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On Emotional Authenticity, Reprise

On Emotional Authenticity, Reprise (by Kelly)

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the importance of our emotions in our advocacy for the silenced. It seems to be a hard point to drive home -- and I admit difficulty internalizing it fully myself -- so I'm going to offer a few more words on the matter.

You're not an activist because you think it's the right thing to do. You're an activist because you feel it's the right thing to do.

I don't care how rational you are or how intelligent you are, you don't speak up for the oppressed because you have assessed through processes of logical reasoning that it is what you should do, you speak up for them because you feel compelled to.

Yeah sure, there really aren't any arguments against animal rights and liberation that can hold their footing, but when it comes to effecting change in other human minds, how flawless and without-counter an argument is is actually pretty irrelevant. Our arguments are ultimately just tools, and it's our emotions that wield those tools.

(Secondary-traumatic-stress trigger warning for the following three paragraphs... but that's the point.)

When you think of a human inside a filthy concentration camp, grabbing a newborn piglet up off the floor, and taking a knife to his body and ripping out his testicles -- when you hear that infant screaming, when you see his body writhing, do you feel nothing? Do you think detachedly, "this is an injustice for x and y reasons, and I should advocate for an end to it for z reasons"? Of course not. You feel his suffering, and you feel a compulsion to help him. You feel the injustice.

When you hear him cry for help, when you watch him struggle to break free, time slows, and in your empathetic engagement with his suffering you feel your heart racing, and your hands impulsively fly to your ears, and your eyes cloud up with water, and your breath gets shallower and shorter, and your muscles tense, and you feel a shiver up your spine, and your blood begins to boil, and you can't even think because your whole body is locked in a desperate loop of empathetic suffering and helplessness.

When you see him curled up and shivering, all alone in a cold, dark, filthy metal corner, you grieve deeply for him. You just want to wrap your arms around him and take him away from that horrible place. You're not thinking about why this is wrong, you're feeling how wrong it is.

We know that people selectively expose themselves to information and arguments that confirm what they already want to believe, so it really doesn't matter what information you hand people if they don't have a "why" they should care about it -- and no, "why" is not a conscious, rational reason, "why" is an intuitively felt emotional compulsion. Heck, plenty of people intellectually accept that the atrocity is wrong, but evidently that's not enough to get them to fight against it.

So let's get out of this ridiculous Enlightenment model and stop wasting so much time on intellectual reasons for animal liberation (or veganism*). Such arguments will only effectively move people into action when they support (and are thrust by) emotional motivation.

Help people empathize with the animals. Tell their stories.

*See the following linked blog posts for my thoughts on "vegan" advocacy (as opposed to animal rights/ nonhuman liberation advocacy) as reinforcing speciesist objectification, perpetuating problematic patterns of thought, making animal advocacy vulnerable to co-optation and suppression, and trivializing the atrocity.

On Emotional Authenticity


On Emotional Authenticity (by Kelly)

Whatever action you take on behalf of the oppressed, be emotionally authentic when you carry it out.

(My personal position and advice is to be entirely authentic at almost all times if not actually all times, but I write here specifically with regard to how important it is FOR THOSE WE LEND OUR VOICES TO that we communicate our emotional -- not just intellectual -- truth.)

Sure, when our grief over this atrocity the magnitude of which history has never seen manifests as rage, channelling and constructively directing that emotional response is a wise thing to do, but repressing our emotions to favour the "well-mannered" (authority-indulging), calm (expressively indifferent) rationality of a gentle "educational" approach over the compelling force of emotional authenticity is TRIVIALIZING.

Don't give me any patriarchal humanshit about how we look weak and dismissible if we're being emotionally open or how humans are moved by information and rational arguments, you know that's all nonsense. Change is catalyzed by powerful emotional experiences (including, significantly, experiences of social pressures), not by verbose Vulcan chit-chat over cigars and whisky.

The Enlightenment model of human cognition is wrong. We know that the vast majority of humans -- and moreover, humans as collective units -- do not come to decisions by making rational cost-benefit analyses. We selectively accept what information confirms our identities and existing values, and simply reject conflicting information. Really, information isn't actually worth much. (And that's coming from someone who really values knowledge, learning, evidence and reason -- I just know that no matter how much I care about those things, they ultimately only matter at all because by whatever cause, I have developed an emotional attachment to rationality.) Ultimately, people are moved by emotionality, not rationality. So we have to motivate people emotionally.

