Animal rights and self-determination

November 6, 2009

WHY DOES the "animal rights" debate matter? It's about people. Fundamentally, I think the debate about animal rights is a debate about how humans view and treat other humans.

Several people who responded negatively to Paul D'Amato's column "Socialism and 'animal rights'" accuse him of asserting that because animals cannot fight for their own rights, they do not deserve to be treated humanely.

D'Amato makes no such argument. In fact, the first sentence of his column reads, "Our society engages in practices that are cruel toward animals." He goes on to state, "Capitalism treats animals as a means to an end--as things to be squeezed for as much value as can be gotten out of them." D'Amato is not arguing that socialists should support the wanton slaughter of animals. Quite the opposite--we all agree that the brutal mistreatment of animals under capitalism is a problem.

However, none of D'Amato's opponents have taken on his actual argument--that to equate so-called "speciesism" with sexism, homophobia, racism or other forms of human oppression demeans the struggles of our oppressed brothers and sisters for their own liberation.

"Maxine," the Hereford cow mentioned in D'Amato's article, is a variety of cow which has been bred by humans for beef since the 17th century. If humans did not breed and raise Hereford cattle to be docile and productive sources of food (the Hereford Society champions both qualities), "Maxine" would not exist.

"Maxine" is a passive observer in the struggle for her fate. She cannot and does not participate, while a few humans who want her to live a "natural" life on a farm sanctuary take her away from other humans who want to eat her.

While "Maxine" receives what many humans would describe as humane treatment, she is not free. She lucked into a benign jailer. Pointing this out is not to mock the animal rights movement--it is to illustrate one of the largest contradictions within the concept of "animal rights."

Freedom cannot exist without self-determination, and the concept of self-determination--deciding and realizing one's own fate--is antithetical to the politics of animal rights.

Animal rights advocates--often out of a sense of humility and a love of nature--view "stronger" humans as having a moral obligation toward "weaker" primates, cows, chickens, dogs, cats, mice, rabbits and other mammals. But however well-intentioned, this moralistic approach can have profound implications for how adherents of animal rights politics are inclined to view human oppression.

Non-human animals--even social animals--cannot and do not wage anything approaching a struggle for self-determination. That is why D'Amato is correct to argue that while animals should be treated humanely (which is itself a highly relative standard), animals cannot have "rights" or achieve "liberation."

What separates out "speciesism" from every other form of human prejudice is that people of color, women and our LGBT brothers and sisters can and do fight for their own liberation. They do not ask for benevolent rule from a "stronger" form of life. They organize in their own self-interest and fight for self-determination. They fight for freedom.

The failure to acknowledge this important distinction leads to disastrous results. Just as one example, animal rights activists in the Baltimore area recently produced a leaflet equating a Palestinian child with a monkey undergoing animal testing. Whatever the activists' intentions, the visual message of the leaflet was profoundly racist.

I agree that animal rights activism is an entry point for many young activists into the world of independent politics and organizing, but I do not think we should be satisfied with recognizing that fact. These ideas are important enough to be debated on the left.
Ben Dalbey, Baltimore

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