Many years ago Amnesty International ran a marketing campaign with the strapline “Save the Human”. When I first noticed it on the tube, I saw it as an attempt to encourage people who donate to conservation charities to pause and reassess their priorities. Before donating to help save the tiger, or the bees, the slogan suggests, there is an ethical imperative to end human rights abuses. Spend your money there first.
This hierarchical thinking is deeply problematic. It perpetuates socioecological inequality and oppression. The way that we treat non-human animals is closely intertwined with the way that we treat fellow humans. Progress on one agenda is unforeseeable unless this is pursued in concert with progress on the other: evidence is accumulating that racism predicts speciesism (that is, discrimination against nonhuman animals, leading to their objectification and exploitation, and justifying their violent treatment). This is found experimentally in studies in social psychology.
It seems, too, that most of us grasp this relationship intuitively. The psychologist Jim Everett has studied laypersons’ intuitive grasp of the interconnections between prejudice towards animals and other forms of prejudice. In a 2019 paper he reported that:
“Just like racists, sexists, and homophobes, speciesists were expected to hold more general prejudicial attitudes and ideologies, to be more conservative and higher on [social dominance orientation] SDO, and thought to be unsupportive of “liberation” movements like women’s rights.
“Our results… [show] that laypeople seem intuitively aware of this connection, inferring similar personality traits and more general prejudicial attitudes from a speciesist just as they do from a racist, sexist, or homophobe.”
Author and academic Carrie P. Freeman, in her recent book The Human Animal Earthling Identity carefully explores the implications of these interconnections for campaign groups. Quoting Will Tuttle, she writes:
“In many crucial ways, our mistreatment of nonhuman animals is the core injustice that creates the basic structural context in our culture that makes the many faces of social injustice to humans inevitable.” [The oppression of animals] psychologically drives human conflict and injustice as it teaches us to repress our natural sensitivities to be respectful and kind toward others…“
And, focusing on the objectification, exploitation and violence that characterises raising and killing animals to eat (at least in dominant Western culture) the social psychologist Melanie Joy writes:
“Progressive social change is not merely about changing policies, but about changing hearts and minds. Genuine and lasting change requires a paradigm shift, a transformation of the mentality that propped up the old order. We must knock out the foundations of oppression and cultivate the values that form the foundation of justice, values such as compassion, integrity, and reciprocity. And to challenge injustice everywhere, we must practice justice everywhere: on streets, in the courtroom—and on our plates.”
This insight is compellingly developed by Aph Ko, creator of the website Black Vegans Rock, as a call for Afro-zoological Resistance at the intersection of animal rights and antiracism campaigning. This isn’t an argument for abandoning focus on a specific social or environmental campaign; but it is an argument for recognising the deep interdependencies between multiple forms of oppression in shaping those campaigns. “Stay in your movement [focused on the issue that especially motivates you]”, Ko urges, “but incorporate the idea of the animal within your own logic”:
“We shouldn’t trust white supremacy telling us that animals are beneath us, because guess what, this system also believes that we, as black people, are beneath them. Why are we siding with white supremacy when it comes to their opinions on animals?”
And quoting Stephen Best, Freeman summarises the implications of this perspective in language very resonant with that which we use at Common Cause:
We “cannot avert social and environmental catastrophe” unless we employ a “parallel conceptual revolution that involves the construction of new values, worldviews, narratives and species identities.”
What does that mean, to reconstruct our “species’ identity”?
It doesn’t, Freeman argues, imply an imperative to enlarge our notions of privilege – adjusting our beliefs about hierarchy to admit other racialised humans, or companion animals (“pets”), to the upper part of the pyramid.
Rather it means reimagining humans, animals and nature outside a system of domination.
