Animal Liberation--the Social Justice Connection
As long as humanity continues to be the ruthless destroyer of other
beings, we will never know health or peace. For as long as people
massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the
seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.
Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its
full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not
limit itself to humankind.
Most people today understand the connections among certain movements--abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, labor justice. All are these movements oppose oppression and advocate liberation for the oppressed. The neglected link, for many, is animal rights.
The philosophy of animal rights is well-stated by civil rights activist and feminist novelist Alice Walker, who stated in an introduction to Marjorie Spiegel's The Dreaded Comparison, a book which compares human slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries to animal slavery today: "The animals of this world are not here for human purposes any more than women are here for men, or blacks for whites."
Prejudice may be prejudice on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference or on basis of species. In each case, a line is drawn placing one group above a line, and everyone else below it. Bias on the basis of species is as unjustified as racism, sexism, or homophobia (in fact, Isaac Bashevis Singer called speciesism the "most extreme" form of racism).
Believers in animal rights ask the question, What is in the animal's best interest, rather than what is in society's best interest. In our society, the areas where the most animals suffer have brought many activists to a four-point manifesto: Animals are not ours to (1) eat, (2) wear, (3) experiment on, or (4) use for entertainment.
1. Eating animals "Vegetarianism," explained Tolstoy "is the taproot of humanitarianism." Our nation consumes more than 8 billion animals every single year. The vast majority of these animals live lives which are "nasty, brutish, and short." As just one example of current farm conditions, laying hens spend their entire lives crammed 4-7 in wire-mesh cages stacked in a warehouse with tens of thousands of other birds. Conditions are so horrendous that their feet often grow through and around the wire, and one-third of birds suffer leg breaks on the packed and painful ride to the slaughterhouse--which often entails days without food and water. One egg represents 24 hours of unimaginable suffering for a hen, not to mention her ride to the slaughterhouse.
Broiler chickens, pigs, turkeys, dairy cows, and beef cows also are separated from their families at birth, suffer the mental and physical anguish of living in tiny spaces with no relief and no hope for escape, endure the long and excruciating ride to the slaughterhouse. Non-ambulatory animals are dragged from the backs of transport trucks, bones snapping. They are killed by being hung upside down and bled to death, often skinned, hacked to bits, and killed while fully conscious. I have been to many of these farms and a few of these slaughterhouses. The animals scream with fear, frustration, and pain. Arguably, the best thing and most immediate thing anyone can do to promote justice and reject violence is to adopt a diet free of animals or their milk and eggs.
2. Wearing animals Each year, more than 3 million animals are trapped every year for their fur, and more than 2 million are raised on fur farms. Trapped animals often chew off their own legs in a desperate attempt to escape their traps. Animals on fur farms go slowly insane from the cramped and unnatural conditions. No federal humane slaughter laws exist for fur animals, so animals are often ruthlessly executed by vaginal or anal electrocution, an inexpensive and "clean" killing method. The leather industry is a by-product of the meat industry, with the same cruelties just discussed above.
3. Experimenting on animals Medical experimentation is sick science. Gandhi called it "the blackest of black crimes that [humanity] is at present committing against God and [God's] fair creation." The fact is that experimenters radiate monkeys in war experiments, cut into cats' skulls in deafness experiments, and blowtorch pigs in burn experiments. They do horrible things to animals whom they keep in isolated cages during their "down" time.
I spent six years working in a homelessness shelter in Washington, D.C., and I saw 6-18 month waits for addicts seeking drug rehabilitation, even as millions of dollars were spent addicting monkeys to cocaine and heroin.
Cosmetics experimentation continues, despite the fact that it does not even ostensibly serve any purpose. More than five hundred companies do not test their products on animals, including Gillette, Revlon, L'Oreal, and Benneton, yet some companies continue. Testers drip shampoo into animal eyes, force feed them cleansers until half of the group die, and shave their coats to apply caustic products to bare skin. The largest company which continues to test is Proctor and Gamble, maker of Crest, Tide, Pert, Pampers, and a vast array of other products.
4. Animals in "entertainment" Animals raised for circuses, racing, and other forms of human amusement are separated from their loved ones and their natural habitats, are kept in isolation during their down time, are often killed once they've outlasted their usefulness, and are trained using force-tactics such as beatings and deprivation. The fact is that elephants don't normally balance on balls and tigers don't normally jump through hoops of fire. In order to force these magnificent animals to do such stupid and demeaning acts, they must surely be beaten into submission.
Abolition for the 21st Century A bit of historical perspective is useful. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (abolition) was passed in 1865, just 133 years ago; the 19th Amendment (suffrage) was passed in 1920, just 78 years ago; labor justice, including the 40-hour work week, is very new; the first child abuse case was tried in this country in 1913.
Many good and thoughtful people did not believe that Native- or African-Americans deserved rights, or that women and children deserved rights. Slavery flourished from the 1520s until the end of the 1800s in this country. Rutgers law professor Gary Francione pointed out that "If you had asked white men in 1810 whether blacks had rights, most would have laughed at you."
I mention these past atrocities to point out how much society has changed in, historically, a blink of the eye. In fact, it was the mid 17th Century-just 330 years ago--which found the current Pope sentencing Galileo to the torture chamber until he would recant his heresy that the sun did not revolve around the earth. I used to believe that humans are the top of the life cycle. But I came to see that the belief in humans at the center of the moral universe is exactly as valid as our one-time belief in the earth as the center of the physical universe. Over time, I have grown to see animal liberation within the context of other movements for justice.
Animal liberation is an optimistic movement. We believe with Jeremy Bentham that "The time will come when society will extend its mantle over everything which breathes." We believe with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of history is long, but that it bends toward justice and compassion (The fact that King's wife and son, Coretta and Dexter Scott King, are vegans is evidence of this). We believe that society will look back on human arrogance and cruelty toward other animals with the same horror and disbelief we presently feel at slavery and other atrocities.
To quote the Latin American adage, "The struggle is one." As King stated so often: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel laureate, stated that "As long as human beings go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin... There will be no justice as long as a man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is." If we can convince people not to harm mice and rats and cats and dogs and pigs and chickens and turkeys, they will certainly not turn around and hurt human beings. And many great humanitarians, from Albert Schweitzer to Ellen White, from Louisa May Alcott to Albert Einstein, felt that a peaceful society is impossible as long as we are eating and otherways torturing animals.
A closing analogy Today is 1600; the issue is slavery. Slaves are being sold, beaten, and killed. The vast majority of good and caring white people do not consider it an issue that slaves are treated this way. Most people simply look the other way. There are two groups who are concerned about slave welfare--those who do not oppose slavery on principle, but simply argue for basic welfare for slaves; and those who argue for the elimination of slavery. The abolitionists agree with all of the substantive proposals of the welfarists. Clearly, everyone should be a welfarist, refusing to participate directly in the oppression and speaking out against the most egregious of the abuses. However, abolition will only become reality as more and more people see the need and endorse it in word and deed.
Albert Einstein called human bigotry according to species an "optical illusion of consciousness." He stated that the human task is "to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures..." This is a process, and none of us will ever be pure; but we should do the best we can, adopting a vegan diet as a bare minimum in support of basic animal welfare.
Animal liberation is the social justice movement for the next millennium--abolition for the 21st century. As Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
To contact the author:
Bruce G. Friedrich
AnimalConcerns.org (formerly Animal Rights Resource Site)