Thoughts on Animal Lib and Critical Theory

In Animal Liberation and Critical Theory, an interview by Marco Maurizi, John Sanbonmatsu makes some great points, alongside some dismal ones, on which I comment below.

As an essentially liberal outlook, moreover, it sets out from a distorted view of society too, treating questions of power, authority, the state, capitalism, etc., as peripheral to the problem of ethics, which it cordons off from the messiness of the world in order to better clarify its own conceptual questions. The idea that comes from this is that we can work changes in society by educating the public, appealing to “reason.” But where is this reason that we are supposed to be appealing to? I am not suggesting that reason isn’t important, or that reason should not be a normative ideal—something to strive for as individuals and as a society. But there are reasons why speciesism has survived for over ten thousand years, and not all of them have to do with people being “misinformed” or somehow in the dark about the facts. One of my recent projects has indeed been on the role of “bad faith” in the psychology of speciesism.

Great point but cognitive dissonance rather than bad faith is the issue, I’d think.

Speciesism is not merely public ignorance, or the absence of proper moral frameworks, but a material system, a totalizing ideology, and an existential structure—or, to use another term, a mode of production. It is also a patriarchal system. Feminist critics like Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan have drawn attention to some of the problems with the masculinist nature of the analytic tradition. Singer, Regan, and others essentially bracket feeling and empathy, treating the “animal question” as a problem of analytic reasoning alone. This displacement of compassion and care cannot help but reinforce a patriarchal order that thrives on disconnection and on denigration of traditionally “unmanly” virtues. Adams has also shown that the domination of animals by human beings is intimately tied up with the domination of women by men. Etc. Analytical critiques tend to miss these key the social and affective dimensions of the problem.

Isn’t that a broad generalisation about women’s, or rather female-assigned-at-birth persons’ (Carol Adams would put all the rest in the other basket, let’s go with that), psychological make-up as if there’s only one type? If women were all identical and indeed capable of compassion and care as it is claimed, there would be more of an allyship with the intersex movement and so on? Female-assigned-at-birth persons do share struggles and are one of many groups likely to be less insensitive to the plight of animals as John describes he was as a person of mixed ethnicity:

There’s an interesting moment in the animal rights film, The Witness, in this regard, in which the man at the center of the film, Eddie Lama, describes being severely beaten on the streets one night, and feeling completely isolated and alone with his trauma. Lama then draws a connection between that experience and his empathy for the animals we traumatize as a society. In a similar vein, I think my own traumas growing up, particularly the racism and violence I experienced as the only Asian American in my school […]

Now is it an emotional connection or a logical deduction that one makes from human struggles and applies to animal-human struggles. What I find lacking in many of the connectionist discourses is while we draw parallels between animal struggles and ours (or others), we can only be animal allies and they suffer.

My allyship was forged partly from logical stances and emotional ones I assume. I don’t know to what extent it had been emotional to stand up with people darker than I or for ethnicities more marginalised than mine, both when I was very young and before I was bullied or discriminated against for similar reasons. I’ve been subject to sexism practically all my life, and constantly, there’s no particular point or person marking the start of my feminism other than the myriad instances of abuse or objectification. A young cat rescued me once, and my parents had him taken away while I was at school. They are renown cat haters and had no good reason, although I had said the cat can be vegetarian too (and he had started eating home-made veg food) and they disagreed. While they pass themselves as cat-hating ethical vegetarians, they wear leather very proudly and now I know there is no such thing as an ethical vegetarian. I came across the word vegan, that alone was reason enough to want to be a dietary vegan. I failed for alleged medical reasons until later when the parallel between not using women as slaves and not using cows as milk-providers strengthened my resolve. I often acknowledge the artist who made the photo with a cow, milk and a woman that was my aha-moment, although she admitted it was accidental, based on the model’s fooling around. She is vegetarian, as was I, and I think my emails to her on the subject made her uncomfortable in the end.

Many theorists and philosophers are bad allies to marginalised humans, I’m writing this because Sanbonmatsu’s words offended me (rather, made me contemptuous) Could academics not pretend to be an ally to and offend dis-abled folks in the same interview? There is a spectrum of ableism in the AR/AL movement and Singer and Sabonmatsu aren’t far from each other seemingly.

Hearing Singer in Utrecht speak calmly and matter of factly about killing sheep painfully by shooting them in the head—not that he was advocating that, merely saying that animals can be killed painlessly—I felt that I was listening to someone with a dissociative condition. […]

No, just no! How does one write books on morality without learning the difference between life-impairing mental conditions and the condition/s that arise from being a privileged white male academic? How?! He goes on to say (I’m pasting more of the context here for ease of reading):

And in a way I was: analytic moral philosophy sets out from a Cartesian perspective that places the philosopher behind the Iron Curtain of his intellect, from which he peers out at the living world as through the wrong end of a telescope, distantly. On the one hand, as paradigms, ways of seeing, utilitarianism and Kantianism are powerful tools for focusing our gaze on minute questions and concepts relating to our moral lives. However, as Thomas Kuhn showed, to do this, to focus our gaze, paradigms also “screen” or filter out most of the phenomenal realm. We see only what the paradigm allows us to see. In Singer’s case, I fear that the very power of his utilitarian system has led him to embrace a correspondingly blinkered view of nonhuman consciousness, agency, and subjectivity. As I say, when I heard him speak, Singer went further than I had heard him before in suggesting that other animals have no strong preference to live. This, I thought, was a staggering thing to assert, for several reasons. First of all, what Singer has inadvertently done by devaluing the lives of animals is to open the floodgates for every abusive institution, every practice, that humans already subject nonhuman beings to. […] I don’t want to make Singer out to be some kind of speciesist. He has never wavered from his conviction that other animals experience their worlds and have a capacity for pain and suffering. Yet owing to his philosophical predilections, I believe, he ends up embracing a reductionistic and alienated conception of nonhuman consciousness, seeing other beings as essentially empty vessels that “contain” experiences like pleasure and pain, rather than as persons whose being in the world is constituted through their experiences. […] In Utrecht, Singer seemed to suggest that nonhuman beings are averse to pain, not to death.

Sanbonmatsu has to justify how Singer’s manipulation is identical to a dissociative disordered person’s character and behaviour, or apologise to all people with mental or dissociative disorders. I expect logic-based justification not emotional statements. I don’t want to take away from the value of emotions but there is a hierarchy of emotions, that we all seem to accept to some extent, the emotions of nonhumans being of no importance to Singer; or those of the dissociative condition sufferers’ being less important to Sabonmatsu. If this hierarchy cannot be reversed or questioned, then we need to have logic-based discussions to end discrimination and abuse.

There seems to be an issue at the core of discrimination and abuse: the difficulty of summoning empathy or respect towards the ‘other’, whether the other is nonhuman or human. In prevailing discourses of any nature, there is a lack of thought, or of lived experience, or of shared/witnessed experience – I don’t know, but it bothers me because this is the prevailing discourse shaping thoughts in general.


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