Archive for the ‘Why We Love Animals’ Category
In his famous paper “Against the Moral Standing of Animals,” the philosopher Peter Carruthers deploys a Rawlsian version of contractual moral theory to argue that non-human animals (qua animals) “make no moral claims on us.” Upshot: “they have no rights.” Big claim. Challenging claim. Kind of annoying claim.
Contractualism, as Carruthers presents it, assumes that rational and consenting humans will, when asked to construct an arrangement (contract) to guide human behavior toward a stable society, reasonably extend basic rights to all humans while denying them to all non-humans. They will, he suggests, make this distinction on two grounds: a) that non-humans animals cannot offer their consent to a human contract and b) that rational humans could never imagine living their lives as non-human (rational or otherwise) being—hence their placement beyond the pale.
The essential stipulations within contractualism are that humans are rational and able to consent to a contractual agreement. These stipulations, however, would seem ipso facto to exclude humans who are cognitively impaired, senile, or inflicted with dementia. Why–in this act of imagining a social contract— would certain moral rights be extended to these groups of “impaired” humans but not to non-humans? This is a significant challenge for Carruthers (one originally presented by Singer), and his answer to it exposes the devastating weakness of the overall argument.
In essence, Carruthers maintains that while neither group—non-humans nor “impaired” humans—can fulfill the basic requirements for contractualism, the impaired humans would alone be granted rights because a) we love them as family members; and b) we can imagine ourselves in such a condition. This rationale, however, fails for several reasons, three of them marginal and one fundamental. (I’m sure there are more, but I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m doing here.)
The marginal: First, many people in fact love their pets more than their relatives (think of that weird uncle versus your loving dog)—for this phenomenon there is empirical evidence. Second, the privileging of impaired humans over non-humans requires that we accept a reality in which a non-human (say, a pig) who is more cognitively and emotionally aware than a human (dementia patient) has no rights vis-a-vis the human. This second problem would certainly qualify as speciesism, thereby raising the question of how any moral theory that accommodates speciesism could be called fair. Third, contractualism seems to exclude historical reality, one that undermines Carruthers’ claim that humans would automatically think of humans in terms of humans. Historical newsflash: whites would not have thought thusly of blacks in 1800 in America, Germans would not have thought thusly of Jews in 1940, and Tutsis would not have thought thusly of Hutus in 1990. Contractualism fails to accommodate tribalism and nationalism.
But these are only dents in Carruthers’ argument—they could all be, I suppose, hammered out. The big flaw, the fundamental flaw, is a philosophical contradiction. At perhaps the most interesting point in the argument, Carruthers argues that, despite the fact that animals do not have rights, we should not harm them. We should restrain our harm because harming animals harms humans, predisposing us to violence, hooliganism, and general bad behavior. Example: if we came across a bunch of punks beating a cat senseless, Carruthers claims we should object to this behavior not because the cat suffers but because it degrades the humans who are beating the cat, bothers others who witness the beating, and might bleed over into the prospect of humans harming humans.
When Carruthers tossed out this example I knew his case was toast.
Here’s why: what if the punks were beating up a chair? Would the outcome that Carruthers predicts for the cat be the same? Would humans be similarly upset, or reach the same “humans would be harmed conclusion”? Of course not. We’d call it performance art and probably give it an NEH grant or something. The reason for worrying about the impact of beating a cat versus a chair is that we know, on a basic emotional and empathetic level, that the cat suffers. The chair doesn’t suffer. Emotions, in other words, are critical in our assessment of who deserves rights.
Carruthers knows this about emotions. He knows emotions matter when it comes to contractualism. Recall, he said we’d care enough about the drooling invalid family member to grant him rights because, alas, he was someones’s relative and thus subject to the human (and non-human) emotion of love. If you grant emotion in this scenario, you have to grant it in the cat/chair scenario. And if you do that, the contract is drowned by, of all beautiful things, our bleeding heart.
It’s training season for long runners in the ATX and I ran 20 miles (and change) yesterday morning (ultra marathon coming up in November). Before my run I ate my standard piece of whole wheat toast slathered with a sliced banana, apricot jam, and nutritional yeast.
This did the trick as my energy level never flagged during the run, which we did at talking pace. To recover, I had a kale/mint/turmeric/banana smoothie from Juiceland made by Bryce (on right) and a soft whole wheat taco with faro, chia seeds, avocado, hemp seeds, and lentils. The recovery, assisted by a 30-minute nap, was immediate. Was able to swim laps with ease later in the day and, this morning, do eight more miles, again slowly, on the Greenbelt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I could never do any of this before going vegan.
Then I met friends, running buddies, for a beer. A delicious pint of local beer. We drank our local beer, we admired the woodwork (longleaf pine), we appreciated the table that held our beer aloft (live oak wood), and we talked about, well, running, and we made running plans. I had to leave a little early and, as I hopped on my bike, a squall came out of nowhere. I began to ride. White clouds crowded out the blue sky (pic above), layers of gray formed in the distance, and winds of 40 mph flew in from the south to turn the intersection where I rode into a swirling dustbowl.
I pedaled off in a mild panic as this little weather event unfolded. It’s hard to explain (it always is) but it was if a mini tornado had exploded in the ten square feet around me. The gusts, which had been channelled into a funnel by the loft high rises around me, were strong enough to almost blow me off my bike. I veered without meaning to veer very close to a row of parked cars. Dust covered my eyes and as I pedaled down the middle of the street into the teeth of the gale and a rock the size of a blueberry landed in my mouth. I spat it out and, as I did, I found myself staring down at an impossibly beautiful speckled hen.
I thought she was an apparition. But she was real—an escapee, no doubt, from the land of the locavores– and she seemed scared. We locked eyes for a moment, as if we were both saying what the hell are we doing here and then she skittered under a parked car. I envisioned placing her in my saddlebag and riding home, but then began to wonder how my dogs would react. In any case, I got off my bike to take a look, peeked under the car, and she was gone.
Is it my imagination or is the trend of keeping backyard chickens on the wane? This is obviously a very difficult thing to measure. But I ask the question for a basic reason. In the last month two hen keepers I know well have announced that they’re phasing hens out of their lives. Not a statistically significant sample, but perhaps a harbinger?
Both have found safe homes for many, but not all, of their birds. The ones that remain behind, not surprisingly, are finished laying eggs and, because it would traumatize the kids,they’re also immune to becoming dinner. They are, in essence, a major headache. One that will be around for another decade for these well-intentioned but misled locavores.
Unlike my friends, many hen keepers acquired their birds on a lark. They saw a show on television, read an article or two, digested one too many foodie books, or decided they had to “know where my food comes from.” The wave of support that encouraged the hen trend abjectly failed to come with warning labels. It’s sooo easy, everyone said. And now the truth is coming home to roost: it’s not. There are realities that the media never mentioned. These birds might be self-sufficient in the wild, but not in your little crabgrass frontier.
Chickens get killed by dogs, hawks, snakes, and foxes. That’s a bummer. The kids get attached to the chickens and when they stop laying eggs you cannot slaughter them without racking up psychological bills for life. When you head to the Cape for the summer, you now have to pay someone to care for them. Your colleagues get over the novelty of eating local eggs. The calm hen turned out to be a crazy rooster and your neighbors now hate you. Hen or rooster, their poop sort of stinks.
Humans may be gullible but we’re not stupid. Given that enough clueless consumers bought hens, and given that the downsides have had plenty of time to sink in, perhaps we can take some solace in the prospect that maybe, just maybe, my friends aren’t alone in saying “never again.”
tomorrow: a report on my bill and lou project (and a request)
The most read story. at the New York Times as of this morning was about a lost cat, Holly, who traveled 200 miles over two months through Florida to find her owners. The Times piece quoted our friend Marc Bekoff, who said, “I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain . . . Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.” No data indeed–how could we have data on such an event? But a lack of data hardly means we shouldn’t draw some important conclusions from such an astounding feline accomplishment.
Such as: maybe it’s not all that astounding. Perhaps cats—and all the animals we think we know so much about—possess remarkable abilities that humans, stuck in a self-referential gaze, fail to recognize. This seems to me a likely scenario. After all, whenever scientists do take a systematic look at animal behavior, they always find something new, and the regularity with which we are making surprising discoveries about animal cognition and behavior strongly indicates that we’ve barely scratched the surface of animal minds. The Times captured this sentiment back in a 2006 editorial. It wrote, “We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence—as we define it—and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions.”
It’s a great point. Unfortunately, the lack of data to explain these sorts of happenings allow skeptics to reduce clear cases of animal decision-making to instinct. I say “reduce” because it’s a willful denial of situational thinking, the kind of thinking that would raise serious questions about the overall ways we treat “higher” animals in general. It is a testament to our deep-seated fear that we may be very wrong about animals that so many of us, scientists included, refuse to be swayed by an overwhelming example of a house pet using what appear to us as stunning navigational skills to go from Daytona to West Palm Beach. To grant that Holly figures that business out on her own is to force a reexamination of our opinions of animals in general, and how we treat them.
The other point to keep in mind–in addition to the obvious point that Holly was making situational choices only partially based on instinct–is that, as we continue to document animal intelligence irrespective of instinct, we must remind ourselves that intelligence mustn’t be the yardstick for lending animals moral consideration. That honor belongs to sentience—which I see as basically the ability to experience suffering as a conscious being. Fetishizing intelligence in animals can be dangerous because it creates a situation in which the animals we study—and, inevitably, find intelligence—will be the animals that get our moral consideration. And that, of course, is no way to evaluate animal rights. It’s too arbitrary.
In the end I see Holly’s geographical conquest as a heartwarming story that affirms the power of the human-animal bond while reminding us that there is so much we do not know about animal cognition and behavior. In a more optimistic interpretation, it might also serve as a gateway of sorts for people who never think about animal rights to start thinking about them and, in so doing, move toward a basic appreciation of sentience as a moral arbiter. In any case, three cheers for this amazing cat.
In 1575 a French court brought legal charges against a band of weevils. The upstart insects had allegedly destroyed local vineyards. The French, then as now, aren’t all that friendly when someone gets between them and wine. The beetles, who were granted the same due process as humans, were appointed a couple of lawyers to argue their cause, as it were. One the attorneys made a fascinating case, a case that really dropped my jaw. (And no, this is not the pretext for a Monty Python skit.)
He insisted that the weevils were innocent because, although they had indeed infested the intoxicating fruit of the vine, their right to do so was protected. It was protected because, according to Genesis, they were there first. In other words, when it came to access to environmental resources, weevils had right of first refusal based on seniority of species. As the case proceeded, the townspeople, evidently not offended by this line of argumentation, helpfully arranged an alternative space for the beetles to eat, one that was situated far away from their cultivated vineyards. (How they would have informed beetles where to eat goes unexplained.) We don’t know how the case ended because the legal document was destroyed by—not kidding here—weevils.
Let’s leave Genesis out of it for now and explore the implications of this first-on-the-cosmic-scene rationale for resource consumption. If we take the liberty of updating this case for contemporary analysis, we might contemplate a usable environmental ethic that recognizes humans as serious latecomers to the game of life, and thus last on the list justified to privatize and consume its natural riches. It’s not that out of the question. Freshly aware of our newly minted status, we certainly could have, at some point, drawn on the sixteenth-century lawyer’s logic to nurture our role on earth as humble managers rather than greedy consumers. In this formulation, human complacency as the greatest link in the chain of being would have been rusted up by the force of time—eons and eons of time during which the complexity of biological interaction laid the basis for our frontal lobes to become froth and screw everything up.
Yeah, I know. More magical thinking. But it’s interesting—inspiring maybe—to think about how it might have been, how the human-animal relationship, much less the overall human relationship with the environment, would have evolved if, when the world’s population was about 350 million people, humans had smoked a bowl, chilled out, stared at the clouds, and adhered to the logic of the weevil case, ceding to weevils what were weevils’ due. Instead, the bloated footprint of our species, one that has practically smothered the earth, has suffered a case of caffeine-infused gigantism, stomping upon the unfathomable tangle of biological complexity , fetishizing the teleology of materialism, and, throughout it all, shoving as much of the world as we can into our big mouths.
So, yeah, it’s helpful to sometimes think how it might have otherwise been, that paradise we chose to kick into the ditch of the past. Because if the environmental Cassandras are singing the right song, dreaming is all we have left. The day of the weevil has passed.
I don’t fully believe what I’m preparing to propose here, but some very intelligent people do so I want to put it out there. Plus, I’ve been wrong more than a time or two and have deep respect for the power of unintended consequences. Finally, as someone who happens to be quite comfortable doing nothing more for animals than reading, writing, and thinking about them, this task of second guessing conventional claims hits the bullseye (apologies) of my comfort zone. So here’s the idea: by collapsing the species barrier in an effort to treat animals with due moral consideration, we may—in our intimate interaction with them—justify the adoption of animal habits that would be atrocious for the prospects of human decency.
I don’t know. It sounds crazy. But think it through. Animal rights advocates work hard to create porous boundaries between humans and non-humans—especially relatively intelligent invertebrates. A primary justification for doing so is the hope that, in tearing down these walls of separation, humans will incorporate animals into our circle of compassion and treat them with appropriate dignity and respect for their ability to suffer as sentient creatures. Very rarely do we wonder, however, about the influences animals might have on humans if, indeed, the boundaries between us and them were made more fluid. The bad influences, that is.
Yes, yes, animals can be altruistic and cooperative—I get that. But they can also be, sorry, “animals.” They can, in other words, adhere to a vicious form of justice and retribution, one admittedly unmarked by free-will, but still marked by violence, survivalism of the fittest, and blatant prejudices rooted in biological realities. Humans have spent a great deal of history striving to wean ourselves away from racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of maltreatment that degrade the potential of our species. What if animals—the beings to whom we want to intermingle with in the realm of moral equality—offered us an excuse to indulge in what we have worked so hard as humans to minimize? What if they erased our progress, as it were?
I know many people—most of then warped by institutional thought—for whom any door even slightly opened to the prospects of “animal behavior” would be one that they’d charge through like a rhino. Most of them are gun toting Republicans who have to work hard to repress their racism while seeking to abolish all vestiges of the welfare state—but I digress. Actually, I don’t. In any case, I think there is a lot to contemplate when it comes to the impact animals might have on humans in a world that many animal rights advocates want to see emerge. At the least, we need to consider how our coevolution with animals in a post-speciesist environment would look like before we put our shoulder behind this idea and push it into the public forum. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud here, which is mostly what I do, but I do think much of what we envision happening as we meld with animals is a lot of magical thinking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Chickens cluck when they encounter a fire. Flames scare them. Cats undertake daily migration patterns that often include arranging an assortment of objects in one place. They nitpick nature. Presumably, these habits, or at least their genetic rudiments, preexisted the emergence of human beings. These observations bear on a couple of animal stories that have been making the feel-good media rounds of late.
Hoopla has been made over a chicken, presumably kept as a pet, who saved a family from a house fire. One report declared that this bird was “one cluckin’ smart chicken” for this act of heroism. The other news item was about a cat who adorned his owner’s grave with twigs and other supposed mementoes. “Loyal Italian Cat Brings Gifts to Owner’s Grave,” declares one headline. “How sweeeeeeet,” we’re supposed to say after hearing these stories.
Time for a deep breath here. It is the height of human self-regard for anyone to think that the chicken clucked for the sole purpose of intentionally awaking his family and, in turn, saving their lives. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (to my knowledge) that feline cognition is such that a cat can get all sentimental for a lost owner, much less express that sentiment with symbolic objectification.
I’m not saying that these animals are stupid. Quite the opposite. I’m arguing that much (if not most) of their considerable intelligence exists and thrives independently of human interaction. Neither chickens nor cats (unlike dogs) have experienced the depth of interaction with humans to explain such human-directed acts of altruism. They reserve their altruism and intelligence for each other. They need not us to be brilliant. Myopically, we fail these animals when we reduce their behavior to implausible demonstrations of affection for us. Frankly, these stories only appear because they are mash potatoes for media whores.
Plus, if these animals could act with such implied intentionality, they wouldn’t save and honor us. They’d kick our ass—especially the chickens. Given the level of cognition suggested in the anthropomorphous-ness of these interpretations, chickens would use such human-directed cognition to make it loud and clear that we have treated them with unconscionable disdain. Perhaps we construe these chicken-saves-people and cat-mourns-owner stories as we do because we know, deep down, that our treatment of these animals has been a colossal crime.
What do humans do when we feel shame? Typically, we hide from it. We duck away from the source of that shame, from the person or situation that evokes our feelings of inadequacy and cowardice. We build walls and indulge in irony. Very few humans I know are truly brave enough to face the deepest sources of their weakness and deal with personal failures in an aggressive and honest way. We rely on our impressive frontal lobe to dissemble, protecting ourselves by any means necessary, and doing so most notably by avoiding the mirror that throws our shame back at us with a fury. Because, well, that can hurt.
Animals are, in some respects, our mirror. They can hurt us with the sincerity of their gaze. It’s easy to reduce the animals around us—the companion animals to whom we toss a frisbee, the cockatiels to whom we whistle and talk, the horses on whom we canter and admire—as innocent creatures here to make us happy, to enrich out lives. A source of pleasure alone. Of course, anyone who thinks seriously about the inner lives of animals knows this opinion to be dangerously false. But what’s rarely (if ever) questioned is the extent to which an animal’s gaze, if we submit to it, evokes our shame, highlighting our failures as individuals and as humans, and shakes us to the core. Of course, the only way we can submit to that experience is if we are physically with animals, willing to endure a hard look from one species into the darkened heart of our own.
This idea came to me while continuing to read Kari Weil’s fascinating Thinking Animals. Especially thoughtful was her remark that our shared lives with animals “can make us feel small or powerless, deprive us of our place of privilege . . .” I simply chose to think about that shared experience with animals in terms of shame, posing the hypothesis that the human habit of avoiding direct confrontation with our deepest insecurities may be challenged by an honest relationship with an animal. This avoidance, I would surmise (controversially), is one reason that many animal rights activists advocate that we stay as far away from animals as possible, vowing not to house, ride, leash, or exploit them in any way. It’s a response framed in part by personal fear of knowing our demons.
I can already hear the angry fingers banging into the keyboards. But rest assured: I’m not saying that the motivation to steer clear of animals is not coming from a genuine interest in protecting animal rights. It surely is. What I am saying, though, is that such a noble motive might not be a pure motive (what motive is?). It might have, even subconsciously, the ulterior and self-interested purpose of saving us the discomfort of being under the hard gaze of an animal, a gaze that can, in its purity and honesty, say to us, “why do you not do more for me?; why have you destroyed my environment?; what have you done to my genetic heritage; who the f*** do you think you are? Why are you so weak and selfish?” These sort of questions, the ones that make us, you know, feel ashamed.
So, the hypothesis, one that I think is worth developing in the context of the popular “leave animals alone” argument, might go something like this: the presence of animals is sort of like a dose of truth serum. Those who seek that presence, on whatever psychological level, might be indirectly seeking greater insight into and recognition of their own insecurities, the sources of their own shame and cowardice. By contrast, those who seek to leave animals in peace, free to live on their own terms, might be partially driven by fear of the power of that serum, and the kind of truth it will ask us, as humans, as individuals, to face within ourselves. To want to be free of all animal relations is to want to be free from knowing our deepest, truest selves. Who knows? But it’s not a bad idea to start off the new year with.
2013. How did that happen?
Have a happy one.
There’s a belief embraced by many ethical vegans that humans should avoid all unnecessary contact with animals, allowing them to live life on their own terms, without the all-too-frequent disruption of human interference. I certainly see the appeal of this idea, not to mention the logic of it, but I question not only whether it’s possible to achieve, but also if it’s philosophically consistent with our effort to overcome speciesism.
Practically speaking, our lives are necessarily intertwined with the lives of non-human animals. Worms aerate the dirt that nourishes the crops that we eat. That sort of thing. It goes without saying that we should seek to extricate ourselves from intentionally exploitative relationships with animals—be they farm animals, animals used gratuitously for medical research, and certainly animals exploited for entertainment purposes. Should we, however, strive to remove ourselves from relationships with animals that aren’t marked by overt dominance? Should we cultivate such relationships?
The obvious focus here would be companion animals. Breeding animals for companionship is never justifiable, primarily because there are millions upon millions of unwanted animals who stand to benefit fundamentally from human companionship. This companionship, as many studies have shown, also has beneficial, even life-saving, impacts on humans. To some extent, there is, in a healthy human-non-human relationship, a genuine form of mutualism at work. I suppose there are ethical perspectives that would see this mutualism as inherently exploitative, something to be tolerated only as a necessary evil. But I want to question that characterization and wonder aloud: why can’t our relationship with non-human animals be considered a positive good, one we should seek to nurture and celebrate?
I maintain close relationships with companion animals and I would never characterize those relationships as necessary evils. The animals with whom I live are, as best as I can tell, happy and healthy animals who give me as much attention and love as I give them. We interact daily and that interaction is certainly marked by temporary and necessary dominance (I walk my dogs with leashes and, when they are off leash in the park, they force me to run after them and clean up their poop). But it is also mutually pleasurable. We all leave the park in a better mood than when we arrived, even if I was the one who made the decision for us to go there in the first place . (Note that the entire park scenario applies to my children as well—whose diapers I once changed and whose bodies I once strapped into strollers and forced to the park.)
Does this make me a benevolent dictator of another species (or, in the case of children, my own?) Maybe. I know for a fact that some critics will condemn my relationship with my dogs as necessarily one-sided, necessarily marked by dominance, and thus, again, a necessary evil. But this brings me to another question: doesn’t this idea—that we should leave animals alone—violate the basic assumption of anti-speciesism? Those who strive to overcome speciesism work to treat humans and non-human animals with equal moral consideration. Within the human species, extending moral consideration, I would submit, requires relational interaction. We are inherently social beings whose moral structure is built through relationships. So why should we deny non-human animals the same interactions we nurture and value with our fellow humans? Wouldn’t to do so be speciesist?
I’m going freestyle here and, I imagine, there are critical ethical points that I’m overlooking. But I become impatient when I hear how humans should do everything in our power to live our lives separate from those of non-human animals. And I feel this way because, in the simplest terms, I have complex, mutually beneficial, and deeply satisfying relationships with non-human animals whom I love. Yes, I make this claim from my own selfish little perspective. And yes, It is a human perspective. But wouldn’t you know it: I happen to be human; I happen to have interests; and I just so happen to have feelings that make me happy to act upon.
When I originally ran this article of Dr. Melanie Joy’s, an editor at the on-line publication that first published the piece gave Eating Plants a hard time about posting it, even though I provided the original source. When I excerpted the piece, as the editor requested, I still got a hard time (because, I suppose, I excerpted too much). Eventually, I just took down the post because the whole back and forth with editor thing was getting on my nerves. In any case, a month has passed so I’m reposting the article, which I think is superb. Joy is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. Enjoy. -jm
By Melanie Joy
For years I have remained silent on the “welfare-abolition debate,” believing that my limited time and energy as an activist were best directed elsewhere. But recent events have compelled me to witness the profound anger, confusion, guilt, weariness, and despair this issue triggers in vegans – vegans whose commitment and compassion never cease to astound and inspire me. So I could not, in good conscience, avoid contemplating this issue and sharing my reflections.
