Thursday, March 04, 2010

Individuals, Groups, and Hate Crimes

Posted By Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss an anti-abortion billboard that asserts that "Black Children Are An Endangered Species."  I compare this assertion to the notion that African-American men are endangered, and I explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the analogy.  One small part of my critique of the billboard takes up the poverty of the "endangered species" metaphor, for humans and nonhumans alike, on the grounds that to speak of a "species" as endangered is to ignore the inherent worth of the individuals who happen to be members of that "species" (whether metaphorical or actual).  In this post, I want to explore further the difference between valuing individuals as individuals, on the one hand, and valuing them only as exemplars of their groups, on the other.

One common feature of fetishizing a group, whether it is a species, a racial or religious group, or a cultural community, is that it tends to treat each individual member as less important than the group as a whole.  If the group will benefit from the sacrifice of the interests of one or more individuals, then it becomes acceptable -- and even laudable -- to sacrifice those interests, however weighty.  To place the group's interests above those of the individual, in other words, is to view the individual in instrumental terms rather than as an end in himself or herself.

This sort of thinking is very much on display in discussions of endangered (nonhuman animal) species.  The purpose of prohibiting the killing of a particular kind of animal, on this approach, is to ensure that we humans can live on a planet that contains that kind of animal.  If an individual wolf or sea mammal benefits from this, the benefit is only an incidental one that will, moreover, end as soon as there are enough exemplars of that animal's DNA to take the group off the "endangered" or "threatened" list.

Does such thinking similarly degrade discussions of racism?  Some might argue that it is in the interest of African Americans to have people focus on the group rather than on the individual.  Reactionary political maneuvering, for example, will sometimes hold up a particular African-American individual who has "beaten the odds" (whether educationally, economically, or otherwise) as a means of condemning other African Americans who have not been so lucky.  The implicit message is "she made it; why can't you?"

Such cynical tactics, however, are destructive because they ignore the circumstances in which so many individual African Americans find themselves.  Invoking the success of other individuals, fewer in number, serves to erase the struggles of most and to attach responsibility for their predicament to the particular individuals.  This is less a matter of attending to the individual than it is of ignoring structural forces by emphasizing outliers and thereby disregarding the differential challenges that face people on the basis of race.  The move is comparable to what a tobacco company does (or did in the past) when it showcases a heavy smoker who never developed lung cancer or emphysema in support of the claim that smoking is consistent with good health.

Invoking the experience of an individual who defies the odds to deny the validity of (and reasons for) other' experiences does no honor to the individual.  When I speak of focusing on groups, I do not refer to gathering facts by looking beyond the individual -- this is how we get a more complete picture of what is going on, as a descriptive matter.  I mean to refer to practices that identify groups rather than the individuals within those groups as the relevant body to consider in making judgments and policy choices.

To value the group at the expense of the individual is to negate the particular worth and entitlement of each individual.  Accordingly, it is the perpetrator of a hate crime (or a genocide) who overlooks the individual and sees every member of the devalued group as merely an exemplar of the enemy, to be enslaved or assaulted or killed on that basis.  The racist fails to see how much he or she shares with the object of racism and instead views an individual as "one of them" and therefore outside the circle of concern.  The same is true of speciesism, the practice of dismissing the inherent value of an individual sentient being, by virtue of the fact that the being is not human.

Consider an argument that sometimes surfaces when the topic of abolishing animal use comes up.  People assert that farmed animals (including cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, goats, and fishes) have been the most "successful" at survival because people choose to consume them.  That is, the species with the largest numbers of members are those whose flesh and bodily fluids we eat and whose skin we remove (or "de-hide", often -- because of the sheer numbers -- while animals are still alive) to use for clothing or accessories.  The fact that every individual animal undergoes terrible pain and emotional trauma (including routine and wrenching separation from loved ones so the latter may be killed) and is slaughtered when she is still a baby or adolescent is beside the point in discussions of how "successful" the species have been.

