Interview with John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Interview with John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

By Saryta Rodriguez


SR: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Direct Action Everywhere.

JS:  Thanks for asking me. 

John Sanbonmatsu

John Sanbonmatsu

SR: In your book, The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy and the Making of a New Political Subject, you discuss the philosophical and social transition from prioritizing the development of a “common language of politics” (as advocated by Marx, Engels and others) to the current “deconstruction of discourse” prevailing in various social movements today—including the AR movement. 

Would you care to elaborate on how such deconstruction challenges the progress of the AR movement, from your perspective?

JS:  The problem is not so much deconstruction, as such, but what became known as the "postmodern turn" in scholarship in the humanities under the influence of French poststructuralist philosophers like Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on.   There are insights to be gotten out of some of these theorists (though some more than others).  The trouble is, poststructuralism is an exceedingly poor basis for formulating a substantive politics of any kind.  First, because poststructuralists want to distance themselves from humanism and Marxism, they are positively averse to normativity.  That is, they equivocate on important values, particularly in the realm of ethics, e.g. eschewing language of liberation or oppression (because their theory of language and power essentially implicates all of us in complex discourses rather than in responsibilities).

Postmodernist critical animal studies scholars insist that we all have “blood on our hands”—which is both true and beside the point, because such statements obscure the sociological dimensions of power, i.e. which groups have more of it than others, and why.  Some such theorists even warn us not to use the language of “animal rights” at all—objecting, on recondite theoretical grounds, that in talking about “rights” we end up reproducing “humanism” and the repressive apparatus of the State.  Others, like Donna Haraway, essentially defend the instrumental domination, use and killing of other animals. (Incidentally, Haraway has been invited to give the keynote address at animal studies conferences, where she has attacked vegans and veganism.)

In addition to this fuzziness or equivocation around values, poststructuralism occludes social phenomena, muddying the waters of theory by imposing abstract metaphysical concepts on empirical reality—e.g., “biopolitics,” “cyborgs,” “hybrids,” “memes,” “differance,” “actants,” “bodies that matter,” etc.  These terms bear about them the aura of de nouveau, the New, “the cool.”  They shine and have the allure of newly minted knowledge commodities—discursive coinage that bestows upon its bearer an aura of respectability and sophistication, within an economic structure of scarcity within the university system: scarce jobs, and even scarcer intellectual courage.

The responsibility of theory is in fact not to complicate our understanding of the world—which is already complicated and confusing enough—but to simplify it, to make it easier to grasp its essential or underlying features.  Theory should not make the world more complicated than it already is. 

Read full response here. 

SR: It’s no secret that ours is a movement wrought with semantic differences, with objections flying left and right to this or that term (as one also often encounters in discussions of gender and sexual orientation).  Do you see any potential benefit or value to semantic hairsplitting within the AR movement? Or is it a mere distraction, a waste of time?

JS:  If you mean the debate between welfarism and liberationism, I think that that debate, that distinction, does matter—and all the more so today, when the "humane meat" movement has taken over so much of the welfare wing of the movement.  I also think that arguments over tactics, particularly the problem of violence, are worth having.  That said, there's no doubt that we need to find a way to engage in debates without falling into ad hominem attacks and becoming so obsessed with definitions that we lose sight of what matters—other animals.  There are outsized egos in our movement, particular male egos; and as a consequence there is also a great deal of aggression in some of these debates (I have to cop to this one myself). 

One of the false dilemmas currently being bandied about is the old chestnut that reform and revolution are at odds with one another; but the question is how to go about seeking reforms of the current system without compromising our long-term goal of abolition.  What is key is that our campaigns chip away at the foundations of speciesism as a system and the only way that can happen is to show how single-issue reforms or campaigns are expressions of a deeper liberationist framework, rather than not from a welfarist one.  But welfarism and reformism are not the same.  One can consistently hold the position that Seaworld should be shut down, say, without along the way contrasting its immoral policies to so-called "better run" marine parks.  (There is an excellent Master's thesis on this, by the way, by Elizabeth Smith, a recent graduate of the Brock University animal studies program.)  Whatever we do, we always have to be challenging the core ideology of speciesism. 

