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Vincent Guihan and Jo Charlebois Interview

July 3, 2010

Vincent Guihan and Jo Charlebois

3 July 2010

Today in ARZone we welcome Vincent Guihan and Joanne Charlebois. Joanne and Vincent are vegans who live and work in Ottawa, Canada.
They live with and care for nine cats. In their spare time, they create abolitionist advocacy materials, blog, podcast and generally focus on
vegan outreach and education through Animal Emancipation, a small animal
advocacy group they started in 2009.

ARZone has great pleasure in introducing Vincent Guihan and Joanne Charlebois, please say hello to Vincent and Jo.

ARZone:  Thanks so much for your time, Jo and Vincent, it’s great to have you here.

Why did you form your own grassroots advocacy organization instead of working with another established group? How does your approach and thinking about education differ from those of other animal advocacy groups?

Vincent Guihan:  Animal Emancipation (AE) tends to focus quite a bit on educating other vegans and advocates. We do make vegan outreach materials available. Mostly posters, stickers, and that kind of stuff.

We also run a forum for people who are vegan or fast on their way through the transition so that they can learn more about veganism and abolition in more nuanced ways (and so that they can hang out, etc.).

I said recently to colleagues that I see our work as creating an education that informs, trains and radicalizes. I think that’s a very different kind of education
than we’ve had in the movement in the past.

In fact, if education were just reading pamphlets, I’d have multiple PhDs by now. The Esteemed Dr. Roger Yates, PhD., would have to look up to me for a change.

Blessed may he be, and his head of hair, wherever they are.

We’re still working on all of the materials we would need for this kind of education. But it’s not clear to me that there is any other animal advocacy group that’s really focused on this kind of work, and that’s why we started our own.

Most groups are focused on the two most important things to any NGO dependent on Capital: donations and volunteers (the free labor of the movement). What’s important to those groups is that the stream increase and not decrease.

What is important to us is that we educate and motivate people sufficiently that they are ready to do the difficult work of building the most radical social justice movement in human history.

You’ve recently had your cookbook published, titled “New American Vegan”; what sort of food do you favour in this book, and was there a purpose to writing this book?

The food really draws on American (broadly defined American, not just theUnited States) food. I wanted to give people a book that wasn’t too complicated, One that didn’t have a lot of really hard to find or expensive ingredients, but also taught them how to cook, how to build flavor layers into their food, and that kind of stuff.

So, some recipes are a few ingredients and are simple and inexpensive (e.g., the kiwi and jalapeno coulis). Some are more complicated (e.g., the butternut squash stuffed with lentils, rice and greens with white and red sauces).

The gist is that I hope the book helps people get from simple dishes to more complicated ones but also encourages them to innovate and improvise themselves.

As vegans, we have a whole cultural history and sense of community to create, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that food is a central part of any cultural history or sense of community, especially with vegans.

Not to mention a vegan cookbook that actually takes an abolitionist approach to veganism in the intro; so many vegan cookbooks that bring up ethics at all are, well, wishy-washy at best.

What differentiates this cookbook from others on the market?

Well, it teaches people in general terms how to cook, about flavor theory, and other things.

It also approaches food politics from a substantively abolitionist position. That makes it unique in the market.

But in terms of other books, there’s definitely a reasonable amount of overlap. That’s generally the case with cookbooks, and especially vegan cookbooks. A great number focus on fusion or reinvesting North American favourites.

My book does some of that, but it’s also more innovative and instructive in some ways for an audience that is relatively new to cooking.

Jo tested most of the recipes.

What are some of the factors one should consider when drawing lines on what is appropriate to do or consume in any given situation as one who is committed to abolitionist veganism?

Heh. A hot topic lately.

Well, if animal use is avoidable then you should avoid it. For example, I don’t take aspirin when I have a headache; I just wait it out or drink some tea. I do walk on the sidewalk to get soy ice cream.

I buy red peppers, even though these are tested on nonhumans and probably grown using animal agricultural products and labor.

But if I could avoid the sidewalk, I would. If I had a sidewalk made without any animal use whatsoever and one made from the bodies of utilitarians, I would still walk on the former sidewalk.

Red peppers, and most fruits and vegetables are tested on nonhumans. Most agriculture today involves some animal use. What I think is important is avoiding uses we can.

Walking on sidewalks, eating produce is generally necessary.

I’m not proposing martyrdom or that we should never use animal products of any kind under any circumstances.

It’s important to look at things from the perspective that animal use is unjustified, while acknowledging that the world is far from vegan at this time so there are plenty of instances where we can’t reasonably avoid things.

It just seems clear to me that when we can do a little planning, or wait a little while, or just sacrifice a little bit, here and there, then those are the right things to do.

This is true of other social justice movements as well. Communists still generally have to pay their taxes, even if we work toward a different way of organizing the world.

It doesn’t follow from that that Communists should run profitable businesses and exploit their employees. Just that some compromises with the system are necessary to conduct work.

For example, if I had the meaningful choice to eat only veganic agricultural products, avoid sidewalks made from the bodies of dead nonhumans, etc., it’s not clear to me why I shouldn’t do so.

Rather than many people seem to look at these questions from a perspective of “why shouldn’t I do this”, I think we need to look at it more from a “if I am going to (walk on sidewalk, take medications etc), why *should* I”

On the other hand, I think a ‘live in the cave’ style of martyrdom conflicts with the activism we owe animals, but it doesn’t follow from this that we should feel free to use any animal product for any old reason.

And sometimes, the answer is indeed yes, such as taking medication for a serious condition, etc. But the whole “why should I stop doing X” kind of looks at it backwards

I might add that in cases of taking life saving meds and that kind of stuff, obviously, people should understand they have a moral obligation to themselves as animals as well.

That’s a question I hear a lot.

Could you please explain your thoughts on the Vegan Outreach literature and what you would change with their “Why Vegan” leaflets.

An excellent question. Everything, really. I am not sure that Vegan Outreach does much right with their Why Vegan piece.

I think they focus on suffering instead of use. I think abolitionists should focus on use as the moral problem.

I think they try to emotionally shock people with pictures of dead animals. I prefer to present nonhuman animals as living rights holders to whom we owe moral consideration.

Vegan Outreach is also highly equivocal about nonhuman animal use and veganism as a moral baseline. I’m definitely against equivocation on these issues. In short, if they wanted to correct their stuff, they’d make it more like AE’s stuff.

Their propaganda is weak in my view because the propose a very lukewarm ideology.

But as for what we would change in that type of pamphlet, if I were to write a similar type of pamphlet, I think it’s worth noting that most AR propaganda is not produced by people with a lot of propaganda education. That often shows. And certainly, it’s not like we have long-term studies to measure whether this work is effective or puts people off.

I think as an advocacy community, we need to think more about what changes and actions we propose that people take and how to package that in education materials that make sense.

And I would just like to say that I really don’t like the photo of tons of processed vegan junk food with all brand names in the pamphlet

Could you please explain the definition of “new welfarism” and why you feel this approach is harmful to animals that are currently being enslaved?

Would it not be more humane to improve conditions for these animals as much as possible during their lives, which surely will bring awareness to the general public and lead to abolition in the future?

New welfarism is the poopheaded view (technical term) that working on anything but abolition will lead to abolition.

It describes groups like PeTA who put forward slogans like: Animals are not ours to use! But then buy stock in agribusiness, commission studies like CAK that promote cheaper ways to kill animals, and in PeTA’s case, killing adoptable cats and dogs.

Francione argues in Rain Without Thunder, and I agree, that this isn’t to say there is absolutely no difference at all between new welfare and traditional welfare groups.

It just means the practical differences are minor enough that it is practical to think of new welfare groups as more like regular welfare groups than they are abolitionist in nature.

In terms of why new welfarism doesn’t work, AE has a lot of views on what the education problem is, but I don’t believe raising awareness that people use nonhuman animals is a all that meaningful of an activity.

