I have written about those who identify themselves as “intersectionalists” but who embrace a very speciesist position. I have also written about a recent conference on “intersectional justice.” The following essay is from Dr. Mark Causey, Lecturer in Philosophy and Liberal Studies at Georgia College and State University. Dr. Causey attended the “intersectional justice” conference. I have never met Dr. Causey and I do not know him other than in connection with his reaching out to tell me about this conference. He wrote the following essay, which I am posting in its entirety exactly as he sent it to me. He made no changes in response to any observations I made.
I recently attended the Intersectional Justice Conference on Whidbey Island in Washington State. Based on the way the conference billed itself as dealing with the intersections of animal rights, human rights and justice issues, I naively assumed that it would deal with the intersections of animal rights, human rights, and justice issues. I soon learned the danger of making assumptions. The main focus of the conference seemed to be voicing the anger and rage that many of the speakers felt at their being marginalized within the animal rights (or “animal whites”) community. The Abolitionist Approach, which oddly enough doesn’t even consider itself part of the mainstream “animal rights” community in the first place, came in repeatedly for explicit and pointed criticism [well, criticism is not really the correct term because that would imply a substantive engagement with ideas which was not so much on offer here]. As far as I could gather there were at least 3 main complaints about the Abolitionist Approach:
1. Veganism as a moral baseline is too simplistic and assumes (white) privilege
2. Calling it “abolitionist” appropriates the lived history of the African-American experience and seems to assume that since legal slavery has ended that there are no lingering issues of systemic racism
3. Abolitionist veganism focuses too much on nonhumans!
I will attempt to address each of these in turn now.
1. Veganism as a moral baseline is too simplistic and assumes (white) privilege:
Indeed, it would seem from what I gathered that having any sort of universal or at least potentially universalizable moral principle, like veganism as a moral baseline, is a sign of patriarchal, white male privilege that takes its viewpoint as the universal and thus erases the perspectives of differently situated others [the truth of a proposition being determined more by who the speaker is than by what it is they say]. Telling someone to “go vegan” implies that they have money and access to vegan options. It is consumerist. The whole notion of “voting with our forks” implies buying power and privilege to vote. One speaker, I honestly don’t remember which one, was thanked, to much applause, for not asking us to all “go vegan.”
Now I certainly see the point that not everyone has equal access to fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables [not to mention all the analog vegan products that so many falsely assume necessary for a vegan diet] based on where they live and their socio-economic circumstances. I also know that statistically the majority of those so disadvantaged are people of color. I absolutely agree that this is a fundamental human justice (food justice) issue that must be addressed and that vegans should be at the forefront of such efforts. As we were reminded, and I fully agree, that unlike natural deserts, “food deserts” don’t just happen. They are constructed by systems of discrimination both racial and economic. Now that is an intersectional issue. Enabling disadvantaged peoples to be able to go vegan would save animals’ lives as well as the lives of these humans who also disproportionately suffer from diet related diseases. But as Gary Francione has repeatedly explained, the necessity for some to eat animal products in order to be adequately nourished doesn’t mean that it is just to consume animals, it only means it is justifiable given the circumstances—unjust circumstances we should be working hard to change! It is possible, as Ellen Jaffe Jones has demonstrated, to eat vegan on $4 a day (the amount of the average SNAP allotment). We even learned at the conference about some amazing work being done in inner-city Baltimore to introduce people to vegan diets, so why not ask people to go vegan and then help them do it rather than ridicule the very notion? Eating a vegan diet [and I by no means want to imply that veganism is only about diet] in these circumstances then becomes a powerful means of non-violent social protest against a food system that is admittedly rigged against these communities. Indeed, the conference seemed at times an odd combination of people with solutions and people with complaints with the two never seeming to connect.
