Sunday, September 8, 2013

Why "Putting Non-Humans First" Is Wrong, Racist, Sexist, Classist, and Doesn't Work

Trigger Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of violent anti-speciesism protests which involve racism, sexual assault, violence against women, and child abuse. This post also contains a number of references to global human oppression, many of which are illustrated with potentially disturbing images.

Unpacking Non-Humans First!

As the push for intersectionality has been growing stronger in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, some resistance is (I suppose predictably) being mobilized by white, male-led, middle-class advocates and their supporters.  Perhaps one of the most abrasive responses is manifested in The Non-Humans First Declaration. Dismissing the importance of intersectionality, the declaration promotes, intentionally or not, what equates to misogyny and white supremacy apologism. It is a position that I argue constitutes harm on vulnerable humans and reflects the privileged space occupied by many anti-speciesist organizers.

Non-Humans First! is a project of 269life. This is a collective that reenacts graphic scenes of violence against humans, sometimes even endangering and potentially traumatizing human babies who are included in protests.  For instance, one public demonstration featured a woman and a child who were intended to represent the dairy industry. Male activists ripped the woman's baby away, put the baby on the ground, then sexually assaulted the screaming woman and beat her so aggressively that she bled. The event ended with men dragging her by the neck into an unmarked van. By triggering real and lived violence against women that remains at epidemic levels across the globe, 269life attempts to ignite anti-speciesist sentiment.

In another street demonstration, unclothed white activists were chained and branded with hot irons to draw connections between human and nonhuman chattel slavery. Again, it is thought acceptable to trigger communities with histories of enslavement "for the cause."

269life's anti-intersectionality manifesto should be interpreted within this repertoire of violent direct action. On the surface, it appears that its tactics attempt to highlight intersections in oppression. Ultimately, however, these tactics do not respect intersectional politics as they are intended to appropriate. Instead, they aggravate human inequality to make a point. Causing harm to vulnerable humans is not considered especially relevant, and this position of irrelevance can be interpreted to mean one of two things. First, violence against humans is acceptable in the name of anti-speciesism. Second, any person engaged in violence against humans should not be disqualified from nonhuman advocacy. The manifesto states:
No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues. The non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and need all the help they can get! 
I disagree. I believe it would be a rather wise decision to exclude rapists, racists, violent persons, misogynists, and misanthropists from the movement.  Nonhumans do not need all the help they can get if that "help" is actually giving the movement more work to do by aggravating social inequality and alienating potential allies.

269life continues:
Furthermore, the women’s rights, anti-racism, etc. movements have no requirement that participants reject species oppression and nor should the animal movement demand the adherence to human rights positions while animals are still in a state of emergency. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (as decided by individual groups) but these kind of bans and exclusions should not be the norm in animal rights.
In other words, 269life posits that there is no requirement for human rights groups to include speciesism, therefore the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should not have a requirement to include humans. This is a hypermasculinized logic of "everyone out for themselves," one that is explicitly adversarial and makes alliance-building unfeasible. Furthermore, it is grounded in fallacy. It is inaccurate to suggest that Nonhuman Animals are in a state of emergency, but that human animals are not. Victims of war, genocide, rape, starvation, disease, slavery, etc. are most certainly in a state of emergency as well.

The rape, beating, and murder of millions of women is an emergency.

The mass starvation of millions of children (and adults) is an emergency.

Ongoing genocide is an emergency.

Child prostitution is an emergency.

The Privilege to Frame Suffering and Need

It is essential that readers consider how the suffering of the underprivileged (children, women, people of color, non-Westerners, etc.) does not qualify as a priority to privileged persons who lead the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and produce campaigns like Non-humans First!:
Tactics should prioritise non-human animals, given their emergency situation and the fact non-human animals are being oppressed by the majority of humans. No tactical idea should be excluded from the discussion based on its conflict with human rights ideology.
What does it mean when tactics that are injurious to vulnerable humans are declared acceptable? What does it mean when the suffering of these vulnerable humans is deemed less important? It reflects power and privilege. 269life's posturing draws on white male Western epistemology in order to resonate.  It also draws on ignorance to find resonance. Most importantly, the anti-intersectionality position indicates a failure to understand how oppression works.

We cannot end oppression for some while abetting or aggravating the oppression of others.  This is because oppression is linked to the same source, the same root, the same cause.  Oppressions work similarly and they are entangled.

The Entanglement of Oppression

When 269 Life sexually assaults and beats a woman on camera in the street because "no tactical idea should be excluded from the discussion based on its conflict with human rights ideology," it is effectively using ideologies of misogyny to shock or even threaten its audience into compliance.  We live in a global rape culture where violence against women is normalized, trivialized, and even encouraged.

It really can be difficult to understand the logic behind campaigning of this kind. Obviously, anti-intersectionality organizers realize that Nonhuman Animals are not the only ones undergoing systemic rape and violence.  But do they truly expect that hurting and humiliating women and encouraging others to engage similar tactics will coherently convince the public to stop thinking it is acceptable to do the same to Nonhuman Animals?

I am skeptical. The Non-Humans First! campaign makes it quite clear that vulnerable humans are not deserving of any rights themselves until speciesism is attended to:
We are aware and concerned about the fact that some human rights improvements within a fundamentally oppressive system towards non-humans leads to increased oppression of non-human animals. For example, economic improvements leading to increases in factory farming, meat consumption, animal labs, etc. We therefore call on human beings to free their own (non-human) slaves before demanding their own rights.
But this is simply not how oppression works.

