Tag Archives: Race

An Introduction to Speciesism and Why it is Wrong

The vast majority of people within a commercial and consumer food economy don’t think about the source of their food. In industrial society, food is experienced as a product: a few flashy images, a commercial jingle, and the flavor in their mouths. In this system, we see certain kinds of nonhuman animals exclusively as food. In America we kill and eat 10 billion “food” animals a year. The majority of these animals spend their lives in massive industrial operations called factory farms, where they are raised in grisly conditions. Some are purposefully kept hungry, none are given sufficient nutrition, and all babies are separated from their mothers. Through our system of food production and consumption, we are collectively oppressing nonhuman animals. How is it that we see this happening around us and allow it to continue… yet when humans are subjected to similar conditions, we are horrified beyond measure? If we are to follow a consistent system of ethics, there would seem to be no reason to inflict vast suffering simply because those who suffer are not human. This disparity in the valuation of human and nonhuman animal life is known as speciesism. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer makes a strong case against this long-standing and institutionalized oppression ofnonhuman animals by humans. His argument can be summarized as follows: Suffering is bad, and thus inflicting suffering with no outweighing benefit is immoral. Humans inflict suffering on nonhuman animals with no outweighing moral benefit in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, the human treatment of nonhuman animals in the vast majority of cases is immoral.

Some argue that because animals are raised in factory farms, they don’t know any other life and therefore don’t suffer. We know from our own experience that this is not true. Many humans have only known suffering, and we recognize and grieve their suffering. Just because someone doesn’t know anything else doesn’t make his or her experience less real. The only animal for which we have detailed knowledge of suffering–ourselves–makes it clear that suffering is not purely relative. If we look closely at the living conditions and behavior of “food” animals, a strong case can be made for their suffering. For example, hens are shoved into overcrowded cages, usually in complete darkness, with no room to stretch their wings, let alone sit comfortably. After visiting an egg farmTexas naturalist Roy Bedicheck said, “To me they seem unhappy.” One might object that calling them “unhappy” is simply a projection of human emotions. We don’t know what their experiences are like, and so we don’t actually know they are unhappy. However, we can observe their behavior and make inferences. For example, in the cramped cages, it is impossible for hens to build a nest and lay eggs in private. This creates much distress for the hen, who “tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow-cage mates, to search there in vain for cover.” Hens’ instinct to lay eggs in privacy has been indicated by a study in which the hens worked just as hard to reach a nesting box as they did to reach food. In another study, they were released from their cages into a yard with straw, and they immediately started to build nests– “even after more than a year spent in a bare metal cage” (115). Furthermore, in their natural state, hens don’t turn to cannibalism; in the overcrowded cages, cannibalism is common. By seeing these behavioral differences, we know something is wrong. To say they are in pain is not a projection of human emotion. Rather, we’re looking at behaviors, and their behaviors are clearly suggestive of stress and pain.

In egg farms, around 6 to 7 chickens are crammed together inside a cage.

As a solution to factory farming, Singer advocates vegetarianism, or a meatless diet. At the time he wrote Animal Liberation, vegetarianism was largely unheard of. It is much more widely practiced today, even though the majority of people maintain that eating meat is natural. But how does one define natural? Trying to make sense of what is natural is almost impossible. Some say that if we’ve done something for centuries, then it’s natural. This, however, is a naturalistic fallacy, meaning that they are taking a descriptive claim about how things are and making a normative claim about how things should be. The same argument could be made for any atrocity that we practiced for centuries yet condemn today, such as slavery. Humans have owned slaves for centuries, yet at no point has this been “natural.” Even if we could prove that meat eating is natural, it does not follow that factory farms are natural. My earlier examples of the hens show just how unnatural the conditions for food animals are. They are taken out of their state in nature and shoved into a system that thwarts their natural instincts. Even if meat-eating itself is “natural,” the conditions that produce meat in a factory farm are not.