Much has been written about the content of the issue – the specific ideas and arguments that comprise each position. In fact, virtually all that has been discussed in regard to the “debate” is content-based, and one would be hard-pressed to find new content to add to a “debate” that has been at a stalemate since its inception. So I am not going to argue for a position here, but, rather, suggest a different way of thinking about this issue – a reframe that I hope will help free up some energy that’s been spent in a gridlock, so that our lives are more peaceful and our activism is more effective.
What I suggest is that we turn our attention from the content to the process of the issue. The process is the how, rather than the what; it is how we engage with the content, the way we communicate (e.g., we can be argumentative or cooperative). And our process is informed by our consciousness. Our consciousness is our mentality; it is the intentions, principles, and state of mind that drive our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and determine how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world. Our consciousness and process can mirror the speciesist-carnist culture we are working to transform, thus reinforcing, for instance, ideological rigidity, black-and-white thinking, defensiveness, bullying, self-righteousness, and hostility. Or it can reflect the core principles of veganism – principles such as compassion, reciprocity, justice, and humility – the essence of a “liberatory” consciousness (and process), a way of being (and relating) that is fundamentally liberating and that I believe can significantly empower the important strategic conversations we need to continue to engage in.
Equating Difference with Deficiency: Framing Healthy Disagreements as Divisive Debates
There are many ways in which we, as individuals and as a movement, embody a liberatory consciousness. I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of vegans around the world, and of witnessing the courage and conviction they carry through their lives. They hold firm to their values despite the daily hostility and discrimination they must contend with, the isolation they experience, the frustration they feel when perceiving the blatant irrationality in others’ attitudes and behaviors toward nonhuman animals, and the pain and sorrow and exasperation they feel at the ubiquitous reminders of brutality and injustice that surround them. And I have also had the opportunity to witness the global unfolding and burgeoning of the vegan movement. Given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we have much to be proud of.
And given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we also have much work to do.
Although we have been able to bring a liberatory consciousness to many areas of our activism and our movement – in particular, to our areas of commonality – we often bring a non-liberatory consciousness to our areas of difference. Given that our diversity is our strength – the more ideas and experiences we bring to our movement, the richer and more multidimensional it becomes – when we equate difference with deficiency, when we believe that differences are obstacles rather than opportunities, then we relate to our differences in a way that weakens rather than strengthens ourselves and our movement. Our disagreements become framed as divisive debates rather than constructive conversations.
The core problem is not our differences; it is the way we relate to them. In other words, although there may well be differences in terms of how effective various strategies are for ending animal exploitation – some strategies may even be counterproductive – we cannot determine which approaches to focus our efforts on if we are unable to discuss such differences openly. We must approach our areas of difference in such a way that cultivates the kind of productive dialogue that enables us to fully explore the most expedient methods by which to stop the tide of horrific brutality toward nonhuman beings that does not pause while we argue with each other.
Debate versus Dialogue: Radically Different Processes
The debate model, though widely accepted in academia and beyond, has also been criticized by a number of intellectuals, ranging at least as far back as Socrates. In general, when we debate, we seek to “win” an “argument,” to “defend” our position, to demonstrate that our position is “right.” Thus, our goal is inevitably to make the other(s) “lose” and demonstrate that their position is “wrong.” The goal of debate is typically not to learn, to develop to a broader and deeper understanding of an issue, but to further our own existing view against an “opponent” who is equally invested in furthering her or his view. Debate is based on and encourages dualistic, either/or thinking: we are often forced to choose between two (opposing) views and can therefore fail to see the many alternative views that may exist. We can also fail to appreciate the nuances of the issue, or that there may be multiple and equally valid interpretations of the same situation.
The goal of dialogue, on the other hand, is to share ideas and to become aware of multiple perspectives. It is to understand and be understood by the other to garner broader awareness. Through dialogue we are encouraged to examine our own assumptions, consider the limitations of our perspective, and contemplate alternative explanations or courses of action to the issue we are exploring. The dialogue model is much more reflective of a liberatory consciousness, as it requires curiosity, empathy, and compassion, and its objective is mutual understanding and collective empowerment rather than creating “winners” and “losers.”
Apart from the consciousness engendered by each model, if we consider the sheer practical value of these approaches to ending animal exploitation, we can appreciate how debate can pose a serious obstacle to this goal: Achieving our objective of animal liberation depends on developing a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and flexible strategic approach to targeting a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing form of institutionalized oppression. It is unlikely that the reductive, black-and-white rhetoric of debate can ever produce such nuance and analytical richness. Our differences are our strengths.
The Debate Stalemate: Strategy in the Guise of Ideology
Given the problematic nature of debate, why do we continue to apply this model to dealing with our differences? One reason is because we have conflated ideology with strategy, believing that our differences are ideological rather than strategic. Ideology is morally loaded, often engendering a “right/wrong” mentality, and it is subjectively interpreted, which can lead to endless deliberation and ultimately stalemate.
