action and guilt

The welfare v abolition debate, an often heated debate that continues to encompass discussion of both strategy and tactics, is one that will likely continue for as long as speciesism dominates. Whereas some welfarists are speciesists, some are opposed to speciesism. Conversely, there is a debate, also controversial, within abolitionist circles regarding the place of welfarist reforms. Gary Francione and many others provide valid criticisms of welfarist approaches, highlighting how they can act to reinforce speciesism as opposed to challenging the anthropocentric exploitation of animals. One criticism of abolitionist positions, perhaps even a shortcoming, is the focus on a bigger picture at the expense of the individual — or to use terminology I have mused about previously, losing sight of the trees for the forest.

How do we ensure in working for long term change, directly challenging speciesism, whilst still not losing sight of the suffering of very much untold numbers of animals every day. How do we actively redress everyday suffering? For me, this is an issue of constant reflection — and one I do not know if I am any closer to having anywhere near an answer. It is too simple, and unfathomable, to accept that animals will suffer everyday — even if this is only a means to make me feel better. Perhaps this is the basis of welfarism: guilt.

Whiteness scholars, specifically those seeking to challenge colonial whiteness, have exposed a number of issues with guilt as a motivator for action. Concern for conditions, whether intentional or not, are rooted in how we feel about the exploitation of non-human animals, how this reflects on us. This contrasts with an interests-based (strictly) abolitionist concern.* The implications of guilt identified by whiteness scholars are directly applicable to welfarism — and likely to many abolitionists as well (to varying degrees). Guilt shifts the debate about the treatment of animals to being one based on our (species) terms, much as guilt about racism often restricts concern to white terms — it is about getting comfortable with the status quo (or a marginally improved one). Good intentions can act to mask the basis of exploitation, becoming self reinforcing.

I may have gone some way here in (partially) answering my own question. What stirred me to pen some thoughts was a sentence in Pattrice Jones Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist imperatives and the ALF in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters:

‘Debates about animal liberation tactics quickly become sterile in the absence of viewpoints of actual animals’

What often seems lacking in abolitionist discussion (which are far too often overly masculine) is a consideration of the everyday suffering of animals. This seems to get lost in the abstract philosophical issues that seemingly predominate in abolitionist discussions — perhaps this is not surprising given the (seemingly at least) male dominated debates. Look at the self appointed (Best, Vlasak) or looked to (Francione) spokespeople. Irrespective of their politics (Fancione has good feminist politics) they are all men…

* Bob Torres’ Making a Killing: the political economy of animal rights (page 12) provides a an indication of why I use interests (in contrast with rights). I have problem with the notion of ‘rights’ in any sense, being a social construction.

Australian bushfire and the othering of nature

Many reactions to the current fires that are burning through forests, mountains and townships in southeast Australia provide illustration of the persistence of not just anthropocentric attitudes in contemporary society. Sadly, they are also ripe with examples of what some may consider bushism’s, the rhetoric of us v them, with them being the environment. Nature positioned as other, an enemy that we must fight against, apparently possesses a pervasive quality that lingers amongst what many hope are changing attitudes—attitudes essential to alter the current path of the often-untold and non-considered impacts of human existence. Today, one of the most conservative journalists in Australia, has launched a scathing attack on ‘greens’ as to blame for the loss of human life — amongst the sensationalist rhetoric, non-human animals do not rate a mention. The title is indicative: Green ideas must take blame for deaths. This tabloid-esque diatribe is full of innuendo and misconstrued facts included to support a premise, rather than actually considering what has actually transpired.

Indicative of the level to which societal attitudes and often non-considered ideologies—normalised over centuries, are the reflections of many of those who were caught up in the fires. One does not have to look far to find descriptions of towns burn-out as reminiscent of ‘war-zones’; imagined as what they would look like after being hit by a ‘bomb’ or the aftermath of a ‘nuclear war’. For many, deference to such terms may help them to process their experiences and trauma they feel. Yet the use of such terms is indicative of problematic normalised ideologies and has significant implications.

Broadly, referring to natural events with the same rhetoric and language as being used to describe the atrocities perpetuated by invasions and attacks against people locates nature as a dualistic other. Nature is positioned in opposition to ‘us’. This symbolism was pervasive in the days of colonisation and conquest. It is explicit in the perspectives of the white colonists following their landing in Australia some 220 years ago. Much had changed in attitudes since then — Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill’s Ecological Pioneers: A Social history of Australian Ecological Thought and Action [publisher | google books] provides an indicative investigation of this. Attitudes had changed at an increasing rate in recent times with an increase in awareness of the inter-connectedness of life, yet the separation and positioning of nature as other has resurfaced.

