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fb drama-rama: a debate over animal rights

December 28, 2009

I think a common thing that vegans deal with is a tendency for people to try to make our arguments seem illogical and even bad and then the onus is on us to respond (or disengage).

I recently posted this picture on my Facebook page with some text noting that all oppression is tied:

no one has the same experiences with oppression, and all types of oppression have different histories, but don’t let that mask the fact that all oppression is rooted in an ideology that some groups have more rights than others. All oppression is built into systems of power which privilege those at the top of the hierarchy by giving them unequal reward and by turning the oppressed against each other. Until we realize these struggles are all tied we cannot join together to fight against the systems that allow us all to be oppressed.

A friend replied with a long logic-train argument that got so long that by the time the caboose rode by I was supposed to think oppression was OK because it is the only reason we don’t have small pox or allow rapists to run free. I responded at length and with exacerbation. He responded at length and with exacerbation. Others joined in the conversation too…

Often I bow out of these conversations but did not want to here. My friend thought his responses out and he cared. He does awesome human rights oriented work with his life and he is very intelligent. He did not argue this to be a pest (often people do this. If you are veg you have heard it: “If you think eating animals is bad, then why do you eat veggies, I once read a study that plants feel pain”; “why do you eat bread- it has yeast in it…”). Rather he came from a moral and intellectual position about which he seemed to genuinely believe.  This is also the second time in one week I have had a conversation like this so I wanted to put it out there into cyberspace.

I decided to post the very long exchange below and would LOVE to get feed back from people. Please share your thoughts!!  Did I respond well, what would you have said. Did he make valid points? How do you handle these sorts of conversations (whether you’re on my end or his)?

(Caveat: Remember this is Facebook, so sometimes one person is typing while someone else has posted something not yet read, proof reading is minimal and typos abound. The only thing I changed are our names)

*   *    *

BH: This raises a few uncomfortable questions in my mind. Doesn’t that equation suggest that the efforts to eradicate smallpox, bubonic plauge, polio, etc. were acts of genocide (viruses and bacteria being species) and hence morally equivalent to Hitler’s efforts to eradicate certain classes of humans? Isn’t that not only ridiculous but offensive? If we therefore exclude microorganisms from the equation, why not insects that carry them, or the rats that carry the fleas, or … don’t you have to draw a line between species somewhere? Wouldn’t repressing efforts to eradicate species dangerous to humans itself be a form of oppression against humans? Aren’t some forms of oppression actually in the interest of and supported by the very groups you identify (oppression of rapists, for instance)? Is oppression really always bad? Is a world without oppression even possible?

VEGINA: 1. all systems of oppression tell those of us in power that we can rationalize our abuses, as you just did above. that allows us (even though we might be oppressed in some ways) to maintain oppression by having us exert our power over others and having us believe it is OK and natural to do so. But we don’t have the right to do so.

2.I think that a world without oppression may not be possible, but a world in which we stop fighting against would be truly horrible.

3. as to your train of logic that says rejecting speciesm is like accepting rapists: those who take away others freedom do not deserve the same consideration. so, rape someone and i dont give a fuck about you. eat a factory farmed burger, and i think you are less worthy than the cow you ate.

4. how do i decide “where to draw the line”? i draw the line at sentience. if i have reason to believe that an organism has a vested interest in life and can feel pain and/or fear then it should not be killed. now, i may be wrong sometimes, i come from a racist, sexist, homophobic speciesist society so that will bias my ideas and i might erroneously kill a bacteria that feels pain. but at least i am *trying* to causing harm.

5. on the issue of plague and bacteria- i think the question of what to do when your life is threatened is a tough question. infestation, illness, etc. might make me reach for poison to kill sentient beings, i don’t know, i havent faced it. what i do know is that we dont have a right to test our drugs for curing human ailments on non-human animals. they are our burdens, not theirs.

WP: How can oppression possibly benefit the oppressed? That statement completely, as Carol points out, rationalizes the oppressor’s actions! It’s like the saying, “Everyone wants change, but no one wants to change.”

BH: When the oppressed are oppressing.

WP: ok give an example?

