As I've explained elsewhere, pretty much everyone is taught how to systematically devalue the equal needs of (at least some) others. By the time we reach adulthood, this 'skill', and the meritocratic moral logic that undergirds it, are deeply rooted. And while people differ greatly in how broadly they apply this logic, basically none of us are able to ignore the many distractions (skin color, nationality, gender, ethnicity, intellectual ability, wealth, mannerisms, religious affiliation, and so on) that we are taught to take into account when it comes to recognizing and valuing other people's needs. As such, hardly any of us are able to embody the kind of inclusiveness, egalitarianism and solidarity that most of us do see as the ideal (that we mostly fail to live up to in practice).
The questions I want to explore here are, first, how we apply this 'skill' in the context of our thinking about the other animals, second, how this affects our treatment of them, and third, how the fact that we allow ourselves to behave and think this way towards the other animals affects how we treat and view other humans.
As Marshall Rosenberg has pointed out, one of the most pernicious notions is that of anyone deserving anything: either as a consequence of how they have or lack certain characteristics, or because of the fact that we (dis)approve of their behavior or beliefs. When we use this word, we mean that we are (un)comfortable with the fact some benefit or harm came to them (that we wouldn't wish on, or grant, others). What's most interesting about this is how we'll respond very differently to the same behavior depending on whether we think the person who does it is 'justified' in doing so.
For instance, when someone who does sex work or who has no permanent home is killed, many of us have learned to rationalize this (as "to be expected" or as an "occupational hazard"), which we'd not be willing to do if the person killed was seen as an "upstanding citizen" (especially if the victim was an "undeserving" attractive young female). In this manner, our judgments and our own ideas strongly affect how we perceive and respond to others and events, never minding that all humans have the exact same need for safety, and are harmed equally by violence or their death. (In fact, a good case could be made argued that the harm to the former is more disturbing, because of how this tends to happen in societies that allow people to end up on its 'margins'. But such awareness is sorely lacking.) Of course, others may respond in the opposite manner, and we may come to feel differently about the same event, or to come to reassess our own earlier reaction. And this pattern generalizes: think, for instance, of how unlikely we are to want to listen to people who we regard as 'brats', because we believe that it is wrong for women or children to contradict 'their husbands' or 'their elders', and so on.
The fact that the way we judge the same events so differently depending on how we view the speaker is usually treated as proof that some (or most) of us are insufficiently 'objective' -- or 'too dumb' -- to be allowed to make judgments; and many people (including people who call themselves 'progressives') regularly toy with the idea that we should put restrictions on who gets to speak (or vote, etc.). Following Rosenberg (who follows Kaufmann), I would suggest a different response. Because such a move would be highly undemocratic. Moreover, since all judgments are a form of feedback, and since being able to give and receive feedback is an essential skill for people who live together, I'd say that what we instead need to learn to become better at this whole feedback thing, including at listening to people without allowing ourselves to be distracted by our judgments of them.
To learn to treat others as equals, we need to become aware of how notions like deserving -- to speak, to be heard, to receive some punishment or reward -- affect our own willingness to listen and talk with others, as well as whether we regard violence towards them as wrong.
Unequal treatment and violence can take many different forms. It can be as 'simple' as passively shrugging off injustice because of how you view the victim, it can mean ignoring or preventing the contributions of people who we see as 'immature' or 'uninformed'; it can mean selectively allowing institutional access, or access to societal resources; and it can mean being willing to use (or accept the use of) force against people you devalue or marginalize (up to and including imprisonment, enslavement and death).*
To show you how this selective and learned disinterest works and how far it can go if you let it, let me discuss the most extreme -- and common -- forms of othering and violence. Namely, our treatment of the other animals as property, who we breed into existence for the purpose of our using and killing them, even as they have exactly the same needs as us, however differently they may experience them.
