Should Animal Advocates Stay Out Of Politics?

Two weeks ago I attended Vegfest London – a vegan festival packed with delicious food and inspiring talks. Of particular note was a presentation by the Fat Gay Vegan (his chosen name). He contended that vegan activism should widen its circle of compassion beyond the animals, to other social justice issues. If we care about the oppression of animals he argued, then we should care about the oppression of humans too. He framed his talk with the evidence of enterprises that had done just that, effectively combining veganism with issues such as homelessness, LGBT rights and mental health.

I found myself nodding vigorously throughout – how could I do otherwise when the evidence was so impressive? The examples he mentioned have made veganism fun, accessible, empowering and inclusive. They have reached audiences that traditional activism almost certainly wouldn’t, breaking down social barriers and cast-iron traditions. Most importantly, they have improved the lives of countless animals and people.

But I couldn’t help thinking back to the equally insightful arguments of Bruce Friedrich. In this excellent article he argues that bundling animal welfare with other causes can make it less accessible. “If we make veganism and animal rights a package that includes other issues,” he says “it will be easier for others to dismiss us”.

You only need to look at the inflammatory nature of modern politics to see where Mr Friedrich is coming from. If you find yourself on the opposite side of a debate on Brexit, Trump or Jeremy Corbyn, it rarely ends well. Tagging on animal activism will just mean that that argument goes down the gutter too. If you don’t agree, just imagine trying to convince a libertarian Tory of an animal welfare issue whilst wearing a ‘JC for PM’ t-shirt.

Animal advocates can be found across the political spectrum. Bruce Friedrich points to George Bush’s senior speech writer, congressional members Bob Smith and right-wing ideologue Oliver North. In the UK, Brexiteer-in-chief Michael Gove (someone I’ve never agreed with on anything) was recently at the forefront of introducing mandatory CCTV in slaughter houses. Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley has been vegetarian for decades and the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation is as vociferous for the animals as any group on the left. A blog I recently wrote about the egg industry was shared by all sorts of people, including a Hindu, Trump-loving, Modi supporter.

All told, the evidence suggests that compassion for animals doesn’t correlate with political philosophies that are, after all, defined by what is best for humans. The danger is that when we combine the two, we are alienating huge swathes of potential allies. And how does that help the animals?

So where does this leave my agreement with the Fat Gay Vegan? In truth, I don’t think there is that much of a clash between his words and those of Bruce Friedrich. At its core, the Fat Gay Vegan advocates compassion for all beings. A minority of bigots aside, compassion (I optimistically believe) is universal. The problems start when we pin our compassion to battles where people have already chosen a side – such as Brexit, Trump or Corbyn. But by avoiding these toxic labels – either through our language or by our deeds – we can reach audiences from all points of view.

And that, my friends is my plan for the foreseeable future. As such I’m done with Brexit, Corbyn and Trump. From here, it’s all about the animals (human or otherwise).

Any comments welcome…