Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews the vegan writer, journalist, and scholar Christopher Sebastian, who knows a lot about identities and animal liberation.
Identity is a funny thing.
We kind of think we know what it means, but it’s quite difficult to define. I can say that my name is Jordi, but is that my identity? I can say that the pronoun other people use to talk about me without using my name is ‘he’, but is that my identity? I can say that I grew up in Catalonia, but is that my identity? I can say that I grew up to a height of 175 cm, but is that my identity?
And who decides which identities are valid and which are not? Who decides whose identity belongs to whom, and which identity is fake? If someone asks us who we are, can we expect they will accept our answer if we are completely honest? Or did they mean “which box do you fit in?”
I am many things, but only some of these have made it to the collection of identities I chose to take ownership of. I discarded many because I do not feel comfortable with them. I rejected many because I do not feel attached to them. I threw away many because I grew tired of them. But there is one that I feel very close to at this juncture of my life: my identity as a vegan. If someone asks me who I am, saying that I am “a vegan” would be the most honest answer I could give right now. I chose to make it my primary identity, above my gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, generation, class, nationality, profession, physicality or mentality. But I am lucky. Life has been generous to me giving me the privilege to be able to simplify my wardrobe of identities, so I don’t have to wear anything heavy or cumbersome if I don’t want to. My identity outfit is now simple, light, and casual.
Other people are not that fortunate. Their identities are complex, multi-layered, and sophisticated because life has given them a rich and colourful wardrobe with great fabrics and textures. Many are struggling to choose which combination to wear. Many are not sure what can they pull off where and when. Many are wearing some layers off while neglecting others. Many feel overwhelmed by the clashes and harmonies of their choices. But I have met people with complex identity wardrobes who seem to know how to dress themselves. People who wear many identities at ones with elegance and purpose. People who seem to carry the weight of many layers with dignity and style.
One of these people is Christopher Sebastian. It seems to me he is many things. He is a writer, a journalist, a scholar, and an educator. He is an American currently living in the Czech Republic. He is a digital media researcher, blogger, and public speaker. He is a middle-aged gay black man. And he, like me, is an ethical vegan.
Christopher is the director of social media for Peace Advocacy Network, sits on the Advisory Council for Encompass, is a senior fellow at Sentient Media, and lectures at Columbia University in the Department of Social Work for the graduate course POP: Power, Oppression, and Privilege. His creative and academic work often focuses on how human relationships with other animals shape our attitudes about racial, sexual, and political identity, so he has many things to say about the vegan movement and all its intersections.
Christopher is someone I really wanted to chat with because I am very interested in his opinion about identity and animal rights. So, I contacted him, and he agreed to meet me via Zoom. It was a very illuminating conversation, and I would like the world to listen to what he had to say. Writing an article about our meeting seems the best way to accomplish that.
When Christopher appeared on my computer screen at the scheduled time, I have a very curious feeling. I felt that I was meeting a modern version of Oscar Wilde. I don’t’ know why, but that is what crossed my mind. Was it his defiant hairstyle? Was it his queerness? Was it his reputation? I think it was his eloquence. This person has a very intimate relationship with the exuberant side of the English language, I thought — which, embarrassingly, made me suddenly lose the ability to speak the language at the standard that took me so many years to reach.
I was about to ask him the same question I ask everyone I have been interviewing in the last couple of years: “tell me about your journey to veganism”. But then I remember having listened to a podcast where he said he did not like the term “journey” when used in the context of veganism, so I hesitated. I ended up asking him which term he would prefer, and he, generously, replied he did not mind. Anyway, this was his answer:
“I had gone vegan in 2004, somewhere thereabouts. I wish that I had the wherewithal to remember my vegan anniversary, as so many people do. I don’t, because I didn’t really put much thought into it. It was simply ‘Oh my God, this is terrible! I don’t want to do that. So, I guess, well, I’m vegan now!’ And I just went on with my life, without actually thinking about what all of that would mean in the larger context. And certainly not having any idea where that would go years later.
My introduction to being vegan was from what I thought was a diet book because I read the book “Skinny Bitch” which was popular — it was on the New York Times bestseller list that year. And I said, ‘oh, this sounds fantastic!’ Keeping with the early 2000s and our understanding of feminism and queerness at that time, calling a book “Skinny Bitch”, having that as a title, was just really attention-getting. And there was like a pivot in the first couple of chapters away from diet and food, and just a hard stop right into animal agriculture and animal exploitation. That was so much more emotionally arresting, and, of course, unexpected for me, that it was just an immediate shift as soon as I put the book down. And then, retroactively, I started thinking about, or becoming educated on, all of the many reasons why perhaps that was not the most feminist introduction to veganism, and I started picking up other readings.
I did read Sistah Vegan by Dr Breeze Harper, and also The Sexual Politics of Meat — which I think had the biggest influence on me — by Carol Adams. And that was one of the things that had initiated in me an interrogation into ‘if this is what animal exploitation is to feminism, and the influences of patriarchal domination are on our relationships with other animals, then what are the racial implications as well?’ So, around 2013, I started learning more about what that overlap is. What the ways in which these two issues of animal liberation and black liberation had to do with one another.
Much later I started going into the scholarship of overall identity, and how the symbolic use of animals plays into various aspects of our identity, as people of colour — as black people, in particular — as queer people, as straight people, as men, as Americans, or as people of certain economic classes. Really gaining that understanding has shifted my perspective, in ways that were completely unanticipated. Being able to share that, and how politics and media discourse influence our relationships with other animals and our understanding of other animals, really became my focus. That allowed me to really use what my background is in a way that I thought was a little different. That was engaging for people who otherwise wouldn’t really think about these topics.”
Christopher’s Academic Background
I wanted to learn more about that background Christopher mentioned that allowed him to engage meaningfully with people and make them realise that we created a world with a very broken relationship with animals.
“I have my background in journalism. That’s what I had gone to school for. That’s what I graduated in. And I’ve been a technical writer for the past decade, mostly working on environmental reports. But having media studies in the background and understanding media theory, that had included a lot of readings that I thought were really useful in terms of understanding veganism, and understanding animal exploitation — which, of course, includes a lot of social theory, a lot of culture studies, and a lot of feminist readings. Especially I reference bell hooks a lot, who has written incredible works about the influence of pop culture on helping to educate people, or helping all of us to collectively better understand the world.
Also, the seedy underbelly of how media has influenced our consumption and furthered the broken relationships that we currently experience with other animals. Some of the things that I have written about, and given lectures on, are the history of media — particularly in a US context because that’s where I’m from and that is the place where I’m most familiar with. Like the shaping of narratives of masculinity, of whiteness, of blackness. Starting in the 1800s and the 1900s, but especially in the 21st century with social media. The use of animals as part of encoding certain types of messaging that has been consistent throughout US American history.
You look at certain points, certain touchstones throughout the 1900s, like in the 1920s. How we had birthed our relationship with bacon, in particular, through media, through advertising. How that has been used, how iconic images have been used. The image of the cowboy. What the cowboy actually represents in US American culture, and what the cowboy’s actual function is. What’s the difference between the mythological cowboy and the actual functional historical cowboy, which few people pay attention to in US American history. Things that are as iconic as Colonel Sanders, which is as much a racist symbol to me as he was a symbol of speciesism, of animal violence, of exploitation, and so forth. And you have all of these films, all of these cultural references, and things that blend together, and we think that we’ve made these decisions independently, about how we eat animals or how we treat other animals. Or why ‘I just love bacon’ it’s like. No, you don’t, what you actually love is a decades-long campaign of misinformation, and disinformation mixed in with a lot of mythology —and a healthy dose of white supremacy. That’s what you love. What you love is ‘American exceptionalism’, is ‘evangelical Christianity’. These are the things that you actually love and it’s represented through animals.”
