John Tallent (36) lives in North Carolina and after working a couple of years in retail, is now graduating in applied sociology. I got to know John through their posts on the Facebook page Vegananarchist Memes: Breaking Leftist Speciesism. In this interview, John talks about their background, their path to veganism and current activism, and dealing with chronic pain and other issues, and identifying as disabled.
Other topics that come up are the importance of representation in activism and of the phrasing ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ in the definition of veganism, the need for building bridges between non-vegan lefties and single-issue animal rights activists and much more!
Hello John, you told me you grew up and live in North Carolina in the US? How is it living there? What do you do in life?
Thanks so much for the opportunity! I’m a big fan of Crip HumAnimal and your analyses. Well, I have a love/hate relationship with North Carolina. I grew up in a pretty isolating, rural town near Raleigh. The particular county I lived in had two billboards up until the 1970s that read, “Join and Support The United Klans of America Inc.” and also, “Help Fight Communism and Integration”. The billboards also featured pictures of a person in a KKK hood and cloak, carrying a burning cross, and riding a hooded horse. So, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other oppressions were everywhere. Since living on my own and going to college, I’ve moved to a more “liberal” area of the state and I’d say I’m pretty happy with it right now. North Carolina is a beautiful state. A few hours to the west are amazing mountains; a few hours to the east are gorgeous, uncrowded beaches. And my current town has a wonderful community of fellow vegans and Leftists. But, that’s not to overlook the entrenched oppressions that still take place in this state. It’s still the state of the so-called “bathroom bill” that sought to deny trans folks safe facilities; it’s still the state that forcibly sterilized thousands of Black folks for decades, and then attempted to deny reparations to them and their descendants; and it’s still the state that loves Trump.
After getting my undergraduate degree in Political Science ten years ago, I moved to my current town and started working in retail at Whole Foods. After working there for almost nine years, the pandemic hit and my disabilities ramped up. So, I decided the best option for me was to try to get into grad school somewhere and focus more on my social and political passions. At the moment, I’m in a master’s program and enjoying the fact that I don’t have rude, entitled customers yelling at me every day.
How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to become vegan? And how did you become involved in activism?
I got into political punk music in high school, especially bands like Anti-Flag and Propagandhi. I think Propagandhi had the biggest influence on my politics, as well as pushing me towards thinking about nonhuman animals. I always thought the band members were so cool for being radical and vegan, and I think at one point I told myself that one day I’d go vegan just like them.
In 2007, after thinking about these issues for a few years, I decided that I was going to “make myself” go vegetarian. So, I bought some Morningstar Farms chik’n patties and cooked up them up, made a sandwich with them, sat down at my bedroom computer, put my headphones on that were connected to the computer, and forced myself to watch the documentary Earthlings. It was rough. I had to pause it many times, burst into tears, process what I had seen, and then finish it. After it was over, I went vegetarian.
In 2011, near the end of my undergraduate program, I had been reading a lot about veganism. I was immersing myself in the writings of Gary Francione and Tom Regan, and then my partner and I decided to go vegan together. I don’t remember it that well, but I don’t think it was difficult for us. We just did it. So, I think it will be ten years being vegan this coming summer.
I suppose the majority of my activism is social media-based. I’ve been advocating for nonhuman animals on Facebook mostly, but recently I’ve also branched out to Twitter and Instagram. I think TikTok will be my next venue. For anyone reading this, if you’re not on TikTok, get on TikTok!
I’m not really the type to do a lot of in-person activism because of my disabilities. And I think there are a lot of mainstream activists pushing the narrative that in-person activism is the only valid form, but that’s ableist nonsense. For proof, just look at all the people that became vegan from social media. But, that’s not to put in-person activism down because it’s also extremely important work, for those who have the ability. I believe in demonstrations and educating people face-to-face, as well as confronting oppression directly when necessary.
You identify as disabled. Can you share your situation and how it influences your life? What are your specific challenges?