SR:  Thank you for that insight.  I agree that this distinction is valuable; however, do you have any thoughts on other common semantic arguments in the AR movement, such as whether or not it's "okay" to employ the term vegan? I know a lot of activists have mixed feelings about whether using this term in particular is positive, negative, or neutral/inconsequential.

JS:  The word “vegan” is rather unavoidable, I think—at least in the context of eating.  At the same time, “veganism” is often a weak substitute or placeholder for the broader theme of animal liberation or animal rights.  “Veganism,” as you know, is associated in many people’s minds with one’s food preferences, even one’s “lifestyle.” Being vegan is seen as akin to being gluten intolerant, diabetic, or merely a finicky eater (as in, “Oh, I forgot—you’re vegan!  Where should we go where you can find something to eat?”). 

More radical or political “vegans,” of course, view veganism more broadly than this, encompassing a variety of other animal rights concerns with that term; but even to me, it is unclear why being a “vegan” as such should commit me to a public stance against vivisection, aquariums, or habitat destruction.  To answer your question, then, I would say that the animal rights movement would be wise to emphasize concepts of universal citizenship—as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, the authors of Zoopolis, have argued—or otherwise develop a language and movement of general emancipation—one that takes the emphasis away from “diet.” 

Some years ago, I coined the term “metahumanism” to describe an ideology and praxis of universal freedom for humans and nonhumans: a democratic, feminist, socialist praxis that would include animal liberation at its center.  Apparently, though, it was a non-starter; so someone else should think of a way of representing our project to the broader public!  It needs to be clear to people that what is at stake is not simply a set of eating guidelines, but a total critique of society—of a way of life that has become inimical to life.

SR: Much of your work centers on the notion of critical theory: applying knowledge of social sciences to assess and critique society and culture.  Many readers may have encountered this term in Sociology 101 courses; but what insight does critical theory lend to AR activism today? Would you say it is being implemented efficiently, relative to its use in past social justice movements?

JS:  What makes critical theory "critical" is that it sets out from a point of view of social critique—a rejection of the dominant values and institutions of our culture (in this case, the rejection of speciesism as a mode of producing human life).  The purpose of critical theory is twofold.  At minimum, first, its function is to give us a clearer sense of what the "problem" actually is.  This is crucial.  How can we form campaigns, tactics or strategies, to solve a social problem without first understanding it?  For example, some animal rights activists seem to think that convincing people to become vegan will end animal agriculture; but the main force driving our exploitation of nonhuman beings today is capitalism as a world system. Evidently, then, changing people's dietary habits, while important, is not going to be enough.  Buying vegan burgers, for instance, may actually be reinforcing the system of speciesism because, in many cases, it profits the very same companies who are marketing meat products, such as Whole Foods.  So what may at first appear to be an unproblematic intervention may in reality subtly strengthen the system as a whole.  Hence the role of the intellectual (whether the astute grassroots activist or the professional sociologist or philosopher)—which is, first of all, to acquaint us with the facts—becomes crucial. 

But "facts" are fluid, cultural, and semiotic:  they include our use of language, representations of animals in literature and media, the political economies of the meat system, and so on. And they cannot be stumbled across by accident.  We have to be out looking for them, using the tools of theory.

In addition to illuminating the nature of the problem (or rather, problems, because speciesism is merely one key spoke on a giant wheel of interconnected systems of oppression and violence), critical theory can also help us think strategically about social change, by identifying points of weakness or contradiction in the current system. The history of critical theory actually succeeding at this is not terrible encouraging.  Marx and Engels were brilliant at diagnosing the contradictions of capitalism, but not very good at theorizing revolution.  (Most of the revolutions of the 20th century occurred in peasant-based societies, not highly industrialized ones, and most of them ended up being steeped in blood, before dissolving altogether.)  That said, at its best, critical theory can serve as a kind of compass, or as "map-making.” Even if the "map" we have is incomplete and in constant need of revision, it's better than not having any sense of direction at all.

