I routinely compare speciesism to sexism and racism. I say: Why would I be a speciesist if I’m not a racist or sexist? Why would humans collectively consider themselves the superior species if in many parts of the world we’ve decided that no race or sex is superior and even put this into law? Sometimes I tell myself that in maybe 200 years speciesism will have taken the course of sexism and racism: While not eradicated, it will no longer be mainstream, but frowned-upon in more progressive circles and perhaps even illegal.
But how likely is it that speciesism will ever become as officially unacceptable as sexism or racism? For vegans, who have already taken the leap and equated speciesism with other forms of oppression, it may be difficult to imagine why everyone else wouldn’t one day wake up to the same realization. After all, only half a century ago, people who considered themselves liberals saw no reason to hide their racism. And another half century before that, those same people were not ashamed to oppose female suffrage. Today, no serious liberal, let alone one trying to garner votes, would publicly defend racist or sexist laws. Most recently, liberals have debated whether homosexuals belonged in their circle of compassion, and perhaps—I have sometimes hoped—non-humans will be next. Or at least the one after next.
Then a professor of mine—not vegan—speculated aloud that the difference between humans and animals was more difficult for most people to disregard than the difference between men and women, white and black people, or straight and gay people. He suspected that it took a „universal“ mindset—one that most people lack—to view these various biological differences as analogous and equally irrelevant. I didn’t want them to, but his thoughts rang true.
For one, black people, women, and gay people can speak. That makes them seem more similar to white people, men, and straight people, because humans still intuitively consider speech to be a major delimitative and bonding factor. It also means that they could express how they felt without leaving their suffering to our interpretation. And it means that while support from other groups never hurt, they could protest and argue for themselves. Non-human animals cannot tell us directly how they feel, which makes them seem less like us and leaves them unable to fight for themselves. Unlike oppressed humans, they rely entirely on their oppressors to speak up for them. Not a good starting point.
And secondly, speciesism is perhaps more ubiquitous, more all-encompassing and life-structuring than racism and sexism ever were. I’m not trying to play down other forms of oppression or deny their omnipresence in the oppressed’s life. Being black in 1930s’ Chicago „Black Belt“ certainly constrained you from the time you got up to the time you got up again. But it was not as ubiquitous in the oppressors’ lives. While white people certainly profited from racism both in their private lives and their country’s economy, and while they practiced or at least complacently witnessed racism throughout their days, the exploitation of black people did not pervade every single aspect of life.
The exploitation of animals does. Every single meal most people have is made from animals’ bodies. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the street who is not wearing animals in some form. Yes, that leather tag on your jeans counts, and so does the 10% wool in your sweater. Any bathroom or drugstore is filled with products both made from and tested on animals. Every time people get sick or just feel unwell, they grab medicine tested on animals. Every night we spend eight hours underneath feathers. Many people live with companion animals they purchased, a fifteen-year-long daily reminder of our dominion over this other species. We eat animals, we smear them on our faces, we paint our nails with them. We ride them and watch them for entertainment. We kill them for fun or keep them in our homes for fun. While we sit with those we like we sit on the skin of those we don’t. We’ve printed our books and glued our furniture with them. While various groups of humans have been horribly abused and exploited, no human exploitation has been so pervasive that most people mindlessly profited from that exploitation hundreds of times each day.
So while I believe speciesism is analogous to sexism or racism in its moral consequence, I fear it will not take a similar route of becoming less and less acceptable. But maybe my pessimism just goes to show how far our fight against institutionalized sexism and racism has come. Maybe suffragettes and abolitionists once had as little hope as I do today and were themselves surprised by the triumph of their activism. Here's to hoping.