Friday, April 3, 2015

The complexity of similarity

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.

Author Beverly Tatum from the book titled: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race

Taking the same paragraph and converting it to reflect the process of speciesism is rather easy. It is important however to remember that the lived experience for a human being subjected to racist ideology and institutional and individual practices is quite different than is the lived experience of a non-human being who is subjected to speciesist ideology and practices.

For instance, human children exposed to cultural propaganda demeaning them and their worth and/or value are forced to struggle with disruptions in their self-esteem and feelings of safety. Non-human beings, for the most part, pay little attention to human generated propaganda and primarily focus on overt behaviors directed toward them or deprivations they might suffer...the ideology is simply ignored by them (I think). So...while the placing of beings on a hierarchy of value/worth/power predicated on their race or their species (or their sex, able-bodiedness, class, heternormativity, etc) appear to be similar processes...the lived experiences of the beings placed in such structurings are very different and those experiences are contingent on the species membership of the beings involved as well as the cultural, ideological or behavioral manifestations associated with that hierarichacal placment.

The cat who shares my home doesn't give a flying flip about most of that stuff...or if she does her take on it is beyond my ability to grasp it. She knows what's important and what is fluff...my species freaks over the fluff and screws up what's important.

Calling a child cow a derogatory name in a human language likely means little to that child cow...calling a human child a derogatory name can result in intense suffering and/or distress and/or further lingering effects. All sentient beings have feelings and perceptions and mental abilities but they vary according to the individual being and their species membership. Our non-human sister/brother species members are wise enough to focus on feelings and actions and (so far as we know) pretty much ignore the beliefs/ideologies that so often influence human activities. They don't have their thinking/feeling processes distorted and injured by human culture and belief systems in the same way as happens to those for whom that is the culture of their species.

Here's that same paragraph might look if modified to reflect speciesism.

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of speciesism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active speciesist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in such active behavior has identified with the ideology of human supremacy and is supporting it by eating habits, hunting, etc. Passive speciesist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway as evinced by eating the standard diet. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active speciesists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the human supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt and unless they are actively anti-speciesist and vegan they will find themselves carried along with the others.

Human identity formation is complex and prolonged and is profoundly affected by the cultural forces of our species. The identity formation of a chipmunk is generally not impacted at all by human culture (insofar as we know)...unless human activity encroaches on the chipmunk's environment or some harmful action is directed toward a chipmunk by a human. Speciesism operates differently than racism because of the nature of the beings involved and the variance in practices and ideology. And yet...speciesism and racism both occur and are maintained by a hierarchical structuring of value/worth/power associated with the beings involved. It is important to recognize the similarities and at the same time it is also profoundly important to not oversimplify and conflate the two phenomena in those areas where they differ.

We have to de-center human experience and perspective and culture as being thought of as the "norm". Being harmed by those who are not your species kin is a drastically different thing than being harmed by your own species members...yes...harm is present in both instances...but the complexities are dramatically different.

Considering the obscene practice of slavery reveals that the lived experience of a human who is enslaved is going to be deeply different than the experience of a horse being who is enslaved. It is important to look beyond the relatively simple physical factors (confinement, "disciplinary" violence, etc). It is critical and needfully urgent to never forget this. One of those significant differences is that a horse being is enslaved by those who are not her/his own kind but a human being must cope not only with the negative physical circumstances of being enslaved but she/he must also try to make sense of and cope with being subjected to this horrid circumstance by her/his own species kinfolk.

Think about the enslaved horse being...if she/he (theoretically) can only escape human grasp and join her free living kin (horse beings living away from human control) then freedom is possible. Her own kind is not her enemy, achieving freedom from humankind offers the chance to enjoy life as intended for her. The situation of enslavement is dramatically different (even though the same word is used to name it) for an enslaved human being. Her enemy is her own kind...how to identify which of her kin are dangerous versus not, how to know where to go to live free, how to live free...and on and on. The complexities and difficulties (ignoring the physical horrors of constraint and forced labor and torture) for the human being are multiple and much more extensive for the human being, when examined, in comparison to those that exist for the horse being.

Think of the difference in experience and ramifications for a small child wherein she is living in a family where one (or both) of her parents is violent and emotionally abusive...the very group of beings who should theoretically offer the greatest safety and care are instead sources of danger and harm. Compare and contrast that situation with the experience of a child who has a caring and accepting family but when she ventures out into the larger world she might encounter human beings out there who behave harmfully toward her. In both cases instances of physical harm might occur...but the ramifications and complexities (and negative cognitive and emotional effects) are dramatically different between the two situations.

If we think of species as family then we can see that in a situation where the members of your own species are your potential enemy species versus a situation where sometimes members of different species are your enemy...well...in the second it is easy to realize that being on guard around those who belong to a different species is wise and prudent. The first, wherein those who are your species kin are potentially your enemy also, offers almost geometrically greater circumstances of needs for discerning perception and identification and vigilance as well as profoundly greater difficulties in knowing situations of safety versus danger around other beings of your own kind. What looks to be much the same at first glance suddenly presents major challenges to comprehension.