As a starting point, consider how casually even the most fair-minded and caring of us will reference and invoke violence towards those we have been taught to view as the least of us, namely the other animals. This even though nearly everyone believes animals matter, and even though just about everyone who's ever seen or interacted with another animal knows that they too experience and value their own lives; that they too enjoy freedom, security and play; that they too will nurture their children; and that they too will do just about anything to stay alive; it is currently the case that over 98% of the world's population considers it okay to use and kill animals for food, clothing and entertainment, and that over 70 billion land animals are bred into existence as property to be used and killed because people are willing to pay others to do so. How is it that we are so (often aggressively) dismissive towards any suggestion that the harm we inflict on them matters, and that it is wrong to participate in these practices, and to consume products made by or from animals?
Briefly put, the root issue is that we've been taught to dismiss the harms we inflict on them, using many different ways. To name a few: when challenged on their animal use, many people point to the putative fact that the victims are 'just' animals; they may raise how, since we 'can't know' whether they 'truly' suffer and dislike it when we harm them, it therefore is okay to do so; or they may assert that animals 'don't mind being used and killed' so long as they 'don't see it coming' and don't suffer 'too much' (in our -- the perpetrator-owner's -- estimation); and so on (and I would point out that given enough time, we can generate a basically infinite 'arguments' like these).
What unites these claims is that they are all circular, in that they presuppose and then use the (imagined) differences we identify and point to in order to justify the violence and unequal treatment we inflict, even as they serve to distract us from the -- much more important -- similarities, starting with the fact that they value their lives just like we do ours. Because these differences are completely irrelevant. Of course other animals experience their lives differently from how most adult humans experience theirs, and they certainly have different bodies and abilities, and so on. But what matters is not how (differently) they experience and live their lives, bodies and surroundings, but that they experience, and that they have the same basic needs (to live, play, socialize, rest, etc.) that we do.
When it comes to our fellow humans, too, the question with respect to whether we may treat them as a thing or as our property isn't "how clever is my victim?" or "how exciting do I consider their life?," but whether they experience and value their life. And even if they were to agree with us that their life isn't worthwhile, e.g. because they are feeling depressed, this would not give us the right to decide when and how to end their life.
This same reasoning applies to how we treat the other animals: it's not up to us to decide for them how they live and when they die, because their life is theirs to live. As such, if you embrace egalitarianism or nonviolence, or if you consider discrimination to be wrong, it follows that you should stop using and harming other animals and go vegan, and that you will want to unlearn the speciesism that a., makes us dismiss the experience of those 'sufficiently' beneath us as irrelevant, and b., that encourages us to see animals as categorically inferior in the first place.
And this not just important for the other animals' sake, but also because until we reject the meritocratic logic in all of its forms -- and even when it comes to the beings we learned to value least -- we're much more likely to relapse into other forms of chauvinism, and to othering other humans (note how humans who are willing to engage in or shrug off genocide often make this easier for themselves by thinking of and calling the victims 'rats', 'cockroaches,' 'pests', and so on).
As you will find once you've made this change, unlearning speciesism will teach you a great deal about how this logic operates in us generally.
To learn more about why and how we should stop treating and thinking of other animals as property, I would highly recommend watching the embedded video, and reading Francione and Charlton's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. They have developed the most lucid and powerful case for equal consideration of equal needs that I know of; and their six principles have greatly helped me in clarifying my own thinking about moral issues starting with (but hardly limited to) how I view the other animals, as well as my commitment to egalitarianism.
Other works I'd recommend on this topic are their Eat Like You Care and Advocate for Animals, and Sherry Colb's Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger? (these works are especially useful if you want to engage in vegan advocacy). Francione's other academic works, especially Animals as Persons, and Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Steiner's Animals and the Moral Community are also very much worth your time.
David Nibert's Animal Oppression and Human Violence, and Bob Torres's Making a Killing are both very helpful in helping me understand more about the institutional aspects of animal use, and the ties between animals and human oppression, exploitation and devaluation.
And as always, thank you for reading. Please feel free to ask any questions, or to provide feedback. I appreciate it. :)
* Of course, I'm not arguing the use of force can never be justified, nor that every request must be honored. I simply wish to point out the role that character judgments play in our own behavior, especially when it comes to 'justifying' not just those beliefs about superiority and inferiority, but also that it's legitimate to use violence, and to treat the claims and needs of those who you value less as mattering less than our own.
Permalink - Published on May 19, 2019, 10:00:00 AM
Exploring 'meritocracy', both conceptually and in practice.
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