Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

Intersectionality: Food Ethics and Mental Health

Something that has come up a great deal in my personal life recently has been people criticizing my choices in terms of eating and exercise. As you might imagine this is fairly difficult for me to hear as someone with an eating disorder, but it’s caused me to spend some time thinking about the intersections of mental health and food ethics. America as a culture does not spend a great deal of time focusing on how the way we eat and how we relate to food can affect our mood, mental health, and overall life quality. What we do spend a lot of time doing is shaming each other for our food choices: whether on the basis of health, ethics, or aesthetics. There are debates over vegetarianism and veganism, about health and obesity, and about whether people on food stamps deserve their food. What we don’t talk about is what we can do to make food an experience that enhances people’s lives.

Food is often an extremely emotional experience. It combines taste, smell, sight, and texture into what can be an extremely intense experience. However unlike most experiences that deeply engage our senses, it is something that is required of us every day. It’s easy to write it off because we spend so much time doing it. But truly good food experiences can change your life. Many people try to approach food simply as fuel for their bodies and nothing else, but food can be incredibly powerful.

Food has cultural connotations, and often it’s part of the glue that brings people together. Food can be an extremely important part of memory, and is often plays a role in memories that hold special meaning. We use it for celebrations and for rituals, as reward and punishment. For most of us, food is emotional, and for those who take all the emotion out of food, it can seem like it’s missing something. The emotions of food are part of friendships and families, and you can miss out on a lot (like a dessert with a sweetheart or a dinner with your family) if you try to excise emotion from food.

For some reason, these emotions often get ignored when we talk about how people should eat. If anything, we look on these emotions as negative: we make fun of people who “eat their feelings”. There appears to be a stereotype that having an emotional relationship with food is inherently negative. However there are absolutely healthy ways to feel emotional about food, and loving food does not mean being unhealthy. Too often we hear about health or ethical implications without any mention of the actual experiences of eating. This is not a culture that celebrates how fucking delicious it is to bite into a piece of warm chocolate cake, or how comforting it is to smell the scent of a childhood meal.

And when we’re looking at mental health, this is important because these internal experiences are often what sets someone with a mental illness apart from anyone else. When we talk about the ethics of food and the ethics of health, we often forget that the experience of food can be powerful, and that when someone has a mental illness, this is something extremely important to take into consideration. We ignore the potential emotional benefits we can gain from eating, and we ignore the potential harm that can appear when we guilt or shame someone or deprive them of food they love.

Now there’s one really obvious example which is eating disorders. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, if you can eat a reasonable amount without feeling guilty, you do it. This is a matter of your health and potentially your life because every piece of food is a struggle. If a piece of bacon or a slice of cake is what entices you today, everyone better fuck off on telling you that you shouldn’t eat it because that piece of food could be the only thing you’re willing to eat today. This is not a choice, this is a jerkbrain doing things to you. If someone is trying to recover from an eating disorder and you try to tell them which foods are appropriate for them to eat or not to eat, all I can say to you is go fuck yourself. You’re asking that individual to put themselves in harm’s way by cutting out more food and creating new food rules. You’re asking them to prioritize something over their own safety and health. This is a clear place where food ethics need to be flexible to allow for someone’s health and happiness.

But there’s more to the intersectionality of mental health and food than just eating disorders. Because of the emotional nature of food, it can either be used as an incredibly helpful tool for managing emotions or as an intensely negative coping strategy that damages the individual. Now this is different from using food to hide from your problems, but as part of a larger program of dealing with the root causes, including good food and good food experiences in your treatment can be really useful.

I’m going to use an experience from my own life because it’s what I know best. I try my best to eat vegetarian, because ethically I feel it’s the right decision. For eating disordered reasons this isn’t always possible. However when I do eat meat I eat ethically raised meat. I have one exception to this rule. When my dad makes spaghetti sauce from his family recipe, he almost never uses ethically raised beef. I eat the spaghetti sauce anyway.

For a lot of people this looks like I’m selling out on my values. Many people have told me that it’s inappropriate and that there is no excuse for not being vegetarian or even vegan. It looks like I’m prioritizing my own enjoyment of food over the life of another being. But here’s the thing: one of the few times that I feel safe, comforted, whole, and welcomed is when I am with my family eating the same food we ate when I was little. From the perspective of someone in my position, this is far more important than you might think. My depression and anxiety are very real and very life-threatening, particularly because they come with a side-helping of self-harm. Finding moments in my life where I can qualitatively feel like an acceptable human being is extremely difficult, but very important. When I don’t have these moments I start to become dangerously depressed, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideation. Taking away my ability to share this experience with my family is taking away one of my best coping skills to keep myself from potentially putting myself into the hospital.

