resolving tensions between animal rights and human-focused social justice movements

I had a phone call with my mom the other day, and she told me she had listened to a podcast that talked about the animal rights framework and the animal welfare framework.  She said that she isn’t really on board with animal rights, if by animal rights, we mean that animals and humans are entitled to the same rights and that we should not legally or morally distinguish between animals and humans.  She wants to prioritize humans; she thinks that because we have so many problems with each other already that need to be addressed, why add a whole other axis of oppression to fight? 

I don’t tell this story to throw my mom under the social justice bus, but rather to illustrate that this is a pretty common belief for most social justice-minded people. I also used to feel this way.  Sometimes I still do, and even though I am challenging myself on that, I completely understand this perspective, particularly because so many animal rights organizations have ZERO analysis or activism centered on people. For example, PETA is the public face of the animal rights movement despite being reviled by many in environmental justice and animal rights communities. They have a long history of racism and sexism.  For people who are racial, gender, and economic justice activists, a movement with a face like PETA is not a movement to partner with.

Some might argue that PETA is an extremist organization; I shouldn’t use them as an example because they don’t represent the animal rights movement. Sure! I agree that they do not represent what the animal rights movement “truly” is. But a) for people just starting to think about animal rights, PETA is the loudest voice and it’s hard to move past that, and b) while most mainstream organizations centered on the rights of animals aren’t as bad as PETA, they do tend to stay out of all non-animal realms of politics.  It’s extremely frustrating.  However, though I have also felt that frustration, I strongly believe that it’s crucial for all movements for justice to use a framework that recognizes the “logic of domination” that sets the foundation for all structural oppression and culturally legitimate hierarchies. This framework highlights the connections between struggles for racial/economic/gender justice for humans, and justice for animals and the environment.*

Ecofeminist and environmental justice theorizing can illuminate these connections.  On one side of this coin, groups of people who are designated as socially and culturally inferior are also often associated more closely with animals and nature.  For example, ecofeminists have pointed out that people who have periods are characterized as irrational and erratic and therefore are unfit to make decisions for themselves or others.  To build on that analysis, scholars of colonization have shown that genocide against indigenous peoples was rationalized by white supremacist stereotypes of Native peoples as savage and subhuman, closer to nature and animals than to Europeans.  Violence against black men is excused (in racist logic) by characterizing black men as hypermasculine and hypersexual, animalistic.  East Asian women are stereotyped either as tragic Madame Butterfly figures or as tiger moms/dragon ladies.  Essentially, associations with nature  signify populations that need to be controlled by dominant groups to maintain the status quo(s).  This means that upsetting hegemonic views of nature as empty space to be dominated by white men will also disrupt hegemonic views of marginalized people as empty vessels to be dominated by and filled with Euroamerican, bourgeois values.

On the other side of the coin, environmental catastrophes and our disaster of a food industry harm poor communities of color and indigenous communities first and worst. (plz don’t make me explain that.) There is very little incentive to fight the exploitation of and violence against food industry workers and animals because the people most affected by dangerous working conditions and poor-quality food have the least amount of political and economic capital. “Environmentalists” cannot ignore white supremacy and economic exploitation in favor of addressing animal abuses and carbon emissions because they will not be able to fully understand why and how environmental degradation occurs. Incorporating racial, economic, and gender analyses into environmental frameworks makes movements for environmental justice and sustainability holistic and much more effective.

This logic of domination that creates the foundations for all forms of human-human oppression also creates the belief that humans can and should control nature.  A logic of domination exists inside of us as individuals, and it pervades our social and legal institutions and our cultures. For those who are already doing racial, economic, and gender justice work, but are feeling uneasy about justice for animals and environmental justice, I want to point out that taking hierarchies and dichotomies at face value is basically how oppression continues. I really understand negative reactions to animal rights rhetoric/environmentalist movements. People and organizations who do that kind of work frequently perpetuate other forms of oppression. Despite that, I believe we still have an obligation to work towards compassionate social systems that are as tightly woven as oppressive social systems are, and that means upending institutionalized and structural hierarchies and ending violence of all kinds. That doesn’t mean building coalitions with shitty sharts like PETA to get the job done, but it does mean understanding how environmental and animal struggles are intertwined with human ones and creating new institutions that will not rely on the exploitation of animals, people, or the environment.

 

*This framework/term was coined by ecofeminist Karen Warren. I think ecofeminism has, so far, been verrrryryyy problematic (generally has been white trans exclusionary feminism with an environmentalist bent), but I think it’s possible to appropriate this term for more radical struggles and ideologies, which is what I am attempting to do.

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