This "success" argument takes as its premise the idea that the more of a particular kind of DNA exists, the better it is for those beings who possess that DNA.  On this reasoning, if one group of human beings were to enslave and breed another group of human beings until the latter became ten times more numerous than the former, the enslaved humans would have proved to be more "successful" than the slave-masters.  This would be true even if -- as in animal agriculture -- the enslaved humans were kept in captivity, subject to torture, made to lose everyone who cared about them, and were finally led in a "kill line" to their deaths at a slaughterhouse as children or young adults.  To call this existence success would be strange indeed, and it is no less so when the supposedly successful beings happen to be cows or chickens.

To use an individual being as a thing -- to inflict suffering and death on a living creature to obtain a tasty snack -- is wrong.  (And the fact that such snacks are easily replaced with tastier and healthier vegan food only makes the wrong more incomprehensible).  And when one commits that wrong simply because the individual belongs to a devalued group, then that wrong is akin to racism, misogyny and other forms of hate crimes.


Hank Morgan said...

There's something faintly offensive about analogizing discrimination against animals to discrimination against blacks. The civil rights movement was spearheaded by brilliant black leaders, who powerfully articulated a vision of universally shared humanity and absolute equality. One of the most enduring slogans of civil rights marchers was "I Am a Man."

Nobody would argue that we share common humanity or equality with animals. Instead, animal rights advocates seek to place the definitive moral weight on how much "sentience" an individual has, a slippery concept that is ultimately incompatible with an egalitarian vision of universal human rights. (Advocates also engage in questionable anthropomorphism, such as the claim that animals have "loved ones.")

Perhaps animals do have rights. I'll be sure to sign on to any animal-rights movement when it is led by animals who articulate their own vision of what those rights are.

thomas said...

I came to this blog from reading Professor Dorf's Findlaw article, "Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and the Noble Lie." In it, he makes the point that ". . . Plato provocatively suggests that to keep the lower classes (including slaves) from revolting against their rulers, it would be useful to brainwash the public into thinking that the social order is ordained by the gods. The lie is, in Plato's view, noble, because it preserves civil peace, but it is a lie nonetheless."

Having also just read the oral arguments in McDonald, I was struck by the similarity between this point, and debate before the court about the extent to which gun control/gun rights rests on a concept of "ordered liberty."

A view focused more on the primacy of civil liberties would presumably reject this debate, and simply place individual rights above any impact (pre-existing or feared) on "ordered liberty." Society should order itself around the reality of these sacrosanct rights, rather than being subject to, dependent on, or derived from a goal of ordered liberty.

This should be true of issues as diverse as Miranda, Nazis marching in Skokie, extending constitutional rights to prisoners at Guantanamo, and the right to keep and bear arms. The individual rights are on a pedestal, so to speak, and it is up to society to order itself accordingly.

Sherry F. Colb said...

It is unfortunate that anyone would find it offensive to compare the oppression of human beings to the oppression of nonhuman beings. In both cases, a group that has power – white humans, in the one case, and humans more generally, in the other – choose to exercise their power by inflicting captivity, pain and death on powerless beings.

Sentience is not a slippery concept at all – it consists in the capacity to have experiences of pain and pleasure and positive and negative emotional states. An individual human who makes unsupported claims about animal deficiencies might not be especially bright, educated, or informed, but that does not mean that the individual is not sentient or even less sentient than his brighter and better informed counterpart, any more than the pig’s inability to use human language to protest her torture and killing is less sentient than her pig-consuming human counterpart.

As for the notion that it is anthropomorphism to claim that animals can have loved ones, I would suggest that it is willful blindness to reality to propose that they do not. To watch a mother hen interact with her chicks or a mother cow bellowing when her calf is torn from her side so that people may consume his milk is to know that animals feel love and suffer. It does not take a scientist to know this, but experienced ethologists such as Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe have observed as much.

It is true that nonhuman animals – like human infants and some mentally impaired human adults – lack the ability to lead a brilliant movement to demand what is rightly theirs, but no thinking and feeling person would suggest that this powerlessness represents a justification for causing any of them – human or nonhuman – pain degradation, and death as resources for our use.

thomas said...

re: "oppression of human beings vs. oppression of non-human beings" - the fact is that if we fully accept evolution, and leave God out of the equation, then we must accept that we are all simply animals. Various attributes such as the ability to experience pain, suffering or love; degrees of sentience or linguistic capabilities are only by-products, side-effects of the process of evolution. We (humans or non-humans) only have these attributes because there has been an evolutionary benefit, causing beings who have them to out-survive those that don't.

