Anthropocentrism, bushfires, class

Australia has quite a (recent) history with bushfires. Some of them very tragic, with significant loss of human life. Of note, the lives of animals rarely rate a mention, unless they are cute — pictures of a koala seeking/receiving water from a human — South Australia 2013; 2015; Victoria 2009 — or there is significant economic loss to a farmer — the death of untold numbers of ‘livestock’. The human impacts of fires, more-so at this time of year, are very much a part of mainstream media and community discussions here. Responses are routinely anthropocentric, both oblivious and willfully ignorant. The fires around the Great Ocean Road on December 25 & 26 added another level for reflection.*

On my mind are reactive calls for further clearing of tree-land around housed, specifically forested land land adjacent to private property (including public and protected lands such as state forests and national parks). Most of the fires in recent years, especially those with loss if human life (at times exceeding 100), have been followed with significant discussion about the ‘necessity’ of such clearing. A small number of associated comments about the appropriateness of living in and adjacent you forested areas are quickly set aside, re-centring anthropocentric assumptions and attitudes. In short, (public and protected) land should be cleared to protect property. The increasing normativity of such attitudes is perhaps most clear in proposals for single homes and multiple housing sub divisions designed with an expectation that trees and other vegetation will be cleared (buffer zones for fire safety) outside of the respective private property. As in, on public and protected lands.

There is no discussion here about the impacts of clearing land on other animals, on ‘private’, public and protected lands. Whereas this is quite normative, those who live and actively chose to live in areas adjacent to forested areas regularly claim a level of affinity with ‘the land’ above and beyond those in more urban-city areas. The level of nonconsideration is quite astounding.

The proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ is the population question. Inherently linked, if slightly different, to the nonconsideration above, it is an issue the ‘left’ ignores effectively as much as the ‘right’. Without exploring it further here, it is much more an (pressing) issue for the west in the light of consumptive practices

The ‘other level of reflection’ spurred by the Great Ocean Road fire on December 25 & 26 is that the homes lost were almost exclusively ‘holiday’ homes. As in, homes owned by well-to-do people, second homes, which are ‘lived’ in for a small portion of the year. Of note, they are not cheap cabins or small houses: a search of current real estate listings includes many (which now, likely, no longer exist) for well in excess on $1 million.

Whereas I find myself with little sympathy for those who have lost these $million + holiday homes, I am certain this would change if lives were lost. Herein lies some of my own hypocrisy. How many livers of other animals were lost and largely nonconsidered in these fires.? How many other animal livers were lost or displaced (and subsequently directly-indirectly lost) in these fires?

The larger question and ongoing issue is the continual displacement of other animals (including direct and indirect loss of life) for further expansion of ‘civilisation’…

* I wrote this as holiday makers were in evacuation centres…

choice, intent, and feeding companion animals

A recent post on ‘One Green Plant‘ by Leslie Irvine, a scoiologist at the University of Colorado, outlines three options for companion (nonhuman) animals, specifically related to what we feed them. Irvine provides her rationalisations to the ‘difficult position’ in the context of ‘ethical veganism’ (for me there is one form of veganism, and coming up with labels such as ethical is as problematic that for vegetarianism — see the redicularity of the term ‘pescatarian’ for example. To create a demarcation here, anyone who is not an ‘ethical vegan’ is not a vegan: they adopt a plant-based diet). Three ‘options’ are outlined: feeding companion animals a vegan diet; not having companion animals; the status quo (with some rationalistions).

Irvine provides some empirical support for explicit and implied arguments. With the vegan ‘option’, she correctly outlines that whereas dogs can thrive on a vegan diet, there are very clear and potentially serious challenges (life threatening) for cats. What is most problematic here (amongst other rationalisations) is the argument often put forward by carnists and others seeking to defend their ‘choice’, or at least make them feel better about their actions: ‘a plant-based diet requires killing’. What is referred to here are other animals that are referred to as ‘collateral damage’. I am not for a second debating that agriculture kills other animals. Every action we take causes harm and suffering: to human and nonhuman animals. The vast majority of purchases we make perpetuate exploitation and suffering on many levels, be this sweatshop labor, environmental destruction, class, the objectification of women (and bodies more generally) and the perpetuation of consumer capitalism (to start with). They key issue here, which is not addressed in any way by Irvine is intent.

We can seek to minimise our impacts in an ethically consistent manner, or we can seek to rationalise choices that make us feel better. To me, that is at the core of Irvine’s piece — how she can rationalise her ‘choices’ so she can feel better about her actions.

Amidst the politics of bad choices, which is where were are situated today, we can easily become stifled in seeking to make a good choice when there are none. With regards to the food we feed companion (nonhuman) animals, there is no good choice. It is still unclear that there is a healthy option for vegan diets for cats. Irvine claims it is also not clear for all dogs. Lets accept these claims. If we feed cats and dogs other animals, we are explicitly supporting industries that exploit and kill other animals (for profit). We are making a choice between which lives we see as more valuable: a cat, dog or other animal we have direct exposure too (an animal we may love) and animals we do not know. What is at the core of this are our own experiences. It is about us.