As to the notion that having any sort of universal or at least potentially universalizable moral principle, like veganism as a moral baseline, is a sign of patriarchal, white male privilege that takes its viewpoint as the universal and thus erases the perspectives of differently situated others—this is simple moral relativism. Now here’s the thing: I am a philosopher who has actually published on Nietzsche, one of the chief proponents of what he called “perspectivalism” and a darling of the critical theory crowd. Nietzsche was one of the chief practitioners of what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” which sees power dynamics and hegemony behind all claims to “truth” and even “morality.” But what I see in this criticism of veganism as a moral baseline is a speciesist power play that maintains our human hegemony over nonhuman others. It is a claim that whenever human rights interests conflict with nonhuman animal rights interests, the human interests always win. Nietzsche to one side, the very notion that we shouldn’t have moral absolutes is counterproductive to any justice struggle. The very fact that these speakers are complaining about the very real injustices they have experienced as non-dominant group members demonstrates that they have a universalizable concept of justice—it’s just that they apply it unevenly across the species-divide. I do not doubt for a moment that they care about animal justice nor wish to suggest that they are in any way insincere. Many of them have been vegan longer than I have and have done far more justice work than I have or perhaps ever will do. I am only suggesting that speciesist attitudes have created inconsistencies in their own positions. If animals matter at all morally, that is if they are members of the moral community as we all agree that they are, then our treatment of them is just as much a justice matter as our treatment of each other. We should never be doing things to them that we would consider unjust when done to another human.
2. Calling it “abolitionist” appropriates the lived history of the African-American experience and seems to assume that since legal slavery has ended that there are no lingering issues of systemic racism:
I was told at the conference that the term “abolition” implies that slavery and the racist attitudes that made it possible are simply a thing of the past. Done and dusted. Time to move on to liberate someone else now. Such an attitude ignores the persistence of slavery (albeit not legalized slavery, like that of the Immokalee tomato pickers) and the systemic racism. Despite the Abolitionist Approach’s 5th principle which clearly rejects all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism, I was told that it is not enough to just say it. A fair point. I was told that veganism is not like some badge to be earned but something you have to do every day. It is more like a verb than a noun. Amen. So what are we arguing about?
The thing is, and someone please correct me if I am wrong, I have never seen where Gary Francione [who was called out by name in the conference] has ever denied that racism, sexism, heterosexism….. still exist and are still active justice issues. He explicitly states that, “We cannot say that we reject species as a morally objectionable criterion to discount or devalue the interests of nonhumans but that we do not have a position on whether race, sex, or sexual orientation/preference are morally objectionable criteria when used to discount or devalue human interests. Our opposition to speciesism requires that we oppose all discrimination.” Comparing human slavery and abolition to animal slavery and abolition, I am told, is to try to compare suffering. African-Americans were “animalized” and denied their proper recognition as full human beings, so to then compare their suffering to animal suffering simply repeats this dehumanization. But the intent here is not to compare suffering. We can’t. The intent is to highlight the systems of domination operative in both cases [here we all can agree on blaming the white males who set up this system and still profit from it]. Indeed, I would argue that speciesism is the original form of domination. That is why every subjugated group in the past, women, people of color, members of nondominant religions, and so on have always been “animalized” in the minds and depictions of the oppressors. Our domination of animals back at the beginning of domestication led to the domination of other humans as well (especially the appropriation of female bodies and reproductive capabilities). All humans still profit in various ways (but not all equally) from our continued domination of the nonhumans. I suspect the real complaint here is related to number 3 below: that abolitionist vegans spend too much time focused on nonhuman animals rather than human ones.
3. Abolitionist veganism focuses too much on nonhumans!
I suspect that much of what is behind this complaint is the notion that until we have solved all the human problems, the animals will just have to wait. Needless to say, that is hardly an intersectional approach. The idea seems to be that human justice simply matters more. That is speciesist. In terms of sheer quantity of suffering [oops, I was told not to use this comparison!]—trillions a year—animal suffering is on a scale that simply defies comprehension. This is not to compare the quality of the suffering, it is just a fact that humans have never been bred , slaughtered, imprisoned, enslaved, etc., on anywhere near the scale that we are currently doing to nonhumans. What I expected to hear at the conference was how attacking our speciesist exploitation of nonhuman animals would be actually striking at the root of all forms of oppression. That is what I thought would be the intersectional message here. Instead, the message seemed to be more a complaint that animal activists weren’t more engaged in the various struggles for human justice. But that seems to reinforce the idea that these are separate struggles rather than truly intersectional ones and that the human issues are more important and pressing than the animal ones. It also ignores the important differences between the abolitionist approach and other “animal rights” groups that explicitly reject the vegan moral baseline.
Mark Causey, M. Div., Ph.D.
Philosophy and Liberal Studies
Georgia College & State University