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Queering the Notion of “Human Rights”

This post is part of our 2015 Pride Drive.
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This is a recap of my part of VINE Sanctuary’s 2015 Left Forum panel entitled “Queering Animal Liberation, Animating Social Justice.” The basic idea of the panel was to not only demonstrate intersections between the aims of the LGBTQ and animal liberation movements but also to show how taking such intersections into account can enrich and enliven activism of all varieties.

Sebastian spoke first, from his perspective as a Black gay man who advocates for animals while simultaneously challenging hyper-masculinity within gay culture and white privilege within animal advocacy. Brandie spoke next, explaining how she sees veganism as a way of “decolonizing” her own “brown, fat, queer body.” I went last. Sebastian and Brandie have promised to provide recaps of their talks. Meantime, to kick off our 2015 Pride Drive, here’s a summary of what I said:

In addition to intersecting problems, it’s useful to think about intersecting solutions. Brandie mentioned one of those: Personal veganism as a means of decolonizing one’s own dietary desire while at the same time reducing one’s own ecological footprint. I want talk more broadly about the liberation of animal desire as an essential element of a fully intersectional struggle for fully restorative justice.

We’re in a sorry situation, beset by war, poverty, and climate change. In addition to horrific cruelties against our nonhuman kin, people perpetrate so many varieties of violence against each other.

All of this is rooted in and facilitated by ongoing suppression and diversion of our own animal desires. We’ve been tricked into wanting things, both material and relational, that go against our own desires and interests:

Even though we are social animals, biologically primed to value relationships above all else, we’ve been seduced by both advertisers and the broader capitalist culture of acquisition into devoting our days to chasing money to buy things.

Even though we are the kind of animal for whom non-reproductive sexualities of many varieties serve as a natural check on over-population, and even though the planet truly cannot sustain much more human population growth, we’ve been so seduced by patriarchal reprocentrism that even same-sex couples have begun to act as if having children were the central goal of adult life.

Even though we are the kind of animal for whom monogamy is only one of many possibilities and who have constructed families in a blooming profusion of ways, monogamous coupling sealed by a state-approved marriage certificate has come to be seen –even within LGBTQ communities– as the best and perhaps only natural way to construct families. (Add this to the socially constructed craving for commodities and you arrive at the destination wedding.)

And, even though we come into the world with a sense of wonder and fellow feeling for other animals, we’ve been tricked into desiring products made from their bodies and socialized into feeling not only a lack of compassion for them but also a positive feeling of superiority over them.

Like MIA, “sometimes I think sitting on trains.” On the train down to NYC today, I started thinking about an important book by historian David Roediger called The Wages of Whiteness. You should read it if you haven’t yet. In brief, Roediger traces the evolution of “white” racial identity within the U.S. working class, showing in often sickening detail how it came to be that a class of people were tricked into abandoning both their own economic interests and their sense of fellow feeling for African Americans in order to obtain the psychological “wages of whiteness” — a feeling of superiority over Black people that made it more tolerable to be subordinate to the economic elite.

Sebastian mentioned that, when teaching about speciesism, he sometimes asks classes to specify how it is that they are defining “person.” When was doing antiracist workshops and teaching classes about race, I often challenged groups to tell me what in the world they meant by “white.” After a protracted session of ruling out one definition after another, it turned out that there is no positive definition! There’s an emptiness at the heart of whiteness, which is defined by negation. White means “not Black” or, more broadly, not non-white (yes, there’s a tautology there too).

It occurred to me on the train that many people define “human” by means of a similar process of dubious distinction, similarly forgoing sincere fellow feeling for a fake feeling of superiority. To be human is to be “not an animal,” not one of those ostensibly lessor beings. And, for many people, that feeling of superiority does make other kinds of subordination feel more tolerable.

Which brings us to “human rights,” a notion that seems laudable until you wonder exactly what that might be. The privileges you obtain by virtue of being “not an animal”?

I want to “queer” the idea of human rights in two ways. First, I want to reorient the relationship of human rights to animal rights, and then I want to wobble the the very idea of rights.

I think that most people consider the relationship of human rights to animal rights as either a hierarchy or an opposition. Because of speciesism, most people walk around assuming that human rights are more important than animal rights. So, that’s human rights over animal rights. Many animal rights activists also, inadvertently, privilege human rights by deriving the very idea of animal rights from human rights.

Another common way of thinking about it is to oppose human rights against animal rights, as if more rights for one necessarily entailed fewer rights for the other. So, that’s human rights versus animal rights.


From left, Brandie, me, and Sebastian at VINE’s Left Forum panel on Queering Animal Liberation

But, if we’re going to think in terms of rights, then why not think of human rights as a subset of animal rights? Humans are animals. As particular kinds of animals, humans have particular interests that may be distinct from those of some other animals, in the same way that some of the interests of fish are distinct from the interests of birds. At the same time, all animals want and deserve some things, such as access to unpolluted water.

So, that might be a useful way of refuting the illusory contradiction between human and animal rights while also sparking more creative thinking about species-specific desires and entitlements.

But, for me at least, this also raises the persistent question of what “rights” might be and whether they really are what we mean when we are talking about the changes we seek.

There have been and continue to be strong challenges to the idea of “rights” from lots of different directions. To give just a couple of examples, the notion is deeply rooted in the individualist cultures of Europe and relies upon a network of prisons and armed government agents for enforcement. Is that the world we want?

Let me just say as an aside that right now our world is in fact girded by governments, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. In that context, “rights” can be a very useful tool, so I’m certainly not suggesting that we toss out the concept altogether, simply that we demote “rights” from being seen as the goal to being seen as one of many tactics that we might use sometimes, with the same caution as we use any other potentially dangerous power tool.

Because think about this: In Liberia right now are some chimps on an island, in danger of starvation. The U.S.-based multinational corporation that had used them as objects of biomedical research, choosing war-torn Liberia for their lab due to lack of enforceable regulations, had retired them to the island with a promise of permanent care but has recently announced the termination of that care. The Liberians who had been the paid caregivers of the chimps have been donating their time and scrimping together what little they can find to feed the chimps, about whom they are desperately worried.

Everybody agrees, I think, that this is an awful outcome. Ask yourself this: Is the problem that somebody’s rights have been violated? Or is the problem a much deeper betrayal of relationships?

And let’s think about those relationships as they reverberate outward. It’s not only the chimps (already injured and now also facing starvation) but also their caregivers (so worried about the chimps while also coping with the loss of their own paychecks) and even local farmers (who may have planned their plantings on the presumption that they would be selling fruits and vegetables to be fed to the chimps). So, a whole web of relationships has been shaken by the callous decision of a for-profit corporation.

Those relationships, that callousness, will not be fixed by recourse to “rights.”

Which brings us to restorative justice, which at heart is about the repair of relationships in the wake of a violation. I’d like to see us widen the concept of restorative justice to include relationships of all kinds (including ecosystems) and see if that doesn’t get us closer to where we want to be than the notion of “rights.”

In closing, I’ll just say that we’ll be a lot better able to do that and other creative work if we quit distancing ourselves from our own animality, tapping into our own deep desires for right relationships.

This post is part of our 2015 Pride Drive.
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