Does Animal Rights Advocacy Frustrate Human Rights?

by Sherry F. Colb

My Verdict column for this week explores the question whether the causes of human rights and of animal rights are in some way incompatible with each other. Are those who support animal rights either hostile or indifferent to human rights? And have human rights achievements made it more difficult to advocate for animal rights? In this post, I want to consider one reason for the perception among some audiences that animal rights may be incompatible with human rights. The reason is a subset of what Professor Gary Francione has dubbed "single issue campaigns." 

Single issue campaigns are attempts to persuade an audience that a particular type of animal exploitation is especially immoral and must stop. Sometimes, single issue campaigns have no implications for human rights, one way or the other. Advocacy against foie gras may represent one example. But on occasion, a single-issue campaign will select a form of animal exploitation that seems mainly to involve people of a particular race, religion, or sex. In such cases, it might appear that animal advocates are comfortable relying on bigotry to reach their goals.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), as one example, has a well-known campaign called "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." In this campaign, attractive women pose nude for the camera and offer the message that wearing fur is wrong. Apart from the obvious sexism of using women's bodies to sell a message, the substantive message itself is problematic. The suggestion is that wearing fur is somehow worse than wearing animal skin without the fur, such as leather. But that idea is both false and sexist. It is false because animals suffer horribly in the leather industry, their deaths are terrible, and leather is not simply a byproduct of the meat industry. Replacing leather with nonviolent products is also easy.

The message is sexist because of who wears fur versus leather. Notably, women appear to be the primary consumers of fur, while men and women both use leather. The fur campaigns accordingly seem to single out women for their wrath, while men sporting leather jackets, leather shoes, leather briefcases, and leather wallets (all available in beautiful non-leather versions) can go about their business ununmolested. By singling out a primarily female form of animal cruelty, the campaign falsely suggests that women are worse than men when it comes to hurting animals. The reality is that far more women are vegan than men. The ad thus distorts the truth about violence against animals (by highlighting fur rather than leather) and simultaneously distorts the proper salience of women among animal abusers.

A campaign that traffics in similar distortion is the attempt to end the dog meat trade in parts of Asia. To be clear, I regard the imprisonment and slaughter of dogs for their flesh as immoral and outrageous. However, the imprisonment and slaughter of other sentient animals for their flesh is equally immoral and outrageous. Virtually no one on the planet has to slaughter living beings, whether dairy cattle, pigs, laying hens, or fishes and whether by his own hands or by paying for the violence at the grocery store so that other, usually poorer people must do the traumatizing work for the consumer. Singling out the dog trade in parts of Asia, however, implicitly treats the slaughter of other animals as less important than the slaughter of dogs. People who eat animal products may like to think that slaughtering dogs is different, because we breed dogs to be our pets, not our food. But that is just a choice we have made about how to use different animals; there is no moral distinction, particularly when one learns from people who do not eat them how affectionate and emotional the animals slaughtered for food can be.

So what? Why would anyone concerned about human rights object to the dog meat campaigns? Because in addition to drawing arbitrary distinctions between "farm animals" and "pet animals," such campaigns demonize the behavior of Asian peoples while giving the morally indistinguishable behavior by white people a pass. It is hardly surprising, then, that I have seen overtly racist comments on social media when the issue of the dog trade has come up, comments to the effect of "how can those people be so heartless?"

Consider a third campaign, one spearheaded by a person whose own attitude toward religious people is unassailable.  The campaign, however, highlights the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish custom of Kaporos. The custom, performed with a chicken on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is intended symbolically to pass the sins of the person onto the bird. After the ritual, which involves waving the terrified chicken around one's head, the bird is slaughtered. Everything about the ritual is cruel, including the prior caging of the birds.

However, many people who are drawn to the campaign against this practice imagine that Kaporos involves something different from or crueler than the fate of every chicken at the slaughterhouse whose flesh or eggs are destined for the non-vegan's plate. But in fact it does not. Singling out what Ultra-Orthodox Jews do once a year in this way thus falsely portrays their behavior as worse than what all non-vegans do, many every day, minimizing the latter and demonizing the former. I know this is not what the activist who started the campaign intended, but the message is unavoidable in the absence of a "P.S. This is just like what non-vegans support every day by eating animal products, so please go vegan."

A fourth campaign singles out such practices as dog fighting, practices that are horribly violent but that are, again, no worse in their impact on victims than the standard practices in animal agriculture. Some animal advocates targeted Michael Vick about eleven years ago for running a dog fighting ring where he tortured and killed his pit bull victims. I remember someone at the time asking me to sign a petition demanding that Michael Vick receive a harsh punishment. "Do you eat cheeseburgers?" I asked, out of curiosity. "Yes," replied the young blonde woman holding the petition. Once again, this woman's (and others') attempts to throw the book at Michael Vick for essentially doing (or paying others to do) what she was herself doing by eating a cheeseburger looked a lot like racist targeting rather than genuine animal rights advocacy. A white woman who tortures and slaughters animals through her diet occupies a precarious position from which to demand punishment for a similarly situated African American man.

There are other examples. One is the campaign against the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. Dolphins are extremely compelling creatures, and Westerners are not used to seeing them slaughtered, but who are we to condemn the Japanese when we are responsible for the slaughter of billions of thinking, feeling animals every year? Campaigns regarding shark finning are similarly troubling. People highlight the inhumaneness of the practice, while Westerners enjoy the utterly inhumane fruits of their own slaughterhouses. And critics describe the food product to be made out of the shark's fin as an "Asian delicacy," suggesting that the "other" is hurting animals for trivial reasons while we are not. Similar campaigns target Muslim ritual slaughter, as though other slaughter is painless (it is not), or animal sacrifice in South Asia, which may be as horrible as what happens in every slaughterhouse in the United States.

If one were looking at these campaigns to determine animal rights advocates' view of human rights, one might get the impression that those who advocate for animals have no compunctions about indulging and exploiting bigotry and stereotypes about marginalized human groups, be they women, Asians in general, religious Jews, African Americans, Japanese, Muslims, or South Asians. But that impression, though understandable, mistakes such campaigns for the unmodified animal rights position.

The people who rely on stereotypes to urge action for animals may be unwilling to honestly advocate for the rights of animals, all sentient animals, through veganism. Wearing leather instead of fur is not an animal rights move nor is eating dairy cheese and eggs while signing petitions about dolphins in Japan. People who pick and choose which forms of animal torture and slaughter to support and which to condemn and boycott may just not be sincerely committed to advocating for an end to violence against animals, including the less prestigious ones, whose lives matter as much to them as ours matter to us.

Or such people might have preferred to do unmodified animal advocacy but might want to avoid annoying potential charitable donors who themselves want to continue eating and wearing what and whom they want without anyone telling them to stop.  Saying "look over there; condemn what they are doing" may inspire more donations than "your chicken parm is made up of the screams of mothers robbed of their baby calves and the terror of birds and cattle slaughtered over a cold and bloody concrete floor." We have a harder time acknowledging that what we do is violent and wrong, but it is easy to see what "they" do is reprehensible.

A commitment to animal rights, however, requires us all to look in the mirror. Most vegans, including me, were once participants in making the slaughterhouse run. But once someone takes a clear-eyed look at what he is doing to innocent victims, the idea of the slaughterhouse comes to look like the moral obscenity that it is. Animal rights require us to stop our own participation in the violence toward animals (and toward the hidden human workers) that responds to our insatiable demand for animal-based foods and clothing. And it means that we need to demand the same of others, in as respectful and kind a fashion as we can. A true animal rights organization is accordingly unafraid of telling people the truth rather than dwelling on the sins of Jews, Blacks, Women, or Japanese. To do otherwise is cowardly bigotry and importantly, has very little to do with animal rights.