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To not look away
The story of my veganism and the need for a movement of solidarity between vegans and non-vegans against factory farming
I first became a vegetarian when I was six years old. My family ate meat and I had been raised to eat meat, but as soon as I was old enough to really understand what meat is, I didn’t want to eat it. I was an extremely stubborn child and so my parents eventually accepted this. I lived in a small, conservative town, so other adults weren’t always so accommodating. I frequently had to defend my choice and there were many times I simply didn’t eat because a vegetarian option wasn’t available. My conviction was strong and unshakeable.
I didn’t have language for this at the time, but looking back at my childhood I see a connection between my passionate defence of animal autonomy, my vegetarianism which was an insistence on my own bodily autonomy, and my experience of childhood sexual abuse in which my bodily autonomy was taken away. My vegetarianism is and continues to be an act of solidarity. I know I would not like it if what is happening to the animals was happening to me. I can put myself in their position, imagine their helplessness and terror, and that makes me want to act on their behalf.
As a teenager I discovered the horrors of the dairy industry and realized that the cruelty of factory farms did not end with meat. I became a vegan. I was extremely passionate about it. I was definitely one of those ‘annoying preachy vegans.’ I felt profoundly overwhelmed by the reality of factory farms and I couldn’t understand how so many people just dissociated from these horrors and went on like nothing was happening.
At the end of my teen years, I embraced alcoholism and nihilism, doing my best to cut myself off from all feeling. As a attempt to survive the constant pain and overwhelm of my complex trauma, I decided that I ‘didn’t give a fuck about anything anymore.’ I did not want to care about myself or the world. I forced myself to give up my veganism. I didn’t want to be connected to empathy or solidarity. I didn’t want to feel the pain I was feeling, for my own life, or for the animals. I wasn’t able to make myself give up my vegetarianism but through my years of active alcoholism I consumed dairy and eggs. Within a little more than a year of sobriety in AA, I found myself returning to myself, and returning to my veganism.
I have now been a vegan for about ten years on top of my long history of vegetarianism. As I’ve written and spoken about before, I got sober and landed in ‘social justice’ culture. I got sober and started trying desperately to be ‘good.’ I felt deep shame over my behaviour during the years of alcoholism and ‘not giving a fuck about anything.’ I wanted to redeem myself. I wanted to follow the rules and make the right choices. I was very afraid of being cancelled.
In the ‘social justice’ scenes that I moved through, veganism wasn’t common or popular. Preachy vegans were often made fun of or called out. And even the mention of veganism could result in accusations of colonialism, racism, or simply ‘whiteness.’ It is obviously untrue that vegetarianism and veganism are a specifically ‘white’ phenomenon and there is nothing inherently racist or colonial about defending animal rights or opposing factory farming. But that’s the story in some ‘social justice’ scenes, so discussions of animal rights or veganism are easily shut down.
Veganism and animal rights are weird issues in ‘social justice’ orthodoxy, because whether they are embraced and enforced or censored and called out seems to vary greatly from place to place. In the places I have lived since being vegan (Toronto and Montreal) they are definitely not popular or acceptable ‘social justice’ issues and I downplayed my veganism in order to avoid getting into trouble. While I would never eat animal products, I made sure to emphasize that I wasn’t pressuring anyone, that I knew all the critiques of veganism, that I wasn’t one of those vegans.
It is important to me not to be judgemental or shaming, and I don’t think judgement or shame are the best ways to get people to think seriously about factory farming or animal rights. Those are my true principles, and I maintain them even after deprogramming from the rules of ‘social justice’ orthodoxy. But my desire to be a ‘good’ vegan was definitely about more than those principles. It was a desire to stay out of trouble. It was a dampening of my passionate and heartfelt solidarity with factory farmed animals in exchange for the recitation of ‘social justice’ orthodoxies.
It’s interesting because even when I found the courage to publicly challenge cancel culture and identitarianism, even now that I regularly and publicly say things that make me some new level of cancelled every day, I still didn’t publicly talk about animal rights or veganism hardly at all, despite these being my earliest political commitments. The couple times I have dared to mention veganism on my instagram, always in gentle, non-shaming, and non-coercive language, I receive comments and re-shares accusing me of racism, colonialism, ‘whiteness’, and sometimes ableism.
For as much as people talk about vegans being preachy and intense, some people who eat animal based foods are extremely intense in their defensiveness and will use anything to shut down the conversation. ‘Social justice’ culture provides an easy way to shut down serious consideration of the horrors of factory farms by turning ‘preachy vegans’ into scapegoats and levelling nonstop identitarian critiques of ‘preachy vegans’, even when the vegan in question is not being preachy at all. Of all the very controversial things I say regularly, veganism (when I have talked about it at all) has consistently received the most pushback among my own audience, who is used to me saying controversial things.
