Only speciesists believe in hierarchies of suffering

When will people stop weighing one social justice issue against another, as though there were only room for so much justice in the world and helping one cause automatically hurt another?

I guess it was only a matter of time before someone uses the refugee crisis as a pretense to badmouth veganism, as if the two demanded juxtaposition. This week, in the German newspaper DIE ZEIT, Elisabeth Raether opined that the ongoing refugee crisis and its increasing visibility in Europe really forbade veganism and other such indulgences. Caring about non-human animals while humans are suffering is a moral extravagance of the West, an insult to the ongoing human suffering in the world.

Such odd connections are often forged—in other words, issues of human suffering are often exploited to dismiss animal suffering and veganism. Here are some of the „highlights“ of the article and my comments:

Only because Westerners were spoiled by peace, „could the idea develop that suffering cows are closer to us than suffering humans.“

First of all, no vegan or animal rights activist that I have met has dismissed human suffering or elevated the suffering of non-human animals above that of humans. In fact, the kind of thinking that Raether propagates throughout her opinion piece—weighing social justice causes against one another and building hierarchies of suffering—is foreign to me. Anti-speciesism, to me, is part of a larger universalist and anti-oppression agenda, arguing against the economic exploitation of any life for another and against the elevation of any life above another based on arbitrary characteristics, be they nationality or species.

Secondly, what wretched thinking to suggest that peace spoils people. Why would anyone see peace as anything but positive? Why would anyone not rejoice when people don’t have to fight for their everyday survival and can instead dedicate their efforts to other things?

„We agonize over the psychological effects on a calf when it is separated too early from its mother, while claiming that the killing of children in the Middle East is permissible under international law. The outrage at the suffering of chicks is enormous. But in the face of human suffering, we simply shrug our shoulders.“

The people who oppose taking a calf away from its mother after birth and the people who support killing children in the Middle East—I am willing to bet—are not the same people. Raether hides this fact behind a convenient „we,“ enabling her to contrast the moral qualms of some people with others’ lack thereof and implying a causal connection. As if „agonizing“ over calves inevitably led us to „shrug our shoulders“ at human suffering. As if a predetermined portion of social injustice had to be answered with empathy and another with indifference, and life was merely a matter of filtering moral wrongs into one response or the other, because some portion always had to be met with a shrug of the shoulders. But again, the people who fight against the suffering of chicks are almost never the people who „shrug their shoulders“ at human misery. There is enormous overlap between social movements and enormous overlap, too, amongst groups of people who care about nothing, or about nothing enough to take action.

And as a side note: it is precisely because veganism is not mainstream—contrary to Raether’s suggestion that „we“ agonize over calves and that „the outrage at the suffering of chicks is enormous“—that she is able to abuse the refugee crisis to bash animal rights. Imagine the outcry if she had written the same about gay rights, women’s rights, black rights or any of the other great achievements of the past century. Imagine how offensive and downright stupid this would sound to nearly everyone: „Who can care about female suffrage when other countries are at war?“ or „In light of the refugee crisis, it is now clear that the gay rights movement was nothing but a lavish hissy fit.“ We could play this game endlessly, weighing one social justice issue against another, until all issues have become non-issues and all movements appear as self-indulgent tantrums because there is always another injustice we could be comparing them to.

„Empathy for fluffy animal babies is easier, of course, than empathy towards foreign-looking young men.“

Again, what does compassion for animal infants have to do with compassion for „foreign-looking young men“? What kind of conception of the human being does Raether hold to suggest that one empathy would happen at the cost of the other, that empathy was finite and factory farm chicks and refugees were fighting for the same limited supply of it?

Raether ends her op-ed with the following sentence: „Germany has changed. There’s a new recognition: The answer to the pressing questions of our time is not organic milk.“

Setting aside that vegans, by definition, don’t believe in organic milk either, I cannot imagine anyone at all who claims organic milk is the answer to the refugee crisis. Our time has many urgent questions and while most of them are interrelated, they are nonetheless distinct as immediate issues and call for distinct immediate answers. Veganism won’t solve the refugee crisis, nor will a reconsideration of nation-state borders address speciesism. But the real point is: Veganism will not hurt the refugee crisis, nor a reconsideration of national borders be a setback for animal rights. And this is the point that Raether misses, or that she knowingly and happily skews: The success of one social justice movement does not hinder that of another. How could it? It is often the same people working within the same universalist, anti-oppressive framework.

But maybe that is over Raether’s head, and she’d rather continue to spout platitudes like „While consumption is over-moralized today, politics is under-moralized.“ Someone who so nonchalantly distinguishes consumption from politics and implies that veganism is apolitical and global refugee crises are unrelated to Western consumption, has neither understood veganism nor the refugee crisis.