For my entire life, as far back as I can remember, I’ve been an anxious person. I did well in school when I was a kid, but every single day was a struggle because of anxiety. I remember getting stomach aches almost every day before getting on the bus. And it was that way even when I first got to college. But, it wasn’t until I started doing some reading online that I realized I’ve always had an anxiety disorder. I simply thought that I was just a shy person. I realized that my anxiety ultimately stems from a fear of embarrassment, which essentially controls most of what I do and have done all my life. I rarely talked in classes, never raised my hand, I didn’t protest when people wronged me in public, and I never went anywhere by myself. I always thought all eyes were on me, judging me, making fun of me. I finally had some therapy sessions in 2020 and was diagnosed with agoraphobia and depression.
I’ve also dealt with chronic abdominal pain for almost 20 years now from hernias. I’ve been to many doctors over the years and they can never help me because my hernias are probably too small to operate on. So, I’ve really just had to deal with the chronic pain of them after exercise or sitting too long.
Also in 2020, I was basically forced to resign from my job because of a newer disability that was happening. At first, I was getting these massive migraines, accompanied by dizziness and brain fog. I saw a few different kinds of doctors and none of them knew what was going on. A few months later, I started getting more dizzy, more brain fog, ear fullness in my right ear, and also pain and swelling in my neck on the same side. I had all kinds of tests done by an ear doctor, but he had no idea. I then saw a neurologist because I started getting spasms in my face that were scaring me. I had a lot of fear because my family has a history of multiple sclerosis. So, the doctor ordered an MRI for me. Luckily, that came back “normal”. A little while after that, my jaw started hurting. I went to a dentist and he told me that I could have TMJD (Temporomandibular joint dysfunction). I then saw an orthodontist, who then referred me to an oral surgeon. The oral surgeon did a bunch of x-rays, and he came to the conclusion that my pain and other symptoms could possibly be from TMJD that was the result of a misaligned jaw and also because I need braces. I was then fitted with a dental split to align my jaw for the time being. After a few months, I saw most of my symptoms decreasing in severity. Right now, I get some pain, brain fog, and dizziness sometimes, but it’s quite a bit better. Being broke and a college student at the moment, though, I don’t have the insurance and the thousands of dollars necessary to fully fix the root issues, my jaw and teeth.
I never thought of myself as disabled until a few years ago. Now, though, I fully embrace the label, as I believe it has given me a better perspective on many things in life. I became interested in disability justice when I realized that the difficulties I’ve had in life were mainly due to be disabled and not knowing it.
Ableism manifests itself on many levels. Many people might think of personal ableist attitudes, physical barriers or ableist communication in public spaces. It is however more than that. Ableism is also institutionalised. Can you give some examples of that and perhaps how it has affected you?
Yes, those are absolutely important symptoms of how ableism presents itself in everyday life for many people, but ableism is also an entire system of oppression. One big example is the fact that our entire capitalist system is built on the notion that the “best and the brightest” get ahead because they are “smarter” and “work harder”. That is a system built on assigning people moral worth based on their ability to work – and creating a Procrustean bed for everyone to either fit within (work hard) or starve.
Ableism is also an entire system of oppression. One big example is the fact that our entire capitalist system is built on the notion that the “best and the brightest” get ahead because they are “smarter” and “work harder”.John Tallent
Another big example, perhaps even the genesis of ableism and/or speciesism itself, is the way in which nonhuman animals are seen and treated by humans. One of the most enlightening and life-changing reads for me is that of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation by Sunaura Taylor. She talks about this to a greater extent, but nonhuman animals are essentially victims of human ableism. For instance, nonhuman animals are assigned lesser moral value than humans almost exclusively because most humans view them as less intelligent. So, humans have created an entire paradigm of using, consuming, and devaluing nonhuman animals strictly based on our perceptions of their abilities. I mean, how is that not ableism? Approximately two trillion nonhuman animals are killed every single year for food alone, in large part based on ableism. That’s ridiculous to think about.
You are now graduating in applied sociology. Does the dominant sociological scope pay any attention to relations between human and other animals? Is there any attention to critical animal studies – and the overlap with other fields like critical disability studies, race studies or feminist theory in your courses?
Yeah, I just started my first semester of grad school. I didn’t really expect to encounter any other vegans in my program, but the speciesism in some of the readings I’ve had to do has been pretty surprising. There is a lot of sociological work being done that focuses on speciesism and nonhuman animal-human relations, but it by no means is in the mainstream sociological spheres.
There is, however, some excellent work being done out there by sociologists within Critical Animal Studies (Dr. Richard Twine and Dr. Nik Taylor, to name a few). As for my courses so far, I don’t think there has been any inclusion of many critical approaches aside from a heavy focus on some of Karl Marx’s ideas. I try to throw nuggets of CAS, anarchism, queer theory, and other important ideas as much as I can. I’ve found that people are more receptive to it than one might think, at least in my program.
Why does ‘representation’ matter? What do you think of the representation of disabled persons in activism (in animal rights activism or in total liberation activism in general)?
Representation matters because everyone is different. There is no ideal “type” of human shape, color, gender, sexual orientation, age, or class. So, when we are inundated with images of thin, white, able-bodied, seemingly heterosexual and cisgender, wealthy, 18-30 year old folks as “examples” of what an activist/vegan should look like, it becomes a matter of injustice. Not only does it make individuals feel as though they are not “ideal,” but it also makes the rest of society think that marginalized folks are not “ideal.” It’s gross. And one thing that makes me roll my eyes instantly lately is the vegan bodybuilder trope where it seems like only super-muscular and able-bodied vegans are valid. The legitimacy of veganism does not rest on whether a plant-based diet can make you ripped or live beyond 100 years; it rests on whether or not it can help deliver on total liberation.
When we are inundated with images of thin, white, able-bodied, seemingly heterosexual and cisgender, wealthy, 18-30 year old folks as “examples” of what an activist/vegan should look like, it becomes a matter of injustice.John Tallent
There are some issues where disability rights and animal rights seem to collide. Two thorny issues are the use of medication (which involves animal experimentation) and the use of service or assistance animals by disabled persons. What is your stance on those issue?
Lots of people literally survive because of certain medications and the assistance of nonhuman animals. Not a single human on Earth lives a life that is completely free of the exploitation of humans or nonhuman animals. So, to say that people who have to use certain medications with gelatin in them or that have been tested on nonhuman animals, or that people who would not survive without the use of nonhuman animals for disability reasons, are somehow ethically different than the folks who don’t rely on those forms of exploitation is simply ableism. If you don’t have to use medications or nonhuman animals because of disability, here’s your gold star for privilege.
You run the popular Facebook page Vegananarchist Memes: Breaking Leftist Speciesism. Why did you start this page, and what issues do you address there?
Since becoming vegan, I’ve seen the hesitance and outright resistance to veganism and nonhuman animal liberation by most of the radical Left. They often engage in the same anti-science and illogical arguments that conservatives do about veganism , like, “Vegans don’t get enough protein,” “Animals are ‘stupid’,” “Plants feel pain,” and a billion other nonsensical ideas. They also derail our advocacy by insisting that vegans and/or veganism is “racist,” “anti-Indigenous,” “ableist,” “a mockery of ‘actual’ human problems,” and many other ways. It’s absolute garbage.
Most of the radical Left often engage in the same anti-science and illogical arguments that conservatives do about veganismJohn Tallent
So, I started the page back in like 2014 or so with a friend of mine. It was originally called just “Veganarchist Memes”, but we eventually stopped posting on it after about a year. I picked the page back up by myself, I think, in 2019 and I use it to try to force Leftists to confront their own oppressions. I’ve noticed that lots of Leftists, both nonvegan and vegan, don’t always see the connections between the oppression of nonhuman animals and humans. When they are presented with some of the connections, I hope that it is enlightening to them and makes them work on changing things for the better. That’s not to say that I’m perfect or that I don’t have my own shit to work on; I absolutely do. Institutional and personal oppression are things to constantly dismantle.