I blog a lot about this, but Raising awareness that animals suffer when we use them strikes me as a bit odd. But the awareness that needs to be raised, in my view, is around the idea of nonhuman animals as rightholders and veganism as the baseline to taking their rights and their morally relevant interests seriously.

So, what I think we really need to do is to educate and radicalize people insofar as they are able to understand, not just that many nonhumans feel pain or that many have rich emotional lives, people do know that animals are harmed to make meat, leather, etc, but they generally just “don’t want to think about it”. What we need to do is to educate them on WHY they should think about it, why they should take animals seriously.

Focusing on the “worst abuses” leads people to think that these are special cases, that they animals *they* eat aren’t treated like that, that they can buy “humanely” raised meat and their moral obligation is done.

A focus on abuse only encourages people to solve the problem of ‘abuse’ as they understand it. In order to promote veganism, it requires that people come to understand that all use is morally wrong.

A focus on abuse just encourages people to do the least possible to solve that problem, not to go vegan because all use is wrong.

To do that though animal abuse must be exposed at a high level, from sow stalls to battery hens the industry will always fight to the death to hide the truth, this is morally wrong.

I think that’s historically inaccurate. Here’s why.

Up until about 50 years ago, lots of people raised and killed their own livestock.

They didn’t really care. Farmers still raise livestock. And they still kill and eat them. The notion that just showing people animal abuse will lead to any kind of moral sense that animal use is wrong stands against several thousand years of human history when we abused them much more directly than we do today and it didn’t bother people all that much at all.

I am not saying that explaining that nonhumans are rights holders who suffer when they are harmed is wrong. I am saying that a singular focus on animal suffering is misguided if we want people to understand that
use, by itself, is the moral problem.

All use is morally wrong, not just battery cages and sow stalls, to focus on things like these is to implicitly draw a distinction between these and other forms of animal use. In a society where animal use is considered morally acceptable and the norm, this encourages people to think that if this one type of use (the most “abusive” types) is problematic, then other types are not so problematic

Abolitionist veganism isn’t about just targeting the worst abuses. It’s about the notion that nonhumans, whether they’re used gently or not, have a right not to be used.

There is nothing wrong with answering people’s questions about “oh, what does happen to the male chicks, I never thought about that”, but working to improve welfare standards tends to make people feel better about using animals and to be *good* for industry in the end, since the only reforms passed are those that are economically advantageous to them. this allows them to exploit more efficiently and to make more money from the people who now feel better about using animals

Vincent, how did you become so knowledgable?

Long story short, I mostly read the work of my colleagues and think about their ideas. I’m lucky enough to work with a group of advocates who think seriously about these issues.

That helps a great deal.

In your third podcast, you indicated that there may be times when “non-violent force” can be legitimately used to defend nonhuman animals. Can you give us a couple of examples?

Sure, I think nonviolent force is often justifiable in situations of imminent harm and there are no reasonable alternatives.

An example. Let’s say that Roger and I were at the pub and he started an argument about how awesome his hair was.

Let’s say the conflict escalate and it looked like there was going to be a fight. Let’s imagine that just when blows are about to be struck, I flip the table. I think thats justifiable if I’m acting in order to prevent a fight.

Or, let’s say I wedge myself between them in order to restrain them. I think that that’s justifiable. I also believe self-defense is justifiable, and so on.

Turning to nonhumans, I think there are plenty of examples of when property damage, nonviolent restraint and other actions are at least morally justifiable.

If someone were beating a dog in front of you, I think if you had no reasonable alternative but to try to restrain the person, that would probably be morally justifiable, although it would probably get you thrown in jail for assault…or for terrorism in theUnited States.

What I don’t believe is that we can build a meaningful political praxis around what may or may not be justifiable or practical in some instances but not others.

There’s a big difference between taking a choice in a situation in which moral choices are meaningfully limited and building a political movement around exceptional circumstances.

I know you have rescued many felines. As a staunch vegan of 31 years, aligned with the abolitionist approach, I have a part of my head that feels very strangely about rescuing felines so they can live wonderful lives at the expense of other sentient animals that have been farmed and exploited horrifically by humans. This interprets to not living with felines for myself, but rescuing dogs and feeding them vegan.

If a cat comes into my life, I feed it supplemented vegan food, and it does some hunting or I find it another home, usually. I don’t choose to live with felines. Why do you?

What is the difference between going to buy a burger at burger king and buying meat to feed your cats? Are you not contributing to the demand for animal products?

I talk about this a little in my blog here…

There are several questions here so bear with me and let me know if I forgot any part

As for why we rescue felines as opposed to other animals, a big part of that is how the first of these cats came into my life.

The first of these cats was rescued right outside my window when I lived inMontreal. She was semi-feral and grew up around the building.

Many of her relatives and other stray cats were killed by cars. I took her in so that this wouldn’t happen to her. And then some other cats in similar situations… and the “colony” grew.

I also had previous experience caring for cats, but none with dogs.

The main point is that these cats are rights holders too and it’s not their fault that they were brought into existence by humanity or that they are carnivores. We rescue them because we have the opportunity and the ability to do so and to care for.

I fed our cats on plant based cat food exclusively for about a year (and a mix for a year or so before that), but unfortunately they started to have serious problems.

Of course I don’t like feeding them dead animals but at this point after what we experienced, the choice is either do that or seriously harm the health of these cats who can’t help that it was vegans who adopted them…

I don’t need to eat a burger at Burger King, since I’m a human and doing just fine on plants. But right now the cats do need it for lack of safe alternatives (in my opinion, and in our area – I know there are people who have fed cats successfully on vegn food who exist, just that wasn’t our experience).

As a removed example, let’s say you’re in a lifeboat. One person is already dead. One person is dying of hunger. In that circumstance, it seems unreasonable to suggest that feeding the person who is dying of hunger with the body of the person who.. is not excusable. We can’t hold it against nonhuman animals if they need meat to survive, although it’s best to provide them with plant-based alternatives when it is possible to do so.

Anyhow, the gist is: we owe individual nonhumans a certain amount of care, I think. Sometimes that means doing things we think of as immoral on their behalf.

Millions of animals die at farms, you could give them that dead corpses instead of buying dead animals (giving money to the industry that kills them)

Another option is asking the butchers for the remains they throw at bins

Those are good ideas. Thanks!

It’s a good question whether the dead have rights, and if they do, whether their rights should trump the morally relevant interests and rights of the living.

This is a situation where there is no morally “good” choice. I either kill other animals, or I risk the lives of the cats I’ve taken as my responsibility.

I’d also like to add that this is one of the many reasons that we are firmly against the continuation of domestication of animals by breeding them as companions.

But we create a demand for them to be killed when we buy these products for our cats.

We also create a demand when we take life saving medications. If there are alternatives, we should pursue them. But neglecting the needs of domesticated animals is morally problematic.

Jo: I saw the “Joint Statement by a Group of Abolitionist Vegan Feminists for International Women’s Week” published in a few places, such as The Starting Point, ARZone, and FB. What response did you get to the sadly necessary critique of sexism within the animal advocacy movement. Was it covered in any feminist media? Are you planning on putting it out again? Did you send it to any “mainstream media”?

There was plenty of response both positive and negative.

Some commentators tended to favour the “anything that a woman chooses to do cannot possibly be sexist since she chose it”

The negative responses to our statement tend to ignore the structural aspect of sexism, I find.

The question of whether something is sexist has to be answered in the context of the patriarchal society we’re in. Unfortunately not all women are feminists and so just because a woman chose something doesn’t automatically make it non-sexist.

Actually (at the risk of being accused of being like Bruce Friedrich again) anyone who likes to can read the statement and see some of the comments here…

We didn’t send the statement to any mainstream media

The first draft was originally based on a letter to the editor I had published a couple of years ago though. Only a few sentences remain from that in the final though

Are you still as exercised as ever by “veg*n”? Still traumatised by it?

Shudder! Yes, I still hate the term veg*n. The horror, the horror.

I’m a person that sees things a little different from you. As i see that MDA is the way forward..As I see you’re all about vegan education why don’t you think that the two sides can join together? Vegan education
and MDA, as everyone knows that vegan education can’t work just on it’s own.

I’m not sure why you’d say “everyone knows” that. Abolitionist vegan education is only beginning to be attempted.

Well, it’s my view that in addition to vegan education, we also need to do community organizing.

But I’m not sure that MDA has a really central role in animal emancipation.

In fact, I think it tends to do more harm than good insofar as it tends to confuse and alienate the public.

Also, when we talk about MDA, it’s not always clear what we’re talking about. AE is definitely opposed to adventurism like vandalism and that kind of thing.

More important, property status and commodification are based on mass social acceptance of the moral acceptability of using nonhumans as our property.

So, if we wish to end property status and commodification, then the most effective approach is, I think, abolitionist vegan education. I believe there are serious problems to specific MDA campaigns and figureheads in the movement today.

To be clear, I’m not against organized, disciplined political movement, and as a one-time member of the Communist Party, many people would describe me as a militant and the part as militant.

And certainly, we acted directly, in order to rescue our cats. We act directly when we do vegan outreach and education.

But I’m opposed to militancy when it is confused with adventurism and buffoonery and I’m opposed to direct action when it is conflated with gossiping and posturing on the Internet.

I am often asked if and when illegal and/or confrontational rescues and abolition are compatible. This is a very difficult question to answer. There are a lot of moral and practical considerations at play. I think this question is under theorized.

But my general sense is that there are plenty of domesticated animals who can be rescued through perfectly nonconfrontational means, and if we take the rights of each animal as an individual as equally important, it’s not always clear to me why illegal rescues are of particular importance to the movement. Certainly, I am for saving lives when we can do so. And I think that solidarity is an important part of animal advocacy.

But I tend to focus more on encouraging other advocates to work toward abolition clearly and coherently. Promoting veganism, working toward abolition, community organizing, animal adoption, and so on, are all excellent kinds of work.

I can say that as a militant, criticism is vital to militancy. I think when self-styled militant try to shut down critical dialogue, i think that’s unfortunate.

Vincent, you frequently attack other animal rights leaders on a personal and substantive basis. Isn’t that bad for movement unity? Are you just a big meanie who didn’t get enough hugs as a child or does this serve some
sort of broader purpose?

The truth is I didn’t get enough hugs.

More seriously, I think that many of the problems in advocacy leadership are not just substantive political issues. I think many of them are just not great people. I know that’s harsh, but I believe it’s true.

I think there’s a tremendous amount of opportunism and careerism in the movement, and I think that’s unfortunate for nonhuman animals.

I do try to keep my critiques relatively substantive, but I think the moral character of movement leadership is also very important.

Part of engaging other advocates about their work is to help them to improve. Most of my criticism is (usually) levied from a position of dialogue, rather than just calling someone down. Rare occasions aside, of course. 😀

I think I’m done. Jo, do you have any thoughts on whether it’s because I’m just mean or didn’t get enough hugs?

What are the problems with calling various items (like cake) “vegan” or “not vegan”?

This is also a hot topic lately.

Actually, my views on this are shaped significantly by another abolitionist’s views.

I don’t want to misrepresent his position, but the general thinking as I understand it is that vegans are moral agents. When we refer to things as vegan, it confuses that.

Further, it’s a good question when a thing can be said to be vegan, since different people have different ideas on what would make X item vegan.

If a red pepper is grown veganically and a red pepper is grown with animal manure, does it become less vegan? This draws us into odd and difficult questions about what makes item X vegan.

The gist of which is that it is simpler, and generally more accurate to use a longer phrase to describe things and activities and to reserve the notion of ‘vegan’ for moral agents (like you and me).

Although I invite correction from the proponent of this view if he wants to comment further.

He’s probably playing video games.

You are very critical of regulationists. Can you elaborate on your argument that industry regulation never makes industry weaker?

Excellent question!

Typically regulation happens when an industry is considered to be of national economic interest. When an industry is considered to be of national economic interest, regulation is typically used to achieve a number
of different policy goal.

These policy goals often vary. For example, the military industrial complex is very heavily regulated in order to provide massive subsidies to the United
States military.

