Comparing Social Justice Movements
By Saryta Rodriguez
Earlier this year, Christopher Sebastian shared with us some great tips on how to have effective conversations about intersectionality, the first of which was to focus on comparing systems of oppression rather than oppressed individuals. Today, I’d like to talk about another intersectional discussion that can be tricky to navigate: comparing social justice movements.
There are those who object to the use of images, quotes and other tools from past social justice movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, to emphasize the importance of specific tactics in the Animal Liberation Movement. A common response amongst liberationists to such critiques is to cry speciesism: They [the person or persons taking offense] are just offended that they, as humans, are being in any way likened to nonhumans—the very definition of speciesism! I empathize with this sentiment, particularly when it comes to rhetoric depicting violence against nonhumans; for instance, I have a really hard time calling what happens to dairy cows “artificial insemination,” as artificial insemination in the human realm is an act to which a mother-to-be consents—indeed, one the mother-to-be requests— whereas dairy cows have granted us no such consent.
That said, there is historical precedent, both with respect to comparing oppressed individuals (which is why it’s best to just leave this one off of the table) and comparing social justice movements as a whole, for certain comparisons to trigger offense. The chronology of social justice progress in some places is one reason. In Ishmael Reed’s Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, Ishmael writes:
According to a report from Pacifica’s KPFA, the police in Berkeley were cracking down on the homeless, while on January 14, 2003, Berkeley became the first city in California, and only the seventh in the nation, to issue a proclamation that farm animals have feelings and deserve to be protected, which gives the impression that Berkeley’s city council cares more about the feelings of chickens than about those of the African-American veterans and others who are living on the streets of that same city.
This is a prime example of both how unnecessary competition among struggles against oppression—Oppression Olympics— is fueled and how human members of oppressed communities may have come to feel excluded from and/or overlooked by the Animal Liberation Movement.
The slides from the Color of a Movement meeting at DxE House display instances in which rhetoric that already degrades one group has been employed to degrade another—from the 1940s, in which President Truman wrote of the Japanese “When you deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast” (implying both that the Japanese alone, as opposed to the rest of humanity, are “beasts”—animals—and that animals deserve to be treated badly, ergo so do the Japanese) to the twenty-first century, in which a Tea Party demonstrator referred to Mexicans as “filthy, stinking animals” (degrading both Mexicans and animals by implying that both are consistently filthy and stinking).
One way we can go about comparing social justice movements sensitively is to focus on effective strategies that were employed in past movements in order to strengthen the Animal Liberation Movement. Just as talking about systems of oppression is preferable to talking about oppressed individuals, so too might it be more beneficial for us to focus on systems of liberation rather than specific icons.
After the murder of Trayvon Martin, the phrase Black Lives Matter emerged as a demonstration of solidarity with and within the African-American community. It was, in the words of Alicia Garza, one of the people who coined the phrase: “…a call to action for Black people.” Unfortunately, it was not long before others started to appropriate the phrase. All Lives Matter emerged as a catch-all phrase that, while this may not have been intended by every single person who employed it, nevertheless served to distract from and downplay the plight of African Americans. Yes, all lives do matter—but the time has come for us to talk about, stand up for, and protect specifically BLACK lives. Black people are dying, and many of their murderers have not—will never be—punished.
The Animal Liberation Movement is also guilty. There is now a Facebook group called “Vegan because All Lives Matter,” and the popular nonprofit organization EVOLVE! Campaigns recently started selling t-shirts with this phrase on them. Fortunately, after myself and many others complained to EVOLVE! about the shirts, the organization posted a public apology and stopped selling them. The folks at EVOLVE! listened, and they learned. Who could have asked for more?
It is important to be sensitive in talking to our allies about appropriation, and to take their lead. In response to EVOLVE! Campaign’s decision to remove the shirt, many people commented angrily on social media: “But all lives do matter! Vegans have been saying this forever! How does it take anything away from black people?!” I for one am proud of EVOLVE’s decision and grateful that it was not swayed by these comments. Even when we “don’t get it,” as many of these people claimed not to, we should take it upon ourselves to read about the issue, watch and listen to talks about it and engage with allies as much as possible.
It’s not anyone’s job to teach us these things; it’s our job to learn them.
(And, in the end, even if after all of your reading and listening you still somehow “don’t get” that All Lives Matter is racist, ask yourself: What have I got to lose by not using the phrase? Aren’t there a million other ways in which I can make the exact same point? Why do I feel so entitled to this one?)
It’s appropriative for animal liberationists to use something if it would be appropriative for one group of humans to use it instead of another. For instance, All Lives Matter would be appropriative for us to use just as it is appropriative for white people to use, because the Black Lives Matter Movement refers specifically to black people and white people are not affected by police brutality in the way that black people are (i.e. they are not being gunned down or beaten in droves). The difference here is not just species, but also race. By contrast, using a social justice tactic employed by the Civil Rights Movement to fight for nonhumans is no more appropriative than it would be—has been— to do so in order to fight for homosexuals, women, other persons of color, transgendered persons or any other marginalized human group. There’s nothing appropriative about learning from history.
When endorsing a specific tactic, I think employing examples from more than one past social justice movement is worth consideration. For instance, in talking about the importance of nonviolent direct action, rather than consistently employing images and rhetoric from one social justice movement—Civil Rights—we should use these alongside the same tools from gay rights initiatives, women’s suffrage, and so on. This should clarify that animal liberationists seek not to appropriate any particular struggle but rather to learn from all previous struggles for justice to achieve maximum effectiveness on behalf of nonhumans.
This also serves as a valuable guard against inciting Oppression Olympics as, by focusing on the similar tactics of just one movement, we leave ourselves open to the critique that we have positioned the Animal Liberation Movement as “the next Civil Rights Movement” or “the next Women’s Rights Movement.” Such framing is appropriative; the Animal Liberation Movement is not the “next Insert Movement,” but a social justice movement in its own right.
In the end, as sensitive as we try to be, we must be prepared for the inevitability that some critics will merit the popular liberationist retort that they are complaining because they are speciesist. This certainly isn’t true for everyone, and as I said in my previous post concerning cooperative learning, we have a responsibility to consistently challenge ourselves by asking what we could have said differently. Still, some humans just don’t want to hear that their struggles, in any way, shape or form, mirror the plight of nonhuman animals—in spite of the simple fact that we, too, are animals.
What this means is that there’s work to be done. We must challenge all humans, regardless of race, gender, or any other human-constructed category, to understand and accept their oneness with nonhumans. At the same time, we have a responsibility to be aware of these historical triggers when talking to human members of oppressed groups.
Perhaps most importantly, whenever possible, when comparing systems of liberation, a member of the group that has been “liberated” by a movement should do the comparing. (When it is not possible, because no such person exists in your activist circle, it's time to challenge yourself and your group to create a safe space for the missing marginalized persons. Don't just shrug it off.) These individuals may be able to preempt critiques, relate to them, and clarify the systemic comparison being made while ensuring that critics do not feel dismissed or disrespected. This is one of many instances in which, in order to be an effective ally, the best thing you can do is…Nothing. Let someone more qualified make the comparison while voicing your support from the sidelines.