On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues

VGKids Sticker TemplateVegans and animal rights activists often draw comparisons between the animal rights movement and other social justice movements, like the anti-slavery campaigns, women’s liberation etc.

While often these comparisons are good illustrations to make people see certain things or think about animals in a different light, I think at the same time we have to be careful with them and not only see the similarities, but also the differences.

I think there’s a particular problem when peoeple use the parallel with human causes to justify NOT fighting for incremental improvements.

This is how it goes:
A pragmatic activist says that he’s in favor of certain reform regulations, such as a ban on unanesthetized castration of piglets. Others (Francione and his “abolitionists”, for instance) might counter with something like this (this is an actual quote from someone):

Would anyone advocate for the abolition, or the regulation, of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.

The same people may make arguments like: we would never campaign for “humane rape”, and: it’s not ok to just have wife beating-free wednesdays (referring to Meatless Mondays)

I think the comparison here is very shaky at best (and that is putting it mildly). Child sex slavery, rape, or beating your wife are things which 99% of people will disapprove of. Killing animals for food is something at most a few percentage of the population disapproves of and the rest not just condones but actually celebrates. Obviously, issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies.

In general, I think we should be careful with drawing parallels between the animal issue and other (human) social struggles. Let’s not lose sight of the differences which are relevant. When we do lose sight of them, it may blind us and we may believe we could apply exactly the same tactics or communication style, while better ones may be available.

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18 thoughts on “On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues

  1. Watch for example India’s daughter, a documentary about rape in India.

    Your premise (“Child sex slavery, rape, or beating your wife are things which 99.9999% of people will disapprove of”) is seriously flawed, making your argument very shaky, at best.

    (by which I am not making any comments about the heart of the issue).

    1. The percentage of people approving or disapproving of something doesn’t determine whether it’s right or wrong. If something is wrong it’s WRONG.

    1. why do we necessarily need an analogy? But if you want one: i think it makes sense to say that in x years we will see our present treatment of animals the way we see the treatment of slaves, x years go, today.

  2. Hi Tobias,

    I am happy to hear you talking about the cautiousness of comparing the AR movement to other social justice movements. This is often not talked about in the community.

    However, I believe the biggest issue with these comparisons is that we often make statements that imply that said social justice movement is no longer an issue, downplaying the oppression that currently exist, silencing resistance, and therefore reinforcing systems that allows oppression to continue to exist.

    Take your analogy “that in x years we will see our present treatment of animals the way we see the treatment of slaves, x years ago, today.” Comparing animal farming practices (whether factory farming, small scale farms, or backyard farms, etc) to slavery -without mentioning the current problem of slavery- suggest we somehow live in a world without slavery or racism. Slavery today is a huge global problem. There are more slaves now then every before; granted our population is also larger, but this doesn’t make it any less of an issue. In the US (I am a US citizen) activists often compare animal slavery to human slavery. The foundation of US slavery was racism. When AR activist make this slavery comparison WITHOUT talking about racism today, it can be INFERRED that we live in a post racial society and reinforces the ideas that racism (and slavery) is a thing of the past. In no means is the US a colourblind society and racism continues to be a huge institutional problem.

    If as activists, we think it is so important to make an analogy to other forms of social justice movements or oppressed groups of people it is important to acknowledge that said injustice is still a current issue. If we do not, we unwittingly help to suppress the voices of that movement (our silence insinuates ‘hey this was an issue of the past, but now we live in a world where we don’t have to worry about this anymore’) and unfortunately reinforces the system of oppression.

    More importantly, doesn’t the pain and suffering that we inflict on more than a billion of non human animals annually a compelling enough argument to stand on its own? I believe by continuing to compare the struggle of AR to human animal social justice movements we perpetuate speciesism. Somehow their pain and oppression is not deserving of advocacy unless we compare it to OUR own human suffering. But then again, we can all be speciest at times and it is an evolving consciousness.