Racism in the Veganism Movement
I have recently written about racism found in the animal rights and veganism movements, and in my article, I try to answer the question of whether there is racism in animal rights because animal rights is part of a racist world, or there is something in animal rights and veganism that makes us more vulnerable to fall into some racist behaviours. Christopher is an Advisory Council for Encompass, an organisation that has researched this issue in the US and produced a report titled Voices of the Movement: toward an equitable farm animal protection movement. So, I asked him what would be his answer to my question:
“I think that it is the former. There is racism present in the animal rights movement for the same reason there is homophobia or queer antagonism in black liberation, or there is misogyny in queer liberation. Because we live in a society where all of these things are present. Obviously, when we form our liberation communities, whatever they may look like, we’re going to bring all of our own biases with us. And so, the animal rights movement is not more racist than the mainstream society. It’s simply the mainstream society that forms all of our movements in all of our smaller subcommunities, anyway. That’s the dominant culture that all of us are living in.
Racism is definitely present and we, as people of colour like myself, definitely experience it. We are probably going to understand it more, and be better prepared to identify it, because these are our everyday experiences. It creeps into our advocacy, and into our scholarship, in dozens of ways. I’ve given presentations about the prevalence of it in the animal rights movement and I use specific examples. Not to disparage the people who are in the movement, or may purposefully or unconsciously be perpetuating implicit biases against black and brown people, but it’s there, and we need to understand it.
I would like to think that we would be able to get rid of racial bigotry and racism quicker than other groups. I don’t see that happening, though. It’s unfortunate, but people are really resistant. People have a lot of ignorance of these issues. And I don’t just mean white people. There are a lot of black and brown people who don’t understand these issues as well. Or don’t have the social grammar to describe what they are experiencing when they are experiencing macro or microaggressions. I don’t think that there is a way that we’re able to approach these things separately, or to individualise them or compartmentalise them, because they are so intimately connected. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have separate movements, like black liberation and animal liberation, but I think that we benefit from understanding how they are related, and, as pattrice jones has said, ‘where the commonalities lie’.”
Queer Culture and Veganism
When I asked Christopher about the connection between queer culture and veganism he lighted up. This seems to be a subject he enjoys discussing, and what he had to say was fascinating:
“I’ll give you two examples. One is about this fantastic article talking about how fur is falling out of fashion. And one of the quotes that was used in this article talking about how fewer and fewer people, especially among millennials and gen Z populations, are wearing fur. One of the people who weren’t happy about this was a trapper. I am just going to paraphrase the quote that they use because I thought that was absolutely hilarious. He said ‘animal rights groups are terrorist organisations led by lesbians and on their march toward communism; they’re going to ban trapping, they’re going to ban hunting; this is all a part of their gay agenda’. I loved it because this is a person who said the quiet part out loud.
We know that people encode messaging with animal exploitation, and one of the messages that are encoded in our use of animals, especially in fur, is straightness. Historically, it had been femininity. It has been encoded with whiteness. And so, here you’ve got this person that not only says that this is part of the gay agenda, but he specifically targets lesbians. You have to pull back the layers of what people are saying when you’re decoding these messages. Why are lesbians so threatening? First of all, I would love it if animal rights organisations were led by lesbians. I think that they are so organised. We would have had this all wrapped up and we’d be doing brunch next week. But what exactly is it that lesbians symbolise that is so threatening to the patriarchal society that we live in? Lesbians are the one community of people who are so aggressively self-sufficient, terrifyingly self-sufficient, that they don’t need straight men at all. There could not be a more terrifying figure on the face of the planet to straight cisgender men than a lesbian who makes them so irrelevant. And this is what comes out of people when they actually start to tell on themselves. And then he, of course, ties it to communism. All of the things that you’re afraid of. We project this onto certain communities that we regard as less than human, or somehow not a part of our culture that is so obsessed with human exceptionalism.
Here’s another example: The number of politicians who somehow conflate same-sex attraction, especially gay male same-sex attraction, with bestiality, is not accidental. I feel there is another projection happening there. I always tell people there are three things that are happening whenever you hear a politician make these statements — because, again, we’re encoding messages into this. The first thing is that people are already sexually abusing animals, and this is sexual abuse — bestiality — because one of these parties cannot meaningfully consent. Number two, more importantly, most of the people who sexually abuse animals identify as heterosexual. And number three, most importantly of all, no one actually cares that animals are sexually abused because if we did we will recognise that most of the straight people who are sexually abusing animals are doing it every single day on a farm because the whole project of animal exploitation is a project of theft of reproductive autonomy and sexual abuse. That’s exactly what it is, because you are forcing someone to reproduce most frequently through some form of sexual objectification — and sexual violence — all the time. It’s in every glass of milk that we drink. It’s in every piece of pork or bacon that we eat.
