When the controversy first erupted, in February 2011, regarding The Vegan Society’s advertising policy in its magazine, The Vegan, it was assumed by me and others that The Vegan drew the line at advertising establishments which serve dairy and eggs, like Lancrigg, but not flesh. This was concerning enough, considering that Donald Watson coined the word, “vegan” specifically in order to erase the arbitrary line between meat and other animal products. In the first edition of The Vegan News, in 1944, he said:
The recent articles and letters in “The Vegetarian Messenger” on the question of the use of dairy produce have revealed very strong evidence to show that the production of these foods involves much cruel exploitation and slaughter of highly sentient life. The excuse that it is not necessary to kill in order to obtain dairy produce is untenable for those with a knowledge of livestock farming methods and of the competition which even humanitarian farmers must face if they are to remain in business.
For years many of us accepted, as lacto-vegetarians, that the flesh-food industry and the dairy produce industry were related, and that in some ways they subsidised one another. We accepted, therefore, that the case on ethical grounds for the disuse of these foods was exceptionally strong, and we hoped that sooner or later a crisis in our conscience would set us free.
That freedom has now come to us. Having followed a diet free from all animal food for periods varying from a few weeks in some cases, to many years in others, we believe our ideas and experiences are sufficiently mature to be recorded. The unquestionable cruelty associated with the production of dairy produce has made it clear that lacto-vegetarianism is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilised diet, and we think, therefore, that during our life on earth we should try to evolve sufficiently to make the ‘full journey’.
As it turns out, it was a false assumption that The Vegan magazine limits itself to advertising non-vegan establishments selling only eggs and dairy, as is evident from the list compiled in Part 2 of this series, which showed that The Vegan advertises a hotel — Paskins Town House — serving a range of flesh products. I suspect we made this assumption because there is such a pervasive notion that meat is worse, morally, than dairy and eggs, and we viewed The Vegan’s advertising policy as misguidedly reflecting this notion. Indeed, one of Francione’s major objections to the Lancrigg advertisement was that it reinforced the fallacy, or fantasy, that there is a morally relevant distinction between flesh and other animal products. Also, despite our disappointing experience with The Vegan Society over the issue of their advertising policy, we simply could not imagine that The Vegan Society, any vegan society, would advertise a hotel serving meat!
Unsurprisingly, my reaction to discovering only recently that The Vegan carries advertisements for an establishment serving meat and fish was one of shock. Aside from the sheer incongruity of it, and the reasons given above, the shock was primarily because this was so at odds with the perception that The Vegan Society themselves had fostered. They did this by using as one of their justifications for advertising Lancrigg, and in response to Francione’s question as to how they would draw a line between that and advertising an establishment serving meat, that what they were doing was consistent with what Donald Watson himself had done in 1946. An email to Francione from Head of Information stated:
[W]hen Donald Watson was editor of The Vegan he did accept adverts for vegetarian establishments which also cater for vegans for example: issue 2, Autumn 1946, includes 6 such adverts on p.20 (including guesthouses and a school). Other issues from this period (under DW’s editorship) contain many more.
Using the above justification, The Vegan Society implied that they were, like Watson, willing to advertise establishments serving ovo-lacto vegetarian food, but not those serving flesh. They were happy to keep Francione and everyone else who was concerned about the issue in the dark by not admitting to the fact that they were, in fact, accepting ads for an establishment serving meat. Indeed, the very issue of Spring 2011 containing the ad for Lancrigg which first sparked the controversy also contained an ad for Paskins Town House. Francione was obviously aware of this ad, since he mentions it in this essay. What he was not aware of was that they serve meat, and The Vegan Society did not volunteer that information. Even when Francione communicated, on a number of occasions, with The Vegan Society regarding his concerns about the Lancrigg ad reinforcing a false moral distinction between flesh and other animal products, assuming that Paskins was in the same category, they failed to inform him that they do not make such a distinction in their advertising policy and are happy to take ads from establishments serving any kind of animal product.
Based on the implicit message that The Vegan Society conveyed through their stance of following Watson’s example in accepting ads for vegetarian but not meat-oriented establishments, it was logical to assume that they were doing just this. This assumption also relied on another assumption that those we were dealing with in The Vegan Society were conducting themselves with a basic level of honesty and openness. Perhaps it was naive to assume anything about The Vegan Society considering our previous experience. However, the notion that a vegan society would obfuscate regarding such a fundamentally important matter as whether it was willing to advertise non-vegan establishments serving, among other animal products, meat and fish, was, again, unimaginable, even, I would suggest, to the most cynical.
No wonder they had nothing to say in response to criticism of their ads policy and and still remain silent! How could a vegan society possibly justify such a betrayal of veganism, or more accurately, the animals to whom we owe it to be vegan? On the other hand, to deceive by omission and implication, as they did in dealing with Francione and others, is remarkably bizarre and self-defeating behaviour, considering that the truth is easily discoverable by simply opening their magazine and making some basic enquiries!
I imagine that if The Vegan Society had informed Francione of what they were really up to with their advertising, he might have saved himself the time and trouble of writing his long and thoughtful memo, proposing a solution, because it would have been obvious that The Vegan Society was categorically no longer The Vegan Society and was beyond help.
However misguided Watson was in his policy of allowing ads for vegetarian establishments, which was inconsistent with his own position — the very basis of founding The Vegan Society in 1944 — that dairy and eggs are just as morally reprehensible as meat, it’s inconceivable that he would have approved of advertising for places serving meat! (Francione discusses here the psychological and sociological reasons for Watson allowing advertising of vegetarian, non-vegan establishments, pertaining to his belief that vegetarianism is a necessary stepping stone to veganism for most people, and why this may have been relevant in 1946, but is not relevant or valid now). What The Vegan Society are doing now has no basis whatsoever in anything of which Watson would have approved. It constitutes a radical departure from his policy. This makes a mockery of the spurious claim regarding Francione by The Vegan Society that:
It was because of your offensive reference to Watson spinning in his grave (he still has surviving relatives), that the decision was taken to terminate your connection to the Society’s Facebook page (apology given and comment now removed by Francione from his blog).
I suggest this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s difficult to imagine anything more offensive than using Donald Watson’s name to justify an advertising policy that includes the promotion of a hotel serving meat.
As for the other justification given by The Vegan Society:
The acceptance of advertisements (including inserts) to The Vegan magazine does not imply endorsement. In the magazine we have the following disclaimer:
The views expressed in The Vegan do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor or the Vegan Society Council. Nothing printed should be construed to be Vegan Society policy unless so stated.
Francione’s response to this in his memo that:
The disclaimer point is not sufficient as it has no limiting principle and would literally allow adverts for slaughterhouses, meat products, dairy products, eggs, etc. to be accepted by the Society. In other words, a disclaimer that nothing advertised in The Vegan is endorsed is tantamount to saying that everything, including establishments and products that are inconsistent with any interpretation of the core mission of the institution, may be advertised therein.
has proved to be only too prescient. We now see that there is no bar to The Vegan advertising eating places that serve meat dishes. What’s the difference between this and advertising individual meat products or dairy products? Why not advertise a butcher shop if it sells one or two items that vegetarians or vegans can eat? After all, we’re only talking about the difference between advertising those who trade in cooked meat and those who trade in raw meat: the exploitation involved is the same. If The Vegan Society believe that they can distance themselves morally from their decisions by denying endorsement, then what obstacle is there to advertising any kind of animal product sold by any kind of business, and indeed, any product involving any kind of exploitation of humans as well as non-humans?