So I avoided talking about it, for the most part, and didn’t really interrogate my own desire to be a chill vegan. Even as I found the courage to take on cancel culture and identitarianism (and got my tires slashed for it) I was still afraid to talk about, or even feel the intensity of, my commitment to factory farmed animals.
In my first ayahuasca ceremony, I saw visions of factory farmed cows. I saw the absolute singularity of the life of a cow. Her precious, irreplaceable life. Her eyes. I saw the terror in her eyes.
I was surprised that the medicine showed me this. I, a lifelong vegetarian and committed vegan, did not need to be convinced that the animals inside factory farms are people. They are living beings with their own rich inner worlds full of feeling and the capacity to form loving attachments with other beings. They feel love and they feel fear and they feel joy and they feel pain. Their lives, like ours, are the only ones they have. They are irreplaceable. They are not objects. They are beings. I have always known this. Since childhood I have been so deeply and viscerally aware of this that the existence of factory farms horrifies me at a soul level. I know.
And yet the medicine showed me. The medicine showed me because I too must dissociate to live in a world where factory farms exist. I too must numb myself to not feel this pain. And here I was, playing small and dismissing such a core part of my political and spiritual beliefs because I didn’t want to get in trouble. The medicine showed me that it is my responsibility to know and to carry this knowledge into the world. To not look away. All of my work is about restoring dignity, compassion, resources, belonging, and recognition to all people. This does not end with human beings. It extends to all beings.
I think the reason why people are so defensive about eating animal based foods is that they do not want to open to the pain of factory farming. Opening to that pain is so overwhelming, and for those who eat animal based foods it can bring up shame. So instead they shut down vegans with any accusations they can come up with. Whether that’s the standard mockery of vegetarianism or the leveraging of identitarian take downs in ‘social justice’ culture.
Caring about the suffering of factory farmed animals is not racist, colonial, ‘white’, or ableist. Caring about the suffering of factory farmed animals is a fundamental part of any struggle for the liberation of all. The struggle to end factory farms is directly tied to the struggle to end capitalism, a system that objectifies humans, animals, and ecosystems in the name of profit.
I agree that some vegans use shaming tactics. I have compassion for those vegans because I know they are tapped into the overwhelming pain of an ethical atrocity and they are simply trying to fight that atrocity. But shame does not work. What could work is an acknowledgment of the reality that most people who eat animal products, if they know what goes on in factory farms, find it horrifying and are dissociating from it. This is why I believe that we need to build solidarity between vegans and non-vegans in the struggle to end factory farms.
Vegans will ask — how can you know about this pain and continue to eat factory farmed animals anyway? But if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we all take part in systems that are not in alignment with our principles and integrity due to the coerciveness of capitalism. Plastic is also an atrocity. The mining operations that produced the components of this computer I’m typing on very likely included human rights violations and contribute to the literal destruction of the planet. We all take part in these atrocities. Not because we are ‘complicit’ but because, on our own as individuals, we don’t have a lot of power.
The idea that ‘your dollar is a vote for the world you want to live in’ is literally just neoliberalism. It’s the idea that we, as individuals, can change horrific gigantic all powerful systems by making self-sacrificing and ‘good’ consumer choices. I agree that we should do our best to align our actions with our principles, but the reality is that capitalism is coercive, and personal choices alone cannot end capitalism, or any of its many horrors, including factory farms.
I think the strategy of turning ‘veganism’ into an identity and demanding that everyone become vegan if they care about animals is not an effective strategy. It puts too much focus on individual choice, relies on shame which ends up creating more numbing and dissociation, and does not create the conditions for an organized movement of mass solidarity against factory farms.
I think a movement of mass solidarity against factory farms which includes vegans and those who eat animal based foods could pose a very real threat to factory farming. In fact, I think it’s our best best at ending the horror of factory farms, which is why I believe we must put our differences aside long enough to work together.
Even if some vegans oppose eating animals all together, I think they can agree that abolishing factory farms would be a huge win for animals. We do not need to come to agreement on the question of whether or not it is ever justified to kill animals for food in order to come together and organize against factory farming. Abolishing factory farming should be a serious priority for the Left, for anyone who opposes capitalism, for anyone who wants to save the planet from the destruction of climate change and environmental disaster, and anyone who is not dissociating from their empathetic response to the torture of animals.
I’m done being a ‘good’ vegan. My veganism is not simply a personal choice. It’s a political commitment and a deep expression of solidarity with animals. This does not mean that I shame and condemn those who eat animals. It means I am inviting them to take seriously their responsibility to the animals they eat. I am inviting them into a relationship of solidarity against the horrors of factory farming because I believe without a doubt that if they are not dissociating from it, they believe it is profoundly wrong.
Here are some new(ish) things: