Vegan Joshua Katcher on Animal Rights, Masculinity and Consumerism


Joshua Katcher launched The Discerning Brute in 2008 as a resource for “Fashion, Food & Etiquette for the Ethically Handsome Man”.

With a focus on sustainability, social justice and animal rights, Katcher deconstructs the mainstream understanding of masculinity and offers a vision of men that are protectors, defenders, and heroes for animals and the environment.

His lecture “Fashion & Animals: Decoding and Harnessing the Dialect of Fashion Culture to Help Animals” has taken Katcher to Paris, Boston, Parsons University in New York, and in June, Washington DC. He will be teaching a course on the subject in NYC this spring with Guilded, and at the American University of Paris in Spring of 2012.

Joshua is on the verge of launching his online men’s lifestyle store, Brave GentleMan, that will feature a highly curated selection of “Principled Attire & Smart Supplies”, including exclusive items and exciting collaborations with some of the most sought-after, high-quality artists and designers. His own line of sustainable, vegan menswear is in development and production. Katcher also launched the initiative, PINNACLE: Reinvent The Icon last year which provides a platform for fashion industry professionals to creatively express their opposition to the fur industry. Joshua lives in New York city where he is a video producer, artist, self-taught chef and a rescued Chihuahua named Enzo’s dad.

On top of all that, Joshua is smart, a good writer, a fan of Battlestar Galactica and nice enough to agree to an interview.

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Do you see vegan consumerism as the lesser of two evils, with your site being a way to channel destructive modern materialism in a less destructive direction? Or would you say that once someone goes the vegan fair trade route, consumerism becomes a positive thing and the more things they buy that fit vegan ethics, the better?

The former. It’s unfortunate that consumerism and materialism are so pervasive, but it’s also understandable why this is so; it’s sensually exciting, visually appealing, and it strokes our individual egos to think “this is made for me”. I believe that there isn’t anything wrong with the accumulation of objects that serve a function in a mostly-local model - even if that function is purely aesthetic. Even Prehistoric peoples accumulated objects - if they hadn’t, anthropologists would hardly have been able to discover anything about the way they lived.

That being said, there is a glaring difference between a throw-away, built-for-the-dump, cheap-crap, more-for-the-sake-of-more consumption pattern that is reinforced by our current culture (with dire consequences across a spectrum of concern beyond just animal cruelty), as opposed to a business model that takes into consideration how this product is affecting others at each step of the production process.

I include ecosystems and animals as “others” in this equation, as well as workers, laborers and “consumers”. Isn’t it scary that Americans are referred to as “consumers” now as opposed to “civilians” or “citizens”? I think that was an intentional distinction, and we could go on for hours about the problems inherent in a consumer culture. My biggest objection to a consumer economy is that mainstream economists are delusional. Our economic model functions on the false-assumption that infinite resources exist and infinite growth is possible, yet we can see and prove that this planet and it’s “resources” are finite.

My other major objections are that “natural” or “organic” or “fair trade” products are more expensive. This also speaks to the failure of our economic model to provide worth to well-being and cost to detriment. This is so backwards. Why should organic products have to be labeled ‘this isn’t toxic’? Imagine if it were the other way around and toxic crap had a label that said ‘this is toxic crap’? 

The third major objection I’ll highlight is that there is no accountability. Corporations function like a body with no brain. In a recent episode of This American Life, they discuss how criminal psychopaths share many traits with functional, and successful, business leaders. They are able to do terrible things on a massive scale without the effects of empathy or the consequences of accountability. Factory farming is the perfect example of this. Or sweatshops.

And then there is the cognitive dissonance that consumers have who give the benefit of the doubt to the businesses and assume that precautions are taken to ensure that things are in accordance with the values most of us share. I imagine they say to themselves, “If it really were that bad, they wouldn’t be selling it”, and then then business says “If people were really opposed to this, they wouldn’t be buying it”. They’ve got the blinders on, and are living in a perpetual state of infantile self-gratification, as David Orr suggests in Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse.

