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Animal Rights Commentary
Thursday, March 14, 1996: Animal Rights and the Left

Several weeks ago, I attended a lecture given by a prominent left-wing social commentator. The person was discussing the sorry state of progressive movements in the United States. He bemoaned with complete justification the violence imposed directly and in all sorts of insidiously indirect ways on people of color, women, the elderly, gays and lesbians, and so forth. He lamented about how capitalism was destroying the environment. I agreed with the speaker's views in all respects. After all, who could disagree?

I knew the speaker personally, and he and I had arranged to have dinner after his talk. We went to a small restaurant that had both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. I ordered vegetarian; my friend ordered meat. Beef in fact, but it wouldn't matter. I was a bit taken aback. Only an hour before, my friend was condemning injustice and violence and environmental degradation. I said nothing. But my friend chose not to ignore the differences in our dinner choices, asking, "Are you still a vegetarian?"

Now, I am all in favor of not proselytizing at the dinner table. After all, people are not likely to be receptive to new ideas when they are actively involved in the conduct that is the subject of discussion. But fair is fair, and being asked about being a vegetarian legitimizes at least a polite inquiry about being a non-vegetarian. So, I answered his question: yes, I am still very much a vegetarian. I believe that animals, like humans, have at least the right not to be treated as property and that there is absolutely no moral justification for eating animals.

And then I asked, "So, are you still a non-vegetarian?" After all, my friend had only an hour before concluded a most articulate and passionate condemnation of violence and environmental degradation. I asked how could he justify the violence that humans inflicted on nonhumans simply because some humans--mostly those who live in rich, capitalist Western nations--like the taste of meat? I asked how could he justify the horrible environmental degradation that was caused by meat production? For example, cow feces provide the largest source of the very harmful methane gas in our environment. I expressed my view that we eat animals because we are more powerful than they are and we can exploit them. But power is never a good argument for exploitation, unless, of course, you reside on the right, in which case power is pretty much the only justification that counts.

What followed was a most interesting conversation. My friend dismissed my questions, but with the beleaguered despair and weariness that characterizes many longtime campaigners of progressive politics. He said that he was, of course, concerned about animals and he recognized that it was "probably" wrong to eat them for all sorts of moral, environmental, and health reasons, but that there were simply "too many human problems" to be concerned about before solving animal problems.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Who is asking you to solve any problems?" I explained to my friend that I was not asking him to stop working on any of the issues that presently concerned him and to start working on some other issues. I was merely asking my friend how could he--someone who objected to violence, injustice, and environmental degradation--chomp down a steak when there are plenty of alternatives, which, by the way, are more healthy for you anyway? I was not asking him to do anything about the institutionalized exploitation that produces meat other than to consider stopping his eating of meat if he were unable to justify that practice by anything more than the "might makes right" attitude.

I analogized my point to the boycott by the United Farmworkers of grapes--a boycott supported by both my friend and me. Neither of us has ever worked directly on farmworker campaigns and have only contributed money, but both of us recognize that we have a direct moral choice to make when confronted with consuming a food item--table grapes--that has been produced at the expense of poisoning children who pick those grapes sprayed with deadly pesticides. We don't have to be actively involved in the farmworker movement directly to recognize our moral obligation to reject consuming the direct products of exploitation of a population--farmworkers--whose level of exploitation comes close to constituting slavery. We simply cannot avoid the question of the morality of meat-eating, especially when we engage in that behavior routinely, simply by professing that we have lofty goals in other areas. It reminds me of the 1960s, when people were opposed to the war, but were not willing to examine the rather disturbing ways in which sexism pervaded that culture, claiming not to be able to process too much at one time. That sort of segmentation of moral thinking is both artificial and downright dangerous, facilitating the balkanization of progressive movements based solely along single issues.

My friend next said that the animal rights movement was bourgeois; that its concern was one of the middle class and was inconsistent with leftist ideology.

This, I argued, was a grave mistake. It is the bourgeois ideology of the middle class that fosters the idea that animals--like women and slaves--are means to the ends of humans who own the animals. Animals are treated as property, just as women and slaves once were, and it is only the institution of private property that allows this to continue. Whether or not we like it, animals--at least mammals and birds--are sufficiently like us: they are complicated individuals with beliefs, desires, and sentience. They can feel pleasure and pain. They have an interest in their lives apart from whether their use will provide benefits to us, just as all humans have an interest in their own lives apart from whatever benefits they may be able to provide to anyone else. There are, of course, differences between humans and non-humans: animals, apart from certain apes, seem unable to use human language and to display cognitive capacities that are as great as those of some humans, but the reality is that some humans will always function less well than some nonhuman animals. We would never, however, use these less-well-functioning humans for experiments or as food sources.

Although most of the animals that we routinely exploit are more like us than they are not, we systemically ignore their interests because we have all been seduced by the greatest of capitalist myths--that the "property" status of something determines its moral value.

We are so blinded to this that we fail to see meat eating as one of the most decadent aspects of capitalism. It takes anywhere from four to twelve pounds of grain to produce one pound of flesh. Every time you eat a pound of beef, you are consuming something that required about ten pounds of grain and many, many gallons of water. The world starves while rich Western nations foster a completely unjust distribution of food that serves no interest but those of the very people, such as the huge agribusiness/agrichemical conglomerates who most progressives correctly believe are destroying the world with their greed.

This is not to deny that many so-called animal rights organizations cater to bourgeois sentimentalism. This is not to deny that many so-called animal rights groups are sometimes downright reactionary. So-called animal rights groups, like some so-called civil rights groups, and some so-called women's rights groups, have, for the most part, become nothing more than charities with vested economic interests in protecting the status quo. But we don't judge political ideology based on whether some groups who purport to promote that ideology sell out and become reactionary.

The failings of modern so-called animal rights movement cannot obscure the underlying message of animal rights, which has, unfortunately been lost in the absurdity of campaigns that, for example, use blatantly sexist imagery supposedly to promote animal rights. The message is there and it is powerful. It invites us all to examine issues of nonviolence and justice not merely as matters of abstract left ideology, but in our day-to-day lives. To call the animal rights message bourgeois because of the antics of some modern animal charities is to ignore the close historical connection that has existed at many points between movements for the liberation of humans and nonhumans. In London, there is a statue erected to the memory of a little brown dog who was cut up while alive in a British medical school in the 1800s, and whose plight mobilized feminists, trade unionists, and antivivisectionists in riots that recognized the close relationships among all forms of institutionalized exploitation.

The left has for too long ignored the issue of animals. Even when prominent progressives embrace the issue, the response of the left is to ignore or deride the concern. United Farmworker leader Caesar Chavez was passionate about the issue of justice for animals, and he was a very strict vegetarian--something ignore by almost all progressives. Civil rights lawyer Bill Kunstler believed and wrote that we acted unjustly in exploiting nonhumans, and again, most of the left has ignored this aspect of Kunstler's work. Most of us regard people like Chavez and Kunstler as visionary. Maybe we should think a little harder before we chomp down that steak or that chicken. Perhaps Chavez and Kunstler were visionaries about the issue of animals as well, and that it is our own bourgeois acceptance of the property status of animals that facilitates this most unjustifiable injustice, violence, and environmental degradation.

This is Gary Francione for Animal Rights Commentary.

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