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.

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44 thoughts on “Standing up to the Left on Animal Rights

  1. Well done. The left really needs to be challenged on this, and animal rights should no longer be an orphan child.
    I think colleges like these are the ideal situation in which to bring the animal rights ideology. If it doesn’t work there, where will it work?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. How many of you have herds of bison in your back yards or deer in you shrubbery or rabbits carpeting you pristine lawns of squirrels nesting in your attics and causing power failures in you houses or rattlesnakes inhabiting you flower beds and gardens and cotton mouths swimming in you Koi ponds and your swimming pools and rats infesting you crawl spaces and mice nest in you walls. What about the roaches you have murdered by the exterminators? Animal lovers my ass.

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      1. Good day Arky,
        I don’t see how those occasions relate to our (needless) consumption of animals. Getting rid of poisonous snakes might be seen as something necessary to survive, enslaving animals for our pleasure (read; consumption) is in most cases not a matter of life. Not for us Western people with the availability of a wide variety of healthy foods.
        And I don’t think this piece is about loving animals per se, it’s about their rights and our double standards when it comes to handling/judging moral issues. If you prefer to hate animals instead of loving them, you are still able to acknowledge the points Jay is making right?
        Have a lovely day!

        Liked by 4 people

      2. You mean you are concerned about your ability to enforce your sense of esthetics on nature, thereby proving human dominion over animals? I have coatis raiding my house, monkeys which occasionally invade my kitchen, bats which roost under the eaves of my house, armadeira spiders (listed as the most venomous in the world routinely making forays into my house, pit vipers lurking in the pile of leaves accumulating in my backyard, and millions of lizards big and small running all over the place (believe me, I get tired of the mess they leave in my house, on my walls, on my floors and I constantly search for a way to rid my house of them, but I WILL NOT resort to poisons or fire, two methods common among others around here). I dare say, my situation is much more drastic than yours, and I am less whiney, still love animals, remain dedicated to the sanctity of ALL life. So what were you saying?

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Comments like yours are so typical of people who do not want to change their lifestyle of eating animals and their byproducts and adopt a plant based diet, which by all scientific accounts is the most healthy diet.. If you are not vegan, you are contributing to the 6th mass extinction of life on this planet. You apparently choose to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution of slowing down mass extinction. Selfish, elitist, speciesist is a good description of people like you.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. OK, I’ll bite Bill. So what is your point? That we should be more mindful about what we care about to make sure we don’t leave things out? On that I’d totally agree with you! Or is it the tired old screed that I’ve heard for years about how since I am a hypocrite for not being perfect, then no one should try at all, after all “God put animals on earth to be eaten!” or some equally stupid crap?

        To that I would say, it’s a progression. First I met vegetarians and thought they were a bit odd and limited. Then I ate a lot of great vegetarian food and realized it was awesome. Then I met some vegans and didn’t like them because they seemed so strident, but something in what they were saying, although it kind of offended me(I hate people telling me what to do, it’s almost always for THEIR interest, not mine) kept whispering to me that even if I didn’t like the messengers I had met, dammit, they were probably right.

        Then later on I ended up working on a farm and having direct contact with “livestock”, that’s when I learned these were NOT stupid future-lunches only here to fill our stomachs. I learned they had personalities, they cared about each other, they were affectionate, they were intelligent. They had a right to be here just as I do.

        Then I finally bucked up and watched those terrible videos on how factory farm animals are treated and realized that I could no longer hide my head in the sand on the issue of animal rights, that we humans were and have been doing something really terrible for thousands of years and that it was even more of a horror show now. Especially since our intelligence and our tools allow us to sustain ourselves without killing any animals, why would we choose to prolong the suffering?

        Liked by 2 people

  2. As a vegan activist I speak out on behalf of animals and spread informational pamphletts wherever I go. It is truly difficult especially with freinds and family and oftentimes after speaking out in class my hand is literally shaking. It is a daunting task, but vegans must speak out at all times. I was told by a freind that I bring up animals out of nowhere. My response to her was if I didn’t they wouldn’t be mentioned. Thank you Jay for sharing your struggle and sucess with us and our fellow animals.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Jay. I am so grateful that you wrote this. It brought up so many concerns I have that I realised I should write my own blog. (that is a challenge I may or may not follow up with).You are concerned about the hypocrisy we all live with: the essential contraction between our beliefs and actions.
    I have been vegetarian/vegan for most of my life now (over 50 years) as well as a secular humanist (for over 50 years as well). I also have a deep love and respect for nature and the natural world.
    I stopped going to events where dead animals are one of the main courses in the meal as much as possible also over 50 years ago.
    Other than the repulsion and horror of the sight and smell of the dead carcass, just my presence at the event made people uncomfortable and defensive. I was a threat to their lifestyle, a reminder that they are eating someone helpless who was brutally murdered -something most sensitive/progressive-minded people don’t want to think about.
    But what I am really concerned with are all the things I do that are out of keeping with my own values. Such as driving a car, using a flush toilet, buying products wrapped in some toxic substance such as plastic or made with toxic substances (all electronic devices, etc.) -which all contribute to the current species die out-Etc. Etc. Etc.
    My point is, none of us are perfect. We all live with the contradiction /conflict between our values and actual day to day life. We try not to think about it too much.
    Many of us are trying to live more lightly on the planet. That is a good place to start. I try not to alienate others – most cannot and will not understand these ways of being in the world : it is just much too threatening. I can’t limit myself to friends who are just like me. I would be very much alone.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Not everyone is vegan or vegetarian. If you want others to respect your choices, it is important to respect theirs. Live and let live. “Animal rights” (not to be confused with Animal Welfare or best management practices, areas I have published in professionally) is a tricky issue for many farmers who work long hours to meet Americas demand for food, including meat. I think women should make the deeply difficult and personal decisions regarding their heath and their bodies, and frankly, their choices are not any religion or govts #^# business. Similarly, I also think farmers should be able to farm within the law w/o interference or threat of loss of livestock and vandalism from those that have different views. Small farmers have it hard enough as it is. Live and let live. Live your own best life. And let others do the same.

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    1. You can’t ask vegans to respect others views when they know that the views of others are causing billions of deaths every year. Would you ask a feminist to respect a rapists views? Or someone opposed to racism to respect the KKK? This is what the article was talking about, animal exploitation as a form of social injustice isn’t viewed by the compassionate majority as something to be regarded with the same level of scrutiny.

      You say “live and let live. Live your own best life. And let others do the same”, you really think that enslaving, torturing, and slaughtering animals is in keeping with that philosophy? If you don’t, that’s veganism.

      Liked by 8 people

      1. The key words are “rights within the law.” Until the laws are changed those rights will be supported and enforced. This is why lobbying, federal and state legislation are so important. HSUS is one of the best. ALDF is another great one. Progress is being made.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. When your choices hurt someone, they can’t be respected. Hard work may be admirable when it leads to a positive outcome, but not when the work is that of a warden and executioner. “Live and let live” should include the other types of persons with whom we share the Earth. Peace.

      Liked by 4 people

    3. Society as a whole has to deliver the message to farmers: Just as it was no longer live and let work -till- they- drop for slavery, it is no longer OK to live and make die our fellow animals. We have to shift core mechanisms in our society to help farmers grow and producers produce healthy, non animal products for people. It’s already happening.

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  5. Beautifully written and recognizable as a fellow ‘resister’ 🙂 It took me around a year to find the right method of challenging people close to me, compared to when challenging abstract entities. But I think I am getting the hang of it slowly.
    Thank you for this great article and keep on challenging beliefs! Even the ‘open-minded’ can sometimes use an extra challenge.
    Take care!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bravo! As for animal rights materials for courses, in addition to some obvious classic texts, the recept OUP anthology on Ethics of Captivity edited by Lori Gruen intersects humans and animals on the topic in very useful ways.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve always found it remarkable that otherwise open minded and critical thinkers of the left, advocating social justice, have such a blind spot when it comes to animal rights and speciesism.
    It’s indeed about justice for all!
    Unfortunately there is on the other hand also racism, sexism and ableism within the AR/vegan movement, obstructing bridge building across the movements. There’s definitely a lot of work on both fronts.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. So apparently, Nate Silver says that Obama’s politics land him right in the middle of the Democratic party (halfway between the farthest left and the closest to the center). I suspect you might be aware of that, so you probably think that the Democratic party as a whole has little or nothing to do with the Left. I guess that’s a fair position to take, especially if your goal is to shame the party into adhering to their supposed underlying values.

      But my goal was to speak to a broad audience of people who identify themselves as being left of center. Maybe I should have used another word to describe this group (suggestion?) that wouldn’t bestow the status of “true member of the left” on people who we think don’t deserve it. But we should at least recognize the potential tradeoff here. As far as I can tell, the sense in which I used the phrase “the Left” is commonly understood, among the American public, to refer to a whole range of views/individuals left of center. The far left, (or the ACTUAL Left if you prefer), might not like how the phrase Left is used in popular discourse, and seek to reclaim it, but that may involve sacrificing clarity when writing for a broad audience. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, but there may be some tradeoff here.

      Looking forward to your response, especially if you can supply with a better word to label the broad group of individuals with political beliefs left of center.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In the corporate media Obama would be referred to as being part of “the left,” but most people who are part of or supportive of social movements would distinguish between liberals and leftists/radicals. They MIGHT view Obama as a liberal now that he’s finally on board with gay rights. But when I was growing up Ted Kennedy was an icon of liberalism and he was well to the left of Obama. He wasn’t as in thrall to big corporations, firmly opposed the death penalty, and was one of the early supporters of single-payer health care.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. you are a beautiful person!!
    I love this !!

    “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.”

    So well said xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  9. To James Wood: Live and let live. Yes. Let the animals live. That was the point. All moral issues challenge people and the way we do things. Most people ignore the issue of animal rights/welfare because they don’t want to be challenged. Some very good people do things that are fundamentally immoral – cattle farming is one of those things. Many have left the business because of the problems with using animals for food: the ethical issues, the health implications, and the environmental concerns with a meat based diet. People have to change when things are wrong. We can’t say that good people are doing something wrong so leave them alone. Take the challenge and don’t just defend your long held views.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Animal rights is a good way to find out if someone really cares about justice issue or is just riding the band wagon of what is considered acceptable. It is pretty easy to be for justice or peace today without doing anything. You can be against racism without being asked to sacrifice much if anything.

    Those that were truly anti-slavery in the 1800s were considered weirdos and trouble makers. The idea that other races or women or children had equal rights with the white Christian male was considered nuts. One writer, James Boswell, even wrote a poem called the Universal Empire of Love which detailed why black slaves liked being enslaved.
    What is the real difference between say, animal agriculture and something like feminism in 2015? As far as I know women are not being bred from birth to be tortured to death. This is what nonhuman animals are facing. It is done for economic reasons. Just as slavery in the US was done for economic reasons (and, as we see today-they trucked out the Bible passages to justify it–neither the Old or New Testament was against slavery–the OT even detailed that you could beat a slave to death as long as they didnt die immediately.

    Been vegan for 25 years–I am just following the understanding of people like Leonardo da Vinci. You dont need to eat meat and dairy. The idea that humans are morally superior to other species is myth, fantasy, easily debunked by gravity, time, or a glance at today’s news headlines. Mark Twain said that humans were the unreasoning animal, and the strongest evidence for it was that despite the historical record of humans showing history to be the “fantastic record of a maniac,” humans still see themselves as “the head animal of the lot, whereas by their own standards, they are the bottom one.”

    Nonhuman animals do not treat humans the way humans treat them–other animals kill for survival or survival related things. Not humans. Humans claim to use morality and fairness–it is that claim that makes them beholden to respect the rights of nonhumans as much as possible, because if you try to categorically exclude them you leave a loophole that would allow anyone to justify exploiting humans (which as we know-happens all around us). Ultimately, when someone says “well we cant respect all life, we cant stop insects from being harmed or grass from being hurt therefore we might as well have factory farms, vivisection labs, rodeos, zoos etc.” We can simply respond by saying: “ok if we cant be morally perfect and cant stop child abuse, homicide, car accidents–then who cares about human rights either? Lots of people walking around today who abuse humans and get away with it.”

    Ecologically speaking–animal agriculture has proven to be a catastrophe. Deforestation, pollution, pandemics (how many zoonotic diseases can you name that jumped from nonhuman to human populations thanks to animal agriculture or hunting?), extinction (how many species have been wiped out thanks to humans choosing to eat meat or dairy? Wolves, bison, the Asian lion etc etc etc). Climate change and animal agriculture is finally being recognized.

    Even Einstein said humanity’s future will have to be a veg(etari)an one.

    200 years ago, the idea that human slavery was bad was a totally ridiculous idea.

    “Lo then, in yonder fragrant isle
    Where Nature ever seems to smile,
    The cheerful gang!–the negroes see
    Perform the task of industry:
    Ev’n at their labour hear them sing,

    While time flies quick on downy wing;
    Finish’d the bus’ness of the day,
    No human beings are more gay:
    Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,
    Each has his property secure;

    Their wives and children are protected,
    In sickness they are not neglected;
    And when old age brings a release,
    Their grateful days they end in peace.

    But should our Wrongheads have their will,
    Should Parliament approve their bill,
    Pernicious as th’ effect would be,
    T’ abolish negro slavery,
    Such partial freedom would be vain,
    Since Love’s strong empire must remain.”
    NO ABOLITION OF SLAVERY: OR, THE UNIVERSAL EMPIRE OF LOVE. 1791, James Boswell

    Liked by 2 people

  11. “The total absence of anything related to animals” this part struck me so much, because since I’ve been aware of this enormous enormous holocaust situation I try to read a lot of ingrediënt lists and really the opposite of the above sentence is …. that there’s almost no industrial product in food, and often in nonfood that doesn’t have animalparts in it. That also gives it an important aspect in the environmental debate, and weird also until recently not many people talked about the impact of the meat- and fishindustry….. It’s like the biggest taboo, it’s like pretending there is no sun…. It’s the elephant in the room ….