It would be too easy to explain away the deference to othering as a means for many to be able to cope with the loss of life that these fires have facilitated. Such rhetorical devices have been further enabled and re-entrenched to a degree by the actions of the last decade or so of demonising different cultures and positioning them as other. They are grounded in exceptionalism. Perhaps the most clearest example of this is the USA attitude that it can possess nuclear weapons, though any other country that seeks to is a threat to (inter)national security.

It is the position of Iraqi’s, for example, as an other — a culture that is different, nee inferior, to white western (christian) society —  that enables many to simply non-consider the suffering being perpetrated their everyday. In much the same way, it is much easier to other nature rather than accept our place, as a species, in the natural world. It is here that we can locate two aspects of Miranda Devine’s diatribe. Firstly, she positions nature in opposition to our existence. Nature’s existence in its own natural state, in a ‘state of nature’ —  and remember this term has been used for hundreds of years to place other cultures as inferior to whites — is positioned as a threat to our very survival. The explicit and implicit arguments made are that we need to continue to fight nature, nature is our enemy. I am not sure if she, or anyone else who will draw some (uncritical) insight from her rhetoric, is aware of the implications…

Having positioned nature as the enemy, a threat to not just our way of life (as critics of lifestyle change in the west often infer, denying the unsustainability of western attitudes and existence), Miranda Devine has othered ‘greens’ as complicit in these ‘attacks’ on civilised human society. In rendering the greens as closer to nature, she has created another false dualism that further entrenches nature as the enemy. Added to this, and where the bushism analogy really emerges is the implicit message that those with a green persuasion or leaning (i.e. Nature sympathisers’) need to make a choice: they are either with us or against us!

‘post racial’ Amerika

The term ‘post race’ has been increasingly bandied about in the lead up to today’s Presidential election in the USA—a google search currently produces 126k hits. Much of the commentary refers to Obama as post race and thus someone white Americans are not afraid of—they are reassured by him as a non-angry black man. For me, whilst a number of the pieces reflect on the challenges of growing up black in America and express a level of awareness, much of it seems more like a means for getting white America settled and comfortable with racism…

One piece refers to Francis Fukuyama—someone I would not consider as a source I would agree with on most things (i.e. pretty much everything): "Obama’s been very careful to distance himself from the traditional Jesse Jackson agenda and the Jesse Jackson persona. A lot of people are worried about voting for him because they think once he’s elected the mask will fall off and there’ll be an angry Jesse Jackson underneath." What is referred to is the ‘angry black man’ persona—one that makes white people uncomfortable because it forces redress for past injustices AND is a clear example of the ongoing structural violence of America’s colonial history (let alone overt racism in current day America).

With being reassured, being comfortable, there is less focus (i.e. none) on what makes a white person uncomfortable. In the context of Australia, Ken Gelder has described this as ‘postcolonialsim-as-fulfillment’, as reconciliation on white terms. Jane Haggis has similarly reflected on the notion of post white, which is directly analogous to much of the discussion about white reactions to Obama: it is about getting white American’s comfortable in and with racism, rather than embracing the imposed uncomfortableness of an angry black (wo)men. It is the latter that will foster and encourage actual self reflection and change, the former more closely normalises to status quo.

I may come back to expand on this after looking for any transformative impacts that a shift in direction (to what degree?) a post-Bush America has on race relations. With the shift from a overtly racist and conservative government in Australia to one more moderate there has been hope amongst some for change. The national apology to Australia’s First Peoples has provided a symbolic step. I hope that there may be a step (at least small one) in a similar direction in Amerika. I guess, the waiting game begins as anticipation of the result of the election increases throughout the day. Who knows, maybe the riot-gear clad police in Ohio will take out a few voters?


For those interested, the academic papers referred to: Gelder, K. (2000) "The Imaginary Eco-(Pre) Historian: Peter Read’s Belonging as a Postcolonial ‘Symptom’". Australian Humanities Review 19.

Haggis, J. (2004). "Beyond race and whiteness? Reflections on the new abolitionists and an Australian critical whiteness studies". borderlands e journal. 3(2)