This is where understanding the emotional and internal experiences of food can go a long way towards understanding intersectionality and towards having compassion towards people who don’t have your privileges. It may seem insane to someone who does not have a mental illness to consider the idea that a delicious mocha could be part of combatting suicide. But when you’re in the experience, you understand that the little things are the most important. The danger of mental illness is real. Mental illnesses do lead to death, injury, and pain. When we ignore the intersectionality of mental illness and food, we go a long way towards removing some of the most basic resources that the mentally ill have.

For people not in these situations it might seem selfish to prioritize your enjoyment of a steak over the life of a cow. However one of the messages that’s incredibly difficult for those with mental illness to internalize is that our own self-care is important, and often integral to our health. Allowing ourselves to make the choice to eat something that nourishes us mentally as well as physically can be a huge step, and when we’re told to cut out many parts of our diet, we lose out on the ability to easily do this. Asking us to give up simple pleasures, or criticizing the arenas in which we can find joy is asking us to prioritize other things over our own ability to function or even our own life depending on our disease.

When you live with a mental illness, often your entire life becomes about survival. This means that choices which seem to be easy or low cost for others are choices about self-defense for us. Every time we choose something that brings us joy, support, or a feeling of safety, we are choosing our own life. When you tell a mentally ill individual that they should abandon something that helps them feel good, that they should feel guilty for eating something that makes them happy, it reinforces to us that we don’t deserve good things.

Food is incredibly personal and incredibly emotional. It can be used in intensely positive ways and intensely negative ways, and we don’t always get a choice in what foods bring up what emotions for us. For the mentally ill, this can mean that shame and guilt around food is even more damaging than it might be for any other individual, and can have serious consequences.

While many of us want to make our society better and healthier by encouraging good eating, ethical food choices, and positive food culture, it would do us good to remember that these conversations may have different consequences for someone struggling with a mental illness than for anyone else.

An Argument for Meat Eating

Ooof. I just got done reading an article about how ‘happy meat’ doesn’t count as actually caring for animal rights, and the only way to care for animal rights is to be completely vegan. I’ve heard this argument before, and I still don’t buy it. First of all, I rarely hear any argument that really sinks in about why killing or eating an animal is inherently wrong.

It seems to me that things that are harmful are: things that cause pain, either to an individual or group, or things that keep another individual from attaining their goals. This is adapted from Peter Singer, a secular philosopher. The reason it’s wrong to kill a human being is because they have an interest and a preference for remaining alive. Animals don’t have that forward thinking (or at least most of them don’t. I don’t advocate killing dolphins or octopuses or chimps or elephants or other highly intelligent animals). So really the major harm in killing animals is potentially in cause emotional or physical pain to other animals, or in the pain that the individual feels as they are dying.

Now most of the animals that we eat are not highly aware or conscious. Obviously they can feel pain, but there is little evidence that cows form personal attachments to each other, or that they worry about death. So the most important thing to worry about with the death of most mammals is whether it is a painful death and whether they are raised in a kind, happy way. That is the whole essence of happy meat: ensuring that these requirements are met. So far as I can tell, there is no residual harm if those pieces are met.

That said, there may be some other considerations such as environmental factors, but those are a whole different ballgame because meat does not inherently mean less environmentally friendly. I’m strictly arguing for the morality of eating meat as such.

At its root, my whole position on meat eating stems from a notion that will probably freak some people out: life in and of itself has no inherent value. The value of life comes from the experiences within it: positive feelings, pleasurable sensations, kindness, compassion and connection with others, or a sense of fulfillment. I do not believe a life without any of these things has value. Of course I also believe that no human life is truly without any of these things, and so I believe that removing the possibility of those future good things from someone who anticipates them and has a vested interest in them is wrong. Animals do not necessarily look forward to those things in the same way, so if we can ensure them while the animal is alive, we have done all we can be expected to do. All of that said, I am highly pacifistic, a vegetarian most of the time (I only eat happy meat), and in favor of huge reforms of the meat and farming industries.

Also stay away from octopuses. Because octopuses are geniuses. Don’t hurt the octopuses. I mean seriously, look at that little cutie up there.