Sunday, March 25, 2012

Animal rights and the reactionary mind

“When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog.” – John Adams, quoted in Robin, p. 226
Recently, I posted a fairly long summary and review of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. In it, I included a quotation from Robin about conservatives historically opposing ultimately successful liberation movements even as their ideological heirs now decline to publicize that fact:
Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question, whether in the context of revolution or reform, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.” (p. 27)
I quoted this not because I thought it essential to the review, but primarily because I think it helps in appreciating contemporary struggles and opposition to them in light of the broader sweep of history.

I found it interesting that Robin, who doesn’t discuss animal oppression or liberation, does incidentally refer to conservative thinking about animals on several occasions, as do several other books about human rights I’ve read recently. While it’s been recognized (often critically) that animal rights authors tend to raise parallels with human oppression and the history of opposition to human liberation movements, those writing about human rights movements have been less likely to make this connection, and, on the rare occasions they do, often make it in an entirely negative way: “Here’s why these movements can’t/shouldn’t be considered in the same framework.” This seems very slowly to be changing, and I’d like to contribute to that progress, which I believe will serve to enrich all liberation movements.

As I was mentioning several months ago, the idea of moral progress over time through the expansion of the circle of those given full moral consideration is at least partially valid (though some formulations of it, like Dawkins’, can be problematic), in the sense that it’s largely true of our global ideals if not of actual practice. It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was reading Robin’s book, but, as Dawkins and others suggest, and as some of Robin’s passages themselves point to, we can plausibly recognize the struggle for animal rights as the next major concentric wave in this expansion.

The animal rights movement is essentially making the demand that we expand the moral rights circle, which has grown to include more and more human groups over the past centuries, to include nonhuman animals (this does not, of course, mean equal treatment regardless of species, but developing practices founded on the view that animals matter morally – that they have independent moral status). Animal rights arguments resemble those used in earlier struggles, and the tactics are also very similar: consciousness-raising through education about animals and making visible their suffering, calls for people to justify their treatment of animals on moral grounds, efforts in favor of protective legislation, and protest and direct action to interfere in situations in which people believe nonhuman animals are being harmed.

Attitudes toward and practices involving nonhuman animals have changed over time as a result of this activism, just as they have with regard to children, disabled people, and other human groups previously not “granted” rights. Since this wave of moral activism can reasonably be expected to face similar conservative opposition to that directed at previous waves, we can analyze the ideas, actions, and rhetoric of this opposition within the same framework as historical and contemporary opposition to other movements from below.

Robin’s main arguments, as I discussed in the earlier post, concerned conservatives’ celebration of hierarchy, domination, and violence; their resistance to liberation movements from below; and in particular their insistence on the maintenance of private regimes of power. Opposition to animal rights movements can be understood as yet another in this historical chain of reactionary movements.

It’s no mere historical accident that opposition to animal rights is closely aligned with other conservative (including libertarian) values and positions. It falls squarely in the range of conservative visions of hierarchy, domination, and sublimity. And while it might appear superficially as though the rejection of animal rights has human equality and welfare as its basis, in fact the history of the brutal treatment and killing of animals is deeply connected to the history of empire and of human oppression along lines of class, sex (I’ll say more about this in another post shortly), and race. This is evident when we look more closely at contemporary regimes and defenses of animal consumption, industrial animal agriculture, cockfighting, hunting, and so forth.

This is especially evident in that the ideological basis for the subordination of certain groups in the modern era has been the denial of their human status and claims about their specific similarity to the “lower” animals. We see it also in the links between control over and abuse or killing of animals and other hierarchical relations: recreational hunting, habitat control (for destruction or conservation), and eating animals have long been entangled with class relations, imperialism, and patriarchal culture. As several investigators have documented, ours is a system that oppresses both animals and humans. The humans who do the dangerous and traumatic work in this system, or who suffer from it in other ways, are overwhelmingly from the bottom of the human social hierarchy.

