AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay was first published on February 9, 2007, on Daily Kos, a supposedly progressive website with millions of visitors per month. (It remains perhaps the largest site in the world controlled by self-defined “liberals”, actually for the most part Democratic party members of a centrist persuasion.) Later it was published on my own blog, Cyrano’s Journal. Daily Kos moderators mangled the text in a variety of ways, as they regarded the statements in the essay with barely disguised hostility.
Is speciesism defensible on legitimate rational grounds? Is it a form of unexamined, primitive fascism directed toward nonhuman animals?
The debate on speciesism is historically new but the term seeks to define perhaps the oldest form of tyranny exercised by humans on any category of sentient living creatures. In fact, many aspects of speciesism, if not its totality, resemble a primitive and pervasive form of fascism, rather than, as has been argued elsewhere (see below) mere racism or sexism.
For one thing, the consequences of speciesism are, by any measure, far graver to the vast majority of the beings classified under this category than those suffering under sexism or racism. This is not to minimize the horrible suffering that both women and people of color have been subjected to down the ages, and which in many areas and cultures of the world continue to suffer; it is just to point out that the level of victimization has never involved their being raised, on purpose, for certain early death, nor to be killed for recreational purposes, among many morally repugnant uses humans routinely assign to animals by dint of their categorization as “inferior beings”—a categorization, we might add, based on unilateral declarations of moral and intellectual superiority.
Astute students of history will easily recognize the parallels with fascism, especially its German strain, Nazism, whose ideology of the master race served to legitimate widespread persecution and annihilation of “inferior breeds.”
The roots of speciesism sound innocuous enough. Speciesism involves assigning different values or rights to beings on the basis of their species. The term was coined by Richard D. Ryder in 1970 and is used to denote prejudice similar in kind to sexism and racism. The term has not entered everyday language.
Roughly 150 thousand million animals—yes, 150 billion creatures—are estimated to die each year as a result of human activities ranging from factory farming to hunting, the fur garment trades, commercial exploitation of various kinds, the superexploitation of the oceans, and biomedical research. That’s more than 410 million creatures every single day, including birds, cows, and hogs, all of them highly sociable animals, and, try wrapping your mind around this figure: 17,123,287 animals per hour. Well that’s a rough approximation. No one really knows the exact number of victims, but it surely exceeds the available data.
The way we go about killing animals, wherever they may be found or kept, land, sea or air—murdering and torturing are often better words—is astonishing. We do it with abandon and we do it in such institutionalized, “traditional” ways that only a minority ever realize the extent of the tragedy.
Since the era of modern fishing began 200 years ago we have decimated the oceans, ostensibly infinite reservoirs of life, converting many maritime regions into what Farley Mowat accurately decried as “seas of slaughter.” In the USA alone, every year in excess of 50 million turkeys are killed just for Thanksgiving Day, to commemorate a date that is of questionable historical merit, and which, despite the fact that the sacrificial victims have grown from a symbolic handful to tens of millions, rarely stirs any introspection. Sadly, such incidents are but a mere drop in an invisible sea of abuse whose actual roots date back to our earliest times as a species with self-righteous “dominionistic” claims over nature.
150 billion animals is a stunning figure, yet this figure, regarded by many experts as conservative, does not include animals mistreated or dead as a result of indirect anthropogenic causes: habitat destruction, widespread pollution, apparently “harmless” recreational activities such as sport fishing and boating, and the collision of animals with “modernity” (up to 250 million animals die annually as roadkill on the American highways alone or collide against high wires and skyscrapers). We have become indeed not only the most appalling tyranny over every other sentient creature on this planet, including many segments of our own breed, but also a raging, self-righteous cancer extending itself with impunity to every corner of the earth.
Time to do some rethinking
Today, as a result of industrialism, ecological deterioration (especially acute now in the age of human-triggered global climate change) and other related issues, self-defined progressives can’t afford to go on pretending that suffering on such egregious scale is just a peripheral issue, or the concern of affluent dilettantes with little interest in other social issues. Due to a deeply embedded and largely unexamined 18th Century heritage of philosophical “superhumanism” (“man is the measure of all things,” and the rest of all that self-celebratory rubbish which, we should recall, arose as a response to a greater form of human obtuseness, the one granting God and King total control over human agency), the Left continues to endorse or acquiesce in human supremacist attitudes toward animals. This moral blindness is inexcusable for those who wish to be seen and who doubtless see themselves as the moral vanguard of humanity.
The bottom line is that speciesism—an underhanded and primitive form of fascism applied to animals and nature in general—is by far the oldest and most pervasive form of brutal tyrannisation known on our planet.
I don’t use the word “fascism” as hyperbole in this context or for dramatic effect. I wish it were hyperbole. But the fact is that fascism is distinguished—inter alia—for its unilateral proclamations of superiority by a certain race or breed, with such spurious superiority endowing said race with the “right” to dominate, exploit, and annihilate at will any group deemed “inferior.” If that doesn’t describe eloquently our despicable behavior toward non-human animals, I don’t know what does.
