I’m going to depart briefly from the usual fare of self-cannibalizing left media critique and free speech suppressing, to chat briefly about an issue that keeps coming up around the rhetoric of animal rights. This would not be much of a departure from the usual here, or not a large one, if animal rights were widely accepted as a left concern. However, that’s not yet the case, and, in fact, the notion that we have ethical obligations to animals is widely disparaged and ridiculed on the left.
This is odd and disappointing given that the impact of meat and dairy production and commercial fishing spans a number of traditional left concerns — labor, the environment, land use, climate change, food distribution and censorship among them — which could benefit from agitation against industries that subject animals to extreme abuse. But that’s a fight for another day and probably other people, since I don’t have too much head left to beat against the wall.
However, I’m interested in how language fortifies oppression, abuse and atrocity and how propaganda works etc and there is this thing that keeps coming up, in large part because PETA — the most visible representative of animal rights — has a media strategy that could correctly be called trolling. I trust most of my readers are aware that the form this most provocatively takes is the likening of animal abuse to historical atrocities against human beings, typically the enslavement of Black people and the Shoah. A lot of rank and file animal rights proponents make these analogies also, although quite a large number also reject them.
I’m going to say at the outset that, after thinking on this harder than I normally do, I, with some ambivalence, oppose the use of these analogies in tweet, soundbite and slogan form due to insufficient context. Yesterday, before reaching this conclusion, I quoted this from Isaac Bashevis Singer on Twitter, because I had just read this Haaretz article about a Holocaust survivor/animal rights advocate that included it:
in the animal’s eyes, every man is a Nazi and every day is Treblinka
I probably wouldn’t do it again, but I also don’t regret it that much, because I had linked to an article that investigated the idea in greater detail, which does not entirely violate the tweet/slogan/soundbite restriction I have placed upon myself. The other reason I don’t feel too bad is I think these analogies — within the framework of animal rights philosophy — are entirely reasonable and I think Bashevis Singer’s quote is wonderfully concise and vivid. I like the inducement to look briefly though an animal’s eyes. Singer also said, when asked whether he had become a vegetarian for health reasons, “I did it for the health of the chickens,” which is another good line.
Singer’s epigram shows that PETA didn’t invent this comparison and, in fact, the analogy has a fairly rich history. The problem with indiscriminate use in a slogan way, is that this analogy is predicated on a conception of morality that most people don’t accept and, more importantly, are not even aware of. If they did accept the conception of morality on which this analogy is based, they don’t need any additional encouragement from it. In other words, absent a discussion of the moral philosophy behind the analogy, these sentiments sing to the chorus and antagonize just about everyone else, and they are no doubt particularly vexing to Black people and Jews who don’t know their philosophical context.
The philosophical basis for these analogies is that it is not intelligence, or capacity for culture or any other uniquely human quality that imparts ethical and moral weight. It is the capacity to suffer. While you may disagree with this, it’s very clear that these analogies are only racist, anti-semitic or minimizing to people for whom humanness is the benchmark of moral consideration. In other words, to people who don’t make these analogies.
Clearly, these comparisons don’t aim to reduce the moral weight of Jews or Black people. They aim at increasing the moral weight of commodity animals, and their intended rhetorical potency presupposes that the Shoah and slavery are unspeakable atrocities and their victims as morally weighty as victims get. The assertion that commodity animals are morally comparable to Jews and Black people is the logical consequence of commodity animals being morally comparable to all people. There is absolutely no implication in these analogies that Jews and Black people are like commodity animals in any way apart from the capacity to suffer, and their history of being objectified and abused by human majorities.
While I think I’m obliged to consider how these analogies are likely to be interpreted if expressed a certain way and in certain forums, I don’t feel myself under any obligation to reject the analogies altogether or to never discuss them. I can’t insist that people accept the vegan benchmark for moral consideration, but I think it’s reasonable to insist that accusations of racism or antisemitism predicated on a denigration of animals animal liberationists emphatically reject aren’t valid accusations. Repetitive insistence on how humans really are morally special isn’t going to fly either, any more than its antecedent, “ordained by God” would.
This is, I guess, another way of politely asking people who want to argue morality with animal rights people, and accuse them of racism, antisemitism or some other character defect, to be instantly recognizable as someone who has at least a few minutes acquaintance with the appropriate wikipedia page. I think I speak for a lot of vegans in saying how mind-numbingly stupid I find most arguments that come at us, and marvel at the frequency with which these “arguments” come wrapped in froth, sneering, superciliousness and robotic repetitiveness. Of course, that’s internet conversation generally, but I think vegan/not vegan hits lows that other topics don’t. Policing misunderstood animal ethics with vulgarized liberal-left politics — which often erases poor vegans and vegans of color from human existence entirely — is becoming increasingly common. Which is why, for all our alleged self-righteousness, most vegans stay pretty quiet about it.
A more superficially compelling, less stupid route I think, is to grudgingly concede moral equality on the basis of suffering — if only for the sake of argument — but nonetheless insist that there are certain kinds of abuse that can only be visited upon humans and thereby impart to The Shoah and slavery qualities that render analogies to mass animal abuse trivializing or inaccurate. That’s a whole lot better than making cracks about “salad rights,” certainly, but I don’t find it terribly compelling. Ultimately it’s just a stealth “because human” argument.
