Embracing Compassion Toward All: An Interview With Author Mark Hawthorne

Mark Hawthorne is an activist and the author of three books on animal rights and social justice: A Vegan Ethic: Embracing A Life Of Compassion Toward All; Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering; and Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, which empowers people around the world to get active for animals.

He stopped eating animals after an encounter with one of India’s many cows in 1992 and became an ethical vegan a decade later.

He blogs about activism at markhawthorne.com, and you’ll find him tweeting @markhawthorne.

We asked Mark about his new book and the growing interest in intersectionality.

IHE: What is a vegan ethic?

MH: On the surface, a vegan ethic is about avoiding foods, clothing, and other products made from nonhuman animals.

But I think it should also acknowledge the inequities that devalue and harm human animals. For example, vegans often pride themselves on abstaining from meat, dairy, eggs, and honey, believing that means their diet is “cruelty-free,” yet that’s not necessarily so.

They could still be consuming foods produced from human slavery or environmental destruction, for example.

So in a larger context, a vegan ethic means considering marginalized groups beyond nonhuman animals. Thinking holistically about how all forms of oppression interact can result in collaborative strategies for finding solutions, which benefits everyone.

IHE: For many years you worked pretty exclusively on animal protection issues. What led you to expand your lens to an intersectional approach?

MH: It was a combination of influences. I think the first was reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams about 10 years ago. It’s a very eye-opening examination of how the literal consumption of animals and the figurative consumption of women are connected.

That planted a seed, so to speak, so when I learned about other people in the movement who were connecting the dots between animal rights and other spheres of oppression, I was better prepared as an activist to understand how I fit into what they were talking about.

I was also fortunate to meet and spend a little time with the late Marti Kheel. Her life and her book Nature Ethics were a revelation.

All that built a foundation to help me realize that supporting non-vegan movements like Black Lives Matter, for instance, doesn’t take anything away from our work as animal rights advocates but actually enhances everyone’s work, like the rising tide that lifts all boats.

My wife, lauren Ornelas, has also been a big influence. Her powerful work through Food Empowerment Project is such an inspiration that I found myself examining how I approached veganism and what it means to live a genuinely “cruelty-free” life.

IHE: You researched quite a few global ethical issues. Which issue surprised or affected you most? With all your research, how did you track down credible sources?

MH: Researching and writing about sexual exploitation in any form always affects me deeply. I studied the sexual exploitation of nonhuman animals quite a bit for my second book, Bleating Hearts, and it was extremely painful. I briefly examine the sexual exploitation of humans in A Vegan Ethic, and it was equally troubling.

I try to find leading experts in whatever area I’m researching, and I read the most current peer-reviewed studies and reports I can find. If data is not up-to-date and accurate, there’s no point using it as a reference.

IHE: What are some of the changes you’ve made in your own life after writing this book?

MH: Writing the book forced me to look critically at the role of privilege in my life.

And I’m not just taking about white male privilege. I’m talking about other privileges I took for granted: English-speaking privilege, physical privilege, Internet privilege, geographic privilege, driving privilege, travel privilege, education privilege. The list goes on and on.

I still struggle with all the ramifications, and I’m still trying to figure out the most effective ways to be an ally, but I try to publicly acknowledge my privilege more.

Also, I’m reaching out more to friends and colleagues who are people of color, and I’m making an effort to amplify their voices through my own work.

Learning about the role of privilege in my life means having to face some difficult realities, and I admit I still have a lot to learn.

IHE: You talk about the importance of influencing systemic change. What are some of the strategies you suggest for doing so?

MH: Toxic attitudes such as sexism, racism, misogyny, homo and trans aggression, and speciesism are beliefs that we learn through social programming, which means we can unlearn them.

The first step is acknowledging these exist in the first place. Many of us are familiar with the role that recognizing speciesism has on us rejecting animal products and going vegan. But what about other social issues?

Right now, in the wake of the presidential election, there’s a lot of talk about racism and sexual harassment and bullying in this country, and there’s a lot of anger. A lot of vulnerable people woke up on November 9 feeling less safe than they did the day before.

This is a wake-up call for everyone who denies that social injustices exist and for everyone else to not let hate speech become normalized.

Unfortunately, a lot of children are scared about the future now. We need to be having some frank conversations with these kids.

These young people will become the next generation of community leaders, and it’s essential they understand the importance of facing these issues and addressing them head on.

In the same way we talk to kids about where a hamburger comes from, let’s not be afraid to talk to them about white privilege, racism, and sexism. Let’s teach them the power of standing up to bullies. Let’s raise them to be activists.

And let’s stop passing onto children harmful, culturally imposed stereotypes that make boys feel they can’t express emotion, for example, or make girls feel they’ll only be appreciated for their appearance.