The mother, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer makes a similar point. Interviewed by author Andrew Boyd about her approach to the climate crisis, Kimmerer says:
“Yes, I think we need a carbon tax. Yes, I think technology can play a role. Yes, we have to change our lightbulbs and our tech and our economic policy, but what we really have to change is how we conceive of ourselves…
“The story I feel most compelled to try to disrupt is this story about who we are as people. We have this notion that we’re just takers. (Hell, our government doesn’t even call us citizens anymore. It calls us “consumers:’) But we’re not just takers. We’ve forgotten that we can be partners, too…
[I]n Anishinaabe [the Potawatomi language]… human exceptionalism doesn’t exist. All beings are treated as family, as relatives, as alive. That animacy is baked into the language, into the grammar.”
The amnesia about which Kimmerer writes – the forgetfulness about the possibility of being partners – is reinforced by choices that many of us make unreflectively, and daily. Among the most obvious of these are the choices that we make about what we eat.
We know that the contribution eating animals makes, quantitatively, to climate change is large, and this has led many people (me included) to stop eating animalised and feminised protein. Some of us argue over how we account for the impacts of carnism on the atmosphere: how much carbon is there in a kilo of flesh from a grass-fed cow or a litre of milk from a postpartum heifer?
But Kimmerer, I believe, points to a more fundamental reason to stop eating animals, their eggs and their milk. Eating animals, at least in cultures where they are killed by industrial processes, and on a massive scale, provides a daily (if often subliminal) reinforcement of the belief that we are takers, not partners.
Of course, it must surely be possible to kill and eat animals without objectifying them (I have no first-hand experience to draw on here, but I imagine that many cultures achieve this, though I believe that this can only be possible in societies where people’s relationship with their own mortality is also very different to that which dominates in Western capitalist societies).
So the contribution of veganism to the birth of a society in which we “reconceive” ourselves, to use Kimmerer’s phrase, to live in partnership with the nonhuman animals with which we share the planet, will be central to our collective response to the climate crisis, regardless of the carbon accounting. It would be central even if animal farming were to contribute negligibly to greenhouse gas emissions.
What about saving the human?
So what of the Amnesty International advertisement, and its implicit suggestion that anyone concerned about animal freedom should reconsider their priorities?
Freeman acknowledges that:
“it may appear to social justice activists that anyone who works on behalf of nonhuman animal welfare or rights has skewed or misguided priorities – that they have purposely or ignorantly overlooked the social justice causes they could be championing instead. This can indicate that the animal activists are so privileged that they are naïve to the struggles that many human minority groups still face, or worse yet, that they know but do not care”.
Freeman concedes that such critiques may be justified in some cases. But examine any movement and you’ll find arguments that this sidelines, ignores or exacerbates other struggles (think of the debate around “white feminism”, for example). Sometimes these critiques will also be justified. But this shouldn’t be taken to mean that deep solidarity between causes can’t be achieved, or shouldn’t be worked towards. Rather, the history of many social struggles shows that it is possible.
Amnesty International’s “Save the Human” campaign was unhelpful. The organisation was wrong to campaign in this way. A catchy campaign slogan may have drawn attention – but to what end? I am suggesting that it would have worked to deepen indifference to the suffering of human and nonhuman animals alike, while operating to pit one cause against another.
Melanie Joy again:
“The oppressive-powers-that-be depend on a divide-and-conquer mentality that pits oppressed groups against one another, as though oppressions were rungs on a hierarchical ladder rather than spokes on a wheel. And while it is impossible for anyone to take on all causes, we can and should value any cause which seeks to create a more just and compassionate society.”
There is growing cultural awareness of the ways in which the objectification, exploitation and oppression of other humans shows up in multiple ways. But the extension of this awareness to our relationship with nonhuman animals is often lacking. Changing this situation is of compelling importance for the freedom of nonhuman animals. It may also prove foundational for any systemic and transformative movement for social justice.
Common Cause Foundation is exploring ways in which environmental and conservation organisations can work to build values-based solidarity with social justice movements, and the opportunities that rethinking our relationship with nonhuman animals creates for such solidarity. If you are interested in knowing more about this work, or becoming involved, please contact Tom Crompton (firstname.lastname@example.org).