by Ayesha Saeed
University of Manchester
The comparison between the current treatment of nonhuman animals in modern-day industrial food production systems and instances of genocide and slavery has been greatly contested. It is a controversial subject that challenges hierarchical understandings of human-animal relations. Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison (1996) brought to the forefront an uncomfortable parallel between human slavery and the current treatment of nonhuman animals. Consequentially, Spiegel’s work received major criticism on the basis that it could be reductive of human suffering.
For Kalechofsky (2003), comparisons that do not recognize the contextual significance of genocides is reductive to the sufferers; “Jews are and should be sensitive to the transference of Jewish history into other contexts: much has been taken from them and often ends being used against them” (11). Importantly the context in which the killings and exploitation have occurred are vital in order to remain respectful. Throughout this essay I will argue that whilst being sensitive to the contextual differences, there are core similarities that can be identified across the various exploitations. Central to this are principles of “othering” that underlie the justification of the atrocities and exploitation of both human and nonhuman groups. I draw on substantial parallels embedded in the justification of such killings, which rest on identifying difference and using it to divide beings.
Identifying parallels of “othering” becomes beneficial to understanding not only animal mistreatment but also the exploitations of humans by other humans and the driving forces behind racism, sexism, and classism. Common to each of these is the “same basic essence… same basic relationship: that between oppressor and oppressed” (Spiegel 1996, 28). Highlighting these similarities allows us to better understand motivations behind atrocious deaths that affect all beings, human or not. This discourse is crucial in a world in which wars are waged on difference. Paying attention to the human and nonhuman animal divide allows us to better understand how difference is used in society and the power it holds to justify abhorrent behavior not only between species but between humans, each dependent on this relationship between the oppressor and oppressed.
To detail the ways in which groups are othered, I will discuss the various actions taken to distance the subordinate group from the oppressive group, involving de-individualization, fragmentation and objectification of the “othered” group. These processes detract from the beings that are the subject of abuse, making them “other” and therefore no longer relatable to the oppressive group. I will then go on to discuss Adams’ (2004) use of the “absent referent” to further draw on the use of metaphorical and physical distance that is used to justify nonhuman animal abuse.
A further consequence of constructing the othered group is that it in many cases the abuse is justified due to the “greater good” that it brings for the people. This externalizes the “other” group, placing them outside a society that would benefit from this “good.” This can be framed as an economic benefit in the context of capitalist growth, particularly apparent in instances of slavery and animal industrial systems. It can also be constructed ideologically, apparent in instances of genocide, whereby “exterminating” a group of people is justified due to the ideological “good” it would bring. Essentially both economic and ideological “good” are used as tools to justify the abuse and deaths of the othered group, central in both human and nonhuman instances.
I will then confront the various criticisms that challenge the human-animal comparison. This will tackle the suggestion that the comparison trivializes human suffering. The division between human and nonhuman animal itself ,I will argue, is based on anthropocentric contexts. This is demonstrated by the arbitrary characteristics that divide pets from farmed animals. Ultimately, paying attention to the human-animal divide and its consequential justifications allows us to better understand these lines of structural power, applicable to all animals.
Where the subordinate group is stripped of any worthy qualities they become a “thing” rather than a being. This can then be used to justify painful and oppressive behavior toward this group as they are no longer deemed as that which is deserving of respect. Sztybel (2006) argues that no genocide will ever be the same, but that there are “broad and detailed comparisons” that highlight similarities between instances of mass killings (98). His emphasis lies in the common “license to harm others merely because they are different in some way” (126). This reasoning underlies the justification to kill nonhuman animals and humans, as they are deemed as “different,” and no longer seen as beings; they are “other.”
DeMello (2012) discusses how the enslavement of African individuals was justified due to their supposed inability to “feel pain or feel love” (266). This set them apart from the superior group, as beings who cannot feel pain, making it difficult to feel any empathy for such people. Instead of treating the people as individuals they were “essentialized,” creating an acceptance for their abuse (259). Homogenizing people in this way ruled out their individuality and made the enslaved into commodities, to be sold, bought and forced to work. In a similar vein, the de-individualizing of animals into commodities reduces their significance to their parts, their consumer value. The animals are no longer understood as sentient beings but rather as the “food” for another’s pleasure.