It is a cruel world. Humans wandering into Glacier National Park are at serious risk of bear attack, by grizzlies that don't really care much about our contrived structure of ethics. We swat flies, mosquitos etc. generally in complete disregard to their rights. The logic of these debates tends toward extremes, with little logical room for compromise. Either we accord full rights to the entire animal kingdom, and attempt as humans to exist without interfering (destructively OR "helpfully") in their lives, leaving them full freedom to live and evolve; or else we we take for ourselves an active role as human animals, free - even obligated - to simply do what's best for ourselves and let evolution take its course.

Of course, another option would be to rest our morality, our treatment of each other and of animals, on tenets of religion; but that's a conversation for another day . . .

Sherry F. Colb said...

thomas is surely correct that animals, human and nonhuman, have capacities because those capacities (including sentience) have had survival value. He is also correct that walking around near bears might be dangerous for a human. Nature may or may not be cruel (it tends to be indifferent rather than cruel, I would suggest, and far less "red in tooth and claw" than many suggest).

None of this, however, means that it is "extreme" to suggest that we must not subject other sentient animals -- whether human or nonhuman -- to captivity, pain, or death. I suppose one can just throw up one's hands and say "morality is contrived, and I therefore owe no obligations to anyone." But apart from that position, which posits that morality -- outside of religion, itself an arguable product of evolution -- has no meaning, a position with which few secular people would agree, some things are wrong and some are right.

Most people take the position that it is among the "wrong" things to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals. As Gary Francione has ably argued, however, every bit of suffering and death inflicted as part of animal farming is unnecessary suffering, because human beings can live and thrive without animal products. Does this obligate humans to act affirmatively on behalf of other animals in the wild? Not necessarily. There are many humans whom we do nothing to help, particularly if they are far away. Yet that omission (whether we view it as culpable or not) in no way entails the proposition that we accept the legitimacy of kidnapping, enslaving, torturing or killing other humans (even those humans who lack the capacity to join in the moral contract). Absent a personal relationship with a party in need of help, there is a difference between failing to intervene, on the one hand, and affirmatively harming, on the other. Consuming animal products affirmatively harms sentient beings and does so unnecessarily. Whether or not one decides that in addition to refraining from direct harm, it is incumbent upon one to act affirmatively on behalf of other living creatures has no bearing on the wrongness of the more straightforward harm (just as whether or not one sees fit to join Amnesty International has no bearing on whether it is acceptable for one to torture other humans).

When we decide to "do what's best for ourselves," that can include harming others (depending on how broadly or narrowly we define "ourselves") or it can require us to refrain, as much as we possibly can, from harming others. To become a vegan is to do the most simple, easy thing there is to refrain from harming other sentient creatures, and it has the added advantage of reducing our carbon footprints and reducing global starvation (given the inefficiency of eating "higher up" on the food chain) as well.

Paul Scott said...

Though not at all the point of this blog entry, the subject of anthropomorphism has been raised again in the comments. For me, as a scientist, I find this to be a curious topic.

I am certain that the notion of anthropomorphism as a scientific "wrong" has done great harm to the study of animals and animal behavior. It is, really, a completely bizarre position.

You (the Scientists of the day) know that humans and non-human animals share a great number of characteristics. At first this is limited to morphology, later to chemistry and neurochemistry and later still to genetics.

It is axiomatic to note that correlation and causation are not the same. This is a caution with which every scientific endeavor must be concerned. But to reject correlation as not only irrelevant but in all cases as affirmatively deceiving is outright folly. Yet that is exactly what was done in animal sciences for decades, if not centuries.

That is, the doctrine of anti-anthropomorphism did not merely stand as a caution about drawing conclusions about causation from correlation, but instead stated "no matter how strongly the correlation, within here cannot lie that answer - seek elsewhere." Such a statement is one of politics or religion - not science. It stands in complete opposition to Ockham's Razor - an otherwise powerful and useful force in science.

I suspect the origins of this doctrine lie in the same place as those of slavery: terrible things are going to be committed to creatures in the name of science and it is less likely that these things could be done if we accept these creatures as morally entitled.

I cannot know for certain, of course, and would be most interested in reading a real study into the phenomenon.

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