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Animals, power, and respect

July 21, 2011

I have several half-finished drafts piled up here–and have gotten into some blogging avoidance because of it–but I just ran across something on my Tumblr dashboard that got me thinking. I thought of just adding some commentary and reblogging over there, as usual, but (a) I suspected this would turn longer than I prefer to post there, and (b) I did not want to get into some kind of debate with people who are coming at things from such a different perspective that misunderstandings are just about guaranteed to happen so that things turn more confrontational/adversarial, when I am already seriously low on verbal spoons. Also, this is another of those responses that has a lot less to do with the specific reblog conversation in question, than with some wider patterns it illustrates.

IOW, any criticisms are not personal, at all. Actually, I decided to go ahead and redact the usernames, not to single people out. (Though I’m not sure how useful this is, with the links still working for proper attribution… *sigh*) In case the labels above the nesting blockquotes are not clear here, this is an intial post by W., reblogged with added commentary by P., then again with more commentary by W.

i really just want to say





to 90% of people on Tumblr.

You don’t know what you’retalking about!

Also, SPECIECISM???????????????????????? PLEASE GTFO!

I agree about speciesism.  I mean…I’m sorry, but I prioritize people over animals.  I’m not for animal cruelty, but c’mon.  My dog does not function on that level.  If I say something negative about him, he does not understand it nor can he be oppressed by it.  If I say it in the right tone, I can say anything and he gets excited about it.  I don’t think your language can oppress a creature like that.  Even if I yell he forgets about it in five minutes.

(said from the perspective of an animal rights activist who’s avidly anti-cruelty…I feel like people who talk about speciecism haven’t been around animals enough, maybe?)

lol agreed completely. i am a huge animal fan but i understand that ‘animal rights’ are a human construction, anthropocentrism is unavoidable, and-oh yeah- hierarchies exist in the natural world without the rationalization of humans.

so no a boy is not a dog is not a cockroach is not an ant.

a boy is a boy and  while i’d be sad if i had to kill a dog to save a boy, i would, but i would not be sad if i had to kill a cockroach or an ant to save a dog. there is nothing unnatural/immoral etc about a hierarchy of species because things like the FOOD CHAIN exist without the intervention of humanity.

I was not too surprised, but got a sinking feeling nonethless, that at least two people I think well of reblogged this with no further commentary.

OK, where to start? Amanda posted something recently, Words that bite my brain, which I could really identify with. Now, this falls into just about the same kind of “divide by zero” category for me, but with whole piles of concepts stacked on one another, rather than words. I wrote some before about my brain just sort of seizing up when I try to emulate oppositional binary thinking, even as a thought experiment. That is just one factor here.

(And, again, please bear with me if this doesn’t hang together as well as it could, since I have been running into problems with language lately.)

I have been tempted to write something before about how a lot of rhetoric and whole ways of thinking around more aggressive flavors of veganism and “animal rights” in particular leave me cold, and sometimes tie my mind into knots if I try to follow them to some point that they hang together and make sense. There are the frequent Progress-based assumptions and arguments, among others from the same Western cultural package. I just don’t have the mental energy to detail more right now, especially since these are things that tend to knot up my mind. Some of the uglier side of this gets discussed at Vegans of Color (“Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue”). I have seen good critiques of some of these issues elsewhere, which I did not bookmark, but they’re not hard to track down with a little Googling.

Now, I will say that I was a PETA member in the early ’90s. I was in high school, the organization at least seemed less wacky and prone to doing truly disrespectful “end justifies the means” shit for publicity back then, and that seemed like the right thing to do for someone who cares about the way nonhuman animals get treated in this society. I ran around in AR-themed t-shirts and went vegan. That association did not last for more than a couple of years–and that long because I was trying hard to give some things the benefit of the doubt.  For several years afterward, I also tried to get along with some other people espousing surface-similar views, which it too often did not pay to examine too closely if I did not want my brain knotted up.

As with about anything else, not everybody involved in this kind of activism one one level or another fits the profile I am talking about here. (And, if you do not resemble the criticisms, they’re not about you…) But I have personally dealt with too many who really did. And, yeah, this is not only a problem in this area of activism, but that’s the immediate subject at hand.

At the base of it, the problem boils down to respect, and bogus divisions (yeah, a lot of them oppositional binary in nature). I have been thinking a lot lately in terms of respect as basic social currency–besides what makes the world go ’round, to sound even more trite–and how an imbalance or zero-sum approach toward respect and who “deserves” how much of it lies at the bottom of oppressive ways of thinking and behavior. That’s kind of the basis for xenophobia, with its many -ist faces, Othering and assigning respect due based on those divisions. This and some of the ways it interacts with other things will hopefully get a post of its own soon.

I have also written some about the, to my mind, bogus divisions that get set up, and are frequently just carried along as cultural assumptions by “both” “sides” in a lot of debates/disagreements.  Related to animals, specifically:  and . (Yeah, I’m  going pretty heavy on the scare quotes again, but some things just give me literal headaches without. More linguistic dysphoria and brain-twisting.)

But, the major one I see, again from “both” “sides” as illustrated in the quoted post: Animals vs. Humans. Which is part of Humans vs. The Rest of the World/Nature In General. (IOW, the very foundation of wétiko.) There is very little recognition from “either” “side” that humans are both animals and part of nature: either we are somehow superior, or we’re inherently the worst thing that has ever happened to everything and everyone around us (which is still somehow different from us). Things get phrased in terms of conflict of interests, with very little idea that just maybe we have a lot in common and can find ways to live and work together to everyone’s advantage. Human rights and animal rights are not somehow exclusive concepts. Unless you make them so.

