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Intersectionality

Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

Interview with Baltimore-Based Animal Liberationist Brenda Sanders

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Brenda Sanders, an amazing activist based in Baltimore, MD.  Brenda runs a successful vegan mentoring program called Vegan Living and works with Open Cages Alliance.  Below, she shares her extremely valuable insights on race challenges in the AR community as well as details about the incredible work she's doing.  Thank you so much, Brenda!

 

SR:  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to DxE.

BNS: Thanks, Saryta.

SR:  Please share with us how you two first became involved in the Animal Liberation Movement.  Were you inspired by a particular event or person in your life, or in the liberationist community?

Brenda Sanders.

Brenda Sanders.

BNS: A few years ago I realized that I was starting to feel a connection with animals. It was a strange experience for me, since I had never thought much about animals prior to that. I was suddenly seeing them as individuals and becoming concerned about the way humans were choosing to treat them. When I tried to express these thoughts to other people they laughed. So I began looking for like-minded people and I was fortunate enough to stumble across Open the Cages Alliance, an organization with a strong animal liberation message.

SR:  While some claim that we are living in a “post-racial” society, recent court cases regarding police brutality coupled with the dominant faces of many social movements tell a different story.  Animal liberation is one such movement, perceived by many to be a “white people thing.”

How has being POCs (persons of color) impacted your experiences as animal liberationists?

BNS: It’s interesting because as an African-American, I’m extremely motivated to educate other African-Americans about the horrible exploitation animals are experiencing at the hands of humans. The problem is that I’ve been witnessing so much racial bias within the Animal Liberation movement that I’ve found that I’m sometimes reluctant to even associate myself with the movement – especially in my outreach to marginalized communities.

SR:  What advice might you offer to other liberationist POCs who may be struggling to gain acceptance of their values in their racial communities, or who would like to encourage other POCs to join the movement?

BNS: That’s a really tough question, one that I struggle with everyday. I think I would say, “Blaze Your Own Path.” It’s possible to be a part of a movement while not embodying every single thing that movement represents. Yes, there is a lot of racism, sexism and classism within the Animal Liberation movement but that doesn’t make the work of freeing animals from human tyranny any less important.

SR:  What might recent instances of nonviolent direct action that have occurred as a result of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions teach us about the intersectionality of racism and speciesism?  To what extent do you think liberationists should be cautious in drawing parallels between the two, and how might such parallels be illustrated most effectively?

BNS: The marches and demonstrations that have been sweeping across the country - and the world - in response to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions show us that people from different ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses, age groups, and cultural identities can all come together to speak out against inequality. There is no more effective way to create change in the world than for people from all walks of life to speak as one voice to demand justice. It’s important that animal liberationists make the connections between the oppression of animals and all other systems of oppression but animal liberationists have to be careful not to appropriate other people’s struggle for justice merely for the purpose of highlighting animal suffering. Making a sincere effort to reach out and ally themselves to others who are engaged in similar struggles would be a great first step.

SR: I understand you are heavily involved with the Open Cages Alliance (OTCA). Can you please tell us a bit about this organization and how you came to be involved with it?

BNS: As I mentioned before, I found Open the Cages Alliance in my search for others who were working to stop the exploitation of animals – and I’m so glad I did! OTCA’s strong message of animal liberation combined with the drive to connect these issues with other social justice issues was exactly what I was looking for. I started out as a volunteer in 2013 and have since stepped up as one of the directors of the organization.

SR:  How is the Open Cages Alliance organized, and what are some of its short-term and long-term goals?

BNS: Open the Cages Alliance is an all-volunteer organization run at this time by three women who are dedicated to animal liberation and raising awareness of the connection between the different systems of oppression. One of our goals is to educate the public about the systemic exploitation of non-human animals while offering everyday alternatives to these oppressive actions. We also work to build coalitions with other social justice activists, including those activists in Baltimore involved in the Blacklivesmatter movement.

SR:  Please tell us about one of your favorite actions, lectures or other events in which you’ve taken part since joining the alliance.

BNS: One of my favorite actions with Open the Cages Alliance was the lecture and discussion we conducted on the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in conjunction with the Week of Action Against the AETA. It was so rewarding to engage in a discussion with other activists about the implications of this legislation and how we can affectively move forward with our activism in spite of the pushback from the animal exploitation industries.