Conservative resistance to attempts to expand the circle of rights to include animals is founded on preserving the place of humans in the hierarchy of sentient beings. Just as conservatism generally argues for a natural and necessary hierarchy amongst humans, the conservative vision of humans’ relationship to animals is very much rooted in the contention that humans hold a position above all other animals. Wherever conservatives believe any group of humans falls in the social pyramid, it’s above nonhuman animals. The Christian Right’s rejection of evolution stems in good part from fears of the loss of this status, but the vision characterizes the “caring,” “pastoral” Christian beliefs in our “dominion” over animals as well.

This self-image as divinely placed at the pinnacle of life is difficult to overcome. The conservative attachment to human exceptionalism is expressed plainly when Peter Laufer asks some people involved with cockfighting why they think the practice is acceptable and should be legal:
"We're too politically correct," Paul says in a tone of voice both wounded and disgusted. When I ask him why he thinks cockfighting should be legal, he falls back on the Bible for his argument and launches into a self-righteous soliloquy. (KL 379-380)

"…God gave us the whole deal. He said, 'You have authority over the animals'." (KL 382-383)
We also see this self-flattering hierarchical thinking behind claims concerning humans’ high position in the “food chain,” as apex predators, and so forth. Laufer offers, for example, that
the fish and other animals preach to me that I should observe nature. Animals eat animals and we're top dog. Or at least one of the top dogs. (KL 2502-2503)
(Even if they were true – of course, not all animals, including those humans eat, eat animals - these assertions are of course examples of the naturalistic fallacy when used as attempted moral justifications for animal harm or killing; of concern here primarily is how they function as a variant of standard conservative ideology.) We also see it in the claim that our superior intellect somehow gives us the right to exploit other animals for our purposes. So present-day opposition to animal rights advocacy can be seen as classically reactionary – an attempt to stave off the loss of felt and enacted status and power and preserve humans’ hierarchical position.

These arguments are bound to the element of sublimity Robin talks about, particularly when it comes to “big game” hunting. Like war and (some forms of) capitalism, the control, exploitation, destruction, and consumption of animals have been seen as vehicles for achieving and establishing excellence and achieving sublimity. Hunting, in particular, is seen as a field in which to prove your excellence (read: manhood). In killing, you prove yourself fit for mastery of both animals and humans. This attitude is taken to its tragicomic extreme by people who participate in canned big game hunts and evangelizers of hunting like Ted Nugent. As Laufer reports:
I signed up for Nugent's newsletter and received a warm welcome. "Dear Blood Brother," Nugent's website called to me over his name. "Welcome! The American Dream is not supposed to be a spectator sport. It must be a participatory duty-and we celebrate that in every way right here at" I was told the newsletter would keep me posted on upcoming hunts, like the opportunity to spend $1,500 on a hog hunt (branded "Porkslam") for two days, one of which would be graced by the Nuge himself. My note ended with this reminder from Nugent: "Call it ego, call it bragging, call it whatever you want, but there's only one alpha male and that's me." (KL 269-273)
These ideas about sublimity, virility, and violence toward animals run throughout the history of empire: conquering and subduing other species has been part and parcel of the process of oppressing native peoples. It has not been merely about regarding animals as resources of conquered lands to be exploited like any other; the domination and killing of animals in conquered lands has been a means of establishing symbolic domination over people in those lands and of grasping for the so-called sublime.

Finally, we see this conservative vision at the base of SeaWorld and other corporate entities that keep captive and display their mastery of dangerous animals for human entertainment. The nature of the performances, which celebrate orcas and other large, powerful, and dangerous animals obeying human commands, reinforces the notion that humans stand at the head of the chain of life and suggests confirmation of the view that we deserve our domination and control over the conditions of life, and the lives themselves, of other species (more generally, of the so-called management of the rest of the natural world).

SeaWorld and the like are also examples of how conservatives defend private regimes of power. Robin puts private relations of domination at the center of his analysis, suggesting that public aspects of power are sometimes ceded in the interest of maintaining the more concrete private realms of control. “Animal enterprises” are not simply profit-making entities, but sites of the exploitation and domination of animals by humans (and of humans by other humans). The idea that humans have proprietary rights to exploit and kill nonhuman animals pervades our culture and structures our laws - which regard animals largely as rightless property - and institutions.

