This is a draft for the Animal Rights and Social Justice piece of our Conservation Activism Manifiesto please take a look at the text and the questions at the bottom and let us know if you have any comments.
Intersectionality is a theoretical framework used by social justice movements which recognizes that oppression operates as “a system in which any given variety of marginalization is dependent on an entire network of interrelated biases and privileges”; however, nonhuman animals are not only left out of this framework but tend to be further marginalized within it by social justice groups (Hardy, 2015; p 188). The inclusion of nonhuman animals in intersectional discourses is important to fully expose and dismantle the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal hierarchy that underlies all oppressions against both humans and nonhumans, in order to create a truly collaborative activist network.
One of the most visible ways that social justice movements exclude and devalue nonhuman animals is using examples of “dehumanization” to critique oppressions against humans (Hardy, 2015). Hardy (2015) describes dehumanization as the “denial of full humanity to members of the particular group(s) at issue” (p 189) which inherently reinforces a hierarchy that places “humanity” above all else. This hierarchical system has been a part of Western thought since the days of ancient Greek philosophers but was really entrenched through the Biblical notion of the Great Chain of Being which placed white men at the top of the chain, nonhuman animals at the bottom, and a gradual hierarchy of races and genders between them (Kim, 2015). This positions nonhuman animals as “the ultimate other” (Taylor, 2011; p 195) unworthy of moral consideration, and thus the animalization of groups of humans justifies acts of extreme violence against them (Kim, 2015).
The distinction between human and nonhuman is not entirely dichotomous, however, and marginalized human groups have been placed in a human-animal “borderlands” to ensure their continued oppression, or as Kim (2015) aptly surmises they “were never seen as fully human to begin with” (p 24). For example, white colonialists placed Black people in the borderlands between man and ape, and used this as justification for slavery (Kim, 2015). The ideology that certain human beings are more deserving of rights than others created a “taxonomy of power” that exists among nonhuman animals as well (Kim, 2015). Nonhuman animals that express the most human qualities are granted the most consideration or even rights, as is the case the with Great Ape Project which pushes for legal personhood for apes (Corman, 2016). Advocacy work of social justice groups that operate strictly within the parameters of these taxonomies of power are further entrenching this harmful hierarchical ideology by suggesting that groups should be striving to be included in and gain recognition from a society with a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal worldview. Relying on this hierarchy and ignoring the plight of an entire oppressed group (nonhuman animals) to bring attention to the intersections of oppressions faced by humans undermines the pursuit of social justice.
It is worth noting that animal advocacy groups could also benefit from self-reflection to ascertain how or if they reinforce taxonomies of power and Western ideologies. A common phrase for animal advocacy groups is to be the “voice of the voiceless” which insinuates that nonhuman animals do not have physical or political voices and supports the cultural assumption that animals are “mute” or “dumb” and need human intervention to express themselves (Corman, 2016; p 482). Corman (2016) refers to a speech by pattrice jones in which she asserts that this kind of language “superficially appears benevolent but perhaps, in a deeper sense, points to both latent arrogance and paternalism” (p 488) because animal advocates feel that they know and accurately represent the needs of subjects who have not necessarily been consulted in any capacity. Even within movements that are fighting for the recognition of animal subjectivity in society, that subjectivity and agency is usurped by a colonialist saviour rhetoric that erases the very voices they purport to represent.
This kind of self-congratulatory language among animal advocates can also be harmful to marginalized groups of humans. Lauren Ornelas (2016) argues that the term “cruelty free” used to describe foods that do not contain animal products can ignore the harsh, abusive conditions many human workers or slaves endure to produce that food. This blatant disregard of human social justice issues, or demonization of people who do not have the means to follow a vegan diet due to finances, education or community infrastructure, reflects privilege and often goes unquestioned in white supremacist, Western cultures. For some people, such as Indigenous peoples in Canada, the systemic oppression which has led to the attempted erasure of their culture and conditions of extreme poverty have shaped how they engage with the concept of veganism, viewing it as “classist, elitist, certainly White food” (Corman&Robinson, n.d.; p 234). Approaching an issue like veganism from a narrow perspective that does not take into account the intersectionality of oppressions faced by those involved in the production of food or those with barriers to access that food negates the possibility of constructive collaboration. Another manifestation of this is the vegan-washing of the Israeli state where veganism and animal rights, which had typically been leftist ideology in Israel that opposed the oppression of both human and animals, has been co-opted by the mainstream, right-wing government to promote Israel as a progressive, compassionate country while disregarding the continual occupation and human-rights violations of Palestinian people (Weiss, 2016).
