Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Humane/Cruelty: Race, Class, Prison, Liberation

[Oppressions are ideologies—]“a set of socially shared beliefs that legitmates an existing or desired social order. Prejudice, on the other hand, is an individual predisposition to devalue a group of others… seciesism is also an ideology—that is, a set of widely held, socially inherited beliefs… When the psychological and moral (or immoral) bases of oppression are accentuated, social structural forces are downplayed or overlooked entirely… they tend to stifle any realization of the need for social change.” –David Nibert[*]

The discourse of vegetarian and vegan advocates is saturated with personal choice. When the individual person is not totally responsible for the suffering of each individual animal, it is because vegetarianism is too inconvenient and the law is too permissive of cruelty. Thus the irony of the dominant discourse is that animal liberation is possible so long as humans become more rational and less self-interested; but, so long as people are self-interested, we ought to make vegetarianism as convenient and non-threatening as possible and make animal cruelty as inconvenient and punishable as possible.

In this post I will lay-out the myriad of ways the most popular forms of animal advocacy (at least in the USA) privileges a white, middle-class audience at the expense of including people of color and people of low-income. Drawing on the vast, original works over at The Vegan Ideal [TVI], I wish to demonstrate 1) how focusing on punishing, shaming, and dehumanizing individual animal exploiters a) draws attention away from the institutional oppression (i.e. speciesism) in favor of vice (i.e. cruelty) as well as b) how such punishment is often part of ethnocentric and nationalist projects, and finally, c) how such projects merely seek to substitute animal cages for human cages.

One general misallocation of resources is for the legislation of stiffer penalties for "animal cruelty." Aside from the unjust material consequences of these laws, the discourse of "humane" is a conceptual red herring just begging to be appropriated.

In his latest essay, "Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change," Derrick Jensen argues that
[This liberal perspective] incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself.
In other words, the liberal perspective focuses on litigating personal acts and scapegoating marginalized people (often those with low-income, people of color, and Other cultures--but more on this later) rather than the powerful institutions/systems that are either at the root of the violence or a more significant actor whose violence is so profound it has become invisible or is assumed to be “natural.” The same is true of animal liberationists, explains David Nibert in Animal Rights/Human Rights: advocates have a “tendency to overlook or minimize the social structural basis of oppression” by over-emphasizing “overcoming prejudice and immoral reasoning” without analyzing the underlying societal causes.

Just as the symbolic language obscures rather than clarifies the source of the oppression of animal others, so to do the actual rhetoric of "cruelty," "inhumane," and "barbaric," and the punishments such rhetoric encourages us to distribute misdirect our attention toward the symptoms and not the political pathology of oppression. Take for instance poultry plant workers who are fired for “cruelty to animals” after an investigation in which the violence of the slaughterhouse becomes invisible and the corporation shifts its accountability for the institutional cruelty onto desparate, malaised workers. Or, how certain men are imprisoned for dog-fighting and cock-fighting, a means to demonstrating one’s masculinity-—an institution which is responsible for militarism and a rape culture. In both cases, the actual systems of species and gender privilege as well as class inequality that drive such behavior are absent from discussion.

The rhetoric of "cruelty" substitutes recognizing the cultural and ideological underpinnings of such material acts for an unreflective communitarian presupposition that when the law is not broken, when things are going all according to plan and design, then "cruelty" does not exist. Animal abuse is thus framed as "personal" and not "political" since it is based in prejudice, ignorance, and callousness, not a political orientation. Here, education and/or reform are what are needed to solve the problem, not a cultural rethinking/transformation. As is noted at TVI,
[The] talk about "cruelty" and "humane treatment" is basically a way of depoliticizing oppression...these terms fail to address the oppressive power relations under which harm and suffering occurs... If cruelty to animals is "regarded as a pattern of socially and culturally unacceptable behavior," then speciesism – the very system of nonhuman oppression – is outside the limits "animal cruelty"... So cruelty is the exception that proves that speciesism rules
Rather than being useful to the political discourse on human-animal relations, "cruelty" and "(in)humane" actually obscure the radical political philosophy that is animal liberation. Rather than being opposing terms, "'humane treatment' and 'cruelty' are really paired terms, with the former suggested as the remedy to the latter."