Sztybel argued that the “namelessness” of the victims during the Holocaust enabled the justification of their deaths (2006, 114). They were stripped of their identities and given numbers instead of names, making it easier to consider their deaths as more trivial. Similarly, Bauman (1989) discusses at length the ideologies governing the Holocaust, the justifications for the killings and the ways in which such a great number of people took part in such a horrific genocide. Bauman underpins the “dehumanization” of people, stripping them of their “distinctiveness” and allowing for a quicker acceptance of the harm inflicted onto them (103). In this process, the individual qualities attributed to the beings were removed, reducing them to numbers, all dressed the same, as a homogenous group and as “other” from the superior group. These actions were justified and the differences of the “other” group exaggerated consequentially opposing them to the superior group.
Adams adds that the objectification of animals into fragmented parts of “leg,” “breast,” and “wing” also reduces their existence into consumptive parts as opposed to whole individuals (2004, 58). This both physically and theoretically breaks up their existence, understood instead as a sum of their parts. Adams draws parallels with the ways in which sexual violence against women has been justified, through a reduction of their bodies to parts; “breasts” and “thighs,” in a similar vein to the ways in which animals’ bodies are fragmented (69). In both senses, human and nonhuman, the fragmentation and objectification of bodies distances the being, othering them and justifying their abuse. They are no longer considered as individuals, but rather as their parts, broken and easier exploited.
Fragmentation is also reflected in the assembly line, particularly in terms of who is responsible for the deaths of the animals. Once the animal enters the factory they are passed on through various stages where they are broken down and transformed into meat. This also fragments the act of killing so that no single individual is responsible for the whole death. The animal is not considered to have been “killed” but is rather seen as a product that has undergone the various necessary stages of its production. The split stages prevent one from placing the blame on one single individual. Sztybel extends this comparison to understand how the guards in the Holocaust were “disowning of [their] responsibility” to the “other” (2006, 115). People were broken up into groups, and responsibility amongst the guards was fragmented so that it would improve the “efficiency of killing” (114). Again the othered group was no longer associated with life and individuality, but rather as a part on the conveyor belt that led to their death. To control the victims in this “efficient” manner frames the killings as part of a business-like process, far removed from compassion. In all instances of human genocide, slavery, and industrial farming settings, the beings are distanced and othered so that their deaths are easier justified. These similarities are central to understanding the way that difference is used as a tool to wage hatred and pain.
The gap between the transformation of an animal as a being into meat is what Carol Adams terms as the “absent referent” (Adams 2004, 51). This draws specifically on the horrors of the slaughterhouse which are disguised at the later stages of consumption. Although people are aware that the animal must be killed in order to become food, little attention is paid to the stages at which this actually occurs. Instead consumers are presented with the end “product,” far removed from the life that once existed. Furthermore, there is a definitional shift, for instance cows become “beef” and pigs become “pork” (Adams 2004, 59). This lexical change shifts the understanding of what was once a life to a thing, a meal, a commodity. If the animals are considered as far removed from their initial life it becomes easier to see them as different, not as beings but as food, making it easier to justify their deaths.
Ruth Harrison’s 1964 exposé attempted to challenge the anonymity of the industrial farming setting by revealing the atrocities of the treatment of animals in her studies. She disrupted the blind acceptance of animals as “meat” and beamed headlights at the process in which they became packaged goods. This was an uncomfortable thing to watch and many refused to accept what they had read due to the realities it presented. Over fifty years later many animals are still bred solely for consumption, despite many exposés of their horrific treatment. Key to this is the gain that one is able to attain from the industrial farming business. “Meat” is cheap and accessible, and this economic gain is key to the justification of the killings of nonhuman animals for the “greater good” of society. This same line of reasoning is arguably also used to justify human exploitation.
For the greater good…?
The treatment of nonhuman animals in food production systems has been justified in terms of the way it improves the “quality of life that is higher for a greater number of people” (Rhodes 1995; Stricklin & Swanson 1993 in Novek 2005, 228). Here human gain is prioritized over animals on the basis that it is for the “overall good”; a utilitarian view that justifies unjust actions on the basis that it benefits the majority. And yet, who is to decide what this “good” is, and whose life is to be sacrificed for it? The economic gain from the exploitation of animals is evident in the mass-profit meat industry. This is prioritized over the livelihoods of the animals as it is deemed to benefit the “overall good” of society, to grow in an already overpowering capitalist society. But who actually benefits from this economic gain?
