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Recap of the "Ethics Beyond the Plate" panel at Vida Vegan Con 2013

This year Vida Vegan Con included many more panels about social justice issues than the first VVC. I spoke on two panels addressing  intersectionality, "Veganism and Social Justice" as well as "Ethics Beyond the Plate." I've re-capped some the questions and my responses below.

Panel description: There’s more to veganism than whether our food contains animal products. Is avoiding them enough to satisfy our ethics? What of the intersections with environmental, labor, and human rights concerns? Or the animals (human and otherwise) exploited indirectly almost every time we spend money on something? And as the mainstream takes more notice of veganism, are we at risk of losing the ethical core of the movement?

My fellow panelists includeLeigh-Chantelle of Viva La ChantelleLaura Beck of Vegansaurus, Jezebel, Erika Larson of Sews Before BrosJohn McDevitt of The Laziest Vegans and the panel was moderated by Jason Das of Supervegan.com


This panel was an incredible opportunity to discuss some really important and complicated issues and many conference goers were clearly excited to see the . It was a pleasure to be on this panel and I'm thrilled Leigh-Chantelle took the time to record and edit it so we can revisit the discussion and include those who weren't able to attend the conference in the conversation. 

*In this recap I've included some notes, links and additional texts for clarification of some of my responses.

JD: What does veganism mean to you? What do you mean when you say you’re vegan?

Veganism for me is about making the most compassionate choices possible in the circumstances you’re under. That's where we get into this panel because that's complciated!  It really depends on the context if I focus moreon the dietary aspect of the word or whether I focus more on having an awareness of more marginalized communities and discussing a vegan way of looking at it.

 JH: How do you put compassion into practice?

For me compassion is about causing the least harm.  But this is where the conversation starts. We have to have a community to establish these social norms and that’s where the importance of bringing in different social justice movements comes.

This is also why I'm so interested in  the comment conversation we had yesterday [more info on that panel to follow in a post for Queer Vegan Food - stay tuned!] is so interesting. I do believe most people who are out there writing as vegans do come from an intention of causing the least harm, being compassionate and from a place of compassion. So I think feminism offers a really great way to have this dialogue and maybe check ways in which we are completely unaware that we are missing the boat.

[And as another panelist was saying regarding consciousness raising,] it’s not like you go vegan at 18 and nothing ever changes in terms of your ethical framing.

JD: How do you end up not being paralyzed by your privilege?

JH: For me this is a huge thing in my work in human security and working in international relations. I’m about to go into doctoral program where I’m one of the two Americans in the program, which is great! [Note: The point intended here is in my studies I'll have the pleasure of working with people from other perpsectives and backgrounds beyond what can be a very closed-minded and short-sided American perspecitve.] But the issues I want to work on are issues in refugee camps where I’m definitely in a very privileged position to be working on this.

So I just see my place of privilege as a great opportunity for amplification of other people. I also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are communities already working on these issues in other countries so I don’t need to reinvent it for them. I can write an article and amplify their voice. I can try to encourage different platforms to include these different voices or interview people.

I try to utilize my place of privilege as an opportunity.

But of course it’s an existential crisis! I wouldn’t be getting a PhD if I didn’t also want to be an expert! I’m also going to be going into situations sitting there and saying I know what I’m doing, so I see both sides but I do think there is an opportunity there.

JD: Why do people who care so much about social justice not cross the species barrier and how do we fix it?

JH: Compassion fatigue is a real thing! On my Facebook I follow people posting about sexual and reproductive health rights, global governance, vegan issues, LGBTQ rights. On twitter it’s the same thing.

I think a really great way to deal with that [compassion fatigue and needing to get other social justice movements involved in animal rights issues] is to actually have issues that actually overlap [between social justice movements.]

[For example], when you have issues of climate change and Brighter Green does some of the work they do, talking about how unsustainable bringing factory farms to Asia and increasing the meat in people’s diets there to what we’re eating in the West.

[Another example,] Ag-gag is a really great issue. People who might not have the patience or interest, or at this point in their life aren’t ready to take the time to read about vegan ethics, can read about the Ag-gag bills and say I don’t stand by that from the stand point of first amendment rights and free speech – issues they are completely on board with supporting.

I think sometimes it’s about the angle you take in promoting vegan issues where people can maybe say, “Oh, that’s about food security! That’s an issue I have time for…”

JD: [Paraphrase]How do we deal with the blind spots associated with using the word vegan? Where do we draw lines with calling items “vegan” when the product may be made under terrible labor practices or environmentally unsustainable ways? Some people use “doesn’t contain animal products” as the only guideline – how do we deal with that?

JH: I think this is an interesting question about sort of the ownership of the word vegan and the identity people associate with it. I think also [it could be helpful] to think of the framework of the issue we hear so often in feminism which is that people don’t want to identify as a feminist! So this is a constant conversation!

