Does Fighting for Equality Mean Fighting for Animals, Too?
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”
I think the most fundamental goal of feminism is to eliminate all forms of oppression. Feminism concerns itself with beliefs and theories that manifest themselves in activism, daily actions, lifestyle. I believe feminism aims to examine all forms of domination, whether based on gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, or some other constructed difference from the privileged identity. Does feminism examine the domination and oppression of other species or of nature in general? I think it should, with the result being the refusal to consume animal bodies or any animal products extracted at the cost of the animal’s suffering. I do not consider this ethic or lifestyle something that should or could be applied universally. This is an ethic for those with a choice, perhaps an ethic that should be adopted by privileged industrialized societies with access to a smorgasbord of dietary options.
“When I use the term ‘ethical vegetarianism‘ here, I mean the view that we ought not to eat animals, not merely because it is in the interests of human beings to refrain from doing so, for example, for nutritional reasons, but at least partly for the sake of the animals.”
—Cathryn Bailey from We Are What We Eat: Feminist Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity
In my view, feminism works to subvert the oppression and unequal treatment of women by revealing the Platonic-Christian mass delusion of the God, Man, woman, animal hierarchy of being. My ethical vegetarianism, as a sort of applied and extrapolated feminism, works to subvert the oppression of animals by revealing the Platonic-Christian and Social Darwinian mass delusion that there is an inherent hierarchy of value imposed on all life forms that rationalizes animals as edible. Feminism also identifies and rejects the set of dualisms associated with the hierarchical thinking of patriarchy: culture/nature; male/female; self/other; rationality/emotion; humans/animals. I, as a vegetarian, reject the separation of human and animal and any corresponding notion of human superiority in general or for select groups of humans.
My ethical objection to humans as “special” or inherently “more valuable” than any other species flies in the face of Biblical teachings and Social Darwinism alike. Western culture is told either that God made “mankind in [His] image, in [His] likeness, so that [he] may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). Or we attack the body and praise the mind while we are told by Plato to emphasize the “rational” and our unique ability to “heroically” transcend our animal bodies to reclaim our true and celestial home in the stars. We hear over and over that “[c]onsciousness or mind is … immortal and godlike, and humans share in the divine nature through the possession of the mind, while the body is the source of mortality and mutability. The soul, mind, or consciousness is alien to earth and body.” (Rosemary Radford Ruether from Gaia & God) And then we remember that women were also constructed and subordinated by this ideology as more red in tooth and claw, sexualized, emotional, vulnerable, of the body, an object. And likewise, animals are objectified as “meat.” The thought of animals as instruments of human beings or as a means for man’s ends sounds creepily familiar to God’s proclamation of woman being made for man. And so one reason for ethical vegetarianism unfolds from the concerns of feminism with domination. The philosophy of a hierarchy of beings has justified our consumption of animals and our oppression of “Others” in the form of women or other oppressed human groups.
“The analysis of oppression of nonhuman animals is based on a variety of women-animal connections: for example, sexist-naturist language, images of women and animals as consumable objects, pornographic representations of women as meat.”
—Karen Warren from Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What it is and Why it Matters)
Whatever the racist and sexist tyrannical groups of history have wished to deny and displace from the self they have constructed into an “Other” and affiliated with animals. “If animals belong to man to do with as he wishes, if, further, they deserve this treatment because of their lowly place on the hierarchy of being, and if certain groups of people are in the animal category, too, then the justification for exploitation is complete.” (Bailey) For almost everywhere we find an example of repugnant racism we will also find an assigned “womanliness” or animalistic nature. Man as God was made to stomp upon and consume the world.
“Racist, somatophobic arguments have rested upon the view that animals were different in kind and subordinate to human beings … The logical next step, then, was to offer arguments and evidence that various other groups were either closer to animals or within the category itself.”
During the early 20th century, many switched from a hierarchy of being anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition to a hierarchy justified by the misconception of evolution founded by social Darwinists that led to the infamous practice of eugenics and the ill-treatment of animals. Evolution does not support this hierarchy of beings, this anthropocentric speciesism defined as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Peter Singer from Animal Liberation). Social Darwinists are responsible for spreading the misconception that evolution results in life as a procession of superiority, “starting with single-celled organisms, then invertebrate s… and so on up to “Man,” the apparent [pinnacle] of evolution by virtue of his brain size, self-consciousness, or some other privileged quality” (Christopher Manes from The Ecocriticism Reader). But nature knows nothing of this notion of higher or lower, superior or inferior spectrum of beings. Neither complexity nor humanity is the goal of evolution, for evolution has no goals. “The Darwinian theory of natural selection … holds that variance results not from competition but adaptation to crisis. Darwin’s phrase, “survival of the fittest,” means not strongest but most fit, best suited to change” (William Howarth from The Ecocriticism Reader). What then makes humans better or more interesting, more deserving of protection and life then other creatures? Nothing.
“[I]n nature there … is no … first or second, better or worse. There is only the unfolding of life form after life form, more of less genealogically related, each with a mix of characteristics. To privilege intellect or self-consciousness, as opposed to photosynthesis, poisoned fangs, or sporogenesis, may soothe ancient insecurities about humanity’s place in the cosmos, but it has nothing to do with evolutionary theory and does not correspond to observable nature.”
The separation of humans and animals, or superiority of humans over animals is a social mythology. My feminist vegetarianism posits all human animals and nonhuman animals on the same ontological plane; women, men, and animals are all seen as sensible beings with individual interests capable of pleasure and suffering. For the life of me, I cannot figure out the difference in value between an animal and myself. Is it that humans explore space while animals eat grass, or filter krill and sing? My answer would be “[a]nimals should not have to meet anthropocentric aesthetics or intellectual standards to deserve protection.” (Bailey) We are united with animals in our common condition of feeling pain and experiencing pleasure. Further, why should I consume one who does not wish to be consumed?
“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”
Overall, feminist vegetarianism does not see the eating of animals as “necessary” or “natural,” but rather as related to the age-old antagonism between “feminine nature” and man. We recall the struggle of humanity to free itself from its “bondage” to nature by dominating and consuming it. We remember the tendency of culture to affiliate woman with nature or any constructed “Other” as inferior and therefore associated with nature.. Animals, like all humans, are free-beings with intentions and volitions of their own. And just like we have realized with the various human groups, we have historically condemned “[w]e should not kill, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them” (Josephine Donovan from Animal Rights and Feminist Theory).
Written by Sarah Sydney Lane
March 7, 2014
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