Episode 80: Animal Rights as Media and Pop Culture Punchline
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
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Every year in the United States, over 8 billion chickens, over 30 million cows and more than a hundred million pigs are born, fed and raised by human beings for one reason: slaughtering them and eating their bodies. Also, using their byproducts. In countless pop culture and media depictions, animal rights activists and vegetarians in general, are viewed as effete weirdos, dirty hippies, humorless busy bodies. Pop culture staples from South Park to How I Met Your Mother to even Six Feet Under have used animal rights and those concerned for animal welfare as a go-to, faux populist target.
Adam: Comedy-wise, mocking vegans is the lowest hanging fruit. They’re weird, different, self-righteous, a ready made punching bag. Additionally, the vast majority of news media itself — even leftist media — ignores the issue altogether. And while neither Nima or I are ourselves vegetarians, we are compelled by recent inroads in animal rights discourse and wanted to open up space on today’s show to discuss why the topic is so ignored by corporate news media and, when it is addressed by pop culture, it is used as a cheap punchline.
Nima: We’ll be joined today on the show by two guests, the first, Dr. Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies.
Lori Gruen: A particular conception of masculinity as dominant, as in control of nature, as in control of women, in control of animals requires the consumption of animals to keep that notion going. This dominant view of masculinity, it’s necessary to see others as subordinate but at the same time consuming some of those others recapitulates the dominance, so it’s an ideology and a practice.
Nima: We will also be joined by decolonial theorist and independent digital media producer Aph Ko. She is the co-author of the book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters.
Aph Ko: Veganism as a concept or you know, caring for animals are not consuming animal bodies isn’t a white construction. The power of white supremacy is we think white people created everything and that’s not true. I mean there are a lot of populations of color around the world, even who are incredibly poor, who are vegan. They just maybe don’t claim the vegan label.
Adam: We want to clarify neither Nima or I are vegetarian. I was, I was vegan for five years like in my twenties, I’m not anymore. We are going to be wanton hypocrites here but we’ve been talking about this for months, this episode, cause we’re fascinated by the, the fact that it is so not an issue and how it’s very slightly creepily becoming an issue and traditionally people’s perceptions of animal rights and veganism or animal liberation, we’ll discuss what those terms mean later, that the general media perception is that they’re all a bunch of smelly, self righteous, obnoxious dickheads. There are reasons why that is that are not totally about media dismissal, but for the most part there’s a media culture that uses them as a kind of punchline and it’s sort of the one thing everyone can agree on which is ‘god aren’t vegans the worst?’
Nima: Yeah, like ‘isn’t that such a drag? Just leave me alone and let me eat my bacon.’ Which as a hypocritical person myself, I’m glad that we are making that clear up front Adam that like neither you nor I are vegetarians or vegans. That is very real. But still when looking into this issue, one thing becomes instantly and strikingly clear: beyond derision in pop culture, media largely, in general, treats both animal welfare and animal rights as total non-issues. The country’s leading liberal news channel, MSNBC, has had a total of two animal welfare stories over the past three years, both have been about Big Game hunting and Donald Trump reversing rules banning that particularly egregious practice.
Adam: And this is a trend you see again and again when you look for media discussions of animal liberation or animal rights, which is that we only focus on these kind of limited bourgeois pretty animals in Africa, which has its sort of own colonial context and domestic pets like dogs and cats, but almost there’s never any real meaningful conversation, investigation, reporting or debate on the mass slaughter of animals for food and for byproducts.
Nima: Leading socialist magazine Jacobin has not had an article on animal rights or animal welfare during the same three year time period that MSNBC totally avoided the topic. Neither has The Nation. There has been some movement in other left spaces at outlets like Current Affairs, The Intercept and The Progressive. Most notably perhaps, Emily Atkin of The New Republic did a great profile this past March on the state of the animal rights movement headlined “Why Animal Rights Is The Next Frontier for the Left,” the article is subtitled, “As the left hardens its commitment to fighting climate change, social injustice, and rampant capitalism, the question of what to do about animals will become inescapable.”
Adam: So, the conversation is shifting a little, but at a glacial pace. For the vast, vast majority of media, even on the left, the well-being of animals though is simply not an issue. And in pop culture the subject of animal rights and animal welfare and veganism as a sort of lifestyle if you will — terrible choice of words but lets go with lifestyle — when it is touched on it is always played for laughs. So we’re going to run down some pop culture examples of that which again one of the, one of the general things we say on the show is that pop culture is the most ideologically influential media there is, more so than what The New York Times or The Intercept says. We believe that pop culture is a huge conduit of ideology and animal rights and animal liberation and those who ethically decide to abstain from eating meat are, almost always used as someone who is a sort of self righteous hippie who doesn’t quite get you and me. It’s really kind of go-to populist thing that people across the political spectrum can appeal to as in ‘god aren’t those people the worst?’ So we’ll start with a clip from, uh, from How I Met Your Mother. The episode shows a stereotypically hippie girl named Strawberry that the lead character dates. She’s a vegetarian and very self satisfied.
[Begin How I Met Your Mother Clip]
Ted: Hey guys this is the disgusting smelly hippie I’m dating.
Ted: I did not say that!
Lily: Well, you might as well have.
Ted: Hey guys, this is Strawberry.
Marshall: Um, should we order some more food?