BH: I suppose”sentient speciesim=racism” isn’t as slick a slogan. I recognize a cogent argument in the qualifiied version, and I am somewhat sympathetic to point #5. But I’m still not convinced that a dog’s life is in abstract equivalent to a human’s, although certain dogs might win out over certain humans if I was forced to choose.

BH: Already did – supporting tough penalties for rapists.

BH: Lest there be any confusion, I am not supporting rapists. I’m saying they SHOULD be repressed.

VEGINA: The point is, BH, we are all in some ways oppressed and in some ways oppressors. when we accept our position as oppressors unreflexively, and don’t consider how our oppression is tied to that of those who we oppress, we validate the system that allows hierarchy and power imbalances based on differences. so, if a feminist eats a burger s/he is saying that the system of keeping some groups in power and others oppressed is an ok system, just not when it effects women. and i say that that is bullshit. the system works because it makes us feel divided.

BH: I do get that point, and see some validity in it. I’m just suspicious of simple equations.

VEGINA: BH, can you tell me why a dogs life is worth less than a humans? what about a monkey? or a dolphin? or a pig? pigs are more intelligent than dogs–why eat a pig and not a dog? what is your criteria for the value of life and the right not to be abused or used for human’s pleasures?

BH: Some people do eat dogs, and I’ve known people with pigs as pets. But that’s just an observation, not an answer. One answer to each of those questions of course is the culture in which I was raised, which is difficult to rid one’s self of, even if inclined to try. (Personally, I find dogs much more endearing than pigs.) Another is that we can relate to other humans in immensely more complicated ways that any other species (sign-languaging chimps not withstanding). Third, other humans have immensely more capacity for improving the quaility of life for all of us. If I could save a little girl who might one day invent a cure for cancer, I would rather do that than save even a beloved pet (if forced to choose).

A fourth rather selfish reason is that preserving a norm of sanctity of human life helps prevent humans killing humans, which is a much bigger threat than dogs, pigs or monkeys killing humans, and protecting the same sanctity of life to those species would do nothing to stop them from killing us if so inclined because they would not understand it. This last reason, of course, does not explain why it would hurt to extend the same sanctity of life, only why there is less incentive to do so.

BH: Upon further reflection, the last point is important. One could argue we are challenged enough defending the sanctity of human life, and trying to defend all sentient life is currently a bridge too far. I know the counterargument – that allowing oppression of other sentitient species morally undermines the sanctity of human life as well, by supporting the idea that some hierarchies and some forms of oppression are OK. But my point is that some forms of oppression are unavoidable anyway, and the pursuit of a completely oppression-free world is utopian. Thus, we all have to choose our battles, and we draw the line at different points. I choose to focus on keeping humans from killing humans.

VEGINA: my point exactly: you make the choices you make because culture tells you to,not because there is a good reason. eating cows is actually one of the stupidest things you can ever do- it is horrible for you and is the #1 or 2 cause of environmental degradation based on beef production in the US alone (that and cars in the US, it depends on who you ask and how they calculate it as to which is worse)

and the little girl you save over another animal might, as you suggest, find a cure for cancer but this is not reason to value her life more. Because just as she “might” find a cure she might also murder thousands of animals to do that (by the way, no cure for any cancer has ever been found, so why not spend the money helping reduce cancers and common diseases–which can largely be done by reducing meat consumption and preserving the environment. or spend the money instead on un and underinsured people so they can catch cancer early so it wont be as likely to be deadly). let me also point out that that girl might also grow up to be an army general or a war-mongering president and be responsible for a million human deaths. who knows.

to your fourth point, humans as a species have less sanctity for life than any other species as far as i can tell. what other species would engage in the mass slaughter of their own species for the sake of accumulating resources? the logic that allows sexism, racism, homophobia and speciesism is the same logic that allows us to engage in war. it is the same logic that allows up to engage in acts of genocide. it is the same logic that allows us to grow enough food in this country alone to feed the world’s entire starving population but to feed it to cows (which we will force to live short painful lives) instead so that we can have $2 fast food hamburgers.

and who says humans make life better for us all? there is no proof of that. many scientists say that it is the population growth that happened during industrialization that has lead to some of our greatest health problems, mass destruction of the environment, and the growing inequalities between core and peripheral countries. (Don’t forget, this growing gap includes increased deprivation on one end just as it includes improved comfort on the other)

