“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.” -Henry Beston, The Outermost House
I was passing out leaflets at Columbia University a couple weeks back, when a passerby who took a pamphlet on veganism and the cruel uses of animals turned back around to approach me. He said, “I am a vegetarian, so I understand not eating meat. But what is wrong with some of the uses of these animals? What is wrong with seeing eye dogs?” A valid question indeed, and one I had to pause for a moment to answer. I mustered up something along the lines of the ways that many of the seeing eye dogs in the industry are unfairly treated or neglected. “Oh, he said.” He seemed content with an answer he could relate to – suffering. In my experience leafleting and participating in animal rights advocacy, I receive a number of questions, many of them wanting to know the same thing, what is WRONG with the horse-drawn carriages at Central Park? And each time I (and I presume many other activists) offer similar answers, the suffering answer. But there is another layer, beyond the quick, violent spark of imagination that connects physical pain with empathy. And it has to do with power and structural inequality, and the use of one group for the benefit of another. And it has everything to do with feminism.
I think growing up my evolving education about power took the form of various identifying factors. It went like this: vegetarian, feminist, ecofeminist, vegan. I remember first coming into my vegetarianism, then my feminism, and didn’t necessarily connect the two. I saw the sturdy and easily identifiable connections between religion and feminism, but those were easy assimilations for me – they performed a direct impact on my life. Once I read the basic ideas behind ecofeminism I realized not only the (necessary) connection between the two, but suddenly it began making sense why feminist theologians were the ones most able to articulate this connection. The same Judeo-Christian beliefs that project a sacred patriarchy into the world also promote a domination of homo-sapiens over the earth, including non-human animals. I began thinking back to so many arguments and discussions I had with family and friends about why I chose not to eat fish as a vegetarian. I couldn’t understand the ideological difference between killing one animal over the other, until I realized that the conceptual differences between “fish,” “meat,” and “poultry” date as far back as the bible. Like so many other “religious” dualities and concepts we carried with us through the long ride to modernity, the stark separations of human/animals, fish/meat were ingrained in even my most secular friends.
There are, of course, scholars who I owe the growing passion and articulation of my politics. When ecofeminism began to emerge in the 1970s with brilliant of scholars like Rosemary Radford Ruether, the field, though diverse, made a commitment to the (Judeo-Christian) connection between the dominance of women with the dominance of nature. Western culture, springing from Greek culture, traditionally defines women with nature and materiality, and men with the spiritual, higher sphere of immateriality. Scholars like Ruether argue that Western culture not only identifies women with nature, but nature is often seen as an object of domination by men, thus the patriarchal mindset often promotes mentalities in which the domination over women and nature are connected. These dichotomies of male/female, spirit/matter, then set the stage for the domination of men over women, and human over earth.
Ruether’s call to humanity that we raise public awareness regarding the need for justice based on equality is one that I feel connects her to other activists and literature concerning animal rights. Specifically, she offers the exploitative injustice of using women and nature as commodities in order to enrich those in power. This connection to commodification is one I believe wreaks of potential, especially in regard to the mainstream media. Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, was one of the first to connect the objectification of women with that of meat as part of the same system of oppression. Adams points to the ritualization of the mediatized male gaze and its reduction of women to mere “parts.” Women in advertising, the media, pornography, etc. become breasts, butts, and thighs, fragments without individuality, much like the breasts, thighs, and even bacon and veal we devour, all stripped of the whole of life and ready for consumption. She believes that linking the exploitation of women and animals is actually necessary to change the culture of objectification in which we live, and that perhaps ecofeminism doesn’t do enough ideological work for the domination of animals.
Even as well minded as so many feminist activists are, Adams claims that the failure to connect animal objectification for the objectification of women is to participate in a similar system of oppression. When self-identified feminist Lady Gaga paraded in her “meat dress” to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, she was accompanied by U.S. Soldiers affected by “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as she explained to the media that if we don’t stand up for our rights, “pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” However, as vegetarian-feminists screamed in outrage, and I join in this fight, Gaga’s offering of butchered meat in place of her fragmented body is merely invoking the same system of oppression. Gaga sacrificed/used/exploited the life of another in order to gain attention for her own powerful needs and desires.
Many people criticize vegans and animal rights activists for neglecting the needs of humans. But the belief in equality, the rage against exploitation and commodification, the commitment to ending unjust sources of domination and the condemnation of the powerful to take advantage of the weak are just as much the tenants of veganism as they are humanism, feminism, and social justice. In fact, the documentary Earthlings, which exposes the uses of animals for profit and considered the most persuasive documentary ever made, invokes sexism and racism as similar systems of oppression in its very introduction.
Earthlings bases the source of animal cruelty in speciesism, or the discrimination of non-human animals based solely on their species. As the narrator of Earthlings, Joaquin Phoenix explains, “By analogy with racism and sexism, the term “speciesism” is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” I want to end with a few more quotes from the documentary and urge those who have not seen it to find a friend and view it.
In each and all such cases, humans who have power exploit those who lack it.
Might the same be true of how humans treat other animals, or other earthlings?
Undoubtedly there are differences, since humans and animals are not the same in all respects. But the question of sameness wears another face.
Granted, these animals do not have all the desires we humans have; granted, they do not comprehend everything we humans comprehend; nevertheless, we and they do have some of the same desires and do comprehend some of the same things.
The desires for food and water, shelter and companionship, freedom of movement and avoidance of pain? These desires are shared by nonhuman animals and human beings.
As for comprehension: like humans, many nonhuman animals understand the world in which they live and move. Otherwise, they could not survive.
So beneath the many differences, there is sameness.
Like us, these animals embody the mystery and wonder of consciousness.
Like us, they are not only in the world, they are aware of it.
Like us they are the psychological centers of a life that is uniquely their own.