Periodically, animal advocates get torn to shreds for daring to suggest that the suffering of animals deserves our consideration alongside the suffering of humans. Last year, Natalie Portman had the audacity to ask, “If we don’t tolerate rape, why do we tolerate meat eating?”—and was promptly pounced upon by feminist bloggers. More recently, twitter called my attention to a feministing post saying “Fuck you very much” to a PETA display that pointed out the eerie similarities between contemporary justifications for animal abuse and past justifications for slavery, eugenics, child labor, and women’s subjugation.
I’m not surprised to see that the PETA display received such a negative reaction. When a group I helped found, the Princeton Animal Welfare Society, brought a similar exhibit to campus my junior year, I was labeled a “racist” by numerous student groups—groups which had repeatedly ignored my attempts to reach out to them and hear their objections prior to the display coming to campus. As a result, I’m sensitive to the kind of attacks being made on PETA, which is why I feel the need to launch into the blogosphere my own explanation of why, even if you don’t care at all about animals, you should think that comparisons between the justifications for animal and human abuse are appropriate and defensible.
Part of my problem with the kind of objections feministing raises is the complete lack of empathy it suggests—not empathy for animals, but for animal advocates. If you take the inferiority of animals to be axiomatic, comparisons between animals and humans are offensive, because they entail dragging humans down to the level of animals. But even a half-hearted attempt to put oneself in the shoes of an animal advocate makes it obvious that this is not what we are trying to do. PETA’s goal is to raise animals up to the level of humans: displays like this are not “quite literally dehumanizing”, as feministing insists, but “quite literally humanizing.” Even if animal rights activists didn’t have the slightest concern for women’s equality or racial justice, there still would be no conceivable reason for them to make any argument that debases women or racial minorities.
What disturbs me more about the recent outrage, though, is the parochial attitude towards social justice it suggests. As one blogger, Anna North, wrote about Natalie Portman, “I cannot hear meat-eating and rape in the same breath without feeling that the enormity of the rapist’s crime is being minimized.” North admitted that Portman was probably not trying to trivialize rape—but she nonetheless felt that Portman was upsetting a hierarchy of wrongs that insists that time spent worrying about animals is time spent not addressing more important, human issues. What bothers me, though, is the suggestion that our commitment to justice for one group detracts from justice for others; that compassion is something finite which must be hoarded for our own particular, pet causes.
I submit that our concern for the suffering of one subjugated group is precisely what makes us likely to reevaluate our prejudices towards another. Is it coincidence that movements for civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and—dare I say it—animal rights emerged around the same time? Or is it perhaps that the same activists’ involvement in one cause led them to think critically about their preconceptions towards another? With that in mind, how, exactly, does my being vegan make me a less effective advocate for social justice for humans? If anything, abstaining from animal products reminds me—three times a day—to challenge the received wisdom of which kind of inequalities and injustices are natural and unchangeable.
All this is very different from arguing about whether comparing the slaughter of cattle for meat to murder or the milking of cows for milk to rape is tactically effective. It probably isn’t. There are some injustices about which we cannot be rational: the visceral reactions of people of color to comparisons between factory farming and slavery, or that of Jewish groups to analogies between slaughterhouses and gas chambers, should be respected, even if—as a privileged white male with no oppression to speak of in my personal history—I cannot entirely undertand them. But my own experience as an animal activist makes me aware of why these tactics are inevitable: because most people—including many, many people on the left—are completely unwilling to challenge their own biases towards animals, and simply dismiss arguments out of hand. To those continuously outraged about PETA’s attention-grabbing (and, yes, at times sexist and misguided) tactics, I offer this paraphrasing of JFK: those who make thoughtful advocacy for animals impossible make stupid, offensive advocacy for animals inevitable.