Should the YouTube Shooter's Veganism Be Considered Relevant?

by Sherry F. Colb

My latest Verdict column explores the recently enacted San Francisco fur ban and whether it makes sense, from an animal rights perspective. For this post, I want to consider a somewhat tangentially related matter, the shooting at YouTube headquarters. What unites the issue of fur bans with the recent shooting is that Nasim Najafi Aghdam, who shot and injured several (apparently randomly selected) YouTube employees last week before killing herself, was reportedly a vegan animal rights activist. Any perceived association between animal rights activism and violence is unwelcome and calls for some response from the vegan community. Though I do not speak for anyone other than myself, I am a vegan proponent of animal rights, so I will set out my own reactions to what happened.

It is worth noting, before I begin my response to the shooting, that white men who consume the bodies and products of animals on a regular basis perpetrate most of the violence in this country. Yet they feel no apparent need to come forward and--on behalf of white men--condemn the violence lest everyone regard white men with suspicion. White men enjoy the privilege of being considered as individuals. As a law student, my white male classmates probably never worried that if they said something stupid in class, everyone would assume that white males are unintelligent. As a woman, I did worry about embarrassing my gender, and my African American classmates likely felt similar worries with regard to race (or race and gender, in the case of African American women). Perhaps that is why the white men participated so much more frequently than the rest of us did. Like it or not, people tend to generalize about "others" in ways that can put minorities and women on the defensive. When a shooter appears to be Muslim (though Aghdam wasn't), perhaps because of her name, the public may likewise think (or confirm their existing view) that Muslims are violent terrorists, despite the fact that a large majority of extremist violence in this country (since 9/11) has come from right-wing extremist groups, which--given the content of their views--will virtually always be white and Christian.

So what about Aghdam's veganism and animal rights activism? Should I apologize for the shooting on behalf of ethical vegans everywhere? I think it was very sad and unfortunate, and I and every vegan I have ever met is opposed to such violence, but the shooting does not in any coherent way call into question the legitimacy or good faith of the vegan community. The shooter was reportedly upset about the way that YouTube was demonetizing her content, a process that may have made it difficult for her to get ad money for her various videos, including ones about veganism, animal cruelty, and bodybuilding. If this was her motive, then some might say that it was directly linked to veganism: she could not make a decent living from her vegan content, so she reacted with violence. Furthermore, argued at least one commenter on a friend's FaceBook post, both veganism and shooting people are "extreme," so it is perhaps not surprising that they went together.

In response to these two ideas, I would say the following. First, a true commitment to veganism would preclude attempting to kill or even injure random people at YouTube (or even the responsible parties at YouTube). Why? Because humans are animals. I do not mean that humans are filled with appetites or that humans are merciless or that they are in some other way "like" animals. Animals are not a metaphor for flawed humans; they are the category into which humans biologically fit. As Charles Darwin explained, we are related to other animals; we are not something separate from, or above, them. Shooting people--animals--who were not threatening the shooter's life was therefore a non-vegan act, just as all unnecessary violence against animals, human and nonhuman, is. In some sense, then, saying that a vegan shot people is as nonsensical as saying that a vegan ate pork or went hunting or fishing. Even if we want to say that she somehow remained vegan, the act in question represented a radical departure from veganism, not a reflection of it.

As to the claim about extremism, I suspect that many non-vegans would find it attractive. Yes, they might say, veganism is very "extreme," and so is a mass shooting. It therefore makes sense that the two would coincide. This sounds good, in much the way that it might sound good to say that Trump is a racist and Trump is attracted to his daughter, so racists must tend to be drawn to incestuous relationships. Maybe they are--incest, after all, is the logical conclusion of trying to avoid genetic mixing of all kinds (though cloning would work as well). But maybe they aren't. It may be that what is really going on is that we have "two things I don't like," and people assume that they tend to go together.

If we think clearly about the meanings of "extreme," we find that the assumption that underlies the "two extremes belong together" thinking does not work. First, the logic of considering both veganism and a mass shooting "extreme" is faulty. Veganism is "extreme," only in the sense that a small minority of the population practices veganism. Many more people--a third of the population--say, as of 2015, that animals should have the same rights as humans. A huge number of people, then, believe a proposition that morally requires veganism, as humans have the right not to be slaughtered and eaten or used involuntarily as egg and milk suppliers. But calling something "extreme," in this context, typically means "they do something I'm not willing to do." When we say that a mass shooting is extreme, by contrast, we mean that it represents a terrible crime and reflects a willingness to do horrible things. The Taliban and ISIS are extreme, in this sense, because of the outrages that they have perpetrated. There is no reason to think that two phenomena to which people attach the label "extreme," by which they mean two completely different things, would go together.

Second, in reality, the mass shooting in this case is atypical in a variety of ways. A woman carried it out, and women are rarely perpetrators of mass shootings in the United States. The woman was a person of color, and mass shooters here tend to be white. And the woman identified as a vegan and an animal rights activist, the only vegan animal rights activist--so far as I have heard--among the many perpetrators of mass shootings in this country's history. In other words, the two alleged "extremes" actually do not go together. Extremists--in the sense of those human animals who bring a firearm somewhere and attempt to kill fellow human animals--tend to be male and non-vegan. And by contrast to a vegan shooting at human animals, the notion of a non-vegan doing so makes more sense. Non-vegans, after all, necessarily embrace the use of violence (whether direct or funded) to get what they want, an animal-based meal or an outfit. A philosophy that allows violence against nonhuman animals "because I want steak" is far more amenable to shooting at people "because I want revenge/a whiter country/paradise" than is a philosophy that prohibits all unnecessary violence to all of the animals who feel and breathe on this Earth.

Notwithstanding the facts, there lives a stereotype about vegans, just as stereotypes afflict every group that does not stand at the center of power in the US. The stereotype is bimodal: it holds that vegans are crunchy granola hippies who regularly forget to bathe, AND it holds that vegans are violent and dangerous people. The first stereotype is annoying but relatively innocuous. The second, though irrational--as discussed above--is more harmful. Because of this stereotype, there is an astonishing federal law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which specifically targets animal activists who direct their actions (including trespass) at animal enterprises (such as animal farms and laboratories), a selectivity that seems to violate the content neutrality requirements of First Amendment doctrine.

Why not pass a law that protects everyone equally from terrorism? Are enterprises that abuse animals especially vulnerable? Are animal activists especially threatening? Though they are not, the stereotyped perception that animal activists are violent yielded a special federal law that singles them out. And if Trump and Congress could get away with it, I have no doubt that we would soon see a law directing special penalties for Islamic terrorism (as distinct from all other terrorism) as well. Such laws would and do not actually do anything helpful to protect people from terrorism. They instead serve an expressive function. They communicate the false belief, the "fake news," that animal rights activists and Muslims are dangerous terrorists. And if they are dangerous, then no one need look critically at our own culture of xenophobia, racism, and animal exploitation to find the roots of what motivates people to take a gun and head for the enemy.

Do I feel the need to apologize for the most recent mass shooting? I do, but not as a vegan or an animal rights activist. I am sorry as an American. I am sorry, because it is very sad that someone used a gun to injure four people and to kill herself. I am sorry too because our discussions will continue to ignore the impact of gun culture, xenophobia, racism, and toxic masculinity. We will instead be distracted by shiny objects like "she was a vegan and an animal rights activist," "he was a Muslim," or "he must have been suffering from a mental illness," while the NRA and its allies, including Trump, ensure that there will be more tragedies in this country's future, most carried out by white male Christians who consume the ruined bodies and secretions of tortured animals while admiring their beloved firearms.