Postmodern Feminism and Animal Welfare: Perfect Together

Recently, there was a debate on the excellent and always lively Vegan Freak Forums between what may generally characterized as “postmodern feminists” and “radical feminists.” Postmodern feminists acknowledge that a woman’s choice to commodify herself sexually may represent an act of empowerment and cannot be assessed in any definitively negative way. These feminists are often pro-pornography, or are at least not anti-pornography. Radical feminists are more inclined to reject the commodification of women as inherently problematic. They are generally anti-pornography and are particularly opposed to pornography in which women are depicted as recipients of violent or abusive treatment. They regard most gender stereotypes as harmful to both women and men and seek to undermine these stereotypes. Postmodern feminists often argue that “feminine” stereotypes can help to empower women.

This debate has some interesting and important parallels with the debate on abolition vs. welfare. Indeed, postmodern feminism and animal welfare are the same theory applied in different contexts.

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A “Bright Spot”?

A Media Release (October 25, 2007) from Animal Rights International (ARI) President Peter Singer announced that ARI has placed billboard-style ads on New York buses for a month. These ads apparently show how battery eggs are produced. In the Release, Singer explains how terrible battery cages are. Singer states: “‘Battery cages are being phased out in Europe—why are we lagging behind?'” Singer claims that “there is a bright spot in this dark picture”:

Cage-free eggs, while presently only about five percent of sales, are the fastest growing segment of the market. As more people become aware of the enormous suffering inflicted on caged layers, they often choose to spend a few extra pennies for a more humanely produced egg. ARI hopes that by reminding New Yorkers that breakfast comes at a price for hens, many will spend a little more to get them out of the cages.

The ARI/Singer Release is problematic in at least three respects.

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A Classic of “Moral Schizophrenia”

A central theme of my work for the past decade or so has been the exploration of our cognitive confusion—our “moral schizophrenia”—when it comes to nonhuman animals. Recently, I commented on how entertainer Ellen Degeneres sobbed on her television show about a dog that she adopted and gave away while, at the same time, promoted her dead-animal luncheon menu on her website. Football player Michael Vick was excoriated for his involvement with dog fighting by a public that thinks nothing about eating nonhumans tortured every bit as much as one of Vick’s dogs.

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Adventures in (Ir)Rationality

We humans claim to have some sort of “special” characteristic that justifies our exploitation of nonhumans. One such supposed characteristic is that we are supposedly rational and they supposedly are not. When we consider that it is humans who build nuclear weapons and who destroy the very environment necessary to sustain life, including our lives—just to identify two irrational human behaviors—the rationality claim rings rather hollow. But every now and then, particular examples of what a strange species we are really hits me. I want to share a recent experience with you.

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Ellen Degeneres and Iggy the “It”

On October 16, popular U.S. entertainer Ellen DeGeneres told her talk-show audience–and the world–that she adopted a dog, Iggy, in September. She claimed that Iggy did not get along with her cats, so she gave him to her hairdresser, who has two daughters who wanted him. This apparently violated the adoption contract used by the rescue group, Mutts and Moms, from which Ms. DeGeneres adopted Iggy, because the contract apparently required that she return him to them if she no longer wanted him. The rescue group took Iggy from the hairdresser’s home. Ms. DeGeneres broke down and sobbed as she made a plea that Mutts and Moms return the dog to her hairdresser’s children.

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Equality and Similarity to Humans

Paola Cavalieri, co-editor with Peter Singer of The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, wrote an essay about the recent shooting of a chimpanzee, Johnny, a chimpanzee in his 40s, at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, north of London. According to Cavalieri, Johnny was shot because he was described by zookeepers as “‘a bit of a thug.'” The Times claims that Johnny and another chimpanzee, Koko, had escaped and Koko “gave herself up to a keeper in a nearby field” whereas Johnny apparently did not, and the decision was made to shoot Johnny for reasons of “public safety.”

