Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Animal Rights and the Indigenous Fixation

Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson released a paper on Nonhuman Animal rights and aboriginal rights this week which makes at least two important points. First, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has tended to avoid indigenous speciesism for fear of coming off colonialist or racist. Second, activists should overcome this avoidance and meet aboriginal communities where values intersect. That is, instead of avoiding the matter, they recommend open dialogue to uncover shared interests.  They then proceed to dissect the various justifications given for the rights of indigenous communities to kill free-living animals.

The paper is an interesting thought experiment, but I fail to see the necessity in belaboring the point. Something like 99% of animal exploitation is related to industrialized killing, and yet many in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement remain fixated on how marginalized communities engage in speciesism. It is hard not to see this fixation as colonialist and racist given that it accounts for so little of the violence against other animals.

The focus on indigenous speciesism is a single-issue campaign of the worst kind. Single-issue campaigns are speciesist, confusing, and wasteful of resources. Instead of addressing the "forest" of speciesism, activists focus on the "trees" of particular forms of violence...and usually the "lowest hanging branches" of those trees. Because indigenous communities have a history of several centuries of domination and control, they make easy targets for animal groups. These communities are already politically weakened and the public eagerly adopts another reason to discriminate.

Violence against other animals is never acceptable, but I do think that single-issue campaigning against marginal cases is a waste of time. Comprehensive vegan education that addresses speciesism at the societal level is a much better use of resources and it is one that does not unfairly target disadvantaged groups.

Maori dissecting whale corpse that has washed ashore

In line with their recent publication Zoopolis, Kymlicka and Donaldson's premature theory seems to exist somewhere in the distant future in a world where anti-speciesist values are normative. Just as I don't think it's practical to begin thinking of other animals as citizens in a political community at this point in time (they may as well be arguing that we treat toasters as political citizens), neither do I think it is practical to fuel racism and extend the colonialist project by diverting precious few resources to attacking indigenous speciesism. For one, Nonhuman Animals are still considered property and non-persons, and secondly, the vast majority of animal exploitation takes place in agriculture (which is a white enterprise).

The wisest use of our resources would be to promote veganism and anti-speciesism. Part of this will entail recognizing the intersections of human and nonhuman oppression and Eurocentric romantic idealizations of native life that aggravate speciesism. But indigenous-identified persons who are building on this work are best suited to addressing the specific needs of indigenous communities, not white-led, white-centric non-profits that so often do the work of the state and have the capacity to aggravate discrimination.