By now the majority of mainstream society is aware of the atrocities of factory farming. Yet most of us don’t do anything about it. We tend to find a way to justify it, usually with faulty logic, or we ignore it completely. Many of us continue to eat meat “without pausing for an instant to think that they are eating the dead body of a once living creature, or to ask what was done to that creature in order to enable them to buy and eat its body” (105). This is largely due to the fact that in consumer society, when something, or someone, is turned into a commodity, we become separated from its value, whether that is the labor time of the worker or the moral status of the living being. Through the system of exchange, living beings lose their moral status as they are turned into commodities whose value is based solely on the benefits we receive from them. Singer writes, “The unchallenged assumption is that humans may use animals for their own purposes” (145). This is how speciesism becomes institutionalized. We are socialized to view species as consumable, which blinds us to the possibility that they are sentient beings with their own interests. Our food system warps us into speciesists.

Some have justified the subordination of nonhuman animals by arguing that our capacity for reasoning makes us more intelligent than nonhuman animals, and thus nonhuman animals are not deserving of equal moral status. Yet the same kind of justification pops up when structural prejudices give rise to widespread oppression. White colonists believed Native Americans were less intelligent and so exploited and killed them for their land. American capitalism was built on the backs of enslaved Africans who were considered “private property” and also believed to be intellectually inferior. Women, too, have been oppressed by the belief that they are intellectually inferior to men. Today most of us agree that these prejudices are both immoral and groundless. So Singer asks us, “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purposes” (6)? Some might be offended by the comparison of the suffering of animals to that of indigenous people, Blacks, and women (or any oppressed group). However, In The Dreaded Comparison, Spiegel notes that this “is offensive only to the speciesist… To deny our similarity to animals is to continue struggling to prove to our masters… that we are similar to those who have abused us, rather than to our fellow victims, those whom our masters have also victimized” (15). He is not implying that the oppressions of humans and that of nonhuman animals are identical, but rather that they share the same basic relationship– that between oppressor and oppressed. Whether it is sexism, racism, classism, transphobia, or speciesism– all forms of prejudice seem to stem from a worldview that leaves out the interests of some other beings.

In the Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels asserts that the minimum conception of morality is an effort to follow reason while treating each being equally. Thus morality requires impartial consideration of each individual’s interests (6). With this view, our moral sphere must include any individual with interests. Most people, as speciesists, do not believe nonhuman animals have interests. But what does “having interests” entail? At the very least, if an individual has the capacity to suffer, then that individual has an interest in not suffering. Singer writes, “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration” (8). If a nonhuman animal can suffer, which we have shown that it can, then its species membership is morally irrelevant. And if we don’t want to base our discriminations on morally irrelevant categories, then we shouldn’t discriminate based on species. Therefore we need to give equal consideration to the similar interests of human and nonhuman animals. It is important to note that equal consideration does not necessarily mean equal treatment. For instance, although all humans should have the right to freedom of religion, this wouldn’t make much sense for groups of other species. However, it is imperative that we stop viewing animals as consumable commodities, and start viewing them as sentient beings with whom we share the planet, and who have their own purpose. We are collectively witnessing a massacre in our own backyards, and we have a moral obligation to put a stop to it.  

By KC Mackey

K.C. Mackey is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences studying philosophy and religion. She can be reached via email at kcm2188@gmail.com.

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Feeding a Black Nation Presentation by Breeze Harper

Part I

When I discovered that there would be a presentation on intersectionality, I was very, very excited. As a bit of background, I am a woman of colour and a vegan. In all honesty, I have experienced that most events that are geared towards discussing veganism do not interest me, as many of them blatantly disregard the importance of intersectionality and are geared towards a mostly white, neoliberal, upper-middle class audience.

Therefore, Harper’s presentation seemed like a very promising opportunity for a fresh, new perspective on veganism that keeps in mind other equally important oppressive systems such as sexism, classism, and racism.

Harper’s presentation discussed her thesis, which was still a work in progress. I personally thought that her introduction to the presentation could have been better rehearsed, but its content was great nonetheless. Harper’s thesis critiques the work of Queen Afua, writer of the book Sacred Woman, which sees veganism as a way to decolonise one’s self and to “heal the black womb.” Queen Afua speaks of a matriarchal society in Southern Egypt, long before colonization and slavery, where women were seen as sacred, and where the most sacred bond was that of a mother and her child.

This society also had a plant-based diet. In contrast, is the European society of the same era: a violent, patriarchal society. Therefore the question is raised: Why do we look towards European, or otherwise, white, Western cultures, in order to heal the black womb? Why do we look towards the violent, patriarchal culture of the colonisers? Harper explained how during slavery, the black womb was seen as a unit of production, much like a factory that is good for nothing more than breeding slaves. The body of the black woman, therefore, is in need of healing from generations of abuse. For this reason, Queen Afua advocates a return to the vegan diet of matriarchal Southern Egypt.

That said, my main issue with Queen Afua, which was a topic touched on (but not thoroughly enough in my opinion) by Harper is how heteronormative and cis-sexist it is, as well as how it assumes that the black woman is naturally partnered with the black man and returns to the concept of a nuclear family which consists of a black woman, a black man, and their children who are seen as the future of a black nation. As Harper is queer and also in an interracial marriage, I expected her to discuss how problematic this view is, and was disappointed that it wasn’t discussed with more depth.

However, I was very happy that Harper discussed in depth the problem with veganism and classism, which also is not discussed enough by Queen Afua. Being vegan, and being able to live on a healthy vegan diet, is a privilege, as most people do not have access to things such as fresh produce, etc. I was especially happy that Harper advocated food justice movements such as the Food Empowerment Project.

Part II

Another very, very important point that I really was thankful that Harper discussed was the concept of “cruelty-free” food. Many foods and products seen as “cruelty-free” are derived at the expense of workers in less developed countries who work in slave-like conditions, and therefore to truly produce “cruelty-free” products, one must also look at the source. This is a topic that in my opinion is usually ignored by most vegan speakers, and for this reason I was very happy that she discussed it.

All in all, I really enjoyed Breeze Harper’s presentation and think that it was a very educational and eye-opening experience for all those who attended.

Breeze Harper’s recap of the trip and reading list of materials mentioned in the presentation is located here on her Sistah Vegan blog.

– Naomi Sianturi

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White Privilege & Veganism: The Luxury of Being Single-Issue

Looking back on the day I became a vegan, I realize I was already unconsciously undergoing a process of political radicalization. I had been introduced to activism through learning about the War on Drugs and mass incarceration in the U.S. As I started to dig deeper into these problems, I had a disorienting wake-up call in which I realized that the War on Drugs wasn’t its own separate problem, and that, in fact, there are no “separate” problems. All the problems we face are parts of a whole interconnected system of oppression. We in the USA live within a mainstream value system in which structural ableism, racism, sexism, cis gender privilege, heterosexism, and classism are the norm—and all these forms of discrimination intersect. Upon this discovery, I felt like I was becoming “enlightened.” I started to see oppression everywhere—in the media, in my textbooks, in my own language and that of my friends—and it made me sick.

We are sitting on land that was violently stolen from indigenous people and built largely by enslaved Africans—and this is the foundation of our system. I rejected this system and vowed to do everything I could to help heal the damage that has been done. I made a pretty big step when I joined the Occupiers and started learning for the first time about the true nature of “privilege.” Having white privilege means I get to ignore my race most of the time—as a white person I don’t see the world through a filter of racial awareness like people of color do. Having class privilege means I do not fear being hungry or homeless. I can live where I choose. I can afford to attend a private university. And I have consistent access to foods that nourish me.

I became a vegan when I finally faced the truth of animal oppression and factory farms. I faced chickens shoved into cages, unable to flap their wings or see the light of day. I faced cows being violently penetrated with metal rods without their consent in order to be impregnated—only to have their babies stolen, and either killed on the spot or shoved in a cage to become veal. The thing is, I knew about factory farming before I went vegan, yet even with this knowledge, I still ate animals. When I didn’t pluck up the courage to face the gruesome details, it was so easy to push the cruelty out of my mind as I bought the turkey sandwich and bit into the turkey flesh.

