Three weeks ago today, I had the honor and pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk about intersectionality and animal rights to staff members at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights organization at the forefront of struggles for civil liberties and against state violence. Even before Blum v. Holder, I was a big fan of the CCR, and it’s not every day that human rights activists invite an animal advocate to school them on speciesism, so I really was thrilled to wander hallways bedecked with posters familiar to me, in their iconography, from my own days of immersion in social justice struggles.
And I was not at all surprised when the CCR staffers who attended the luncheon turned out to be both open-minded and open-hearted. (In contrast, I am surprised—no matter how often it happens—when people who work for social justice betray their own commitments to honesty, fairness, and critical inquiry by refusing to seriously think about nonhuman animals.)
I began by expressing my appreciation for CCR and commenting on the fabulousness of the free vegan lunch that the CCR’s Bertha Justice Institute provided. In every kind of activism I’ve done, I said, one precept that has always held true is: Bring food. Generosity is very nearly a universal human value. Most people appreciate that virtue and feel friendly toward those who behave generously.
But there’s also this fact: People are animals. Animals like to eat.
That brought me to the first thing I wanted to say: The “logic of domination” that elevates human over animal, male over female, and culture over nature also elevates mind over matter and reason over emotion. In other words, the same way of seeing the world that encourages us to see ourselves as superior to animals not only contributes to social injustice but also tends to estrange us from important aspects of our animal selves. Therefore, even though the process of confronting and challenging one’s own presumed privileges over animals (like any other process of challenging privilege) can be wrenching and deeply unpleasant, the process leads to a place of greater integrity and energy, as previously shunned aspects of oneself (such as emotions and embodiment) are reclaimed.
Mentioning the logic of domination brought me to my next major point: All of the most common ways of justifying human ownership, exploitation, and displacement of nonhuman animals are dangerous ways of thinking that lead, more or less directly, to social injustice:
- Might makes right—we can do it, so we may do it, regardless of who gets hurt
- God said we could (or should) enslave you and/or dispossess your of your homeland
- Those most closely genetically related to me are inherently special/superior/more worthy*
- Those with particular abilities may rightly subjugate, exploit, or discriminate against those who don’t happen to have those particular abilities
The ways of feeling and acting fostered by these ways of thinking also tend to contribute to social and environmental injustice: mindlessness, callousness, and a tendency not to see the injurious effects of one’s own behavior on others.
Unable to perceive those injuries, many leftists (if they are willing to talk about animals at all) want to debate “animal rights” in the abstract or to argue as if the identities of vegans had some bearing on the question. Many profess worry about some other people’s cultural practices or access to vegan food, as if this had any bearing on their own ethical reckoning. Some seem to sincerely feel that animal questions are entirely irrelevant to their own ethical reckoning—perhaps even so much so that it would be offensive to waste even a moment that might be devoted to people worrying about animals.**
So, taking a page from philosopher Lori Gruen‘s book. I invited the assembled CCR staffers to reflect on the relationships with animals that they are already in. I asked them to simply recognize that, if they are eating or wearing animals, those are relationships between themselves and those animals—relationships of dominance, exploitation, and violence. I asked them to consider whether being in violent relationships characterized by power and control is consistent with their values and also to think about whether the habits of belief and behavior associated with such exploitative relationships might be contributing to the problems they are trying to solve as human rights activists.
I also talked a bit about intersectionality, stressing that the failure to see intersections (including intersections with speciesism) can lead to incomplete analyses and therefore to ineffective or even counterproductive strategies. I closed by sharing my own experience, as a social justice activist who found that bringing animals into my sphere of concern not only enhanced my ability to think intersectionally but also led to better health, more energy, and greater peace of mind.
We then had a lively discussion that I cannot recap because I was too busy listening. thinking, and responding to take notes. I can say that, throughout the session, I felt that folks were actively listening and sincerely considering what I had to say. It was such a joy, for me, to be able to have such a conversation with people whose work I so admire. Rather than in any way resenting me for urging them to think differently, a few people actually thanked me.
But I’m the one who feels grateful: to Lauren Gazzola for organizing the event, to the Bertha Justice Institute for hosting it, and to the staff members at CCR who took time out from their busy days to listen to somebody tell them they need to think about things they maybe didn’t want to think about.
• • •
(*) This is different than simply caring more about, say, your brother than your third cousin twice removed or your neighbor more than someone halfway around the world. It’s only when we say that those who are more like us are inherently more worthy of care that the problem begins.
(**) Of course, it is speciesism that makes human problems seem self-evidently more worthy of concern than nonhuman problems. In other words, speciesism prevents people from questioning their speciesism. The tack I took in this talk offers a way around that impasse.