Monthly Archives: September 2017

Vegan Ethics and the Case for Black Widow Spiders

The ethical conundrum created by human interactions with poisonous species is one that tests the limits of vegan ethics. What is the correct path of action if one should come across a potentially deadly black widow spider, for instance? Can veganism’s commitment to nonviolence resist the intense social pressure to kill these beings on sight?

As with many questions about the practicality of veganism, speciesism interferes with clear decision-making. Humans harbor implicit biases about other animals which puts them at a disadvantage in perceived conflicts of interest. The stigma surrounding black widow spiders, for instance, is built on a certain amount of ignorance (unfamiliarity with the species) and stereotyping (loosely-fitting generalizations). Mass media, which frequently portrays spiders as villainous, lurking, and evil, also inhibits rational consideration.

The  true nature of black widows contradicts common conceptions.  First, they are quite clumsy outside of their web. This means that they are homebodies, rarely out on the prowl and not likely to give chase. Neither are they very brave.  If their foe is formidable (as would be a large human), they prefer escape over attack. Most importantly, statistically few humans are bitten, and very few of these will actually die.

Of course, these facts do little to mitigate the fear of pain and death that black widows exact. It is hard to remain rational when suddenly encountering them.  I have personally seen a few black widows over the years, but only one of these instances I could consider a close call. I was home alone preparing for a tubing trip on the river. I dragged out a bunch of old inner tubes that had been stacked in the backyard, attempted to hose some of the mud off, then started cramming them into the trunk of my car. I probably spent a good five minutes jamming them in, repositioning them, and smashing them with my bare hands.

My friend met me at the gas station a few minutes later to fill the tubes up with air.  As I handed him the second tube, he recoiled and let out a yell:  there was a black widow amidst the rubber.  He was shaken; he could have been bitten. Acutely remembering my sloppy packing job, I realized that I could have been bitten as well.

My friend, who knew me to be a vegan, said to me: “You know we can’t let that spider live.”  I considered the fact that he may be right as we were in a busy public space.  But he didn’t kill her, and neither did I.  She clung to the air pumping station while we worked, and when we were done, we loaded up and left.  I didn’t see her anymore, and presumed she had scuttled away.

Of course, not everyone’s choices are so simple.  Sometimes deadly spiders take up residence with families that have children or elderly persons. Some people live in geographic hot spots that attract far too many black widows to safely live side by side with. Complicating this is that medical treatment for bites are not vegan. The antivenin (for those lucky enough to receive it) is produced by hurting other spiders.  Horses and other animals are also used in testing the product.

The case for black widow spiders challenges the core of the vegan ethic: is it ever acceptable to kill another in a situation of potential danger? Unfortunately, these ethical catch-22s are too frequently used to dismiss veganism altogether under the faulty deductive logic that, because moral purity is impossible, veganism is also impossible. While black widows do present a murky ethical situation,  most of our relationships and encounters with Nonhuman Animals are not life or death situations and do not require killings of necessity. The uncertainty of how to handle the chance encounter with a black widow holds little relevance to the certainty of systematic exploitation of Nonhuman Animals killed for food, clothing, and entertainment. Unlike black widows, these species do not pose any threat to humans; indeed, they suffer and die only to meet production quotas and consumer demands.

Being vegan is a guiding practice, not a dogma. It encourages striving for perfection only as far as is reasonable.  Just because some vegans may resort to killing insects in rare and regrettable situations (and it is not something that vegans take likely or enjoy doing), this is not cause to toss veganism out the window as useless or unrealistic. Vegan ethics advise compromise and life-affirming, creative solutions. In many instances, the best solution to problems is to avoid them in the first place and take preventative measures.  Keeping a tidy, clean home, applying insect repellent, and checking your shoes before putting them on are some easy ways to nurture coexistence with insects, be they biting, stinging, or deadly.

 

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 17, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Peter Singer and the Charity of Western Imperialism

Covert Capitalism and Western Benevolence

A current fad in social justice strategy is the concept of “effective altruism,” made popular in vegan circles by wealthy Princeton University professor and “father” of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, Peter Singer. Singer is involved in a number of outreach efforts designed to rationalize charity, notably “The Life You Can Save” giving project. Effective altruists (who tend to be monied, Western whites) first choose what they believe to be the best and most effective charities in collaboration with nonprofit strategists, and then encourage others to rationally share their wealth by donating to them. By “taking the pledge” to donate a certain percentage of income to charity, those with the means to do so can supposedly alleviate the world’s woes.