If all it took to change people's perceptions and behaviours was rational argument, the whole world would end speciesist enslavement and atrocity within a day. Maybe two, for those places the Internet doesn't reach. "These animals want to live, and they don't need to die for us to live." Voila, vegan planet, right? Evidently not. Our emotional investment in the social norms that define our identities and make us comfortable is too strong.

It's worth noting that when we are hurt, we cry and scream, we don't dispassionately give the person hurting us the rational reasons that they should stop. Frak, we don't even need words to communicate when we're in pain -- and actually, when we're really upset, we tend to be at a loss for words because we're not even thinking (in any coherent, verbal, logical way at least). In our moments of deepest pain, we're just feeling -- probably like whichever particular animals (including infant humans) who can't "rationalize" pain away experience all of their emotions. When someone is deeply pained, we know it from their authentic physical expression, not from their reductive verbal translation of their emotional experience. Emotional authenticity communicates so much more than indifferent words.

We can (and should) be honest about this: We're fighting a Holocaust of literally unfathomable scale. (As in, there's no way that I, with my human privilege, can have any idea what it's like to be dragged onto a kill floor, much less conceive of what that's like 58 billion times over -- trillions of times over if we include [which there's no nonspeciesist reason not to] the fish who we suffocate every year.) Is any crime worse? Do the stakes get any higher than this? We can NOT afford to fail to communicate that imperative.

But when we talk about consumer "choices" (making nonhuman's suffering have anything to do with human convenience, taste, health or whatever to do with anthropocentric self-interest) we make the stakes as low as the stakes of choosing a favourite band. And if we just disinterestedly (or smilingly) educate people about facts, we don't compel them to give a damn about the reality we're trying to make them aware of.*

Actually, I wouldn't even call something like "kidnapping" or "castration" or "confinement" or even "murder" the reality, per se, of those animals. Their reality is grief. Their reality is excruciating physical agony. Their reality is confusion and depression. Their reality is fear and desperation. And that's what we need to communicate.

If our objective is to speak up for the animals, we need to communicate not what external processes we can see being imposed on them, but what internal, emotional experiences they are going through (which is what they are trying to communicate with their cries). People can only understand that things like "confinement" and "murder" are bad if they are empathizing with the experience of the victim in question, and that experience is one of suffering, so when we communicate on behalf of the animals, the details of the violent act should be secondary to the emotionally impactful stories that make it clear that the violence is wrong.

As liberationists, we are obviously empathizing with oppressed animals' emotional experiences to some degree if we feel the need to speak up for them. Witnessing their suffering makes us suffer -- no, no one is saying that our simulated/empathized suffering comes anywhere remotely near what the actual victims go through, but evidently we feel enough of their pain that we feel compelled to fight back for them -- and we shouldn't hold back on expressing whatever of their experience we are able to feel. If we can emotionally communicate anything of their struggle, we really do need to. We need to encourage others to empathize with the animals, not to just rationally acknowledge that discrimination is wrong. We need to make other humans not just intellectually see that nonhumans' lives matter, but emotionally feel that their lives matter, just as we do.

When we hand people the rational arguments we all know off-hand, detailing in flawlessly logical terms "why" they should care, if our words aren't carried by the force of our emotional truth, they're not going to get us very far at all. People don't need a reason, they need motivation.

And here I am just trying to communicate that to you in words, which you are reading through a computer monitor, with whatever emotional articulation you're projecting onto them. Well, right now I'm tired and don't feel compelled to cry and scream, because our minds are super skilled at defending us against pain that would otherwise drive us genuinely insane, so right now I can just type down some emotionally neutral words. But next time I feel like crying, I'm going to cry, whether I'm in a comfortable space with my liberationist family, or having a heated argument with a bully of a speciesist, or beside the stolen infant's milk section of the grocery store with my mother. Next time I feel enraged, I'm going to figure out what the most effective way to channel that emotional response constructively is and follow through. (I'll probably decide to do a direct action -- insert silly face.) When I talk to people about vivisection, I'm not going to respond to any of the distracting anthropocentric hypothetical things they say without maintaining an uncompromising focus on the simple truth that I feel (yes, I'm putting "feel" before "think" here, for the "reasons" [how ironic] stated above) that the discrimination and violence and atrocity and injustice of it is wrong. BECAUSE EMOTIONALLY, INTUITIVELY, THEY ALREADY AGREE WITH ME, SOMEWHERE UNDERNEATH THE HEAVY BLANKET OF SPECIESISM THAT THEIR CULTURE HAS SWADDLED THEM IN. So I need to draw that out of them by letting them empathize with my "righteous indignation." No matter how it manifests or how I guide it into expression, I will not repress my grief any more than I need to to stay sane in the midst of this ceaseless massacre. And actually, I think I'm being both intellectually and emotionally authentic in what I'm saying to you here, even if I'm not crying and screaming like I know some part of both of us deep down really wants to at all times -- that impulse just isn't bubbling up to my skin at this particular moment.