I realize quite well that to raise this topic is to ask for trouble. The fight to expand the realm of moral consideration to animals—to make such inclusion a matter of right—arouses deep animosities, including in the midst of many people who would otherwise define themselves as card-carrying progressives or, as our opponents across the political tracks like to say, “bleeding hearts.” Well, I guess the bleeding does not suffice in many cases to include other sentient beings—especially those already dismissed by tradition as “raised for food” (as if such categorization in and of itself erased all trace of what is by any reckoning a truly nightmarish form of slavery).
Arguing for animal rights among progressives frequently strikes a vein of resentment, and invidious commentary. Many find it odious to classify animals as victims on the same footing as women or non-whites (whatever that is since there’s no real scientific base for race distinctions, although plenty of demonstrable praxis by the police and the KKK, for example!), considering, reflexively, and, again from their own deeply embedded speciesist thinking, that such imputed equivalency is an insult to their status, or a call to divert scarce energies away from their struggles. The upshot is usually a torrent of jealousy-tinged vituperation.
I know this from personal experience. I’ve been both an animal liberationist and a leftist all my life, so I know the score, and what I’m saying here is that I am resigned, I expect to see sarcasm, derision, flippancy, intellectual laziness, and, why not, even intellectual dishonesty in the ranks of those who define themselves as progressives, for such is the deep reservoir of human chauvinism that afflicts so many in our species.
The more creative will hide their prejudices by feigning alarm at my conflating the words “fascism” with “speciesism.” Well, I have something to say to this easily offended crowd: You abuse a language when you turn it on its head, use the Orwellian formula to accomplish precisely the opposite of what the words originally denoted, or in furtherance of what would be, by fair evaluation, an obviously despicable pursuit.
George W Bush and his accomplices, as we all know, are a prime example of this: in The First Decider’s lips the words freedom, democracy and justice, not to mention a fair shake for the disadvantaged, were but tools of manipulation to buttress the agenda of a deranged and criminal plutocracy driving the world ever closer to total war.
But what am I proposing here? Just think about it for a moment. Something that all of you should be for, an extension of compassion, or at least the benefit of the doubt when subjecting mind-boggling numbers of sentient creatures to the finality of death. In other words, I’m pleading for a reduction in the colossal amount of violence that this planet already sustains, the violence that at least our species is directly responsible for, a diminution in the sum total of unnecessary suffering inflicted across the globe…Where is the inversion of meaning there? The outrageous betrayal of the language? Or is it that by saying “fascism” and “speciesism” in one breath I manage to offend the sensibilities of too many purists who happen to land on my articles?
Words change, expand, become obsolete, drop and add connotations and meanings, and sometimes die, like the things and realities they were initially created for. And besides, just like there are many varieties of capitalism, socialism and communism, so you also have distinct varieties of fascism. In some, all the bells and whistles are found that connote “classical fascism” —the jackboots, the open corporatization of the state, and so on and so forth, as we have come to know it. In others, it’s more of an all-encompassing worldview, a system of values, an ideology that justifies a malignant treatment code. But here’s the crux of the question, as some might say. The boots, the marches, the endless wars, the nauseating violence, the paraphernalia of fascism and the fascination with death—all of that cannot happen in the absence of an ideology that starts by justifying the oppression of others by virtue of a self-serving, unilateral declaration of superiority. The concept is the same; the contexts vary. Regrettably, human chauvinism cuts very deep and pervades every nook and cranny of what we optimistically still call civilization, and has done so for millennia. As noted earlier, no one is immune to this infection, including many folks who regard themselves as impeccably “progressive”. Indeed, I repeat, it is from their ranks that you often hear some of the worst and most derisive epithets.
The usual argument is that progressives, always a thin line against barbarism, have better things to attend to than the fate of “mere” chickens and cows. Compassion, to such individuals, has obviously left the building; it is fungible, divisible, and comfortably apportionable according to inclusion or exclusion in certain categories of privileged sentience. They obviously don’t see—refuse to see—the parallels with so many other struggles they may have honored or participated in, nor do they see how the liberation of animals is an integral part of a serious environmentalist agenda. No, here they draw the line, and reason, kindness, and the most elementary fairness fly out the window.
But such narrow-minded and intellectually lazy positions will surely be exposed—sooner rather than later—for the pretentious sham they truly are. For now, in the age of an utterly deranged industrialism, with a global system blatantly proclaiming as its organizing principle the pursuit at any cost of infinite growth in what to any sensible person is a very finite and fragile planet, the tyranny of humans over nature has acquired monstrous proportions.
The colossal dimensions of animal exploitation by the industrial method and the death of one species after another grimly attest to that. In view of these incontestable facts, no one with a scintilla of decency should turn his or her back on such knowledge. It is the duty of all people who haven’t yet done so, and especially of progressives, to re-examine their assumptions about animals, about their everyday conduct in choosing food and clothing and transportation modes, and to join the last struggle against the first tyranny. By doing so, they will re-invigorate the environmental movement, rendering it less abstract and more passionate, because while fighting for nature is a noble and urgent call, fighting for nature’s oppressed creatures is a matter of long overdue justice.
A lifetime a/r activist, PATRICE GREANVILLE serves as publisher and technical advisor to Animal People Forum. He is also editor in chief of The Greanville Post. As an independent leftist and sometime political economist who has always supported animal liberation, he sees no contradiction whatsoever in such praxis.