The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.
This essay has a content warning for discussion of extreme racial violence.
Jason Hribal. 2010. Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. Petrolia, CA: AK Press/Counterpunch.
The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is relatively unique in that humans must fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves. Or so we think. Activists often frame Nonhuman Animals as “innocent victims,” “the voiceless,” “helpless,” etc. Their concept of other animals becomes paternalistic and often assumes a “human savior” complex. In doing so, activists erase a long history of Nonhuman Animal agency and resistance.
Hribal uncovers the strange social construction of animality over the centuries. Medieval Europeans, for instance, did not consider other animals innocent in the least. Nonhuman Animals were sometimes put on trial and punished the same as humans. Nonhuman Animals were thought to possess rationality, free will, and moral agency, just the same as humans. They were even thought capable of premeditation.
By holding other animals accountable for their behavior, the criminal justice system functioned to control other animals. Many nonhuman “crimes” could be linked to their resistance to enslavement and exploitation. Today, humans have stripped other animals of all personhood and cognitive abilities, allowing for full objectification and control.
This process was also present in early America when African slaves were often put on trial. Although whites highly animalized people of color, whites did presume they had some degree of rational intelligence. In my rural Appalachian community, there was a famous trial of a black slave named “Blue” (Daniel Wright) who, refusing to obey orders, killed his “master” with a cradle (a multi-pronged sickle) while harvesting grain in the fields. Strangely, instead of executing Blue outright, they proceeded with a trial. Because he was considered property, not human, the county actually reimbursed the owner’s family with $320 after the hanging (the first legal execution in the county). One must consider that the added effort of a trial must serve the additional purpose of social control (demonstrating law, order, and the power of the state).
In nearby Richmond, Virginia (capital of Virginia and later the capital of the Confederacy), slaves (and free blacks) utilized the court system (with certain restrictions, as in, African Americans could not testify against whites). Obviously, the court system was intended to uphold the interests of whites and “slaveholders.”
After slavery, these discriminatory trials persisted (Remember To Kill A Mockingbird?). The US criminal justice system is known to be extremely racist even today, with 1 in 3 African American males imprisoned at least once in their lifetimes. Lynchmobs, parading Klansmen, and police with high-pressure hoses and trained dogs can maintain an unequal social system, but the quieter, more “civilized” court system is more efficient and effective. It’s also least likely to inspire outrage and organized retaliation.
Hribal covers instances of escape and fighting back, providing both historical and current examples of nonhuman resistance. He argues that these actions are deliberate. Nonhuman Animals are acting with intent and they are asserting their own desires for freedom. This is an important point. The ideology of oppression would have us believe that those we enslave and exploit benefit from it and are content with the system. When oppressed persons (human and nonhuman alike) resist, it is important evidence against the “naturalness” or “normality” of the prevailing system. Hribal’s work is important in placing the Nonhuman Animal movement in the forefront of civil resistance movements. It recognizes the personhood of other animals and challenges our human supremacist view that infantalizes other animals as helpless victims.
Readers can learn more about the Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 9, 2013.