By Charles Patterson, Author of
How often have you heard complaints that animal activists are misguided and have misplaced priorities? The implication is that people who care about animals are disrespectful of or even hostile to human values, the oppression of animals being the oldest and most strongly defended human prerogative. Critics ask, how can the interests of animals in any way be as important as human problems like war, poverty, disease, hunger, AIDS, racism, genocide?
Those who claim that the lives of animals are of little or no importance reflect the deep-seated speciesism of our society. They defend the status quo of human supremacy as strongly as the supporters of slavery and white supremacy used to claim that the lives and well-being of slaves were of little or no importance.
Another deep-seated conviction of our society is that when it comes to animals, might makes right. The late AIDS and animal activist, Steven Simmons, described the attitude: "Animals are the innocent casualties of the world view that asserts that some lives are more valuable than others, that the powerful are entitled to exploit the powerless, and that the weak must be sacrificed for the greater good."
This is, of course, fascism pure and simple. Indeed, it was Mr. Fascism himself, Adolph Hitler, who stated the matter directly: "He, who does not possess power, loses the right to life." How ironic that Hitler's view is now flourishing in the United States where millions of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and other innocent animals are killed every day because they are powerless to defend themselves against the might of the master species.
The great divide between humans and the rest of the earth's inhabitants began about 11,000 years ago in the Middle East with the so-called "domestication" of animals. The enslavement of oxen, sheep, goats and other animals quickly led to human slavery and the treatment of human slaves like animals. The enslavement of animals increased significantly the level of cruelty, oppression, and conflict in human history.
The vilification of other people as animals followed. Europeans called Native Americans beasts, wolves, and snakes, and Africans transported to the Americas to be sold into slavery were treated like domesticated animals. During World War II Americans described the Japanese as yellow monkeys, dogs, rats, and vermin to be exterminated.
The vilification of people as animals made it that much easier to kill them because most humans have been brain washed from an early age to have little regard for the lives of animals.
In the memoirs of Holocaust survivors, the constant refrain is "they treated us like animals." Victims of the Nazis were transported to extermination camps in cattle cars and were killed in assembly-line fashion, much like animals are killed today in American slaughterhouses.
The grim but undeniable truth is that our civilization is built on the exploitation and slaughter of animals, and it is from this core oppression that all other atrocities flow. The abuse of animals and the destruction of the earth are the crux of what's wrong with our society.
Those who advocate for animals and fight for their liberation, radicals in the best sense of the word, are attacking the roots of human oppression in the most direct and effective way. Thank goodness there are people willing to go right to the heart of the matter with their dedicated activism. Each and every one of them is a hero and will be judged as such from the hindsight of history.
I'm reminded of the observation that Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made more than a century ago. "It's a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong," she said, "something the best people have always done."
Don't let anyone tell you that the life-and-death struggle for animals liberation against the fascist underpinnings of our society is anything other than a noble enterprise of the utmost urgency. Nothing is more important. And don’t worry too much about complaints and criticism. You will be going against the current of what society thinks, but so be it. To quote the German poet Goethe, "The world only goes forward because of those who oppose it."
Charles Patterson is a social historian, Holocaust educator, editor, therapist, and author. His first book, Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond, was called "important" by Publisher’s Weekly. The National Council for the Social Studies in Washington, D.C. presented Patterson with its Carter G. Woodson Book Award for his biography of Marian Anderson at a special luncheon at its annual convention in St. Louis, Missouri in 1989. His most recent book is Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust (now in 15 languages). For more information on his writings and activities, see his website.