Trigger warning: this article contains references to rape, slavery, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.
Divides within movements are hardly a new phenomenon. Causes rarely meet their goals without their internal disagreements. We’ve seen them throughout the history of feminism and repeatedly within politics. But when a small minority of a movement becomes extremist, what impact does it have on the future of a cause?
Western veganism was established in 1944 with the founding of the Vegan Society. However if we look eastwards, vegan principles are baked into cultural history, with vegetarianism appearing in India in Jainism as far back as the 8th century BC. A few centuries later, Buddhist teachings not to eat meat or fish spread vegetarian cuisine far and wide across the Eastern world. In the past few years, as concerns about climate change have gathered steam, there has been an exponential growth in the number of vegans globally. With more and more people gaining access to information about veganism through literature, documentaries, lectures, events and social media, it is estimated that 600,000 people in the UK have adopted a vegan diet.
With this rise in numbers, there has been a growing divide in opinions on how to progress the movement, encourage more people to go vegan and how best to persuade them to make that change. The divide mainly centres around people’s motives for going vegan, whether it’s for the animals, the planet or personal health reasons.
In the 1970s, animal rights activists became famous for using violent and confrontational methods in the form of protests, attacks and fire-bombing animal research labs. Over time, the methods have mellowed to more peaceful protests, fairs, events and information on social media. Today, however, there are still some vegans who believe that more radical forms of activism are necessary to spread awareness of the impact of eating meat and dairy and to encourage people to adopt a vegan lifestyle. This rift has taken on a more sinister tone of late as a number of activists have used their considerable social media following to spread their use of controversial language in their efforts to 'shock' people into veganism. Over the past year especially, as communities of marginalised people have seen their trauma played out on a global stage, several high-profile vegan activists and influencers have taken advantage, using language associated with slavery, the Holocaust and rape.
One person is Canadian vegan activist Kadie Karen Diekmeyer (aka That Vegan Teacher) who had over 1.6 million followers on TikTok before being removed from the platform in February this year after numerous complaints of homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and disablist comments. In one comment on TikTok, she described coming out as vegan as "much more special" than coming out as LGBTQ+. She later made a YouTube video claiming "the animals have it worse" than victims of the Holocaust.
James Aspey, an Australian animal rights activist and vegan of eight years, uses his platform of over 240k followers on Instagram to share information about animal agriculture and to 'call out' people who eat meat, dairy and fish for their role as consumers in the industry. In a recent post, James shared an image of a cow being artificially inseminated and claimed that non-vegans are "paying for animals to be raped". His posts garner hundreds of comments but alongside the worrying messages of support, people are calling him out for his use of language at the expense of victims of trauma, often drawing the conversation away from saving animals or going vegan. James also makes regular references to the Holocaust and slavery.
Activists and organisations within the vegan community have condemned this use of language. The organisation behind Dominion, an influential documentary exposing standard farming and slaughter practices in Australia, spoke out on Instagram, saying: "This is a superficial and harmful justification that does nothing but generate controversy and division without any benefit for the animals themselves." Vegan lifestyle blogger Emma’s Ditto created an information guide on Instagram, denouncing the comparison of the exploitation of animals to the Holocaust and saying: "Don’t shout over the voice of one cause, to further another."
Many members of the vegan community are obviously keen to distance themselves from language of this kind but many worry about the impact it will have on growing the community. London-based, Indian-British vegan influencer and animal activist Moon Onyx Starr focuses on spreading positivity and inspiration through her posts on Instagram. Moon told R29: "I feel as vegans we need to be more sensitive about the kind of language we use. From my experience, the best way to drive the vegan movement forward has been to lead by example and share with people how amazing and important a vegan lifestyle is."
Vegan influencer Marta Canga, who lives in London and writes about sustainable vegan fashion and skincare, agrees. She says that such triggering language is problematic and counterproductive. "I think it's incredibly offensive and, while I understand the need to highlight animal suffering, nowadays, animals are killed for food."
Demi Colleen, also from London, is a vegan beauty and lifestyle blogger who discusses racism and whitewashing in veganism over on her Patreon page. "Communities with veganism at the heart of their cultures need to be placed at the forefront of the movement," she explained to R29. "White vegans must do meaningful anti-racist work alongside their vegan activism because animal liberation depends on the ending of oppression of people to truly succeed."
When vegan activists appropriate language from other communities' traumas, it not only causes more pain but also further isolates marginalised groups both within and outside veganism. The fact that lots of the top vegan influencers in the UK are white only adds to the narrative that veganism is an elitist white movement. Mainstream veganism – sometimes referred to as 'white veganism' – neglects vegans of colour, perpetuating the myth that veganism was invented by white people and ignoring the roots of the movement in Buddhism, Jainism, Rastafarianism and the Black Hebrew Israelite community. Foods which have become popular over the past few years thanks to the growing number of vegans in the West mean we 'borrow' cooking ideas and recipes that vegans of colour have been using for years. To have to weather racist language from within their own community as well is unacceptable. Sadly, the response so far from activists criticised for their language has been unapologetic, often calling out critics and labelling them 'speciesist'.
When extremists label themselves as working for the movement, it can be immensely frustrating for other vegans. Jokes and memes about pushy and vocal vegans are already part of the internet's rhetoric and can be a huge turn-off for anyone considering going vegan. If the appropriation of other communities' trauma continues to gain steam within the movement, we may see more young people avoiding the lifestyle altogether due to the increasing number of negative connotations.
For the vegan movement to progress it needs to be intersectional and, as Demi Colleen says, led by communities with veganism at the heart of their culture. There needs to be more discussion around the barriers to veganism and ideas about how to help vegan and vegan-curious people living in food deserts (areas where there is limited access to affordable and nutritious food). There need to be conversations about how to tackle income restrictions and cultural isolation and the many other difficult and individual issues that may prevent someone from adopting a vegan lifestyle.
It's no secret by now that going vegan can be an incredibly healthy way to live and is one of the best ways we can reduce our environmental impact. Not only does it give you a profound connection to the planet and the creatures we share it with but it can save the lives of over 10,000 animals over the course of your lifetime. Whatever a person's reason for exploring veganism, they deserve to feel supported, welcomed and included by the vegan community while they make the difficult transition.