Ted: Oh No. Uh, Strawberry’s not eating.
Strawberry: I’m a vegetarian.
Lily: Okay. Well, let’s all raise a glass. For the last three years Marshall has been working so hard and I am so proud of you.
Strawberry: Meat is murder! (Yells, kerfuffle)
Adam: And then the lead again dates a vegan in another clip.
[Begin How I Met Your Mother Clip]
Ted: The lamb here is supposed to be great.
Date: Oh, I’m a vegan. I wish I could tune out that moral voice inside me that says eating animals is murder. But I guess I’m just not as strong as you are.
Ted: That’s because you need protein. [Audience laughs.) I’ll have the lamb
Nima: In this episode, when the woman is eventually dumped by the lead character, she immediately starts eating steak. Because obviously that, you know, getting dumped by a boyfriend is going to change your entire ideology because the idea of being a vegan here is being presented as a signifier of identity, not an actual belief system. Another example comes from the Futurama episode “The Problem With Popplers.” In it, there’s a hippie character named Free Waterfall Jr. who’s a vegetarian and who is consistently condescended to by the main characters. At one point, he is protesting the selling of meat product and here is the exchange that he has with main character Leela.
[Begin Futurama Clip]
Free Waterfall Jr.: Or we’ll boycott Fishy Joe’s!
Leela: You’re vegetarians, who cares what you do?
Free Waterfall Jr.: Shut up.
Leela: Animals eat other animals. It’s nature.
Free Waterfall Jr.: No, it isn’t. We taught a lion to eat tofu. (Cough.)
Nima: So later in the show, this character is then eaten by aliens. However, you know, of course the episode does end by pointing out the hypocrisy of the main characters protesting the eating of intelligent meat such as a human while she freely devours veal, pig and, uh, also what else? Dolphin.
Adam: So it, uh, Six Feet Under, Nate Fisher, the main character played by Peter Krause, gets married to Lisa Kimmel, a vapid white hippie, played by Lili Taylor. She is a vegan, that foists bad vegan meatloaf on her guests. And the first episode she’s on is season two, episode four, she mentions that she doesn’t see movies because the film was made of horse produced gelatin. In the next season she kind of becomes a villain and then ruins the lives of the main family by forcing one of the leads into a loveless marriage.
Nima: Right. So then it’s kind of like a big victory for fans of the show when she later dies. Like it’s really kind of fucked up. So beyond the trope seen in, let’s say the the Tim Robbins character in High Fidelity or the vegan characters in the movie PCU — a particular favorite of mine— we have the phenomenon of cartoons made by Mike Judge. And Mike Judge, you know, is one of those producers who puts out a lot of really funny social commentary. However, underneath a lot of it is a fucked up idea. The idea that like if you give a shit about stuff you’re a shitty, weak asshole.
Adam: Yeah. The ultimate sin in the Mike Judge moral universe is to sort of care too much. It’s not dissimilar to South Park but I think it actually has more of a kind of misanthropic streak. And he created a show that was basically just this called The Goode Family. You know he sort of tried to skewer both sides but mostly it skewers the kind of liberal stereotype of vegans. They try to make their dog vegan and of course the dog is constantly starving and emaciated and they do this gag where they almost accidentally feed him meat.
[Begin The Goode Family Clip]
Helen: Oh my god, this isn’t your vegan dog food. Oh you poor boy you almost ate meat. I’m so sorry Che.
Ubuntu: Look at him. He’s shaking with fear about what he almost did.
Adam: King of the Hill, of course. The boy on the show dates a vegetarian, she ends up not wanting to date him so he gets back at her by eating a huge steak and she of course is your sort of typical self righteous, again, this usually correlates with women, which we’ll talk about with our guest, which is the idea of like kind of the uptight woman who is sort of not fun and doesn’t get it.
Nima: And then there is perhaps one of the most famous well known versions of this anti-vegetarianism, making fun of vegetarians, which comes from South Park. There’s the very, very famous episode, where whenever people stop eating meat, they start growing vaginas on their bodies. And then eventually if they go too far, they just become one giant vagina.
[Begin South Park Clip]
Cartman: Yeah if you don’t eat meat at all you become a pussy.
Dr. Doctor: He’s very lucky you got him here when you did. He was in a very advanced state of Vaginitis.
Dr. Doctor: It occurs when a person stops eating meat. The sores on his skin were actually small vaginas. If we hadn’t stopped it in time, Stan would have eventually just become one great big giant pussy.
Kyle: Whoa, dude.
Adam: So yeah, of course the joke is that, you know, it’s a joke, right? People listening, okay, these are just jokes and yeah, we obviously get that, but they’re jokes with a very specific ideological content, which I think what we’ll argue on the show is that the reason why the vast, vast majority of representations of vegetarianism — the huge, huge exception to this, by the way, there’s the famous episode of The Simpsons where Lisa becomes a vegetarian, which gets in a couple of pot shots, but it’s actually really, really thoughtful and very good and I think has been praised by some vegetarians as kind of opening up space for a conversation about it. So there are exceptions, but for the most part it’s used as a kind of foe populist shorthand for ‘look at this asshole who is sort of trying too hard.’ And what we would proffer in this episode is that the reason why that is is because it creates a kind of moat or kind of barrier to having an uncomfortable conversation that I think most people don’t want to have because you can’t mock it on substance or talk about it as such, you turn it into this like it’s the, it’s the quintessential hippie punching, right? It’s this, it’s this thing we all agree sucks shit and it requires us to engage in introspection and cognitive dissidence in manner with which most people don’t want to do. I would even put myself in that category. And so the, the sort of easy thing to do is to just use it as a, as cultural shorthand for someone who’s just a, you know, obnoxious busy body.