SR:  You are also an active member of a vegan mentoring program. What is the program called, and what are some of the core values that you and other mentors impart to its mentees?

BNS: The Vegan Living Program is a yearly five-week-long vegan educational program run by Open the Cages Alliance. The purpose of this program is to teach people the ins and outs of the vegan lifestyle, including an understanding of what veganism actually is (a lifestyle that avoids the exploitation of animals) and how veganism can benefit our personal health, the animals we share the planet with and the planet itself.

SR: How does the Vegan Living Program impart the liberationist message, beyond promoting a vegan lifestyle?

BNS: The Open the Cages Alliance directors are, first and foremost, animal liberationists. The total liberation of animals from human tyranny is the foundation that our activism is built on and our programming ALWAYS reflects that. We see the vegan lifestyle as one of the vehicles through which animal liberation can be actualized, therefore we feel perfectly comfortable promoting veganism. We do, however, understand that veganism is only a small step towards bringing an end to all forms of exploitation and oppression.

SR:  How do you ensure, or at least increase the likelihood, that mentees remain committed to animal liberation after they have completed the program? Do you often engage in follow-up conversations or activities with former mentees?

BNS: The purpose of the program is to educate and inspire. Once Vegan Living Program participants know why it’s wrong to exploit animals and what a lifestyle free of exploitation looks like, we stay engaged with program participants through the numerous protests, demonstrations and events that we have throughout the year. Many of our former vegan pledges come back to serve as vegan coaches in the VLP, participate in our demonstrations and stay actively engaged in the vegan community that we’re growing here in Baltimore.

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

BNS: I first became aware of DxE when I heard about the campaign against Chipotle’s “humane meat” marketing. I was inspired to get involved in that campaign because I was so disgusted at Chipotle’s attempts to woo more customers with deceptive marketing. After Wayne and Ronnie visited Baltimore in August 2014 for the East Coast tour, I was motivated to keep the momentum going with the disruptions and began organizing with other people in Baltimore to do regular disruptions.

SR:  Thank you so much, again for sharing your insights and experiences with us!

One last question: What is your spirit animal?

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

A short-tailed hawk wearing a quizzical expression.

BNS: If I had a spirit animal it would be the hawk because of it’s superb vision and ability to follow through once it sets out on a course of action.




Why Race Matters (especially for Animal Rights Activists)

Why Race Matters (especially for animal activists)

Working against racism is not just the right thing to do. As a world-renowned scholar points out, it's the only way our movement will grow, both at home and abroad. 

By Wayne Hsiung

Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka is one of the most influential philosophers of our time. His work on multiculturalism and human rights has spawned dozens of books by distinguished scholars in the field, and it has influenced an entire generation of human rights practitioners. A professor at one of Canada's most prestigious universities, he is also far from being a "radical anti-racism activist."

And yet Kymlicka, along with his co-author Sue Donaldson, has an important critique of our movement. We are, in both our shocking lack of diversity and our demonization of non-white/Western peoples and practices, shooting ourselves in the foot. 

In both of these ways – the broader public’s targeting of ‘cruel’ minority practices and the AR movement’s promoting of a vegan lifestyle – contemporary animal politics is often seen not just as presupposing a privileged white perspective, but also as reaffirming or relegitimating those racial privileges, treating white perspectives as normative while ignoring the extent to which those perspectives are made possible by the oppression of others. Animal advocacy, in short, is seen as performing whiteness....

There is arguably no greater sin on the Left in North America today than performing whiteness, and progressive organizations will avoid associating with any cause that they suspect will be accused of doing so. Mainstream feminist, gay, disability or anti-poverty groups have faced their own accusations of performing whiteness, and have undergone wrenching internal debates to include racial minorities in their work. Having created what are often still fragile alliances with racial minorities, they are reluctant to embrace any cause that might jeopardize those links.

