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Jul 12, 2007

The Maintenance of Speciesism.

This blog entry takes another look at a familiar theme in my sociological analysis of human-nonhuman relations: how cultural speciesism is constructed and maintained. Over a number of years discussing ‘animal rights’ issues on various forums, I have discovered that many people – north Americans in particular – appear to think that their own ideas on different subjects are just that – their own.

Sociologically this is naïve in the extreme. As social animals, human beings are free and unfree at the same time. As John and Yoko rightly stated in the 1970s, we are born in a prison, raised in a prison, and go to a prison called school. [1] They also suggest that we cry, love and dream in a prison. More sociologically, perhaps, we may say that human agency is constantly constrained by various social forces. One version of Berger and Berger’s ‘biographical approach’ to sociology [2] depicts on the book cover a cage in which sits a man reading a newspaper, TV and cooker close by. Lennon and Ono speak of prison, the Bergers of being caged and controlled.

Of course, we might not like to think of ourselves like this. “Oh no, not me, I’m original, I’m free, I’m unique”. Sociologically, that is wishful thinking: to some degree or other we are all shaped by society’s norms and values. This is the main reason, or one of the main reasons, why animal welfarism is so prevalent in society and in the animal protection movement.

To some degree or other, then, society makes and shapes us. In terms of human-nonhuman relations, interrelated philosophy, theology, daily social practices, underlying ideology, and on-going social discourse serves as effective constructors of ‘sufficient difference’ which provides meaningful moral distance between human beings and other animals.

Indeed, over time, human beings have sought to mark virtually any difference, whether capacity for rationality,[3] language, use of tools, etc. ~declaring all to be morally relevant and significant~ in order to override the status of billions of individual nonhuman sentients and effectively undermining the evolutionary kinship between human animals and nonhuman ones.

Jasper [4] correctly suggests that modern humans hold on to two exploitative orientations towards other animals. The first orientation involves the qualified acceptance of the instrumental use of other animals as resources [5], while the other mode of utilisation is mainly sentimental, such as in the keeping of pets, although this second category seems also to contain a good deal of its own instrumental intent when, for example, nonhuman animals are entered into &lsquoet shows’ and even ‘talent competitions’.

Added to dominant non-animal rights positions with regard to nonhuman animals and human beings, the self-serving and largely economically-driven &lsquoro-use’ arguments seek to maintain profitable orientations toward the moral status quo. Groups such as the National Animal Interest Alliance [6], the National Farmers’ Union and the Research Defence Society clearly have their own financial and ideological justifications for the continuation of the human exploitation of nonhuman animals.

Sociologists will often emphasise the vital ‘maintenance’ role played by the lifelong socialisation processes in the preservation of present attitudes about the ethical status of both human and nonhuman beings. While on-going and day-to-day experience bolster society-wide orientations toward other animals, the professional socialisation of those whose livelihoods and identities are bound up with various forms of ‘using’ other animals provides individuals with further incentives to support current welfarist conceptualisations of human-nonhuman relations.

In the light of factors such as these, any sociological analysis cannot ignore overarching consequences of individuals - the vast majority in most modern societies - being socialised as practising speciesists.

Moreover, in cultures that routinely exploit other animals, the phrase ‘they know not what they do’ can be properly applied to the children. Daily they experience other sentient beings as meat; and know others as playthings and as personal or family possessions. In a great many aspects of their foundational social learning, children are socialised from their earliest years within an overarching and deeply speciesist ideology to accept the human use of other animals in all its forms: nonhumans as meat, as toys, as tools, as entertainment.

Human beings internalise these social values, breaking free of them is hard and costly, and that means they take such values inside themselves as constituent parts of their being a human being. This is why no vegan should be surprised if their presence or very existence often seems resented by others and can be socially disruptive.

The significance of this for animal rights advocates is clear, because the simplest thing most people do with regard to core social values is abide by them.

Since this is exactly what the unreflexive majority does with regard to dominant social values about human-nonhuman relations, supporters of animal rights must understand that their own personal transcendence of orthodox attitudes are exceptions to a widely kept rule. Most people, quite simply, ‘go with the flow’.

Perhaps the degree to which animal advocates are thought to have ‘broken away’ from prevailing ideology about human-nonhuman relations can be seen reflected in the extent to which animal welfarism remains central to the animal protection movement’s claims about to the treatment of other animals by human beings.

These attitudes are built on and plug into firm social understandings of human supremacy claims, the significance of the ‘species barrier’, and the harmful uses which the notion of this ‘barrier’ accommodates. To the extent that exploitative relations among human beings are facilitated by dehumanisation processes, opponents of such exploitation and advocates of human rights need to acknowledge central speciesist conceptualisations when humans exploit, harm, and kill each other as well as exploit, harm and kill other ‘others’.

Human societies systematically objectify other animals, they commodify them, they make them items of various types of consumption, retain them as items of property and as ‘legal things’ by law. If a human ‘damages’ a nonhuman animal, including killing her, they may find themselves accused and subsequently charged with causing ‘criminal damage’; that is, causing damage to the ‘animal property’ of another human being. As with once legal forms of human slavery, such social forces maintain exploitative relations. These are further aspects of a speciesist world into which the young are routinely socialised and, therefore, children learn the norms and values of animal hating and animal loving societies.

