‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues from the perspective of students. Emily Schone takes a look at the bid to protect veganism against discrimination by raising it to the status of religion, and argues that this defends vegans but not their cause while veering close to censorship.
Veganism. For some, the word conjures up images of obscurely-spiced lattes – blue algae and oat milk, anyone? – and avocado roses; for others, it is the descriptor for an entire lifestyle, concerned with morality, not kale and freshly-milked almonds. I consider myself a ‘wannabe-vegan’ – i.e. a long-term vegetarian not quite in the position to transition overnight, but very determined to do so in the near future. Despite being relatively clued-up on the ethical framework behind the vegan lifestyle, it was still a bit of a shock to wake up one morning to a news headline relaying the sentence “Sacked vegan claims discrimination in landmark case”. The BBC article states: “a tribunal is to be asked to decide whether veganism is a ‘philosophical belief’ akin to a religion”. When it comes to veganism, I’m familiar with the sort of discrimination that takes place in the dark recesses of comment sections, not legal discrimination in the workplace. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I saw the word vegan in the news – and so, interest piqued, I read on.
To put this in context: Jordi Casamitjana (claimant) tells the BBC he was sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports after disclosing that it invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing. Casamitjana claims he informed management on making his discovery, got no response, and, when he started circulating the information amongst other employees he was told to pack his bags and leave. This is where the accusations of discrimination stem from. According to the article, a court hearing “will now decide if veganism should be protected in law”. It’s an interesting case, made more interesting still by the response from the company: they vehemently deny Casamitjana’s claims, insisting he was sacked as a result of “gross misconduct”, and linking “his dismissal with issues pertaining to veganism is factually wrong.” I personally struggle to pick up a pitchfork and defend Casamitjana – much as I’d like to join the vigilante backlash against charities investing their cash in dubious closed-door deals – as it strikes me that there is (as far as I know) no tangible evidence of this investment. My cynical side reminds me just how unlikely it is that an established and certified charity, one that focuses solely on the prevention of animal cruelty, would risk investing in a company that indulges in something that contradicts its core ethos. But then again, we live in a world where presidents say they’d date their own daughters and prime ministers drag exit deals out for years.
In many respects, who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t all that important – it’s the response that’s attracted so much public attention. The tribunal will determine whether veganism can be added to the list of nine ‘religions or beliefs’ protected under the 2010 Equality Act. In order to obtain this legal safety-net, veganism must meet a set of criteria:
- be a genuinely held belief
- be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
- be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available
It all sounds very promising. Veganism legally recognised as a philosophy, discrimination becoming a criminal act, cows frolicking gleefully in the meadows, safe in the knowledge that humans snapping pictures of their chia seed puddings will be protected in the office…
This is where I have a problem. I have no qualms with veganism being recognised as a philosophy (although personally, I think religion might be taking it a step too far…), as it is a set of beliefs that many dedicate their lives to promoting and protesting for. With this in mind, I’m not sure what purpose a legal label will serve the vegan movement: it protects humans from discrimination, but it doesn’t address the questions of cruelty and environmental wastage that underpin veganism. It doesn’t prevent animals being sent to the slaughterhouse. It doesn’t halt the deforestation taking place to clear a space for livestock farming. According to the article, Mr Casamitjana claims he has been discriminated against many times because of his vegan beliefs. He said: “It is important for all the vegans to know that if they want to talk about veganism, they are protected and no-one will say ‘Shut up’.” Noble as the idea is, the statement reads suspiciously like censorship. Yes, being made redundant for a belief is fundamentally wrong, and yes, people should have the same opportunities made available to them no matter their personal philosophy – but unless language itself is policed and anti-vegan discourse is banned (which is crossing into dangerous territory when it comes to free speech), that’s about it.
The whole question of veganism becoming a lawful philosophy is a fascinating one, and certainly not as clear-cut as it might initially appear. The employment tribunal against the League is scheduled for 13-14 March 2019, and further advances in the legal status of veganism will most likely be dependent on its outcome. Until then, I suppose all we can do is sip on our blue beverages, eat our avocado bouquets, and continue educating ourselves on the ethos behind what it is to be a vegan.