Unfortunately, harking back to the post, the “a boy is a boy and  while i’d be sad if i had to kill a dog to save a boy, i would, but i would not be sad if i had to kill a cockroach or an ant to save a dog” thing is really not far off some of the unbalanced invented scenarios I have heard IRL. I wish it were a clearer Straw AR Activist situation.

Yeah, I’m actually planning to reintroduce some little fish to our patio pond to stop it being a mosquito ranch, since our house is abuzz with them–no window screens, here in the UK!–and I am getting bitten in spite of stepping up the benfotiamine*, with some unpleasant allergic reactions. (No potential death involved here, just lots of itching, huge poned-up knots, and some wheezing.) That does not mean that I am setting up some kind of hierarchy, much less that something like that “naturally” exists. I do not feel bad about providing a suitable habitat for little fish (though I am very conflicted about buying them), and while I do feel bad about the necessity of a bunch of mosquito larvae providing food for those fish–as they naturally would–I’ll arrange it anyway out of sheer necessity. (ETA: I did not explicitly say, but I am also concerned that they’re, erm, bugging the neighbors. Though I think most of the hatched ones are just coming straight in our kitchen window and patio door, since that’s the easiest plan for them.)

Pragmatism applies here, too. There is trying to avoid unnecessary harm, and then there’s being just plain ridiculous. That does not mean that anyone involved is totally unimportant and undeserving of respect. As much as I dislike mosquitoes when they won’t leave me alone, they have a role to play which frequently involves feeding fish, birds, or bats. That does not mean that they are less important in the scheme of things than the so-called “higher” animals, including humans. Much like “evil”, no hierarchy is needed. Making rather difficult choices out of concern for my health and comfort? Sure. That is also a “natural” thing. There is no need for some huge Humans vs. Animals/Nature conflict there, either.

Also, I am getting very weary of the way “anthropomorphizing” is frequently used to mean “attributing any sort of qualities to an animal which might mean you’d respect it”–as opposed to what I see as the real deal. (Conflating the concepts of speciesism and anthropomorphism sure does suggest that. WTH?!) The idea that nonhuman animals (or, indeed, certain humans) might need qualities generally perceived as humanlike to be deserving of respect is busted to begin with.  See also How many humans approach animal experiences backwards. I have been frustrated lately at the total lack of an appropriate equivalent of “dehumanizing” for nonhuman beings in English, other than possibly something like “Othering in a way that negates respect”. Speciesism as a word bugs me, but it is a very real face of xenophobia.

Animal rights are, indeed, a human construction. So are human rights, fairness, and so on. The very idea of rights is something humans came up with. It pays to be wary of those who would suggest that these helpful constructions are somehow optional, unimportant, or disposable because they are not concrete things. (Evil and hierarchies as opposed to interdependent systems? Those constructions we can probably do without.)

There seems to be this Othering going on, where either humans are more important than animals or nonhuman animals get put on a pedestal, with very little sense of balance whatsoever. And there is this assumption that relationships and interactions between humans and other animals are necessarily going to be exploitative in some way, with the harmful kind of power differential involved. A relevant post I ran across last night, which points out some useful distinctions: Forms of Power. I was thinking of writing something in response to that, but to me a major factor in what makes a harmful imbalance is a zero-sum approach to respect. If there’s not enough respect to go around in any kind of relationship or interaction, something is bad wrong. And it says a lot that, indeed, so many people assume that this is inevitably the case–and seem to try hard to make experiences fit expectations.

I have not mentioned the whole “colonialism/imperialism” element of that post up to this point. You can probably see some of the ways it ties in as part of the same set of problems stemming from the same kinds of thinking, though.  Wétiko and respect, indeed. (And part of the respect there is, if you are applying those terms to situations they do not fairly fit, that is disrespectful to people who are adversely affected by the real thing–though, yeah, you’d have a hard time finding anyone not affected in one way or another. I hope that, in more context than is given there, they are talking about some equivalent of Godwin’s Law, rather than being seriously disrespectful.)

And, as with most politicized things, different “sides” have different takes on these divisions, taken to different conclusions. But, they are still mostly working from the same basic set of assumptions, filtering the world through the same basic schema. And a lot of them have their own pet Utopian solutions in mind–and John Mohawk mapped out depressingly well just how well this kind of approach has worked for humans, other species, and the planet. “[U]niformly dystopian results, particularly from the point of view of those on the receiving end”, indeed.

Yeah, I find this kind of thing more than a little disturbing, like an agitated rattlesnake that keeps popping up in your kitchen or something.


* I have always been irresistible to mosquitoes, midges, and other biting bugs. But, a nice unexpected side effect to taking the benfotiamine for an actual diabetes-related deficiency problem was that the bugs mostly started leaving me alone, so a live and let live approach was feasible. Though it doesn’t work as well for fleas, unfortunately. The mosquitoes would still maddeningly buzz around me, but not land and bite. (In spite of some research suggesting that thiamine doesn’t repel insects after all, I noticed a definite dose-dependent effect. Cut back, I got bitten; so, I’ve been using whether bites are a problem to determine dosage. Just a high-potency B-complex did not help at all, presumably since you can’t absorb nearly as much of the regular water-soluble form of thiamine at a time.) Now, I figure that there are just too many mosquitoes around. If, say, 5% are still interested in hunting you down to bite in spite of the thiamine reek–noticeable to them, that is!–and there are at least 100 in the house, well… I don’t think there are that many, but more than enough. At least the ones locally don’t lead to infected bites even avoiding scratching at them, like some I’ve known.😐

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