We are socialised as animal harming animal lovers in societies that continually underline the ideology that ‘Man’ is king. A world that remains characterised by racism and sexism declares over and over again that everything that exists in the world exists for human beings: each and everything other than (but in practice, including) fellow humans are ‘resources for the use of’.

Language reveals how humans hate and love other animals and animal life, as they continue to use traditional human-nonhuman orientations to maintain unequal human relations. It has been shown that to call someone an ‘animal’ is to confer upon them a truly negative label: human serial killers are not human according to the popular press: they cannot be allowed the glory of the label ‘human’, so they are named ‘animal(s)’ instead. Such people, after all, ‘behave like animals’. Societies reserve this tag for the cruellest

Of course, none of the above contradicts any of the premises of orthodox animal welfarism. Indeed, the foregone would merely affirm for many people the absolute need for the normative regulatory role of animal welfare practice and enforcement. Ideological animal welfarism reinforces the idea that theologians and philosophers were ~and are~ correct to construct a ‘ladder of being’ as a perfectly ‘natural order’ because no substantial bad should result from it.

Indeed, orthodox animal welfarism suggests that much good is afforded for both human and nonhuman animals in present relations. A product of on-going and thoroughly institutionalised social processes, integral to humanity’s ‘agri-culture’[7], is the apparent difficulty that animal rights positions have had in their ability to challenge the settled orthodox views about the relations between humans and other animals.

At the present time, and despite of (or, more likely, because of) decades of rhetorical ‘animal rights’ advocacy in Britain and elsewhere, the conventional orthodoxy of animal welfarism continues to provide for the majority a secure, multi-purpose, and apparently ever adaptable ideological framework supporting the prevailing industrialised systems of animal exploitation and other modes of animal ownership.

Animal welfarism helps to preserve rather than expose or seriously question the exploitative rationality that sediments both conventional instrumental and sentimental attitudes about nonhuman animals.

It seems to be clear that rights views are presently engaged in a discursive relationship with orthodox positions both inside and outside the animal protection movement, especially since 2006 when Gary Francione re-launched his abolitionist animal rights views via the internet. Yet animal welfarism is so firmly entrenched, so widespread and customary, that it appears that many present day animal advocates have some difficulty articulating a full animal rights – or, actually, any largely non-welfarist – agenda for change.

As far as the latter point goes, of course, reluctance to advocate the whole ‘rights agenda’ has been traditionally seen in the animal movement as the result of ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ choices and issues of ‘framing’ [8]. However, this reluctance can also be seen as a reflection of the way animal welfarism succeeds in presenting rights views as views that go beyond those that are necessary for the well-being of nonhuman animals. A central ‘difficulty’ for rights views stems from the fact that the resilient orthodox outlook has preserved its authoritative ability to present its own position as entirely ‘normal’, ‘rational’, and the self-evidently ‘correct’ perspective by which any reasonable person ought to evaluate human-nonhuman relations.

For this reason alone, orthodox animal welfarist positions remain the easy, confident, ‘non-extreme’ (and now more than ever, ‘non-terrorist&rsquo means by which journalists, commentators, the majority of animal advocates, pro-use advocates and politicians talk about the treatment of nonhuman animals by human ones. In a thoroughly frustrating way, animal welfarism seems to amount to a barrier or some form of filter which effectively prevents, or serves to mediate, the public rendition of a genuine animal rights philosophy.

Animal welfarism appears as a fog in which rights discourse regularly becomes lost, misrepresented, distorted, and redirected. Animal rights advocates who wish to test the societal reception of their own views on human-nonhuman relations are hindered at every turn by a deeply internalised welfarist consciousness in most of the audiences they seek to influence. We must hope that more and more people will be able to move away from the ideological unfreedom embedded within animal welfarism.

[1] ‘Born In a Prison’, from Sometime in New York City, by John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band with Elephant’s Memory and Invisible Strings. (Apple Records, 1972).

[2] Berger, P.L. & Berger, B. (1976) Sociology: A Biographical Approach. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[3] J.M. Coetzee’s discussion on rationality is interesting (in The Lives of Animals, Profile Books, 2000). Through his protagonist Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee examines Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in which the Houyhnhmns, using a form of Aristotelian differentiation of gods, men and beasts, expel Gulliver apparently because he does not meet the required standards of rationality: in reality they do so because he is not a horse.

[4] Jasper, J.M. (1999) ‘Recruiting intimates, recruiting strangers: building the contemporary animal rights movement’, in J. Freeman & V. Johnson (eds.) Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

[5] qualified, of course, by the principles of animal welfarism.

[6] Yates, R. (2007) ‘Debating ‘Animal Rights’ Online: The Movement-Countermovement Dialectic Revisited’, in P. Beirne & N. South (eds.) Issues in Green Criminology, Cullompton, Devon: Willan.

[7] Mason, J. (1993) An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[8] Yates, R. (1998) A Sociology of Compromise. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Wales, Bangor.

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Posted: Jul 12, 2007 9:42am


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