on opposing sanism as a rhetorical device

At a recent  Critical Animal Studies conference  at Brock University, many of those in attendance were exposed to their own strategic ignorance: the unmarked and nonconsiered (to them) implications of words and discourse used. One of these was the term ‘standpoint’, a reference to Donna Haraway (and others) insightful standpoint theory. In seeking to address this, a term I have used in the past seems much more apt: situatedness.

In much the same vein, the term widely used by Gary L. Francione and others, ‘moral schizophrenia’, has implications that are unmarked and nonconsiered by those who are not subjugated by it. Those who are not labelled as mentally different, i.e. those who are considered mentally ‘normal’.

Rather than (re)outlining some of the issues myself, Ida at the Vegan Ideal has provided an overview. Once again, and this is a broader issue that continues to impact the efficacy of animal activism, Gary L. Francione is unwilling to accept that there are implications of one’s actions that exist irrespective of intent (nor that he is not stigmatised by the use of such terms as, for all intensive purposes, he is positioned as ‘normal’).

Below is the text of Ida’s post:

I believe we should strongly oppose using the phrase “moral schizophrenia” as a rhetorical tool for nonhuman animal advocacy. We should oppose this term as much as we would phrases like: “moral blackness,” “moral gayness,” “moral obesity,” “moral poverty,” “moral stupidity” or any other term that uses a group’s identity, condition or experience as a means of conveying a message that something is — morally or otherwise — wrong or problematic.

Since first introducing the term in his book Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione has popularized “moral schizophrenia” as a term used when discussing ethical contradictions with regard to nonhuman animals. Recently, Francione posted “A Note on Moral Schizophrenia” to clarify — or, rather, justify — his use of the term. In his post, Francione attempts to placate those of us who oppose the way this term targets people who are different mentally:

Some people think that by using the term, I am stigmatizing those who have clinical schizophrenia because it implies that they are immoral people. I am sincerely sorry—and I mean that—if anyone has interpreted the term in that way and that is certainly not what I intended.

But Francione isn’t sorry, at least in the sense that he is still unwilling to acknowledge that the term is actually sanist (discrimination and oppression against people who have, or who are labeled or perceived as having, a mental illness) and oppressive. He essentially dismisses objections to how the term is stigmatizing. He claims, “To say that moral schizophrenia stigmatizes clinical schizophrenics is like saying that to talk about ‘drug use spreading like cancer’ stigmatizes cancer victims.” (However, referring to drug use as cancer does encourage the hatred and oppression of drug users. Cancer, unlike schizophrenia, is a deadly condition. As such, the aim is to eliminate cancer from the body. Attacking drug use as if it is cancer does not encourage empathy for people with addictions, which is exactly why the U.S. does more to criminalize drug users rather than assist them in managing their addictions.)

Schizophrenia is not like cancer — we don’t hear inspiring stories about people battling or surviving schizophrenia the way we do with cancer. Instead, people with schizophrenia are thought of as “crazy.” Schizophrenia is something those who have it will live with throughout their lives, and for many of them dealing with the phobia — hatred, stigma, discrimination and exclusion — they experience is often the worst and hardest part of managing being different mentally.

Francione believes that since “Schizophrenia is a recognized condition that is characterized by confused and delusional thinking,” this is sufficient justification for using the term to characterize situations where he thinks “we are delusional and confused when it comes to moral issues.” But the term is actually a dysphemism — that is, a derogatory term used instead of a proper one.

If Francione wishes to say that there are existing contradictions in our moral beliefs, attitudes and behavior with regards to other animals, then he can simply say that. It’s very common for authors and advocates on a broad spectrum of social justice issues to point out contradictions in what we say and do with regard to different groups. But, to their credit, most of these advocates never use the experience or condition of mental difference as a rhetorical stand in for those contradictions.

So why does Francione do it? While he claims it’s not his intention to stigmatize people with schizophrenia, I believe it is exactly because the term is so intertwined with phobia and oppression that Francione finds it so powerful. That is, it is exactly because sanism works to define schizophrenia as something bad and those who have it as “crazy” that it seen as a persuasive tool. Francione obviously believes that confused thinking or delusions are inherently bad, which is exactly the problem with using this term, and exactly why it is so oppressive.

In Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker (South End Press, 1996), Joanna Kadi recounts her fears when navigating being different mentally while speaking before an audience about her writing. She talks about the internalized fear of a phobic response from her audience that would identify her as a “crazy” person because of the hallucinations and voices she hears in her head:

If I wasn’t so afraid, I’d be amused at the gap between their perception and my reality. Someone asks a question about my fiction. I say, “Characters show up in my head and start talking and I try to write it down. These characters are often gregarious and talk loudly. So far I like the characters who have arrived on the scene, except for some minor ones.”

The audience perceives some radical leap of creative artistic energy on my part and is impressed. I consider a street person approaching any of these people and daring to speak about people in her head. The audience members would walk away as quickly as possible, after labeling the street person crazy. No audience member knows I’ve been labeled crazy and locked up in a psych ward. Would it change their opinion of my creative artistic energy if they did? But I can’t know the answer, because fear locks up my lips.

The phobia and oppression that targets people with schizophrenia is merely perpetuated when we use their experience or condition to denote something as wrong or problematic. Francione may not intend to say people with schizophrenia are immoral, but his use of the term does nothing to alleviate the phobia and oppression experienced by people with a schizophrenic experience or condition. Rather, his appropriation of schizophrenia as a rhetorical tool clearly reinforces sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally. Unfortunately, Francione has no intention to stop using the term “moral schizophrenia when it comes to animal ethics,” and seeks only to justify his use through clarification. As long as this is the case Francione will be exploiting sanism and phobia of people who are different mentally as a rhetorical weapon for his own agenda.

We should avoid following Francione’s unfortunate example by instead questioning and confronting sanism whenever and wherever we encounter it. That is, when we encounter people using the term “moral schizophrenia” we should interrupt them, right then and there, and let them know that schizophrenia is not an appropriate term to describe something as wrong, problematic or contradictory, and that using this term in that way does in fact perpetuate the sanist oppression and phobia that targets people with schizophrenia.

name dropping, being too cool for school and relationality

Over the last few years, a ‘trend’ has emerged amongst animal activists. It seems that to be considered a ‘real’ activist, the words one uses — even the names one drops — are more important than anything else. Visible are the emergences of aspects of a boys club, a clique, even a cliché in circles of people/activists. Irrespective of whether one acts (and it seems many talking the talk do not), it is how one can express themselves in these terms that is seemingly more important. Activist cred is based on the words used, not the actions and involvement in seeking outcomes for animals.

Sadly, as is present in other movements, activists are relationally positioning themselves. We are seeing people define themselves by what they are not doing as opposed to having a solid and critical reflection on the key issues which would enable them to define what they are doing. For example, deference to ‘bigger cages, longer chains’ to dismiss other perspectives, or the more common, I am an abolitionist, are often very hollow. These terms/phrases are not backed-up with a solid understanding (sometimes very little, if any) of what they are trying to portray — they are merely counterpoised to what are blankety labelled as welfarist.

I do not see this relational approach as affording much positives. If anything, it is tarnishing the sound ideas and engagement that does exist. The emerging cliché-esqueness of such word dropping can negate the potential and influences of nuanced and open discussion and debate. My aim here is not to dismiss or marginalise those new to veganism, outreach and activism. Rather it is to highlight this trend and illustrate the implications of this, and some of the roots. Through exposing roots, differing approaches that do not foster or reinforce this trend, rather providing a solid baseline for discussion, engagement and action can emerge.

Relational positioning, of defining oneself by not being a welfarist, for example, is a huge area that requires substantial reflection and unpacking. It is an issue that has been the focus of substantial reflection in social justice circles (challenging racism and whiteness for example). The roots are very much there to challenge this given the awareness of speciesism amongst vegans — even if this requires much more engagement.

How prominent such relational positioning is is clear in how the term abolitionist is regularly dropped as a means to dismiss other viewpoints —without solid exposition. Being an abolitionist has become ‘cool’, even if (some of) those claiming the title have little real understanding of what it means, how to promote it and what is required. Accompanied with the increasing liberalism (i.e. individualism, self-centredness) and arrogance which is far too common and prevalent in many contemporary movements, this intersection is fostering an holier than thou attitude. This attitude exists on (at least) two levels — one located within the abolitionist movement. Alongside veganism positioned as the more righteous approach (as opposed to vegetarianism for example), the arrogant individualism has a further masculine edge. Veganism is revolutionary, it is even self-seen as militant. Notions of militancy are visible amongst certain groups who promote direct action — some more-so than others. Those who are involved in such actions often see themselves as more righteous (and revolutionary) based on their individual risk. Quite often blasé.