This essay argues that, while important, aid is not the answer to injustice.  This position is primarily based on the fact that aid has had a long sordid history in third world countries. Western elites usually only give aid to countries if there is an expectation of a return on their investment, such as creating a dependency on Western products, locking them under Western control with debt, and pressuring them to “free” their markets to Western capital. Some of the disastrous results have included forced sterilization projects, the spread of Western diseases of affluence, the infiltration of polluting and unsustainable industries, the destruction of traditional foodways, and a dependence on the West in general.  In short, aid has been a project of Western imperialism.

Effective For Who?

The fundamental problem with the concept of effective altruism is that it is predicated on elite-designed algorithms and the preferences of capitalists. In other words, how problems are identified, defined, and solved is left up to the very class of persons who benefit from the problems. Inevitably, some of the most vulnerable groups will be overlooked. For instance, Singer’s choice charities are problematic in that none, as of this writing, target Nonhuman Animals. If rational impact maximization truly shapes effective altruism, this omission is suspect. Not only do Nonhuman Animals lead in number of individuals impacted, but their suffering is directly linked to the suffering of humans and the environment.  Targeting the consumption of Nonhuman Animals (an activity that is especially linked to Western culture) would be the most utilitarian solution.

Singer does, however, support Project Healthy Children, a charity that pushes Western-approved foods on African children.  This includes cows’ milk, even though most Africans are lactose intolerant, milk is directly linked to a litany of deadly human diseases, milk production is notoriously destructive to the environment, and milk causes immense suffering for the cows and goats forced to produce it (see Greta Gaard’s research).

Effective altruism also overlooks serious structural problems that impede equality. Instead of demanding justice and disrupting the exploitative practices of corporations and the elites that manage them, it solicits a modest redistribution from a sympathetic few. Consider that Big Pharma could easily relieve victims of malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases ravaging the third world that effective altruists target.  Instead, the Western-led pharmaceutical industry inflates the prices of the drugs to many times the actual cost in regions where disease congregates.  It also heavily lobbies to protect “intellectual property” and prevent affordable generic alternatives from hitting the market. Introducing checks and balances into the structure of health and medicine could have monumentally positive impacts on the world’s poor, an impact that would far exceed the impact of donations.

Also suspect is Singer’s support for Population Services International, a charity designed to decrease the world’s population, or, more specifically, the population of third world countries. Anti-population groups are often responsible for forced and coerced sterilization projects on vulnerable women in poor regions of the world. Because poor people are a burden to the capitalist system,  “population control” in third world regions has become a top priority of Western governments and aid projects. Millions of women have been psychologically devastated, socially ostracized, violated, hurt, maimed, and killed due to these policies.

Most fundamentally, it is important to recognize that these large populations of poor and vulnerable persons do not emerge from happenstance; they are products of an exploitative global economic system. What Singer’s project overlooks is that the underlying problem here is not a lack of funds, it is the capitalist system that originates social inequalities and chronic destitution.  So long as this system remains in tact, there will always be need for charities and donations. And it will never be enough.

 

The NonProfit Industrial Complex

Lubricating this capitalist/charity system is the manifestation of the nonprofit regime. The nonprofitization of social change has positioned the state and the industries it serves in control over justice efforts, effectively nullifying radical liberatory politics. Notably, the public imagination for protest has been framed as deviant and replaced with the more rational, effective strategy of donating. This is decidedly a very pro-capitalist, neoliberal solution, but neoliberal capitalism has been identified as the root originator of inequality.


“Helping others” is just that: help, not structural change.  Nonprofits, unfortunately, cannot prioritize radical restructuring because such an agenda is off-putting to the conservative foundations that issue their grant money (these foundations were created by wealthy elites who profit from the exploitation of the very oppressed persons nonprofits purport to help). Corporations and the state benefit from radical disempowerment, because radical claimsmaking is a threat to the capitalist agenda.  It disrupts the status-quo that benefits the elite and naturalizes the suffering of the oppressed.

Instead, nonprofits are in the business of social services, doing the work that is made necessary by the capitalist exploitation that the state facilitates but does not “pay” for itself.  Big industries become big by exploiting the poor and benefiting from state allocations. It becomes the responsibility of well-to-do altruists to relieve those damages when the state will not (or cannot). Of course, not everyone can afford to participate in this variation of social change work. As such, with the public convinced that financial participation is the only legitimate means of helping others, they become disempowered. Nonprofits find little use for the time, services, creativity, organizational skills, or leadership that public volunteers can offer. Primarily, they simply desire regular donations.

