In a recent conversation about the dynamics of animal rights debates and the social factors shaping them, a correspondent noted what seems to me an important factor: “the animals themselves aren't making counterarguments.”
This doesn’t capture the whole picture if we remain cognizant of instances of animal rebellion and the way they’re dismissed and framed as anything but. In this important but often neglected sense, there’s no qualitative difference: in similar ways, the experiences and voices of humans in liberation struggles throughout history – slaves, women, workers, colonized people - have been subverted, ignored, and discounted.
It’s true, though, that of all the liberation movements, this one faces a peculiar challenge. While nonhuman animals can and do resist and rebel, none of those participating in actual arguments about animal rights are the animals whose liberation is at issue. This makes it easier for those who oppose the movement to ignore them and speak as though the arguments only concern humans.
This not only contributes to furthering the invisibility of animals, but leads the dynamic of argumentation toward one in which animal rights supporters can be portrayed as aggressively* harassing and judging those they’re arguing with, allowing the proponents of animal exploitation or defenders of the status quo to see themselves as the aggrieved party in the dispute and to have this view validated.**
People arguing for social justice readily mock and dismiss that sort of self-representation coming from Men’s Rights or War on Religion wingnuts – “Oh, sure, you’re the suffering, downtrodden ones. Look at our reality.” In none of these cases, of course, do the people arguing for liberation come exclusively from the group fighting for its rights, but ideally it’s recognized that allies (who are often oppressed in related ways) are partnering with this group to help in their struggle. The struggling people in question and their experiences can’t be erased so thoroughly that their allies can convincingly be portrayed as aggressors or the liberation struggle itself as a form of oppression. Just who the privileged are is hard to deny.
That weird privilege-reversal is far more possible when it comes to discussions of animal liberation because these take place only between allies of the animals – vegans and other activists - and those opposing animal rights. So, to answer the question posed in my title: vegans aren’t any preachier or more judgmental than any other liberation activists. They’re just easier to portray that way because the defenders of the status quo don’t have to defend it to the animals themselves.
**A man’s suggestion, for example, that he feels a special bond with women he stalks, attacks, or kills is rightly viewed as a sick understanding of an immoral act. Comparable claims from hunters that they experience a deep connection with nature or the animals they stalk and kill or from cockfighting enthusiasts that they love “their” birds or are being oppressed and denied their cultural rights due to legal prohibitions, in contrast, are often regarded seriously and empathetically.