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.

Being the Wet Blanket

Feminists are often accused of having no sense of humor, of having a stick up their asses, or of being curmudgeons. And I’m going to be honest: many times I feel like I am the wet blanket. I can’t enjoy many of the movies and TV shows that I used to because I notice how screwed up they are, I feel uncomfortable around many people because of the ways in which they joke or the words that they throw around, and I often have to tell people that they really aren’t as witty and charming as they thought they were, they are in fact just being oppressive assholes. It’s not fun to have to take on this role. It’s not fun to have to “ruin” people’s fun. I often find myself feeling guilty or wondering if I’m oversensitive or too delicate in my sensibilities. But there are some good reasons to continue being the wet blanket, and perhaps these reasons can keep you going through the times you feel like everyone hates you for speaking up.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in “wet blanket” situations is that you are not in fact ruining anyone’s fun. Their fun has already been ruined by the fact that it’s come at the expense of someone else. If you were to walk up to a bully punching a smaller child and stop them from hurting that child, you wouldn’t feel guilty for ruining their fun: you would know that their fun was inappropriate to begin with. You are doing the same thing when you call someone out for sexism, racism, or other oppressive behaviors. Those behaviors just as actively hurt people as the bully physically beating someone. They hurt people through the violent norms they enforce, through rape culture, through the wage gap, through hate crimes…these are realities that are linked to the jokes and the casual conversations we have.

Many people also accuse feminists of being incapable of having fun, not just of ruining the fun of others. I’d like to propose a thought experiment to explore this claim. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which brutal torture was normal. It was even considered fun. People publicly tortured others to get kicks, and it was often viewed as a show: going out to the torture. Say you were an individual living in this society and you couldn’t bring yourself to enjoy any of this. You go out to the torture and you look at your friends and say “this is wrong! We’re hurting people!” They respond by asking why you can’t have any fun. Looking at a society like this, we would recognize that the person who is unhappy is actually perceiving the situation more accurately and with more empathy than the other individuals involved, and that most likely they could have fun if it were in a non-harmful way.

Now obviously this is hyperbolic. But as I mentioned before, many of the things that people view as fun, joking, or entertainment do in fact contribute directly to the harm of others. Perceiving this connection and being upset by it is not an indication that one has no sense of fun: rather it’s an indication that one has an active sense of empathy and a clear perception of the situation. I would bet that if you asked most feminists whether there things in life they enjoyed they would say yes. They’re just probably not the things you enjoy. I myself for example deeply enjoy My Little Pony, chocolate, swimming, and taiko drumming just to name a few. But I attempt to find things to like that don’t hurt others. Being upset by bad behavior is not an indication that you’re incapable of enjoying things. It’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the things people are asking you to enjoy.

People who are labelled as “wet blankets” are often those who perceive something that others don’t. As an example, we have some people at my work that want to do and try everything. We need our resident wet blanket to say “stop. Let’s think about what will happen if we do this”. In many cases this is about practicality, however it can also be about ethics and empathy. I want to be the person who asks others to stop and consider the implications of their actions because that person is the one who keeps our world running and functional. That person is necessary and improves things in the long term. They don’t necessarily want to stop what you’re doing, but they do want you to think it out first and make improvements to it. I have no problem with you writing that song, but I think it would be a much better song if it didn’t promote rape culture and I’ll tell you that.

But more than anything, when you feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing, remember that your emotions are valid. If you are upset or hurt by something, that is valid. And it is also valid to ask people to stop doing things that hurt or upset you, even if they don’t understand why. Particularly when you  know that others are hurt by something, you can feel confident that your discomfort is not out of line or irrational: it is necessary.

So yes, I will happily take the label of wet blanket if it means that I am making people more aware of their actions and the implications of their actions, if it means that I’m ending “fun” that is harmful and cruel, if it means that I’m standing up for my own needs and the needs of others. If that’s being a wet blanket and ruining your fun, then you’re doing fun the wrong way.