Furthermore, nonprofits are disproportionately staffed by wealthy, white educated men who invariably harbor privileged worldviews, and this will shape how they frame social problems and their solutions. By allocating charity work to nonprofits, the public forfeits control over social change to elites. This situation is likely to foster considerable bias.

 

Radicalize Your Giving

Donation is not completely useless, as some money does reach communities that can benefit considerably from it. However, for those who are determined to donate (and have the means to do so), it may be advisable to donate to grassroots efforts in areas of need. In doing so, money is placed directly into the hands of those who need it, not nonprofits that must accommodate the interests of elites.

Social change requires the collective effort of thousands, even millions of people. Not all will have the means to donate financially.  When social change is reduced to a series of financial transactions, its tie to social change weakens, but its tie to capitalist expansion is emboldened. Capitalism is full of holes that are regularly plugged with charity and other bailouts. As such, effective altruism is actually rather irrational in sustaining an economic system that necessitates inequality.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 20, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the capitalist politics of Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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A Vegan Feminist Response to Nonhumans First

Content Warning: This post contains graphic descriptions of violent anti-speciesism protests which involve racism, sexual assault, violence against women, and child abuse.

 

The Logic of Non-Humans First!

As intersectionality discourse has gained resonance in Nonhuman Animal rights spaces, the challenge to the previously invisibilized white- and male-centrism has inspired organized resistance. Perhaps the most visible of these countermovement efforts is the  Non-Humans First Declaration. Explicitly dismissing the importance of race, class, and gender, the declaration insists that the advancement of Nonhuman Animals should be prioritized at any cost.

The declaration was authored by a collective known as Non-Humans First!, a project of the Israeli direct action group 269life. In the 2010s, 269life rose to prominence in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement with the deployment of numerous morally shocking reenactments of violence against humans intended to allegorize nonhuman oppression.

One such public demonstration featured a woman and a child as representatives of victims of dairy production. Male activists ripped the woman’s child away, placed it on the ground, and proceeded to sexually assault the screaming woman, beating her so aggressively that she bled. The event ended with men dragging her by the neck into an unmarked van, symbolizing the eventual slaughter of dairy cows.

In another street demonstration, unclothed white activists mimicked the buying and selling of Africans by appearing in chains and branding one other with hot irons to draw connections between human and nonhuman chattel slavery.

As these examples demonstrate, the aim is to trigger the traumatic memories and realities of marginalized communities. Their discomfort is believed to inspire solidarity, encouraging audiences to recognize nonhuman oppression and become vegan.

Thus, 269life’s anti-intersectionality manifesto should be interpreted within a repertoire of violent direct action. The intention may be to highlight intersections of oppression, but, ultimately, these tactics do not respect intersectional politics as they are a product of appropriation Regardless of intention, they aggravate human inequality to make their point.

However, causing harm to vulnerable humans is not considered especially relevant. The Non-Humans First! approach demonstrates that harm to humans is ill-considered or outright provoked by its activists. For that matter, anti-speciesists who choose the latter option of provocation and ascribe to bigoted views are welcomed to participate as comrades. As the manifesto states:

No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues. The non-human animals are in a situation of immediate emergency and need all the help they can get! 

While it is true that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has lagged behind similar social justice efforts, the frustration with slow-coming change and the desire to cling to any and all available resources should not cloud strategy and common decency. Nonhumans do not need all the help they can get if that “help” encumbers movement progress by aggravating social inequality and alienating potential allies.

Non-Humans First!:

Furthermore, the women’s rights, anti-racism, etc. movements have no requirement that participants reject species oppression and nor should the animal movement demand the adherence to human rights positions while animals are still in a state of emergency. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (as decided by individual groups) but these kind of bans and exclusions should not be the norm in animal rights.

Here, Non-Humans First! posits that, because there is no requirement for human rights groups to include speciesism, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement should not worry itself with respecting other humans. This is a hypermasculinized logic of “everyone out for themselves,” one that is explicitly adversarial and renders alliance-building unfeasible.

Furthermore, it is grounded in fallacy. It is inaccurate to suggest that Nonhuman Animals are in a state of emergency, but that human animals are not. Victims of war, genocide, rape, starvation, disease, slavery, etc. are most certainly in a state of emergency as well. Non-Humans First! activists wrongly presume that those who would be harmed by their offensive protests are on more or less an equal social footing, but the 21st century remains deeply unequal. Most of the world’s humanity can only dream of the privilege that is enjoyed by the average anti-speciesist activist.

