When the term “speciesism” gets overused

I think most of us are attracted to the term speciesism. It seems such an elegant concept. And it’s a strong one. In many cases, when you use it correctly and cleverly, it’s a prety nice argument that makes sense. Especially when you talk to progressive minded people. They see that you have a point, and that there is an analogy with racism etc.

What is speciesism about? It’s about discrimination solely on the basis of species, just like racism is discrimination solely on the basis of “race”.  I remember reading the following illustration or explanation of speciesism (I think it was in James Rachels’ Created form Animals). If you test cosmetics on the eyes of rabbits, you need to ask: why don’t we do this on people? The first answer would be: we don’t do this on people because people’s eyes would hurt. Then we ask: is this different in the case of rabbits? If no (if rabbits experience the same discomfort), then we are being speciesist if we test on rabbits but not on humans. The species, in this case, is the only reason for the difference, and that’s not right. If, on the other hand, we could say something like: because rabbits don’t experience pain in their eyes (which is not true), our acting wouldn’t be speciesist but would be inspired by a morally relevant criterium.


Like I said, I think that’s a good argument. The way I use it in discussions is that say: “If you do x to animals but not to people, you have to give me a morally relevant reason.”

I don’t think there are many good arguments against speciesism. Some people would suggest that people have a different moral standing, were created with souls, or whatever, but these things are not convincing to me.

Now, because speciesism is such an elegant concept, we tend to use it in all kinds of circumstances, and that is where, in my humble opinion, we may err. I’m talking (among other things) about where we apply the speciesism-argument to outreach and communication, within the animal rights movement.

I have heard it a thousand times, and every time I hear it, I inwardly sigh in furstration. The argument takes the same shape: you can’t do x regarding animals, because it would be immoral if we did it regarding people. In this case x is about a certain way of communication, a certain argument, a campaign… Again, it sounds good at first sight, but let me fill it in with some concrete examples

  • When I recommend meat reduction or Meatless Mondays, I get to hear that that is speciesist, because we wouldn’t approve of something like Child Abuse Free Mondays in the case of humans.
  • When I recommend that we should encourage people when they have taken steps to reduce their meat consumption, some people will reply that’s speciesist because we wouldn’t praise a murderer or abuser who is presently murdering or abusing less people.
  • When I advocate that we should try to be gentle and sensible and patient etc when talking about animal suffering and veganism, I get to her that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”
  • Another quote in the same vein: “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.”

I think you get the picture. In my humble opinion, the speciesist argument the way it is used in the above cases is false. We are in no way talking about the same things. We are talking about practises in society that are seen entirely, fundamentally different. If you want to keep saying that it is the same thing, you can of course say it, but it won’t be effective.

Moreover, if in our activism and outreach we should only say or advise things regarding animals that we also feel we can advise regarding humans, there would be a lot of stuff we shouldn’t say (which of course is exactly what a part of the animal rights movement believes). We couldn’t encourage or praise people for doing anything less than veganism; we couldn’t tell people to try out a vegan challenge like Veganuary (you can’t tell rapists to try to stop raping for a month!); we can’t just give leaflets to people in supermarkets because we wouldn’t give leaflets to rapists; we couldn’t support any government’s initiative to encourage people to eat less meat because a government wouldn’t encourage people to abuse children a bit less.

And so on, and so forth. The more of these examples I write down, the more absurd the argument gets. The deplorable thing is that all these recommendations that some people in the movement would not have us make, are the claims that psychological and sociological research shows work best: small steps, small wins, rather than big challenges.

As I have written before, you can be truthful to your own rules about what to say and what not (ignoring all the research, and no matter how many times you hit a wall), or you can look for what actually helps people be open and change.

Let’s use the term speciesism cleverly, in the right context.




Slavery free Mondays

I feel compelled to write once again on how campaigns like “Meatfree Mondays” are compared to “slavery-free Mondays” or “child abuse-free Wednesdays,” putting part-time vegans/vegetarians in the same camp as part-time slave holders or part-time child abusers.

This comparison may sound justified for just a fraction of a second, if you don’t think about it too much. At first sight, it seems quite in line with our antispeciesist stance, and it is something that might cause committed activists, especially young ones, to easily shout “Yeah! Right on!” The argument is that anything less than a demand to go vegan is speciesist, because we wouldn’t ask for anything less than total abolition of a crime with similar issues that involve humans.

But I think the comparison doesn’t hold water at all. More importantly, it’s ineffective.

First of all, as I wrote in “on comparing animal rights with other social justice issues“, public support for these different issues varies immensely – child abuse or slavery are things which the vast majority of people disapproves of (let’s conservatively say over 95 % of the western world, and somewhat less globally), while eating animals is actually celebrated by about the same proportion of the population. Issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies, no matter what you think your truth might be.

Secondly, even those who make the “slavery free Mondays” argument do not act the same way when confronted with instances of animal abuse and instances of human abuse. Nobody does that. If we really believed that today, in this society, we should see eating meat in exactly the same light as beating a child or having slaves, the implications would be enormous. It would mean not going to any supermarket – because you wouldn’t support any store where slaves are sold or any establishment that owned slaves. It would mean actively boycotting your local, regional or national government – because you would oppose a pro-slavery government. It would mean trying to stop people from buying or eating animal products, always and everywhere, because that’s what you would do you if you saw someone buying a slave or beating a child today.*

truth vs result

Think also about the effect you are having on the average person when you tell them that eating meat only three days a week is like hitting your child only three days a week. If you think that’s credible or effective, I’d suggest you talk to some of the people you say this to, either in real life or on Facebook, and get their opinions on the matter. If you don’t care that people can’t take your truth and are turned off, then maybe it’s a good time to check what is most important to you: saying your truth, or actually changing things for animals? The two don’t necessarily coincide.

Finally, remember that the general downward trend in meat reduction in western countries and the increase in vegan options is mainly driven by… those “part time slavery supporters” and “part time child abusers” (read more on that here).

* For the sake of the argument, I’m making an abstraction of the fact that supermarkets and restaurants may carry or use products that are the modern day equivalent of slave trade products. Some chocolate is a case in point.