The posture of The Vegan Society in abjuring all responsibility for the ethical dimension of their advertising policy by claiming that their disclaimer effectively lets them off the hook can be appreciated for the absurdity that it is by imagining the kind of equivalent scenarios that were mentioned in Part 1. What would we think of a children’s advocacy group using a similar disclaimer to distance themselves from advertising a paedophile support network? How would we react to a feminist group working to oppose violence to women saying that ads in their magazine for a violent pornography outlet shouldn’t be construed as meaning that they support violent pornography? What about a socialist newspaper running ads for Goldman Sachs telling us, “It’s all OK. Acceptance of ads does not imply endorsement. The fact that we’re promoting a blood-sucking capitalist outfit says nothing about our politics”. We would hardly be reassured. Such limp and disingenuous excuse-making would be seen as buffoonish and insulting to the intelligence of readers. It would universally be considered a sign that the group in question had “lost the plot” in terms of their commitment to their core mission and that they had degenerated into being merely a business — one that might maintain a veneer of concern about issues of social justice, but is primarily focused on self perpetuation at any cost. To view The Vegan Society any differently just because the context is animal advocacy would be nothing but an expression of speciesism.
Veganism is a form of social and political protest against exploitation of the vulnerable, not a lifestyle choice. A publication produced by a social justice advocacy group is not the same as a publication intended for entertainment; the decision to publicise a business or organisation necessarily implies endorsement of the core activity and philosophy of that business or organisation, or at least that the publicised entity is morally neutral and not in conflict with the aims of the group. The Vegan Society can say whatever it likes about acceptance not implying endorsement; that is simply transparent nonsense.
About the only thing that can be said in The Vegan Society’s favour in relation to this whole sorry affair is that one thing they are not guilty of is inconsistency. Contrary to our former criticism of them, they are not reinforcing a false moral distinction between flesh and dairy/eggs. Clearly, they are willing to promote any eating place that is willing to pay them, without discriminating on the basis of the type of morally equivalent exploitation in which they are engaged. So any steak house which can supply a baked potato and a salad can qualify, as long as they are willing to portray themselves as having a vegan option. There really is no limiting principle in operation here. Astounding!
I think we can conclude that, while the “Vegan” Society, as a shopfront, still functions to provide education and support for veganism, and that many vegans and aspiring vegans no doubt benefit from this, whatever good work they are doing in this respect is seriously undermined by the fact that their promotion of animal exploitation businesses in The Vegan means that the organisation has jettisoned a commitment to unequivocal veganism, and consequently cannot legitimately be called a “vegan” society at all. They can’t even be called a veganish society, or a veg*n society given their promotion of Paskins. They’re willing to sell out the animals for a price, and that’s deeply tragic. This sends a confusing message to their members and other readers of The Vegan about what it means to be vegan, and reinforces the idea that exploitation of non-humans is morally acceptable.
In a ruthless neoliberal capitalist world, where virtually nothing and no-one escapes commodification and needs of sentient beings are relentlessly subjugated to the drive for profit, it’s dispiriting, to say the least, that one organisation that we would have hoped would resist this insidious trend has succumbed to the cold and cynical ideology of the marketplace. The Vegan Society, established with such clarity of vision in 1944, as a beacon of hope for the most vulnerable and exploited of all — nonhuman animals — has made the decision to swim with the tide and sacrifice principles for the sake of money, with the animals being the losers. I simply refuse to believe that this is the only option for The Vegan Society. It’s a choice based on the organisation losing its moral compass. Donald Watson, in whatever mode he currently exists, must be, if not spinning in his grave, weeping buckets of tears to see that The Vegan Society is now defunct as a vegan society in all but name. Following in the footsteps of other animal welfare charities, The Vegan Society has debased itself to become yet another venal, self-serving business — a fate which is perhaps inevitable for all organisations once they grow beyond a certain size.
Happily, none of this affects our ongoing abolitionist efforts as a grassroots movement in advocating unequivocal veganism as the moral baseline via creative vegan education. We don’t need a lot of money or a formal organisation to do this, and we don’t need to water down or toss out our principles in order to pay the bills, maintain membership and keep donations flowing in. I have no illusions that The Vegan Society has the slightest interest in reforming itself, but I hope that if we ever establish an alternative vegan society, we will learn from the mistakes of The Vegan Society and not repeat them. The lamentable situation of The Vegan Society’s selling out of the animals who so desperately need us to advocate for them is one which should serve as a poignant reminder of how important it is that we stay true to the original values of Donald Watson, and firm in our commitment to our abolitionist approach involving veganism as the non-negotiable moral baseline.
By Linda McKenzie