Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Animal Equality: Language and Liberation.
The Joan Dunayer Interview.

By Claudette Vaughan

First published in Vegan Voice.

What do animal liberationists mean when we insist upon "animal equality"? Joan Dunayer wrote a book on this very subject. "Animal Equality: Language and Liberation" illustrates the need to legislate a new definition of nonhuman animals: as persons, not property. Speciesist language and behaviour is the antithesis of animal equality. Read on to understand how humans are indoctrinated to use words as weapons without even thinking about it. In this interview Dunayer herself speaks about animal equality, how she used to be a vivisector herself and where our movement is heading.

Q. In order to establish a new and completely different relationship with nonhuman animals, what are you suggesting in Animal Equality that we do?

A. To end humans' exploitation of other animals, we need to persuade many more people that vivisection, sportfishing, food-industry captivity and slaughter and other forms of speciesist abuse are morally wrong -- atrocities, in fact. We can't do that without a radical change in the way we speak about nonhuman oppression and murder.

When we adopt the language of the abusers and refer to vivisection as "biomedical research" or food-industry enslavement and slaughter as "farming", we undermine our efforts to end these practices. Used as a synonym for vivisection, biomedical research erases vivisection's victims and rewrites suffering and death as healing (medical) and life (bio). Most vivisection doesn't even pursue medical goals. Also, biomedical research includes numerous benign research methods, such as studies of disease trends within human populations, the use of cell and tissue cultures, and clinical studies of human and nonhuman patients. When we use the word vivisection, we're actually being more accurate. Dictionaries define vivisection as harming animals, especially for research purposes. That's what we are objecting to, not biomedical research. Vivisectors hate the word vivisection because it evokes images of cruelty, images repugnant to the general public. All the more reason to use the word. When we substitute biomedical research , science or even animal research for vivisection, we assist vivisectors by omitting any suggestion of harm or immorality. Some animal rights advocates have said that they avoid using the word vivisection because they don't want to be dismissed as "biased" or inflammatory. We should be proud to show our strong opposition to as cruel and unjust a practice as vivisection. If the very word vivisection has come to shock (because it's censored so often), so be it. Vivisection is a shocking practice. I don't believe in downplaying our moral outrage and staunch commitment to abolition. I think that's self-defeating. I'll go further: I think it betrays the victims. We should refer to nonhuman victimisation the same way we refer to child victimisation -with candid, negative language that conveys protest. Many people who readily condemn human victimisation as "heinous", or "evil" consider moralistic language sensational or overly emotional when applied to atrocities against nonhumans. They prefer to couch nonhuman exploitation and murder in scientific, culinary or other nonmoralistic terms. That way they avoid acknowledging immortality.

Among others, Nazi vivisectors applied the quantitative language of experimentation to human, as well as nonhuman, vivisection. Slaveholders have applied the economic language of "animal agriculture" to nonhuman and human enslavement. Most people find such morally detached language offensive and grotesque only with regard to the human victims. We should find it equally offensive and grotesque with regard to the nonhuman ones. Cruelty, injustice and other moral issues call for moralistic language whatever the victim's species. To speak of vivisection in the cold, sanitised language of experimentation is to place it where the abusers want it ---outside considerations of morality.

Chickens, pigs and other animals held captive by the food industry literally are enslaved. They're held in servitude as property. Yet few people speak of nonhuman enslavement. Instead, even animal rights advocates refer to chicken or pig enslavement as "farming". Saying that animals are "farmed" equates them with plants. They aren't cabbage; they're thinking, feeling individuals. Farm also falsifies by evoking an image of a traditional farm. Today relatively few enslaved animals are kept on farms. Instead, they are crowded into dirt lots or imprisoned in intensive-confinement buildings. Even before the mechanisation of the food industry, applying the word farming to the enslavement and murder of nonhuman animals euphemised and misled. However primitive, rearing animals for slaughter doesn't necessarily entail any cultivation of crops; it entails consumption, by nonhuman captives, or cultivated or naturally growing plants. Most importantly, "farming" sounds benign. It fails to acknowledge victimisation. My test for speciesist language is this: Would you use that language if the victims were human? If not, the language is probably speciesist and euphemistic. Would we ever say that humans imprisoned and killed for their flesh were "farmed"? No. Then, we shouldn't be saying that other animals are "farmed".