SR: One of the primary goals of Direct Action Everywhere is to dispel the Humane Myth: the notion that there is a kind, “humane” way to enslave and ultimately murder a sentient being.  We understand this is also of the utmost importance to you; care to tell us why?

JS:  It is clear that the meat system is in crisis.  This could be an occasion for radical change.  As a species, we could seize this opportunity to embark on a new form of human life: one that would not be organized around the perpetual sexual reproduction and mass murder of billions of our biological kin.  Instead, we find sectors of the capitalist economy working very hard to prevent this from happening.  The system is doing everything it can to protect itself, by creating the illusion that one can "care" about animals while still wanting them to die violently at our own hands. Unfortunately, the strategy has been succeeding.

The reason why has to do with speciesism's "mode of legitimation," or characteristic way of defending itself as an idea and social practice.  Speciesism rests on a single pillar—the idea that human beings are superior to all of the other beings on earth, and that this superiority grants us a natural right to make use of the other beings however we like (a notion I have called "human species right").  As an ideology, this mode of legitimation obviously doesn't work quite as well as it once did.  The animal rights movement has raised consciousness about the brutal realities of animal agriculture.  Meanwhile, the global warming crisis has heightened awareness of the ecologically unsustainable nature of factory farming.  In other words, "meat" as an idea—or perhaps I should say as an ideal (as the preferred way for human beings to get their sustenance)—has become unstable, in direct proportion to the deepening of the ecological and moral contradictions at the heart of the system.  As a consequence, the animal industrial complex, as Kim Stallwood and others have called it, needs to be legitimated or justified in novel ways. 

Enter Michael Pollan and critics like him, who are essentially stabilizing the meat economy by telling consumers that they can have their meat and their consciences too. As we all know, middle class, mostly white consumers are buying into the "humane" myth.  Unfortunately, their strategy has been succeeding remarkably well, thanks to the pro-meat intelligentsia and the organic farming movement.  (I'm told that even the new Cowspiracy film focuses narrowly on the question of ecological sustainability, and entirely circumvents the real problem with animal agriculture, which is that it is mass violence and wholly unjust.)  Ironically, but perhaps by design, the new consumption regime is helping to stabilize factory farming, by reinforcing the bedrock ideological principle of speciesism, which is that the lives of other animals are without any intrinsic value—which means that we can exterminate billions of them without having to suffer any moral pangs.  Buying "pasture-raised" beef or organic eggs is like casting a vote for perpetual human dominion.

SR: What barriers have you encountered, or do you perhaps foresee, with respect to confronting the Humane Myth? How might it have become so thoroughly embedded in our culture that even those who label themselves “animal-lovers” or “anti-cruelty” nevertheless remain under its sway? I know this is a loaded question; but any insights or opinions you might have on the matter would be most appreciated.

JS:  Well, it already is embedded, I'm afraid.  There are probably two main reasons for it.  First, people are "interpellated" or conditioned by their culture to think selfishly and in terms of their own material comforts.  Consumer capitalism fragments society, isolates us as individuals, and leads us away from collective moral and spiritual reflection.  No one wants to reflect seriously on the meaning of their lives, let alone to soberly face their complicity in what amount to crimes and atrocities.  Eating animal products is convenient and aesthetically pleasing for many, which primes people to want to dismiss animal rights activists as lunatics or extremists. 

French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre.

French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic Jean-Paul Sartre.

Second, and relatedly, we human beings often exist in a state of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "bad faith."  That is, we continually make excuses for behavior we know is not really justified, deep down, so that we won't have to take responsibility for the choices we make as free beings.  This is why, when meat-eaters are challenged to reexamine their beliefs by vegetarians or vegans, they spontaneously invent the same fallacious arguments that everyone else does:  "plants are alive, too," "as long as we treat the animals respectfully, it's okay to harvest them," "lions eat gazelles, so it must be okay for us to eat animals," and so on.  We simply don't want to acknowledge what we are doing.   There is even anecdotal evidence in the news media that many former vegetarians are eating meat again, now that animals are supposedly being raised "sustainably" and "ethically."  Of course, such individuals probably never really cared about the animals, deep down, anyway:  they perhaps became vegetarians or vegans to demonstrate to themselves and others that they were progressive-minded, that they were properly concerned about "the environment" or what have you.  Bad faith, through and through.

