Our Positioning as Animal Activists

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Hi, all! My thoughts in today’s post stem from a conversation I and my Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) co-leaders were lucky enough to have with longtime LGBTQ, anti-racist, anti-speciesist activist pattrice jones, co-founder of VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, VT. VARC hosted pattrice for a campus lecture this past Tuesday, and we were thrilled to be able to sit down with her for an informal chat before the event. (We were also able to videotape pattrice’s talk, so be sure to stay updated on my blog in the upcoming weeks for info on how to access the recording!)

One strand of our conversation with pattrice that particularly struck me came in response to a question asked by one of my co-leaders in regards to our positioning as animal activists; that is, people advocating on behalf of non-human animals. In her reply, pattrice recalled a talk given by Native Studies scholar and INCITE! co-founder Andrea Smith at the 2007 “Inadmissible Comparisons” conference hosted by United Poultry Concerns. Unfortunately, what I say here will be a paraphrase of a paraphrase, as I could not find a transcript or recording of Andrea’s original talk; nonetheless, I’d like to summarize pattrice’s description of the talk, since I think it brings up important questions of animal activist positioning and non-human agency.

pattrice shared with us Andrea’s observation that, in dialogues with or actions directed toward those who are not vegan or otherwise actively exploit non-human animals, animal advocates will often cognitively place ourselves in the position of the chicken, the cow, the rat, the rabbit, etc. On the one hand, this empathetic ability to occupy another’s viewpoint serves as an important aspect of any type of activism that involves a member of an oppressor group advocating in solidarity with an oppressed group (think white anti-racist activism, for example). On the other hand, Andrea observed that this cognitive shift in animal advocates’ subject positioning tends to lead us to forget that we are not the ones being oppressed, but rather lead rather comfortable lives (at least, most of us) in which we’ve chosen to disavow our species privilege and encourage others to do the same.

pattrice explained that Andrea made this observation in the context of dialogues in which someone who had not yet disavowed their species privilege critiques an animal activist for upholding other systems of oppression (white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, etc.) at least in part by making comparisons between oppressions – in an “oppression olympics,” if you will – instead of focusing on their interlocking logics. Because the animal activist now thinks of ourself as a member of a species-oppressed group – a group in which members of virtually every other marginalized peoples participate in oppressing – we cannot consider our critiquer’s assertions as legitimate. “I can’t possibly be participating in oppressive structures right now, because I’m the most oppressed!!!“…or so the internal monologue presumably goes.

Obviously, as Andrea demonstrates, this cognitive shift in subject positioning when advocating for animals prevents us from listening to others who let us know when we’re committing an act of violence in our advocacy. With this mindset, we can never hope to develop the radical intersectional politics necessary to guide us toward collective liberation for all beings.

For me, this shift also brings up questions of agency. In so much of animal advocacy, I see human animals exercising agency and power, while non-human animals are presented as victims who need saving. By putting ourselves into the place of non-human animals when advocating for them, I think we further co-opt their agency, obscuring they who actually face species-based oppression while making the world more comfortable for ourselves. For example, campaigning for more vegan options at restaurants with no mention of the non-human animals for whom we promote veganism presents the campaign as working on behalf of vegans who face “oppression” (imagine GIANT quotations here) at the hands of the restaurant industry, rather than in solidarity with the non-human animals who actually face systemic oppression. (And it also serves merely to shift the capitalist market from an animal-based one to a plant-based one instead of dismantling the logics of capitalism — which exploit all living beings — altogether.)

In part thanks to this conversation we shared with pattrice, I’ve been thinking about how to act from a place of respecting the agency of non-human animals, rather than centering myself as a member of a non-species-oppressed group and turning them into helpless victims. I think that sanctuaries can provide an awesome model for such agency-respecting advocacy, but even sanctuaries tend to strip their residents of some level of autonomy. So I’m still thinking…and will probably be thinking for a while. But I’d really appreciate your help in doing so! Seriously, comment section is wide open (as always). And, if you have thoughts that cannot be condensed into the small space of a comment, please consider submitting a piece to Chickpeas & Change! Check out this page for submission guidelines.

In solidarity, Ali.

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2 thoughts on “Our Positioning as Animal Activists

  1. Amanda says:

    Ali, I know you’ve been asking all these questions (for which I have no answers, of course), and this isn’t new ground for you here, but I find the framing in this post invaluable for its simplicity:

    “On the one hand, this empathetic ability to occupy another’s viewpoint serves as an important aspect of any type of activism that involves a member of an oppressor group advocating in solidarity with an oppressed group (think white anti-racist activism, for example). On the other hand, Andrea observed that this cognitive shift in animal advocates’ subject positioning tends to lead us to forget that we are not the ones being oppressed, but rather lead rather comfortable lives (at least, most of us) in which we’ve chosen to disavow our species privilege and encourage others to do the same.”

    As a woman situated in several positions of privilege, I find that a bang-on—and gentle, to boot—phrasing that will help me more fully internalize what it is that my boycott is and does. Which I find is always the most essential key in discussing veganism with omnivores. And in, you know, just trying to live well. I typically think I have my head screwed on fairly well behind my convictions, and I try never to treat being challenged as a threat. But really internalizing the path my emotions are taking helps me represent what I really believe in the more difficult times (such as getting upset or anxious in social moments, being called to speak when I’d rather not, a sudden attack of judgmental thoughts or a feeling of disappointment revealing an expectation of someone I didn’t even realize I’d formed).

    Thanks for taking the time to paraphrase the paraphrase, even when you couldn’t find the source material. I found this very helpful today.

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