Nima: So right-wing assholes obviously love this trope. The idea of the patchouli-stinking hippy tree-hugger. For instance, white supremacist and former Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka just this year warned at CPAC that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supporters of the Green New Deal:
Sebastian Gorka: They want to take your pick up truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.
Nima: And around the same time, Congressman Rob Bishop, a Republican (obviously) from Utah, set of the Green New Deal, as he actually like devoured a cheeseburger because he’s so fucking clever, this is what he said:
Rob Bishop: And realize that if this goes through, this will be outlawed. I can no longer eat this type of thing. So before they take it away from me —
Man: Pass it around!
Rob Bishop: Before it’s illegal and an endangered species, I’m actually going to enjoy this a whole lot more than I would the Green New Deal.
Nima: As Adam, you just pointed out, people, especially those that lean left though, unlike the Gorka or the Rob Bishop, people that actually do kind of care about things usually claim to really care about issues that are closely associated with animal rights. I mean these are the climate crisis, drinking water pollution, factory farms, how labor is negatively affected by animal agriculture. Some of us even, you know, make sure to buy free range, organic eggs, drink organic milk. But getting back to the excellent piece written by Emily Atkin in The New Republic, here’s what she writes, quote, “Taking the complaints of animal-rights groups seriously would mean confronting our own participation in an agricultural system that not only kills and tortures animals on a massive scale, but also contributes to human suffering. Making fun of these groups, [and here Emily quotes, as Summer Anne Burton in BuzzFeed argues] is ‘a way of changing the subject and of keeping away the creeping feeling that you just might be on the wrong side of history.’”
Adam: I think that’s generally true. I think that, I’m excited to talk to our guests about this, but I feel like PETA doesn’t do anyone any favors because they’re, they are kind of cartoonishly ridiculous. They do a lot of kind of misogynist stuff, which I’m not gonna myself hippie punch, but I think that the most kind of goofy or publicity seeking elements within that world get highlighted to make fun of which is what Atkins talks about in her piece. It means we don’t really have to talk about the substance and as long as we’re avoiding the substance, we don’t really have to confront like she says as like the sort of creeping feeling that we may have this one wrong, which of course is not what people really want to do for the most part. We have to mention this, but there are cultural and economic reasons why people are not vegetarian. I think we, just to be clear for this episode, we are talking about the sort of all things being equal, starting from the assumption that all things are equal, which is to say that someone can live a healthy lifestyle if they choose not to eat animals, but those people are really what we’re talking about, which is sort of people who kind of probably know better but it’s a lot easier just to sort of mock people and move on so you really don’t have to think about it. And Atkins goes on to say quote:
“To get at the underpinnings of this new consensus, let’s start with the environment. The U.S. meat industry is one of the largest sources of water contamination in the country, and a massive contributor to drought in the West. On a global scale, animal agriculture ‘puts a heavy strain on many of the Earth’s finite land, water, and energy resources,’ according to the advocacy group Climate Nexus. ‘In order to accommodate the 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, a third of the planet’s ice-free land surface, as well as nearly 16 percent of global freshwater, is devoted to growing livestock.’ About three quarters of the Brazilian Amazon’s deforestation is attributable to animal agriculture.”
So then you have this issue where everyone’s saying ‘Green New Deal, Green New Deal, Green New Deal’ and I know this is not a right spaced argument, but now we’re confronting this idea that from the most basic environmental standpoint our current meat-eating structure is just not sustainable. So in a way people are sort of being challenged on this from all sides and as we get, you know, more trendy to be a little bit more aware of these things and I don’t mean that as a pejorative, I mean that as a good thing. To be aware of things like capitalism or the environment.
Nima: As those things are like now the new tables takes for even opening up a conversation.
Adam: Right. And then you have, then you really have to say, okay, well this is, this is something that we have to sort of confront. And I guess that’s really what we’re trying to do with this episode is to say for those who are on the left who maybe haven’t thought much about it, to just think about it and think about where that fits in the sort of continuum of social justice and economic justice and why has left-wing media for the most part, there are, like we mentioned some of the exceptions, for the most part has completely ignored this issue. And I have some theory as to why that is. I know oftentimes people say, ‘Oh well, like it can kind of substitute for humanism or for caring about the poor.’ And, and I, and I think that that’s possible, but I got, that seems like a little bit of a cop out to me, but I’m curious to talk to our guests about this.
Nima: In just a moment we’ll be joined by Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. Professor Gruen will join us in just a moment.
Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Lori Gruen of Wesleyan University. Thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Lori Gruen: Glad to be here.
Adam: In researching this episode I consulted with some people who I knew in this world and there was a back and forth about what the appropriate terminology was. Can you give kind of a high level explanation of the difference between terms like “animal rights,” “animal liberation,” “animal welfare,” what those mean and what generally do you prefer?
