Posters read "we are eating our way to extinction" and "no future but a plant based future". A hand can be seen sticking one of the posters to a sign.

The dark side of animal activism

Recent protests by Animal Rising, most notably at the Grand National, have turned a spotlight on animal rights, whilst concern about the climate crisis is pushing more people to try plant-based diets. In this article, vegan activist Pamela Nova retraces her own journey to veganism to question the roots of our attitudes to animals and why unpicking these so often meets with resistance. 

Words: Pamela Nova

A nation of animal lovers?

Why in a nation of self-styled ‘animal lovers’ is veganism still seen as difficult, only for a tiny minority and/or irrelevant to most people?

When I became vegan, nine years ago, a major part in that decision was researching on social media, and being shocked and appalled at the treatment of other animals by human animals.

Until then, although I’d campaigned and written extensively on human rights and social justice issues in the UK and Asia, I’d never paid any serious attention to the ways in which other animals are used.

I went through periods of vegetarianism, but still swam in the cultural sea of “normal/natural/nice” which justified using animals and considering them inferior to humans.

“it is a convenient lie that human animals are superior to all other animal. It entitles us to use them however we want”

As a “nature-lover”, there was no doubt in my mind that free-living (“wild”) animals were far more interesting, glamorous and superior to “domesticated” animals.

Farm animals were “stupid” and of a supposedly lower animal calibre and therefore less deserving of any thought, and although I preferred to buy free-range eggs and grass fed organic animal body parts, that was as far as my concern went. 

Read more: an evening on the town with Animal Rising


When a friend went vegan, her simple ‘You should try it’ had me scrolling through Facebook watching cows playing with balls like huge puppies; mother cows crying for babies snatched away by farmers; pigs screaming as they were gassed to death and day old chicks being chopped up alive in giant mincers.

A seismic shift took place.

I thought I was researching but something else was happening: I was deprogramming and reprogramming myself from a lifetime of speciesist and human supremacist propaganda that said that humans (spoiler alert: humans are animals too) were superior to all other animals and that this “superiority” entitles us to do exactly as we like to them.

Authors like Professor Gary Francione, the first academic to teach animal rights theory in a US law school, pioneer of abolitionist theory and the difference between animal rights and animal welfare, author of Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog; and Eat Like You Care: An examination of the Morality of Eating Animals were key to clarifying the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

I started doing vegan outreach, confident that facts and empathy would swiftly empower everyone I reached out to to become vegan. Except they didn’t.

A woman stands behind a table outdoors. The table is covered with leaflets and a clipboard.
Pamela at an outreach event on College Green. Image: Pamela Nova.

Invisible barriers

It seemed inexplicable. Even friends and family members were impervious to the horror and torture they inflicted on a daily basis. Some even seemed annoyed when I mentioned it.

Desperate to find a reason why, I hit the research again.

Why are otherwise reasonable people so resistant to acknowledging the reality of their actions?

Like me in my pre-vegan state, we all absorb speciesist propaganda that says there are strong demarcation lines between a pig destined to become my ‘bacon’ and the kittens who populated my childhood. And humans who tend not to identify as animals.

These demarcation lines are so clear, strong and obvious and invisible that we never feel the need to recognise that they exist, let alone question them.

In terms of social change and activism, in which a minority of people seek to alter embedded beliefs that the majority take as normal, veganism and animal rights activists are no different from the suffragettes or civil rights campaigners, with a strong theoretical rationale about why change is vital.

Vegan academics like Gary Francione, Cory Lee Wrenn, pattrice jones, Steve Best, Aph and Syl Ko deconstruct and analyse our cultural assumptions and link veganism with other anti-oppression movements.

The roots of othering

In the UK, Dr Roger Yates, animal rights activist turned sociologist and lecturer, who worked with Animal Liberation Front founder Ronnie Lee in the1980s and is now a popular YouTuber

‘I focus on the fundamental wrongs (the rights violations) not the things that make the fundamental wrongs even worse (cruelty),’ he says.

‘Social movements are claims-makers. They identify social problems and make claims about them. As feminists have made claims about the ideology of patriarchy, vegans make claims about cultural speciesism.’

“I started doing outreach, confident that facts and empathy would empower everyone I to become vegan. They didn’t.”

Given this, it becomes clear why humans are impervious to the horrors we inflict on other animals. Cultural conditioning and ‘othering’ which legitimises practices and regimes which shore up the power of dominant actors, women by men, black people by white people, and animals by humans.

In the same way that the othering of women has given us the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, othering animals gives us the ‘pet’/‘food, animal’/‘wild animal’ separation, which designates very different treatment for animals in the different categories.

Towards abolition

So how are these messages of power and superiority carried?

‘The words we use as vegan animal rights advocates carry our values and political aspirations,’ says Yates.

‘We can’t control how our messages are decoded but we can – and should – think carefully about the values we encode into them. Do we articulate our values in a weak way, begging for mercy, saying “please be kind” to other animals, pleading for people to “not be cruel”, or do we use language that genuinely reflects our position: that other animals are rights bearers and, when humans use them, that’s a rights violation?’

Understanding veganism as animal rights clarifies why so many refuse to entertain it.

Like any other rights-based claim, veganism challenges dominant cultural norms. Self-serving economic, psychological and emotional vested interests support the convenient lie that human animals are superior to all other animals and that this entitles us to use them however we want.

‘Animal rights is the opposition to all animal use,’ says Yates. ‘It is not the same as the animal welfare position which is focused on animal treatment while using them. As Donald Watson, the best known co-founder of the vegan social movement, said in 1945, veganism is the opposition to the exploitation of sentient life. 

‘Another founder, Leslie Cross, said that vegans are on the side of the liberators; veganism is not about tidying up animal use, but abolishing it.’ 

Feature image: Wong Yat Him.

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