Saturday, December 13, 2014

Intersectionality is a Foundational Principle in Abolitionism

I have written many times on the importance of intersectionality in abolitionist advocacy as both a matter of ethics and efficacy. For succinctness, I will not repeat the arguments in this essay, but readers can access these articles by utilizing the search function in this blog. As racial violence and discrimination against people of color continues to dominate headlines and advocacy spaces, many in the vegan community are made uncomfortable by these discussions and have been publishing some unsavory and insensitive comments and essays. I believe the following status update by a self-identified abolitionist group on Facebook sums up this reaction well. 

Of course I recognise that speciesism and other forms of social injustice are cut from the same moral cloth. However, no matter how oppressed or disadvantaged humans may be at least they HAVE a voice, something which cannot be said for sentient nonhumans, the most oppressed and disadvantaged group on the planet.  I also recognise that, ideally, the vegan movement should be truly inclusive and that necessarily involves considering both animal and human rights in our advocacy BUT the movement itself should not be given greater importance than the needs of our nonhuman friends as that would be placing the emphasis on US rather than THEM.  This page is unequivocally concerned with animal rights and if that involves treading on the toes of some whose priorities lie elsewhere then so be it.

Because white privilege has created a social environment where the white experience is misconstrued as the universal experience, because whites see themselves as individuals and not part of a racial group ("Not all whites!"; "But I'm not racist!), and because whites enjoy the privilege of being spared uncomfortable exposure to the consequences of racial inequality, whites generally lack the tools to constructively handle race issues. Robin DiAngelo refers to this phenomenon as "white fragility": 
White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be-comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. 
Writing for Salon, Cera Byer makes a very powerful assessment
Being able to turn a blind eye [sic] to things that don’t happen to you is the essence of privilege. It’s also an abuse of power. 
The following interaction was pulled from the comments section of the above status message:

Saying "ideally, the vegan movement should be truly inclusive" is, frankly, a slap in the face to those of us whose voices are *not* included in mainstream AR rhetoric. I don't have the privilege to ignore racism, heterosexism, or cissexism, because I am neither white, heterosexual, nor cisgender. Implying that my struggles are not as important or urgent as those of non-human animals because I have a "voice" is ignoring that the voices of oppressed humans have been silenced for centuries.  Total animal liberation means freeing all oppressed, regardless of species. It might seem convenient to push aside the struggles of people of color, women, LGBTQ, and others for those who aren't members of those groups. But that's not the way to build a successful movement.

Pax, it would be nice if you actually bothered to read what the OP is saying before responding by soapboxing. Never mind, your comment has actually proved the point I'm making. While you're busy putting human interests first under the guise of attempting to 'build a successful movement', those of us who actually care about the plight of nonhumans will get on with the job of giving them priority.

Ignoring or downplaying the crisis in human suffering from the white perspective is problematic, but it is also an act of violence to shame those who are struggling to be free from violence, suffering, and death. Insinuating that people of color and women are acting selfishly also draws on prescribed race and gender roles that pressure people of color and women to put the interests of their oppressors first. In a white supremacist, neo-colonial environment, the problems facing people of color are trivialized and they are made to serve others. In a patriarchal environment, women, too, are socialized to serve others, ignore their own interests, and remain contentedly powerless and last in line.  When privileged vegan advocates draw on these race and gender roles, they pull on powerful social scripts to instill silence and obedience. These are scripts that have been in place for centuries, and persons with privilege are well socialized in their effective operation.