Lori Gruen: Yes, so animal rights is often associated with the animal rights movement and there is also a whole legal area that is exploring questions about legal rights for animals and animal rights was used in contrast to animal welfare. Animal welfare was an idea that developed around the time that the Animal Welfare Act came on line in the United States. It was really a term that referred to people who were concerned about the treatment of dogs and cats, not being cruel to animals, making sure that animals that were say used in various ways we’re not abused. So animal welfare was thought to be a more modest approach to our relationships with other animals where animal rights was a term that meant that actually animals shouldn’t be used without their consent, for example. Or there might be some other way of recognizing their right and engaging in a relationship that is respectful of those rights. So that’s the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Animal liberation might evoke an idea that perhaps you’re trying to take animals out of laboratories or something like that because there is an activist group known as the Animal Liberation Front, which did precisely that or does precisely that. I haven’t heard much of them lately, but this was an organization that started in England and and there were many actions that occurred across the United States as well by the Animal Liberation Front to liberate animals. The idea though of animal liberation is actually a philosophical idea. It’s an idea that much like other liberation movements, black liberation, gay liberation, women’s liberation, that animal liberation is really about focusing on the ways in which other animals are used, oppressed, ignored, violated. That’s the notion of animal liberation that I tend to think makes the most sense.
Nima: So Lori, there’s oftentimes a very gendered element to depictions, both in news media but also really in pop culture when it comes to animal rights activists, you’ve actually edited a volume called Animaladies that explores this very idea. And in it you note that the “pathologization of animal lovers and animal rights activists” in a gendered manner and how the quote unquote “‘madness’ of our relationships with animals intersects with the ‘madness’ of taking animals seriously.” This is a really fascinating concept. Can you just expand on this thesis a bit?
Lori Gruen: Yeah, so there’s been a lot of interesting discussions amongst feminists about how to think about the, as you put it, animal rights movement or how to think about these questions because to a large extent in popular culture and in the media, caring about animals is thought to be highly feminized. And at the same time, there seems to be a sense amongst those who are involved in the animal movement, particularly the theorists like Peter Singer, for example, or Tom Regan, the late Tom Regan, two philosophers who are thought to have really sort of thought about what it is that we should be thinking about other animals and the treatment of other animals. And both Tom Regan and Peter Singer made it very, very clear that what they were interested in thinking about was what reason tells us about our relationships with other animals because they didn’t want to be compared to little old ladies in tennis shoes who care about animals. Interestingly, that was in the seventies and eighties at the same time the women’s rights movement was happening and there were a lot of women who thought, ‘yeah, well this is a hyper masculine way of thinking about this.’ Now my own view, and I’ll talk about Animaladies in one second, my own view is that the binaries between masculine and feminine and the binaries between reason and emotion are deeply troubling and need to be problematized. And part of what we do in Animaladies is actually do some of that rethinking of the ways in which caring, concern, sentiment is often linked to a very narrow conception of femininity. Reason, logic, rigor is linked to a very narrow conception of masculinity. And in particular we’re interested in looking at the feminist archive on madness and trying to explore ways in which caring about animals has been rejected as quote unquote “mad” and that also there seems to be something wrong with people who care too much about animals. And in fact, in the introduction to the volume, my coauthor and I, Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, looked back at this early 1900s where there was a physician named Charles Dana who coined a term “Zoophil-Psychosis.” Zoophil-Psychosis was this idea that there are fine feelings that went wrong. So it’s this idea that people are worried too much about their horse or their cat or their dog and that this was a problem. Now, what’s really interesting is that Dr. Dana actually decided that it was usually women who had Zoophil-Psychosis and men were just a little bit confused, but they maybe weren’t pathologized in just the same way.
Nima: That’s so convenient.
Lori Gruen: I know, right? Isn’t that convenient? So the idea is that men would have, like they could go to therapy where women needed to maybe be institutionalized or corrected in more serious ways. My own contribution to the volume is about lobotomies and the ways in which lobotomies occurred, it wasn’t necessarily for Zoophil-Psychosis, but it was really lobotomies — as you probably know — if you look at the history, really were gendered in a very specific way. So there’s an interesting sense in which madness and gender and animality sort of come together in this kind of complicated way. And that’s one of the things that the authors in this volume address.
Adam: I’m fascinated by this idea of deconstructing the “cat lady.” Which is something we talk about a lot on the show, which is the idea of pathologizing basic human instincts towards empathy, where it’s sort of like you say “bleeding heart liberal” or like you take a crazy cat lady, with an understanding that, you know, such thing I guess is sort of possible, but you take something like caring for stray cats or caring for stray animals and we turn it into something that’s a punch line or something to be mocked, which obviously carries its own kind of gender baggage, vis-à-vis madness. Can you give a robust defense of the proverbial cat lady?
Lori Gruen: Yeah. So one of the things that I think is really interesting about thinking about the crazy cat lady is that there seems to be for many people, this idea that her affection and her attention is directed in an inappropriate way. So the idea, I think part of one of the things that’s really interesting is that the crazy cat lady cares too much — so it’s this over sentimental sort of view — but at the same time her care is directed in the wrong place. So there is something deeply troubled about the crazy cat lady where many of us who live with other animals actually know that caring about other animals enriches our day-to-day lives. We feel better, we feel needed. We’re caring for someone who’s in need. So that’s also something valuable. So it’s interesting that it becomes in some ways both pathologized and also looked upon as if it’s something really wrong when in fact it’s something that we need more of actually.