Despite the popular sway of the ROH, the effectiveness of the ROH is counterproductive to the liberation movements because it actually reinforces prejudices (speciesism, racism, classist) while also centering the moral issue with the identity and character of individual agents rather than those who are exploited by them and the systemic nature of the immoral consequences. The ROH ought to be abandoned because 1) it is preconceived in a speciesist language/world; 2) its definition varies to the degree which one is speciesist/humanist; 3) it is ultimately more about the consumer than the nonhuman animal and the human-animal relationship--appealing to a virtue/self-esteem...

First, the idea of "humane" suggest human exceptionalism in compassion, or at the very least, that it distinguishes the human species over others as a compassionate one (which seems to be quite the opposite case if you look at our history). Theoreticians from Adam Smith to David Hume to Charles Darwin have all argued that our morality, contrary to theologians, comes from our animality, not "humanity" (as in Reason). Recent studies, especially by cognitive ethologists like Marc Bekoff, have proved that such is more than probably the case given the extended evidence of moral systems in many mammalian species. So not only is the equation of the human(e) with moral-goodness factually incorrect, it is also speciesist because it privileges H. sapiens as superior to all other species based on this factual inaccuracy.

Furthermore, what we mean by "humane" is less about the act and more about the actor. When one says something is "humane" they cease discussing the nature of the act and rather turn the focus inward to the nature of the actor. Indeed, to proclaim an act is humane is to proclaim the actor as human and good (while those who do alternatively are less human and less good). When one labels something as humane, what they are really doing is identifying themselves as practicing "humanity," something that is privileged as superior to other forms of being and identity (such as animality). So when one says so-and-so is "humane" they are prescribing that act as something we ought to do (perhaps because it is something divine).

Take for example an article by Frank Rosci, in which it is asked, "Is agribusiness forgetting its humanity when treating animals destined for dinner?" The discourse of Rabbi Bradley Bleefeld is demonstrative of the humanism/speciesism of "humane" discourse whereby human and animal become ontologically independent of one another through kosher law. Bleefeld explains that kosher slaughter
is based on preserving our humanity...a prayer is said every time, with every animal, to remind the slaughterer that he is a human being and not an indiscriminate killer -- animals do what they want, but we can't
The killing of animals as done by Jewish people is suggested to be signatory of humanity, moral beings, as opposed to "animals." Because killing is ritualized by rite of law and thus not "indiscriminate," it can be justified against those who are not human, moral beings. But, as we will see, this very Jewish-exceptionalist logic is part of the anthropogenic machine that is always already ethnocentric.

Since human identity has been one of the most important and contentious questions/topics in Western history, the use of "humane" can become a particularly violent tool for legitimizing one's own contentious actions simultaneously as establishing one's own preformed identity in opposition to another who is "inhumane" and "unethical." The humane proclamation is really nothing more than a performative apology for one's actions as a means to console ourselves with the sense that we are human and thereby good, abjecting the presence of the "monstrosity" of our actions and thereby the monsters that we all are. In locating the human inside us and the monster without, we buffer the anxiety surrounding the threatening idea that we sometimes are satisfied performing unethical actions.

This is where things get interesting, or as Royce Drake writes, complicated. Speciesism does not exist within a cultural vacuum; it is never a single-issue. Speciesism is always already situated within a network of other systems of oppression particular to each culture. As such, certain types of cruelty are accepted as others are not, and out from this ethnocentric moral system arises a means through which other oppressions can be expressed.

