A recent op-ed, “Dear vegans, please check your privilege,” states numerous complaints against vegans: the shaming of underprivileged communities, health concerns and environmentalist insufficiency. While we find common ground with the author’s ethical commitment to systemic change, the author’s critique is based on dangerous misconceptions about what veganism is. And, throughout their argument, they consistently fail to recognize the plight of the human and non-human victims of our collective food choices.
The author cites the common trope of the “judgy vegan” to express discomfort at being “policed” by friends and family. As activists, our goal is always to raise awareness of the moral stakes of veganism without engaging in a combative personal critique. But they then go on to state that “one of my largest concerns about this judgmental vegan rhetoric is its blatant disregard for the socioeconomic barriers to healthy food.” This statement is deeply ironic — they are hiding behind the plight of lower-income people to justify their personal inaction on the topic. Truth be told, we have never met a vegan that has shamed or “preached” to a low-income resident for food choices out of their control, yet the author cites this as a pressing issue in our discourse.
Veganism is not only a dietary habit, but a broader ethic that seeks to minimize suffering for all humans and non-humans entangled in our systems. Vegans recognize that geographic, economic and health factors significantly affect people’s ability to adopt a plant-based diet and we actively work to eliminate these obstacles. If you live in a food desert where the only food you have access to is animal-based, then vegan activists are looking to advocate for you, not shame you. As students at an ivy league institution, we all have ample resources to align our actions with our morals without appropriating those less privileged than us. Tokenizing the plight of another’s marginalized status for one’s own inaction is the epitome of privilege.
Whole-food, plant-based diets made up of legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are the cheapest and healthiest diets available. If the author truly cares about increasing the supply of nutritious and affordable vegan foods to these communities, they will surely join us in continuing to advocate for them alongside so many of our fellow vegan friends. And perhaps we should all turn our attention to the reasons why animal-based foods are so cheap in the first place — government subsidies, labor exploitation, environmental externalities and a system of torture and slaughter that ignores the suffering of innocent animals.
The author’s insistence that humans are omnivorous goes against their point. Being omnivorous means that while we can choose to eat animals, we can also thrive without animal products. That we can do something has never been a valid argument to say that we must. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegan diets are appropriate for all stages of life and are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Suspiciously, the author fails to mention the health risks of meat-based diets, including the WHO’s classification of processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen — the same category as cigarettes. The destructive health effects of cheap meat disproportionately impact the communities the author claims to argue for. A truly just food regime that we hope to imagine would dismantle those inequities, not use them as excuses for inaction.
While the author is correct that systemic changes must be made by corporations and governments to combat climate change, we can still influence change through the collective impact of our individual actions. There is no change more radical and systemic than a grassroots revolution in our choices and ethics. As a recent UN climate change report states, “The largest potential for reducing [Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use] emissions are through reduced deforestation and forest degradation, a shift towards plant-based diets, and reduced food and agricultural waste.” All of these interventions can only be effective with a societal change in our individual diets. After all, the pro-climate systemic changes that governments and corporations would make will ultimately compel an individual’s transition away from animal products and towards plant-based alternatives.
Lastly, in choosing to center her personal plight against “judgy vegans” and in scapegoating marginalized communities, the author has de-centered the voiceless victims of the animal agriculture industry: the animals. The scale is tragic and incomprehensible — over 9 billion land animals killed for food each year in the United States, and more than 1 trillion sea animals worldwide. Each individual animal in this horrific system has the ability to experience pain, fear and suffering, as well as pleasure, happiness and joy. If you couldn’t stomach seeing someone abuse a dog, why pay for others to slit the throat of a chicken, pig or cow? In the two minutes it has taken you to read this article, over 226,000 animals have been killed for food in the US. Even if the author only cares about the violation of human rights, they have neglected to mention the countless labor violations in the meat industry, which most often target immigrants and people of color.
One thing vegans have in common is that we have all at one point said that we could never go vegan — we understand that making this change can seem daunting and difficult in our society. But, if one of the biggest sources of anxiety in your life is being “shamed” by the fictitious “vegan police,” then we kindly ask that you too check your privilege. If the author, or anyone else, is interested in talking about veganism, we want nothing more than to welcome you with open arms. We don’t want beef with you. Just beans, perhaps.
ALAN PRESBURGER is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. This letter was written on behalf of the Yale Animal Welfare Alliance (YAWA). Contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.