A way to address this would be to approach issues with a multi-optic vision, “a way of seeing that takes disparate justice claims seriously without privileging any one presumptively” (Kim, 2015; p 19), to get a holistic sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of issues. Removing the prioritization of specific social justice issues that cause contention between different advocates would leave space for alliances that will “better understand social phenomena and [..] build long-term strategies for change – solutions that simultaneously aim to reduce human and nonhuman animal suffering alike” (Broad, 2013; p 781). Multi-optic vision also encourages respectful representation of other world views and ontologies that will de-center the white, heteropatriarchal perspectives of social justice discourses while allowing for critique of commonalities of domination in various cultures (Kim, 2015). This also makes space for the possibility of new traditions, the development of dynamic cultures that grow from a place of mutual avowal. Robinson (n.d.) speaks about a modern Indigeneity that embraces veganism not as a sign of assimilation into or acceptance of a white, heteropatriarchal culture but as an ideology that works within her own Mi’kmaq cultural framework.
Bringing nonhuman animals into intersectional analyses coupled with the recognition of human social justice issues that exist within and alongside those nonhuman animal issues will open avenues for movements to work in tandem, thus promoting and strengthening all movements. Acknowledging that animals’ political voices do not have to be audible to be valid will bolster the voices of other marginalized and silenced groups (Corman, 2016). It can shift the narrative away from that of victimization both by resisting speaking for or over marginalized groups and by avoiding a reliance on existing hierarchies that advance one movement at the expense of another.
Taylor (2011), when speaking about disability studies, calls for “not self-sufficiency but self-determination, not independence but interdependence, not functional separateness but personal connection, not physical autonomy but human community” (p 197) as a way to create a just and inclusive society. While this is particularly relevant and applicable to nonhuman animals whose dependence on humans often is used as justification for their exploitation (Taylor, 2011), I think it is applicable to the entirety of the intersectional framework of social justice movements as well. Advocates and organizations that ignore or deny the importance of intersectional analyses operate from a place of separateness that is also not functional in that it is alienating to other social justice movements. Unfortunately, it is this mode of separation, often to the point of denying the importance or existence of other social justice issues, that is often promoted by large organizations with the most political influence and media presence, which leads to it becoming mainstream discourse (Broad, 2013). Working instead from a model that recognizes the intersections of oppressions and therefore the interconnectedness of solutions will enlighten all social justice movements to the to need to work collaboratively, to form connections and community so they may fully realize their individual goals.
Broad, G. (2013). Vegans for Vick: Dogfighting, intersectional politics, and the limits of
mainstream discourse. International Journal of Communication, 7, 780-800.
Corman, L. (2016). The ventriloquist’s burden: Animal advocacy and the problem of
speaking for others. In J. Castricano & L. Corman’s (Eds.), Animal Subjects 2.0 (pp. 473-
512). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Corman, L. [Interviewer] & M. Robinson [Interviewee.] All my Relations: Interview
with Margaret Robinson. In J. Castricano & L. Corman’s (Eds.), Animal Subjects 2.0 (pp.
229-247). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Hardy, K. (2015). Cows, pigs and whales: Nonhuman animals, antifat bias, and
exceptionalist logics. In R. Chastain (Ed.) The politics of size: Perspectives from the fat
acceptance movement (pp. 187-206). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Kim, C.J. (2015). Chapter 1: Impassioned disputes. In Dangerous crossings: Race,
species, and nature in a multicultural age. New York, NY: Cambridge University
Ornelas, L. (2016, May 23). Lauren Ornelas: Food Justice – Farm Workers Rights, Human Rights
Abuses, and Food Access Issues. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgxpNWVKqG0
Taylor, S. (2011). Beasts of Burden: Disabilities Studies and Animal Rights. Qui
Parle, 19(2), 191-222.
Weiss, E. (2016). ‘There are no chickens in suicide vests’: the decoupling of human rights and
animal rights in Israel. Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute, (3), 688. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12453
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