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.