There is, first of all, the simple matter of definitions. Of course, while the Holocaust was the climax of a lengthy period of terrorizing and persecuting Jews and other marginalized groups in ways that are simply not applicable to commodity animals — a farmer would of course never burn pigs out of their home, for example — the term generally evokes the Final Solution, in accordance with the more generally accepted meaning of (small h) holocaust, which, for most people is mass slaughter. Hence, unless I’m missing something, the analogy makes its point without moral confusion or trivializing.
The same holds true for slavery. Yes, enslavement will feel different to a commodity animal than a human, because humans, by way of having different thoughts, feelings, emotions, self-conception will process it differently. However, again, I see no evidence that because it feels different for humans that this difference is so great that comparisons are essentially meaningless. Or that the suffering is greater. For most people, the concept, slavery, conjures commodification, captivity and forced labor. If one concedes that this is what slavery means, how is the commodification, captivity and forced labor of animals not analogous, if you rule out any moral difference inherent to humanness?
The mandate that anything analogized with slavery or the Holocaust meet some exceptionally high bar for directly corresponding elements — as opposed to simple correspondence to the fundamental, widely understood definitions — is more about political capital than morals. It is not simply animal liberationists that fight for a non-negligible place in the history of atrocities. The Nazi genocide of the Roma, who were treated as a subclass in the Warsaw ghetto — their company, a punishment — has only become visible recently. The genocide against the indigenous peoples of The Americas still doesn’t have a fraction of The Shoah’s moral weight.
Nevertheless, these are contests between humans, and I might reluctantly entertain arguments for banning analogies, based on extreme experiential differences between humans and commodity animals, if based on something weightier than pure speculation about how these things feel. Until then, is there any rational basis for believing a dog being skinned alive to make a coat would suffer more if she had a citizenship to be stripped of first? If she left behind a distinguished body of literature? Do you think her experience is so different from a human guinea pig in some horrible concentration camp laboratory that they aren’t even comparable?
If so, I think you’re kind of an asshole, and also a liar. The benchmark, really, for what we call atrocities is treatment of humans akin to the hell visited upon commodity animals every day. It’s interesting that there is no reluctance to make human/animal comparisons with talk of “abattoirs” and phrases like “herded onto trains like cattle,” “used as guinea pigs” and “treated like work animals” when describing atrocities, so long as the context is a humans-only ethical system. Thankfully, most of the routine hells for commodity animals have yet to inspire human equivalents for comparison, at least not on the same enormous scale.
Millions of humans are not bred every year to be assaulted several times a day, kept in horrible conditions, until the day when they are crowded onto the truck for a long, uncomfortable ride that will take them to their horrifying, painful and sometimes agonizingly slow death. Or kept around to make babies that are taken away from them and put in pens that they can’t even stand up in. There are no industries where humans are skinned alive or electrocuted from the inside out starting with their assholes. Humans are not dissected alive, or kept in cages to have tobacco smoke forced down their lungs repeatedly, or their heads bludgeoned, or harsh chemicals rubbed into their eyes. If comparing the abuse of commodity animals to crimes against humanity is legitimately a stretch, it’s only because the exploitation of animals is, in terms of numbers, extreme viciousness and pure suffering, exponentially worse, regardless of where you come down on its moral significance.
Feel free to insist that humanness is the benchmark, and that animals are morally negligible if they have any moral weight at all. But don’t justify that moral negligibility with genuinely idiotic claims that reduce the scientific fact of their suffering. Don’t insult me, or make an ass of yourself, by saying that humans are so different, and their suffering so unique and acute because of this difference, we need separate words to distinguish atrocities against them from the nightmares commodity animals live in. Perhaps this made sense a hundred years ago, when we had no idea we were 96% chimpanzee. It’s pure superstition now.
What purpose do these distinctions serve other than to maintain a moral chasm that makes being nice, or progressive or against oppression or an “animal lover” entirely compatible with complicity in horrific, mechanized, indisputably unnecessary animal abuse? Do people honestly think that comparing the mass slaughter of intelligent, sentient creatures to human holocausts makes human holocausts more likely? That to say slavery means commodification, captivity and forced labor — even for non-human animals — turns back the clock on buying and selling humans? Makes people more racist? Where is the evidence or even the logic? It seems far more possible that insistence on a thick line — for whatever reason — between cruelty to humans and cruelty to commodity animals produces the exact opposite of its ostensibly intended effect.
So long as there are radically different constraints on abuse of animals and abuse of humans, justified by the simple fact that one is human and one isn’t, it will be easier to make arguments to abuse whole subpopulations, like Jews or Roma for instance. You need only convince a critical mass of people that The Others are not fully human in any meaningful sense. They’re something else — capable of suffering certainly — but not human enough for moral consideration of their well-being. While humans will undoubtedly find all kinds of good reasons to treat other humans horribly, we needn’t make it so easy, by perpetuating a culture that places no upper limit on the suffering anything regarded as less-than-human can be forced to endure. Normalized domination, exploitation and sheer cruelty degrade everything, not least human relations.
Here’s what Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a pacifist, conscientious objector and survivor of Dachau said on the subject:
“I have suffered so much myself that I can feel other creatures’ suffering by virtue of my own…I believe as long as man tortures and kill animals, he will torture and kill humans as well—and wars will be waged—for killing must be practiced and learned on a small scale”.
What a Holocaust-minimizing anti-semite, that guy.
Caged and Commodified, Still by Nancy Heitzeg