We also need to avoid oxymorons like humane slaughter and farmed animal welfare. Food industry slaughter is the needless killing of innocent individuals. Even if slaughter were freed (miraculously) of all terror or pain, it wouldn't be humane. Similarly, animals who are enslaved and murdered for their flesh, milk or eggs certainly lack well-being (welfare). Even under the best of circumstances, they're held captive and are deprived of natural environments and communities. Our language should never suggest that fundamentally unjust situations can be morally acceptable -- "humane" or compatible with the victims "welfare".

Q. Whenever I have been faced with the argument that humans are the superior species "having dominion over the earth and animals etc), I argue that if we are the so-called "superior" species, then why are we not protecting the others under our charge. Isn't that the role of a custodian?

A. The dominion "argument" actually is a non-argument because it merely expresses two opinions: that humans are superior to other species and that they are entitled to dominion. Mere statements of opinions aren't arguments. Genuine arguments are based on evidence and reason. The Bible was written by humans, so it isn't surprising that it glorifies humans and declares them to have dominion over other animals. (Actually, although the King James version of the Bible uses the word dominion, the original Hebrew is closer in meaning to stewardship, which conveys a less belligerent, more protective stance towards other animals but still is patronising and arrogent). The Bible contains much that is speciesist, sexist, and racist. Parts of it sanction human enslavement. Saying that humans are entitled to dominion over other animals -or that John Smith is entitled to dominion over other humans -doesn't make it so.

Perhaps most importantly, I'd like to point out to the "dominionist" that an animal's capacity for abstract reasoning, tool use, and other typically human abilities isn't morally relevant to the issue of basic rights. Democratic societies protect all human animals, whatever their degree of discernible intelligence. We don't accord rights in proportion to IQ, and that's as it should be. Any sentient being -any creature with a nervous system -equally needs and deserves protection. The morally crucial capacity is the capacity to experience: sentience. In their need for protection and their right to justice, all animals are the same. That's what I mean by "animal equality".

Q. What teething problems do you foresee with speciesism?

A. Because nonhuman animals lack all political power and usually differ from humans more than humans differ from one another, speciesism will be harder to overcome than sexism or racism. Humans always will have speciesist tendencies, so the law must protect nonhuman animals from speciesism. Law is language. Currently, the law defines nonhuman animals as human property. Instead, it should define them as persons, with their own legal rights. Worldwide, "animal" laws that ostensibly protect nonhumans largely perpetrate their abuse because such laws operate within a framework of enslavement. "Animal" law is slave law. Like the former US laws that legitimised black enslavements, "animal" laws must be abolished. The same body of law that protects humans must protect nonhumans, extending to them all applicable rights currently reserved for humans. Legislators won't take the necessary steps until we persuade enough of the general public that any needless harm to nonhuman animals is morally wrong. We should continually emphasis that humans don't need to exploit, hurt or kill nonhuman animals-and don't have the moral right to-except in extremely rare circumstances (eg, when a nonhuman directly threatens our lives). We don't need to go to aquaprisons or zoos. We don't need to wear cow skin, sheep hair or coats with fox pelt-trim. Unless we otherwise would starve, we don't need to eat flesh, eggs or cow milk. Convincing people that the exploitation of nonhuman animals is needless and wrong will require changing the way we speak about that exploitation. We humans have a verbal monopoly, and our language transmits our prejudices. Speciesists have an easier task than racists or sexists. Their victims can't speak for themselves. We animal rights advocates must do more than express concern for nonhuman animals. We must, to the best of our ability, speak as they would if they could. The wounded buck would never call himself "game". The vivisected rat never would refer to vivisection as "biomedical research". The imprisoned sow never would say that she is "farmed".

Q. Ex-vivisector Don Barnes has spoken about his concept of "ethical conditioned blindness". You have taken this to another level in your book. I think what we are basically talking about here is indoctrination and how prevalent it is in our society. Would you agree?