Anti-human/anti-intersectionality ideologies have plagued the movement in general, but their encroachment into so-called abolitionist spaces is especially disheartening. Fortunately, many are working to protect the principles of vegan abolitionism (1. veganism, 2. non-violence, 3. intersectionality) and aren't buying it. Michele Spino Martindill, for instance, shared the following commentary. It is in response to the anti-intersectionality controversy in general, but it specifically relates to the recent remarks made by Grumpy Old Vegan.
[...] the time has come to speak out against his continued defensive posturing and his complete inability to understand why intersectionality matters in the animal rights (AR) movement. GOV claims that he understands that oppressions against women and other "disadvantaged" groups are "cut from the same moral cloth" as oppressions against other animals, BUT--and there's always a BUT with GOV and his followers--he adds that oppressed humans can speak for themselves, so they don't need the support of vegans in the way that other animals need our help. I take issue with that kind of reasoning. How can children being sold into slavery speak for themselves? Are nursing home residents able to speak for themselves and assert their rights? Are rape victims given a voice when members of the AR movement compare their experiences to that of dairy cows? Were the voices of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown heard by the oppressors? It is apparent that a divide is emerging between those who define anti-speciesism as only animals other than humans needing the help of humans, and those who see anti-speciesism as the need to oppose all oppression simultaneously because all oppression stems from the same source and if marginalized groups unite they have the power to end oppression. 
If anyone dares to mention intersectionality within the AR movement, it is treated like the ultimate dirty word, like a strike against the AR membership. We get comments along the lines of, "You're a speciesist because you care more about the exploitation of humans than other animals. We're not supposed to value humans over other animals." How is it valuing humans over other animals or species to define anti-speciesism as the need to end social hierarchies that elevate the wealthy elite at the expense of those who are defenseless? Are some AR members unable to extend their compassion to more than what they term nonhuman animals? That is an incredibly narrow view of compassion and veganism. It also shows a desire to be picky about who deserves the efforts of AR members to end violence. Clearly, human animals are not deserving in their book. Their claim that anti-speciesism will ultimately end all oppression is an empty claim if they refuse to fight and speak out against all oppression now, today and forever. 
The comments of GOV's followers are equally troubling in that they now indicate a trend to divide AR members between left and right political wings. One follower specifically praised GOV by complaining that some members of the abolitionist society were demanding that followers adhere to the "Holy Grail of Liberal Dogma" and went on to add that such "sanctimonious" beliefs are simply "trendy." These followers dismiss the efforts of feminists, the Civil Rights Movement and other efforts as if there is no need for them or they are nothing more than petty issues that will be cleared up once people accept veganism. If only it could be that simple! It's not. Veganism and anti-speciesism look elitist to those who have real and immediate needs, e.g. paying the electric bill, finding coats for everyone in the family or trying to get affordable health care. AR members have a tough choice ahead. They can resist intersectionality and working for social justice across the board, or they can accept that what benefits one will benefit all, that compassion is truly limitless and can be extended to every living being.
Let us now briefly explore those selfish folks worrying about themselves with their mixed up priorities. Trigger warning: Some of the following are disturbing images that depict systemic discrimination against vulnerable humans.

Racial profiling, violence against people of color, police violence

Rape and rape culture

Homophobia and heterosexism

Prostitution/Sex slavery

Homelessness and hunger

Pornography and sexual objectification

Environmental injustice, child poverty, food insecurity

Child labor and exploitation of the Third World

Transgender homelessness, unemployment, and murder

Violence against women

Ebola, TB, AIDS, and other diseases related to systemic oppression

Labor exploitation, colonial violence, "illegal" status

State apathy and inaction

Please, let us not tread on their toes. Please, let us give equal importance to violated, beaten, raped, starving, freezing, enslaved, sickened, suffering, dying, and murdered humans. Please, let us work for everyone's liberation. This is not a zero sum game. The same ideologies and systems of inequality oppress humans and nonhumans alike. Abolitionism as it was first conceived was built and mobilized to free oppressed humans who continue to be oppressed. For vegan advocates to completely appropriate the language and ideas of this movement and then forsake suffering humans, abandon them in their time of need, aggravate their hurting, benefit from their hurting, and then accuse victims and survivors of selfishness is deplorable. Without a doubt, this approach will only further alienate anti-speciesist efforts, tarnishing it as yet another a space of violence, oppression, and white male Western privilege.

Thank you to Pax Ahimsa for the two sources on white privilege that were discussed in this essay.