Our conservative culture and institutions remove the treatment of animals from moral consideration by removing it from public sight and defending the “rights” and “freedoms” of proprietors and private individuals to do with animals as they wish. While an endless PR campaign is waged to naturalize and normalize these practices, the secrecy surrounding them, denial of access to outsiders, and prohibitions against disclosing what happens in these spaces are protected by law. Moreover, the conservative defense of animal exploitation and killing rests on the assumption that no one has the right to interfere in these private realms; so even to the extent that people are made aware of the imprisonment, abuse, and killing of nonhuman animals, they face the “a man’s home/enterprise is his castle” defense. (It should be noted that what is being preserved is not the status quo: the scale of human exploitation and killing of animals has grown immensely over the past centuries and especially in the last few decades, reaching staggering proportions. As in the human realm, what conservatives defend are not “traditional” practices but radically transformed and transforming systems; their interest is not in preserving tradition but in preserving and cementing hierarchical social relations – both amongst humans alone and amongst all animals.)

The attempt to maintain hierarchical relations in “the private life of power” (Robin, p. 246) doesn’t just characterize businesses. Conservative opposition to animal rights stressing respect for private hierarchical regimes occurs at the cultural, family, and individual levels. We hear the same sorts of cultural-sovereignty defenses of “traditional” treatment of animals from those claiming to represent cultures as we do from people trying to continue harmful practices towards other humans.

It’s when these local, intimate spheres, these micro-relations of power, are concerned that conservatives are most provoked.* And this backlash, of course, is often framed in terms of victimization, protest, and human freedom. Laufer describes his Louisianan interviewees as representative of the supporters of cockfighting in attributing laws against it to a loss of or hostility toward Cajun culture. They see themselves as cultural defenders and opponents are viewed as outsiders intending to deny Cajun people their cultural traditions.
As Laufer notes, not all Cajun people agree:
She [the Louisiana director of the Humane Society] cites her name: Breaux. "I'm not not Cajun. It's a little offensive to me when people tell me this is part of our heritage. My grandparents never went to cockfights. I've asked them, I've grilled them. My grandfather said, `It's horrible. It's disgusting.' I don't think it's necessarily part of Cajun heritage. It might be what some people did, but it's certainly not what all people did. Not that I'm the Cajun heritage expert, but I have street cred…" (KL 539-542)
The point here, though, isn’t how “authentic” an element of Cajun (or Mexican,…) culture(s) cockfighting is, but how this cultural-rights argument fits within the standard conservative repertoire. A harmful practice is placed within the private - business, family, cultural - sphere; challenges to it are portrayed as encroachments upon the dignity and autonomy of its members; and the practice becomes a cultural weapon, a badge of identity, and a form of “resistance.”

This is possible because the private sphere, including oppression and violence, is constructed in the conservative tradition as a realm of freedom and personal choice and a field for the attainment of mastery and excellence. Because in this vision nonhuman animal victims aren’t seen as having any independent rights, and their acts of rebellion are denied, dismissed, or explained away, the supporters can portray themselves vis-à-vis the animal rights movement as the injured and defiant party. It’s not difficult to see the similarity between this and conservative arguments lying fully within the human realm: violence towards women in some Muslim cultures in response to challenges, slavery and lynching in the US South, discrimination by religious people and organizations… In short: “No one will tell us how to treat our slaves/women/gays/animals.”

Recognizable in these arguments, then, are parallels to conservative resistance to previous liberation movements. Hierarchical thinking (religious, simplistically evolutionary and biological,..) and fears of loss of status frame opposition to animal rights activism, as do efforts to protect and preserve private or sovereign regimes of domination and violence. Appreciating animal rights within this historical framework can maybe help us to see it in a new way.

*I should note again that I don’t believe that in broader human terms the loss of these relationships, of the ability to oppress and exploit humans or nonhuman animals, constitutes a real loss. This is not to say that there is or would be no concrete financial loss or blow to status or privilege, but that the gains to real human thriving would well offset those losses.

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