Through ethnocentrism and selective speciesism, concern over animal rights and welfare have often been used as arguments for the inferiority and expulsion of Other people. Royce explains this well at Vegans of Color:
The way we see, and judge speciesism is shaped by our own socio-cultural contexts... Racism, classism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, (and on and on) color our perceptions of animal oppression: Our families don’t whale, they don’t dog fight, they don’t experiment on apes... Our families may eat cows and chickens (Happy meat? Even better) and go to zoos, but that is something everyone does, and it isn’t as barbaric as something that those people do
So while many animal advocates may consider bull-fights and whaling the pinnacle of barbarism, parallel animal exploitation such as breaking in riding horses and fishing are less so, more “normal” because they are not a part of our culture, our being-in-the-world, our humanity. Those outside of our culture, outside our human-animal rites, are also outside our definition of humanity (or at least, they correspond with it less than we ourselves do).

It is not surprising then that the animal welfare movement has so often "dehumanized" human Others as "barbaric," "inhumane," and "savage"--a process inseparable from the socio-political institution of colonization. As others and myself have written on previously, vegans are not exempt from this criticism because they are opposed to all forms of animal exploitation[Korean dog-eating, Japanese dolphin slaughter, Cherokee bear pit, Makah Whaling, Non-white pet traders, etc]. Indeed, the rhetoric of barbaric, inhumane, and savage all have xenophobic and/or colonial histories. Even throughout the last century, they have been deployed to oppose non-Secular/Christian human-animal relations such as Kosher and Halal slaughter in Nazi Germany and Britain.

In the US and many other countries, animal welfare laws continue to be used to imprison and punish people from disadvantaged ethnic groups and classes as it has been since the first wave of the movement in the 19th century. As was the case then, acceptable human-animal conduct is informed by the norms and (human) identity of upper/middle-class Anglo-Saxons and declared through a discourse of character reform.

As is explained by TVI, it is a lot easier for those with privilege to prosecute and imprison those with less privilege for acts of animal exploitation and abuse than those with equal or more privilege. If one were to
harassed a rich white man, say one who owns a meat packing plant that exploits both workers and nonhuman animals, the volunteer might end up in jail. However, by targeting people of color working on the street the same volunteer has all the support of the institutional racism and classism, including the LAPD
This of course was a major criticism of the crusade of animal protectionists to prosecute Michael Vick (an effort that is by no means racially-neutral within a white supremacist society wherein up to one-third of young black men are imprisoned). This is one reason why litigation is not only minimally effective, but also ultimately futile in bringing about real social change. If sending people to prison is primarily a measure to deter crime, but only the most vulnerable people in society who are the least responsible from animal exploitation ever go to prison, then prison only treats the symptom and not the disease. And as was mentioned in the citation above, attempting to bring justice to those who are both privileged and responsible for animal abuse may result in one ending up in prison themselves.

TVI also notes that while many vegans decry the contemporary witch hunts of animal activists—“green in the new red”--
"animal activists" promote more police suppression than they receive. As a general group, most "animal activists" are more "critical to the maintenance of state power" than they are "subversive"... activists are manufacturing increased police suppression that targets oppressed groups by actively promoting stiffer sentencing for anti-cruelty laws, and specifically criminalizing "animal cruelty" identified with poor people and people of color (i.e., dog fighting and cock fighting)
TVI continues its analysis elsewhere:
Not only does the concept of animal cruelty fail to address the oppression of other animals, it actually expands oppression in the form of the Prison Industrial Complex... That this approach centers a reliance on police, prisons, and the court system is itself problematic
To summarize TVI, not only is the legal system as it is setup now (i.e. The Prison Industrial Complex) incompetent, it actually produces violence upon which it was established to eliminate.

Therefore, by relying upon the law as a tool to outlaw animal "cruelty" so as to punish the "inhumane" through imprisonment, the animal protection movement, in contradiction to vegan principles, fills cages with some beings whereby it seeks to empty cages of others. This is why TVI illuminates the parallels
between veganism and prison abolition. Both call out the political relations of oppressions that are usually masked and depoliticized with similar terms. That is, both reject the calls for more "humane treatment" under the existing system
If vegans are to be consistent and fair in their theory and action, they thus ought to honor "the efforts of all who are striving for the emancipation of humans and of other animals" which includes supporting prison abolition.

This essay is an abridged verion of a previous post at HEALTH. Click here to read the full version.

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