AR Philosophy > Debating AR

by Dr. Steven Best
art/Eric Spitler

The eyes of the world were transfixed on the fiery ruins of the World Trade Center collapsing into rubble, as thousands of people were dead or dying. Meanwhile, in an average slaughterhouse, far more pigs, chickens, turkeys, or cattle were killed that same moment in other terrorist acts. One act of terrorism was extraordinary, illegal, and immoral while the other was routine, legal, and perfectly acceptable to the minds of most people. 9-11 was a tragedy of the first order, and received nonstop media coverage, but every second is a 9-11 attack on the animals, an assault that transpires under the cover of indifference and unfolds in a far more prolonged, torturous, and barbaric manner.

Dare one make a comparison between human and animal suffering? Few things raise the hackles of some people more than drawing analogies between factory farms and concentration camps. In a letter to Vegan Voice, Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, compared the human and animal holocausts of 9-11. She was immediately tarred and feathered, and her infamy even earned her an interview on the Howard Stern show. With Karen Davis and others, I am who dares to say suffering of human and nonhuman species is comparable in terms of the attention and response it should merit. We stand in good company for, as documented in Charles Patterson's powerful book, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, many survivors of the Holocaust and people of Jewish descent see common roots in the mass killing of animals and Nazi genocide. As Theodor Adorno says, "Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals."

A Multiperspectival Theory of Power

It is important to grasp the similarities and differences among various modes of oppression for both theoretical and political reasons. This understanding is the basis of a multiperspectival theory of power and a politics of alliance. A diverse and comprehensive theory of power is necessary for a politics of liberation, for alliances cannot be formed without understanding how different modes of power overlap and converge, affecting and implicating more than one group. Power systems often invoke multiple ideologies to oppress any one group, as capitalism has used racism and sexism as tools to divide and conquer the working class. Indeed, an abstract term like "the working class" masks the heterogeneity of people that comprise it and the various modes of power they suffer and resist. Consequently, domination and injustice need to be resisted from numerous angles simultaneously. Power is diverse, complex, and interlocking, and it cannot be adequately illuminated from the standpoint of any one group or concern. Similarly, no single group can achieve liberation on its own or, certainly, emancipate other oppressed communities.

The mindset and institutions of power, violence, exploitation, domination, and discrimination spring from numerous phenomena such as the emergence and elaboration of hierarchical systems, the bureaucratic needs of the state, aversion to difference and otherness (the basis of racism and xenophobia), and the wanton sacrifice of all living beings to the alter of profit. Power and domination are not only political and economic phenomena, since they also have an important psychological component. A distinct human pathology, for instance, is contempt for nature (what Jim Mason coins "misothery" in his superb book, An Unnatural Order: Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other), including the earth, animals, and our own bodies, the object of much fear and loathing. Moreover, power systems require legitimating ideologies, as capitalism thrives on the belief that human beings are inherently competitive. Similarly, current carnivorous practices are sustained by the mythologies that human beings are flesh-eaters by nature, that God intended us to eat animals, and that all life forms quite naturally kill other life forms.

The origins of domination and oppression are shrouded in prehistory, but many theorists have attempted to bring them to light. This is certainly a risky, speculative, and controversial enterprise. For example, did the domination of nature lead to the domination of human beings, as many Marxists argue, or did the domination of human beings lead to the domination of nature, as claimed by social ecologist Murray Bookchin? Some theorists attempt to reduce all modes of oppression to one, such as gender, race, or class, which they privilege as the font of power from which all others spring. Most notoriously, classical Marxists subsumed all struggles to class. Other social concerns such as patriarchy and racism were reduced to "questions," dismissed as divisive, and to be postponed to post-revolutionary society where allegedly they would be moot anyway.

The resurfacing of bureaucracies, nationalism, sexism, and racism in "existing socialist societies" refuted this Procrustean outlook. Marxist feminists and race theorists, for instance, observed that the hierarchical class logic of capitalism only needs an empty space to exploit laborers, but that the logic of patriarchy and racism dictates who will fill the lowest slots. But some feminists and race theorists privilege their mode of oppression as primordial. Radical feminists claim that patriarchy is the fundamental hierarchy in history, and some ecofeminists invert the patriarchal hierarchy to champion women by nature as superior to men.