That being said, as liberation activists, we all feel so deeply and intensely for the animals and yet we hardly even share our emotional experiences of bearing witness to this global atrocity with each other. Telling each other the stories of the emotionally impactful experiences that lead us to becoming liberationists, and being open and authentic (being vulnerable) with each other, will bring us closer together, making us stronger together -- and being authentic in our interactions with speciesists will make us more sure of our own convictions and more confident in our activism, making us stronger still. And for them to experience you being real with them will make their interaction with you leave a stronger impression on their memory.

I think we can all see that apathy is a HUGE problem in this privileged society (though I don't think we're actually all too unique among humans, since human privilege is the most significant and oppressive privilege of all and since most large human societies encourage individualism and selfishness to some significant degree or another). And I think we can all recognize without much difficulty that apathy is not a failure of rational awareness, it's a failure of emotional incentive. (Call that a kind of "ignorance" if you like, but I myself think that kind of identification reinforces false Enlightenment conceptions of how we think, by implying that we just need to be presented with new information to change, which we all know by now just ain't so.)

So whether your style of advocacy is direct action, one-on-one conversation, playwriting, singing, painting, novel writing, or however you lend your voice to the silenced, speak with the full, unfettered truth of your emotional devotion to those you fight for.

Be honest with your liberationist community. Be honest with everyone you interact with. And be honest with yourself.

The persistence of the speciesist system is not a problem of intellectual ignorance about the victims, it is a problem of emotional indifference towards the victims (and further, emotional attachment to the status quo). So we have to emotionally compel people to care about injustice and the oppressed more than they care about their residence in Normalcy.

So express how you really feel. The stakes are high. Show them that.

*Let me just note here that humourous expression can be an exception to this rule of not smiling when talking about a horrendous atrocity that itself gives us no pleasure or cause to smile, as humour definitely has its role in communicating truths, but while I would argue that humourous expressions are typically very emotionally authentic and can be quite powerful because of that expression of truth, if the expression is not identifiably using humour to deal with the pain of the topic at hand, smiling is misleading and trivializing.

The sign is down, so you can forget about the violence underneath it.

The sign is down, so you can forget about the violence underneath it. (By Kelly)

About a month ago, the Whole Foods stores in Lafayette, California, put up a sign over the dismembered body parts of victims of institutionalized speciesist violence that read: "A hearty helping of Animal Compassion with every order." PETA set up a petition to have the sign taken down and contacted the company. Though the bodies remain, the misleading sign above them was taken down, and the following is what the animal-killers said to the petitioners.

Dear Customers,

Thank you for contacting Whole Foods Market regarding signage in our meat departments. We were contacted by PETA about this and acted immediately on the same day as we agree with PETA. The signage was limited to four stores in the Northern California region who opted to use that language several years ago, and we agree the language was not appropriate. It has already been updated and we appreciate PETA for calling it to our attention.

We sell the largest variety of vegan and meat alternatives across the country, and we proudly promote those products. And like all other supermarkets, we also sell meat. However, we believe there are significant differences in the way animals are raised for food in the United States and that Whole Foods Market will continue to sell and promote animal foods that we believe have been raised with less pain and suffering than factory farm meats.  PETA worked with us for several years to develop the standards that we are currently using to source our products.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your concerns about this matter.


Customer Communications Team, Whole Foods Market Global Headquarters

550 Bowie Street, Austin, TX 78703

My mind is swimming with the number, complexity and magnitude of problems in this letter, but I'll try to strip and simplify those thoughts for the purpose of this brief blog post:

1) "... regarding signage in our meat departments." The dismembered dead bodies of beings who did not want to die are not "meat" -- what's still in that same part of the store is actually innocent animals, victims of violence, artifacts of discrimination, and bodies of the oppressed.

2) "... we agree the language was not appropriate." Great. What about the violence that the sign referred to, that made it's language inappropriate?

