Sunday, November 30, 2014

Racism and Mixed Messages: What's Wrong with Australia's Animal Rights Movement?

By Anna Adey

Trigger Warning: Features messages of racial violence

Violence to animals is considered cruel until it is carried out by white people in white establishments, then it is considered humane.
Firstly, the ideas expressed here are based on what I have observed in the animal rights movement while living in Australia. There are more distinguished speakers who can express these subjects and problems more effectively than I can who I will list at the end of this piece.

Secondly, it isn’t my intention to offend anyone here. I have friends that both support and take part in the organisations I talk about here. I admire their actions; I know their hearts are in the right place. I support them fully, even if I don’t support everything their groups do, or the messages they promote.

When I first got involved in animal rights activism, I sent off for some materials from various animal rights groups. Animals Australia is the main one here. I received their pack, which contained a bunch of leaflets and stickers on individual uses of animals- fur, leather, meat, the environment. I thought, Why can’t we tackle it all under one umbrella? Surely it’s a waste of time to spend our efforts tackling individual issues? I dug some more and found some grassroots groups across the world that gave an unequivocal message.

There are tonnes of opinion pieces and analyses of the regressive and unethical tactics of large animal welfare organisations. Less popular is the issue of racism within the movement. If PeTa exploit women on the basis that sex sells, then what sells best in Australia is xenophobia. In the country with bumper stickers that say ‘fuck off, we’re full’ and headlines demonising refugees despite being a land of plenty, it is of little surprise that racism is inherent in many of Australia’s most prominent animal campaigns.

Australia is not unique in this attitude to other cultures. In my home country, the UK, we demonise the Spanish and the French for bullfighting and consuming frogs and snails respectively while conveniently ignoring our own abuse of other sentient animals.

Even though I had decided to spend my time as an activist promoting abolitionism, I was still undecided on issues such as Stop Live Export, wondering if the ban succeeded that it might trigger talks of veganism and total animal liberation. On the fence, I joined other activists at the 2013 Human Chain. Everyone had to wear a placard stating ‘I am a......... Still Opposed to Live Export’. Hundreds of people turned up to support the ban. Many placards stated they were meat eaters, farmers. Should that surprise anyone? Of course not. The issue is what other countries do with “our” animals, not that they are being killed for pleasure or profit. Standing on the bridge I felt the similar confusion and frustration, why can’t we put this energy towards trying to achieve full animal liberation?

Comments on Animals Australia's Facebook page regarding their investigations of Australian animals exported to Indonesia

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”― Audre Lorde
The 2014 Human Chain rolls round again tomorrow. But this time I won’t be joining. Being an activist, I see a constant stream of single issue causes and cases of animal abuse in my newsfeed. These days, I am more selective about what I put my name to, preferring to take an intersectional approach to justice. I understand why many people feel compelled to sign every petition. You want to do everything you can, anything, to help get these poor souls out of these horrendous conditions. Just the other day, one particular campaign jumped out at me that I couldn’t shake off.  It was about the dog meat trade in Indonesia. The image was of four dogs tied in bags on the back of a motorbike, their heads poking out with their mouths bound. One of the pups stared at the camera, his eyes full of extreme terror. He looked just like my dog, Nero. Immediately my knee-jerk reaction was to sign it, do anything to make it stop. But even if we do convince Indonesia or China or another country to stop eating dogs, without an anti-speciesist message, they will simply replace the dogs with pigs, or chickens.

Chinese people are often the target of racist attacks when it comes to animal rights
I think many people are forgetting, or perhaps they don’t know, who is driving the demand for meat in Indonesia. I’ve been to Indonesia four times. On my most recent trip I spent a month in Bali and Lombok, and ventured out past the tourist areas, spending time in an orphanage, and a dog rescue centre. What shouldn’t have been surprising is that past the areas populated by Western tourists, there are very little animal products. In Ubud, for example, I was paying $1 for tempeh dishes from local warungs. Yes, dog meat is eaten, but to say that is worse than eating cows, pigs or chickens is speciesist.

I don’t hear many complaining when countries such as Indonesia continually expand their McDonalds and KFC restaurants, demanding more animals to be killed. Pointing the finger at Halal methods of slaughter is missing the point. We should know better than to keep entrenching the false idea that “humane slaughter” was brought in for anything other than efficiency. Animals are property. Property only has rights insofar as it is useful to the property (slave) owner. The idea that laws will give animals any sort of protection that would not benefit the owner is ludicrous and something we should be constantly smashing, not perpetuating.

Am I the only one who thinks this is extremely sad? A country crippled with poverty under the crushing weight of global capitalism imports animals to appeal to western tastes, and is then accused of cruelty by those same people it is feeding? But we have a long history of pointing the finger at Asia and villainising them as cruel and heartless when it comes to animals. Even when they eat a tiny fraction of the animals that we do, kill far less animals than we do, have more vegans and vegetarians, and more animal rights activists. We use far more animals in far more ways for the most frivolous purposes yet have the *gall* to say we are fair and humane. This whole phenomenon reeks of white privilege and Western superiority.

But let’s say that the live exports from Australia to Indonesia do stop. What then? Wouldn’t that be a landmark victory? Let’s take a look. If Indonesia doesn’t get its animals from Australia, it will get them from China or Brazil. Or begin breeding its own. None of these are exactly causes for celebration. Let’s also not forget that there are Halal and Kosher slaughterhouses in Australia (but nobody complains about Kosher methods of slaughter, because it’s much more popular to hate Muslims rather than Jews these days). In slaughterhouses that do stun, we also know that at least 10% of the time it does not work and animals are killed fully conscious. To also pretend that animals are not subjected to absolute torture in Australian slaughterhouses is racist. And if they are not put onto boats, they will still be put onto trucks around Australia in extreme weather conditions. Again, nothing to pop corks about. It’s simply replacing one atrocity with another. The same number of animals will be exploited and killed. The only thing that will change is the way the supply is delivered.

