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Animal Rights, Race and Social Progress
By Nicholas M. Vaughan, Esq. on FriendsOfAnimals.org
What’s the difference between slow-roasting a pig and slow-roasting a man over an oil fire? The average person might answer “one is an animal and the other is a man.” An animal-rights activist might answer “both are sentient beings and shouldn’t be killed for consumption, convenience or education.” The civil-rights activist would doubtless answer “the man was cooked alive.”
But what happens if the animal activist does not care about the civil-rights viewpoint, and seeks to use the civil-rights movement in furtherance of animal rights?
When animal advocates choose to ignore the historical and current implications of their campaigns, they do a disservice to animal rights and human rights at once. PETA activists recently dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes to protest the treatment of dogs at the Westminster Dog Show, drawing an explicit analogy to the KKK’s pure “Aryan race philosophy” by noting “pure breeds only,” and an implicit analogy to the way kidnapped Africans were inspected on America’s shores after enduring the Middle Passage. This demonstration presents an opportunity to establish a paradigm for determining when one can effectively analogize between slavery/Jim Crow and the current state of domestic animals. I propose a three-step analysis: accuracy, appropriateness and productiveness. Following this simple paradigm, PETA had three compelling reasons not to run this campaign.
Accuracy is the first -- and, perhaps, the simplest -- criterion. Imagine an SAT analogy question: “Dog show participants are to show dogs as _________ were to American Slaves.” Suppose the answers were “A) Jews; B) KKK; C) Nazis; and D) 17th, 18th and 19th century well-to-do Americans.” The answer of course, is D. Wealthy Americans in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries owned American Slaves as property; human participants in dog shows own dogs. The KKK does not own, but rather menaces, African Americans. Another question could be: “the KKK’s attitude to breeding is least like A) The Nazi regime; B) Apartheid in South Africa; C) the caste system in India; or D) competitive dog breeding system.” Once again the answer is D. This is not because the answers A through C deal with humans, but because A through C have theories on a master race in addition to a prohibition against miscegenation. Any breed can win a dog show; only one race is superior under Klan philosophy. Moreover, I do not understand an animal-rights perspective to be the promotion of mixed breed dogs as equal to pure breed dogs, but rather to question the domestication of these animals altogether. In that sense, PETA's campaign is not even accurate from an animal-rights position.
A related criterion is appropriateness, because any analogy carries with it a certain nuance based on a familiarity with the analogized group’s history. Starting with the most obvious problem, the PETA campaign uses imagery that evokes pain and outrage in African Americans. KKK hate crimes are not an item of the distant past, but a continual oppressor of African Americans in this country. The callous use of this imagery is inappropriate. Moreover, African-Americans have been likened to nonhuman animals throughout their history as a justification for slavery and the second-class citizenship that followed for a century thereafter. Admittedly, there is a very real and significant difference here. African-Americans were likened to animals by racist forces to push African-Americans down, while animal advocates are doing it to pull animals up. But this comparison is still problematic. These analogies generally ignore the fact that oppressed people have a voice. They can talk and they can write, even if our courts refuse to recognize them. Overlooking this important difference suggests that some animal advocates are ignoring the voice of African Americans. That their voice is ignored by PETA is clear -- otherwise PETA members would not don their white robes and hats. Nor would they attempt to purchase an advertisement on the U.S.-Mexico fence, a sign of oppression, if they listened to the voices of migrants.
The final criterion is productivity. An unproductive campaign can either fail to accomplish its objective while reversing other social progress, or severely alienate potential supporters of veganism and animal rights. Whether you’re pushing African-Americans down or trying to pull animals up, creating an intellectual link between them forces individuals to think of the two groups the same way, that they deserve the same rights. If forced to choose whether both are elevated or both are lowered, society may very well choose the latter.