By way of an example, slaughterhouse employees are often undocumented, and have little rights whatsoever.  They often cannot speak English, have no high school education, and are illiterate.  They are sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped in the facilities.  They are sometimes held against their will in those facilities for days.  They experience the one of the highest rates of job injury and death in all U.S. industry.  They are often denied benefits and have zero job security.  They are living in poverty, and they are struggling to stay alive and to feed their children and families back home.  So how is it that these persons are in a position to first "free their own slaves" or even demand their own rights?

When anti-intersectionalists frame human participation in immoral industries as a matter of "choice," they obscure the fact that this is a "choice" that privileged persons rarely (if ever) have to seriously consider. Choice rhetoric works to obscure social inequality. It incorrectly blames individuals targeted by exploitative systems for the consequences of exploitative systems. 

Choice rhetoric really does appear inappropriate once the filters of privilege are removed. What about children?  Child abuse, the prostitution of children, and child slavery are occurring at staggering rates across the world.  Are we to expect children to adopt anti-speciesist ideology and then worry about themselves? Choice requires power, and only an elite few are privileged with this agency.

Supporters of the Non-Humans First! campaign nonetheless insist that anyone who does not prioritize Nonhuman Animals is narcissistic.  Again, we must consider the incredible privilege entailed in this rhetoric. It presumes that everyone lives with equal opportunity, equal access, equal agency, and equal autonomy. One Maori-identified man explains:
It's not me CHOOSING to fight the oppression of something other than nonhuman animals, it's fighting an oppression that I am subject to just by being me. Just by drawing breath, I am fighting against my subjugation. That's not to deny I experience privileges at the expense of others, but I fail to see how I am exercising a bias in this regard.
Sadly, one of the campaign's advocates responded by describing the above testimony as a "sob story."

Burning Bridges

I understand that intersectionality is a difficult concept for many activists to accept given the tremendous violence facing other animals, but the reality is that not everyone has the "privilege" to fight specifically for Nonhuman Animals.  Many, many humans have to worry about their own health and safety simply to survive. By demonizing vulnerable humans, Non-Humans First! creates an atmosphere of discomfort and hostility which suggests that underprivileged persons are not entitled to advocate for other animals if they cannot prioritize other animals all of the time.

269life insists:
This declaration is totally voluntary and we respect opposing views providing they are not used to exclude people from participation in animal rights activities.
Disclaimers of this kind, however, are relatively meaningless. The larger message of exclusion, marginalization, bigotry, and privilege is much louder. Perhaps the declaration is voluntary, but, save a few middle-class, white Western men, who would want to participate in a space where these types of ideas are validated?

The Non-Humans First! campaigns speaks to the very divided space conceptualized and maintained by many activists:
Group #1 The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, male-led and staffed almost exclusively by white, middle-class persons 
Group #2  Disadvantaged groups, those who are living with rape, violence, murder, enslavement, poverty, hunger, disease, and other rights violations and deprivations
Group #1, a group of extraordinary privilege, has a fundamental disconnect from Group #2, a disenfranchised group of people who make up the majority of the earth's human population.  The extraordinary privilege of Group #1 obscures its ability to perceive the suffering of Group #2.  This privilege allows Group #1 to hone in on one oppression and ignore all other oppressions because none of those oppressions especially impact its communities. This disconnect is not without serious consequences. In not recognizing how violence works intersectionally, it wastes time and resources in counterproductive and offensive tactics.

Social movement theory warns that marginalizing the largest demographic of humans (Group #2) and focusing only on the interests and worldviews of the tiny fraction of those in charge (Group #1) is ineffective. This approach will not build a strong, credible, respected, or powerful movement. It will remain marginal because it will appear out of touch with the reality of social inequality.

Social psychological theory also warns that separating an audience from the object of concern will not effectively motivate behavior change.  If we encourage the public to do x, y, or z because some anonymous group "out there" somewhere will benefit, our recruitment is likely to be limited.  If we encourage them to do x, y, or z because it will make an immediate difference to them, the ones they care about, and their community, then we will see many more participants. In other words, we need to emphasize why nonhuman suffering is relevant to human experiences. We must nurture a social justice schema that is inclusive, not compartmentalized. We should ensure that speciesism "makes sense" to our audience instead of shaming them for making such connections.

Of course, it is also important to mention that humans are also animals, privileged though we may be in the species-inclusive social stratification system.  Humans are also sentient beings with a capacity for pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. Anti-intersectionality positions obscure the reality of evolution and ecology. Humans and nonhumans are not just bound in oppression, but we are bound in natural history.

Ultimately, I believe the Non-Humans First! campaign and other anti-intersectional, direct action approaches reflect a genuine frustration with the slow progress of social justice. But much of this dragging has to do with ignorance and resistance to critical self-reflection. When privilege dominates the movement, privileged persons rise to leadership positions based on unearned advantages and not on their skills, knowledge, or capacity for effectiveness. In this culture of frustration and ignorance, the prevailing attitude in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement seems to be, "We don't know what works, so anything goes!" and "Anything helps!"  Well, that's malarkey.  We do know what works and we do know what doesn't work. It's a matter of checking privilege, practicing humility, and committing ourselves to acknowledging the research and respecting marginalized voices.

We need a reasoned, evidence-based, logical, non-violent framework, one that is congruent with our goals and not antithetical to them.  It is not acceptable to come to the table with pornography, rape, slavery, racism, sexism, bigotry, hate, unchecked privilege, and unprofessional or ugly behavior.  We don't need that; Nonhuman Animals don't need that. Change makers would benefit most by taking time to educate themselves before developing campaigns. This education should also entail an acknowledgement of diversity and an appreciation for accountability. Without this reflexivity, we tread water at best, but stagnate or destroy the movement at worst.