IHE: In your book you talk about “single-issue activism” and the concerns that some organizations may have about addressing issues that they feel are outside their focus. Talk a bit about these issues and why they’re important.

MH: Many organizations ignore issues that are outside their stated mission, worrying they will lose the support of donors or feeling they just don’t want to get into issues they’re not familiar with.

But they don’t have to actively campaign for “other” issues to be an ally. They can begin to build solidarity by understanding that these issues—whether we’re talking about racism, sexism, speciesism, homo antagonism, classism, ableism, ageism, or whatever—are all connected.

They can extend their support to other groups.

Some organizations not only ignore other issues, they actively contribute to the problem by, say, using the objectification of women to advance the animal rights cause, or they engage in body shaming or use racist language to promote veganism.

This is classic single-issue thinking—focusing solely on the oppression of one marginalized community at the expense of another.

I am not suggesting that concentrating on a specific campaign or issue is necessarily bad. But when we do, we need to be clear that we’re not saying this form of oppression is unique or that other social injustices don’t deserve our attention.

IHE: Why do you think activists tend to be resistant to adopting an intersectional view?

MH: I think there are a number of reasons. For one, a lot of people believe they only have enough room in their heart to focus on one or maybe two issues that concern them; they have competing priorities.

They don’t realize that compassion is an infinite commodity that actually expands our hearts.

One of the unique problems with the animal rights movement is that we’re often resistant to embracing social justice movements focused on humans, because humans are the agents of oppression toward nonhuman animals—and our own privilege often blinds us to the benefits we enjoy that others do not.

So some of us have this built-in prejudice against people. But this is short-sighted, not only because not every human is guilty of animal exploitation but because rationing our compassion hurts us as well.

Also, we look at animals as beings who can’t speak out for themselves (though many animals do vocalize and fight back), while most humans can, so that makes our work for animals more arrogant in some ways.

We empathize with animals, recognizing that they are the only beings who do not oppress anyone else, yet are in turn oppressed by members of all non-vegan social justice groups.

Peace activist Andrea Smith suggests that some animal advocates develop the feeling that they are the ones being oppressed but not oppressing anyone else. Thinking this way hinders efforts to build solidarity, because it prevents us from engaging in meaningful alliances with other social justice movements.

IHE: What advice would you give to a vegan activist who wants to begin building coalitions?

MH: There’s so much we can do. To begin with, I would suggest following the work of people who are involved in issues beyond veganism and animal rights—people like Lauren Ornelas, Dr. Breeze Harper, Pattrice Jones, Aph Ko, Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Brenda Sanders, Carol J. Adams, and Dr. Lori Gruen.

These people all happen to be vegan advocates, but they also speak and write about racism, sexism, homo antagonism, environmental destruction, police brutality, human slavery, the prison industrial complex, body shaming, and so much more.

Watch their online presentations and attend their talks. Follow them on social media. Read their articles, interviews, and books. Financially support their work. You will learn a lot from these activists.

We should also resist the temptation to compare other forms of oppressions with speciesism. Even if there are similarities, making comparisons will likely alienate you, since every devalued group has its own unique set of needs.

And actually, whether we’re talking about animals, minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ community, or whoever, the discrimination and exploitation they suffer is so serious that it can stand on its own—there’s no need for us to say one group is like another as a way to gain sympathy.

Do not co-opt the message and work of another movement.

For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has worked hard to achieve its place on the social justice landscape. Don’t appropriate that by saying “All Lives Matter,” which actually sounds like you’re saying “Black Lives Don’t Matter.”

Try to get over your ego and listen to criticisms. Don’t take it personally when someone points out your privilege. It doesn’t mean you’re a villain, just that you have a set of unearned benefits.

Almost everyone has some type of privilege; it’s what we do with it that counts. Using it to support the oppressed is a great start.

IHE: You give some advice to help readers eliminate their excuses for making choices that cause harm. What’s the most important thing we can do to move beyond rationalizing our harmful choices and focus on doing the most good?

MH: Everyone is different—we’re all in our own place, we each have our own particular challenges, and there are so many forms of oppression—so I don’t know that one single suggestion would work for everyone.

But I believe that underlying many of our harmful decisions is our fear—fear of change, fear of the unknown, even fear of people different from ourselves.

I’m not saying that’s the reason for everything; making harmful choices is a complicated issue (people are also notoriously lazy, for instance, and as children we can pick up some pretty hateful ideas from adults that we hang on to as we grow older). But I think fear is an important factor to recognize.

As I explain in the book, each justification, defense, and rationalization you hold onto is a way to resist doing something that fear or habit tells you to avoid. We need to acknowledge these excuses and muster the discipline to move beyond them.