Is being sensitive about injustice a good thing?
You bet it is.
Racism, sexism, homophobia — and speciesism — are all around us. We need to be aware of these various forms of discrimination and we ought to reject them. Principle 5 of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights is clear: Abolitionists reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism — just as they reject speciesism.
Abolitionists reject speciesism because, like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of human discrimination, it uses a morally irrelevant criterion (species) to discount and devalue the interests of sentient beings. But any opposition to speciesism makes sense only as part of a general opposition to all forms of discrimination. That is, we cannot oppose speciesism but claim that, as animal advocates, we do not have a position on these other forms of discrimination. We cannot say that we reject species as a morally objectionable criterion to discount or devalue the interests of nonhumans but that we do not have a position on whether race, sex, or sexual orientation/preference are morally objectionable criteria when used to discount or devalue human interests. Our opposition to speciesism requires that we oppose all discrimination.
So to the extent that “woke” refers to being awakened to the pervasive societal discrimination against human and nonhumans, that’s great. For example, Black Lives Matter is a movement that is necessary to help to educate everyone about how systemic racism pervades our society.
But there are ways in which “woke” is nothing more than speciesism masquerading as progressive thought. I will give you two examples of the problem — two of the many examples I could give and that I will be writing about at length at a later time.
I. Veganism as a Moral Imperative is “Racist”
It is fairly common to encounter the argument — particularly (but not exclusively) in academic circles — that it is “racist” to maintain that veganism is a moral imperative even for communities of color or other groups that have particular food traditions.
It is important that we ignore the bigoted accusations of racism and see this position for what it really is as a matter of moral theory: the transparently speciesist claim that tradition can justify ignoring the fundamental interests of animals.
The claim of tradition does not take on greater weight because it is articulated by those of a particular community. Just about every culture has a tradition of eating/using animals. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t yet have a vegan world. The argument is speciesist whoever articulates it and it does not — indeed, cannot — have a different and greater moral force when articulated by a particular group.
The claim that their particular ethnic animal foods are part of their group identity is like saying that a particular sort of pornography is part of the identity of a group that practices sexism. When we are talking about pervasive, ubiquitous behaviors, such as consuming animal foods or sexism, using tradition is nothing more than saying that something being criticized is a practice that has been going on for some period of time, and instead of regretting that something morally wrong has been going on for far too long, the tradition argument says “we’ve done it for a long time so we can do it some more.”
As a general matter, we should always reject the argument that tradition can justify a practice that harms others. The fact that we have been inflicting harm for a long time does not mean that the infliction of harm is morally justified.
A version of this argument is that to say that veganism is a moral imperative represents “cultural imperialism” to the extent that it maintains that some tradition in a foreign country violates the fundamental rights of animals. This is nothing more than the application of the tradition argument to other countries and it does not work for the same reason: it assumes that speciesist practices have moral value simply because they are practices. They don’t. Consider female genital mutilation performed on children who cannot consent. That is a tradition in some places. Is it okay because it is a tradition? Of course not.
Yet another version of this “woke” argument is to claim it is “racist” to promote veganism as a moral imperative because many Black people are poor and it is wrong to say that poor people have an obligation to be vegan.
First, if this argument works — and, as we will see, it doesn’t — it cannot be limited to just poor Blacks. There are plenty of poor people who are White, Latinx, people of color who are not Black, etc. So the argument needs to be reformulated as that it is classist to say that poor people have an obligation to be vegan.
Let’s be clear from the outset: poverty sucks. Poverty makes life difficult in all respects. It is imperative that we move toward a more just society that sees poverty as unacceptable. We need to be concerned about and to fight for greater access to healthy food in poor areas. I have long argued that animal advocates who care about justice as a general matter need to educate themselves about how those with limited economic means can avail themselves of more healthy food. Indeed, in the book that I co-authored with Anna Charlton, Advocate for Animals: A Vegan Abolitionist Handbook, we discuss at length the topic of advocacy in low-income communities.
