Not a Question of Either/Or

A news story: Someone called the police on their neighbor’s unleashed pit bull. The pit bull bared his teeth at the arriving police officer, and the officer shot him. The community, angry about the dog’s death, successfully rallied for the police officer to be fired.

A prominent community activist concluded from this that in America, a dog’s life was more highly valued than a black man’s life. In the wake of Ferguson, she found white communities were more likely to be up in arms because of a dog’s death than a black boy’s.

To me, these two events are entirely unrelated. In both cases, someone was wrongfully killed. In one case, the killer lost his job. But the cases are not trade-offs; justice never is. That one police officer hasn’t been held accountable for killing a man doesn’t mean that another shouldn’t be held accountable for killing a dog. That a community cared about the killing of a dog doesn’t mean that this makes such communities less likely to care about the killing of black men. Empathy is not a finite resource; showing it toward one life doesn’t leave less for another. The two cases are only related in that they both display a callousness towards some lives, but they are not lying in opposite weighing pans. It wouldn’t show respect to Michael Brown not to fire the dog-shooting police officer, and, vice versa, firing him didn’t disregard the seriousness and wrongfulness of Brown’s killing

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It’s a shame that many of those most involved in the struggle for social justice view animal rights as antagonistic to human rights. They think that fighting for animals is a luxury when many humans still lack basic rights. And they think that those fighting for animals must be oblivious or indifferent to human suffering, given that they waste their time and energy on this comparatively „minor“ issue. Vegans know this isn’t true, but the damage is already done: men and women like this activist, who care about justice, will be unsupportive of or even opposed to the animal rights movement, because they feel it impedes or at least disrespects their own battle.

There’s no quick fix to this dilemma, but I do think vegans can do two things to get these crucial potential allies on board: a) tirelessly explain the connections between the oppression of various „others“ (women, blacks, the welfare-dependent, the physically disabled, queer people, people from other countries… and non-human animals) and b) be sensitive to the fact that some people find animal rights offensive in the face of abused human rights.

I’ve often been surprised by how susceptible people are to me comparing e.g. racism, sexism, and speciesism. While most have never heard the word „speciesism“—and struggle to pronounce its gooey syllables—they usually nod when I say that since we as societies have decided that allocating worth based on such arbitrary, innate categories as sex, skin color, nationality, or class background, why would we continue to treat species as a meaningful, justified classification to exclude and exploit? Of course, there are always those who exclaim: „But that’s not comparable, no matter what sex, skin color etc. you’re still human, and that’s what matters!“ But most people are surprisingly open to this line of argumentation and at least see the most blatant parallels. Even if they don't immediately go vegan, at least this analogy—one they’d likely never considered before—has now been planted in their mind. (And to those rejecting the comparison because „being human is what matters,“ you could help them see how perfectly their objection would have fit into other historic oppressions by replacing some of the words: „But that’s not comparable, no matter what sex, class background etc. you’re still white, and that’s what matters!“)

That being said, I believe we should be very aware of people’s mistrust of animal rights and be accordingly gentle when talking to them. Even if we find their concerns unjustified and silly, it won’t help the movement to throw analogies about that offend and ultimately turn people off from animal rights. Comparing one struggle—say the struggle to abolish slavery—to another—ours for animal rights—can make people feel that their struggle is being relegated to some historical amalgam of movements they don’t even identify with. Every struggle for justice has its unique elements, and those struggling may feel that such „haphazard“ and „inappropriate“ comparisons deny their uniqueness.

That is not to say we should downplay the importance of the fight for animal rights—ours is no less significant than the movements we sometimes compare ourselves to, and no desire to be gentle should force us to pretend otherwise. But we should acknowledge that other people are exhausting themselves for political fights of their own and that we need to be empathetic to their disappointments and the rudeness they’ve faced, if we do not want to repel them.

A good activist is unwavering in her message, but to be effective she must be flexible in her method and approach. It’s not about pushing your point with the forcefulness you know it deserves—it’s about wiggling your point through to another person, maneuvering whichever labyrinth their own struggles command.