Wayne Hsiung
Published on
March 6, 2014

The Soul of the Animal Rights Movement is Up For Grabs

by Ronnie Rose

This past weekend activists with DxE met (virtually) with philosophy professor and critical theorist John Sanbonmatsu to discuss animal rights, the importance of building an inclusive community, and why we—as a movement—must organize against the myth of “humane” animal enslavement and killing. Sanbonmatsu is a leading intellectual figure on issues such as animal liberation and speciesism, the political Left’s broad refusal to acknowledge the oppression and rights of other animals (Sanbonmatsu’s speech begins at the 6 minute mark), and the connections between fascism and “humane meat” discourse. Over the course of our conversation, we found strong connections between our campaign against Chipotle and Sanbonmatsu’s groundbreaking work. Most importantly, both show how the humane myth has been used to hold up the entire edifice of animal exploitation, and threaten our movement’s very soul.

Our campaign against Chipotle, “It’s Not Food. It’s Violence,” often receives bewildered stares and sometimes outright hostility from people within the animal rights movement, as they bend over backwards to defend a multi-billion dollar corporation that brutally kills tens of millions of animals every year. Why, it is asked, do we target a company that is “trying to do the right thing?” Why, they question, would we want to topple a food corporation that at least “cares about animals?” To put it simply: neither of these statements represents Chipotle’s actual motivations. Chipotle uses “humane” and “responsibly raised” rhetoric to make a massive profit by encouraging people to pay more—and feel good about—eating animals. This profit, in turn, allows the company and broader culture to enslave and kill even more individuals.

In the face of such criticism, I asked John Sanbonmatsu why he has written so often and fiercely against the notion of “humane meat,” instead of focusing on what some people consider the more egregious and widespread forms of cruelty, like factory farming. He explained how, right now, we are at an important historical juncture: “In recent years . . . meat has for the first time in history lost its self-evident status as a necessary and natural good.” Throughout the history of civilization, violence against other animals has been justified through a variety of myths, which turned the violence into something natural and normal. It has not been until recently, largely through the work of committed animal rights activists, that these justifications have started to crumble. The way we treat other animals finally has revealed itself for what it always has been: not just violence, Sanbonmatsu explained, but atrocity. No one can now credibly defend factory farming. The immorality of it is all too apparent. So in order to justify the continued enslavement and killing of animals, the culture has to seek other ways to rationalize atrocity.

Sanbonmatsu explained that we are now at a crucial stage in history where our culture is forced to confront these issues; yet, the dominant mainstream response (undoubtedly propelled by companies like Chipotle) has shifted away from the central question of, should we be using and killing other animals? To, how “kindly” can we use and kill them? This perversely ignores the fact that, like us, non-human animals have a desire and fundamental right to live—regardless of how “humanely raised” they were before someone slits their throat. The idea of “humanely raised meat,” Sanbonmatsu continued, has become the prevailing justification for eating animals among the middle and upper classes, which has resulted in profoundly disturbing and inconsistent behaviors. For example, companies, like Chipotle, can claim with a straight face to treat the animals they are enslaving, sexually exploiting, and murdering “with dignity and respect.” Moreover, the problem with using “humane treatment” as the moral standard to end someone’s life, is that in the US, 99 percent of animals killed for their flesh come from factory farms.  Therefore, Sanbonmatsu astutely observed, “humane meat” discourse is not only used to justify the meager 1 percent of non-factory farm animal exploitation, but in fact is used to prop up the entire system of animal agriculture itself. Without the deceptive, dominant discourse surrounding “humane” killing, the cultural practice of consuming animals would have few places to retreat before starting to collapse. “Humane meat” is the wobbly linchpin holding together the whole system of “meat.”  

Chipotle’s masterful marketing is deeply attuned to this prevailing attitude, and is actively invested in maintaining the animals-as-food-objects status quo, rather than treating them as individuals to be respected. The company’s only true commitment is not to “cultivating a better world,” but to perpetually increasing the stock prices for its shareholders—at any moral cost.

The upshot is that the soul of the animal rights movement is up for grabs. Are we going to let it be hijacked and stolen from us by mega-corporations like Chipotle, that only want to see more animals killed to fatten their executives’ pockets? Companies that are fighting so desperately to keep the current system of mass murder in place and stable? Or are we—from the grassroots—going to seize this crucial moment in our history, stopping the death machine on its destructive course, and open up the path to a beautiful and compassionate world? I choose the latter and hope you will too.

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