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Some Thoughts on Vegan Education

I am going to try to tackle in a preliminary way a subject that generates a fair amount of controversy and about which I get quite a bit of email. The subject, broadly speaking, is how vegans should relate to omnivores given that ethical vegans regard the use of animals as involving serious violations of their rights not to be treated as human resources. Do ethical vegans have an obligation to be confrontational with omnivores and to relate to them the way in which we would relate to those who engage in serious crimes against humans?

In one sense, you can anticipate my answer to this question given that I argue that the primary obligation of animal advocates is to engage in creative, nonviolent vegan education.

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Still Doubting the Connections?

For many years, I have been making the point that we cannot morally distinguish speciesism from other forms of discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. I am always on the lookout for explicit connections and one came across my desk this week.

According to an article called Playing Chicken, Jason Atkins, a former Marine and insurance fraud investigator, has started a website that will transmit broadcasts of cockfighting, which is now illegal in all of the states, from a ring in Puerto Rico. If you click on the site, there is a promotional trailer showing scenes of fighting cocks and scantily clad women introducing the events. And Atkins has another site that features “broadcasts of bare knuckles, no rules Brazilian jujitsu matches dubbed ‘Rio Heroes,’ and what Atkins says is a sport made for America, ‘Girls and Guns,’ in which women wearing bikinis accessorized with double-thigh holsters and high-healed [sic] combat boots compete in a shoot-off of weapons that could easily outfit an American combat platoon in Iraq—everything from M-249 SAWs to Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles.”

Sometimes, just when you think that it can’t get worse, it does.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

These words, written by philosopher George Santayana, seem to resonate with particular relevance these days, as we see a world engulfed in violence.

But Santayana also has something important to say to the animal movement.

Most of the large new welfarist animal organizations, both in the United States and Great Britain, claim to endorse veganism but will not promote it as the baseline of the movement because of the concern that veganism will appear to be too “radical” for the general public. So, these organizations promote “happy” meat and animal products that carry the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label or the Freedom Food label, or comply with the Farm Animal Compassionate Standards of Whole Foods, now on both sides of the Atlantic. And Peter Singer reminds us that being a consistent vegan is “fanatical” and that we may actually be obligated not to be vegans if to do so will upset others.

Those of us who maintain that veganism should be the clear and unequivocal moral baseline of the movement are told sternly by the new welfarists that society is not yet ready to hear the vegan message. We should focus on “cage-free” eggs and “free-range” meats instead.

And how does Santayana’s message apply in this context?

In 1944, Donald Watson founded The Vegan Society in the U.K. He coined the word “vegan” to describe someone who consumed no animal products. In the very first issue of the The Vegan News—63 years ago—Watson wrote:

A common criticism is that the time is not yet ripe for our reform. Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination?

Watson pointed out how the opponents of slavery did not wait for the time to be “ripe” and that the proponents of clean water and sanitation met fierce opposition and did not wait for the “non-existent moment” when the time was “ripe.”

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Some Further Thoughts on Michael Vick

On August 2, I posted a blog essay entitled, A Note About Michael Vick. Vick’s behavior was obviously reprehensible. I wrote the blog because I was tired of hearing Vick criticized by self-righteous people who eat meat, attend rodeos, hunt, or participate in the many forms of animal exploitation that, unlike dog fighting, are accepted as legitimate activities by most people but that cause as much suffering to the animals involved.

Frankly, I did not think that there would be much of a response. After all, I have been making the same point for some years now in my writing—we suffer from a sort of “moral schizophrenia” where animals are concerned. On one hand, we treat some nonhumans, such as dogs and cats, as members of our families and become incensed in reaction to stories about the torture of such animals. On the other hand, we ignore entirely—indeed, we participate in—other animal uses that result in the torture of other animals whom we do not regard as “special.” This was a central point in my book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?

Well, I was wrong about the reaction to my blog essay.

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