Christopher Sebastian (43) is an author, lecturer, and digital media professional and is a guest lecturer at Columbia University in New York and the co-founder of VGN. He uses pop culture and digital media to further the causes of total liberation and explains why veganism is a tool to deconstruct multiple systemic oppressions. In this interview, he talks about how he became involved in animal rights, single-issue activism versus total liberation, dealing with several invisible illnesses, being tokenised, accessibility in animal rights activism and other heavily debated issues in vegan and animal rights activism.
Hello Sebastian, in your bio, you describe yourself as ‘author, lecturer, and digital media professional’. Can you elaborate some more? Tell us who you are? What’s your background? Where do you live?
I usually split my time between Prague and New York, although in the age of covid, I haven’t left my neighbourhood in Prague for over a year! I am a staff writer at Vegan Publishers, guest lecturer on speciesism at Columbia University in New York, and social media director of Peace Advocacy Network. I also sit on the advisory council for Encompass and am the co-founder of VGN.
My background is in journalism and media studies. I’ve worked in print media for over ten years and digital media, including social media, for five years. I’m really passionate about using media studies to reconstruct our relationships with other animals.
When and how did you become interested in animal rights and veganism? How do you practice veganism? Has it evolved?
I’ve been vegan since around 2004. I read the book Skinny Bitch and immediately gave up animal products. I always joke that it was not the most feminist introduction to veganism, but I’m grateful because it reminds me to stay humble about criticizing anyone’s point of entry. I became more directly involved in animal liberation around 2013. I read The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams, and her eco-feminist framing inspired me to look for scholars who explored a racial framing of animal liberation issues. That’s when I discovered Breeze Harper and Marjorie Spiegel and started deepening my understanding of the ways in which these movements for justice interact.
You see veganism ‘as a tool to deconstruct multiple systemic oppressions’. But many animal rights advocates claim that it is ‘only about ending the oppression of other animals’. Can you please explain why you think this single issue focus is wrong?
Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde famously said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” And I think her words ring truer now than they did years ago. How do you compartmentalize the lives of free-living animals from the lives of indigenous people, when the lands upon which they live are under the threat of colonialism? How do you individualize the interests of the objectified woman from those of the objectified animal? When animal bodies are deployed as tools of the state to control protest, how do you separate the needs of both to be free?
On a related note: those same animal rights advocates use the argument that many human rights organisations/advocates pay no attention to animal rights or are even overtly speciesist, and respectively, we – as animal rights advocates – should pay no attention to human rights, because the animals ‘deserve our undivided focus’. What is your take on that?
Complete nonsense. A mentality of scarcity is a construct of oppression. As if life is a zero sum game where the liberation of one group must necessarily come at the cost of another. I am deeply saddened by people who experience life in this combative fashion, and I don’t have any time for people who treat marginalized groups as if they are in competition. pattrice jones speaks about the need for species solidarity. That is the example I choose to follow.
A mentality of scarcity is a construct of oppression. As if life is a zero sum game where the liberation of one group must necessarily come at the cost of another. I am deeply saddened by people who experience life in this combative fashion, and I don’t have any time for people who treat marginalized groups as if they are in competition.Christopher Sebastian
This is not something that you often talk about, but you told me you live with an invisible illness. Can you share your situation/diagnosis and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges? Do you consider yourself disabled?
I don’t like to talk about this because I genuinely don’t know where it falls within the disability discourse. But I have ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition which presents unique challenges for people following a plant-based diet. I also have osteo-mito synovial chondromatosis, which is a very long way of saying I have a very painful chronic joint condition. I also have been clinically diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. But as much as I choose to defer to people who more explicitly deal with disability work, I also know there’s value in discussing my experiences in the right context. Visibility for people living with conditions that are not obvious is important. It helps to know that you’re not alone.
On being closed or not talking about it: some say there are analogies in ‘coming out’ as chronically ill or disabled and ‘coming out’ as queer. How did you experience this?
What a brilliant, multi-faceted question! Coming out as queer and coming out with a disability are certainly analogous in many ways. Gender presentation, sexual orientation, disability presentation … all of these can be very conspicuous or very discreet. And depending on how they show up, that presentation can be very much outside your control. What’s been different for me is that I’ve been queer for as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve almost always been out because I can’t hide it. Whereas I developed my autoimmune condition and joint condition as an adult, but those are very easily concealed.
I could speak volumes about the topic, but I think the most important thing for people to know about this is that disclosure culture is incredibly toxic. Forcing people into positions where they have to disclose some very personal aspect of their identity or perform it to your satisfaction in order to have a seat at the table is reprehensible, and we shouldn’t do it. Respect each person’s individual autonomy.
Disclosure culture is incredibly toxic. Forcing people into positions where they have to disclose some very personal aspect of their identity or perform it to your satisfaction in order to have a seat at the table is reprehensible, and we shouldn’t do it.Christopher Sebastian
A lot of your work centres around the representation or narrative of other animals in popular media and the underlying power relations. An example was the footage of a Black Lives Matter protestor using a pig head as a prop that went viral and was heavily critiques by many animal advocates as being speciesist. You countered this and pointed to the underlying racism. For those who missed that post, can you please explain?
It is species violence without a doubt. But the question for me is – Is this violence any more unique than the violence done to the rest of that animal’s objectified body? Or why are we allowing anti-Black ideologues to use this image to delegitimize Black protest? Again, this illustrates the importance of understanding media theory. Here, we have an animal who has been three times made a victim. The primary victimization is having their life stolen for profit. But in death, their body is objectified a second time as a symbol of political resistance. And a third victimization occurs when racist voices weaponize media images against marginalized Black people. Can we critique the use of animals as political symbols? Yes, and furthermore, we should. But do we have an obligation to do it in a way that does not further perpetuate stereotypes against Black humans? We do.
‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism’. This is sometimes invoked to dismiss the vegan ‘lifestyle’ as futile. What are your thoughts?
Ah, the rallying cry of people who don’t want to think critically about their own participation in a violent system. This is rhetorical violence at its finest. We exist within capitalism as both victimizer and victim. And we have to make choices every single day about the extent to which we perpetuate violence to one another.
Do you personally have the tools to eat a plant-based diet at all times? Maybe, maybe not. But do you believe in animal liberation, or do you mock it? Can you adjust your attitude to be inclusive of vegans/ism where you are able? Those are the real questions. Because I’m guessing by most people’s relentless, vicious antagonism toward animals and vegans, the answer is secretly that we hate other animals. But if that’s the case, own it. Own the fact that liberation is not your goal, but a better position on the hierarchy. And own the fact that you don’t want to deconstruct white supremacy and systemic oppression. You want it to work better for you and yours.
Others then claim that ‘being vegan’ is not enough to bring about the needed systemic change, and that we need more animal rights activists doing ‘real activism’. Do you agree? If so, what sorts of activism do we need more of in the animal rights movement?
I don’t know what people mean by ‘real’ activism. But I do know that staying alive and staying well are acts of political resistance unto themselves. Sometimes that’s enough. But hey, if anyone wants to learn about how we can use pop culture and media theory to subvert the tyranny of our economic system, you can come sit next to me! Attending a protest…marching…demonstrating in public are all great. But they’re not accessible to everyone. And guess what? A pandemic happened, and all those people had to go sit in the house. What a time to be alive! So I guess all the ‘real’ activists are having to take lessons from the sick and shut in. And as we enter the second year of this pandemic, I hope those lessons will be well learned!
Yes, that resonates with a post I wrote last year on Crip Humanimal: Lockdown and boom you’re not an activist anymore! Activism comes in so many ways!
Now, more than ever before, is the time for digital media campaigning to take off. If you want to learn the affordances of digital media for political organizing, come sit next to me! From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo to the Arab Spring, the past decade alone has given us a remarkable body of evidence to draw on. And we can do it from our mobile phones.
The use of other animals in scientific experiments is one of the areas where animals’ rights are violated. I have seen some animal rights advocates propose to use prisoners instead of animals. What is your take?
I’m a prison abolitionist. So my take is that the entire prison industrial complex should be abolished. The punitive attitudes of people (animal rights advocates or otherwise) toward prisoners are based on bigotry, outdated stereotypes, and empirically false notions about what constitutes justice. In the United States, where I’m from, the penal system is ineffective, needlessly punitive, disproportionately applied against poor people and people of color, and overwhelmingly corrupt. NO ONE should have their rights violates by the prison system or medical and scientific experimentation, irrespective of their species membership.
And if people are worried about what we are supposed to do with rapists and murderers, I hear the White House has a vacancy every four years. God knows we have no trouble filling it with one, the other, or both at once when we’re especially lucky.
‘Veganism is a white thing’ and on a related note: ‘veganism ignores the rights of indigenous people’. Your thoughts on this?
These tired tropes are most often employed by people who choose, for whatever reason, not to interrogate their bigotry toward other animals. I can’t find it within myself to condemn them because I too shared their values for the first two decades of my life. But I do urge them to think more deeply about their attitudes. If they do, I think they’ll find that the perceived exceptionalism of humans is animated by the same ideology as white supremacy. Veganism doesn’t ignore the rights of indigenous people. Racists do. And while it’s unfortunate that people bring their racist or anti-indigenous attitudes into their veganism, I see no reason to blame animals.