I share his words because my appeal to PETA yesterday was not a critique of one organization or campaign. It was a call for us to rethink basic assumptions about our movement. Should we be targeting "others" in distant communities or cultures, or pushing harder to change the practices of our own friends, families, and communities? Should we be glorifying rich Western celebrities, or empowering marginalized voices -- voices from communities who, like animals, have also suffered from violence -- to be ambassadors for trans-species justice? Should we frame our movement as a Western consumer lifestyle movement (in a world where billions still struggle in extreme poverty), or as a global movement to stop violence against the most oppressed beings on this planet? Should we be performing whiteness -- privileging white, Western perspectives over those of oppressed peoples (and animals) all over the world -- or should we be fighting for justice -- showing the ties between all forms of discriminatory violence and, by doing so, connecting the cause of animals to historic movements for human rights?

These are all big picture questions that extend far beyond a single campaign. And we must answer them well because, as Kymlicka powerfully argues, not only do these questions determine our attempts to build global solidarity... they build a foundation (or, if answered poorly, a non-foundation) for our movement's growth here at home. 

Check out the full article here. It's a must-read. 

How PETA’s Chinese “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

An investigation of the dog leather trade in China showed horrifying abuse. But did it help dogs?

How PETA’s CHINESE “Dog Leather” Campaign Hurts Dogs (and Other Animals)

The dog leather campaign fails the animals in three ways: by promoting racism, by promoting speciesism, and by promoting inaction in the face of violence. Here's what we can do to change that. 

By Wayne Hsiung

[Note: a friend who used to work at PETA wrote to me expressing concern that this post would inevitably be perceived as an attack on PETA and its supporters, and that I should therefore move the below words to the top of the post. I think this is good advice -- particularly since the issues I am discussing in this article extend far beyond a single organization or campaign. You can read a more in-depth account of the problem in a three-part series here. Anyways, here are the words: 

This is not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder, Ingrid Newkirk, lives a Spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists. Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better...

I'd also like to emphasize that I don't think there was necessarily any intentional racism on the part of PETA employees. The issues set out here, in fact, are cultural and systemic in origin. And I know many PETA employees who are fiercely devoted to the right of every animal -- human or non-human -- to be free from discrimination or violence. But anyways, on to the blog post... ]

I’m crying, furious, and filled with a near-unbearable feeling of shame. Because, once again, my people are killing dogs.

PETA unveiled a horrifying investigation of “dog leather” in China yesterday. And the video is devastating. A little brown dog, shaking in terror, is dragged out of a filthy, dark room. She backs up against a wall and looks up in fear, as if to beg the man who is dragging her, “Please, sir, don’t hurt me. What did I do to you?” But he ignores her entreaties, lifts up a huge wooden club, and begins to smash her head with horrifying ferocity. The little dog cries out. But she is small, weak, and defenseless. Her brutalizer is massive, strong, and armed. All she can do is shriek in terror as he bludgeons her head over and over and over again. Soon she collapses to the ground. Two men cut the little dog’s throat and throw her into a huge bucket of water, where numerous corpses have already been tossed. They don’t seem to bother with determining whether she’s actually dead, so she may very well have drowned in a pool of her own blood.

Little Lisa. 

Little Lisa. 

The narrator tells us that many of these dogs are stolen from their families on the city streets. I can’t help but wonder… what if this were my little Lisa? What is the difference between the little brown dog I am seeing on the screen and the one I hug every night before I go to bed? The comparison is almost unbelievable. Just a glimpse into that nightmare brings my world crashing to the ground. Lisa, the light of my life, my favorite person, my happy child in a world so often filled with desolation, sadness, and pain…. Lisa, dragged to such a hellish and violent place? Impossible.

But it is possible, as the PETA investigation shows. Someone just like my little girl -- just as innocent, just as loving, and just as deserving of safety, happiness, and freedom -- is being brutalized at this very moment. 

So why am I disgusted… with the campaign?

1. The campaign plays on racism to draw support, and undermines our attempts to inspire Chinese activists to take action.

The PETA video, like so many other campaigns against Chinese practices, relies on an American-sounding narrator describing horrible abuses by the Chinese. It has the feel of a nature documentary, with dirty, violent, animalistic Asians contrasted with the calm, compassionate, English-speaking narrator.   

The video’s headline is the “Chinese Dog Leather industry.” Yet when was the last time an investigation of farms in the United States targeted Americans by decrying the “Brutal American Pig Flesh Industry?” 

