Should we be violent?

A few months ago, I had an interesting email exchange with a reader.

He asked me how vegans can simultaneously call the killing of animals ‚murder‘ yet largely object to violence as a means of stopping it. He wrote: „I find it difficult to understand why some vegans find violence generally unjustified, if they indeed think animals deserve personhood. If I can only stop a murderer by killing him, I would do it. Why does this conclusion not apply to the ‚murder‘ of animals?“

I object to violence in the animal rights movement for three reasons:

First, like my reader, I might support killing someone who in that moment is about to kill many others and cannot be stopped any other way (although whether I would actually do it is another question). But how often are we confronted with one human being about to kill hundreds of animals? The problem is precisely that animal abuse is not limited to isolated incidents of disturbed individuals doing societally unacceptable harm. Speciesism and the murder of animals are systemic and systematically hidden. Of course, individual killings and abuses are directed, prepared, and executed by individuals, but these individuals are exchangeable and occupy merely a role in a smoothly operating, generally accepted system. This does not make these individual executors „innocent,“ but it means that the existence of their wrongdoing does not depend on the existence of their person. By killing one of these role-occupying individuals, I may momentarily halt the production chain, but this will undoubtedly be made up for quickly, and the animals will be no better off for it.

Second, some people may advocate violence simply to „punish“ the perpetrators or „avenge“ the animals. Personally, I don’t feel this need. My only goal is to stop the systematic suffering of animals; I honestly don’t care about the perpetrators other than that I want them to stop what they’re doing. I have no desire for revenge, and the abused animals would feel no sense of compensation. Maybe this is a matter of personality. Injustice makes me sad; perhaps it makes others angry. Sadness orientates itself towards the victims, anger towards the perpetrators. People who are angry at injustice may therefore also have an eye on the perpetrators when planning their activism. I only care about the victims.

Third, to put it bluntly, veganism has an image problem. Vegans used to be thought of as unkempt hippies, then as yuppie „superfood“ fiends, and more recently as potentially dangerous political fanatics. If we truly want to defy speciesism, our movement needs to reach as many people as possible. Physically attacking other humans will only alienate us further from those we need to convince and endear. I’m not one for diluting our ideals—I won’t praise people for buying organic milk—but I do think we need to think carefully about our actions and representations. After all, we want to become „mainstream“—not by tempering our ideals, but by circulating them.

What do you think? Is there room for violence in the vegan movement? And does injustice make you sad or angry?