Usually, regulation happens when the cost of production is significant. Regulation typically ‘rescues’ an industry by consolidating the industry behind larger players, putting smaller, less effective rivals out of the market. This does vary, though

In the case of tobacco, for example, reg. ensures that tobacco farmers aren’t put out of business, that people can still smoke, and so on. Regulation helps to keep Big Tobacco afloat while also subsidizing regional governments through taxation.

We see this a bit with industry now, especially automakers in the US, that yes, regulation adds some red tape, but ultimately, the policy goal is to protect and sustain the industry, not to eliminate it.

Regulating the auto industry has had similar effects. Airlines are roughly the same. None of these industries are close to vanishing, and in fact, the government steps in to prop them up with regulation.

Historically, there’s little evidence that regulation practically leads to abolition. If anything, it tends to be the opposite. I also consider regulating animal use to be morally bankrupt.

I attend sale yards which sell millions of animals for slaughter every year, my role is to ensure that those who attend these yards operate within the law and as you can imagine most don’t do this and the regulators have little interest in ensuring that they do so that’s where I come in, I turn up and ensure that animals are not crippled, do not have broken legs are not emaciated, are not being abused in anyway, i take footage if this happens.

The footage is circulated to relevant groups all over Australia, including PETA.

If I was to take an “abolitionist” approach to what I do for animals I would have achieved very little as NO ONE within the meat industry would work with me, and unfortunately to improve standards for animals I must work with the industry.

My question is, if you lived in Australia and attended say sale yards which sell animals which will go for slaughter, how would you approach the issue of inhumane treatment of these animals as clearly stepping in and saying “I am an abolitionist” would never work, I would be laughed out of every sale yard I attend and that would mean no one would be there to help these animals, such as sheep, cattle and pigs which are being sold for slaughter. I have to behave in a manner which will always benefit animals, this means working with farmers etc etc to try and educate them; if this does not work I simply expose them through the media.

Why not spend your time working in a shelter or conducting vegan outreach?

When dealing with the farmed animal industry one cannot take an abolitionist approach?

When dealing with the farmed animal industry one cannot take an abolitionist approach, if I was not at these yards to ensure animal welfare was taken care of then people would do as they please which means animals suffer.

I ask, not to denigrate the work you are doing or you as a person. I ask because there are lots of ways to help nonhuman animals that are more consistent with abolition.

So are you saying I should walk away because the outcome for the animals is the same, which is of course slaughter?

Sure, I understand, but animals suffer regardless and on a massive scale.

I am saying that you should try to strike at the roots of the problem, and that if you want to make a difference in the lives of individual nonhumans, adoption, rescue and shelter work is perhaps a more meaningful avenue to do it.

I shall give you an example…I catch farmers etc out trying to sell sheep with broken legs, now when I turn up I ensure these animals are put down and not sold or transported.

But what I do is incredibly meaningful and to be honest without my input many sale yards would still be selling suffering animals, so how can I walk away knowing this when I can and have made an enormous difference.

Such a difference in fact that that yards i attend isolate suffering animals and ensure they are not sold, before i stepped in they would be sold, one cannot walk past and do nothing.

Suffering is only one result of the moral problem, though. All use is morally wrong. If you agree with this view, I am only saying you might find better avenues to promote an end to animal use.

Ok let me put it this way, if you came across facilities which were operating inhumanely and you knew you could stop it what would you do??

Yes, if you are more concerned with animal welfare then that’s fine, as an abolitionist I would not feel that this is the best use of my time. Regulating the industry is not going to end it. The animals are all killed in the end and will continue to be as long as there is demand for animal products.

To be clear, if I walked by a cow who was dying of thirst, I would definitely give her water.

We should always take opportunities to help those nonhumans in need if we can do so.

I would rather know that while the meat industry continues i can play a huge part in ensuring it does operate as humanely as possible.

That is different from making alleviating suffering a cornerstone of our activism, when I think time is better spent rescuing and caring for domesticated nonhuman animals and promoting veganism. That’s all.


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