The campaign decries the lack of animal welfare laws in China. Yet the US’s animal welfare laws are toothless and filled with exceptions advocated by industry, e.g. the wholesale removal of all birds from the requirements of the Humane Slaughter Act.

One of the thousands of dogs rescued from slaughter by grassroots activists in China. 

And the campaign fails to include a positive Asian face to counter-balance the horrible acts of cruelty. Yet the video ignores the fact that, as a product of PETA-Asia, Chinese activists almost certainly played a role in this investigation. Or the fact that recent grassroots mobilizations have inspired countless Chinese to travel great distances to block trucks delivering dogs to meat factories -- at significant personal risk in a nation where civil disobedience is often met with violent oppression. The movement has saved thousands of dogs from slaughter through these courageous acts of nonviolent direct action. When did we last see any similar action taken in the United States for the millions of dogs killed in experiments or “shelters” including, distressingly, many thousands killed by PETA itself? Those Chinese, it seems, could attack “barbaric Americans” (and “barbaric animal activists”) for their heartlessness, cruelty, and cowardice toward dogs.

All of that, however, is ignored. And with such a biased framing, it’s no surprise that the public’s reaction to the video is filled with hate against the Chinese. One of the top comments (approved by over 200 others) is as simple as it is antagonistic: “I hate China.” Many people state that they will boycott the entire nation for the faults of a few.  “[E]veryone should boycott chink made goods!” As usual, the strangest attacks are made by those who decry the Chinese as “not human”: “The more I learn about China the more I have come to believe that culture is for the most part not civilized - in fact, not even human at all,” says one. “Disgusting China. Filled with monsters, not humans,” says another. Why is being “non-human” used as an insult among advocates for non-human animal rights?

Perhaps most troubling are the many comments endorsing racial violence. Someone replies by advocating a nuclear attack: “China is the worst country in the world… nuclear bomb please!” Another commenter suggests replacing the dogs with Chinese: “lets have some chinamen hats… made from their mean slant eyed mother fuckers skins!” It’s enough to make even a fairly well-adjusted Chinese person, such as myself, a little shaken. What are the people on the streets of America actually thinking about the Chinese? What are they actually thinking about me?

You might reject this as paranoia, but discrimination is part of our historical experience as Chinese. We remember that a shocking 68% of Americans express unapologetically negative sentiments towards us, including a recently-viral, profanity-laced anti-Chinese rant in SF. We remember that Vincent Chin, blamed for the declining auto industry, was brutally bludgeoned to death for the crime of being born different. (The men who murdered him did not receive any jail time.) We remember that ludicrous rumors involving our integrity and loyalty continue to be spread even by the flagship “progressive” media outlets of our day, such as The New York Times or ABC. And we remember that far more Asians have been killed by the US government in the past 50 years than the people of any other continent. And we are understandably concerned.

Campaigns such as PETA’s, which incite terrifyingly-violent rhetoric, contribute to this fear. And perhaps the worst part of all is that the animals -- including those poor dogs in rural China -- are being undermined in the process. Because we know that, to effect change, we have to start in local communities. This is not just ethical but effective; sociological research shows us that our ability to impact those outside of our local communities is weak. We have to find Chinese supporters if we want to save the animals of China. We have to inspire people of all nations and continents, and all cultures and creeds, to solve the global problem of animal exploitation.

We have to represent the world to change the world.

At Direct Action Everywhere, we avoid ethnic targeting for exactly this reason. There are countless Chinese who have cried just as many tears, and felt just as much anger, over the murder of dogs and other animals. There are Chinese people risking their lives to help animals in need. There’s a Chinese kid out there -- who has faced despair, bullying and violence himself -- who is just as desperate as any one of us to save that little brown dog in the video. To reject these potential allies would be a disservice to the movement. To allow a Chinese kid with a big heart for animals to be subjected to racist threats is an incredible betrayal to the animals we represent. We simply have to do better.

2. The campaign is speciesist, i.e. it privileges dogs over other animals, and thereby reinforces the notion that human beings can arbitrarily decide which animals matter.