It was so easy to eat meat because everyone else was doing it. Then I realized it was yet another form of negative socialization: we are all taught to be complicit in this horrifying massacre—the slaughter of 10 billion nonhuman animals a year. I started resenting my former meat-eating self and indeed all meat-eaters. I wanted to shake them and make them feel the guilt that I did. I wanted everyone to reject the system like I had. I wanted everyone to become a vegan on the spot (the night I became a vegan, I went home and said that my whole apartment should become vegan, which was met with some discomfort to say the least). And I thought that everyone could and should become a vegan.

In my first 5 months of being a vegan, I somehow forgot or ignored everything I had been learning about privilege. I was developing a vegan philosophy without critically reflecting on my whiteness. As a white person, I don’t have to consider what food is culturally appropriate. I don’t have any special ties to food, like my vegetarian Cuban housemate who feels disconnected from her culture because she chooses not to eat food such as Cuban bread (it contains lard). As a white person with class privilege, I don’t have to worry that veggies are more expensive than meat and cheese. I live 5 minutes away from 3 vegan restaurants at which I can easily afford to eat. The fact that many poor communities and communities of color don’t have access to food that is not only culturally appropriate but also allows them to be as healthy as possible never once crossed my mind.

I didn’t stop to think about how racial formation and racism negatively affected our food system. In poor communities and communities of color, the food that is accessible is not only unhealthy, but also follows a chain of cruelty, from the factory farms to the dinner plate—and it’s very rare that any other option is available. I never thought about any of these things until I started frequenting a blog called “Vegans of Color (because we don’t have the privilege of being single-issue).” Shortly after, I was introduced to an anthology called Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Health, Identity, and Society. After reading the first essay, I realized I had been blindly promoting veganism through a white/Eurocentric view of the world. I didn’t realize that for many vegans of color, there is an additional struggle of reaching out to people in their communities who dismiss veganism a “white thing.”

Animal rights activists of color are often criticized for trying to liberate animals while their own black and brown brothers and sisters are still being oppressed. Sistah Vegan taught me about true food justice and nutritional racism. For instance, if you’re a BU student, look at the posters outside CVS next time you walk past it. One of them shows a young man of African descent drinking cow’s milk. This is painfully “unmindful” as Sistah Vegan editor Breeze Harper has said about a similar ad, considering that 90% of African-Americans are lactose-intolerant. Both ads are clear examples of nutritional racism, meaning that we base our understanding of nutrition and health on the notion that most people have a Euro/Anglo-Saxon relationship to food.

I too was basing my approach to veganism on the notion that everyone could and should eat only a plant-based diet when this is, in fact, not the case for everyone. It is mostly only the case for white, class-privileged folks such as myself. Throughout my journey I’ve learned that it is so important to read books, blogs, and articles written by veg*ns of color, especially women and queers, and prioritize these voices over white voices. Through this, I’ve developed a more critical eye for both manifestations of white supremacy, as well as my own privilege, but I still have a lot of work to do. We all do. At a recent animal rights advocacy presentation, I asked the speaker, a cis-gender white male, how to approach veganism with people of different cultures, ethnicities, and classes. He said that he hadn’t given it enough thought (most white folks don’t, myself included), but that animal cruelty is a cross-cultural issue.

While I agree, it doesn’t address the problem of how food justice is underrepresented in poor communities and communities of color. Indeed this issue is very rarely addressed in the mainstream vegan movement, which is, in the words of Breeze Harper, “dominated by ‘white class privileged 1st world’ epistemologies, logic, rhetoric, and ontologies.” We have to start bringing these issues to the forefront.

That’s why I’m going to Breeze’s talk on the intersectionality of oppressions and how it relates to food justice. Tomorrow, Thursday, at 6:30 in SAR 101. If we want our animal rights activist efforts to be properly directed, we need to understand how structural racism operates in our society. We need to learn how to incorporate mindfulness and anti-racism in our everyday lives. We need to understand different ways of knowing and being in the world.

K.C. Mackey is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences studying philosophy and religion. She can be reached via email at kcm2188@gmail.com.

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