About your opinion piece last year: Dear Leftist Critics of Veganism. Veganism is not ableist or classist. What is the core message?
As vegans, we are constantly told by nonvegan Leftists that veganism is “ableist and classist,” but I often see vegans trying to avoid these charges by saying something like, “I’m only saying that those people that can go vegan should.” This type of argument makes me cringe. My take is that every single human on the planet that has moral agency can and should go vegan. Now, on the surface that kind of statement might seem problematic given the differences in ability, class, and access that some humans face. But, here’s something that most vegans do not try to enunciate in their vegan advocacy: 1) veganism is not a diet and 2) the definition of veganism includes the phrase, “as far as is possible and practicable.” This is extremely important. This definition shows that the practice of veganism may look different for individuals due to their different circumstances. So, if a person believes in nonhuman animal liberation and practices it to the best of their ability, they are vegan. I think a lot of vegans are terrified of acknowledging this because of the potential of nonvegans pretending to be vegan. But, that’s the case for every single ethical obligation you can think of.
Anyway, it’s important to acknowledge that the mainstream vegan movement is extremely problematic. However, that is to say very little about veganism itself. If we push the form of veganism I mentioned above, veganism is not problematic because it is inclusive to anyone who truly wishes to see a liberated world for everyone.
Some animal rights activists reject a total liberation stance and claim that ableism, racism, sexism and other -isms are human centred issues and distracting from their core and single focus: animal rights. What do you say to them?
By believing that, those people now have no argument against the nonvegan Leftists who believe nonhuman animal liberation is a distraction from human liberation. Liberation requires collective action on interconnecting issues. Speciesism is inherently connected to ableism, racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression; likewise, human oppression cannot be extricated from the oppression of nonhuman animals. Humans are often devalued and likened to nonhuman animals; nonhuman animals are devalued because they are assumed to be unlike humans. And, also, we can work toward several goals at once. These single-issue vegans are setting themselves up to lose against the crushing reality that nonhuman animals will never be fully liberated without liberating humans, and vice versa.
These single-issue vegans are setting themselves up to lose against the crushing reality that nonhuman animals will never be fully liberated without liberating humans, and vice versa.John Tallent
So on the one hand we have leftist who do fight against other oppressions (racism, sexism, ableism) but refuse to include animal rights into this equation. On the other hand there are many vegans or animal rights activists who don’t want to include the fight against other forms of oppression in their activism or even regard it as a distraction from the fight for animal rights.
How can we build bridges here?
Obviously we have an uphill battle in this area. I think the best way forward is to keep in mind the interconnected nature of all oppression, as well as the root of all oppression, which is domination. We have to engage with other social justice groups, and we have to bring them into the total liberationist praxis. We have to educate ourselves on the needs of all marginalized peoples, human and nonhuman animals. We also have to educate ourselves and others of the importance of critical thinking. Too often I see vegans engaging in pseudoscience and anti-science and fallacious argumentation. Newsflash: anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers are in a cult of anti-science.
Veganism is not ableist, elitist or classist. It is also not solely about food. Instead of these stereotypical associations, what should be the first thing that comes to mind when veganism is brought up?
The first thing that we should think about when veganism is brought up is dismantling speciesism, as far as is possible and practicable within our own lives. Not kale salads. Not losing weight. Not “clean-eating.” Not capitalist “vegan” companies. Not “cruelty-free” hygiene products. Veganism should instantly bring up images of anti-speciesist action and solidarity with all marginalized people. That other stuff is a marketing gimmick, and it is not rooted in social justice.
Is there anything else you would like to share here?
Let’s do the world a favor and unfollow and stop donating to the large mainstream nonhuman animal organizations and influencers.
Thanks so much for having me!
John Tallent – Interview Crip HumAnimal, by Geertrui Cazaux
Personal Twitter: http://twitter.com/john_the_vegan
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 –
Truly fascinating and descriptive.
The intersectional confluence of oppression is quite spot on.