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Lunchtime with Litigants

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.

7 comments to Lunchtime with Litigants

  • I have loved VINE sanctuary for a long time, and this article just makes me love you more. I have read or heard hundreds of lectures about vegan values over the many years that I have been vegan and promoting vegan values, but this was the best by far. I expect I am going to memorize parts of it for my own use because it is just presented so well. Thank you!

    If you are ever in the Los Angeles area, I would love to meet you and show you around the little 1-acre farm we nurture at a high school for at-risk kids.

    All the best,
    Karen Snook
    Kindred Spirits Care Farm

  • Thanks for this! It’s great to hear stories where people are open and receptive to new ideas even when they challenge their current behaviour. It restores your faith in humanity and gives you optimism in what is an otherwise very difficult world to live in
  • Nancy
    Although there are some similarities between non human and human injustice,there are also important differences. I can understand this approach to further compassion for other species,but just as the nutrition, ovo lacto vegetarian and humane argument towards fostering compassion has backfired, this may also be the proverbial slippery slope. The plight of nonhuman animal slaves is unique and probably the fundamental lapse that allowed many of the injustices of homo sapien sapien towards each other to exist. We may have a world in which all human rights violations cease to exist,but this does not guarantee that other species will be accorded the same. We can have a world in which other species have their rights respected and I am almost certain that world is one in which human rights are respected as well. This does not mean that what humans do to each other is not horrific and I will continue to fight for human rights as well. What is happening in Ferguson is appalling and shows that the lives of people of color still mean nothing.
    One of the main difference is that human victims of injustice are STILL victimizing nonhuman animals. I cringe when I see refugees leaving their war torn homes with chickens hanging by their legs, or goats being driven with sticks. Then there is the “bushmeat” issue, Toro Jubilo, etc.
    When we as activist attempt to include nonhumans in our circle of compassion to those victimized the results are that the human victims have no compassion for the non human ones, they do not want in any way to be compared to an “animal.” I recall this vividly in my own “latino” community when protesting against cock fighting and the cows milk industry . “No me compare con un animal,” “Yo no soy una vaca.” “Es tradicion” Were standard responses. I also attempted to get the Holocaust Museum to include Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka in their collection. They absolutely refused and they looked at me as if I were untermenschen.
    The sheer number of nonhuman animal slaves dwarfs the human ones, the brutality and countless ways they are murdered is immeasurable compared to that of humans. For example when was the last time you saw the institutionalized repeated rape of female humans and kidnapping and killing of human neonates on a mass scale, such as in the animal secretion industry, or again the kidnapping of human neonates from their mother to be placed on milk replacer and living in lonely hutches. When have we seen human neonates ground up alive on a global scale? When are pregnant human women hoisted by one leg and eviscerated while their fetuses writhe on the killing floor getting stomped on. Also nonhuman animals are incapable of victimizing humans on an industrialized scale, but every human can victimize a nonhuman as they are considered “property.” For example thanksgiving, christmas, Kaporos, etc. There is also the issue of eco-murder. The myriad ways in which we murder other species has become the way we rape the planet. Cowspiracy: http://www.cowspiracy.com/
    For every human victim that is “trafficked” there are so many more nonhuman ones. As a matter of fact “trafficked” nonhuman slavery is standard practice in flesh/secretion based agriculture. For every human child murdered by a gunman, serial murder or pedophile there are so many more nonhuman ones. The major difference is that the human victims are getting some recourse, as ineffective as it seems to be,also most humans know this is wrong to do to another human. Not so with nonhuman animal slaves, humans can and do all of the above and more with impunity because of the institutionalized brutality. Everyday a death camp.
    So to compare the two as being an equal injustice,or see parallels is again doing an injustice to those who absolutely have none. To focus on racism in the nonhuman animal rights community as is fashionable to do now, is taking the onus off the nonhuman animals who suffer speciesism in ways we cannot imagine on a global scale. A woman may feel like a piece of meat but she has not gone through the horrific process. For women who eat the flesh and embryos of other females and drink their neonate’s milk to state this is almost a form of spiritual cannibalism and further objectifies the nonhuman female. Furthermore, to stress gender issues in human-nonhuman animal suffering minimizes the suffering of male nonhuman beings. As we all know, the nonhuman animal milk and embryo industry grinds up untold male newborn chicks and we all know the fate of male calves, goats and other milk slaves. Another issue is that certain species of terrestrial nonhuman animals(such as rabbits,ducks, sylvan beings) and aquatic nonhuman animals are ignored in all this comparison.
    Being both a woman and a “latina” I have been subjected to racial,class and gender bias-although not in the AR community. Being a vegan nonhuman animal rights activist who has documented the flesh/secretion/embryo agriculture industry for over many years, I can see the vast difference between my species’ circumstance and those of other species. The immense suffering on a global scale for nonhuman slaves is unprecedented in the human realm, no matter how horrific the situation is for a human, they can always have control and derision over their nonhuman animal slaves. As Isaac Bashevis Singer stated:
    “In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
    Ultimately the way we will acquire rights for other species, I think, is compassion for THEM, for THEIR suffering; to regard other species as having the inherent right to live their own lives and die their own deaths regardless of the parallels with human suffering.
  • pattrice
    Nancy, thanks for these thoughts. Notice that this way of talking to social justice activists is centered on speciesism and on the real effects of human activities on real animals. It’s the opposite of an abstract approach that would preclude looking at the important particularities of the different forms of oppression. There’s also nothing there — nothing at ALL — that suggests that animal suffering is only important because of its parallels to human suffering. I did not and never would suggest such a thing.