3) "We sell the largest variety of vegan and meat alternatives..." Insert expletives. The animals don't care about people eating plants, they care about their lives and families and freedom. Hell, the cow next in line on the kill floor doesn't even care if you eat someone else, she just doesn't want you to enslave and kill her and her loved ones. The tempeh sitting on a shelf near the flesh of a baby pig did absolutely nothing for that infant, so stop trying to distract compassionate people from the nonhuman rights violations that you continue to commit on an unfathomably immense scale. Until there isn't one single body of an exploited being up for sale in your store, the tofu sitting beside it would be better positioned up wherever Whole Foods pushes it's vile exploitative excrement out of.

4) "... will continue to sell and promote animal foods that..." First and foremost, since animals aren't food, there's no such thing. Stop reducing my cousins to objects. But secondly: DO ANIMAL "RIGHTS" ACTIVISTS NOT SEE A PROBLEM WITH THE STATEMENT THAT THEY WILL CONTINUE TO NOT ONLY SELL, BUT PROMOTE PRODUCTS OF VIOLENCE? Is this not the real problem? Humanewashing sign or no, the violence has to go.

5) "... with less pain and suffering..." What about life? Compared to animals exploited on factory farms, do they have more or less of that when they are killed?

6) "PETA worked with us..." No comment necessary. But perhaps a quote: "No compromise with slavery; no union with slaveholders" (WLG).

Forget consumerism. And stop compromising. Speak up against injustice.

How the "Go Vegan" Message Perpetuates the Objectification of Nonhumans


How the "Go Vegan" Message Perpetuates the Objectification of Nonhumans (by Kelly)

When we use the "go vegan" message and talk about "vegan options" we immediately -- by the implicit construction of a dualism -- frame the animals whose rights are being violated as mere commodities. When we tell people to choose one product over another, we're reinforcing that the bodies of those animals who did not want to die are "products." We are therefore not challenging people to see those animals as conscious entities deserving of the same protection of their inalienable right to life that we ask for ourselves -- which is what we need to do to challenge speciesist society.

No matter what we say about those animals and their right to live and be free from violence and oppression, when we tell (or ask of) people what personal choices to make, through that consumerist framing, we're telling people to think about themselves, and we're perpetuating the idea that the animals are just other consumer commodities.

So should we even identify as "vegans"? (I put that in quotes because, let's remember, even those of us who don't eat animals or things made in their bodies still pay taxes that are funnelled into the violence, and fund an animal-killer and humanewasher when we buy kale at Whole Foods, and participate in a corporate machine that is wrecking havoc on our planet and contributing to the displacement and death of countless animals in every ecosystem whenever we buy anything at all, which is especially not particularly aligned with the apparent "vegan" ethic if it's more than we need for our bare minimal survival). I think that the label is counter-productive, since it focuses on the human instead of the animal, and since it frames the animals as the commodities they're already being treated as. Yeah, we who are trying to move society away from speciesism should be behaving as nonspeciesistly as manageable, as part of our vocal and uncompromising demand that the animals' rights be acknowledged and protected. But we should not be framing the conversation about the animals' rights in ways that distract people from the matter of their rights.

We have to demand liberation for the nonhuman victims, not plant-based options for the human oppressors. The animals need the systemic change that will come from a societal shift in perspective, not from a shifting chain of demand and supply.

We would call for an end to speciesism even if all it left our plates with was rice, because it's the right thing to do. Fruits and veggies are nice, but ultimately irrelevant. We can't make not hurting innocent animals a matter of how convenient and pleasurable it is for the human to abstain from that violence, we have to make not hurting animals -- and further, demanding that our entire society stop hurting animals -- a moral imperative. Demanding an end to injustice can't just be the easy and enjoyable and nice thing to do, it has to the be right thing to do. (Not to mention that we're not even encouraging people to do that when we merely tell them to "go vegan," to not intentionally participate to whatever degree comfortable in speciesist violence, to by-stand.) Because it IS the right thing to do. Because doing anything less than demanding justice for all is the wrong thing to do.

And when we talk to an individual about personally eating "vegan" we leave the systems that run the speciesist injustice and violence we're attempting to combat completely invisible -- and invisibility is how the most oppressive power structures remain in power.

Forget about the tasty tofu burrito, there's a baby pig screaming and writhing in the hands of a human with a knife right now. Which of the two messages will motivate people to demand action for that baby pig, and other oppressed innocents?

The stakes are extremely high. Actually, they really don't get any higher. The animals cannot afford for us to make their interests look as low in value as the stakes of someone choosing a favourite band.

A Roadblock in the Intersection

A Roadblock in the Intersection

I recently wrote to a popular feminist group about the intersection of sexism and speciesism.

Their response was problematic.

The group shares a great deal of analytical material on intersectionality within the humans species, and I was deeply disappointed by their unwillingness to consider the role of a widespread form of discrimination, dominance, and violence in patriarchal culture.