    1. hi brooke, thanks for commenting.
      I see what you mean, but i don’t think i agree that e.g. we have more slavery than ever before (at least not the kind of slavery we think about when we say slavery). Actually, i get a bit irritated when people reply that “there is more of x than ever before”, ignoring the progress that has been made. i do believe we have made and are making progress in a lot of fields, and i can’t really understand people who don’t want to see that or appreciate that. At the very least, we could say that in our *attitudes* a lot has changed. at least in theory slavery is not forbidden (of course it depends how you interpret slavery). While being blind for the abuses that still exist is obviously not good, so is ignoring all progress that has happened, i think.
      I do agree that we don’t necessarily *need* this kind of comparisons, though if they are good they can help present an issue clearer to people

  3. Yes, I think it is equally important to talk about the progress of social justice movements. It gives us hope and encourages us to continue our work. We can and do make a difference. However, this is often the only side that is implied when we compare social justice movements to the AR movement. Take slavery: It’s like saying, ‘Hey, look we were able to overcome slavery and once people see the comparison to the human rights movement to animal rights we can become a less speciest society.’ That is one narrative.

    We have not overcome the foundations of slavery- racism- and it is a major problem. Looking back historically, because I am assuming this is what people are talking about when they make the analogy to slavery, (and I’ll use the history of my own country) Black US citizens were constitutionally “freed,” given the right to vote, etc in 1868. It took almost a hundred years (1965) for that right to be legally upheld. Does that mean that within those 100 years there was “progress?” Yes, nominally, but for the reality of many black US citizens they were still ‘enslaved’, this time under the name of the legally sanctioned system of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws. Has progress happened since 1965? Yes, but there is far more work to be done. Eg. People of colour are disproportionately incarcerated in the US, all the issues being brought up due to Ferguson, etc

    Using arguments of human slavery without acknowledging the oppression many people of colour face every day not only hurts the civil rights/human rights movement but also hurts our (the AR) movement. Some people of colour are offended when it seems like people imply that racism (the foundation of slavery) isn’t an issue anymore. Just as talking about the ‘rape of dairy cows’ without being witness to the millions of women who have endure sexual violence may hurt women who have been trafficked, raped, or sexually assaulted. People inherently want their pain to be acknowledged. This is one of the things we advocate for as AR activists, too? That people acknowledge the sentience of animals and their inherent right to their own life. We can’t act like these oppressions are not an issue whether for non-human or human animals.

    It doesn’t take very much to acknowledge the continual struggle (and progress) of other social justice movements if we chose to use them as a reference. It may actually help us win allies (a better strategy, perhaps?) too.

    This is an issue I have struggled with. I have used the comparison of social justice movements (namely, slavery) to highlight the terrible situation many animals are currently in. However, I am starting to believe that the merits of animal rights are a worthy enough argument without possibly offending already disadvantaged groups, inadvertently supporting a system of oppression (including speciesism), and alienating people from the AR movement.

    Thanks for bringing up this issue.

  4. Another enlightening post, thanks Tobias.

    It makes me think of a situation/analogy that I have never heard discussed before. Regarding Francione’s comment “that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.”…. if a dog was found injured along the side of the road, is Francione’s view saying that we shouldn’t help the dog if it would be returned to his/her owner? Providing help to the dog would be an “improvement”, wouldn’t it?

    I know there are many animal rights activists who believe no animals should kept as pets, so this post has made me wonder about what they would do of they came across an injured dog if they are of that belief.

  5. I know that I am late to the commenting here but what is interesting to me is that I just read a nonfiction work which talks about “extreme” positions and “moderate” positions.

    In the example provided. Adam Grant, compared the approaches of three womens’ voting rights advocates: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. The first two took a more radical approach and severed ties with a larger womens’ voting rights group over the group not being extreme enough. Lucy Stone mixed suffragette information with religious and housekeeping information. Stone tempered the more radical information she wanted to share with information that was palatable to her audience. When the Anthony and Stanton split the organization, it made the movement less powerful, required more effort and duplication of effort, and the media at the time focused on the fight between the women, and not the issue of a woman’s right to vote.

    Interestingly, Grant uses this starting off point to say that the closer you are on a spectrum, the more likely you are to disagree over matters that seem trivial to the group at large- that group that you are trying to influence!

    Just some food for thought!

    (The Originals by Adam Grant)

      1. Tobias- interesting- thanks for the link. In Grant’s book he discusses this precise issue (I cannot recall if he uses “the narcissism of small differences” ( I would like to think that I would remember that phrase!). In fact, he compares vegan and vegetarians and notes how much harsher vegans treat vegetarians.

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