By Louis Arthur Gough
Anthropocentrism – the normative (in Westernised societies, at least) notion that the human animal is in fact transcendent of animality and superior to the rest of existence, specifically the professed ‘archetypal’ human subject (white, cis-male, heterosexual, neuro-typical, able-bodied, property-owning, etcetera) – constitutes a foundational delusion undergirding interconnected human to nonhuman animal, intra-human, and environmental oppressions and exploitations. Thus, as worded by Crist and Kopnina (2014), ‘[q]uestioning anthropocentrism… is a fertile way of shifting the focus of attention away from the problem symptoms of our time… to the investigation of root causes’ (pp. 387-388).
This questioning – or better yet, repudiating – of anthropocentrism is, I believe, veganism’s most crucial capacity. It goes without saying, however, that not all manifestations of veganism exhibit this capacity. In a recent study (Gough, 2023) published in Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism, I conducted a critical discourse analysis of three leading (for better or worse) vegan advocacy organisations with the aim of appraising their anti-anthropocentric vigour. Given the inextricability of nonhuman and intra-human oppressions, and the requisite need to decentre the ‘archetypal’ human, the intersectional aptitude of said discourse was also scrutinised. As expected, the results – a selection of which I outline below – were mixed.
Much of the organisations’ output challenged the anthropocentric status quo. ‘Human narcissism’ – defined by Calarco (2014) as an ‘incessant attention to and rotation around exclusively human existence’ (p. 416) – was undermined by endorsements of veganism that centred nonhuman animals, nonhuman individuality, nonhuman interests, (potentially) beyond-human relationships, and nonhuman self-ownership in defiance of the egomaniacal fantasy that other animals’ bodies and secretions exist for human benefit.
The illusory human/animal dichotomy was also subverted. On occasion, the organisations refused the speciesist conventions of the English language, extended typically human-centric indefinite pronouns to include, for example, our nonhuman ‘neighbors’; whilst anthropocentrism’s moral hierarchy was undercut, most obviously, by a direct contrasting of the human pleasure and nonhuman suffering resulting from the production of so-called ‘animal products’. This latter effort, I argue, both foregrounds the ‘absent referent’ (Adams, 2015) and discredits human interest in the exploitation of nonhumans.
The reinforcement of these same expressions of anthropocentrism was, frustratingly, evident too. Whether through a health, human-oriented environmental, or self-absorbed ethical lens, the notion that we ought to stop exploiting other animals primarily for our own benefit sustained the narcissistic centring of human interests. As did the overshadowing of the direct victims of ‘animal products’ in favour of more ‘attractive’ – from a human perspective, of course – species impacted indirectly by mass nonhuman animal (ab)use. Also of note was the organisations’ deification of ‘compassionate’ vegan practitioners, out ‘saving’ the lives of myriad ‘voiceless’ nonhuman beings, which perpetuates what Lilia Trenkova (qtd. in Brueck & McNeill, 2020) calls a ‘toxic human savior complex’ (p. 315); and an emphasis on the apparent ‘human-likeness’ of victimised nonhuman animals, which plays into the very criteria underpinning much historic and ongoing oppression (human and nonhuman) in the first place.
Moreover, regular references to ‘humans’ and ‘animals’ amounted to missed opportunities to reject the insidious human/animal dichotomy, whilst the associated moral inequalities of anthropocentrism were left unchallenged by the organisations’ human-directed scales of moral urgency between cases of exploitation – whether based on the conditions of said exploitation, such as factory versus ‘family’ farming, or the perceived ‘intelligence’ of the oppressed nonhuman beings in question.
Intersectional Awareness & Incompetence
As with above, intersectional aptitude was inconsistent. Oftentimes, the organisations exhibited intersectional awareness by presenting nonhuman animal rights as a component – rather than the final component – of social justice. In this connection, attention was drawn to overlaps between human and nonhuman injustices, such as the ransacking of ecosystems and indigenous communities to support Western demand for ‘animal products’, and egregious worker exploitation within slaughterhouses.
On the other hand, uncritical representations of veganism as ‘easy’ overlooked the experiences of the economically and locationally restricted, whilst celebrations of ‘vegan cappuccinos’ exalted frivolous consumerism and in turn dampened veganism’s radical propensity. Intersectional potential was further blunted by the discriminatory and colonial character of specific demonisations of non-Western practices and – perhaps most frustratingly given the amount of criticism this strategy has received – comparisons between nonhuman and human oppressions which, by exploiting the latter in an attempt to underscore the former, do little to challenge either of them.
Persuaded by the Foucauldian position that discourse dictates the perceived respectability – and even intelligibility – of ideas and behaviours, this study treats discourse as inherently ideological, playing a fundamental role in the formation and perpetuation of social conventions. This includes the exploitation and consumption of nonhuman life. ‘Changing culture is centrally a matter of changing language’, Fairclough once stated (2000, p. 122), thus our fight against the interconnected oppressions of anthropocentric culture must – in significant part, at least – take place on the level of language. As Nguyen (2019) persuasively contends, ‘we cannot eradicate speciesism if we continue to tolerate it in the very words we speak’ (p. 121). An offshoot of a much larger analysis I am conducting as part of my PhD, this study endeavours to contribute to the rejection of anthropocentrism contained in rhetoric concerning a practice that is indispensable to our moving beyond the arrogant and delusion destruction of human supremacy: veganism.
Read the full article here in Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism.
Adams, C. J., 2010. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. Twentieth Anniversary ed. New York: Continuum.
Brueck, J. F. & McNeill, Z., 2020. Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression. [s.l.]: Sanctuary Publishers.
Calarco, M., 2014. Being Toward Meat: Anthropocentrism, Indistinction, and Veganism. Dialectical Anthropology, 38(4), pp. 415-429.
Crist, E. & Kopnina, H., 2014. Unsettling Anthropocentrism. Dialectical Anthropology, 38(4), pp. 387-396.
Fairclough, N., 2000. New Labour, New Language?. London: Routledge.
Gough, L. A., 2023. Veganism’s Anti-Anthropocentric Capacity: A Critical Analysis of the Advocacy Discourse of Three Prominent Vegan Organisations. Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism, 11(1), pp. 9-28.
Nguyen, H., 2019. Tongue Tied: Breaking the Language Barrier to Animal Liberation. New York: Lantern Books