Standing up to the Left on Animal Rights

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After a semester of learning about patriarchy and intersectional social justice, I finally shared with my class the uncomfortable thought that had been burning inside me all year.

Looking into the eyes of my professors and my peers, I told them I cannot take their commitment to justice seriously while they completely ignore the plight of nonhuman animals.

I wasn’t mean, but I did not hold back. I told them the how I really felt—how every animal activist really feels.

To their immense credit, the response was overwhelmingly supportive. One of my professors, the acclaimed feminist author Carol Gilligan, asked what materials on animal rights she should include for her future classes. Several students spoke up agreeing that animal rights deserves to be recognized as a bona fide social justice issue. One person told us about the horror she felt when she witnessed an animal slaughter. Another highlighted the inconsistency between our love for dogs and cats, and our treatment of farmed animals. After class, someone told me that I have totally changed her worldview on animals. Several others came up to me to voice their solidarity with me and the cause.

This discussion only came about because we were asked to write about how we resist injustice in our lives, and whether we identified with the materials and arguments presented throughout the course. I’m really glad I decided to say how I really felt. You can read my written response below. In it, I talk about the hypocrisy of the Left on animal rights, and my personal struggle as an animal activist working within progressive circles.


 

What to the animals is feminism and democracy?

I have always thought of myself as a resister. I have spent most of my life challenging racism, sexism, nationalism, classism, and other forms of discrimination. But for me, (a straight, rich, white, cisgender, male) growing up in one of the most diverse and liberal areas in the country, resistance was always easy. Resistance was against the Republicans–a distant and abstract rival tribe that existed somewhere out there–that occasionally manifested as a rare villainous conservative teacher or a rogue Facebook commenter. Backed by innumerable bleeding heart adult role models (especially my dad and my teachers) and smart liberal friends, it was easy for me to challenge these ideological outsiders on the red team.

“Resisting” was even easier in college. By this point I could decry the evils of right wing discrimination to reliable applause on social media. It was as clear as ever that compassionate and reasonable people would have my back on the issues that matter. I was a proud Democrat; an upstanding member of the blue team. My views were shared and defended by politicians, academics, journalists, friends and family. Together we were engaged in the fight for social justice against the oppressive conservatism of the Republicans…wherever they were.

That all changed when I became an animal rights activist. That is when I learned the meaning of resistance. For the first time in my life, I had to stand up not to some abstract other, but to my friends and allies; to the people I admired most. It was painful. And today, in the bastions of leftism: at NYU Law; on the Review of Law and Social Change; and in this very class, it is more painful than ever.

My fellow social justice activists constantly remind me that violence against animals is a sideshow at best—not a matter of serious moral concern that can share the stage with racism, sexism, homophobia and other urgent social justice issues. Sometimes these reminders are explicit, like when a prominent feminist NYU alumna ridiculed me for focusing on animal rights. Other times they are implicit, like when the Review of Law and Social Change decided to host a banquet that featured the bodies of animals who didn’t want to die. Most of the time, such as in this class, I am reminded by the total absence of anything related to animals at all.

I suppose that for the last paper of this course, it is only fitting for me to engage in some resistance. So I’ll challenge you, my friends and allies in the struggle for justice, to answer these questions: What to the animals is your feminism and democracy? What is your ethics of care? What is your justice? What is your liberty? What is your equality? What is your commitment to the marginalized? What is your compassion?

We challenge imprisonment and then confine them for life. We preach family defense and rip mothers from their children. We advocate sexual autonomy and then impregnate them against their will. We champion disability rights and then slaughter them because they aren’t smart enough. We say find your voice, and then ignore their cries.

Ideals like feminism and democracy do have the potential to really mean something for animals, but we have to make it so. Until then, I’m not sure they mean anything at all.