Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Bill Clinton has adopted a “near vegan” diet, you can watch his interview with CNN to listen to him talk about it. I’m happy that Mr. Clinton has removed
himself in some ways from the long chain of abuses we human beings have
visited upon the beings other than human who share this globe with us,
but I am not as enamored with the reaction to his initiative as one
might expect a vegan to be. While I do appreciate that Clinton
understands the relationship between human health and the consumption of
animal products, his recent announcement casts light on the fundamental
divide between committed animal rights advocates and the rest of the
animal advocacy movement.
Bill Clinton’s experimentation with a plant-based diet is not a foray into veganism. Where diet is concerned, Mr. Clinton admits to
occasionally still eating fish and although he specifically says that he
no longer eats dairy, he doesn’t mention eggs, so it’s unclear to me
whether he still eats them. In terms of diet then, Clinton is not
vegan, nor does he claim to be. He also makes no claim to be vegan in
any other area of his life, so it is safe to assume that he has not
changed any of his habits related to any and all of the other countless
ways most people contribute to the unjust exploitation of other
animals. Mr. Clinton may have stopped eating most other animals, but he
hasn’t claimed to have stopped wearing their skins or supporting
medical tests on them. He’s not vegan.
Now, there is a quite vocal contingent in the animal advocacy movement that has jumped on Mr.Clinton’s bandwagon, effusing over his
“conversion” and hoping that, as in his political career, the “Big Dog”
will have long coattails and that throngs of people will follow his lead
into “near-veganism”. That would be nice if it were to happen, but
there are good reasons to expect that it won’t.
As I watched the video interview my first thought was, “I don’t have heart trouble, and I’ve never had any of the markers for heart trouble,
so why would I change my diet to try to fix heart trouble?” Of course
it’s true that I am already vegan, but I like to think I’m not unlike
most other people in most other respects. So I’d expect most other
people to have a similar thought as they watch the video. It stands to
reason, doesn’t it, that Clinton’s particular message about the benefits
of a plant based diet will resonate primarily with people who are
already concerned about health issues?
As I’ve said, it’s not a bad thing that Bill Clinton is talking about the changes he making in his life, but because of his focus on health
issues, no-one should expect that he is any kind of advocate for other
animals. Well, he is an advocate for other human animals, but he’s not
one for the animals other than human.
What’s the fundamental divide?
There are many who herald Mr. Clinton’s announcement as a great step forward toward “reducing suffering”. I have to be honest, if I could
purge two words from the English lexicon, it would be those two, in that
combination. The reduction of suffering, while good, is inadequate as a
strategy for dealing with the problem of the use and abuse of all other
animals at the hands of humankind. Reducing suffering simply falls
short as a remedy for that abuse. Why would any advocate ask for a
reduction in suffering when what is needed is an elimination of
Bill Clinton isn’t the one to be criticized here. If he is doing something in his personal life which lessens his participation in the
slaughter of other individual lives, that is obviously a good thing.
But when advocates celebrate what he is doing without concurrently
explaining why we all should do more, they miss a tremendous opportunity
for education. Animal advocates should be saying “Good for Mr.
Clinton, you are doing something good for yourself, and some good will
happen for others as a result. It would be better if you did good for
others solely because it is better for them though.” Is that so hard to
say? Is there a danger in saying it? Would Mr. Clinton respond to it
by saying something like “You ungrateful vegan extremists, just for that
I’m eating nothing but steak at every meal from now on – my heart be
damned!!” No, that’s not likely. Would any sympathetic listener to Mr.
Clinton’s message, upon hearing a thoughtful critique of his position,
be likely to respond in that same way? No, that’s hardly likely as
There are those who would say such a critique is divisive and counterproductive, but they are other animal advocates. There are those
who might take such a critique as further evidence of the extremism of
the animal rights community, but they are not likely to be adopting a
plant-based diet anytime soon anyway.
The people who are most likely to appreciate Mr. Clinton’s attempt to change his diet are the people who are considering such a change in
their own lives already. It is vital that they understand that the
reason to adopt such changes cannot be based on the benefits to
themselves; they must be based on the benefits which accrue to the other
Basing our decisions and our behaviors on what is best for us is what justifies the use of other individuals as things and resources
in the first place. We cannot change the systems of exploitation by
appealing to the very problem which gives rise to them.
The rights based argument for ending the commodification and exploitation of other animals is not
a terrible complicated one. It has a few basic components that can be
easily understood by almost anyone who takes the time to consider them:
Unlike a call to change one’s diet for reason of health, or for the environment, or even to “reduce suffering”, this rights based approach
to the problem is universal – it applies equally to everyone, no matter
the circumstances of their own lives, no matter what benefits are in it
for them. It prescribes what must be done, because it is right to do,
and wrong to do otherwise. It is a challenge for us all to think not of
what is good for us, but of what is good, in and of itself.
There are things which are right and others which are wrong, and we can know the difference.
Please consider doing what is right by all the other animals in the world, not because it is better for your heart, but because your heart knows it is the right thing to do.
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