None of us in the animal rights movement are innocent of bad faith, either.  There are plenty of vegans who think they are ethically pure, even though they consume products that are made with sweatshop labor in Asia, or indirectly cause animal suffering and death.  We can't entirely escape bad faith.  The question Sartre posed is how we might live more "authentically," by being vigilant to our propensity to escape our freedom.  All that we can do as activists is to point out the contradictions and hypocrisies in people's attitudes toward the other beings, and to show them what is really happening.

SR: In a letter to Aaron Gross of Farm Forward, you made a brilliant case against the Humane Myth while defending previous comments comparing the meat industry to the Holocaust.  This comparison is almost as common as it is controversial; but I admired your ability to dissect the issue. How did he respond? Was the interaction ultimately constructive, from your perspective?

JS:  The letter I wrote, which was published on Robert Grillo's Free From Harm website, was my response to an email Aaron sent to me after I contacted Farm Forward and told them what I thought of their morally repugnant work. Gross never responded to my critique; not a single word—even though Robert invited him to write a reply for the website.  Frankly, I don't see how he could have replied.  He must know, deep down, that I and others are right about this—that Farm Forward and other groups are colluding with evil.

In terms of the comparison between our treatment of animals to the Shoah or Nazi extermination of European Jewry and Roma, there are simply too many similarities to ignore.  At the same time, we should take care to note that our treatment of animals resembles genocide as such, slavery as such.  It isn't just the Holocaust that we should be talking about, but slavery in the ancient world and in the Americas, the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese, and so on. 

SR:  Critical theorists are captivated by the nature, meaning, and significance of power. How do you think the discourse and practice of animal agriculture—particularly "humane" meat—influence the pervasive power imbalance between humans and non-humans? How is that power imbalance related to other systems of power, and how might we most effectively challenge it? 

JS:  Unfortunately, the problem of "power" has largely disappeared in critical theory, thanks to the outsized influence of Michel Foucault and other poststructuralists, who drew attention away from classical conceptions of power as ideological hegemony to focus on "micro" power—power dwelling exclusively in the interstices of discourse, language, the comportment of our bodies, and so on.  This is not to say that Foucault and others didn't make a contribution to our understanding of power, because they did; however, with the exception of Marxists, a few remaining radical feminists, many sociologists, and some critical race theorists, theorists have otherwise ceased to be interested in power as a relational concept—as the dominance of one group over another.  Symptomatically, Judith Butler, the poststructuralist feminist, has essentially removed the term "patriarchy" from the lexicon of feminism, making it very difficult, as a consequence, to "name" the problem of male domination.

In terms of "humane meat," as I said, the entire discourse reinvigorates speciesism as a mode of domination, by providing ideological cover for the underlying principle of domination and violence, which it utterly fails to examine.  In this sense, the sustainable meat and locavore movements can be seen as a rearguard action by the intelligentsia and Western middle class to secure their right to appropriate the bodies of other beings, in the face of the animal rights critique.

You ask how this system of dominance is related to others, and how to challenge it.  Many fine scholars have shown the ways that speciesism reinforces and is reinforced by other systems of power and inequality, including capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and so on.  The only thing I would say as a caveat to such analyses is that we shouldn't succumb to the metaphysical presumption that all systems of oppression are equal in strategic or political significance, even though we must agree that they are all of equal moral importance.  In my opinion, capitalism and patriarchy pose the two greatest challenges to animal liberation today:  capitalism because it drives animal exploitation economically, ideologically and politically ("politically" insofar as the state is effectively controlled by big business); and male dominance because it propagates a value structure of objectification, domination, and violence.  Militarized masculinity and misogyny are also at fault—think of the recent "Gamer Gate" controversy—because patriarchy is antithetical to the development of an ethic of care, one that would place compassion toward other beings at its center.