Nima: There’s kind of a different angle of this as well, which is veganism or vegetarianism or care for animals in a way that is beyond simply having a dog, that is commonly used as this shorthand for very homophobic references. Right-wing media is, you know, full of mentions, references to left-wing man as quote unquote “soy boys” or you know, the idea of, like, eating sprouts is really lame. Whereas meat, in general, eating steak, filling your mouth with full of bacon is a proxy for manliness. Can you discuss where these tropes come from and how they speak to maybe a broader gender-reinforcing structure?
Lori Gruen: That’s such an important and great question. Early on when the animal movement was beginning and when people were interested in thinking more critically about what it is that we’re supporting when we buy and eat animal body parts and animal excretions and the idea was really brought to the fore by Carol Adams, a collaborator of mine, in a really important book called The Sexual Politics of Meat. And in The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams actually identifies the way in which a particular conception of masculinity as dominant, as in control of nature, as in control of women, in control of animals requires the consumption of animals to keep that notion going. So it’s an idea that has view of others as being subordinate. This dominant view of masculinity, it’s necessary to see others as subordinate, but at the same time consuming some of those others recapitulates the dominance. So it has a sort of, it’s an ideology and a practice. It works in both directions and it’s very much about keeping particular norms in place. And so the idea of a particular cis masculinity, that’s a heterosexual masculinity, that is virile, that consumes animal bodies, that controls women, this is all a part of, uh, ideology that makes it so that if you violate any of those norms, if you’re a woman who doesn’t get married or is a lesbian or a woman who isn’t a woman, a woman who’s maybe gender queer or non binary, that’s troubling those norms. If you’re a man who is gay or a man who doesn’t eat meat, you’re troubling those norms. So a lot of this is about maintaining what gets called the logic of domination. And that logic of domination makes it so that if you violate the norms that are part of what upholds this ideology, then you’re challenging the ideology and you’re challenging the dominance of those who benefit from the ideology.
Adam: Yeah. ‘Cause, I mean I feel like terms like “toxic masculinity” are thrown around and I think they’re applicable in this context in the sense that they sort of say that human impulse towards empathy or thinking critically about how we affect other things like it’s considered the highest moral orders to sort of subvert that. And you kind of normalize it, for lack of a better term, sociopathic like cruelty or violence.
Lori Gruen: It’s so interesting that you raise this idea because there are so many predominantly white men who are rejecting empathy in a very intense way lately.
Adam: Well, for example?
Lori Gruen: Well Paul Bloom, for example, um, Against Empathy is a very popular book and part of it again is this view that reason is the way to go. We can’t have this sentimentality. And the idea unfortunately is that empathy is thought to be simply sentimental. I think that the idea that reason and emotion are easily detached from one another or that cognitive thinking and sentiment are not connected. That split is a problem.
Adam: Yeah. It seems like it’s based on too much Star Trek and not much empiricism.
Lori Gruen: (Laughs.)
Adam: We’re going to be Vulcans instead.
Lori Gruen: That’s right. Well you could be, you could be Jim Kirk and I’ll be Spock and that’s how it goes.
Adam: Can you give us some recommended reading, maybe like two or three things people can start looking at when they think about animal rights from a left-wing viewpoint for lack of a better term?
Lori Gruen: Yeah. Um, well I, I mean it’s a little self serving but I don’t mean it to be, but I wrote this little book called Entangled Empathy. It’s meant to be really accessible and it is a way of thinking quite differently about our relationships with other animals and I think that would be a good place to start. There’s also a really profound book that’s a little bit challenging, but it’s called Aphro-ism and it’s by two Black vegan sisters and it really just challenges pop culture and it challenges our thinking about race and it challenges our thinking about consumerism and it challenges our conceptions of the concept of the human. I really highly recommend it.
Nima: That’s actually an amazing segue into our next guest on this very episode, who is Aph Ko.
Lori Gruen: Oh, fantastic!
Nima: Who co-wrote that book.
Lori Gruen: Oh, that’s great. That’s fantastic.
Nima: So yeah, thank you so much for joining us today on the show it has been so great to talk to you. Dr. Lori Gruen William Griffin Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. Thanks so much for joining us.
Lori Gruen: It was a pleasure to be here. Thanks.
Nima: We are joined now by Aph Ko, decolonial theorist and independent digital media producer. She is the co-author of the book Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters. Aph, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Aph Ko: Thank you so much for the invitation. I’m beyond honored.
Adam: Well, thank you so much, I appreciate that. So we’ve been talking a lot about animal rights, veganism as a sort of flashpoint, if you will, on the left. And I want to start by quoting something you said to The New York Times in 2017 in an article on Black vegans in the United States. You said, quote, “When you say ‘vegan,’ a lot of people tend to only think of PETA, which doesn’t reflect the massive landscape of vegan activism…The black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements.” I want to start off with this quote. Can you kind of expound on what you mean by that and what you think the chasm is between the general public perception of veganism versus what you feel is the reality?
Aph Ko: Absolutely. It’s a great question and before I even answer that, I want to say thank you for even hosting this conversation despite the fact that some of you might not be vegan. I applaud you on that and especially because in our cultural imagination we assume that in order to even talk about animals, you have to be vegan and that’s not necessarily true. In the same way that like I can gather really awesome insights from people who eat meat who write books and stuff. Like, you know, I don’t have to eat meat to read it. Right? Similarly, you don’t have to be vegan at all to have this particular conversation on animals. Although I do advertise veganism.
Adam: Totally. Yeah.
Aph Ko: I was really excited by that New York Times article. I was actually shocked that they were writing it because Black vegans really get no visibility in the mainstream conversation on veganism and animal rights. So I’ve only been vegan for probably about five years and I’m 30 years old. So prior to that I ate every type of meat on the planet. Okay. So I, I get it. But when I went vegan, I remember one of the reasons, or one of the obstacles to even getting to that point was this idea that veganism was this really, really white, bougie, hippie thing. On top of that, vegans were framed as being really privileged. So many of us are struggling with human rights, our own racial struggles, and to see particularly white vegans in the mainstream media landscape, you know, running in front of buses and running into the restaurants to fight for animals seemed silly to me. And it wasn’t until I went vegan through a racial route that I started to realize how amazing and decolonial and impressive the movement really is. And so in the media landscape, they oftentimes look at the very, very tip of a giant iceberg of animal rights activism. And PETA, which is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, they’re given the most screen time and they’re known for hosting really kind of intense spectacles or stunts involving sometimes like sexualized imagery of women handing out vegan hot dogs or something or you know, staging really like insensitive type of protests back compare different racial oppression to animal oppression. Most people, even if you’re not vegan, you don’t care about animal rights, you know what PETA is, right? And so for me it can be a little awkward because I do know people who work at PETA who are like beautiful people, beautiful souls, they work their asses off. What a lot of people in the public don’t know is that a lot of vegans and animal rights activist also don’t really vibe with PETA and their campaigns. Even sometimes people who work within the organization. So I, you know, let me give the public some credit here for a second because I don’t necessarily judge people for thinking animal rights activists are a bit intense, especially if your only interaction with this group of people is through the media. I have also — at times — laughed at certain spectacles that animal rights activists have put on and I’m a vegan, however I’m laughing for different reasons than a lot of people in the public. You know a lot of people in the public are laughing cause not only is the spectacle embarrassing but they’re laughing cause they think animal rights is embarrassing as well. And I don’t think animal rights is embarrassing at all. And so when I got into the more like racialized aspects of the vegan movement, it really kind of upset me. This was around maybe 2014, 2015 when I wanted to like do something about it because I was only friends with vegans of color and I kept hearing this narrative that vegans are white, veganism is a white thing and I’m like, there’s a reason why you know PETA, but you don’t know Vegan SoulFest, Black VegFest, Vegan Voices of Color, Sistah Vegan, Black Vegans Rock. You know, there are ton of really amazing scholars and activists who are fighting for human rights and simultaneously advocating for animal liberation who get absolutely no screen time in this conversation. So that’s what I meant when I was being interviewed by The New York Times and I said, this movement, not necessarily the mainstream movement that comes to your mind, but the movement that I’m in, it has some of the best fucking scholarship I have ever read in my life. And I have been through many movements. I’ve been through anti-racists movements, feminists movements. I never felt nourished. I never felt like, I don’t know, I just felt like something was missing. And it wasn’t until I found this particular little group that I’m in that I’m like, wow, this is, this is the spot. This is where the real radical revolutionary activism is at.
Nima: So you talk about and write about decolonization a lot. Can you really connect veganism with this deep, complex decolonization and, you know, how they really fit together in your own view, in your own work and what you see in the movement at large?
Aph Ko: So I’m going to make a distinction here and state that veganism isn’t really the end goal or the main point for me, veganism is as my diet. It’s like a byproduct of a larger ideological shift happening for me. I couldn’t justify eating animals after I started reading really awesome scholarship that politicized their oppression through a racial framework. And that’s why my activism is a bit weird or different from what the mainstream is. I feel like if you really want to dismantle systems of oppression, you’re not going to do it, in my opinion, by ignoring animals. Animals are so central to coloniality. In fact, even on the left that argue a lot of activists even on the left who are like advocating for every liberation on the planet, when you bring up animals, there’s at times like resistance or this really giant discomfort where people don’t want to talk about it. And for me as an activist, I love going to those sore spots. I love going to the place where it’s the most tense, where everyone kind of clams up and they’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to talk about that, it’s offensive.’ And it’s sometimes sad when I see people on the left politicize everything, but sometimes their plates. They politicize everything, their bodies, their choices, but they don’t really think about animals in any meaningful way.
Adam: You talk about this discomfort. Would you say that some of the discomfort about that is this idea of triage? The idea that we have, you know, there is to some extent only certain amount of things you can care about at once.
Aph Ko: Right.
Adam: And while we have a system of, you know, poverty and racism and all this sort of stuff, they would say, ‘How can I focus my attention on animals?’ Cause this is something you hear a lot on the left and I, I’m sort of sympathetic to it. Right? Cause you have to, we have to triage, right? We all make priorities where you say, how does giving a shit about Bambi affect me as a Black person? That seems reasonable to me. And I guess aside from lumping the kind of high level relationships between white supremacy and the subjugation of animals, what would you say is a way of deconstructing that? Is it a kind of like walk and chew gum at the same time kind of thing or?