I think the best approach is to advance a multiperspectival approach that sees both what is similar among various modes of oppression and what is specific to each. There are a plurality of modes and mechanisms of power that have evolved throughout history, and different accounts provide different insights into the workings of power and domination. According to feminist standpoint theory, each oppressed group has an important perspective or insight into the nature of society. People of color, for instance, can illuminate colonialism and the pathology of racism, while women can reveal the logic of patriarchy that has buttressed so many different modes of social power throughout history. While animals cannot speak about their sufferings, it is only from the standpoint of animal exploitation that we can grasp the nature of speciesism, glean key facets of the pathology of human violence, and illuminate important aspects of misothery and the social and environmental crisis society now faces.

Understanding the intimate relationship between human and animal oppression blocks the tired objection voiced to those who express concern for animals, "But what about human suffering?" Whether they realize it or not, activists who promote veganism and animal rights are ipso facto engaging a vast complex of problems in the human world. For when human beings are violent to animals, they are violent toward one another; when they instrumentalize animals as mere resources for their own consumption, they stunt their own psychological growth and capacities for compassion; when they destroy the habitat of animals, they impair the ecological systems they too require; and when they slaughter animals for food, they exacerbate the problem of world hunger, they compound the environmental crisis in a myriad of ways, and they devastate their own health and drain human resource budgets.

In her compelling book "The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery", Marjorie Spiegel shows that the exploitation of animals provided a model, metaphors, and technologies and practices for the dehumanization and enslavement of blacks. From castration and chaining to branding and ear cropping, whites drew on a long history of subjugating animals to oppress blacks. Once perceived as beasts, blacks were treated accordingly. In addition, by denigrating people of color as "beasts of burden," an animal metaphor and exploitative tradition facilitated and legitimated the institution of slavery. The denigration of any people as a type of animal is a prelude to violence and genocide. Many anthropologists believe that the cruel forms of domesticating animals at the dawn of agricultural society ten thousand years ago created the conceptual model for hierarchy, statism, and the exploitation treatment of other human beings, as they implanted violence into the heart of human culture. From this perspective, slavery and the sexual subjugation of women is but the extension of animal domestication to humans. Patterson, Mason, and numerous other writers concur that the exploitation of animals is central to understanding the cause and solution to the crisis haunting the human community and its troubled relationship to the natural world.

The Logic of Discrimination and Moral Evolution

When we compare speciesism to classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of discrimination, we see they share a similar logic. In each case, there is a rigid dualism established between different groups (e.g., whites vs. people of color, men vs. women, humans vs. animals) that denies their commonality. But these dualisms are not innocent, and the distinctions are arranged in a hierarchy that privileges one group as superior and denigrates the other as inferior. As every power system has a justification, dualistic hierarchies are the theory for the practice of the domination and exploitation of marginalized groups. Every power system involves the category of the Other to posit violations to the norms that are privileged and protected. But, in every case of oppression, the alibi of power is arbitrary and rooted in bias and prejudice rather than a defensible rational standpoint.

In classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and speciesism, we therefore find the same ploys of power involving the logic and structures of exclusion. No matter what group it targets, prejudice is prejudice and needs to be extirpated by an enlightened society. Just as no democracy worth its name can work only for the economic elite, whites, men, or heterosexuals, it is equally true that the great "world house" envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cannot consistently contain speciesism and the vast industries of killing animals for food, sport, experimentation, or entertainment.

The great moral learning process of human evolution involves ever more people understanding that while differences between humans and among species certainly exist, the similarities are more morally significant. Factual differences, in other words, have no moral relevance in assigning which group has rights and which group does not. Alleged human traits of intellectual and linguistic superiority over animals are no more relevant than appeals to gender, skin color, or sexual preference within the human community.

The commonalities of oppression help us to narrate the history of human moral consciousness, and to map the emergence of moral progress in our culture. This trajectory can be traced through the gradual universalization of rights. By grasping the similarities of experience and oppression, we gain insight into the nature of power, we discern the expansive boundaries of the moral community, and we acquire a new vision of progress and civilization, one based upon ecological and non-speciesist principles and universal justice.

Rethinking Community

Enlightened thinkers such as Dr. Albert Schweitzer and ecologist Aldo Leopold have worked to broaden the notion of community to include animals and the land. If we consider the meaning of "community," we see that it entails mutual interdependence of living beings in a context of shared norms and expectations, held together by values of reciprocity and respect. Schweitzer and Leopold expand the definition of community to encompass animals, and some deep ecologists include the earth in all its aspects, such that it becomes evident our true community is not our town, our city, our state, our nation, or even the globe, but rather the entire planet. Our real community, in a word, is the biocommunity, the community of all living beings and the nonliving things that sustain life.

One may wonder how animals and the earth itself-every rock, river, tree, and grain of sand-can count as a valid definitional aspect of "community." One need not resort to mysticism to grasp this vast systemic interdependence, as the answer lies squarely within the domain of the science of ecology. No one truly is independent; rather we are all dependent on one another for the benefits we enjoy in society. Not only are we dependent on fellow human beings for our lives, we are also, quite obviously, dependent on the earth as it provides the air, water, sunshine, and food that sustain us.

In his theory of Gaia (the Greek word for "earth"), NASA scientist James Lovelock described the planet as a self-regulating and self-organizing superorganism in which every element exists in a vast feedback loop of interaction with everything else. Animals, insects, and microorganisms too are an essential aspect of Gaia, as the earthworms vitalize the soil; the birds, bees, and other pollinators spread the seeds of life; insects maintain the ground and growth of the rainforests; and animals help sustain the habitats in which they live.

If our true community is the biocommunity, the question is begging to be asked: Are we good citizens in this community? Clearly not: We are colonizers, plunderers, murderers, and thieves who steal from other life forms and from future generations of human beings. Although dependent on everything else on the earth, we fancy ourselves supremely aloof and independent in our floating technological castles.

The Hypocrisy of the Political Left

From the perspective of ecology and animal rights, Marxists and other social "radicals" have been extremely reactionary forces. It is taxing to sit at a table full of critical theorists, feminists, postcolonialists, and other social justice advocates, all excoriating capitalist exploitation while they devour bloody steaks and smear pig ribs and chicken grease across their overfed faces. In works such as his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Karl Marx advanced a naturalistic theory of human life, but like the dominant Western tradition he posited a sharp dualism between human and nonhuman animals, arguing that only human beings have consciousness and a complex social world. Nonhuman animals, he claims, are mere creatures of instinct and exist as part of the natural world for human beings to "humanize," as humanity evolves in and through its technological transformation of the natural world. While there is lively debate over whether or not Marx had an environmental consciousness, there is no question he was a speciesist and the product of an obsolete paradigm that continues to mar progressive social theory.

Consider the case of Michael Albert, a prolific author and co-founder of Z Magazine and Z Net, noted Left publishing forums. In a recent interview with the animal rights and environmental magazine Satya, he states: "When I talk about social movements to make the world better, animal rights does not come into my mind. I honestly don't see animal rights in anything like the way I see women's movements, Latino movements, youth movements, and so on ... a large-scale discussion of animal rights and ensuing action is probably more than needed ... but it just honestly doesn't strike me as being remotely as urgent as preventing war in Iraq or winning a 30-hour work week."

While I do not expect a blatant anthropocentrist like Albert to see animal and human suffering as even roughly comparable, I cannot fathom privileging a work reduction for humans who live relatively comfortable lives to ameliorating the obscene suffering of tens of billion of animals who are confined, tortured, and killed each year. Moreover, Albert lacks the holistic vision to grasp the profound connections between animal abuse and human suffering.

The problem with such myopic leftism stems not only from Karl Marx himself, but the traditions that spawned him-modern humanism and the Enlightenment. To be sure, the move from a God-centered to a human-centered world, from the crusades of a bloodthirsty Christianity to the critical thinking and autonomy ethos of the Enlightenment, were massive historical gains, and animal rights builds on them. But modern social theory and science perpetuated one of worst aspects of Christianity (in the standard interpretation that understands dominion as domination), namely the view that animals are mere resources for human use. Indeed, the situation for animals worsened considerably under the impact of modern sciences and technologies that brought us vivisection, genetic engineering, cloning, factory farms, and slaughterhouses.

In short, the modern "radical" tradition stands in continuity with the entire Western heritage of anthropocentrism, and in no way can be seen as a liberating philosophy from the standpoint of the environment and other species on this planet. A truly revolutionary social theory and movement must incorporate a new ethics of nature, as it maintains a commitment to Enlightenment norms, human justice, and anti-capitalism.

