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Conjunction Junction (That’s Our Function)

This week, I’ll be speaking at Smith College on the subject of conjunctions among different forms of oppression and how we activists in various movements might better get together in pursuit of shared aims. That reminds me that I’ve forgotten to post the videos of two recent lectures, either or both of which you might want to watch if you won’t happen to be in Massachusetts on Thursday night.

Talking about the intersections among different forms of oppression can be tricky, and not just because we’ve been schooled to think about things in isolation from each other. Oftentimes, seeing an intersection means seeing your own culpability in somebody else’s calamity or owning up to some form of unearned privilege you didn’t even realize you had. That can be uncomfortable. And so, for example, animal advocates may be very happy to think about the intersections among speciesism and social injustice insofar as this might make other people take speciesism more seriously but a little less enthusiastic about interrogating their own culpability or privilege. Similarly, social and environmental justice activists may be very glad to see animal advocates step up as allies in specific struggles but reluctant to challenge themselves to think carefully about their own responsibilities in relation to what feel to them to be the less urgent problems of nonhuman animals.

There’s a kind of tautological irony here, of course: Speciesism feels like a lesser problem because of speciesism. Similarly, to many men in many movements, sexism feels like a petty or beside-the-point problem… because of sexism. And etc.

And thus, rhetorically, it is often useful to lead people to see the intersection from wherever they are already standing and then invite them to widen the sphere of their concern. Hence, these two lectures, in which I make many of the same points but from different angles—because the audiences were very different.

First up, my keynote address to the “Human Rights Are Animal Rights” conference held in Guelph last October. The audience here was heavily weighted towards students and activists, with the preponderance being animal rights or liberation activists. All could be presumed to be interested in the question of intersections, since they made the effort to come to the conference, and most could be presumed to already be committed to the struggle against speciesism or at least not hostile to the idea of animal liberation. And so, my task was mostly to speak as an animal advocate to other animal advocates about how a working knowledge of intersectionality will improve our efficacy as animal advocates—knowing that, if audience members took my prescriptions seriously, this would lead them to also become more sincere and steadfast opponents of social and environmental injustice.

[By the way, I was rushing toward the end there and may not have been clear. What I meant about seeing human rights as a type of animal rights is this:  As they are currently framed, “human rights” are exclusionary: human rights = things you deserve by virtue of being human = things that may rightfully be withheld from nonhumans. But if we remember that humans are a subset of animals and see human rights as a subset of animal rights, then the concept becomes something like “things that are vital to this kind of animal” and therefore opens the door to much-needed discussions about the diversity of desires both within and across species.]

The next weekend, in Baltimore, I spoke at the regular Sunday meeting of the Baltimore Ethical Society, an organization with a longstanding commitment to anti-racism and other social justice struggles. Since they had invited me to speak (after one of their members attended a previous lecture about the intersections between racism and speciesism), I knew that they as an organization weren’t hostile to my message. Still, with the exception of some vegan meet-up members who also attended, this was not a vegan or animal rights audience. And so, while talking about the very same intersections, I approached the topics from completely different angles, using sanctuary stories to invite audience members into empathy for farmed animals and then clearly explaining my understanding of how speciesism sets the stage for forms of violence and injustice they already oppose. In so doing, I spoke as someone who shares their heartfelt opposition to social injustice, creating a “we” feeling in the room that you might or might not be able to detect from hearing the audience’s reactions at various points.

Stay tuned… next up in our series of guest blog posts on intersections will be sociologist Nancy Heitzeg, who graciously consented to share the contents of a presentation that I was so excited to hear last spring. You won’t want to miss her explanation of how speciesism is “foundational” to other forms of oppression.

Oh, and speaking of Guelph, the second in what has become a series of conferences will be going on this weekend and will include talks by several of our friends, including Lori Gruen, Anastasia Yarborough, Breeze Harper, and Carol J. Adams. While I understand that the live web conference is now sold out, you may wish to connect with the organizers on Facebook in order to be notified when the recordings are made available.

3 comments to Conjunction Junction (That’s Our Function)

  • Patrice
    Brilliant. I am speechless. I wish I could be there. My hope is that someone listening will choose a life of compassion toward all beings. THANK YOU. x
  • CQ
    While I enjoyed listening to your Guelph presentation a few months ago, pattrice, this one for whatever reason moved me much more. Maybe because here, I knew you were reaching out to those who for the most part hadn’t yet thought through their complicity in suffering, in injustice, in exceptionalism, in ableism. So I was extra rooting for you to stir your audience from their deep slumber on the subject.

    I had never thought about ableism in connection with animals. So that portion of your speech opened up a new way to approach my own activism; thanks! :-)

    One thing I love about the way you present yourself is that you make very hard-hitting points in a way that is both totally honest and totally inoffensive. Where I a non-vegan in the ethical society audience, I would’ve come away feeling inspired to think deeper and do better. I wouldn’t have felt browbeaten nor inclined to rationalize and entrench myself even more in my animal-exploiting ways.

    All this is to say: You’re a natural at reaching both the head and the heart. And, as you point out, pattrice, all of us already have a natural affinity for animals within us. It simply needs to be rediscovered under the multiple layers of culturally applied suppression.

    Let us know how your Smith talk went. As a New England native and granddaughter of a Smith alum (and daughter and niece of Holyoke grads — hope you will speak there, too!), I’m especially interested to hear how receptive the students were.

    Final point: I’m glad I have a concept of God that has nothing to do with any of the

  • CQ
    Oops, to finish that final point: … a concept of God that has nothing to do with any of the descriptions we’ve all heard for rationalizing oppression of those we pretend are inferior to us.

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