What are the main challenges for achieving total liberation? Which strategies and actions should we as a movement focus on (more)? I know this is a big question which can only be touched upon briefly in a paragraph, but can you give some pointers?
Oh god, where to begin? That lack of solidarity I already mentioned is a big one. Our poor education around economic and social theory, although what can we expect? You know what they say – our education institutions will not give us the education we need to get free. Lack of humility is another one. Our quickness to lead with our trauma instead of with grace. So many challenges, so little time. But I think we’re up for it.
You often participate in events and give presentations (that is, when there isn’t a global pandemic). What are some of the other topics – that haven’t been touched upon above – that you talk about?
Well it’s funny you should mention that because most often I’m invited to talk about one of two topics: 1.) intersectionality and 2.) the synergy between Black liberation and animal liberation. And while I love talking about both of those things and will always be eager to do so, I think intersectionality has unique limitations when applied to animal liberation and should be rooted in the liberation struggles of Black women. And I also wish I had the distinction of being acknowledged as a professional when it comes to animal liberation in the space of digital media and media studies.
It’s very telling that I see white colleagues in animal rights spaces be recognized as authorities when it comes to animal law, or photography, or even, yes, as digital media professionals. But when it comes to Black people, we are only seen as authorities on our own experiences. We are not invited into organizations to give talks based on our scholarship or professional knowledge. Our only perceived value (and the extent of our knowledge) rests in our Blackness.
How refreshing it must be to be a white person who works as a social media professional and not be reduced to one single dimension of your identity. Like I said, I love talking about racial justice and animal justice, and I appreciate it was the entry point into my animal advocacy. But I would love more opportunities to make people smarter media consumers, creators, and distributors. And guess what? All things being equal, I’m probably better at it than a white colleague because my Blackness (and queerness, and disability) enrich my understanding of the world around us, making me a better-informed and more objective authority. That is the benefit of diversity and inclusion.
But when it comes to Black people, we are only seen as authorities on our own experiences. We are not invited into organizations to give talks based on our scholarship or professional knowledge. Our only perceived value (and the extent of our knowledge) rests in our Blackness.Christopher Sebastian
Yes, that sounds like tokenism to me. What pointers do you have for organisations to be inclusive and diverse, beyond the point of tokenism?
Put Black women, radical Black women, in roles of leadership and authority within your organizations. And don’t limit those roles to diversity jobs or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work. Hire them in the roles that you wouldn’t think twice about a white person occupying. In fact, make a proactive decision that the next high-level position that becomes available within your organization will be explicitly be filled by a radical Black woman.
I’ve been asked by people before, “But what if we can’t find one who is qualified?” And I answer that by asking, “Why is that never a question when the candidates are white?” Our implicit bias lies in the almost automatic presumption of qualification that comes with being white and the perceived lack of qualification that comes with being Black that is racist. And thanks to Encompass’ talent database, locating a diverse field of qualified candidates should soon not be a problem.
Is there anything else that you would like to share here?
Yeah, just one thing. In the past three years of watching presentations recorded at the Animal Rights Conference and the International Animal Rights Conference, I’ve watched every single presentation on digital media and social media. No shade to the presenters, but not one of them mentioned accessibility. Why does this matter? Because a 2018 survey of Facebook users in 50 countries found that more than 30 percent of people report difficulty with at least one of the following: seeing, hearing, speaking, organizing thoughts, walking, or grasping with their hands. Worse still, non-inclusive content and experiences will push people away. And it’s not always easy to pinpoint when that’s happening. Excluded web visitors often don’t complain: 71 percent will just leave. So when I say that inclusivity should be a feature and not an afterthought, I’m looking out for you. Because I just don’t think that potentially losing more than a quarter of your audience is a win for ‘The Animals’ But you won’t hear that from many of my middle class, able-bodied white male colleagues. So when I say I’m probably better, thank those colleagues, that’s not a brag. That’s an example of what it means to be a better-informed and more objective authority on digital media. Like my friend Selena Caemawr (also a Black woman with disabilities) told me once, “When you make experiences more accessible for people with disabilities, you make them more accessible for everyone by default.” And wouldn’t it be great if we listened to more people like her?
Christopher Sebastian – Interview Crip HumAnimal by Geertrui Cazaux
Interviews Crip HumAnimal – I particularly welcome stories of disabled LGBTQIA+ vegans, BIPOC vegans, vegan women, or other oppressed and marginalised groups, to highlight their specific experiences and the interconnections of oppressions –