As part of our celebrations for Pride Month, Peter Machen spoke to Christopher Sebastian, a journalist, adjunct lecturer, and digital-media consultant who writes extensively about veganism and the relationship between the oppression of animals and the oppression of the planet’s black, queer, and working-class people.
Peter Machen: In my experience, people who identify as queer are more likely to also identify as vegetarian or vegan. Why do you think this is the case?
Christopher Sebastian: It’s an interesting phenomenon, no? While there are very few reliable statistics that definitively show a correlation between queerness and plant-based eating, anecdotally there does appear to be strong LGBTQ+ representation among vegans. Women1 and people of colour2 are also more highly represented in populations of people more likely to go vegetarian or vegan than their counterparts. (As someone who writes about matters of nationalism, identity politics, and culture, I generally avoid talking about vegetarianism/veganism as an identity wherever possible and instead regard it as an action/inaction.)
And while I can’t say with full certainty, since you asked what I think, I would speculate that queer people’s stated reasons are often the same as the reasons all kinds of people commonly give, i.e., climate, health or concern for animals. Although I think it’s interesting to observe the sheer number of people who experience one or more axes of oppression that adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
PM: Do you think this is related to the fact that far more women than men are vegan?
CS: Absolutely! Building on my previous answer, take the climate example. Although I take enormous issue with the way that the vegan movement presents the facts about climate change in our advocacy, it is without question that animal agriculture is a major driver of it. But toxic masculinity* makes it much harder for men to embrace a plant-based diet than women, meaning that men perceive meatless food to be effeminate or un-masculine (shout-out to Carol Adams and The Sexual Politics of Meat).
By comparison, women eat plant-based foods far more readily, as evidenced by the fact that over 70% of vegans and vegetarians in the US are women, according to the BBC.3 And from a climate perspective, with good reason. Even the United Nations recognises that the effects of the climate emergency are not gender-neutral and that existing gender inequality will be exacerbated. In conversations I’ve had, women and non-men often make these lifestyle changes as a means to reclaim their agency or to spread awareness of these systemic issues.
[*Toxic masculinity is defined as a set of attitudes and ways of behaving that are stereotypically associated with, or expected of men, and is regarded as having a negative impact on men and on society as a whole.]
PM: The very useful term ‘intersectionality’ has become poisoned in recent years for various reasons. And using terms such as ‘hierarchies of oppression’, for example, although also useful and accurate, is likely to chase many people away. How can we use language in a more effective way to help people really see the interconnected nature of all life on earth, from our ecosystems to our economies to our social structures and prejudices?
CS: I wrote about the limitations of intersectionality and my personal choice to not use it as early as 2018, in part because it is better applied to the experiences of Black women but more importantly because, to my knowledge, the scholar who coined the phrase herself doesn’t extend her own analysis to animals. For me, that robs it of legitimacy when other people apply intersectionality to animals and veganism because her example sets the tone for how this theory/analytical tool is perceived in the public discourse. Nonetheless, people very frequently identify me as an intersectional advocate, which I can’t really help.
That said, I use whatever language helps working-class people of all backgrounds to connect the dots that show that human and animal fortunes are handcuffed together and that we’re all being used as exploitable resources under an economic system that only benefits a few. People were doing that long before intersectionality became a buzzword, and they’ll be doing it long after it has been exhausted in the discourse.
PM: You’ve expressed concerns about the neutering of veganism through the use of terms such as ‘plant-based’ (rather than ‘vegan’). This is an approach that ProVeg takes because many people view veganism as radical and/or politicised and we try to normalise plant-based eating, to present it as a logical default choice for anyone who is aware of the ethical, health, and environmental impacts of eating animals. Do you find this problematic?
CS: First, I want to be clear that I do think a distinction between “plant-based” and “vegan” is important because I don’t think the two words are directly interchangeable.
With that out of the way, I’m not unsympathetic to the desire to remain apolitical. I understand the appeal. Political polarisation is staggeringly high right now. If your starting place is the presumption that you want to broadly appeal to the largest segment of the population, then you don’t want to offend those people who are not politically aligned. The bottom line, however, is that as counterintuitive as it might seem for some, I think that this is the wrong starting place because neutrality, by its very nature, exacerbates oppression.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Furthermore, Berkeley social psychologists indicate that the path to neutralising our polarisation is not to be apolitical but rather to recognise and address our political differences head-on through intergroup contact and perspective-talking,4 and there is a lot of consensus about this among social psychologists.
Also, animal agribusiness and right-wing interests not only recognise that animal exploitation is deeply political, they weaponise those politics all the time. This is backed up by quantitative evidence. Social scientists in Amsterdam and Berlin showed that when far-right politicians in Germany exploit wolf attacks as a threat to the economic livelihoods of livestock farmers, there is a significant rise in far-right voting behaviour.
Additionally, the propaganda used by both politicians and animal agribusiness in the United States is unparalleled. From Bacon America Great Again (a play on Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again) to the nationalism perpetuated by the All-American Beef Battalion5 that literally and figuratively wraps up steak in the American flag, it’s literally woven into the fabric of US American political discourse.
Even in the halls of Parliament, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman famously invoked food as a signifier of political alignment when she blamed “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” for disruptive climate protests, suggesting that people who eat soya are not aligned with traditional British values and are, therefore, troublemakers for working-class people.
I call these, and other examples of this political manoeuvring, therio-nationalism, the Greek prefix therio translated to mean animal or beast.
I could explain for hours on end why this is deeply problematic and have spilled buckets of digital ink writing about it. But in the end, political neutrality is neither a useful or particularly mature response to the crisis we face. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that veganism is not, in fact, both deeply radical and deeply political.