Aph Ko: (Laughs.) Yeah. I’m really glad you asked that question cause I, that’s a roadblock or an obstacle I face a lot when I give talks. I particularly go to minoritized communities to talk about this stuff. So first off you should only do the type of work that you feel called to do? I don’t think, so right now like on the left there is like this intersectional turn, which is this idea that like multiple intersections or like certain bodies at multiple intersections of oppression. And so I think a lot of people feel a little stressed out in intersectional spaces that you have to advocate for every oppression at one time or else you’re a racist or a sexist or whatever the ism is. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think you have to advocate for everything at one time. And if you only have the immune system right now to handle focusing on racism or anti-racism: do you. I would never ever force animal stuff onto anybody who’s suffering right now or like, you know, struggling for their own rights. And I guess that’s how I depart a bit from the mainstream animal rights movement. I’m incredibly sympathetic towards that. So in my new book, I’m writing a new book right now and it’s coming out in a couple months. I give an example. Imagine there is, let’s say a black man and he’s walking down the street and he has, um, a duffel bag on or like a backpack and within that backpack are all the oppressions that he’s carrying every single day, whether that’s ableism, poverty, trans antagonism, whatever it is. And he feels the weight of this every single day. And then here comes animal rights activists. They come along and they have a new thing they want to add to his backpack, which is animals. They’re like, ‘Hey, you should also care about animals,’ right? I think that strategy is horrible and that’s why I don’t like the mainstream, general, you know, spectacles and general activisms that we see from animal rights activists in the mainstream. What I do in my work is I would encourage that Black man to open up his backpack, pull out all those oppressions and rearrange them because within those oppressions, it already accommodates the theory that I’m talking about. I’m talking about animality. Animality is something that is already central to the oppressions people already experiencing. They have a very revised understanding of the oppressions that they’re already carrying. And so in my work, I don’t ever ask people to add something on to what they’re already doing, I’m asking them to reexamine the stuff that they’re already dealing with. Right? So when I bring up animals or animality, I’m not talking about it in the dominant way. I’m saying animality is composable of this other stuff basically. And so that’s really how I differ. That’s what I, when I say that like white supremacy is zoological thing, that’s not adding on to people’s or like say a Black person experiences of racism right now. I’m saying it’s already an essential part of it you so like in acknowledging let’s say animality as being central to your oppression, you actually can create better solutions to your problems by factoring that conversation in.
Adam: The rejoinder to that would be that, again, this is where the kind of stereotype about the kind of white vegan comes where you say maybe this is my follow up question, which is that so much of this is about the old cliche about choices are a product of privilege, right? And so if I’m here in some yuppie neighborhood in Chicago, I’m, it’s way easier for me to be vegan than it is for the average poor person, African American or white and even white Appalachia. Right? So how does one sort of account for the sort of cultural differences and obviously industrial farming in the US is different than farming in, you know, southern Mexico, right? There’s all the other different contexts top. How does one kind of account for that, in your work, making it so it’s sort of like you said, not assuming everyone is starting from the same place?
Aph Ko: Right. So there’s a distinction here between veganism and then talking about animals and animality. And so in my work, what I do is I demonstrate how veganism or not consuming animals is central to black liberation. So my goal is a little different. I argue that racial liberation movements, a byproduct of those movements, if they account for the zoological nature of white supremacy is that animals will be liberated through that. So I don’t do it the typical way and nor am I a food justice activists. So what you’re asking me about is essentially, you know, communities color like that don’t have access to fresh fruits and just really quickly want to share that like veganism as a concept or you know, caring for animals are not consuming animal bodies isn’t a white construction. The power of white supremacy is we think white people created everything. And that’s not true. I mean there are a lot of populations of color around the world even who are incredibly poor who are vegan. They just maybe don’t claim the vegan label. So I just want to throw that out there that white people didn’t create this and that’s part of what my work is doing is showing, in fact, Dr. Lindgren Johnson, she’s a professor in Virginia and she has a book out called Race Matters, Animal Matters, everyone should read it. And she actually has a quote where she says “African Americans were animal agents long before the animal rights movement even existed.” And that’s really important to note that this scholarship, I always argue that minoritized people sometimes do the best animal rights work because we are seen as subhuman. And so from our vantage point, we have a different answer to the problem of animal oppression. And so when it comes to the actual food aspect, I always try to get people to understand the conceptual frameworks before changing your diet or else you’re only going to think veganism is just a diet. You know what I mean? And that won’t produce long term change. That’s how it’s been seen as this bougie hippie, you know, thing that you have to be rich to do. It’s seen as this extra diet that no one really cares about. And I argue that I don’t eat animals as a commitment to being anti-racist. And that is very, very different. That’s a different motivation. And like I said towards the beginning of this conversation, I don’t ever judge people if they are in a particular area where they don’t have access to these foods, why would I even like I don’t moralize on people who are trying to survive. That’s not the point. But I understand why, again, the media kind of portrays veganism in a particular light and that’s how people see it. Whereas all the vegans that I know, literally most of all of my friends are vegans of color and a lot of them are not necessarily the richest people on the planet either. I’m certainly not.
Nima: So speaking about media representations of whether it’s a vegetarian, whether it’s a vegan, whether it’s an animal rights activist, there is this immediate jump to the most severe PETA stereotype. What are some of your favorite — and by favorite I mean definitely not favorite — media tropes in terms of these perceptions and ways that you are doing work to maybe combat those?