They chose to not critically analyze the status quo's position that might makes right, that sexual exploitation is okay (remember, the dairy industry actually calls it a "rape rack"), that killing someone who does not want to die for profit (power) is acceptable, and that domination is fine in the case of some groups of beings being victimized. Instead, they quite confusingly asserted that speaking up for ALL females is not intersectional, because that would infringe on the cultural norms of some violently dominant beings.

The subjugation of the human female body by the dominant male body will never stop unless we address the subjugation of the nonhuman body by the dominant human body. (Remember too that investigations of dairy farms routinely catch farmers hitting the female cows while calling them "cunt" and "whore" and other misogynist terms of subjugation. And what is a "bitch" but a being who resists the man trying to forcibly use her body for his profit?)

The person I communicated with wrote the following in response to my suggestion that they consider and share this article: "We are unable to post this article, because it does not support our mission of being inclusive and intersectional. We can't be prescriptive about eating, because meat-eating is important to a lot of cultures, and we're a global and intersectional collective."

Right, because nothing any feminist ever does puts the needs of the oppressed before things like "culture"?

And "meat-eating"? You mean "animal-eating." You mean "weaker-being-killing." You mean "speciesism." You mean "violence." You mean "dominance." You mean "subjugation." And you mean "patriarchy." Check that human privilege. Feminists must speak up against ALL oppression.

When we reduce animals to "meat" and talk about how (and "what") people eat, we set up a framing that allows people to perceive our assertion that dominance, violence, and discrimination are unjust as being non-intersectional, because they're not thinking about that dominance, violence, and discrimination. They're locked in their speciesist society's insistence that animals are ours to use.

NO ONE is anyone else's to use.

I hope that all self-indentified feminists will continue to speak up about the intersections of oppression, and further -- as this is the only way we will dismantle misogynist culture -- to come to speak up for all females, and against all subjugation.

And it is our responsibility as advocates of justice to always challenge ourselves, each other, and others to consider and combat the intersections of all oppressions.


Challenging Our Own Status Quo

Challenging Our Own Status Quo

Speciesism is the underlying disease of which all human exploitation of nonhumans is a symptom. If our goal as liberationists is to dissolve speciesism, to bring about a robust cultural change that will ensure lasting change for the animals, then the perspective of the "animal rights" movement and its advocates needs to shift:

Right now the dominant perspective, goal and message is about limiting the number of future animals brought into the world. ("Go vegan" and "this company kills animals but we'll ignore that and praise it for the plant-based option they offer on the chance that someone who is not yet ethically aligned with the idea that violence against animals is wrong might purchase it instead of a violent option, thereby slightly reducing the demand for more future violence."*)

We need to shift that to a focus on how the rights of the trapped animals who are suffering and crying and being forced onto a kill floor at this very moment are being violated. The goal here is to get people to realize that the violence is wrong and that these animals are in a state of emergency and need to be fought for. These stakes are much higher, which makes this framing much more compelling. Not only will the currently popular goal of reducing the demand for exploited animals be achieved through this pushing of anti-speciesist, anti-violent ideology anyways, but this is how we will actively combat the disease of speciesism, instead of just pumping drugs into the system to relieve a few symptoms.

*Just to be brutally redundant with this: No one who has decided to stop eating animals and products of their exploitation is going to buy a burrito with someone's flesh in it, and no one is going to decide to stop eating animals because they ate a single plant-based burrito. People don't need convenient access to nonviolent food options, they need motivation to not by violence-based products. What they need (and what the animals need from them, in the interest of a cultural shift in how humans perceive nonhumans) is to become ethically aligned with anti-speciesism. And even if one's goal is "more individual humans eating plants instead of animal products" then making anti-speciesists out of them is their most compelling reason to do that.

A Note on the Power of Language

A Note on the Power of Language

When we talk about animals and share images of nonhumans, we have a responsibility to not frame those animals with a lens that reinforces their objectification. How can we more effectively use words and images in the interest of not brutally reducing those animals to objects? What can we do to give those humans we are talking to about nonhuman rights a lens that facilitates a non-subjugating gaze?

Consider the differences in framing when using following terms:

  • “it” v. “her/him/them”

  • “that” v. “who”

  • “something” v. “someone” (or "anything" v. "anyone")

  • “eating meat” v. “eating animals”

  • “vegan options for humans” v. “legal rights for animals”

  • images of dead bodies treated as the objects they are v. images that tell a story of the someones they were