But what of public support? The dog leather campaign has mobilized a truly astounding level of public attention and outrage. In less than one day, PETA’s video has been watched by nearly a million people and shared by over 50,000. Many say that focusing on industries such as dog leather, marginal though they may be, is strategic because it is the “low hanging fruit” -- easy to garner opposition to, and just as easy to destroy.  

This confuses the basic function of the activist. We are not here to be popular. We are not here to cater to existing views. We are here to challenge and change those views. And focusing thoughtlessly on a single species, based on human perceptions of special worth, reinforces the species prejudice that feeds the entire system of animal abuse.

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Shooting stink bombs at foreigners may give Westerners self-satisfaction. But does it help whales? 

Anti-whaling campaigns are perhaps the greatest example of this. As the Japanese activist Tetsuhiko Endo points out, with a global budget of $25 million, anti-whaling NGOs (most notably, Sea Shepherd) are nearly as large as the entire whaling industry, which has annual revenues of $31 million. Yet whaling levels are twice as high as they were in 1990. Over that same time period, violence against other animals has continued its rapid increase in the very countries that have been most heavily targeted by anti-whaling campaigns, including Norway and Japan.

There is irresistible logic to this. When I was a child and first learned that dogs were being killed for food in China, I was horrified. I screamed and cried and begged my parents to stop my friends from being murdered. But they quickly dismissed my concerns as performing whiteness. “Americans do the same. Don’t you love bacon and baloney?”

As I child, I rejected this comparison. But in my adulthood, I now recognize that my parents were right. If we are going to break the species frontier, and grant rights to certain animals, there is no logical reason to stop with a single species. And if we are going to deny rights to one species, on the basis of their non-human status, who are we to object to the abuse of other animals?

The Japanese, Chinese, and others can see this logic as well, and immediately dismiss our single issue campaigns as hypocrisy, or worse yet, cultural imperialism. Local Asian activists who otherwise might be supportive of our efforts, in turn, are dissuaded from joining the movement for fear of being decried as hypocritical race traitors. The losers in all of this? Cultural understanding. Movement solidarity. And above all, the animals.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge dog lover. They were my entry into the world of animal rights. I am therefore the first person to say that dogs can be a window into the bigger picture of animal rights. However, to effectively serve as such a window, we have to give the public -- and indeed, animal activists, too -- a gateway into anti-speciesism. We have to hammer home the notion that concern for dogs without similar concern for animals killed by Westerners is both racist and speciesist. We have to have the courage to push our dog-loving, whale-loving, orangutan-loving friends to move beyond the low-hanging fruit -- marginal campaigns that the public is already willing to offer token support to (since they’re not involved in the abuse at issue anyways) -- and toward the root of the problem: the mentality of human supremacy. A mentality that people in our own neighborhoods are complicit in, most obviously, in who (not what, but who) we choose to eat. 

{Note: To PETA’s credit, the video does mention cows specifically. And the petition asks viewers to pledge to boycott all leather, not just the tiny amount of leather from dogs. But the campaign otherwise makes the abuse of dogs in China the subject of special ire, e.g. by emphasizing in bold type, “There's no easy way to tell whose skin you're really in.” But why does it matter whose skin you’re in, as long as it’s someone else’s skin?]

3. The campaign asks too little from us, when we have so much more to give

We need not travel great distances to find horrific abuse of animals. It's happening right next door. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the campaign, however, is that it asks so little of the online activists who rush to support it. The action page has two options: donate or sign a petition. But what in heaven’s name does this do for the dogs who are being brutally murdered across the world? (The deeper and more troubling critique -- that the campaign uses horrible abuse of animals as a fundraising device while seemingly making no effort to actually help the animals abused -- will be developed in a future blog post. The danger of the “animal abuse industrial complex” is one of the primary reasons behind DxE’s soon-to-be-announced Open Rescue Network.)

I have walked in places of violence for nearly 10 years, and I can tell you that animal abuse is everywhere, and easy to find. We need not cross a gigantic ocean to find men doing horrible things to animals. We can fix the log in our own eye before picking at the speck in our neighbor’s. But to do that, we have to take action.

