• Christopher Sebastian

Joe Biden, veganism, and the unbearable privilege of talking about privilege

I don’t talk about privilege anymore. I have avoided using the term itself in my own writing for more than a year (unless it was absolutely unavoidable, and even then I use it with great intention). But for me, the word has run its course.

Much like intersectionality, macaroni and cheese, and Destiny’s Child (start at 1:09, you're welcome), people have abused it until it is completely over. How do I know this? Let’s take a gander at the 2020 US presidential election. Are you voting for Joe Biden? Voting for another candidate? Are you abstaining from voting? [Note: A vote for Donald Trump is irrelevant in this example.]


It doesn’t matter which position you take because, CONGRATULATIONS, you’re privileged!


Abstainers or third-party voters argue that voting for a man who fat shames voters, insults women as dog-faced, and tells Black voters that they aren’t black is an act of privilege. Voters who express their support for Biden (enthusiastic or lackluster) argue that abstention or third-party voting is an act of privilege.


The problem here is not that they’re both wrong, but that they’re both right.

If you’re wondering how this can be, then you have to do the homework of trying to understand the logic and nuance of both positions to understand why and how the other party prioritizes their needs. But homework is hard, and patronizing contempt is easy.


Priorities are subjective based on each individual’s perspective, and therein lies the problem with how we have weaponized privilege. And yes, I do mean weaponize.


If we look at privilege the way that scholar Peggy McIntosh used it when she introduced the concept to the world in the late 1980s, we understand it as a set of unearned advantages that are conferred on certain people in society by way of how it is structured politically, socially, or economically. In this way, privilege by race, gender, size and ability are very clear.


But as the popularity of privilege grows, so too does the fluidity with which it is applied. Many of us outside the academic universe have turned it into a bank, the latest iteration of the Oppression Olympics. Framing privilege in this way makes it a failure of the individual, and the system benefits because it remains invisible.


The rallying cry of “check your privilege” demands nothing. It is a smug way of ending uncomfortable conversations we don’t want to have. Acknowledging our own privilege or encouraging others to locate theirs might be a start, but it is hardly enough.


Even presuming that everyone has access to the same level of education around privilege and the cognitive ability to understand it is itself a privilege.


And yes, then there’s veganism.


Many strong advocates for both animal and human rights observe (rightfully) that it is an act of extraordinary privilege to engage in the mass imprisonment, torture, and killing of our fellow earthlings. But the avowed intersectional anti-vegan will argue that veganism (as characterized by the mainstream understanding) is classist, racist, ableist and privileged on its face.


Personally I find the latter position reduces veganism to a mere diet so that the other party can continue to comfortably ignore animal injustice. But what does that matter? Depending on the experiences of the individual, their position is valid. So why would I waste time arguing about how eating one legume is virtually a death sentence or if the price of Beyond Meat is unattainable to someone living below the poverty line? Privilege. Talk. Is. A. Distraction.


The real discussion lies in whether or not the intersectional anti-vegan understands and internalizes that animals are marginalized persons who deserve their liberation every bit as much as human persons. If yes, then everyone can have a productive discussion about how they can work together irrespective of whether or not every single person in the whole wide world can adhere to a strict plant-based diet. If not, then any discussion about the perceived privilege of any particular diet is irrelevant because there is no foundation on which to build a meaningful alliance.


Either way, accusing one another of privilege ends in a stalemate, leaving the violent institutions themselves to operate completely unimpeded.


Maybe you think that it is privileged to “demand” that people eat rice and beans. Maybe another person thinks it’s privileged to think you’re too darn good for rice and beans.


Maybe you think defeating Trump is the sole priority right now, and anyone who does not share this perspective is privileged. Maybe another person thinks that demanding their uncritical vote for a candidate who supports a status quo that represents a normal that locks people in endless cycles of poverty and suffering is privileged.


The bottom line is that privilege ain’t what y’all think it is. But too many folks need to ride that carousel because the consequences of stepping off it are accountability, and that's way too scary.

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