I had a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan who told me that as a black woman, she hated the pseudo-acceptance offered to her by so many white liberals in that college town. She said she would rather they were honest with their hatred instead of smiling in her face and quietly locking their car doors when she passed them by. As a queer woman, I knew what she was talking about: when people offered me those fake bright smiles upon the discovery that my partner was a woman, I thought you know, why not be honest with me and grimace in disgust?
Six months later, my friend got a job at a social work agency in a small town about twenty miles from Ann Arbor; far enough away to be real, rural, Michigan. She was the only black woman there, and she very quickly got the kind of treatment she’d professed to prefer: outright racist comments and behaviors directed against her. Sitting at my kitchen table a couple of weeks into the job, she told me she wished they’d be more like the folks in Ann Arbor, hiding their feelings underneath a veneer of liberalism. I knew what she was talking about: when I was 19 years old, standing with some friends in a gay park one summer night, a car blew by and its inhabitants threw glass beer bottles at our heads. We ducked just in time to avoid serious injury.
Which was right? Which moment in time more fully captured our true feelings about oppression?
Both of them. It’s one kind of horrible to know people are lying to your face, and another kind to have them hate you to your face. And of course, neither one of us in our lives had ever dealt with the most horrific abuses leveled at our respective kinds down the millenia (and by that I mean multiple kinds: black, queer, Jewish, female).
That experience taught me much about the gradations of oppression, the degrees of abuse. It sparked ruminations that have continued for years; especially relevant given my involvement in what I feel is the penultimate of isms: speciesism. The fight for true animal liberation has activists at all points along a vast spectrum, from those who lobby politicians to those who free animals from cages in the middle of the night. Who is right? Which approach is the best, most effective one? Are small victories useful, or do they simply detract from our ultimate goal of total liberation for all species?
And so, I spend lots of time asking myself hard questions. For example, along the spectrum of devastation, where can one place the gaining of a couple of inches of cage space? Almost to the end, one might think. On the other hand, one might think of the actual life of an actual hen in a slightly larger cage and think well, this is a step for her.
As a person of Jewish descent, I would say that having someone beat the crap out of me on Easter would be better than having them perform vivisection upon me. Do we fight, though, for a world in which this kind of thing is the norm, simply because it is better than so many alternatives? Of course not. But do we accept the progression to a slightly less terrifying reality on our journey toward complete liberation? We surely do, if only because it gives us slightly more strength to keep going toward our ultimate goal.
And that leads to the one critical difference between the quest for liberation for humans and that for non-humans. The animals are not fighting this fight. A tiny sub-section of humans is fighting it for them. And so there is no way to ask the chickens, the cows, the sheep, if they would accept a morsel of freedom or if they would reject it with derision. We cannot argue with them night after night down the years, discussing strategy, hammering out ideological differences, making compromises or splitting off into separate factions. There is no way to know what they want.
Or is there? Can we not see the change in how chickens act, how they clearly feel, when the snow melts from outside the coop and they can see the grass again? They’ve spent most of the winter in a far smaller space than they usually roam, where they were fine but pretty cranky on the worst days, and suddenly they are free. And once they’re free, they’re thrilled with life as they aren’t in the middle of January. We can take this observation and extend it, apply it to life in an excruciatingly small space, compare it to life in a terribly small cage, and perhaps accept the extra couple of inches. We can imagine life in a stall, never stepping outside, never roaming the land we can see beyond the window, and compare it to a life spent being able to walk around in between appointments with the milking machine, and perhaps we accept the deal.
And yet when I reason in this fashion, I almost can’t tolerate it. Rage and grief enter my body and I can barely stomach the thought. It kills me when I hear about legislative victories that will take effect some years from now and will result in nothing more than giving billions of creatures a tiny shred of a better quality of life. I feel like Achilles racing the turtle in Zeno’s paradox. Here’s a good description of that: http://www.mathacademy.com/pr/prime/articles/zeno_tort/index.asp
The gist of the paradox is that because an infinite number of steps exist between any two points, it’s impossible to get from here to there because you cannot cross infinity. So how will we ever get to total liberation for all species if all we have to celebrate are infinitely small victories? My gut is straight-up aligned with abolitionism: true, pure, complete abolitionism, so such reasonings make me recoil; but I cannot escape the conclusions I reach, regardless.
My endless ruminations along these lines were reactivated by reading Animal Blawg’s latest entry about the Mind the Gap program begun by Whole Foods. Here’s a link to the entire post, including the comments (one of which I will discuss): http://animalblawg.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/minding-the-gap-program/
In a nutshell, Whole Foods implemented a 5-step program to rate food products according to the level of misery behind the animal products included in them. This program is lauded because, according to Animal Blawg, it brings more honesty to the labeling process, allowing people to purchase products based upon their own ethical beliefs. The hope, of course, is that it will make people think more intensely before they buy a five, perhaps deciding upon a three instead. And those two levels, in time, add up to lives saved and misery reduced. So from that perspective, it’s a good thing.
On the other hand, SBH Clay comments that this program does an egregious disservice to the cows, chickens, and other animals murdered in the “happy meat” industry, as well as those who are being used by that same industry for their eggs and milk. She notes that the most damning label of all is that of traitor: those who betray the human-identified “friends” who are not only exploited and murdered by their caretakers, but then slapped with a sticker to make people feel better about the agony they’ve endured. And from that perspective, the Mind the Gap program is nothing more than another way for humans to feel better about themselves for eating and drinking the offshoots of a profit-driven, torture-centered industry. And it’s not a good thing.
As usual, I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we will get from here to there. But if we don’t act as if we believe we will get there, using every ounce of strategy at our disposal from one extreme end to another and fighting the battle on every front – if we don’t use our time on this planet to push us even one inch farther to our uncompromising goal of total liberation – then we don’t deserve to be here.