Aph Ko: Recently, some of you may have seen on the news that there was an animal rights activist who jumped on the stage when Kamala Harris was giving a talk or was part of like a panel on talking about the pay gap actually or, you know, pay inequality and I don’t know the actual identity of this person, but they looked like a white man. Okay. And so this white guy jumped up on the stage and grabbed the microphone from her hand and started rambling. I don’t know what the hell he was even talking about but they shut his microphone and he was literally like dragged off stage. That is basically how animal rights activists are seen. They’re kind of portrayed as being almost like emotionally wounded to the point that they are like risking their lives for animals. That’s kind of the main trope is that they’re, I hate using the term cause I know it’s ableist, but they’re seen as crazy. They’re seen as insane and they’re kind of seen as laughingstocks of our society. They’re portrayed that way. They’re given no nuance at all. And as a person who actually cares about animals, I was like missed opportunity to show how animal rights activisms can be really multidimensional and dynamic. And to a certain extent, I have to say with my work, the goal of my work has never to combat the stereotype because I don’t really think that’s my job. In the same way, you know, if someone who eats meat does something ridiculous in the media, do you feel compelled to combat that because you eat meat me? You know what I mean? Do you have to put out a statement? No, I mean that’d be, that’d be silly.
Nima: As a meat eater, I condemn war criminals.
Aph Ko: See. Well, there you go. There you go. And for me, I don’t, I don’t really feel, I think I used to feel this urge or this compulsion to constantly come out and say something to be like, no, we’re not all like that. But I’m like, you know, there’s no point because to a certain extent in PETA’s defense, which you rarely ever will hear me doing, they have a right to do whatever they want. I mean like that’s, that’s their activism, that’s their organization, that’s their brand. But unfortunately in our cultural imagination we conflate brands with movements and we oftentimes conflate the raw oppression itself with the movement designed to tackle that oppression and that’s why most people cannot separate animal rights from PETA. It’s really, really unfortunate.
Adam: You said you had a book coming out. Do you want to tell us about that real quick and where people can find it?
Aph Ko: Yeah. It’s going to probably come out in two to three months from Lantern Books and the title is Racism As Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide To Getting Out and it’s basically a media studies book that shows how racism is composed of anti-animal attitudes and I use media shows to kind of propel my arguments. I specifically rely upon Get Out, the movie, because I thought that film had a beautiful depiction of how white supremacy is zoological in nature and I essentially rely upon the scholarship of a brilliant writer named Dr. James Perkinson who has an essay titled “European Race Discourse As Witchcraft” where he argues that what, you know, essentially what racism is is like a type of witchcraft. It’s like this thing that gets inside and consumes. And so I take that and pull that into the animal rights space. That should be on two to three months. Feel free to, you can email me, you can Google “Aph Ko,” I’ll put out an announcement whenever that book is ready, but it’s almost done. So I’m excited.
Nima: Well, that is amazing. And with that we will close this interview. Aph Ko, decolonial theorist, independent digital media producer, writer, thinker coauthor of the book Afro-ism: Essays On Pop Culture, Feminism and Black Veganism From Two Sisters, uh, has a new book coming out soon. Everyone should definitely check that out. Aph, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Aph Ko: Thank you so much for the invitation. I appreciate it.
Adam: Uh, yeah, so a lot to digest there. Not to make a terrible pun.
Nima: That was terrible.
Adam: I think, uh, I think it’s one of those things where, you know, we sometimes have episodes where we’re not being too prescriptive, but we do think it’s worth talking about. I think the stereotypes and the gendered nature of the discussion is super interesting to me and one I think is interesting to deconstruct, so definitely check out the writings of these writers. Check out our show notes. I think it is one of those things to sort of look more into and think critically about. And uh, I look forward to hearing all the comments. I’m sure they’ll all be super positive.
Nima: Well, yeah, I think one of the most valuable things about this for me, especially as someone who is not vegetarian, let alone vegan, is the really strong sense of intersectionality, not to be cheesy, just how things are related. It’s put rather well by the essayist Carl Boggs, this is also referenced in Emily Atkin’s great piece in The New Republic, which we spoke about earlier. And it’s this, quote, “Aside from the military, no sector of American society matches the frightening consequences of the meat complex: ecological devastation, food deterioration, routinized violence, injury, disease, and death to both humans and animals, rampant corporate power.” End quote. And so just seeing how everything fits together I think is not only vital to really bring into the, I don’t want to be cheesy, but like the conversation about oppression, the conversation about racism, the conversation about violence. And it’s just very worthwhile. And it’s something that I think a lot about. It really gets back to that idea of feeling like you just want to justify this really shitty part of your lifestyle cause you just feel like you’re on the wrong side. My eight-year-old daughter is a self-driven vegetarian and I’m just impressed by her determination to do that despite the fact that no one else in her family is. And so I think that there’s just a really strong sense of morality there that I find very, uh, important to consider.
Adam: You’re morally weak. That’s the, that’s the thesis of this episode.
Nima: Yeah, you’re right, you’re right, especially when compared to my daughter. And that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And, of course, as always a very special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I’m Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. Special thanks to Dayton Martindale for his help on the episode. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 20, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.