I feel sure that, one day, we will look back on speciesism – the belief that humans are more important, and therefore entitled to more rights, than non-human animals – and feel the same mix of anger, shame and sadness that most of us feel when we consider racism, homophobia and sexism.
Historically, humans have set ourselves apart from animals, viewing our own species as superior, and we drew on a range of differences to bolster that supremacist view. But, as we have come to understand more and more about our non-human brethren, we find we were wrong in almost every case, and science may yet prove us wrong in the remainder.
‘Animals don’t have language,’ we once argued. Except they do.
‘But animals don’t use tools,’ we countered. Except they do.
‘Ah, but they don’t make tools,’ … ahem, what about sea otters, octopuses, crows, chimpanzees and elephants?
‘OK but animals don’t have self-awareness.’ But some do.
‘But they cannot deceive.’ Actually, many can.
And so we argued on and on, clutching at straws, desperately trying to prove a point.
Why are we so reluctant to accept that people are animals, and that while every species –and, actually, every individual – is unique, we share personality traits, and both physical and cognitive abilities with other species? Yes, we can argue that dogs can’t write operas but then nor can most people, and dogs could legitimately respond that when it comes to extraordinary capabilities, humans should come back when they have learned to sniff out cancer cells.
This we-are-better-than-you-because … line of argument is both baseless and pointless, and where we set the bar for ‘supremacy’ has, unsurprisingly, always been where it best suits our argument. It’s a political line, not a scientific or rational one. And for a long time, women, the poor and people who did not have white skin fell on the ‘wrong’ side, along with non-human animals.
Captured and enslaved Africans were sold at auctions as chattel; women were denied the vote because they were said to act on emotions instead of rationality, just like animals; and workers had no legal protections and so could be used, discarded and replaced at will – literal workhorses. The history of humans is, in large part, a history of subjugation and oppression of ‘the other’.
But what is interesting and uplifting is the number of social justice campaigners, both historic and contemporary, that have crossed the human-animal boundary, and worked – or acted personally – to protect both people and animals.
Civil rights activist Rosa Parks was vegetarian. Anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce also founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – the world’s first animal protection group. Angela Davis, a civil rights activist and vegan said: ‘I think there is a connection between … the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy.’ Last year, Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King announced he had become vegan.
Mexican-American workers’ rights activist, Cesar Chavez who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Dolores Huerta said: ‘I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do.’ Huerta was vegetarian, too.
In Victorian England, Annie Besant campaigned for both workers’ and women’s rights, and was vegetarian, while suffragette Frances Power Cobbe was also an anti-vivisection campaigner.
Henry Bergh who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Like the others mentioned here – and many more people, too – he cared about both people and animals.
‘Abusing animals is no more justifiable than abusing people,’ writes human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who is best known for his work with LGBT social justice movements. ‘Sentience is the bond that unites all animal species, human and non-human. I accept our shared animalism and advocate our shared claim to be spared suffering and accorded inalienable rights.’
Tatchell says that ‘speciesism is analogous to homophobia, racism and misogyny’, and more and more people are starting to agree.
We don’t have to love animals – or even like them – to recognise that they do not deserve to be deliberately harmed and exploited, nor that humans have some kind of moral superiority over them. And we don’t have to choose between showing compassion to people and animals as our hearts and minds are big enough to care about both. We can refuse to participate in events, businesses and conversations where discrimination occurs. We can boycott companies that employ sweatshop labour, publish sexist advertising campaigns and slaughter animals.
And should we decide to end our involvement in the deliberate harming of non-human animals by changing what we eat, we will simultaneously be helping people. Slaughterhouse work has been linked to a variety of disorders, including PTSD, PITS (perpetration-induced traumatic stress), and an increase in crime rates, including higher incidents of domestic abuse, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. And by being vegan, we significantly reduce our environmental impact and climate-changing emissions. Given that the world’s poorest are likely to bear the brunt of climate change, our consideration of animals is also a consideration of people.
This is the basis of veganism as a social justice movement, and it’s what the activists mentioned above clearly understood: the struggle for equality is a struggle for all.
As political activist, Benjamin Zephaniah said: ‘Our own personal struggles should not be separated from our struggle to help others, and those others include animals. If I’m wealthy and I’m comfortable, it doesn’t mean I should not struggle for people who are poorer, and for beings who are not people. We should all stand up for our own rights, but when you stand up for the rights of others – especially for those, like animals, who cannot speak for themselves – that is very special.’
3. Here are the best liars in the animal kingdom’, National Geographic, 20 May 2017https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/05/animals-lying-liars-birds-squid/
4. Peter Tatchell, ‘Human rights are animal rights![. The Ecologist, 28 March 2017 https://theecologist.org/2017/mar/28/human-rights-are-animal-rights
5. Ashitha Nagesh, ‘The harrowing psychological toll of slaughterhouse work’, The Metro, 31 Dec 2017 https://metro.co.uk/2017/12/31/how-killing-animals-everyday-leaves-slaughterhouse-workers-traumatised-7175087/