If we want a better world for all species – including humans—we need to change the way we view and treat animals. This sounds like a reasonable argument to make. Yet, ordinarily we would stay away from this argument. Stick with us while we explain why:
Our treatment of animals reflects the way we think about them, and vice versa. When we (humans) condone, allow, support and/or profit from the imprisonment, subjugation and mass murder of animals, we are evidently not thinking of, nor treating animals very well. A major part of the problem is that we think of humans as completely separate from (other) animals. Doing otherwise risks being seen as overly sentimental, immature and possibly a crackpot. The maintenance of the human/animal binary (or opposition) is an effective way of silencing dissent against the inferiorisation of animals, allowing humans to convince them/ourselves that it is legitimate to use animals as resources, as objects.
This cultural inferiority of animals is so ideologically normalised that we often do not think about it, nor usually question it: it simply is. Culturally we see this everywhere. For example, when assumptions are made that animals—all animals, irrespective of species or complexities of habitat—are intellectually inferior; that their lives don’t matter as much as ours because they are not as emotional, or because they don’t have family ties like we do, or because they don’t live as long as we do …. This is just the start of a possible list of justifications made to allow humans to cast animals as commodities from whom we can make a profit. Commodifying them, in turn, objectifies them – they become “its”, “things”, not individuals, not subjects. This then loops back around to the normalisation of their treatment – it’s OK to kill and eat them because they are just “things”.
Breaking this cycle, when it is so fully and unconsciously supported by most people, organisations and industries, is incredibly difficult and opens the individual who tries up to all kinds of anger and abuse. But, break it we must. And not just for the animals.
The same arguments used to keep animals “in their place” are those that were used to keep slaves, black people and women “in their place”. To this day they have striking parallels to arguments still marshalled against pushes for social equality. And these arguments come in all forms – from the clearly and outwardly abusive through to a subtle paternalism. For instance, many argued that slavery helped the individual slaves as it removed them from “barbarism” and brought them in to “civilisation”. Advocates of white supremacy, including advocates of apartheid in South Africa, often justified the enslavement of black and “coloured” Africans by claiming that by working for their white masters and mistresses they got work, housing and food, meagre as it might be. Rather than working to ensure that the dismantling of this most institutionalised form of racism was undertaken with due regard for the housing, employment and income practicalities of past servants, pro-apartheid advocates played on the fears associated with widespread social change and ran interference with policies and programs to transition from apartheid, to maximise the fallout from the system change, so that they could argue that apartheid operated not just for whites but also blacks, and that dismantling it was an injustice to all.
We make the same arguments about a “need” to coral and invasively manage animals and their reproductive cycles – seen clearly for example in the industry arguments regarding why we need to keep pigs in tight confinement when breeding so they don’t kill their piglets.
All of these arguments are based on a hierarchical and binary worldview. The idea that some matter more than others is both hierarchical (humans are better than animals) and binary (‘us’ versus ‘them’). And this applies to perceived differences between human groups, – e.g. men matter more than women because men are better – stronger, smarter, more capable – than women, to put it simplistically; or able bodied are better than disabled bodied and so on – just as much as it does between human and other animal groups. Once we acknowledge the intersectionality of oppression in this way it becomes clear that the problem is not one of human versus animal, or of men versus women, but having groups placed in opposition with each other in the first place. When we set up binaries we are always and inevitably setting up hierarchical distinctions where one side of the binary is accorded more worth than the other. And the consequences of this are dire as we have seen throughout history with the oppression, abuse, mistreatment, and murder of those deemed ‘other’.
We stay away from the argument that if we want a better world for all species – including humans—we need to change the way we view and treat animals, because it feeds into the problem of setting humans in opposition to (or against) animals. There is the risk that such an argument gives weight to the idea that animals only matter because addressing their liberation helps with human liberation. To take such a stance risks casting animals yet again as inferior to humans: as only mattering because their wellbeing affects human wellbeing and liberation. And we vehemently oppose this.
Animals matter irrespective of their utility – or otherwise – to humans. However, we need to see the links here if we really do want to see realistic change.
If the mechanism by which oppression occurs is similar for all oppressions then this means that simply fighting for one cause – gender equality for example – will not succeed without fighting for others too, including animal liberation. Many brilliant thinkers and activists have recognised this truth through subscribing to some version of the idea that “none are free until all are free”.
If we really want to realise a different future, one free from unfair hierarchies, domination, death and destruction, we must include animals in our thinking about justice and equality, and dismantle the false dichotomies that place humans over animals.
Authors: Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser