Breaking Cages, Breaking Rituals

For those who are vegan straight edge, please resist the urge to place these convictions in competition with each other or present them as mere "choices."

Crime is naught but misdirected energy. So long as every institution of today, economic, political, social, and moral, conspires to misdirect human energy into wrong channels; so long as most people are out of place doing the things they hate to do, living a life they loathe to live, crime will be inevitable, and all the laws on the statutes can only increase, but never do away with, crime.
—Emma Goldman

I don’t meet a lot of straight edge folks who connect their sobriety to a larger political or social context. (Some call this a phenomenon specific to North America or the West, the internalized hyper individualized “choice.”)

As I place my own sobriety within a context that I feel is liberatory, that pool seems to shrink and dry up to a drop. For the vegan straight edge folks that I do know, some still hold tight to their convictions as a form of refuge, a shelter from an inhospitable world. For those who actively engage in political struggle and liberation, veganism is generally seen as the more important issue. Most folks know an entry point when it comes to protesting animal enterprise industries and the theories and ideas seem easier to grasp. Realistically speaking, one only needs to empathize on an individual level with any non-human species in order to acknowledge that they are ends unto themselves.

Although we are all raised within speciesist cultures, our “moral schizophrenia” surrounding different animals at least allows the vast majority to look upon some animals as “cute,” even if it means looking away at the institutionalized use and abuse that we perpetrate. But what of the junkie? What of the addict? What of the criminal? If we reject the human/animal binary and recognize the inherent worth of ALL species, then have to also work towards a vision which recognizes a cage, is a cage, is a cage, is a cage. What follows is a plea to recognize criminality and it’s interesection in vegan straight edge thought.

Use and abuse are mutually supportive. Most animal rights advocates understand that statement and recognize it as the largest issue in talking with omnivores or “carnists.” The connection that institutionalized and normalized “use” is “abuse” and vice versa, is the wall we constantly hammer away at in a society where the vast majority of people are complicit in animal exploitation but also see themselves as kind to animals. Carnism, a term developed by Melanie Joy, exposes this structure as a larger system which must constantly perpetuate itself as normal, natural and a necessity in order to maintain its hold.

Conversely, straight edge authors like Nick Riotfag also point to the larger systems which uphold intoxicant use, naming it “intoxication culture,” a set of institutions, behaviors, and mindsets centered around the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Just as most see themselves as kind-good-hearted citizens as they sit down to their meal of animal flesh, most people do not question their use of intoxicants.

There are many ways in which we work to re enforce that constructed boundary around “use” and “abuse,” and also many ways in which intoxicants and animal exploitation, human and non human, intersect (The drug/exotic animal trade, the vivisection and pharmaceutical industries, etc.) but the one I want to talk about is criminality. The use of normative definitions of “crime” to re enforce and cloud exploitation.

Last year I intently covered an undercover animal cruelty case in Conklin, Ohio. The footage from the investigation was horrific to say the least. I prided myself on being the first animal rights news source to cover the initial arrest of Billy Joe Gregg Jr. (I got the press release direct from the Mayor after calling for charges). I knew the investigation wasn’t going to destroy the dairy industry, but I held hope for the video as an outreach tool (I still do) and figured that if the industry was going to offer up one “bad apple” as a sacrifice then at least that is something (as opposed to the usual nothing.)

Around the same time there was a horrific cruelty case here locally, as people broke into a city run petting zoo, decapitated some of the small animals and played target practice with their bb guns with the larger animals. I watched in utter disbelief as a communities outrage (and the outrage was significant) quickly funneled into efforts to throw a BBQ Fundraiser. I simply could not deal with the notion that so many people could not make the simple connection between the animals they would eat and the animals that they were attempting to memorialize. Every single person at that BBQ would recognize the actions of Billy Joe Gregg Jr. as “criminal” and “evil.”

