“There are too many human problems in the world that we have to solve first before we think about animals.”
“Let’s work on world peace first; we can then work on animal rights.”
Anyone who pursues animal advocacy frequently encounters these and similar comments. I am often asked how I respond to such comments.
First of all, no one is saying that those who campaign for human rights should stop doing so and should instead campaign for animal rights. Rather, the point is that if we accept that animals are members of the moral community, we should stop eating, wearing, or consuming animals in our individual lives. Becoming a vegan does not require that you stop advocating for abused children, battered women, or against war.
After I gave a lecture on animal rights at a community center, a woman approached me and said that she was a volunteer at a center for battered women and rape victims. She said that she was very sympathetic to what I had to say about animals but that she was completely consumed by her work for women that she did not know how to find time to work to become involved in animal rights.
I asked her: “You have time to eat, don’t you?”
She replied, “Of course I do!”
“Do you wear clothes and use shampoo and other products?”
“Yes, sure. But what does that have to do with it?”
It has everything to do with it. I explained to her that if she really took the animal issue seriously, all she needed to do was to stop consuming them as food, wearing them, using products that contain them or that are tested on them, or patronizing any form of entertainment that used animals. If she never did anything else on the animal issue, her act of going vegan, and the example that she would set for friends and family, would themselves constitute important forms of activism that would in no way interfere with her work for women. Becoming an advocate for abolition is something that you can do at your next meal.
Second, it is a mistake to see issues of human and animal exploitation as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, all exploitation is inextricably intertwined. All exploitation is a manifestation of violence. All discrimination is a manifestation of violence. As long as we tolerate violence of any sort, there will be violence of every sort.
As Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy noted: “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”
Tolstoy was, of course, completely correct. As long as humans regard it as normal to slaughter animals for food for which there is no justification other than the trivial pleasure we get from eating or using animals, they will regard it as normal to use violence when they think that something more important is at stake.
And it goes the other way as well: as long as we tolerate racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of discrimination, there will be speciesism. That is one reason why it is important that animal advocates should never think of themselves as “one issue” people. Speciesism is morally objectionable because, like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, it excludes beings from the scope of moral concern on the basis of an irrelevant criterion. It makes no difference whether that irrelevant criterion is race, sex, sexual orientation, or species. We cannot sensibly say that we oppose speciesism but we support or have no position on other forms of discrimination. We oppose speciesism because it is like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Our opposition to speciesism logically implies a rejection of these other forms of discrimination.
Again, this does not mean that animal advocates must stop their work on behalf of animals and become human rights advocates. It does, however, mean that they should always make clear to others that they oppose all forms of discrimination and they should never practice discrimination in their own lives.
Third, many altruistic people admirably want to change the world but do not see that the most important change comes at the level of the individual. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want a nonviolent world, you must embrace nonviolence in your own life. Veganism is an important element of a nonviolent life as there can be no doubt that all animal foods and animal products are the result of violence.
Another gem from Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione