had a discussion re veganism on an Economist Fb post on factory chicken raising. Although I am anti factory farming I did point out that there are many reasons to take it slowly, livelihoods need to be transformed, indigenous cultures include hunting & meat eating in their cultures, some people have trouble living healthily without meat protein, among a few. I don't believe two wrongs make a right either, so don't agree with violent protest, especially where children are present. It's a very complex issue and needs to be discussed dispassionately or no progress will be made. And we must move to a vegetarian/vegan economy simply because of the cruelty and also the damage to the planet that livestock cause. So let's get it right.

Deborah Bushell | 11 April 2019  

Except every single protester was white and middle class and frankly behaved like self righteous fanatics. As such they did not win hearts and minds at all. The criticism of classism is also legitimate as I have seen more policing of what poor people put into their kids mouths from vegans than any other group. What none of them are doing while preventing the rest of us from getting to work is coming up with legitimate alternate sources of employment for meat workers with low levels of education. Nor are they engaging in civilised dialogue. In terms of the argument that genesis argues for this, I would have thought that this is the criticism of all progressive people who believe in a secular society. In Australia faith was once a private conviction. How wonderful it would be if we went back to that

Yolanda | 11 April 2019  

This is a thought-provoking article! There is a sense in which the vegan protesters cause discomfort to anyone subscribing to social justice awareness but who do not take or support their actions. Animals have suffered and continue to suffer at our hands, and not just because most people eat meat or use animal products. We all participate because we all benefit from the exploitation of animals and the environment whether we use animal products or not. This is a very tricky dilemma. Australia has profited from agriculture and this has substantially contributed to the standard of living we enjoy. Farmers should not be individually targeted, and large agricultural concerns do provide employment for rural workers, too. I think many of us 'ordinary folk' just want to see animals treated humanely. Morrison will be on a 'winner' with some voters by demonising protesters, though.

Anne Perkins | 12 April 2019  

As a non-angry omnivore, I have no problem with veganism. But the type of militant veganism espoused in this articles and by recent protests is delusional. The elite,privileged economic system that allows this small minority of prudes to thrive on their tofu burgers is in itself an act of domination. In order to produce an affordable, practical array of food products to allow these vegans to thrive, someone somewhere and some element of the environment has to go without. In the same way that drivers of electric cars think they are doing the environment a favour while ignoring the fact that the electricity they use comes from burning coal that destroys the environment in someone else’s backyard - these vegans are merely living a delusional high-life.

Aurelius | 12 April 2019  

The "Protestant Ethic" where God is supposed to reward us for using the resources of the planet, as literally seen in the quotation from Genesis, in part triggered the idea of dominating and conquering nature . Now, thanks to our hubris and greed, we are beginning to reap the whirlwind, with climate change making food production more vulnerable and famines, like in prehistorical times, ever more likely. The actions of the protesters fail to respect the rights of others, yet in a way they show an increasing alarm by the better informed middle class whites, at the wonton destruction of our life support system ( the environment). Education, rather than destructive actions would be a far better way to inform the community.

Gavin O'Brien | 12 April 2019  

I think the main issue with the protestors is trying to expose the animal cruelty practices involved in mass farming. Stun guns at slaughter definitely do not work in all cases. That's an issue I feel very uncomfortable about. It's one thing eating animals but it's quite another how they are treated during their lives and at slaughter. It must be ethical and humane. God says we can eat animals but I think he wants us not to be cruel along the way.

Linda Behan | 12 April 2019  

This is a definition of Veganism: "Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.” The hypocrisy of veganism becomes apparent when you consider the animal Kingdom. Do we kill lions because they are carnivores? Do we kill crocodiles because they eat fish, birds and animals? I have seen vegans spraying insect spray to kill ants. I have witnessed militant vegans on TV wearing leather belts and shoes. In Thailand, a predominately Buddhist nation, they eat inter alia beef, pork, fish, birds, eggs and milk. Their Buddhism does not affect their appetites. Im not against vegans. But they are only 1 percent of the population and have no right to prescript for the rest of us, including our meatworkers and farmers. They have no right to "liberate" farmers livestock or stop them milking. Even Christ himself ate bread and fish.