In the last two decades in Europe and the U.S., Green parties have emphasized progressive social concerns in conjunction with environmental values. But Greens typically have not endorsed animal rights and vegetarianism, and often they are as speciesist as any Leftist or politically progressive group. The Green Party USA upholds 10 Key Values that promote respect, solidarity, justice, nonviolence, and sustainability, but they fail to say a word about the holocaust of animal destruction and its impact on peoples and the earth. In section III K 12 of their Platform 2000, however, entitled Biological Diversity, we read this promising note: "Finally, as Greens, we must add that the mark of a humane and civilized society truly lies in how we treat the least protected among us. To extend rights to other sentient, living beings is our responsibility and a mark of our place among all of creation. We find cruelty to animals to be repugnant and criminal. We call for an intelligent, compassionate approach to the treatment of animals." This is a leap in awareness for a human rights/environmental party, and holds some promise that strong alliances among the vegan, animal rights, Green, and social justice communities can be forged.

Interspecies Solidarity

The need for justice is universal. In his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." Racism and sexism, for instance, have divided the working community and prevented them from achieving the power of a united front against corporate exploiters. Human beings must see that this "inescapable network of mutuality" includes nonhuman animals and that their plight is our plight, even if one cares only about human problems. In so many ways, what we do to the animals, we do to ourselves. Any form of hierarchical consciousness can feed into and reinforce another; and thus we must continually attack dualistic, discriminatory, and hierarchical frameworks until the hydra-headed monster of prejudice and oppression is slayed entirely.

The exploitation of farmed animals provides a vivid illustration of the centrality of animal concerns to human issues and the vast interconnected effects of exploiting any single group. After World War II, as animals became ever more intensively produced as food commodities, family farms were increasingly replaced by factory farms. This monumental shift meant not only that animals would be raised indoors within intensive conditions of confinement, creating unprecedented levels of suffering, but also that huge corporations were gaining control of small scale farms and driving out families who cared for their land for generations. To work inside the filthy and dangerous factory farms and slaughterhouses, corporations exploited immigrant labor and other destitute and desperate workers. To control diseases and maximize growth, agribusiness pumped massive doses of antibiotics into the animals, helping to create widespread resistance to important drugs. To make animals grow as large and fast as possible, they injected them with growth hormones and eventually began to genetically engineer and clone them. Besides high doses of saturated fat, cholesterol and protein, the public was consuming a plethora of dangerous chemicals. Factory farms also generate huge amounts of chemicals and waste which foul the air, poison waterways, and destroy communities.

Thus, because of its far-reaching consequences, injury to farmed animals brought immense harm to farmers, workers, consumers, and the environment. Far from being irrelevant to social movements, animal rights can form the basis for a broad coalition of social groups and drive changes that strike at the heart of capitalist exploitation of animals, people, and the earth. One stellar example of a great social activist who grasped the whole picture was Cesar Chavez, noted not only for being a vegetarian but also for opposing spectacles of animal cruelty such as the rodeo.

There are limits to what animal rights activists can support, however, as they would never endorse better wages for underpaid poultry workers. Instead, they would advance the abolition of animal food industries and reemployment of workers in humane and ethically acceptable occupations. Similarly, the animal rights community cannot join consumer groups to advocate organic meat or embrace the slow foods movement that, although a critique of fast food culture and the corporate takeover of agriculture, nonetheless endorses meat consumption in organic and free-range form. Invariably, when one reads about the plight of workers in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in Left publications like In These Times or The Nation, moral and critical attention focuses solely on the workers, and the voice of outrage says nothing about the animals as if the rivers of blood flowing out of these houses of horror would be acceptable given higher wages for the workers.

But if radical social movements have ignored animal concerns and missed the big picture, the animal rights movement has paid insufficient attention to other social struggles and the logic of capitalism. Largely apolitical or single-issue in scope, many animal rights advocates fail to grasp how the animal abuses they decry result from the profit imperative, and are part and parcel of a social system that needs to be challenged and transformed in radical ways. To the extent that animal rights activists grasp the systemic nature of animal exploitation, they should also realize that animal liberation demands that they work in conjunction with other radical social movements. Animal activists need to realize that progressive social movements traditionally have viewed them with suspicion, as bearers of race and class privileges who ignore issues of social oppression, and thus they need to begin to build bridges in the progressive community (as, for example, people of color are a rare sight at animal rights protests and conferences).

