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Scattered Ramblings About Animal Rights

Today I read two good posts on animal rights* by bloggers I wouldn't ordinarily classify as "AR blogs." First was brownfemipower, writing about why violent tactics -- such as a recent firebombing of an animal researcher's house -- are inappropriate and ineffective. She draws a parallel to her younger self's desire to just do something in the face of another screaming injustice, and points out how violent tactics reinforce the underlying systemic dysfunction in the process of attacking one manifestation of it. Further, to expand on one point she touches on, I think it's important to be clear about the distinction between "following the rules" and "understanding the cause." Insofar as attacks on animal researchers are successful at intimidating people out of that line of research (and they appear to be so to a certain extent), they succeed only at getting people to follow the rules -- to make the behavior that's being explicitly addressed conform to the dictates of the enforcer. But they do nothing -- and indeed are likely counterproductive -- at getting people to understand the cause, that is, to come to see animals as sentient beings whose suffering deserves more consideration than we currently give it. Enforcement of rule-following is a useful and necessary part of social maintenance, but it is impotent if used alone (or used in a way that undercuts cause-understanding efforts). Violence thus creates a veneer of radicalism over what's really a short-sighted and unsustainable form of action.

The second post is this one by Marisol LeBron at Racialicious, discussing PeTA's recent offer to put pro-veganism posters on the Mexican side of the U.S. border fence. The post and commenters do a good job of bringing up all the many ways that this specific project is wrong:
* It implicitly reinforces the legitimacy of the U.S.'s restrictive and punitive immigration system (and were it ever to come to fruition, it would give material support to the fence).
* It romanticizes traditional Mexican life -- if people could have a happy meal of nopales and watermelon every day, they wouldn't be risking their lives to cross into the U.S.
* The romanticization of Mexican diets and slamming of U.S. diets operates as a sort of backhanded imperialism (in a similar way to attempts to justify misogyny by saying that women are so much better than men).
* It uses, and hence reinforces, the "skinny=healthy, fat=unhealthy" trope.
* It puts the burden of fixing the problem of meat-eating on the people who are in the worst position to be able to create any real change in the system -- laying a guilt trip on immigrants rather than doing anything to improve the conditions under which some of them will be picking the ingredients of your vegan meals and ensuring that they will have access to the ingredients and time to go vegan as well.

Early in the thread, commenter Chris says something that I think crystallizes an important underlying issue with so many of PeTA's publicity stunts. Chris's reaction to PeTA's tactics is to say "At some point, you have to place human rights and dignity above that of animals."

The problem here is that PeTA's tactics encourage us to pit the interests of animals against one or more human groups. Regardless of the intended meaning, PeTA's campaigns have repeatedly put animal rights up against other social justice causes (and considering the way they seem to be systematically moving through the various causes -- objectifying women, the Holocaust, slavery, and now Mexican immigrants -- I almost wonder if they have a checklist at PeTA HQ of all the groups they have to offend). But when you invite competition between your new cause and causes that your audience already has some commitment to, your cause is going to lose every time, as Chris's comment illustrates. The idea that human and animal interests are a zero-sum game is a deeply entrenched one that needs to be rooted out, not reinforced.

At the same time, though, the fact that PeTA encourages us to play the oppression olympics doesn't get us off the hook from falling into their trap. It's a completely unjustified cop-out to say "well, PeTA is a bunch of jerks, so I'm going to keep eating meat." Either oppose animal rights on the merits or join the cause and resolve to promote it the right way.

On a meatspace-inspired note, I've come to hate it when I'm at a restaurant with someone and they ask "would it bother you if I order meat?" While I can accept that people who ask it mean well, depending on the person, the question can be read one of three ways, none of them good:
* "I need you to confirm for me that you're not one of those preachy vegetarians."
* "I understand that you've got this sentimental aversion to meat, so I want to make sure I don't disturb your delicate sensibilities."
* "Your presence makes me feel a little guilty about eating meat because I don't have a satisfying philosophical justification for it, so I want you to assuage my guilt by giving me permission to order meat."
Ultimately, the problem with the question is that it trivializes the concerns that motivate ethical veg*anism, treating it on the same level as if it's just a health- or taste-based choice. If you're going to eat meat, grow some gonads and own it. (My usual response is "Would you actually not order meat if I said I did mind?" with the clear implication of "Don't push the responsibility for your dietary choices onto me, because I just might say 'in that case, I don't think you'll die if you order the tofu today.'")

* Despite my tendency toward abstract armchair philosophizing, I get tired of pedantry about what exactly qualifies as "animal rights." I realize it makes it easy to crank out a blog post saying "this article refers to Peter Singer as a proponent of 'animal rights' but he's really a utilitarian!" However, "X rights" has become a well-understood shorthand for "wanting to make things better for Xs regardless of the philosophical underpinnings or legal/cultural mechanisms for achieving it."


Blogger plaidshoes said...

Very interesting post. As a longtime vegetarian (striving to be vegan), you very well summed up my thoughts. I especially liked your thoughts regarding the "is it ok if I order meat" question. So true! I have a large extended family that are hunters and I frequently have the opposite situation in which they seem to have vast meat spreads whenever I am around (although it is probably everyday - not really just for me ;-)

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ultimately, the problem with the question is that it trivializes the concerns that motivate ethical veg*anism, treating it on the same level as if it's just a health- or taste-based choice.

It's not as if the following scenario is the only one that plays out - after all, I've seen times when the meat-eater is overly relishing their meal to the dismay of the veg*n, somewhat like when heterosexual couples insist on making out in front of you. But then there are veg*ns who will confront you about your eating habits without giving you an explanation (righteous indignation). If the goal is conversion, it's ultimately going to fail, much like how PETA's tactics and logic work. But if the goal is to empower the other person to understand *why* they eat what they do, then that's a better way to approach things.

The thing I haven't figured out yet is how to discuss racial issues with white veg*ns... but I suppose that there is no correct way because I would be making the assumption that said veg*ns would be anti-racist (and veg*nism would be part of that).

hope this didn't derail anything

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, omnivore, carnivore or herbivore, own up to what you eat. It's your choice.

Personally, I think it's just bad taste (pardon the pun) to bring the subject up during a meal anyway.

I'm a long time omnivore (and yeah, trap me in the andes with no food and I'll be talking about "long pig" and looking for vegans) and aside from my dinner mate eating something that might trigger an allergy reaction, what they eat is their choice.

Now I'm no Ted Nugent fanboy, but really its the height of obnoxiousness to make statements about a person's food during a meal. If a person has that much aversion to the sight of someone eating meat, then they should bloody well stay home. And if a person is so worried they might offend a vegan they eat with then they shouldn't eat with them.

I can't be around peanuts at all, so I don't go to restaurants that like to have them. It's my choice. If a person I know can't enjoy a meal without peanuts then I don't enjoy a meal with that person.

Now if a vegan wants to chat with me about the evils of meat when I am not enjoying a nice bison steak with sugar snap peas and rice, then I have no problem. I won't change my mind, and they will probably get their feelings hurt, but fine game on.

Really, its just silly. Well said Debitage, very well said.

6:29 AM  

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