 

The Privilege to Frame Suffering and Need

Indeed, it is the relative privilege afford to many Non-Humans First! activists that most likely accounts for their anti-feminist position. The suffering of the underprivileged (children, women, people of color, non-Westerners, etc.) is easily disqualified by those who do not have direct experience with it. However, the patriarchal norms of the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights movement allow that such rhetoric is likely to resonate with other activists. Non-humans First! posturing draws on white male Western epistemology that structures anti-speciesist collective action, but it has little impact outside of movement circles where such ideas are understood to be threatening and otherizing.

 

The Entanglement of Oppression

Another reason why this approach lacks effectiveness is due to the nature of oppression. Inequalities cannot be cherry-picked. Working to end the oppression of some while abetting or aggravating the oppression of others only serves the cultural belief that oppression is acceptable.

For that matter, oppressions function in tandem and are frequently entangled. Non-humans First! will find it difficult to prioritize nonhumans without inadvertently impacting human causes. When 269 Life sexually assaults and beats women in demonstrations because “no tactical idea should be excluded from the discussion based on its conflict with human rights ideology,” it employs powerful ideologies of misogyny to shock or even threaten its audience into compliance. The repercussions are not theoretical, but have physical consequences for girls, women, and others who are vulnerable to sexual violence. Rape culture remains as pervasive as ever, and violence against women is normalized, trivialized, and even encouraged. It should be the business of anti-speciesists to denounce violence, not participate in it.

The Non-Humans First! campaign shirks responsibility in this regard by insisting that vulnerable humans are not deserving of any rights themselves until speciesism is attended to:

We are aware and concerned about the fact that some human rights improvements within a fundamentally oppressive system towards non-humans leads to increased oppression of non-human animals. For example, economic improvements leading to increases in factory farming, meat consumption, animal labs, etc. We therefore call on human beings to free their own (non-human) slaves before demanding their own rights.

But this is simply not how oppression works.

By way of an example, slaughterhouse employees are often undocumented, and have few rights whatsoever. They experience the one of the highest rates of job injury and death in all U.S. industry, while female employees face regular sexual harassment, assault and rape. Slaughterhouse workers are routinely denied benefits and job security. As a consequence, many are living in poverty and disability, struggling to stay alive and to support their families.  How is it that these persons are in a position to “free their own slaves” if they are structurally prevented from attaining even their own rights? Slaughterhouse work is so dangerous and unrewarding, workers must be assumed to be living in serious precariousness. Why else would someone enter such an occupation? In such instances, there is little choice for workers wishing for employment that aligns with their values.

When anti-intersectionalists frame human participation in immoral industries as a matter of “choice,” they obscure the fact that this is a “choice” that privileged persons rarely (if ever) have to seriously consider. Choice rhetoric works to obscure social inequality. It incorrectly blames individuals targeted by exploitative systems for the consequences of exploitative systems.

Choice rhetoric also makes little sense when considering systemic human oppressions that target minors and dependents. Child slavery and sex trafficking continues at staggering rates across the world, for example, and children are certainly not in a position to prioritize speciesism over their own welfare. Choice requires power, and only an elite few are privileged with this agency. Even if children and other vulnerables are unable to renounce speciesism, they should not be abandoned. Nor should tactics be designed that inflame the problematic ideologies and institutions that target them.

 

The Sociology of Bridge-Building and Burning

Understandably, intersectionality is a difficult concept for many activists to accept given the tremendous violence facing other animals, but the unfortunate reality is that not everyone has the “privilege” to fight specifically for Nonhuman Animals.  Many humans must focus on their own health and safety simply to survive. By villainizing vulnerable humans, Non-Humans First! creates an atmosphere of discomfort and hostility which suggests that underprivileged persons are simply part of the problem if they object to questionable tactics and are not entitled to be anti-speciesists themselves if they cannot prioritize other animals.

Although it seeks to achieve the opposite, the Non-Humans First! campaign thus nurtures division between representatives of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (who are predominantly male and almost exclusively white, middle-class persons) and disadvantaged groups living with rape, violence, murder, enslavement, poverty, hunger, disease, and other deprivations. Solidarity, not shaming, is what is needed.

Social movement theory warns that marginalizing the large demographic of disadvantaged humans and focusing only on the interests and worldviews of the tiny fraction of elite movement leaders is ineffective. This approach will not build a strong, credible, respected, or powerful movement. Animal rights will remain marginal because it will appear out of touch with the reality of social inequality. Scientific research supports that effective social justice strategies rely on a reasoned, evidence-based, logical, non-violent framework, one that is congruent with movement goals and not antithetical to them.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 8, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the intersectional politics of Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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