As for “normalis[ing] plant-based eating…as a logical default choice for anyone who is aware of the ethical, health, and environmental impacts of eating animals,” perhaps that corporatised approach could be successful if given the fullness of time but not in the timeframes that are needed in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change (see my answer to the final question on this list).
Crowding out the market for animal-based products takes both years and the cooperation of the corporations that you lobby. And that cooperation is not something they’re offering to us as an act of altruism.
For example, when public health attorney and food policy expert Michele Simon wrote about this in 2022, she quoted a 2019 press release from Tyson Foods, in which they said, “For us, this is about ‘and’—not ‘or’. We remain firmly committed to our GROWING [emphasis added] traditional meat business and expect to be a market leader in alternative protein.”
According to Simon, Tyson has no interest in displacing their animal sales, only in expanding their bottom line. In light of the time constraints we’re working under, combined with the stated interests of the corporations themselves, I would argue that this approach wastes a lot of valuable resources.
PM: Some people argue that the shift to plant-based eating automatically leads to expanded political consciousness simply because it requires greater awareness. I know that is certainly true for some people, but do you think it’s broadly true?
CS: Oh, man! Okay, so perhaps a shift to plant-based eating can lead to an expansion of political consciousness. But I’ve also met a not-insignificant number of vegans who think our current political and economic system works perfectly fine. They just want to remove animals from it, which is – at best – a very unsophisticated way of thinking and – at worst – overtly bigoted. Furthermore, what “expanded political consciousness” means can look dramatically different from person to person.
Sure, some people will go vegan and understand that the commodification of other animals is deeply tied to our relationships with one another. And in that way, yes, it can be a path to class consciousness. But then there’s another, perhaps smaller, subset of vegans who use plant-based eating as an ideological vehicle for ableism,6 fatphobia,7 puritanical and destructive relationships with food,8 and yes, even neo-nazism.9
Plus, I’ve written about how the vegan movement, in our quest for greater numbers, has shackled veganism to the wellness movement,10 which is incredibly dangerous since, not only does it reduce veganism to a diet, but it opens the door for people to interpret veganism as an extension of wellness culture, homoeopathy, and pseudoscience, which leads down a road to quackery and conspiratorial thinking, both having deep roots in anti-Blackness and antisemitism.
I’ve long been critical of this ‘big tent’ veganism. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now witnessing the consequences of that recklessness with the rise of dangerous anti-science populists and New Age demagogues, emboldened by the silence of the professionalised wing of the movement that allowed them to flourish in the first place.
PM: You’ve recently been writing about how the meat and dairy industries are beating the ‘tradition’ drum, a drum that’s been getting a lot of use in the last decade. I understand the appeal to tradition – the world’s many food traditions are one of the planet’s central riches – but it’s also clear to me that ‘tradition’ is a term that has, like the concept of authenticity, been corrupted by the marketing industry and our political systems. At the same time, traditional farming techniques, for example, as well as other traditional knowledge systems, have a lot to offer. How do you think we can move forward into the future, maintaining useful traditions while discarding destructive ones?
CS: To say that the terms tradition and authenticity have been corrupted by the marketing industry is exactly right. They intentionally ignore the rich, mostly non-white and non-European heritages of plant-based foods that have existed for centuries before the twin scourges of colonialism and racial capitalism. And while I appreciate that food tech attempts to address the problem through innovations, those are capitalist solutions to capitalist problems, which makes them short-term by definition because capitalism prioritises short-term profitability over life itself.11
In order to move forward into the future, we need to look into the past. In other words, let’s put as many resources into the historians and scholars who recover lost indigenous and Black knowledge about plant-based traditions as we do into tech bros. Let’s invest in the work of scholars and critics who examine the traditions cultivated by working-class people around the world who have been forced to contend, over the past hundred years, with the impositions of the political and financial elite who centralise animal exploitation.
Wacky cake is a breathtaking example of the creativity demonstrated by working-class people during the Great Depression when dairy, milk, and eggs were rationed due to a war fought over literal fascism, i.e., right-wing extremism. Many more such examples are littered across the twentieth century. Focusing on those traditions reinforces social cohesion and fosters pride in the resilience of people with few means.
As fascism experiences a resurgence, along with the economic conditions that encourage it (i.e., late-model capitalism), it’s worth bringing that knowledge back.
PM: Finally, it seems to me that a lot of the political and social conflict that’s emerged in the last few years is an expression of resistance to a new world that is being born, one that is far more nurturing and caring. When I talk to young people in their late teens and early twenties, it gives me a lot of hope. Do you think that, despite all the recent backlashes against progressivism and the multiple environmental crises we are facing, we are, at least in some ways, moving towards a better world?
CS: Look, not to end on a pessimistic note, but the Guardian recently reported that scientists predict that the world is likely to breach the dangerous 1.5 °C climate threshold by 2027.12 Almost simultaneously, Newsweek13 released a poll that indicates 40% of Americans don’t believe that eating less red meat would lower carbon emissions. So, like, you do the math.
If we are indeed moving toward a better world – and I do believe that we are – we need to do so much faster than would be allowed by the incrementalism so lauded by neoliberal interests that prioritise corporate profits and respectability over necessarily rapid material change. We need to match the urgency of the situation that is in front of us. Our future and the future of the planet’s animals depends on it.
PM: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Christopher.
[General note from Christopher: It’s important to recognise that all answers presented here are expressed through the prism of a Western/US/European context. To learn more about Native American, indigenous, and African perspectives, a few scholars who have taught me a lot are Rita Laws, Margaret Robinson, and Evan Mwangi.]