In a similar vein, one of the central justifications of the enslavement of humans was the economic gain that was presented. In the context of an emerging capitalist system that prized “wealth, luxury, and ‘meat,”’ the oppression of slaves provided a fast way of attaining these luxuries (Nibert 2002, 36). In addition to the racism flooding the motivation behind slavery, slaves presented an opportunity to build, grow, and maintain wealth. This was done with little recognition of the pain that was inflicted on the slaves, easier justified by de-individualizing them. And so, any compassion for the enslaved was overridden by the economic gain they presented. Their pain was instead justified as a means of increasing the quality of life “for the greater good,” accepted as the norm, and even legal in many cases until recently..
In both instances of slavery and industrial animal production, sentient beings are reduced to the status of the property of another. For a slave this involved the long hours of manual labor that was stolen in order to advance the progression of capitalist societies, and for animals this involves the current abuses of their bodies in food production systems for wealth and consumption. The economic gain and re-possession as property overrules the quality of life for these beings, justified for the greater good of capitalist society. Essentially both became/are the scapegoats for the “overwhelming forces of capitalist society” (DeMello 2012, 273). A key difference is that one is now illegal and the other still remains legal.
Even where economic gain is devoid, or at least not the main goal, exploitation and deaths of beings are justified on the basis of the ideological “good” that it presents. Ong (2016) stated that the killings of the Tutsi people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide was considered to be justified as it involved the “extermination” of “insects or vermin” (216). A “pest” problem here was constructed, and the “extermination” was a means of resolving the “issue.” Categorizing the Tutsi people as “other” in this sense meant that their deaths were not only justified but that society would actually be better without them.
Similarly, Confino (2014) describes the Holocaust as “the state-run process of extermination” embedded in “racial ideology” (4). Again, the use of “extermination” depicts the holocaust horrors as that which were justified in order to remove “vermin.” This depiction of Jewish people framed their deaths as necessary, as vital for the “greater good.” We now know that this horrific moment in history brought no good, and of course many knew this at the time, and yet countless murders and exploitations were still carried out. The premising of one life over another for the “greater good” is central to the exploitation of all beings, whether they are human or nonhuman. Recognizing this allows us to unpack the human-animal relationship that justifies the current exploitation of nonhuman animals.
A trivializing comparison?
Despite the many parallels, the comparison between slavery/genocide and nonhuman animal treatment has been met with major criticisms. This is on the basis that the comparison trivializes the suffering of humans through comparing their treatment to a species which is considered to be of lower value than humans. Sztybel challenges this by arguing that is the “objector’s trivializing of the interests of animals, and of their ongoing violation” that enables one to disregard the comparison (2006, 125). To minimalize the suffering of the subordinated is to belittle their pain and depict it as an absurd thing to question. To then build a comparison between the trivial animals and humans is depicted as an abhorrent comparison. He goes on to argue that declaring that the animal rights movement is a ‘bizarre exaggeration’ (Francis and Norman, 1978: 527 in Sztybel, 2006: 124) further minimizes the experiences of the animals and their mistreatment. This minimization allows the oppressors the opportunity to reduce compassion for the abused beings by depicting their suffering as trivial and therefore alien to human suffering. The only way that human suffering can appear trivial in comparison to animal suffering is based on the premise that animal suffering is trivial in the first place.
Furthermore, many argue that the justification for treating nonhuman animals as lower than humans is due to their reduced capacity for intelligence and rationality (DeMello 2012, 266). And yet, even if this were be true, why is that being “better” in these ways justifies the exploitation of one species over another (Bailey 2007, 42)? To argue that an animal is only worthy of life depending on its capabilities is to deter from the core understanding of life, of valuing life regardless of its capacities. As Bailey goes on in her discussion of feminist vegetarianism, “Animals should not have to meet anthropocentric aesthetics or intellectual standards to deserve protection” (2007, 43). She likens this to the way in which animals don’t exist for people as much as women do not exist for men (MacKinnon 2004, 267 in Bailey 2007, 43). Highlighting this parallel draws attention to the socially constructed rules that not only govern the relationship between species but within species. Essentially, a being should not exist for the purpose of another but for its own purpose, to live.