This is very confronting, and I have addressed aspects of this in previous posts. What we have here, alongside and deeply intertwined with being about us, is a moral conundrum. To restate a question I preciously posed, “how can I [we] justify killing one animal to keep another alive?” Putting it quite simply and bluntly, this is a decision we are making. This is not about what certain animals eat ‘in the wild’ or naturally. It is about us making a choice, our intentional actions, that cause harm. Here we can see and expand on the conundrum much further. Whatever ‘choice’ we make has consequences that are quite unpalatable. We kill other animals to feed companion animals we have a connection with, or we feed companion animals a diet that is either potentially or quiet likely to cause physical harm and death. Amidst the politics of bad choices, we do need to make one. For me, the issue here — and the key issue left (strategically?) nonconisdered by Irvine is intent. We can make arguments about how many (human and nonhuman) animals are harmed and killed by our lifestyles (some more intentionally than others). Accidental deaths, as much as we can make the argument (and we should strive to continue to reduce our impacts on other animals, ecosystems and the planet more broadly—a cornerstone of veganism), are not intentional. Feeding one animal to another, as outlined by Irvine, is intentional. To be reflexive here, deciding not to is also intentional. In either scenario and situation, an animal will die. On a purely utilitarian level, how many tens, hundreds, thousand(?) of other animals are we intentionally killing to keep one companion animal alive?

Is keeping a companion animal alive merely to help us feel better, with it being easier to kill other animals we do not have a connection with? To be (much?) more controversial here (and the issue is much bigger than this), PETA is widely criticised for is high rate of euthanasia of nonhuman animals at its shelters. Could we not see this as saving lives along the lines that other, unknown and unexperienced by us, animals are not being killed to keep them alive??

There is more to the option 1 (feeding companion animals a vegan diet) outlined by Irvine: farming methods kill other animals, and changes in methods are impractical as they are ‘needed’ to feed the worlds population. Whereas articles are cited, even referring to a TIME article (with a broken link) which claims that less animals would be killed with different forms of animal agriculture than if the world went vegan. The very limited scope and specific focus of the TIME piece is taken well out of context by Irvine. Referencing aside, again the issue here is intent. How many people intend to cause harm to another person every time they purchase cheaper clothing (i.e. Sweatshop labour)? How many people intend to oppress women every time they buy a magazine or product that appropriates a women’s body and perpetuates the beauty myth? To surmise, farming, as well as existing in contemporary society, is ‘bloodless’, yet should we not try to reduce our impacts. To do otherwise is a very slippery slope in which almost all actions can be rationalised-justified.

Option 2 is to not have companion animals. This is an ideal that we should be aiming towards. Yes there will continue to be nonhuman animals in shelters as long as they are seen as property, bred and sold at the whim of socially constructed human desires. Aside form continuing to work towards the end of the animal industrial complex, what we do here is the key. Making arguments to justify the killing on one animal for the benefit of the other actively undermines any critique of carnism. Rather it perpetuates the status quo irrespective of intent. Irvine’s reference to companion animals living ‘out their natural lives’ is also a stretch. The specific reference is to her (‘my’) companion animals, providing another clear implication that this is about her, and what is comfortable for her (as it is for many). We need to move beyond this…

Option 3 is the status quo, based on rationalisations mobilised for the previous options and reference to an ethical paradigm as ‘a process’. In much the same way that learning about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableness and other forms exploitation is a process, we cannot use this to justify continuing to privilege one at the expense of the other. By way of example, PETA’s sexist advertising is not a consistent (nor appropriate) approach for seeking to end the exploitation of nonhuman animals.

The reflexive ‘Some might call my attitude “excuse-itarianism”’, reference to ‘choice’, and ‘living with contradiction’ are all centred on making ourselves feel better, rather than grappling with the moral conundrum in a consistent way. What is clear here is that we privilege the animals we know at the (ultimate) expense of others. We can openly state that we will take the contradiction and surround such a statement with as many rationalisations as we like. In the end, the root here is a combination of feeling better and strategically ignoring that which we are unable to respond to. I am not saying this is easy, and I have given a number of years reflection to this challenge. At its core, this is (and should not be) about us and how we feel. It is not about deciding between one individual and another, it is potentially between one and hundreds, potentially thousands.

Yes, our existence causes harm to nonhuman animals. What is key here is intent. Intentionally harming is not consistent with progressive ideals across the board. As many ways as privileging one over others can be rationalised, the crux of the issue is, once again, human chauvinism — of us choosing who lives and dies. What Irvine seeks to justify (and many many do, often without anywhere near the level of reflection provided by Irvine) is her ‘choice’. Yes, neither ‘choice’ is a good one. Yet the choice she makes is cannot by justified from the simple utilitarian level through to seeking to be ethically and morally consistent. This is something we all need to reflexively interrogate.

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.