Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Everyday Vegan Sexism: James McWilliams

Trigger Warning:  Pictures depict simulations of violence against women

Recently, I happily shared a blog post by James McWilliams, a vegan theorist, author, and personality.  He was criticizing an extremely sexist PETA contest for the "Sexiest Vegetarian" which essentially objectified women to draw attention to the objectification of other animals, as if that makes sense.

Unfortunately, the winner of the contest contacted McWilliams complaining about his criticism, so he quickly retracted his statement.  Then he followed it up with the most appalling comments I've seen for some time from an influential leader in the Nonhuman Animal rights community:
There’s a pragmatism and level of self-awareness here that I really appreciate. Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. Either way, Wise’s reasoning reminds us that, when it comes to the project of reducing animal suffering, we’re all wracked by humility, unsure what works, doing whatever we can to make life better for animals.
In the comments section, he furthers:
 My “problem,” as it were, is that the moment I confront an “intersecting oppression” is the moment that the intersection becomes clogged with so many oppressions I lose sight of both hope and the fact that my primary goal is just to get people to stop eating animals. In other words, I can no longer get my head around the problems we face.

This is why the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is so toxic for women.  80% of our movement is female, and yet it is led by men.  Most of our theorists, organization leaders, authors, and personalities are men.  They dictate what is appropriate and legitimate in our movement, and that often means pushing women into mundane, uncelebrated roles behind the scenes, encouraging women to take their clothes off "for the animals," and ignoring or excusing the rampant sexism in our movement.

The exploitation of women has become a taken-for-granted normalized tactic.  PETA does it, Citizens United for Animals (Wisconsin) does it, LUSH Cosmetics does it, Animal Liberation Victoria does it, Vegan Pinup does it, VGirls/VGuys does it, Igualdad Animals does it, Animal Liberation Front does it, but few of us criticize it because it has become such an everyday part of our advocacy experience.  We don't stop to question if it is even effective (I challenge that it is not and empirical research supports this).  Neither do we stop to question what impact this is having on women (mountains of scientific research points to the role sexual objectification in the media and the trivialization of violence against women has on the mental and physical health of women and the social status of women).

The trivialization of women's oppression in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement speaks to a larger social acceptance of devaluing and dismissing women.  It's normal to treat women in this way, and it's normal to ignore their interests.  Imagine if we replaced "women" with another oppressed social group.  Suddenly it becomes very clear how horrific McWilliams's statements are.  From the Vegan Feminist Agitator:
[ . . . ]those words felt like a punch to the gut. In a post about misogyny in the vegan movement, he posited that “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism.” What? What? Insert the word racism: is this statement still acceptable? Given how consistently focused on justice and equality most of his work is, this felt like a true betrayal. Being rather used to disappointment in my fellow humans, it is rare that I cry about such things but I cried about this one. This was a fellow vegan, a thoughtful one, too, and he was waffling about sexism for “the greater good.”
We should have a zero tolerance policy for oppression of all kinds.  We should have a zero tolerance policy for respected individuals in this movement (and anyone else for that matter) who apologize, excuse, justify, ignore, trivialize, or otherwise legitimate sexism, misogyny, racism, or any other form of oppression.

McWilliams, like the other men who lead this movement, enjoy a position of privilege.  They don't have to worry about pressure to objectify themselves "for the animals" in a world that sees them as a consumable resource.  They don't have to personally experience misogyny.  It's easy for them to postulate from their protected position about whether or not sexist advocacy is acceptable or useful.  It's time for women to speak, it's time for women's voices to be heard, it's time for women's experiences to be respected.  It's time to stop throwing women under the bus and recognize that oppression is intersectional. 

Violence against women is at epidemic levels across the world.  Rape is common place.  Sexism is par for the course.  One in three women will be raped and/or assaulted at least once in their lifetime.  We have a responsibility as a community renounce this oppression and eradicate it from our movement.