The case becomes difficult when a statement meets the first two criteria. One example might be a statement that slaves, like animals today, were legally characterized as chattel. It is true that human slavery is the only other context in which a sentient being is actually owned. But it is still possible for an accurate, appropriate statement to be counterproductive, particularly when an opposing campaign might take the statement out of context and use it for negative propaganda. The use of slavery/Jim Crow analogies runs a serious risk of alienating African-Americans while fueling the general perception that animal-rights advocates disregard the feelings and dignity of human beings. Rather than drawing potential vegans into the cause, an accurate statement that ignores their viewpoint alienates a significant number of potential vegans, and their acceptance of veganism is delayed, if not prevented.
It is somewhat intuitive to think that advocates for progressive social change are natural allies. Unfortunately, history offers many important cases that suggest nothing could be further from the truth. Women advocated for voting rights with the argument that if an illiterate Negro could vote, why couldn’t a college educated white woman? Some African-Americans have said that since Japanese Americans were given reparations for their internment during World War II, African Americans deserve reparations for their treatment as slaves from 1619 to 1865; such arguments run the risk of implying that the Japanese Americans were not deserving of those reparations, rather than merely advocating for African Americans’ rights to reparations. Native Americans and Japanese Americans were both owed compensation by the U.S. government (inadequate in both cases) but comparing and contrasting the cases can appear to reduce legitimate claims to squabbling among oppressed groups, while giving the majority the ability to deny reparations with a slippery slope argument.
Advocates for social change, after finding their front and beginning to fight on it, must proactively take steps to bridge gaps and create a dialogue that at least prevents the ideal situation for the common enemy: two small voices yelling at each other. It is unfortunate that the best one might be able to hope for is not stepping on another’s toes while fighting for a place on what appears to be an ever-shrinking amount of moral bandwidth. All social activists must remember that change is not a zero-sum game, and respectful campaigns can be crafted to advance one cause without harming another, and often to advance multiple causes together.
None of this is intended to support dog shows, which are a symbol of societal exploitation of animals. If you approach me about it in jeans and a Friends of Animals t-shirt, I would gladly engage you. But please, leave your robe and hood at home.
1. “Without Sanctuary is a photo document of proof, an unearthing of crimes, of collective mass murder, of mass memory graves excavated from the American conscience. Part postal cards, common as dirt, souvenirs skin-thin and fresh-tattooed proud, the trade cards of those assisting at ritual racial killings and other acts of a mad citizenry. The communities’ best citizens lurking just outside the frame. Destined to decay, these few survivors of an original photo population of many thousands turn the living to pillars of salt.” – James Allen.
2. See “PETA Dresses in KKK Garb Outside Westminster Dog Show” -- USA Today (10 Feb. 2009).
3. See, e.g., “Klan Sign Found on Yard in Metairie” -- Times-Picayune (12 Mar. 2009); see also Southern Poverty Law Center, “‘Sons of Dixie’ Leader Indicted For Klan Initiation Murder”; (dated 18 Feb. 18, 2009; last visited 11 Apr. 2009). The oppression of the KKK is not limited to Southern States; it happens in New York, the same state as the PETA protest. “Hate Crime Charges in NY Cross-Burning” -- Fox News (18 Jan. 2008).
4. The treatises justifying slavery were overflowing with such comparisons. Thomas Jefferson referenced breeding practices used on animals and suggested they be applied to owned humans in order to keep the supposedly inferior (because supposedly more animal-like) race separate and subjugated. Of course, given Jefferson’s place of reverence in American history, it is understandable that PETA did not choose to dress as he did.
5. Also, see “PETA Wants to Advertise Vegan Message on Border Fence” -- Houston Chronicle (12 Aug. 2008).
6. The women’s suffrage movement was not isolated from the general politics of the day, including racial politics. Instead of providing a united front against the white male dominated power structure, many black men opposed women’s suffrage and many white women were willing to include a clause forbidding black women to vote. Visionaries -- including Frederick Douglass, who attended Seneca Falls and realized that the fate of women and blacks were mixed -- were in the minority. For more information go here.
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