The Urge to Destroy: Vegan Straight Edge & Personal Choice

I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone are guilty of the war. Oh, no, the little man is just as keen, otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There is an urge and rage in people to destroy, to kill, to murder, and until all [hu]mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown, will be destroyed and disfigured, after which [hu]mankind will have to begin all over again.”Anne Frank

Anne Frank, then 15 years old, wrote those words in her famous diary as she hid from Nazis in Holland during WWII. Not long after she wrote this entry in her diary, her hiding place was raided and she was killed at Bergen-Belsen.

I wanted to open with the quote for two reasons; first, Anne puts accountability not just on others, but on ourselves, our own urge to destroy, to kill, to murder. Secondly, Anne acknowledges that it is our collective resistance to this urge, to our complicity, that will lead to revolt and to a new beginning (“begin again”). There are many ways in which this urge manifests itself in the “death culture” that we live in, but here we will deal with two ways in which we destroy ourselves, others and the world we live in—the destruction of other animal species and the destruction of ourselves in an intoxication culture.

The hope is that by showing how these issues intersect we can move beyond hyper-individualistic notions of “personal choice” and instead into an understanding of how the theory and practice of destruction permeates our lives and creates a culture of mutual destruction that is perpetuated and consented to in our own actions, thoughts, behaviors, etc.

Recognizing Destruction

When Mitko got in touch with me he asked me to write some commentary on vegan straight edge that was critical of the notion that each ethical practice can be simply reduced to a “personal choice;” something that should be left up to the individual and something which does not effect or have to account for others. This is a standard critique placed upon anyone who is critical of the domination of other animal species or the use of intoxicants and intoxication culture; we are judgmental, self righteous, fascist, etc. We should accept the “respect” of others and leave them alone with their own “choices.”

There are many ways to approach this notion critically; its geopolitical and cultural relation with capital, its ethical implications, its relation to social justice, etc. but my focus was forced after a heated discussion with a friend. This friend argued that use and abuse are not always mutually supportive or reinforcing, to which I responded that it was ironic that a vegan would attempt to separate those two definitions as this is a common response of resistance to veganism (i.e. animal use is not always abuse.) He responded that the comparison did not fit because intoxicant use is not always exploitative.

There is a wealth of ways to respond to this; not all animal domination is exploitative (at least not in the Marxist sense), intoxicant use and the culture which upholds it, from the production of intoxicants to their use can be seen as exploitative—however, it involves (usually impaired) human consent. Instead of trying to respond within the framework of “exploitation” I immediately began to think of destruction instead of exploitation. Much as “domination” as a concept has been argued as a more encompassing understanding than “exploitation,” which is too easily reduced to production, I think destruction offers a better lens with which to view intoxicant use and animal use. Domination and exploitation are too often concepts that do not recognize the ways in which people actually consent to their own destruction.

The case for animal domination as “destructive” is fairly obvious to anyone critical of animal use or to anyone with any idea of what happens on farms, at slaughterhouses, at vivisection labs, captive parks, etc. We destroy the lives of billions of animals each year; we break their bones and rip their flesh off of their bodies. We destroy their will to resist and their will to live. The destructive urge feeds our constructs of “pleasure,” “entertainment,” “progress,” and “fashion.” Each use is constructed as legitimate; however, all of them are wholly unnecessary. The destruction of other animal species and its enormity of scale, becomes the justification for its continuance—we are dominant and we are justified.

The Ability to Resist

The destruction of other animal species though has wide reaching consequences; it means the destruction of our natural environment—the very world we inhabit, the rise of “diseases of affluence” (heart disease, numerous cancers, diabetes, obesity, etc.), as well as the foundation for “othering” any oppressed human group (they are “just animals”, rats, vermin, monkeys, etc.), just to name a few. This process of destruction cannot be reduced to an individual “choice;” it is an enormous network which takes the mutual consent of the vast majority of human beings in order to be perpetuated. Its effects touch us all and its consequences surround us.

This begs the question, why do we not see this issue and resist? The scale of this practice is so large and the theoretical basis for it is so ingrained into our culture that we stay strategically ignorant to it. We create language that makes animal flesh and secretions more palatable, we keep the reality of animal use hidden and promote Potemkin narratives of other animal species willingly consenting to their destruction, etc. Resistance faces destruction as well (more commonly called repression) from the micro level of aggressive policing by friends, family, doctors, teachers, mentors who are intent on dismissing resistance and coercing you back to mutual destruction—to state repression condemning animal liberationists to jail and the handful of violent deaths of animal liberationists who resisted the urge to destroy other animal species (Barry Horne, Jill Phipps, etc.)

The urge to destroy—that culture of death—will also destroy your ability to resist. People are coerced into animal domination and destruction. The notion of “choice” is kept extremely limited—all one is left with is a bad choice, a “choice” to aid your own destruction.

The Intersection of Destruction

The intersection between animal use and intoxicant use is usually hard for vegans or straight edge folks to understand. One issue is usually prioritized over the other—omnivore straight edge folks are usually keen to focus on the destruction of the self in their rejection of intoxicants—meaning they don’t particularly care about animal destruction, but they do care about keeping themselves free from “poison” and not “destroying” themselves with intoxicants. Vegans who use intoxicants are typically confused as to why a concern for “destroying” other animal species should extend beyond checking Barnivore.com for which wines are vegan or not. Each refuse a critique of “destruction” that is all encompassing, a critique of things which destroy the self as well as destroying others (I would argue all of these things have to happen at once—we are all connected). Vegan Straight Edge as an ethical practice creates a space to broaden this critique of “destruction.”

The most obvious intersection of destruction between animal use and intoxicant use is our use and domination of other animal species in the production and testing of intoxicants. We use other animal species as intoxicants, to cultivate and grow intoxicants, to transport intoxicants, to test intoxicants, etc. All aspects around this practice are based upon the notion of human supremacy, as other animal species are placed in situations deemed too unfit, dangerous or destructive for humans. Most vegans who use intoxicants are somewhat aware of this process and eschew intoxicants that are tested on other animal species or that contain animal products. Very few chart the use of other animals in production or transport—or the obvious connection between the international drug trade and the trade of other animals (especially “exotic” animals.) This is unfortunate as even those concerned about animal use are unlikely to reflect on the “true cost” of intoxicant use on other animal species. Even less critical reflection is given to issues like the vast destruction of habitat, the destruction of other animal species while driving intoxicated, the way intoxicants work as a “cultural anesthesia” which allows us to numb ourselves to the destruction of our environment, humans and other animal species, or even the extreme lack of intoxicant use among wild animal populations and a critique of domestication.

Vegans are quick to note inefficiencies in animal enterprise and its relation to resource scarcities and global inequality and poverty, however, the production of intoxicants mirrors this exact same process—we destroy habitat and use arable land that could be used to grow sustenance crops to instead produce intoxicants that will in turn destroy human beings and other animal species. Scale and difference matter when talking about specific intoxicants, but use, no matter the scale, perpetuates this structure. There is a “happy drug” narrative that mirrors the “happy meat” narrative that vegans are hyper aware of and should recognize as ironic (i.e. home brew, home grown, local brew, organic brew, etc.), much like the “happy meat” narrative, most of this is careful capitalism (or pseudo self-empowerment) meant to reinforce the divide between use and abuse―drinking local organic micro brew in a local bar ensures enough distance between you and the easily criminalized homeless person drinking a non-organic large label beer in public.

Any use reinforces the notion that human beings are justified in this practice of destruction—self, environment, other. The fact that we consent to use and celebrate destruction (literally) is extremely disturbing. Those who think they are doing something progressive by simply having more control over this process (home brew/home grown/backyard chickens/backyard slaughter) have reached the edge of their critique of consumer culture before understanding the actual impact of their practices. These people actually take pride in having more control over their urge to destroy.