A. I strongly agree. As I relate in Animal Equality, my instincts as a child were to be sensitive to nonhuman suffering and to recognise nonhuman individuals as important and deserving of love and respect. Yet, by the time I entered a graduate program in psychology, I was willing to use rats in experiments. Society had conditioned me to accept the routine exploitation and killing of nonhuman animals. I was raised as a flesh eater and, like most children, taken to aquaprisons and zoos. In every way, society kept telling me, "Its OK for humans to exploit and kill other animals". A large part of that indoctrination is the language we use. If my parents had spoken of "calf flesh" rather than "veal" and "pig flesh" rather than "bacon", I would have received a different message regarding whether or not its morally acceptable to eat the remains of calves and pigs. There is nothing silly about loving and respecting any living being. But I hear such dismissive language all the time with regard to nonhumans. Who cares if millions of mice or rats are vivisected each year? They're "only rodents". What does it matter that billions of chickens live in misery until they die in pain and fear? They're "just chickens".

Animal rights advocates even use such language when their intended message is one of respect. For example, an article protesting cruelty to lobsters included the statement, "Even lobsters feel pain". The hierarchal word even undermined the writer's protest by suggesting that lobsters are somehow lesser beings whose sentience might reasonably doubted. Using a egalitarian word such as too or also would have avoided speciesist over-tones: "Lobsters too, feel pain", or "Lobsters also feel pain".

Q. Describe your time as a vivisectionist.

A. While a graduate student in psychology, I used 10 rats in experiments. My nonhuman companions never had included rats, and I never have conducted or witnessed vivisection before, so when 10 rats were purchased for my use, I thought of them as "lab rats". Even so, I was uncomfortable as soon as they arrived. I saw right away that they were frightened. My experiments did not cause pain but they did entail deprivation.

By nature rats are social, lively and curious. They eat a wide variety of foods. Individually confined to small wire cages, "my rats" endured isolation, inaction and an unchanging environment. Two hours a day they had access to one type of food pellet, always the same. Increasingly, I saw the rats as individuals, with their own desires and needs. Each had a highly distinct appearance, intelligence, and personality. Yet, however harsh and stressful their situation, all of them were gentle. Soon I got bigger cages for them. Then I put a chew toy inside each cage. Then I left food in their cages 24 hours a day. Nothing could put the situation right.

Meanwhile, I learned how cruelly other vivisectors treated the rats they used. I heard rats scream as their ears were hole-punched for identification. I saw them flung by the tail into metal boxes that fit them like coffins. They stayed there 23 hours a day, unable to look out. So that they would work for food, some rats were kept half starved. Other received electric shocks. Still others were subjected to painful injury such as stomach puncture. Before long, I thought of each of these rats as an individual, someone who could have been one of the 10 rats I had come to know and love. I realised that all vivisection is wrong. I adopted my 10 rat friends, abandoned vivisection and became an animal rights advocate.

Q. You say in your book that nonhumans may suffer more intensely than humans in similar situations, in that nonhuman victims of inescapable human abuse can't make sense of their plight, change their circumstances or see an end to their suffering ---which might make it much worse for them.

A. In the case of humans, being able to understand or partially control one's fate make adversity more bearable. Also, humans are good at rationalising -"Its God's will", "My suffering will be rewarded". A falcon imprisoned in a zoo, a mouse tortured in vivisection, or an octopus confined to a small tank lacks such consolations. Yet speciesists assume that nonhumans suffer less than humans would in similar circumstances. Analogously, racists have contended that people of colour feel injury and deprivation less than whites.

Opponents of animal rights love to ask, "Where do you draw the line?" I think that's easy to answer. I draw it at the difference between having a nervous system and not having one. We never can know precisely how much a particular human or nonhuman individual suffers, but it is reasonable and fair to assume that any creature with a nervous system can suffer. If a nervous system didn't confer sentience, why would anybody have one? A plant doesn't have a nervous system, so a plant doesn't warrant moral consideration. But every being with a nervous system does warrant moral consideration -in my view, equal consideration.