    Liked by 1 person

  12. when animal rights activists start standing up for plants rights, then they can throw the first stone. until then, they are just as hypocritical as the those omnivores they accuse. plants feel pain, have created a multitude of defenses against being eaten (some of which, like the capsicum that makes peppers spicy, make us want to eat them even more), communicate with each other, create the largest living organisms on the planet, create offspring, know when predators are near and act t protect themselves i.e. experience fear, etc. bottom line, NO LIVING THING WANTS TO BE EATEN. ALL ANIMALS AND INSECTS EAT LIVING THINGS. if anything eating plants is the most unethical choice because, with a few exceptions, they don’t eat other living things like animals and insects, they eat only sunshine. although like all living things they do fight for resources and do kill competitors for them. and yet, you don’t think twice about the forest that was decimated to make your wood furniture or text book, the field of wheat that’s been slaughtered for your bread or beer, the impact of the fertilizers to grow these plants that have been selectively bred and birthed just to be killed for your nourishment like cattle, the impact on future generations the top soil erosion our totalitarian agriculture practices have, the often horrible conditions the farm workers have been subjected to (tell cesar chavez how ethical a plant based diet is), etc, etc, etc. and while i choose to eat mostly organic, if we stop using these high yield methods that degrade the environment and go organic, that will raise the price of food and that disproportionately impacts the poor. is that ethical? and yes, government subsidies totally distort any real market driven cost structure but that’s true everywhere in the economy. i am NOT saying that eating meat is ethical. i am saying that the idea that a plant based diet somehow IS ethical is a COMPLETE fantasy of those who think with their eyes and their hearts, not with real facts and their minds. industrial farming of animals and plants is truly horrific. they are in many ways ruining the environment we count on to sustain our lives (and without a doubt, cow is the worst offender and anyone serious about climate change should stop eating beef and cow dairy immediately … but just as much rain forest is cleared for palm as it is cattle) but it is actually what allowed us to become homo sapiens and build this world we live in where a smaller % of humanity live in poverty and without food and shelter and electricity than ever before. until we discover a method to create food that was not living, we are killing intelligent life that does not want to be killed so that we can eat. like all other animals and insects. i know many people regardless of their diet will laugh and scoff at this. but fifty years ago the same was true for those who were vegetarian and spoke about animal rights. if you believe in animal rights and you don’t believe in plants rights, then you are full of it. and the “they don’t have feelings, brains, raise offspring, etc.” is just your version of “they’re not human, they don’t have conscious awareness and intelligence like we do, etc” it’s a convenient lie to make you feel better about your choices. stop judging, start getting real.

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  13. What I don’t like about posts like this is that it attributes any opposition to the view that veganism is morally obligatory to bad faith. It fails to even countenance the possibility that there might simply be a deep, fundamental, and possibly intractable disagreement with respect to what properties give an entity full moral status.

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    1. By that logic, we should be fully able to enslave blacks, kill severely mentally disabled people or use them for medical experiments against their consent, rape women or children, torture anyone who isn’t “straight,” and just generally inflict atrocities on anyone who isn’t identical to ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Are you trolling? If you’re not, then your comment is positively mystifying to me. Clearly nothing I said implies any of those things mostly because I did not commit to any criterion of full moral status. It seems your claim is that the rejection of the view that veganism is morally obligatory logically commits one to the moral permissibility of enslaving black people. That’s clearly false. Or at least you need to produce the “logic” by which that conclusion is so evident to you. Your last remark seems to suggest that rejection of view that veganism is morally obligatory logically commits one to a Ayn-Rand type ethical egoism. That’s also clearly false. I can only conclude from your comment that you are either a mindless ideologue or that you haven’t sufficiently thought about what you are saying. Thanks for reminding me why I should avoid the comments sections!

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      2. If you think that nonhuman animals don’t deserve full moral status then what is stopping anyone observing you from concluding that it’s morally justifiable to refuse any category of human, based on criteria of a morally irrelevant characteristic(s), full moral status?

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  14. I’ve been vegan for over 30 years. I certainly don’t know how anyone can look at the horror inflicted upon animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses and think that it is in any way justified. Animal rights certainly is a social justice issue. It is also tied into protecting the environment, since animal agriculture causes so much soil and water pollution, as well as being a major contributor to greenhouse gasses.

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  15. Pingback: Why I’m Vegan

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