And we take all of that sexual violence, and we project it onto queer people. And what do queer people do in the larger community? we internalise it, we celebrate it, and we make it something that we want to participate in, because we want the same type of power that straight people have, that straight white cisgender men, in general, have. What have we done? we have gay rodeo now. We have become cowboys because we worship that type of masculinity, that type of toxic masculinity.
Queer people are among the groups of people that most frequently choose our families, and have our chosen families invalidated. My dog is as much a family member to me as is my mother, as is my brother, but he doesn’t get to be a part of my family because straight heterosexual culture dictates who is family, and what your family has to look like. To delegitimise my chosen family is a queer issue.
These are all things that have specifically to do with the ways in which animal liberation and queer liberation have a relationship. It’s necessary for us to embrace animal liberation in order to experience our truest expression of liberation. And not view our liberation as a project of reproducing, or attaining, the same type of power as the people that have created our own oppression.”
Vegan Echo Chambers
As Christopher is an expert on social media I could not resist the temptation to ask him for an answer to another question I posted in another article I wrote: Are vegan echo chambers good for our movement or are bad?
“Good, but not very good; bad, mostly bad, probably very bad. Echo chambers are not necessarily bad because oftentimes, what people are referring to as an echo chamber, is just a means of finding community. Like when we sign a petition. Petitions are rarely actually successful in terms of talking about media discourse, so oftentimes that includes the type of selectivism that we engage in. I’m going to sign a petition and then no one is ever going to see it. But what that does is add your name to a mailing list of like-minded people, that now you can communicate through emails, through messengers you’ve subscribed to. Something you’ve added your name to, something you’ve said that you specifically, and very explicitly, identify with. Something with this cause, with this issue. And we do the same thing when we join groups. There’s something very useful about reinforcing one another’s message, especially in online spaces. And so, it’s very helpful for us to build community. From that perspective, and from that sense, I think that the echo chambers, if that is how you’re describing them, are not bad.
But overall, they can be bad, because they are excellent vehicles for spreading misinformation. And it also limits our perspective and our worldview. It makes us see victories sometimes where they otherwise don’t exist. Like reading vegan media and keeping ourselves enclosed in that sort of ecosystem. We see articles that are sometimes playing a little fast and loose with facts, that have a certain type of spin to them, that lack the type of journalistic rigour that you would want to have from a mainstream newspaper — with a proper editorial process. We can be led to believe that this is done and dusted. This brand new vegan product is out and now that’s going to be the end of animal exploitation. We’re going to see record numbers of people just putting down their cow-based hamburgers and starting to eat this other non-cow based hamburger. And now I can just dust off my hands and on to the next. But all of the statistics that project animal use, and meat consumption in particular, over the next decade, say that it’s absolutely going to stay consistent, and in some places rise. These burgers haven’t done anything.
This is the problem of being in echo chambers. It so often diminishes our collective reasoning, our critical thinking skills, and our faculties, because it lulls us into a false sense of security or a false sense of accomplishment.
And then, you have all of these other secondary and tertiary issues of sub-communities that sort of spring from veganism, and all of the misinformation that’s in there. If someone is a raw food vegan, that’s super, that’s wonderful. If someone, as a result of their raw food veganism, actually starts to dispense really wild and wacky medical advice, this is going to be a problem. And I see that as another subproblem of the health veganism advocacy as well, because now you’re encouraging people to believe that you can drink urine and that’s going to cure herpes or something. Spoiler alert! it doesn’t. But so many people believe it.”
The Intersectionality Label
When I published my book Ethical Vegan I kind of declared myself an intersectional vegan, but with the caveat that I was using this label for lack of a better word. I confess I am using the term ‘intersectionality’ as it has been recently used by intersectional vegans. That is to say, a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of social and political identities might combine to create unique modes of discrimination, in which sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc., are believed to be interconnected through what is known as “the matrix of domination”, which will never be dismantled by addressing all these issues separately. I use this extended interpretation rather than how it was initially conceived as referring to the specific intersections black women experience. But I am not too attached to the label. In my book, I wrote, “I consider myself a non-militant intersectional vegan, but as I am also a cisgender heterosexual able middle-aged white man aware of my many privileges, I would gladly relinquish this label if those who may better represent intersectionalism thought I should do so.”