The need for alliances, and the great difficulty in achieving them, is evident in the attempts to build bridges between the feminist and animal rights communities. As spelled out by Carol Adams and other ecofeminists, the patriarchal ideologies of Western society reduce women to a subhuman status. Men have depicted women as closer to animals than to humans, as humans have rational capacities that are allegedly lacking in women and animals. Throughout our social landscape, one finds advertising images that link women┬╣s bodies to animal bodies, equating both as meat to be consumed by men. Women and animals both are targets of male violence. Meat eating and hunting are bound up with ancient patriarchal values and institutions, and Adams argues that feminists who wish to be consistently anti-patriarchal should adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. Ecofeminists advance an ethics of care that promotes holism, connectedness, and respect for animals and the earth.

Thus, there appears to be a natural affinity between core concerns of feminism and animal rights, as both have a common enemy in patriarchy. But the reality of forging alliances has often proved difficult. Feminists have complained, rightly, that while a disproportionate number of people in the animal rights community are women, the leaders overwhelmingly are men. For many feminists, the existence of sexist norms within the animal rights community is most obvious in the case of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the world's largest animal rights organization that is infamous for featuring naked or scantily clad women in their demonstrations and advertisements, thereby reproducing society's dominant images of women as sex objects rather than human subjects. PETA unapologetically defends this tactic as necessary to gain media attention for their education campaigns that otherwise would be ignored, but many feminists feel that PETA is sending out a mixed message that denounces one form of exploitation while endorsing another.

Beyond Identity Politics

Some of these feminists respond by leaving the animal rights movement altogether and many animal rights activists wish them fond farewell for what they view to be divisive concerns. This truly is unfortunate. For the last few decades, social movements have taken the form of identity politics that are highly Balkanized, with each group pursuing its own agenda relating to its specific form of identity (black, brown, female, environmental, gay, and so on). This development perhaps was necessary for various cultures and groups to find their own histories and voices, but the fragmentary politics of identity now needs to be replaced with a politics of alliance where each group not only recognizes its own particular mode of oppression and champions its distinct identities and interests, but also grasps its theoretical and political relations to other groups and works in a strategic unity against common forces of oppression such as capitalism.

There are signs that such a movement is emerging. Many commentators characterize the 1999 Battle of Seattle as a turning point in that a rich diversity of groups came together to challenge a common enemy-global capitalism and the World Trade Organization. Dozens of coalitions worked harmoniously in a united front of justice for all, as diverse groups such as teamsters (labor) and turtles (environmental and animal groups) stood together. On numerous occasions since then, activists have gathered around the world in similar coalitions contesting the injustices of global capitalism. As capitalism globalizes and unites various countries in new trade treaties such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) which subsumes 34 countries of North and South America into a "free-trade" zone, activists are uniting into alliances not only within their own countries, but also creating new global blocs of resistance across national boundaries. Other hopeful recent signs of alliance include the Harvard Living Wage Campaign-created by students in solidarity with janitors, dining service, and other underpaid workers at the university-and the student anti-sweatshop movement. One of the most moving demonstrations of solidarity I have witnessed occurred at the 1996 national animal rights conference in Washington, D.C., where gay activists from ACT-UP denounced animal experimentation, rejected any medical advance for AIDS that was dependent upon causing pain to other beings, and embraced interspecies solidarity.

The challenge will be not only to come together on occasion for dramatic protests against global capitalism, but to sustain alliances in a multifaceted attack on injustice. For this to work, progressive social movements will have to include animal rights and veganism within their agendas and, indeed, their lives-just as animal rights activists need to extirpate elitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice from their community. Activists will need to forge a shared vision and set of values beyond protest and critique, knowing both what they want "freedom from" and "freedom to," the kind of society they can no longer tolerate and the nature of community they want to build.

To change the conditions for animals, we have to change the social institutions, and that demands alliances with other progressive groups. The animal welfare/rights movement is showing increasing strength and sophistication in its ability to pass city, state, and national legislation for animal protection, but it remains a single issue movement devoid of roots in communities of workers, women, people of color, and church groups (who for better or worse are a key part of the grass roots). But as they hopefully mature as a social movement, animal advocates are a powerful reminder that "social justice" is a limited political concept and that no species is free until all species are free. The slogan of the future must not be "We are all one race, the human race," but rather, "We are one community, the community of living subjects." •

Dr. Steven Best is associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Texas-El Paso. He has published numerous books and articles on the topics of social theory, cultural studies, science and technology, and postmodernism. His next book will be Moral Progress and Animal Rights: The Struggle For Human Evolution. Some of his writings are posted at utminers.utep.edu/best/.

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