Sort of like the difference between cannibalism (eating those like you) versus predation (eating those different than you). Cannibalism vs predation. Both are harmful but the weird/strange/crazy plus harm factor is off the charts in the first instance. Think of those two practices versus veganism. Just writing them out makes the obviousness of the placement of each on the spectrum of most harm to least harm immediately apparent. Cannibalism is equivalent to human enslavement of humans and/or racism and/or sexism and/or etc., predation equates to human enslavement of non-humans and/or speciesism and veganism...equates to live and let live. From the most complex and horrid to the least complex and least horrid. Hmmm...

A cow being never has to worry about being enslaved by other cows, to avoid enslavement she/he has only to avoid humans...he/she may meet other cows or groups of cows who act like a**holes but they can maybe avoid them and hang out with cows who are more fun. Human enslavement creates a situation vastly different for the victim. Who's safe? Who's not? Which humans might enslave me? How to know? Where to go to experience positive companionship with those of my own kind? Leaving one group of humans behaving like a**holes might situate me with a group of humans who will enslave me.

Superficially the enslavement of non-human beings by human beings and the enslavement of human beings by human beings seems to be the same...and there are similarities...but applying more nuanced and deeper consideration to those two superficially similar situations reveals many profound and extensive differences. Differences that simple slogans and comparisons obscure and obviate...differences I've failed to consider and appreciate previously.

Understanding things with greater precision is exciting and gratifying but...such expansions are always accompanied by awareness of previous immaturity and ignorances. I guess one way to avoid ever recognizing previous limitations is to never learn anything new. A scary bargain...one that I fear many humans seem to lean toward and one that we all probably opt for from time to time. Obviously I have on occasion.

Just think, if your civilization/culture teaches you ignorances and stupid stuff...not only do you have to struggle with overcoming ignorances, unlearning stupid stuff and discovering unstupid stuff...you have to wrestle with violating cultural teachings. The moving walkway is western european culture and to live the life of a decent being means you must head in the opposite direction your culture moves. It is a pain in the kabooka.

Maybe all this vaunted complexity and depth we celebrate ourselves for is actually a mislabeled acknowledgement that we can make living a life of minimal harm to others ridiculously difficult and hard to figure out how to do. Not because living such a life is hard...the hard part comes from escaping the lies that seem to proliferate with "civilization" and culture (especially european culture) and that coerce and urge and scam us into living harmful lives and into ignoring and not recognizing our harmfulness. Jeez.     



3 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

What a great post! And I especially appreciate these two sentences:

It is important to recognize the similarities and at the same time it is also profoundly important to not oversimplify and conflate the two phenomena in those areas where they differ.

What looks to be much the same at first glance suddenly presents major challenges to comprehension.

I have a long running list of blog post ideas, and something that's been on there for years is my discomfort with the frequent and almost too casual use of the word "rape", precisely because of what's been expressed up above.

Because while I get it, and while technically it may be correct, cow beings, for example, do not grow up anticipating sexual violence, do not get blamed for being assaulted, do not grow up being held responsible for not getting raped (why is the onus on women to prevent rape, rather than men being expected to keep their dicks in their pants?), do not live in a rape culture, and so forth. Well, you can see where I'm going with all this and don't want to hijack your blog, so will develop this further in my own space sometime. :)

But yeah, vegans have to start moving beyond simplistic comparisons and develop more nuanced messages if we're going to be effective at all.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. I look forward to your "unpacking" the complexities associated with that word "rape". Excellent observation about the complexities of a simple sounding comparison.

Often, trying to do a good thing, turns out to be more convolutedly difficult than ever imagined.

Christine said...

A thought provoking article. I used to think that passive racists who took no overt action but were simply racist as part of their world view may in some respects not be in the real sense racist but where following the dictates of upbringing or popular ways of thinking without much analysis.

The same maybe the case with speciesism , at least the less overt manifestations, such as their exploitation as in the use of animal derived products including food, their use in entertainment and as pets. Most people do not consider this as slavery and think it is simply just the way things are; though much is changing concerning attitudes about our relationships with animals. As incongruous as it may seen the above people may be against such things as hunting or as here in the UK such atrocities as the badger cull/kill or fox hunting. Many protesters may go home after a protest and sit down to a meal consisting of another dead mammal who like the badgers or the foxes just wants to live his or her life free from exploitation for food. But they don’t make the connection.


I often wonder if animals know that they are exploited and that there is something better, a real life, a natural life with others of there own kind. Particularly if they are the only member of their species such as a circus elephant who may never have seen another elephant or a rabbit suck in a hutch who may never again see another rabbit a bird in a cage and so on.

I think that one of our adopted rabbits knew that there was something more outside and that she was not free to explore it. She used to look under the gate from time to time and would soon be gone if it was left open.

I agree the experience of slavery is different for humans and nonhumans but sadly it is all suffering that needs to end for all beings if we are ever to live in a peaceful safe world. Being vegan should resolve both problems though getting people to see that is impossible as for both human and nonhuman exploitation and slavery it is all about the greed of the few. The insatiable desire to accrue wealth I firmly believe is behind most exploitation such as factory farming. After all it is obvious we are not naturally carnivores or omnivores and in the modern world we don’t need animal derivatives for clothing, for labour, entertainment and indeed for most other things an alternative can be found but still the slavery and exploitation continues. Also of course the notion that we are stewards of the earth and that it and its other inhabitants our ours to do with as we please is still another factor behind the enslavement of the other beings with whom we share this world.

I hope I have not written too much, unfortunately writing anything short and concise is beyond me. Thank you for an interesting artilce