As Christopher often speaks the language of intersectionality, I wondered if he would be the first to ask me not to use that label. But since 2017, he has “divorced” himself from the term in an article he wrote titled “Yes to Intersectionality. Boo to Intersectional Veganism”, so he may no longer qualify as someone who better represents vegan intersectionalism.
“I do speak the language of intersectionality because I think that it’s important for us to be inclusive of intersectionality in our veganism. I had written my essay in 2017 about why I don’t use intersectionality myself. I think that the way that intersectionality has been used, and the way that it has been appropriated, completely bastardises the concept, and it has led to more misunderstanding than more clarification for a lot of people.
I understand it makes you identify with it as a reaction to the people who talk about intersectionality so disparagingly, but so much of our politics is reactionary, isn’t it? We’re always on the defensive, and never on the offensive, because we’re reacting to something that some otherwise bigoted person probably said. I don’t want to be in that position. But, more importantly, when it comes to intersectionality, what it is now is not what it was 30 years ago when Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins had coined it or popularised it. It started its life as a legal theory. It is now out there in the social justice lexicon. Black women for whom it was originally created are still experiencing the same negative outcomes that they have been doing for the past 30 years, and so, in some ways, I do feel it is appropriative. I do feel it doesn’t necessarily centre animals in the same way, and animals deserve to have their own movement and their own language.
In many ways, intersectionality, although it wasn’t called that, has pre-existed the writings of this legal scholar — and in a legal case, by the way, that failed. We can go back to the 1920s. We can see the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, and how the same language existed, but it wasn’t called intersectionality. All throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, Audre Lorde and bell hooks have been writing about intersectional theory the whole time, and now we have this magical word that has been so thoroughly, and so completely, been co-opted. You can see it on t-shirts now. So, intersectionality in my mind, was over by 2017.
But most importantly about intersectionality, the person who originated this as a theory is not dead. Kimberlé Crenshaw is very much alive and she’s right down the road teaching at Columbia University. And this isn’t some long-dead theory from 100 years ago that we’re reviving and sort of revising for a current generation. She’s still here, and as such, she gets to dictate how her theory can, or should, be used. And while she doesn’t object to the expansion of intersectionality to include other marginalised groups, she’s not vegan herself, and I think that kind of delegitimises it a little bit. If the person who originated this theory doesn’t practice it in that way, and doesn’t advocate for it in that way, then people are going to be able to look at that and say, ‘hmm, something about this ain’t right.’ Therefore, I think that is probably one of the starkest arguments for why I would not use it as another one of the hundreds of qualifiers that we now have on the shelf in order to describe my veganism. I think that veganism, when it’s practised in its purest sense, is already intersectional. And so, if we do regard it as an ideology, it defies this need for categorisation or compartmentalisation.”
He is right about reacting. As a reaction to the bigotry I detected from some anti-intersectionals, perhaps I did misappropriate the term, but in my mind, it was to move it away from those who co-opted it so I could return it closer to the benign meaning of those who created it. I have since written about this subject several times, and in an article about anti-intersectionality within veganism, I proposed there are two types of anti-intersectionals, those who deny the intersection, and those who avoid it (the latter may call themselves intersectionals but they tend to focus on what separates people and causes, rather than the intersection that unites them). Perhaps I reacted against the former, and Christopher reacted against the latter.
When I published the article on racism mentioned earlier, I was, as I expected, criticised by both types (ones denying there is racism and the others criticising that I dared to write about it). It seems that Christopher, who is aware of a particular interaction I had with a couple of people who could probably be the avoider-types, may have also experienced criticism from the same type of people, which might have led him to distance himself from the label of “intersectional vegan”.
