When the “report” began with an uncritical presentation of a clip from Fox News I knew it wouldn’t go well.
It’s one thing to argue that particular characterizations of some forms of oppression that implicitly or explicitly compare them to others are inaccurate or offensive. Claims of offense should be taken seriously, but not simply accepted as the last word. The rejection of a characterization should be based on evidence and reason, as if made to a member of the “insulted” group who defends it. The offense could be perfectly valid, it could be ignorant, and/or it could be a means to preserve privilege; struggles for rights and against suffering, moreover, can and do justify the causing of offense in some circumstances. In the history of liberation movements, there have been many activists and oppressed people who felt solidarity with those of other oppressed groups. There have also been many who felt their precarious position threatened by other movements. This fear has long been exploited by elites to continue their rule over all of the subordinate groups.
Elaine Brown appears ignorant of the reality when she suggests that “If there is animal cruelty, we want to talk about animal cruelty, but…” There is no reference at all, in the entire piece, to orcas’ lives in the wild or in corporate theme parks. The audience is led to believe, and appears all too willing to accept, that the suit is utterly frivolous, solely about “exploiting the history of the enslavement of black people in this country for publicity.” Shockingly, they also seem to buy the absurd direct comparison of orcas in theme parks to domestic dogs and cats.
When Lisa Lange from PETA suggests that because the 13th amendment doesn’t use the word “person” or “people” in its language, they’re “hoping that a court will see that it can apply to animals,”* and Cenac replies “She’s right. If the constitution was written for people and not for whales, it would say that somewhere” while showing “We the people” on the screen, the audience responds with laughter and applause. What they and Cenac appear to be forgetting, oddly enough in this context, is that the “people” of the original Constitution did not include him, or Brown, or me, or I’m sure many members of the audience.
Rationales for the subordination of, and insults to, groups of humans have long rested on claims that they were more like nonhuman animals than other humans. This of course makes it natural that members of those groups would – as they sometimes do with other human groups – attempt to draw a bright line between themselves and all nonhuman species. But it’s cruelly ironic that they do, and counterproductive to the cause of anyone’s freedom, wherever they fall in the social hierarchy.
I’m certainly willing to entertain arguments that this lawsuit was incorrect in its reasoning or that the risk of offense should outweigh the goals. Those arguments would have to be, well, argued, however. Pointing to other tactics of PETA or any other group, or simply asserting offense or engaging in uninformed mockery, does not invalidate it. It does, though, serve the interests of those in power.
The reason I wasn’t surprised by their take was that this is one of many stories on Stewart’s show that seem to be based on What All Good Liberals Know. They know that gnu (heh) atheist arguments shouldn't be taken entirely seriously, that humans should care – though not too militantly – about nonhuman animal welfare and consider animal rights (unless, sometimes, approved) to be ridiculous, and so on. It would be an improvement if they made the slightest attempt to question these assumptions by placing themselves in the longer historical context. I’m cautiously optimistic.
*As they note, the court did not. I wasn’t expecting success for the suit – just intelligent consideration.