Discrimination toward animals based on a difference of categorical species has been termed as “speciesism,” much like racism draws on differences based on race (Peggs 2012, 37). Common to both speciesism and racism is an underlying categorization of “us” and “them,” which sets in motion the ideological difference used to drive a division between groups. DeMello discusses the “borders” that are created in these processes of othering, that are based on “tenuous structure[s]… with arbitrary characteristics”; designed to create divisions between groups (2012, 259). These structures are not stringent but rather constructed of “fuzzy line[s]” that are constantly shifting and dependent on many contextual factors (260). This challenges the notion that hierarchical systems between humans and nonhuman animals are fixed and draws attention to the reasoning behind the divisions in the first place. Doing so welcomes a post-humanist position that allows us to unpack difference that is used as a tool for discrimination against all beings.
Ong’s (2016) discussion of the Tutsi people as “insects and vermin” further draws attention to the arbitrariness of the constructed human-animal divide. The fact that humans are given precedence over any other being is by constructing the subordinate “other” group as a nuisance, as unworthy. “Vermin” is used to depict rats and other creatures alike as a problem. Forcing humans into this category, according to this line of reasoning, strips them of any real quality. Ong’s example demonstrates how an arbitrary and constructed distinction, such as declaring a group of humans as “vermin” merited an atrocious genocide. This justification is similar to the way in which the difference between humans and animals is constructed; it is a “fuzzy line” that shifts depending on the motivation in the context (DeMello 2012, 260). Currently this depicts nonhuman animals as lower than humans, condemned to death at an early age, bred only for consumption and made to live in atrocious conditions. Similar to the way in which many humans have historically been treated.
The fuzzy line is particularly noticeable in the division between farmed animals and pets. The fact that some nonhuman animals are considered to be worthy of love, care and attention, and are welcomed into the home becoming part of the human family, whilst others are simply food, begs the question: why? In many instances there are only marginal biological differences between, for instance, a cow and a dog, and yet one is condemned for consumption whilst another is received with love and recognition. Irvine (2004) states that the relationship between humans and pets in a domestic setting is “not simply the result of a natural affinity” but rather “a socially constructed practice” (10). She reiterates that the line between who we consider kin or food is constructed and dependent on the social context. Some argue that even pet keeping is a form of subordination of animals, in order to control them and maintain the power relation between humans and “other” animals (Irvine 2004). The main difference between industrial farming and pet keeping is that the former is not even offered a life and only purpose is for consumption. In both cases however, “the boundary not only manifests the power we humans have over other species, but also the power that one class (or gender) has over another” (10). This demonstrates the core similarities across the various exploitations, all waged on difference, whether that is race, sexuality, disability, or species. In all cases the difference is used as a justification for the exertion of power over the subordinate group. The human-animal relation provides a useful analysis of all subordinate groups that suffer from being oppressed by humans with significantly more power. Unpacking the flexibility of these constructed boundaries allows us to better understand how instances of genocide, slavery, and industrial farming methods are also justified.
Sztybel argues that many of these criticisms are built on misconceived ideas about the relationship between animals and humans. The basis for his response is that the issue of whether the comparison is offensive lies in whether “human dignity is violated by the comparison” in the first place (2006, 120). Again, this is based on the assumption that humans and nonhumans are valued differently and to make a comparison is absurd. To quote Spiegel, the comparison is “offensive only to the speciesist” who has “accepted the biased worldview of the master” (1996, 30). In this sense the dignity of humans would not be compromised if one were to recognize dignity in nonhuman animals.
This essay has highlighted the significance of “othering” as the commonality throughout all instances of exploitation. Although there are contextual differences, they are linked by these systems of othering that externalize the “other” group and justify abuse based on this very distance. Challenging these processes and the interlocking systems of power across all animals allows us to better understand historical instances of exploitation. Furthermore, it allows us to disrupt hierarchical relations that are not “confined to humanity alone, but instead require a fuller understanding of how all life is valued” (Ong 2016, 218).
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