And on top of that, nonvegans who supported the ban will go home more confident than ever that they are humane animal users. And so it continues. And the message that we can be ethical consumers of animals goes deeper into our consciousness. The regulationists get to call their efforts a success.  Animals Australia gets heralded a champion of animal rights despite the fact that they publicly denounce that they are a vegan organisation and don’t oppose the rearing and killing of animals. They expand their reach and their membership base, solidifying their stance as the ‘voice for animals’, all the while continuing to confuse the public about what Animal Rights really means.

Animals Australia do not feel it's appropriate to tell people what to do in regards to consuming animals. I wonder if organisations aimed at helping abused children do not feel it is appropriate to tell adults to not abuse children

When Animals Australia says there is evidence of “abuse” in Indonesian slaughterhouses, how does that not reinforce the idea that everything else- the enslavement, the mutilations, the killings- is not abuse? They congratulate supermarkets and McDonalds for planning to phase out caged eggs, thanking them for making “compassionate choices”, as if putting them in a bigger cage frees them from a life of misery. They are equally, if not more so, responsible for perpetuating the humane myth as the exploitation industries themselves. Bans will come and go while animals are property. Until we make serious attempts to dismantle speciesism, banned uses of animals in one part of the world will simply be taken up in another while demand remains the same.
"We are vegans because it is an ecological crime to eat fish; we are vegans because we are marine conservationists and not because we are animal rights activists."- Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd
Almost everyone I meet knows about Sea Shepherd. Most people, vegan or not, support them. They are seen as being at the forefront of animal rights, despite Watson’s comments that they are a conservation agency, and not an animal rights group. Many nonvegans I know have told me they want to get involved with them, and when I explain that the ships are vegan, the reactions usually go like this “Why can’t I eat steak while getting those f***ing  Japs?” The hypocrisy is hardly surprising. Watson himself has said that he believes it’s much crueller to kill a whale than a cow. I don’t believe we should be ranking suffering in the first place, but given the choice, I would much rather live in my own habitat until one unexpected day, than to be born in servitude, never experiencing my natural life, watching my loved ones die knowing that I am next.

Paul Watson on the Japanese
There is no moral difference between species. Sentience is all that should matter when we talk about animal rights. If you are sentient (you the ability to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively), you should have a right to your own life. Not to be someone’s property.  There are a few possible reasons why we try to protect certain marine animals and not “farm” animals: Going after people who kill dolphins and whales won’t affect our economy. We tend to fetishise dolphins and whales, we enjoy watching them on the discovery channel while we sticking our forks into pigs and cows. It’s convenient to protest things that our own neighbours aren’t complicit in. It’s easier to protest what another race and country are doing than trying to have a discussion with our friends and family about their behaviour.

Sea Shepherd asks for millions of dollars to support their sea adventures. They are not advancing the cause of animal rights. They are promoting speciesism, the very reason why we enslave, torture and kill animals in the first place. Speciesism should play no part in the solution.

All oppressions share the same roots. People of colour are often targets of campaigns and are often underrepresented in the animal rights movement. The most popular campaigns we see are against dog meat, dog fighting, cockfighting, bear baiting, bullfighting, whales and dolphin slaughter. Things Caucasians don’t usually engage in (and when they do, it is not met with as much vitriol as when people of colour are doing it).

From The Abolitionist Vegan Society
There is nothing wrong with highlighting the uses and abuses of animals, as long as the message is one of liberation and is anti-speciesist. Otherwise the use will just shift to another species or type of use. Some say that taking part in campaigns for single use bans is worth it because it inspires some people to give up all animal use. With a clear, abolitionist message these same people can be equally inspired, but to reject all animal exploitation rather than certain types. All it is doing is adding to the confusion about animal ethics and perpetuating the existing speciesist paradigm. The root issue is speciesism. Let’s address that, not only the symptoms of it that are convenient for us.
“My argument is not that we should condone what other cultures do; my argument is that creating single issue campaigns that sensationalize what people of color do is racist. It reflects white privilege and the ability to judge others as lesser and protect the in-group sense of superiority. It's offensive to marginalized groups and this is why our movement is overwhelmingly white and has historically had huge difficulties building links to other movements and attracting diverse populations.” – Corey Wrenn, The Academic Abolitionist Vegan
We have to take an intersectional approach to fighting injustice. Social problems, such as speciesism, sexism and racism are intertwined and must be fought together. We cannot dismantle oppression using the same tools we used to create its existence. We must not fight for the rights of one group while holding back another. Revolution does not happen in stages, nor is there a hierarchy of suffering. We must be willing to acknowledge our privileges and prejudices, to ensure we are not alienating anyone or acting with selective compassion. Let’s hack away at the root of oppression, increase awareness of institutionalised social problems, build coalitions, and work together towards social justice for all sentient beings.

Four Principles of Ethical Campaigns. (From Direct Action Everywhere).

For in-depth discussions on the issue of race and the animal rights movement:

Important articles on race and the movement:

For more on intersectionality:

For more on single issue campaigns and welfare reforms:

Anna Adey is affiliated with a small, grassroots abolitionist and intersectional group called Let's Evolve in Perth, Australia