SR: Your work also refers to intersectionality: the study of the intersections of various forms of oppression and abuse. This is paramount to Direct Action Everywhere, as we often host lectures and discussions about the relationships between speciesism, racism and sexism.  However, while opponents to any of these systems should naturally oppose the others, many do not.  How might we build bridges between groups who share the AR passion for justice and equality, but who may themselves persist in engaging in speciesist behavior?

JS:  I think that what DxE is doing to bring these issues together is admirable and important and timely.  I don't have a solution to this important problem, however, other than to say that we who constitute the left-wing sector of the AR movement need to keep showing up at protests and conferences of the political Left to insist that our voices and those of the animals be heard.  I think sometimes of the efforts of feminists within the US antiwar movement in the late 1960s, who tried to introduce questions of women's equality to the movement but were initially greeted by their male comrades with rape jokes.  The women eventually won!  However, the problem for the AR movement is that, unlike feminism, which spoke on behalf of one of the most sizable human constituencies there is—women as a class—we in the AR movement represent only a tiny sliver of the human population.  So unless we press our points and become something of a nuisance, we will continue to be ignored by the wider Left.  The challenge is to be insistent and unbending, without, however, lapsing into self-righteous indignation and shaming behaviors, which historically have been poisonous to building and sustaining large-scale social movements.

SR:  Aside from encouraging one anti-hatred group, such as a group of feminists, to live a more non-human-friendly lifestyle (by illustrating that “bovine women” are raped repeatedly to promote pregnancy and, in turn, milk production, for instance), how might animal liberationists—who ultimately fight for the freedom and equality of all species, including homo sapiens—effectively support and embrace other movements without jeopardizing our own? As an AR advocate, is taking a firm public stance on sexism, racism or any other –ism too risky?

JS:  I'm very ambivalent, actually, about the strategy of asking feminists to take animal rights seriously by emphasizing milk production and pregnancy, i.e. the oppression of their "sisters."  Gender is simply a meaningless concept when applied to nonhuman beings—a human projection.  As Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, and other ecofeminists have shown, speciesist discourse often "animalizes" women and correspondingly depicts farm animals like cows and chickens as "feminine."  Our job is to deconstruct this fraudulent way of conceiving of gender and power, not to subtly reinforce it by suggesting that a cow is a "woman," which is absurd.  It is certainly true that women who choose to give birth, who have had that experience, may more keenly appreciate the heart-wrenching cruelty involved in, say, tearing a newborn calf away from his mother's side and throwing him into a veal crate; but many women don't have children, and don't want to.  And we musn't forget that many of the most outspoken proponents of killing animals in the carno-locavore movement are women—many of them, like Barbara Kingsolver, with children of their own.  In fact, the so-called "femivore" discourse of meat deploys "maternal" metaphors of "caring" for infant animals—before killing them!  So emphasizing the supposed natural solidarity between women and animals seems like a mistake to me.  Moreover, men are just as capable of empathizing with cows and calves as women are, and half of the victims of animal agriculture (not to mention scientific experiments, zoos, etc.) are male animals.

To the substance of your question, though, I always go back to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s point that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  The reason we have to support the movement for gender equality for women and members of the LGBTQ is not simply that animal liberationism ultimately depends to some degree on human social liberation—which it does—but because it is the right thing to do.  How we do that will always be complicated and difficult, and I don't have anything to add to what DxE and a few others are already doing.

SR:  In your opinion, how should AR groups navigate the waters of being inclusive and welcoming while remaining committed to ending oppression? For instance, what is to be done with a potential AR advocate who wants to work with an AR coalition, but makes plain that he or she is sexist or racist? Should such individuals be excluded entirely, or might they still be of some value to the movement?

JS:  This is a certainly tough question.  The Left, including feminism, has historically had a very hard time building sustainable movement cultures, in part because of our tendency as human beings to want everyone to see the world as we do.  On the one hand, if we're serious about so-called "intersectionality"—or universal justice, which is how I would prefer to describe it—then we obviously want to build a movement that is as "prefigurative" as possible. We want to build, here and now in our movement, in a concrete way, a mini-version of the idealized society of the future that we are striving towards.  However, human beings are imperfect, and always will be.  No matter how sure I am that I'm right and you're wrong, I need to acknowledge my capacity for error and poor judgment.  So we need to approach our activism with a generous dose of humility and humor.  This means being vigilant to self-righteousness, to "purges" of those who waver from an intellectual or political orthodoxy, to public shaming of those who disagree with us, whom we perceive as possessing "less evolved" opinions or attitudes than we do. 

This isn't to say that we should ignore sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc., within our movement.  The question, rather, is how do we confront them?  When someone makes a sexist remark, say—and inevitably somebody will, because none of us are innocent of these structures—do we jump on them and tell them to leave the room, or even the movement?  Or do we firmly but respectfully tell them how we feel about their remark, and explain why we think it's inappropriate or damaging? 

I don't think the question should ever be whether this or that person has "some value to the movement," which strikes me as an instrumental conception of other persons.  Rather, the question is whether the individual can be "reached" or not.  Some people don't play well with others, and they aren't able or willing to change.  If someone within an organization, therefore, is disruptive, or repeatedly saying hurtful or ignorant things, and isn't open to an honest dialogue about their attitudes, then clearly they don't belong there.  But that's different from turning on a well-meaning white person, say, who enters a movement naively, without having been asked before to reflect on his or her race privilege, and faulting them for not already having a graduate-level comprehension of racism.  I do think it's possible to have these difficult conversations, so long as it's handled compassionately and in as non-judgmental a fashion as possible.  All this said, I should say that we need to have to have a zero tolerance policy for people who actually commit sexual assaults or other improprieties (so-called "predatorial" heterosexual men), or who are obstinately racist, etc.

SR: Please tell our readers a bit about your involvement with DxE. 

JS:  To be honest, my involvement in DxE is peripheral, besides these interviews and my participation in a single action at a Chipotle's here in the Boston area.  But I am very sympathetic, obviously, to DxE and what it is trying to achieve. 

SR:  Thank you so much for your time, John.  Before we sign off, is there any remaining advice you’d like to offer to Direct Action Everywhere and other AR coalitions around the world?

JS:  I think the only piece of advice I can give as an "armchair general" (take what I say, therefore, with some skepticism), is that direct action is a tactic, not a strategy, and it should only be used to leverage specific objectives.  I agree with Kim Stallwood that the AR movement globally has been a disappointment in any number of ways, and that we need to get smarter, politically, about how we go about translating an ethical campaign into a political one.  Protesting is not enough, and it can even be counterproductive if it is not done the right way and is not calculated to broaden the movement and push things forward.  The challenge we all face, emotionally and even "existentially," is how to keep advocating radical social change in the face of a pervasive and deep-seated global culture of terrible violence.  We want just to just get out there and "do something;" but we have to think very carefully about what to do, and we have to be careful not to further isolate the movement. 

This is why I am against the use of violence in our movement, or even using violent language.  Quite apart from the ethical contradiction of using violence against animals (i.e. human animals) to protect animals, it's clear that the general human population is not ready to sympathize with violence or even property destruction--for example, arson and the like.  Some theorists have compared destructive, anonymous forms of direct action to the actions of Resistance fighters in France and other occupied areas of Europe under the Nazis.  But that analogy fails, it seems to me, because in the Nazi case, most members of the occupied population sympathized with the saboteurs already.  Also, there was an "outside" to the occupation (the Allied forces trying to defeat Germany), whereas today, by contrast, the vast majority of people are either indifferent to animal rights or hostile to the movement.  In our context, militant tactics that involve property destruction or threats to researchers will probably backfire.  For this reason, I support nonviolent campaigns like Open Rescue, Animal Equality, DxE, and others which have embraced the nonviolent tradition—which is the harder but surer path to follow.

SR:  One last question: What is your spirit animal?

JS:  I am not familiar with the term; but, if pressed, I'd say that my spirit animal is my 12-year-old son.