And the “we” in that statement is important. We need each other to succeed. We need to be organized, ambitious, and unified. The greatest movements in history have always been products of collective grassroots mobilization. While they have elevated figureheads to speak for them, their power has stemmed from their ability to inspire ordinary people to come together in waves of nonviolent direct action. To be the change they want to see in the world.

Single-issue campaigns that demonize foreigners do the opposite of this. They offer Westerners a pat on the back for their own moral beliefs and behaviors, and give us license to return to “normalcy.” But this sort of self-satisfied clicktivism is the opposite of what we should be shooting for, if we are seeking real and permanent change for animals. And it’s so far short of what we can achieve. We don’t have to settle for being cogs in a nonprofit machine. We don’t have to relegate our activism to being mere names and emails in a donor database or registry. We can save our animal friends, and, with the right support and community, we can do it now.

Undercover investigations, particularly of foreign practices, are, too often, a form of moral voyeurism. We watch. We shake our heads. Sometimes, we even condemn. But we never act. This failure to act, however, is as big of a problem as the violence itself. Peter Singer is known as the author of Animal Liberation, the father of the animal rights movement. But he made his name as a philosopher with another idea: namely, that the suffering of the oppressed is the result of both acts and omissions.

If you came across a child collapsed in a pond, what would you do?

The point is best illustrated by a simple example. Suppose a man walks by a little girl playing in a pond. He notices the child holds a quarter in her hand, and decides to strangle her to take the quarter.

Now let’s consider another man. He also walks by a child playing in a pond, but sees that the child has bumped her head and fallen unconscious in the water. She will drown if he does not step into the water and take her out. But he thinks to himself, “Washing my pants will cost at least 25 cents. That’s too much to ask” And so he leaves the child to drown.

Singer makes the quite sound point that there is no moral difference between these two men. In both cases, they have chosen 25 cents -- and their own self-interest -- over the fundamental rights of someone in need.

This example shows that the responsibility for suffering lies in the hands of both those who commit affirmative acts of violence, and those who sit quietly while that act of violence is being committed. Those who elevate privilege, comfort, and popularity over the terrors of the oppressed. Yet, too often, our campaigns ask for only that: to be mere bystanders to violence. We have to do better. We want to do better. We can do better. But to do that, we have to completely rethink what it means to fight for animal rights. We have to envision, not a consumer marketing campaign fed by flash-in-the-pan single-issue campaigns, but a global community of activists fighting with every ounce of their energy for the animals who have so little power to fight for themselves.

We do this at DxE. When we look at our campaigns, and measure our progress, we ask ourselves: have we built something that will survive? Have we built institutions, norms, and community? Have we created empowered networks of animal rights activism?

Summing Up

Let’s make no mistake. I would never express solidarity with those Chinese engaging in violent acts against innocent animals. What they are doing is truly an atrocity, and one that justifies immediate action to end. But the same industries, practices, and traditions that allow certain Chinese to terrorize dogs with impunity also oppress the Chinese people themselves. The government’s failure to act to protect animals, for example, is logically connected to its failure to protect human rights. This is a nation, after all, where hundreds of millions languish under the weight of one-party rule.

This is also not an attack on PETA. Some of my hardest working and most dedicated friends work at PETA. And PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk, though justifiably criticized, lives a spartan lifestyle, devotes every waking moment to animals, and has shown true genius in understanding the crucial role of disruption and provocation in building movements. PETA is also one of the only nonprofits that has consistently shown support for grassroots activists.

At DxE, we focus on building campaigns that are robust over the long haul. Join our next day of action on January 11.

Rather, this is a heartfelt request for us to collectively do better in three important ways. First, we need to start focusing on the big picture back home, rather than pick on secondary issues or marginal communities. We can’t afford to lose allies in the largest nation in the world, a nation with the fastest-growing animal abusing industries. Second, we need to start taking animal equality seriously -- in our campaigns, in our actions, and even in our words. We can’t rely on speciesist messaging if our goal is to end species prejudice. Third, while the temptation to wallow in clicktivism is strong, we have to ask more of ourselves than signing an online petition. We have to remember that that little brown dog is not just a pixel on a screen, or an unfortunate story in a land far away. She is a window to the desperation, terror, and suffering of animals who are imprisoned right next door. And we have to take nonviolent direct action to ensure that their lives are not forgotten.

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.