Like many of my approaches to activism, I see consumerism as a dialect through which to speak to the majority of people who wouldn’t necessarily seek out an academic paper on the failures of consumer capitalism. Ethical fashion is the Trojan Horse in which I hope some other messages can ride in on. I’ll never claim to be doing the flawless thing. My interest is not — and has never been — in puritanism, and I cannot deny that fashion culture has a huge influence on many people doing the most amounts of ecological damage, albeit unwittingly and irreverently.

Is it better to be a vegan shopper, giving money to companies that cater to vegans, than to be a freegan who attempts to have as little impact as possible?

Better in what sense? This is an incredibly complex question. In the sense of having as minimal impact as possible, the least amount of “new” stuff is better for everyone, without argument. Extracting resources always has an ecological cost. Unfortunately, there is a very inconvenient feature to the culture we live in now, and that is the magnification of influence on a global scale, and the appropriation of subculture aesthetics by mainstream businesses. I just saw on the news how Steven Tyler’s rooster feather hair extensions has resulted in such a huge demand for hair-feather extensions that the industry cannot keep up. This affects animals, regardless of where Mr. Tyler got his.

So my next question, as shallow as it sounds, would be about the freegan’s appeal to the mainstream culture. As we know, there is an incredible desire to consume and showcase subculture and authentic individuality in fashion, and what better place to get that inspiration than from an anarchist freegan? You can see the effects of this everywhere in fashion. In fact, it is rumored that the massive fox tail keychain trend is thanks to some freegans who ate roadkill and wore the tails of the roadkill as a symbol of having done so. Someone saw it and thought it looked cool, next thing you know, it’s on Gucci bags.

You can see a similar pattern with the aesthetics of indigenous peoples - the American Indian aesthetic has been totally exploited again and again in fashion, and is really big right now largely in part to Avatar. What is left out, of course, is the context of that aesthetic. As pack animals with a prehistoric legacy of egalitarianism (for the most part), historian Dr. Gwynne Dyer points out that we are driven by what the group is doing, and we seek peer approval. This aspect of our nature has been exploited massively by businesses. And the modern day translation? Keeping up with the Joneses. No subculture is safe from being appropriated, regardless of their intentions or earnestness. In this light, I can’t say one is better than the other. They are both doing good when held up against the current problems we face.

As a vegan, myself, I approach it by embracing the idea of influence magnification, in hopes that values associated with veganism will be magnified, by making sure that THE main features to magnify are appealing versions of social, environmental and ethical empathy. I think many activists who live in communities that are a bit more isolated have the freedom to reject all of mainstream culture. And it’s important to have functioning models that are more consistent like these, but it’s also crucial to have people participating within the mainstream culture who understand its dialects, trying to make change from within as well. I’ll always side with a multi-platform approach as opposed to saying one is good or bad.

Adam at the H.E.A.L.T.H. blog recently wrote an entry critiquing vegan consumerism. One of his points is that he believes vegan consumerism supports the system that he thinks is the true culprit in oppression — capitalism. He criticizes mainstream veganism for falling prey to “self-righteousness, identity politics, militancy, colonialism, classism, and privileged consumerism.” How would you respond to Adam’s objections?

Adam is very intelligent. I agree with his point that veganism is “a valuable means, but not an end.” In fact I agree with most of his points, set aside the popular “privilege” grievance. It would be amazing if Vandana Shiva’s “food democracy” would come to pass. However, I believe it is entirely possible to have visionary ideals like a food democracy, but to also compromise those ideals to an extent while working within the context of what the mainstream culture is doing in order to be relatable and influential. This is the biggest failure of modern activism - an inability to be relatable or appealing to the masses. This is a moot point, because if it were relatable and appealing to the everyone, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

There are millions of excuses and rationalizations for why the mainstream doesn’t do an about-face when the “truth” is readily available, but one sad aspect of this is that most activist organizations, as correct and earnest as their positions and critiques are, have an abhorrent PR approach and are so far removed from the aesthetics of popular culture - they so reject all of pop-culture - that they become almost invisible. This is why so many activists hate PETA and The HSUS. They compromise perfection for good PR and of course it’s not flawless - but that’s not the intention.

Getting rid of consumer capitalism would be the sane thing to do, but realistically, how can this be achieved given the circumstances we are faced with? Instead, I’d ask, what are the steps we can take to communicate these values in a way that people are attracted to? The extent to which we compromise our values is a personal choice which I have no interest in attempting to define for the sake of it not being a dictum or religious law.

I will point out that “‘falling prey to self-righteousness, identity politics, militancy, colonialism, classism, and privileged consumerism” sounds great in a doctoral defense or in an academic critique, but unless someone has a plan to get everyone to turn the system on its head, I think that “vegan consumerism” is a step in right direction, a “means, but not an end” as Adam says. I’ll also say, and I’ll probably take slack for saying it, that there are some activists who place an enormous amount of value on their counter-culture identities and academic debate skills (even more than the values they claim to stand for), and this sometimes forms a roadblock to embracing any mainstream change or adaptations of their values - therefore they must reject it because then they would no longer be counter-culture.

I also have a major problem with the “privilege” grievance. I think it has been disproven, considering the financial and resource costs associated with livestock. Feeding and watering livestock is more expensive a “luxury” than growing plants. The subsidies are the problem that Adam might want to point out. Furthermore, you can make the argument that good-health in general is a luxury - access to doctors in America and access to non-toxic communities and food are often exclusive. There is also the failure to recognize the value of desirability within Western culture (those doing the majority of animal product consumption). The appeal of luxury status can be an important tool while at the same time making affordable foods like rice and beans or fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc available. No one is expecting underprivileged people to wear furs and live on foie gras or caviar either, yet I could make the same claim that certain animal products have an exclusivity that is alluring.

Overall I think Adam makes great points that are worth considering.

You’ve said that you see veganism as a social justice issue. However, I often see vegans worrying more about the problems they face as vegans (not having enough vegan options, being ridiculed for their lifestyle, getting upset that ex-vegan celebrities are making vegans look bad) than they worry about the animals. This was obvious during the VegNews meat photo scandal — vegans were outraged that they had been salivating over animal products presented as vegan foods, and were almost ready to burn VegNews to the ground, even though the use of stock photos was not harming animals. In other words, veganism often seems to be about the vegans and not the animals. Are you able to avoid this trap?

You’ve pointed out a rift in the seemingly unified vegan community. Some people who identify as vegan approach it from a religious, puritanical perspective, as in, “How can I limit animal products in my life as much as possible at any cost?” While others approach it from a social justice perspective, as in, “What is the best thing with the most leverage that I can do to help animals?” Most, however, fall somewhere in between. That’s all I’ll say for fear of waking the giant.

In your interview with MindBodyGreen, you said, “I truly believe that in order to wear fur you have to be either ignorant or a sociopath. It is so incredibly cruel and unnecessary.” Would you say that this is true of all animal product consumption, or does this apply to fur in particular? Why should fur be singled out?

Fur should be singled out because of the cultural context. It is visually loud, and makes a bold and clear symbolic statement that is popularly accepted as “status, wealth, sex, power”, the things that most people are drawn to in mainstream culture. Its intention is to be seen. Something like wool or leather, on the other hand, is ubiquitous to point of being nearly invisible. Fur production is an issue that more people can relate to objectively. Silk worms are boiled alive, but it’s difficult for people to empathize with an animal that doesn’t cry out or make facial expressions similar to their own. This doesn’t mean that the suffering of an individual silk worm is invalid - to them as individuals it must be the most painful thing, indeed, and it kills them.

I think inter-species empathy is like a door. When it’s closed, it’s closed. But if you can get it to open, even a little, with someone who is easy to empathize with — someone who looks like your own dog or cat, someone who makes it clear that they are suffering — then it’s so much easier to take the next steps that might end up with an advanced sense of empathy for a silk worm, if not just the principal of acknowledging that a silk worm is a subject of perception, as David Abrams refers to entities, with a will to live and an ability to experience pain.

You said in an interview that veganism is a moral obligation, rather than a personal choice. What gives us this moral obligation?

It is not a personal choice because it isn’t just about “you and your desires”. Consider this analogy of a dog abuser. Imagine if an abuser said, “What I do to my dog is a personal choice. I respect that you don’t want to hit your dog, but don’t tell me I can’t hit mine”. The glaring flaw here is that the abuser has invalidated the dog’s interests and perspective.  When we talk about less familiar animals and the products they are turned into, it could only be a “personal choice issue” if they did not have a valid perspective. Science has proven that animals have a perspective, and complex emotional lives, to boot. In that sense, we have a moral obligation to this reality that they are subjects of perception who experience pain and suffering. Animals voice dissent of their treatment and we invalidate it in order to accommodate our pleasure.

I wouldn’t say veganism per se is a moral obligation so much as validating animals’ perspectives is.

In another interview, you said, “Some might argue that placing any limitations on the pursuit of pleasure, joy or fulfillment is a compromise, but what I’ve found is that when you indulge in anything - from a perfect cappuccino to a cozy and handsome coat, the pleasure is heightened in the knowledge that those things were created in an ethical manner, where more than just self or convenience is considered.”

But in the comments to one of your entries, you pointed out that it was impossible to be a perfect vegan, citing the ecological harm from mining coltan for computers as one reason that it was naive to think that someone could ever run a truly vegan magazine. Is the heightened pleasure that vegan products provide by not containing animal products somewhat of a delusion, given that most of our purchases harm animals and the environment whether they are vegan or not?

I think this ties into the earlier question about consumerism in general. What I am intending to say is that perfection is not a possibility. A vision of an ideal future is a possibility, though, and we can work towards that. The universe is both perfect and imperfect at once because there is nothing else by which to measure it. It is practical to take steps and work toward ideals. Coltan in the Congo is an enormous problem that our culture has yet to highlight in any real way. The African AIDS crisis is beyond critical. The mass extinction event we are experiencing now is another. Because we are pleasure-driven animals, it is important that part of these solutions are not just correct, but desirable and alluring.

As activists, it is our responsibility to make it alluring. It is also practical to consider that we are so far from a mass societal paradigm shift that small steps are simply seeds that are planted. They are showing people that there is a possibility to enjoy life and work while moving toward an ethical society. So no, it is not a delusion that products that are made more ethically can be more pleasurable.

In legal discourse, ignorance of the law is no excuse to break the law. But vegans tend to be more forgiving of animal users who are ignorant of the immorality of their purchases, compared to those who have been exposed to factory farm footage and keep eating meat or wearing fur anyway. Is it okay to be an animal user if you don’t know that it’s wrong?

I’m not sure the question can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Knowing something is wrong and thinking something is wrong are different. If you do not agree that it is wrong, then do you not “know” it is wrong? Wrongness is also not an absolute, it has to have context. For me, eating animals is wrong when a) I know that animals are individuals with their own interests who suffer emotionally and physically in food production, and b) I have other options to sustain myself healthfully. I don’t think there are many vegans who would say that if there’s no other option you should just starve to death. The distinction is, again, context. Civilization vs. Wild Nature. Doing something for survival changes the context and the relationship drastically. It doesn’t make it any better for the prey, but I believe survival is a defensible argument for killing wild animals when we are on a level playing field and there are not other options, but confining animals in factory farms or the like is indefensible.

I am not opposed to death, per se. I am not in denial of nature and predators and prey and the food web. But as human beings, for the most part, we have removed ourselves from many of the laws of natural order. Our niche is global, not local. And I believe that the choice is between a sustainable civilization which requires careful consideration of every action, or moving on to being with wild nature once again. But even within the context of a “return to nature” scenario, there is still the potential to consume an entirely plant-based diet like our ancestor, Ardi.

Part of carefully considering our actions to be a sustainable civilization is considering the impacts of our choices ethically and environmentally. Most of us in the developed world have the ability to choose what we eat, and the impacts of what we eat are vast. Americans make up 5 percent of the world population, but consume 26 percent of the world’s energy. Validating an animal as an individual who makes it clear (by crying out and struggling) that they do not want to be hurt, and having other options — but still choosing to confine, kill, and consume that animal — is not defensible. It is doable, quite clearly, but not defensible. The pleasure one experiences from the taste of animals only outweighs the suffering endured by the animals insofar as we invalidate the animals’ perspectives. If we truly validated them, most of us who are not socio or psychopathic would choose to eat something else.

You see a move toward veganism as an integral part of maintaining a sustainable civilization, with the alternative being a return of humans back to the wild. A lot of people who oppose vegan morality see that same dichotomy as well (though some of them would say that eventually even vegan civilization is unsustainable), but prefer a return to the wild or to a pastoral type of society with far fewer people. Why do you choose vegan civilization over a return to nature?

I don’t. I was born in this civilization, so I don’t really have a choice. Me personally “returning to nature” wouldn’t solve any problems, if my interest is bringing about large-scale change. This is not to invalidate those who do lead a pastoral life. It’s so important that there are people who still know how to grow food and start a fire, you know?

Again, it has to be a spectral approach. There is no one correct solution. And I doubt there would be a way to convince everyone from every country with a multitude of cherished beliefs to abandon those beliefs and civilization. We can’t even convince every nation to consider “democracy”, never mind a voluntary post-civilization pastoral life with a planned birthrate decrease. We can try to bring about a “soft landing”, as Derrick Jensen calls it, to the crash that many experts like Jared Diamond claim is coming one way or the other. On the other hand there is the green-technological utopian ideal where biomimicry, “lab-meat”, and a sophisticated approach to energy and food allows us to maintain many of the luxuries of civilization without damaging habitats faster than they can recover.

Of course this is all speculation and science fiction, but it’s important that we at least articulate a few versions of an ideal future to work toward. I mean, if you really want to get existential, the sun will envelop the Earth eventually so why bother, right? Unless, of course, we build a fleet of space ships and leave. I Imagine a pastoral people would not be capable of building those space ships, so if the preservation of our own species is the goal, a technological people would be better suited to take on that challenge however many millions of years down the road that is, if humans are able to last that long. But then what? It’s both terrifying and exciting to think about. These speculations have a million possibilities and avenues. I’ll leave the rest to the science fiction visionaries.

Getting back to the present, what I do know is that raising animals for food is usually cruel, usually unnecessary, and almost always terrible as far as habitat destruction and resource consumption are concerned. Human beings can thrive on a plant-based diet like many other animals and many of us can grow some of our own food instead of lawns if we wanted. Veganism is one of the few things we can do right now that takes on the most pressing problems at once in an easily manageable way (as opposed to convincing the world to tear down cities). If there is to be a compassionate future, veganism is a good place to start turning this ship in another direction. But no, it is not an end, and no, it is not flawless. Conversations like this one need to happen often, and an emphasis on remaining non-religious about it is paramount.

Would a future vegan civilization ultimately have to lead to a separatism between humans and other animals?

Not as far as I see it. There is always the interaction with animals on their terms, in their spaces, where we can interact. They are our fellow Earthlings, and we are animals just like them. It is amazing and awe-inspiring to see animals in their element. Nothing would stop us from interacting with them on a multitude of levels. Dogs, for instance, domesticated themselves by choosing to be around us, scavenging our scraps. They became our companions on their terms. Puppy mills and pure-breeds are a far and perverted cry from that, but I believe that having companions that are other Earthlings is crucial to our well-being, whether that is on a real physical level or a spiritual level.

We share this planet, and in that truth, we will always be coming face-to-face with other Earthlings, sometimes on our terms, sometimes on their terms. The crucial question is, will we continue to terrorize them and exploit them as mere resources or will we honor them as intelligent life forms worthy of our respect?


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