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The slavery taboo kneecaps fair animal rights debate

September 9, 2016

I have to tell you,” said the judge, “I keep having a difficult time with your using slavery as an analogy to this situation.”

“My suggestion is that you move in a different direction for the next two minutes.”

This quote is from the Storyville documentary Unlocking the Cage, which documented the Nonhuman Rights Project’s attempts to have individual chimpanzees recognised as legal persons in order to liberate them from unethical captivity.

Justice Karen Peters’ “suggestion” struck me more as a nebulous threat. The message was: “Continue to make that comparison, and we’re going to have a problem.”

Being in a position of great power, her pointed remarks had a profound effect on the lawyer she was speaking to, who visibly squirmed and hastily retracted a point that was logically strong. It was a worrying example of someone using authority to silence opposition.

The sheer number of ruffled feathers was a recurring blockade for the team throughout this documentary; there was a tangible high sensitivity to the taboo of the slave trade. I expect this is an American cultural phenomenon. The national shame of the slave trade makes any perceived trivialisation of that period a hot potato for everyone.

But such individuals forget that “slavery” does not mean “the trafficking of African peoples to the United States for the usage of white people”. It means holding someone against their will in order to use them for your own purposes. This is what we routinely do to non-human animals.

Many agree with what the Arise News presenter said when interviewing Nonhuman leader, Steven Wise: “Chimps are chimps, they are not humans.” In other words, you can’t compare the subjugation of a human to the subjugation of an animal, because it suggests you think of the human as being on the same level as an animal – in this case, an African slave equivalent to a chimp. This is considered inherently racist. The presenter, who was black, hinted at the reason; the equation of black people to animals, particularly lesser great apes, has controversial historical connotations.

But this evaluation only skims the surface of the meaning behind the comparison of human slavery to animal captivity. In fact, it roundly ignores the whole point; animal rights activists do not consider animals to be inferior to humans. The argument, then, is not that people of any kind are equal to animals because the people in question are inferior, but rather that people of any kind are equal to animals because animals are not inferior.

This subtle distinction is lost underneath indignant trumpeting. No one wants to be the person who implicitly compares animals to African slaves, because that is all the public will hear. Wise constantly defended himself by claiming that he was making no such comparison – even though he should have been defending the comparison because it is integral to his outlook on animal rights.

As he pointed out later, anyone who obsesses over species is focussing on the wrong thing. What is it about our DNA that gives us the right to life, liberty and freedom from torture? Any animal with the remotest consciousness wants the same things. That is written into their own DNA; and yet, we say that their DNA makes them ineligible for those very rights.

White slave-owners often said that Africans were “less human” – by which they meant less intelligent and less “civilised” – therefore unworthy of human rights. History focuses on the fact that they were wrong; it has been proven that different races do not have inherent, genetic differences in terms of intelligence.

But the fact that the slave-owners were wrong is, in a way, irrelevant; these “facts” were no moral justification for taking away the liberty of an entire people. They should not have had less right to freedom had they actually been less intelligent; any more than children or people with profound learning difficulties can be used as a means and treated as objects as a result of their comparative lack of intelligence.

We must escape the presumption that higher intelligence is the only basis for right to liberty. It is the desire for liberty that matters, or else the expression of autonomy, observable in many species. If any group of people should recognise the trap of assuming that lower intelligence should mean fewer rights, it should be those who are sensitive the injustice of the African slave trade.

This is what Wise was not able to say while facing a hostile judge, judgemental public, and the moralising scrutiny of journalists. He ought to have been able, since he is a gutsy man. But the strength of a cultural taboo is in its ability to silence people who have well-reasoned points and acceptable justifications for what they assert.

What we see in Unlocking the Cage is a classic example of someone being squashed by misplaced cultural sensitivity. It is worth bearing in mind that neither the black interviewer nor the white judge were particularly informed by racial sensitivity when they displayed intense moral disgust, however much they thought they were.

Both were informed by a resistance to the point at hand, which is animal rights. If both were in agreement with Wise about animal rights, both would be well be able to see the accuracy behind the comparison. It is a common phenomenon; a member of any social group and their allies will consciously or unconsciously use their status to dismiss a point of view that makes them uncomfortable.

I observe that trans people – but more often, our cisgender SOFFAs – use allegiance to trans equality as a means to disregard, ridicule, shame and devalue legitimate arguments that have no relation to transgenderism; for example, feminism, LGB rights or men’s rights activism. It is a political ploy like any other, and one which we must keep in check.

Worthy outrage is a poor tool for analysing political arguments; the arguments either have intrinsic value, or they do not. Those who can’t keep the conversation intelligent, far from staying out of the debate as they should, instead wade in and criticise anyone who refuses to make the same unfair judgements as themselves.

Animals are used, abused and held against their will for the gratification and convenience of humans, just as humans are sometimes used, abused and held against their will for the gratification and convenience of other humans. That is slavery. To suggest that this assertion is racist is a wilful misinterpretation, also known as a diversion tactic.

If we worry about the appropriation of an issue that causes societal shame, it is surely clear that doing so in defence of animal rights is nothing like as gross as doing so in defence of one’s “right” to eat bacon. That’s what it all comes down to; if animals are legal persons, what does that mean for our everyday lives? People will say anything to avoid facing that eventuality.


From → Animal Rights

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