A recent freelance opinion piece, which is doing the rounds in the Australian press this week, prompted me to pen some thoughts. The piece is by Katrina Fox and titled Call meat happy, but it is never humane. It is generally a good piece, notwithstanding derisive comments it has received. Alongside being well written and making solid distinctions between use and treatment, there are moments that fit within the trend. Of name dropping, pushing the right buttons, and use of the ‘right’ words to be considered valid.

The distinction made between use and treatment is very clear and one that needs to be expressed. It is made in particular to address and counter the approaches of animal welfare organisations — those same organisations promoting free range and organic meat. The (re)emergence and active promotion of a movement towards notions of small scale farms that are portrayed as animal friendly (i.e. happy meat) have marked and foster ‘a shift in cultural consciousness from a focus on animal use to that of treatment’. More exposition of this is needed.

Fox’s exposing of key issues like use v. treatment are tempered, however, in what appears to be the inclusion of name dropping and (shallow) key words. You could even consider the permeation of this, of what are quickly becoming almost clichés, to be (increasingly?) panoptic. There is a pressure to confirm, there are sanctions to not conforming. Vegan circles are already small, and challenging what are becoming dominant ideas can leave one ostracised. I know of many examples of people seeking to challenge unquestion assumptions, the lack of reflexivity, amongst the new cool kids on the block. It does not take much for the questioners to become the target of reactionary derision.

Even with veganism being an individual act, it requires a collective shift to foster the changes we seek. The liberalism central to contemporary movements (animal and environmental more broadly) in the ‘west’ is a key root or this. Moving away from the notion of individual acts, of focussing on the individual (both those taking vegan action, and those not) towards the structural — and hence away from being cool, name dropping and the (shallow) subcultural capital of new language — provides an interesting tension. I think it is one that requires more thought.

I may be overly critical (of Fox) here, though the trend visible in her piece is far too widespread, damaging and needs to addressed within, rather than from the outside. Espousals of veganism, and the key issues it addresses, needs to move from being (not only seen as) an at-times cliquey subculture towards what it should be (and at times is): a movement progressive social and ecological for change. More broadly, the individualist liberal notions common in contemporary movements (the exceptionalisms), need to be reflected on given the implications.

the animal liberation movement’s sad state of affairs

Following on from my rush of recent posts with a similar theme, I have some thoughts on the response of the ‘audience’ to a scheduled seminar Lee Hall recently participated in at the London Vegan Festival. If the approach of the self-declared ‘animal rights activists’ in the room is the future of the animal movement (if I can use that term with any validity), the movement is in a very sorry position and the future is very bleak. The shambles that the seminar became are posted on youtube, and linked to at the bottom of this post.

With the start of the seminar, almost immediately Lee Hall was posed a rather loaded (and inaccurate) question. Aside from being one of the broadest conflations I have noted for some time (and Hall is guilty of this herself), the way the question was constructed indicates the intent was very much a set-up and disingenuous. From reading the comments of some people to this set of 3 youtube clips, this may not be overtly obvious. As the seminar progress, if becomes more and more clear that the intent of some was to disrupt. Even further, the intent was not to discuss rather to attack with clear, though likely not noted by the poser of the initial question, masculinist undertones. The (initial) audience response further exacerbated this. The level to which later comments were framed were much more overtly masculinist, predicated on ego stroking, and very patronising (in a broad sense).

I had started to explore the (limited) content of the seminar, though consider the actions taken to more worthy of reflection given the implications. For example, Lee Hall responded to the first question (which was off-topic of the seminar) with a description of Donald Watson’s, founder of the vegan society back in 1944, ideas on veganism as direct action (and conscientious objection in the context of the war) as a basis for her own. The individual who posed the initial question interjected that they did not know who Donald Watson was and not interested in him at all. This is an indication of the level to which exceptionalism dominates contemporary activist circles — that the situation today is so different, so exceptional, that we need not know anything that has happened in the past. That this person, by implication, is vegan and does not have an awareness of the history indicates a very sad state of affairs. Added to this, such notions are widespread…

Exceptionalism (many, including Hall, are guilty of this) and egoism are serious issues that I think we need to be concerned about. The masculinist approach — albeit not noted in their actions (is it worse for this?) — of a number of outspoken men in the room (and some women) add another layer to this. How far we have to go is mind-boggling…

If you want to see how bad some of these issues are, watch the 3 clips — the seminar really starts to fall apart (in small part based on the misdirected actions of the seminar organisers) about mid-way through the second clip.

The videos, on YouTube, have been made private: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.