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Consumer activism is dying. Is that a good thing?
What the author of "Boycott Veganism" regrets about the shift towards systemic change
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not every post will be of the highest quality, and on January 1, I’ll reassess and create a new schedule for higher quality posts.
In 2007, I drafted and informally circulated an article with the working title, “Boycott Veganism.” The article got me instantly banned on a number of vegan forums, and it was my first lesson in how quick judgment – even within a community of good and like-minded people – can wreak havoc on relationships and trust. The vegans who knew me, especially those who knew me from online interactions alone, were shocked that I would draft an article with such a counter-intuitive (and maybe immoral) title. The vegans who didn’t know me quickly judged me to be an anti-vegan troll.
It seemed to me that relatively few people actually read the article, which despite its provocative title was not a defense of eating animals. To the contrary, if anything, the article was a call to action, and to focus on the powerful systems underlying all forms of animal abuse. But despite the article’s inauspicious beginnings, it carried surprising sway. The founder of one vegan forum called Vegan Represent pushed the article especially hard. And it went viral multiple times on various social media platforms, most notably tumblr.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of that single article. But Boycott Veganism was part of a shift in social movements, for the environment and animals, away from personal consumer activism towards political systemic change. And that victory has been almost complete, as I sit here writing in 2021. From the Sunrise Movement to the Open Philanthropy Project, there is widespread consensus now that activism should focus on powerful policies and structures, and not the decisions of ordinary people. And that is partly why these movements are now finally starting to see success.
It might be surprising, therefore, to hear that I am now deeply skeptical of both the tone and (to some extent) the content of Boycott Veganism. The abrasive judgment of the article, which practically condemned vegans as moral cowards, was counterproductive. The focus on direct action, and systemic/cultural change, missed an important element of all systemic change: shifts in (collective) identity which can be driven by lifestyle and personal choice.
I therefore have intended for many years to rewrite the article, which was never meant to be published, with a few key points that backtrack from the strong claims I made 14 years ago.
First, systemic change is important. But individual identity shifts, that mobilize people to activism, are an important part of systemic change.
A conversation I had with Doug McAdam, the legendary sociologist, is apt. When I asked him whether veganism was a good framework for animal rights, he didn’t mention at all the economic or direct impacts of the vegan boycott. He instead latched onto the idea that veganism was an identity that could be harnessed to mobilize people for the fight for animal rights. I missed this point when I wrote Boycott Veganism in 2007.
Second, even if veganism is not an identity that is easily harnessed, attacking an identity group probably won’t assist the movement for animal rights.
I point out in Boycott Veganism (rightly) that veganism is a hard foundation upon which to build. This is partly because vegan means so many things to so many people. And partly because veganism is an identity focused on personal choice, rather than collective (direct) action. However, even if veganism is not the best identity upon which to build a movement for animal rights — which it might not be — that does not imply that attacking the vegan identity will do us any good.
Third, veganism framed as a small step in a ladder of engagement seems like a powerful mechanism for movement engagement and change.
Consumer change might not be the most effective tactic for change. It might not be effective at all, in its direct impacts on systemic abuses. But it might still be an important step in a ladder of engagement, that will lead folks to more effective rungs of the ladder. This is a point that Duncan Watts made to me. And it’s an important one to understand if we are trying to mobilize the masses for animal rights.
There are a lot more things I could say. But I’ll save them for the rewrite of Boycott Veganism. In the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing others’ thoughts on consumer activism and change.