VEGINA: Just saw your last point. to that i say, how does your refusal to eat animals or war their skin or use them for entertainment purposes distract AT ALL from any other for of activism you may engage in. Personally choosing not to use non-human animals for your pleasure does NOTHING to distract from any human-oriented cause. You rejecting a hamburger hurts NO ONE. It will actually change what and how food is produced in such a way that the human workers who are so exploited (by the way, factory farms in the US have been cited as severely abusive by some human rights organizations- i can give you more information on this if you want it) will have safer and (hopefully) better paid work. Saying that caring to end one oppression will undermine the concern for others is crap. If we all saw oppression as one big tower we had to knock over, we would have a much larger group working to push over that tower. and that was the point of this picture in the first place.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Asbley permalink
    December 28, 2009 3:54 pm

    “If we all saw oppression as one big tower…”

    What would happen after the oppression tower fell? How would we know if we were doing the right thing to down it? What would “success” look like? And by what would the world after be hallmarked?

    A very engaging conversation! Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂


    • December 29, 2009 12:29 am

      I am not sure we can be positive that we “have the right tower” but inaction is a horrible alternative. And we can’t have a clue what “success” would look like but that’s okay with me. A world that is not controlled by oppression is so far from anything any of us has experienced or will ever see in our own lifetimes that there is no way for me to imagine it. However, I am happy to keep pushing for unimaginable equality than to stay entrenched in the system of inequality in which we currently live.

  2. December 29, 2009 12:24 am

    I tried to move the conversation to this blog but it continued on FB. Read on:

    VW: Vegina, i am totally sympathetic to animal rights issues and i oppose factory farming and i applaud vegetarianism/veganism. but bruce has a point – animal rights activists should avoid the logic that ALL life has equal value. does this mean that when bug gets fleas that you do nothing? Fleas are, after all, living beings. furthermore, animals kills … See Moreeach other all the time. what the heck does bug eat? cats are carnivores. when animals kill each other in the wild, are they also reifying an all-encompassing power hierarchy? furthermore, if it came down to saving the life of your child or your cat (and yes, there are life situations where its one or the other, not both), are you trying to say that you would consider choosing a cat?

    furthermore, i really think comparing speciesism to racism and sexism really does the movement a disservice, and orgs like PETA would really be much more successful if they avoided this logic. Minorities and women have for too long been oppressed through comparisons to animals, and to champion another liberationist cause on the backs of these groups is just plain wrong.

    VEGINA: if you stopped allowing for animals to be exploited, comparing a woman to an animal would no longer be a valid insult. pitting feminist against vegan does little but fragment the oppressed. i am both and i see both struggles as tied and i know when vegans and feminists come together to organize, we have a lot more power. for this reason you are right, a sexist peta ad is a shitty peta ad- it does everyone a disservice. a feminist wearing fur is no different

    DH:Opposing factory farming is like opposing concentration camps but being down with gang raping and killing a single jew… you know, if it’s because they taste good. Comparing speciesism to racism and sexism does not do the movement a disservice. It does the movement a service by separating the true believers from the get-alongers, the Obamas, the… See More capitulators. PETA is brilliant in tying together the prejudices and violence our society embodies towards the female body with the prejudices and violence done on animal bodies. Obviously, sex sells and it’s a gimmick to attract media attention (which it quite successfully does), but on an intellectual level, PETA’s sexy campaigns draw a powerful parallel between human and animal bodies, and after all, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? The sanctity and commodification of the body. If you think this isn’t on the minds of people participating in and designing these PETA events, you’re underestimating their intelligence

  3. Nicoal permalink
    January 26, 2010 8:34 pm

    “BH: If I could save a little girl who might one day invent a cure for cancer, I would rather do that than save even a beloved pet (if forced to choose).”

    Its interesting. No matter the level of “academia” that dichotomous, hypothetical, and rather stupid situation is always posed.

    And rapists are not “oppressed” when punished for their actions, rather their punishment is JUSTICE, not oppression. They actually did something morally abhorrent. Animals have not done one thing to deserve the wrath humans have waged against them. BH is lacking a basic definition of what oppression is and I think that is why he cannot understand the connections of humyn freedom and animal rights.

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