Vegan Straight Edge as a Critical Reflection

People critical of straight edge or veganism aren’t the only ones who need to reflect critically on “choice.” Much of the confusion is perpetuated by vegans and straight edge folks themselves. Many people actually tell others that they “don’t care” if they eat animal flesh or secretions and likewise tell others that they don’t care if they use intoxicants. Their “abstention” is their own personal choice and they don’t “judge” others and are not “preachy.” It is not shocking that critics then use this same line of reasoning for defending their own use. The supposed legitimacy gained by individuals who attempt to present an ethical practice as a “personal choice” actually erodes that practice and aids the destruction of humans, other animals and the environment. It’s an easy way out of a heated argument, or alienating environment, but the inconvenience of such situations is no reason to abandon an ethical issue.

Straight edge as a practice started with this “libertarian” strain, which almost lead to its complete irrelevance. Veganism as a practice started explicitly as an ethical practice and has been eroded and co-opted by a focus of “health”, the “environment” (as divorced from a critique of human supremacy), and mainly by capitalism (greenwashing, ethical consumerism.) All of these things have impacted and helped grow the notion that these issues are ones of “personal choice” and not something which effects our mutual destruction. If straight edge and vegan folks want to see less of this happening, a good start would be to take a stand.

Recognize that there are things that are more important than being conciliatory or agreeable. If a practice is destructive, acknowledge it for what it is. Conversely, as already noted there is an urge within both communities to prioritize their concept of destruction. We need to quell the urge to restrict our critique of destruction and instead open ourselves up to other critiques. Instead of getting defensive when someone asks about where we buy our clothes, if we drive cars, or eat chocolate or sugar, we need to start actually thinking critically about those practices. Are they destructive? Do we have to prioritize, or can we broaden our critique as well? The death cultures of capitalism, wherein most of us currently reside, are all encompassing. There is no reason why we should not develop a broad based critique in order to confront and resist it.

The Urge to Destroy

Lastly, if we are going to reject hyper individualism, we have to reject it within our own tactics. When we strategize around ending intoxicant use/animal use are we focusing solely upon individuals? OR are we placing those individuals within the larger context of the structures which permeate and limit our society? When we look at a slaughterhouse worker, do we see evil, or do we see the structures in place which marginalize people, (usually people of color), into selling their labour for practices which they most likely do not enjoy?

Similarly, when we see someone who is physically addicted to intoxicants, do we write that person off as “garbage” or can we chart the structures and experiences of domination which would lead someone to prioritize the short term pleasure of a “high” over ANY long term consideration (health, community, family, wealth, well being, etc.) Harm reduction offers a great foundation with which to build our tactics. Recognizing these structures exists, how best can we reduce the harms associated with use? We can use direct action, removing victims from places of oppression or aiding people in the situations they are in regardless of societal norms or laws (Animal Liberation Front, Food Not Bombs, Safe Injection Sites, etc.) All of these tactics force us to move our focus away from hyper individualism and actually places us in the context of communities—they actually help build communities of resistance.

The choice to begin and end this piece with a quote from Anne Frank serves another purpose not yet outlined. As Anne wrote in her diary one of the most destructive forces this planet has ever seen was obliterating human beings, other animals and the environment. This is not to equate animal use or intoxicant use with fascism or genocide, as I don’t think the comparison is apt here, but the process of destruction itself is similar. A large portion of the population considered destruction, mutual destruction, to be beneficial. Their victims were silenced, strategically ignored and destroyed. Dutch resistance, where Anne was hiding, chopped at the Third Reich by way of a large network of underground sabotage. They recognized the Third Reich as a destructive force, and they created a resistance to counter it—they destroyed property, not people—and found a way to channel the destructive urge into something actually beneficial.

The urge to destroy, what Da Vinci called a “creative” urge, can be channeled and directed at protecting ourselves, our communities, our habitats, our world, but the first step must be to recognize our place, our behaviors, our attitudes, our practices, within a larger context then just our “personal choices.”

There is a quote from Alexander Berkman that highlights this point, “Do you mean to destroy? Do you mean to build? These are questions we have been asked from many quarters, by inquirers sympathetic and otherwise. Our reply is frank and bold; we mean both; to destroy and to build.”

It’s time to think critically, to resist power, to rebuild ourselves, our communities and DESTROY WHAT DESTROYS US!

By Dylan Powell, originally published in Tigersuit Zine

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