Second, to say that veganism imposes an unfair burden on the poor assumes that veganism is both expensive and difficult. That’s wrong on both counts. Veganism is generally cheaper than non-veganism and, unless you are going to compare all food preparation to the ease of eating the fast food that, by the way, is destroying the health of the poor, making vegan meals is not necessarily difficult. On our website, HowDoIGoVegan.com, we present many cheap and easy vegan recipes.
Third, the theoretical problem with this argument is that it is blatantly speciesist. No one would argue that poverty allows the poor to violate the fundamental moral rights of innocent third parties. Even if someone would argue that it is morally acceptable for the poor to violate the fundamental rights of the rich and to harm them in order to get their resources, no one would argue that it is morally acceptable for the poor to impose suffering or death on other innocent poor people in order to get resources. So why is it okay for the poor to disregard the fundamental rights of innocent nonhumans? It isn’t, unless you make the anthropocentric assumption that humans matter morally and nonhumans do not.
I am not saying that if you are literally starving, it is wrong to eat an animal product. Compulsion does not justify violating the fundamental rights of others, but it may mitigate the moral culpability involved. For example, if I am on a desert island and will literally die if I do not eat an animal, my killing and eating the animal is not morally justifiable. That is, my killing and eating the animal is morally wrong. But the wrongness of my action may be excused or mitigated by the compulsion in the situation. I did not have a choice. Similarly, if I am a poor person who is in danger of perishing, eating an animal product in a situation where I do not have a choice to eat a non-animal product may be excusable because of the compulsion. But it is never morally justifiable.
II. Only Some People Can Express Certain Ideas
A second type of problematic “woke” argument is that only certain people can articulate certain ideas.
I was giving a lecture at a University on the problems of animal welfare and explaining that, because animals are chattel property, animal welfare standards will provide little protection because of legal and economic limitations. I pointed out that these legal and economic limitations also occur in the context of regulating slavery.
Two Black students interrupted my lecture to accuse me of “appropriating slavery” to further animal rights. I asked them what they meant and they explained that, because I was White, I had no business using a uniquely Black experience in my work. I responded that slavery has existed for thousands of years and not all of it is race-based and there has been race-based slavery that did not involve Blacks. So slavery is not a uniquely Black experience. But let’s assume that slavery was exclusively race based and exclusively Black. Were the students saying that I, as a white scholar, was prohibited from publishing or talking about research that demonstrated that there are, as a factual matter, legal and economic similarities between the regulation of humans as chattel property and the regulation of nonhumans as chattel property?
Their answer: yes, that area of research is off limits to me.
This position, if accepted, would mean that only those who were members of a particular group could talk about an issue that affected that group. Such a position is transparently absurd. In order to determine whether a position is right or wrong, we need to look at what is being said and not who is saying it. Whites participated in the prosecution of Derek Chauvin; some of them worked for free. Was that unacceptable because only Blacks can be involved in a case about police violence against Blacks? Did those Whites “appropriate” police misconduct?
The fact that someone enjoys the benefit of race or class — what is usually referred to as “privilege” — does not make the facts that that person puts forth wrong, and does not make their arguments unsound or invalid merely because of their status. Similarly, the facts and arguments put forth by those who do not enjoy those benefits are not factually correct or sound simply because of the status of the speaker. Privilege or a lack thereof, should never be used to determine who gets to join the discussion. But privilege or a lack thereof has no necessary relationship to truth/falsity or validity/soundness.
In sum, it is important for those who promote the abolition of animal exploitation to embrace the idea that all exploitation and discrimination based on irrelevant criteria such as race, sex, sexual orientation, class, etc. is wrong — just as is discrimination based on species and informed by anthropocentrism. Unfortunately, much “woke” ideology is, far from being progressive or radical, nothing more than reactionary speciesist propaganda.
Part 2 of this essay is here.