I do this sticker campaign “Feminism is For Lovers” because feminism for me is just so many positive things but with [much of the] mass media representation [of feminism] for a lot of people it’s still scary and hateful and a negative.

I still very often have to explain to people about the word vegan. I see that this is a very interesting conversation for this room, but I don’t lose sleep at night honestly worrying about the label vegan. I think it’s great that as I understand it they [the conference organizers] expanded the conversation [following the initial 2011 conference] about what it means to be vegan immensely. I certainly think we’re headed in the right direction and I think it is going to be uncomfortable to expand and challenge what we think ethically it means to be identified as vegan. 

But just keep in mind that feminist in a room of young students who asks, “Who is a feminist?” and no one raises their hand. So, that’s the position I come from! [Which is to say, the more people who want to identify as vegan, the better.]

JD: How do you as a writer communicate about the intersectional issues of social justice?

JH: I think you can do the leading by example thing in writing. For One Green Planet I did this piece where I interviewed Ethan Wolf about the Taiji dolphin slaughter. So you know you can write an article about the dolphin slaughter and post the film, or you can interview the guy who is going there to do something about it! And why is he doing this? And what’s your motivation here? And maybe I would do this. Or maybe it’s just sort of interesting to know there are people doing this sort of work in the world. For someone who doesn’t even know about that issue, it’s kind of an interesting way to introduce it. 

Or writing about the Ag-gag bills for PolicyMic for people who don’t know anything about or haven’t investigated that [factory farming] issue at all it can be a good way to get into that issue.

And for Autostraddle, the website is geared towards the queer community but I wrote about this conference and then readers could see, “Oh, there’s a vegan bloggers conference? That’s interesting!” Interestingly people would say to me, “That’s such a niche!” And I’m like, “Well, it sold out so maybe not!” 

I like to write about veganism and animal rights for blogs where that’s not the main focus. It’s just a story that’s interesting to me as a vegan and then other people can be introduced to it that. That’s how I work the intersectionality angle.

JD: What is something you purchased recently that you had to make a decision on beyond is it vegan? Give us an example of ethical shopping.

JH: For me this question comes up so much around clothes because I thrift like 80% of my clothes and honestly it’s not all vegan. And whether it’s because it’s made of an animal product or it’s made of a synthetic that’s really terrible for the environment at the end of the day, most of the time I forgive myself for those things knowing that I’m spending a lot less money and I don’t want to be supporting these chain stores. And that’s sort of where I am right now.

I think it’s complicated though and I think [it’s important to consider] which items we re willing to give ourselves a pass on? Are we willing to wear items that are clearly made of animal products and have that conversation [with people who might engage us about wearing animal products as a vegan]? That’s something I could write a dissertation about because it’s complicate for me! But being in New York City and having so many thrift stores it’s just made the most sense ethically a lot to just thrift clothing. That would be mine! That’s a tough one for me.

Question from the audience about Mark Bittman: How do you take something mainstream argument and convince someone here’s the good part? 

[In responding to this question Laura Beck referenced my comment conversation workshop and suggested leaving smart, well thought out comments to infuse a vegan perspective in these online conversations. A lot of people will read those comments and think about becoming vegan or how vegans see the issue.]

I would say the Ellen Degeneres egg situation is a similar. Some people would read about that and say, “I didn’t even know this was a thing. What’s this deal about eggs and backyard eggs and... what?” Some people could very quickly be like, "Vegans are difficult! This is impossible!" or you could say, "Here is an important conversation to have because someone who is in the mainstream is talking about it." I think it’s an opportunity as well.

Dan of The Gay Vegans asked a question from the audience about how you commune with vegans who don't actually respect the other social justice work you are doing, in his case work fighting for marriage equality. Dan said he gets e-mails about twice a week from vegans who don't understand why he is spending so much time working for gay rights and marriage equality when he could be devoting that time to animal rights issues.

I would just say, you can be vegan and write exclusively about abortion access. That doesn't mean you're not also vegan. and completely compassionate about it and feel very interested in talking about it. I mean there are 24 hours in a day and it's been a struggle for me to decide which things I want to focus my energy on.

I think it makes the most sense to focus on the things that you are the best at communicating about, perhaps they're the issue most personal to you. And so it makes sense that if that's the issue that you want to come from [in addressioing social justice intersectionality as a vegan] that you would!

And if someone comes to you and says, "That issue isn't important to me," well, ok! [You could respond,] "Well here's why it's important [to me] and I hope you incorporate it into the issues you're passionate about."

And in conclusion, a closing comment from someone in the audience:

I just want to say this is absolutely a conversation we need to be having. I'm so glad we're talking about this. I'm getting my MA in human education right now and I spend everyday talking about environmental ethics, animal protection issues, human rights and how they all intersect and I love it!

I think we just, as some people have echoed up here, we need to be citizen journalists. We all need to be out there talking, blogging, doing a radio show, because there are so many interrelated issues.

I love that we are having this conversation and I want more!

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