    This kind of objection comes up all the time, not just about animals, in discussions of intersectionality. People sometimes think that looking at intersections means that you are saying one kind of oppression is significant only because it intersects with some other form of oppression. But that’s not it at all. The whole point is to understand that the different forms of oppression are deeply linked and tend to function in ways that support each other. Doing so has two big payoffs: (1) Because we have a better understanding of the social and economic ecology in which the problem we are trying to solve is situated, we are able to come up with better strategies; and (2) When people who are interested in different problems see how they intersect, they are motivated to work together (or, at least, not to undermine each other).

    This isn’t about saying “it’s the same thing” or “specisism is problematic only because it hurts people.” This is about saying, “notice how your participation in animal exploitation is inconsistent with your support for social justice.”

    Of course, it would be lovely if people automatically had compassion and respect for nonhuman animals, regardless of any parallels or intersections. But, just telling people to have more compassion and respect generally doesn’t work. Why? As the footnote says, speciesism prevents people from being willing to challenge their own speciesism. So, it is necessary to in some way break the vicious cycle wherein speciesist thinking allows people to feel perfectly comfortable with their speciesism. One way to do that is to “unpack” speciesism, helping the listener to see what a dangerous way of thinking this is. This is just one way of doing that.

    But, most importantly, it’s a way of centering the discussion on animals by leading people to see, think about, and feel for the animals they personally hurt whenever they eat or wear animals. Notice that I drew attendees’ attention to the animals they may be in the habit of eating or wearing. Notice that I asked them to think about the relationship between themselves and those animals — a relationship of violence, domination, and exploitation.

    You mention several instances of trying, unsuccessfully, to get people concerned with social justice to think about animals. I understand that many animal advocates have had such negative experiences. That is why I shared this. My own experiences of talking to social justice activists about animals by way of intersectionality have mostly been fruitful. I’ve had even more success since including Lori Gruen’s habit of pointing out that audience members are already in relationships with animals… that’s another piece of the puzzle, drawing their attention to those relationships.

    My way of approaching the topic may not work for you. But, please, don’t mistake my meaning by thinking that I in any way subordinate animal liberation to social justice.

  • Billy
    Any recommendations for a “101” starting point on the aspect of embodiment you mentioned?
  • […] last week, pattrice jones [lowercase intentional] of the LGBTQ-run VINE Animal Sanctuary visited CCR for the second time, to lead a discussion about intersectionality and animals–i.e. how she came, after decades of […]

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