“I am very disappointed in the larger community of people that have adopted intersectional as a personal identity, and use identity, or I should say weaponise identity, in a way that is so incredibly harmful. I literally just saw this happening to you when I started to look at the articles that you had shared with me, and I was going back to looking in other spaces on social media…this is what I mean by weaponisation.
The swiftness and the deafness with which we actually descend upon people, and commit this, I do think of it as verbal or rhetorical violence. That itself is another means of perpetuating these hierarchies and perpetuating this sort of oppressive atmosphere that doesn’t help or even educate anyone whatsoever.
These are quite representative of a lot of people who identify as intersectional vegans, and that’s not something I have any desire to be a part of. In fact, it contributed to almost a year of burnout for me. I got a really thick skin, and this is the type of stuff that has worn me down to the point of just not wanting to engage online, for the most part. I can only imagine tens, if not hundreds, of other people experiencing the same thing. And this is what passes for communities. So, yeah, I’m not a huge fan.”
Frequent criticism — and even occasional hostility — are a price I am happy to pay for being privileged enough to have my writing about controversial issues published. But I cannot deny it is sometimes tiring and consuming. Christopher is also a challenger of the challengers, and he also writes about controversial issues in the vegan movement (from vegan celebrities to the ableism of health vegans). And he often does it in a very direct way that is bound to rough some “hairs” (to avoid the possible avian speciesist expression), so I asked him why he does it.
“Why do I do it? I think that Eve Ensler, who wrote the vagina monologues, said it best — and I’m going to bastardise her quote because I don’t remember it verbatim. She said, ‘activism is not often something that you want to do, it’s more frequently an injustice that drives you absolutely crazy, and to the point at which you won’t find peace unless you do something about it.’ And that was what resonated with me. I felt that was the truest thing, because as much as I would like to put this down, as much as I would like to have peace, if I didn’t speak quite so unapologetically, or speak my own truth, yeah, I would find peace, but it would be an incomplete peace. And it would be a different kind of peace. Martin Luther King did say a ‘negative peace’, if you will, because it is the absence of conflict, rather than living in one’s own authenticity. So, it becomes a question of ‘do I want that absence of conflict, or will I find more peace, a more complete peace, in living in my authenticity?’
It is debilitating sometimes, and I think that what had pulled me out of my burnout is the fact that I can’t let people’s reactions dictate who I’m going to be, and who I have to take to bed with myself every night. And I think that it was hurtful — because a lot of those reactions came from people that I thought were my friends — but the people who are my friends, the people who are part of my chosen family, they are accepting of me, all of me, even if they disagree with me. And that was so freeing, because it’s one of the things that Carol Adams had also taught me. I had resisted writing some things for a very long time — and there are some things that are still yet to come that will be equally controversial or not well received — and she said that’s okay because scholars disagree. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine. But what happens in scholarship versus in the often-performative activism that I see is that we identify our points of disagreement and build more scholarship out of that. And so, it becomes this beautiful relationship of mutually helping one another to be better people. And I think that’s what we all want in this world. I want the people that I write to be better people. I pray to God that they want the same thing for me. I want the people that I stand in front of in the classroom to be better people, and it is not a one-sided relationship because I need the humility to understand that I am not the person who has all of the information in the room. I hope that they want me to be better too. I surround myself with more of those people who want that for me, and I can be so sure of. And it crowds out all of that rhetorical violence, all of that verbal violence, that comes from other people, from really nasty spaces. And that is sustaining.”
It works. I think what Christopher is trying to do, works. It has worked with me, anyway, because when I read his writings or hear his talks, my feeling is that this is the kind of author I need to listen to more to become a better person. I want to learn more from what he has to say because he deals with very relevant topics I need to catch up on. Often addressing very complex and sensitive issues, he talks about the things I want to learn about in a direct but kind way that I understand and relate to. And I don’t have to worry about who I am — what is my identity — to learn from him, because I know he would respect me and appreciate me for what I am worth (but not for what I am not).
Cristopher is like a blossoming powerful tree growing from a well where many streams and rivers intersect. Despite his articulated mix of colloquial and sophisticated language, he is easy to talk and listen to, because something refreshing emanating from that well seems to radiate from his persona.
Identity is a funny thing indeed.
Sometimes it sparkles.