While ideological differences among vegans do of course exist, for many vegans there is often a lack of clarity around when and how ideology and strategy overlap. For instance, when we debate whether it is more effective to campaign for institutional reform than to conduct vegan outreach (assuming these are mutually exclusive approaches, which they are not) the assumption is often that the disagreement is purely ideological, that one is either “abolitionist” or “welfarist.” However, most vegans do in fact share the goal of the abolition of animal exploitation and when we untangle ideology from strategy we can redirect the conversation to how best to bring about this end without getting sidetracked by moral argumentation.
When we wrap ideology around strategy we lose the objectivity necessary to develop a sound strategic analysis. For instance, we treat theory as though it were fact, vehemently arguing for an approach based on no empirical evidence whatsoever. Historical examples of other abolition movements, such as the movement to end African slavery, are useful references but they in no way approximate the hard data necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of a strategic approach to abolishing contemporary animal exploitation. Nor do we have any reliable data proving that welfare reforms will ultimately bring about abolition and do not actually undermine efforts toward that end. And we also treat fact as though it were theory, dismissing, for instance, the plethora of research examining motivational and behavioral factors influencing individual and social change: It is truly astonishing how Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart, a 220-page compilation of psychosocial studies, has at times been treated as though it were mere conjecture.
Strategic analysis is one of the – if not the – most important efforts we can engage in as vegans. Questioning how to most effectively and expediently bring about change for nonhuman animals is vital to our mission. It makes sense to ask whether, for instance, welfare reforms that raise awareness about farmed animal exploitation yet provide another justification for such exploitation are more beneficial than consequential. These are valid questions that require ongoing dialogue. The debate model, however, is not useful when discussing strategy; our investment in being right can prevent us from being effective.
The Myth of the Great Debate: “Welfarism versus Abolitionism”
Another reason vegans employ the counterproductive debate model is because many of us believe that there is a fundamental “welfare-abolition debate” dividing our movement and that we are therefore automatically on one side or the other. In other words, we have bought into The Myth of the Great Debate.
However, while there are those who do seek to debate this issue, the debate itself is largely a construct. A debate, in general, assumes there are (at least) two “opposing” sides, each which is equally invested in promoting its position as right. And to be invested in promoting one’s position, one must generally beidentified with that position. A debate is like a soccer match: there have to be two groups, identified as teams, which are both committed to “winning” the game.
If we examine the history of the “welfare-abolition debate,” however, we see that the vast majority of vegans do not see themselves on a “side” of the “debate” because they are not identified with a particular position – they have not labeled themselves or their position and they have not constructed an identity around it. They simply see themselves as “vegans.” Often they will only consider their position in the “debate” when they are confronted with “choosing” a “side,” but generally they don’t feel any identification with their supposed “side,” nor do they perceive those on the other “side” as in opposition to them and their efforts. Identification with a position has largely been the province of a small group of vegans who have constructed an identity around their strategic-ideological approach and who have constructed labels for both themselves and the other “side.” In our soccer analogy, it’s as if there is only one team trying to win the game; the rest of the individuals don’t even think of themselves as a team and are simply moving across the field, only kicking the ball when it gets in their way.
To be fair, just because only a minority of vegans have a “team” identity, this does not mean that the majority play no role in constructing the debate. It is entirely possible that the small, vocal minority have developed a cohesive group identity because they have felt that their valid and pressing concerns have not been taken seriously by the broader vegan culture. Both “sides” must work to defuse the Myth of the Great Debate.
The Myth of the Great Divide: United and Divided We Stand
One of the dangers of buying into the Myth of the Great Debate is that it can lead us to believe in the Myth of the Great Divide – that there is a deep rift in our movement which is crippling our efforts and undermining our activism. And while it is true that “the debate” is divisive and poses an obstacle to our growth, a cursory analysis of the evolution of the movement over recent years demonstrates without a doubt that we are growing exponentially in size and strength. The rift is not a chasm.
We may also believe in the Myth of the Great Divide because, as ideological minorities, we are often portrayed by the dominant culture as a one-dimensional, homogeneous group. And, like other non-dominant groups, we can feel pressured to present a unified front in order to obtain social power. So it is important for us to remember that we are no less diverse than non-vegans, and we don’t have to – nor should we – share all the same values and beliefs and approaches. When we look at ourselves through the lens of the dominant culture we can fear that if we are not united, we are divided, and act this out in a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we can be, and are, both similar and different.
Our perception of ourselves as fundamentally divided is reinforced at least in part through the construction and appropriation of labels for vegans. While linguistic analysis and accuracy are essential to the continued growth of any social movement, when labels are created and applied unilaterally – when those on the receiving end have been neither participants in the process nor consenting recipients of the labels ascribed to them – the result is confusion, frustration, and a profound undermining of personal dignity and group solidarity.
Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than through the use of the labels “abolitionist” and “welfarist.” Many vegans find these labels offensive because they are involuntarily either ascribed or denied such labels – they are told they are not who they perceive themselves to be or that they are who they perceive themselves not to be. For instance, the technical definition of “abolitionist” is one who favors the abolition of a practice or institution; in the case of veganism, it would mean anyone whose end goal is the abolition of animal exploitation. And while the majority of vegans arguably perceive themselves to be abolitionists, this term has been redefined to apply to a small group of those who favor a particular ideology and strategic approach to bringing about that end. Thus, anyone whose approach differs, even if their goal is the abolition of animal exploitation, is labeled “welfarist,” which suggests that they simply seek to alleviate, rather than eliminate, such exploitation. While there are certainly animal protection advocates – and greenwashing agribusiness executives – who do not seek abolition, the vast majority of vegans do and are thus rightly offended when they are denied the right to self-identification.
A simple way to address the problem of divisive labeling is to choose terms that are more inclusive and accurate. Indeed, it is likely that such terms were originally constructed to foster greater accuracy and that exclusion has been an unintended consequence. However, the process by which such labeling has been implemented is of even greater concern than the labels themselves. Imposing on others unsolicited labels that are incongruent with their own self-concept is defining their reality. It is denying others the right to their own philosophical orientation. When we define another’s reality, we essentially state that we know better than they do what their core motivations and goals are. Defining another’s reality is a fundamentally disempowering (non-liberatory) process. Whenever we appoint ourselves the expert on another’s experience, we strip the other of their subjectivity, rendering them objects of our projections. We erase their being, projecting onto them our own assumptions about their internal world. This kind of consciousness is antithetical to all we stand for as vegans. Think about it: our advocacy is predicated on preventing humans from defining the reality of other animals, from dismissing or minimizing other beings’ sentience and suffering. We strive to understand the subjective experience of other animals and to encourage others to do the same. Thiswitnessing of other beings, validating rather than defining their reality, is the basis of a vegan consciousness – a liberatory consciousness.
A Vegan Consciousness of Liberation: Beyond the Debate and Across the Divide
Veganism is founded on the principles that inform a liberatory consciousness, and the essence of vegan philosophy is respecting the intrinsic worth of allbeings, humans included. There is no way we will create the kind of world that mirrors our principles if we practice our philosophy selectively rather than holistically. We must commit to bringing a liberatory consciousness to our minute-to-minute lives, to our closest relationships as well as our interactions with strangers, to those with whom we may vehemently disagree as well as those we call comrades. In such a way, we model for non-vegans the principles we are asking them to espouse, we cultivate more fulfilling and sustainable lives as vegans and as activists, and we create a more unified and empowered movement.
A liberatory consciousness reflects curiosity – an open mind – rather than ideological or intellectual rigidity and defensiveness. The goal is to seek truth, to learn and understand, rather than to be “right.” If we value curiosity as a core principle of a liberatory consciousness then we value, rather than disparage, those whose truth-seeking may engender ideas we disagree with. For instance,James McWilliams has come under harsh criticism for changing his stance on certain issues after examining them more fully. Yet, regardless as to whether we agree with his ideas, McWilliams’ openness to information that challenges his existing views and his commitment to seeking (and speaking) truth over being “right” reflects true intellectual integrity.
A liberatory consciousness reflects compassion – an open heart – rather than judgment, shaming, and bullying. The goal is to connect, to empathize with the other, and to empower her or him. Judgment is always shaming, as it reflects an attitude of superiority and causes the other to feel inferior, “less-than.” And bullying is the use of aggression to intimidate another into doing (or believing) what one wants. We may champion a belief system of total liberation, but if our actions are judgmental, shaming, or bullying, we are oppressing rather than liberating. Moreover, when we practice compassion we defuse our anger, and anger is a serious obstacle to productive dialogue. Anger is a normal, appropriate response to injustice, but when we fail to examine and process our anger, it can grow and become chronic. And when we communicate from aplace of anger, we inevitably project hostility. Our words – spoken or written – are pregnant with vitriol, righteously indignant. Anger is a profoundly disconnecting emotion; it creates defensive walls in ourselves and in those with whom we are communicating. If our goal is to be heard, we need the other to be open to us, to feel a connection with us – to sense our compassion.
And a liberatory consciousness reflects the courage to practice curiosity and compassion in our interactions, and our lives. Any interaction that does not reflect curiosity and compassion is inherently non-liberatory.
As vegans, we are asking of the world something that has never been asked of it before. We are seeking radical social transformation, a true revolution of consciousness. Our movement, our voice, is critical to talking the world off the ledge on which it stands. And although we are making our voice heard over the din, just imagine how much our louder our message would be if we stopped yelling at each other. And just imagine the kind of world we could create if we committed to speaking the language of liberation.