It took me a while to realize that the BBQ itself served as a ritual to re enforce that boundary. It didn’t matter that to the animals involved there was no distinction, it just mattered that the people involved could justify their own actions towards animals and the more people involved the better. This is a grave concern for a movement which is gaining tract in pushing for stiffer penalties for animal “abusers.” Will those penalties value the worth of an individual animal, or will they further re enforce the boundary between the animal abuser and the animal user?

For those who have studied drug addiction, drug policies, the “War on Drugs” or harm reduction models, it is blatantly obvious that our society constantly uses criminality to re enforce and normalize boundaries around intoxicants. There are the legally sanctioned intoxicants; alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, as well as the illegally sanctioned intoxicants; cocaine, heroin, cannabis, etc. What intoxicants you use and your risk of being criminalized for it, is generally determined by an intersection of dominance around race/gender/class, etc.

We build super prisons, destroy and obliterate communities, perpetuate an endless cycle of poverty and repression all in a desperate attempt to enforce oppression. Intoxicants become a very easy tool with which to do this because constant oppression and violence provide ample environments for their use. Some friends who use intoxicants understand this process but still seem baffled at how this implicates them. They drink “responsibly” or smoke marijuana “recreationally.” Again, use and abuse are mutually supportive.

People refuse to acknowledge the fact that the boundary between “use” and “abuse” is entirely arbitrary, as in, if they were born into a different area, with a different class and different race their “use” could immediately be constructed as “abuse.” Their use may seem innocuous to them, but that “choice” is more indicative of privilege than anything else. The status quo re ensures this boundary and offers no political action in solidarity to those who are “criminalized,” nor does it do anything to normalize sobriety or any kind of resistance. Picture your desire for a glass of wine each night, but now picture yourself as homeless. Immediately your “use” is criminalized.

Even after that point there is a massive void left for those who see their sobriety as a response or disengagement from this oppression; how does one advocate against it beyond a personal stance of abstention? This is where a cage is a cage. For those versed in animal rights philosophy this is not a massive leap, we need to disengage from “use” and work to help those who suffer from this oppression. Carefully highlighting intersections, assisting with those touched hardest by addiction and repression and working towards environments where intoxicants are not only de-criminalized, but unwanted and unnecessary.

How do we start? We can start by breaking cages and directing our energies at the prison industrial complex, an industry that enslaves humans as well as non humans. Abolishing Animal Enterprise includes abolishing prisons. A prison is a zoo, a zoo is a prison. (Anyone care to enumerate the unending amount of “prison” media that we construct in movies and television).

These prisons offer us a chance to re-enforce privilege as well as ritualize and normalize oppression. We need to break those rituals. We need to reclaim and normalize sobriety as a site of resistance and we need to reach out to those who face oppression; be that protesting zoo’s, prisons, or working within the community to advance harm reduction or create sober vegan communities.

I am sure at this point many are scratching their heads. No prisons?!? What about rapists, murderers and sadistic animal abusers? We are the only animal to construct prisons. What is their political and social value? This is a larger point for the future, but something I hope people dwell on before dismissing off hand. I know this flies directly in the face of the straight edge gang looking for drug dealers to beat up, but these are serious questions that have to be asked. Who’s needs do these laws serve and to what extent have they ever been a deterrent or solution for the numerous economic, social, cultural, political problems which exist?

In the end, I dream of a fantasy world wherein living beings are treated with respect and dignity and no one feels the need to take intoxicants. That is the dream that I try to live every day, even if I have to live it in a very inhospitable world and do it relatively alone. For those who recognize and empathize with the imprisoned animal, please think hard about extending that empathy to members of your own species who find themselves in similar situations.

For those who recognize the negative consequences of a culture that prizes intoxication, please use your knowledge of one system of oppression and exploitation and recognize others. For those who are vegan straight edge, please resist the urge to place these convictions in competition with each other or present them as mere “choices;” your resistance is paramount in highlighting these systems of oppression and this path is one of the most rewarding paths on the road to liberation.

Written by Dylan Powell. His tireless efforts have helped establish Niagara, Ontario, as a major hotbed for vegan and animal rights activism in Canada.

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