Q. The writer Jeffrey Masson has said he's always being accused by "scientists" of anthropomorphism. Is it wise in your opinion to play the "anthropomorphism" game when victimisers do indeed seek justification at every turn for the continuance of their dirty deeds?

A. I'm glad you put "scientists" in quotation marks. Jeffrey Masson and others who see nonhuman animals as thinking, feeling individuals are wrongly accused of anthropomorphism, by people who are motivated by speciesist self-interest, not science. Used accurately, anthropomorphism refers to the false attribution of uniquely human characteristics. It isn't anthropomorphic to believe that parrots, iguanas and hamsters have thoughts, feelings and personalities. It is anthropomorphic to believe that they should wear shoes, would benefit from a college education, or must have human thoughts, feelings and personalities or none at all. Whether human or nonhuman all animals are kin. Thought and feelings are animal capacities, not uniquely human ones. When we attribute a particular thought or feeling to a human or nonhuman individual, we may err. However, we routinely read the body language of nonhumans and humans with much success. Also, being uncertain about what someone is feeling is very different from denying that they are feeling.

Speciesists want to maintain a sharp divide between humans and other animals, so they resist applying the same vocabulary to humans and nonhumans. They say that humans "love" whereas nonhuman animals merely "mate", humans show intelligence whereas nonhumans show only "instinct", and so on. Separate vocabularies help maintain a false dichotomy. The greater the apparent psychological distances between human and nonhuman animals, the more secure humans' assumption of species superiority and uniqueness. This assumption provides an excuse for exploitation. Of course, the excuse is logically inconsistant given that the law protects all human animals, whatever their intellectual or emotional capacity.

Q. What do you mean by the phrase, "complimentary self-description exonerates humans of wrongdoing?"

A. When I vivisected, I considered myself a "researcher" and "scientist" rather than an abuser or vivisector. The complimentary labels researcher and scientist permitted me to feel good about myself even as I engaged in cruelty and injustice. Similarly, people who eat flesh, go to circuses that enslave nonhumans, and otherwise participate in abuse and killing of nonhuman animals call themselves "animal lovers" if they happen to love their own dog or cat companions. Such people don't deserve the name animal lover because they actually love, even feel compassion for, very few nonhuman animals. Humans use language to flatter themselves and deny guilt. While boasting of "human kindness", our species treats nonhumans (and often humans) with extreme injustice and cruelty.

Q. How and when will vivisection end?

A. Vivisection will end when enough people recognise it as morally wrong. I believe that vivisection is a particularly ineffective, unscientific way of seeking insights into human health. For example, 80 per cent of drugs fail human trials after passing nonhuman-animal tests. In humans the drugs prove ineffective or harmful. Overwhelming evidence indicates that educating people about disease prevention, increasing their access to medical treatment, and conducting benign human-based research are the most cost-effective ways of improving human health. However, the most compelling argument against vivisection is the animal rights one. In fact, I disapprove of couching opposition to vivisection primarily in terms of vivisection's scientific invalidity and cost ineffectiveness -- because that approach suggests that if vivisection were scientifically valid and cost effective, it would be morally acceptable. By definition, vivisection harms innocent beings. Nearly always, it restricts them to highly confining environments. Routinely it inflicts pain, physical injury and extreme deprivation. Usually it entails death.

We have no moral right to seek information by harming others. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, the law restricts the pursuit of knowledge to methods that don't violate human rights, even though human vivisection would be far more scientifically valid (and therefore useful) than nonhuman vivisection. Whatever there intellectual capacity, humans are spared vivisection because we consider it morally repugnant to inflict suffering or death on any innocent human. Nonhumans deserve equal justice. Vivisection is wrong because it is unjust. Our stance towards vivisection, and every other form of speciesist abuse, should be moralistic and unequivocally abolitionist and our language should be in keeping with that stance.

Animal Equality: Language and Liberation by Joan Dunayer. Foreword by Carol J. Adams. Ryce Publishing, Derwood, Maryland, US,2001.