Francis Armstrong | 12 April 2019  

Interesting article in pointing out that the vegans are not only protesting the unjust treatment of animals, but want to bring down all structures they see as unjust. Ironic that they do not point out the unjust structures in Hindu and Buddhist society where if you are born in the wrong cast, or have no family, you have no-one to support you as the society does not have built-in welfare. So while more Buddhists and Hindus may be vegans, more people suffer in their generally unjust social structures, apart from, say, the Buddhist monks who help where they can. I was in south-east Asia for quite a while and saw how Buddhist monks set up orphanages (sleep on the floor, monks begged for food for them) because the societies did not. While the west may not be as vegan as they are, there are built-in welfare supports for single mothers, the unemployed, the abused, for the aged, which simply do not NOT exist in the more vegan supporting societies you mention.

Alice Larkin | 12 April 2019  

Jesus ate fish and lamb with his apostles. We are designed by God to be able to eat and digest meat. Genesis is about all of creation for the benefit of mankind. What is good enough for Jesus is good enough for me.

David Crowley | 12 April 2019  

Hear, hear, Aurelius! Poor old God the Creator got it wrong yet again. He went to all that trouble designing the complex enzymatic processing systems and physical capabilities (eg incisor teeth and molars) required by an omnivore (the human being) not realising what a terrible monster he was creating.

john frawley | 12 April 2019  

Thank you Cristy. It is a difficult issue. Whatever your belief system (Jainism, Christianity, Buddhism, righteous domination, etc) we are animals with a gut designed to eat both meat and plant matter. So across history and the world we have chosen to have diets that are meat based, plant based, fish based or a mixture of all of these. (Of course many do not have a choice. Getting enough food of any kind is the challenge). Do we remove ourselves from the rest of creation and choose ( or force people to adopt) a diet with no animal matter. From a philosophical point of view (if we are truly concerned about animals being eaten) other animals who eat meat (mammals, reptiles, fish, insects) should not do so. That might sound extreme but what are we truly concerned about? For me it goes without saying that we have a huge responsibility (whatever our belief system) to care for the planet and the animals and plants on it especially animals we have brought into being. I don't believe there is a correct answer here. If we are truly aware, we will choose a diet which does least harm, is nutritious and enjoyable. Jorie

Jorie Ryan | 12 April 2019  

Aurelius and john frawley: ditto!

John RD | 12 April 2019  

i think that it would be more sensible to eat vegan food where ever it is possible to so and when you can do so this was a great article by the way,

maryellen flynn | 12 April 2019  

I watched my own reactions to the protest with interest. My initial reaction was anger and I still don't know why. Anyone who's dared to look at big agriculture surely must feel revolted at the sight of row upon row of animals penned for our eating as if they're no different than, say, reams of paper or packets of widgets. I always think of that scene from Cold Mountain where the woman who had raised her goat with love then lovingly cut its throat and crooned to it as it bled out and became her dinner. Sometimes I think that we should have to kill our own food if we are able and if we want to eat it. I don't know how peaceful the protests were. I hope they didn't use the same violent practices the West under late capitalism has become known for. That would be defeating the purpose. We are all reactionary enough after all :)

Sue | 14 April 2019  

This is an excellent analysis. Anger is often align that the message is unwelcome. The messengers are then discredited.We are afraid to face that what we consider benign, (much of our culinary habits and agriculture) are based on extreme cruelty and exploitation. The also ties into destruction of the planet.I am a vegetarian btw.

Lyn Bender | 19 April 2019  

Gita Mehta wrote a superb book on some Westerners' deluded search for enlightenment in India: 'Karma Cola'. It would be interesting getting her opinion on contemporary Veganism. When Veganism morphs into the sort of Animal Rights activism we have recently seen I become somewhat concerned. This seems the New Puritanism which sees all opposition as evil. I think a saner and more nuanced approach to animal cruelty in factory farming would have more beneficial and far quicker results.

Edward Fido | 22 April 2019