I dedicate this to the: 10 healthy and beloved pigs killed in their sanctuary on 20 Sept 2023 at the Associazione Progetto Cuori Liberi by the Italian State on behalf of the pork, prosciutto and all pig derivatives industry; all the passive resisters who were beaten, punched, insulted, arrested and left to help themselves once they were hurt – so many of us are with you; and especially to those who run the Sanctuary who are heroically trying to create a different world. I am sorry. And I’ll never stop
If you want to know more – the reasons – please read my earlier piece, No Refuge
Conversations between vegans and non-vegans often revolve around how non-vegans can say or show they love one type of animal while indirectly perpetrating unspeakable relentless violence on an unimaginable scale towards another. Some of these upon whom non-vegans shower love are companion animals, hunted species, iconic animals, or farm animals being hand reared, loved and brought to slaughter anyway and so on. There are memes, banners sayings all to the effect: “why love one but not the other?”
Vegans tend to ascribe this to cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy and I don’t entirely see it like this. I believe there are two interrelated things at play which are much more direct and which make both vegans and non-vegans uncomfortable: objectification and speciesism.
Simply put, speciesism is the belief one species is superior to others. Amongst people, humans are superior to all other species. And human-animal interests of all kinds will always trump any non-human animal interest, even when that interest is simply to live.
Related to speciesism is human exceptionalism and human or species privilege – and on that topic I recommend Tim Reysoo’s guest appearance on my podcast, Think Like a Vegan, which is streaming on all platforms (eg: Spotify, Apple).
The inferiority we ascribe to all other animals means human-animals can do whatever they like to other species, including objectifying them for whatever purpose.
And speciesism is the global norm. It’s the cognitive pathway allowing us to objectify other animals. The world – as a whole – doesn’t see anything morally wrong with being speciesist.
With respect to non-human animals, objectification is nothing more complicated than our using them for our pleasure, convenience or as a source of revenue. Whether we eat them or their secretions, wear their skins, keep them in zoos and aquariums or otherwise for our entertainment, breed them for whatever reason including agribusiness or medical, or sell them and their secretions to the market, we see them as an object vis à vis ourselves.
It may be a live type of object, but that’s it. They’re still an object. Seeing them as objects means we don’t recognise them as autonomous agents of their own lives deserving of their own life without our intervention or permission. As with any object you own, we can do with them what we like.
As far as society is concerned, we aren’t wrong. 10,000 years of animal agriculture, culture related to that agriculture, and our laws set us firmly in the right. Every society deems animals as property – aka objects – under the law, whether they’re domestic, agricultural or wild. All animals belong to someone, either a real person, a corporation or the State. There’s no sphere of a non-human animal’s life we haven’t taken possession of. Sure, there are some limitation on how some animals can be treated, but these are always and ultimately for the benefit of people (or capital) and not the non-human animal. I go into this a bit more in our book, Think Like a Vegan.
Some practical examples
If someone treats their animals well and even loves some of them and ultimately, they slaughter and eat that animal or their secretions, that’s the clearest evidence of objectification. How? Because the animal was an object providing pleasure both during their life and then in their death. In death or secretion exploitation, they might have also provided some cash. For example, someone raises chickens, goats or sheep from when they’re babies. They cuddle them, treat them well and they express their love for them. Then one day, they take them or pay someone else to take them to the slaughter house despite that initial loving treatment. Those animals were nothing more than objects.
But it’s even simpler than that. For example, loads of people love monkeys, primates, dolphins and whales, but they’re non-vegan. They’re objectifying the monkeys, primates, dolphins and whales for their beauty and pleasure they bring to them and they’re doing the same with respect to the pleasure or convenience the animals whose flesh or secretions they eat.
How does this work in a human context?
Thinking about sexism and the objectification of women can help us process some of these ideas. This isn’t a direct comparison because the two things aren’t the same. The way the process of objectification works stems from the same limited and self-centred world-views. And that’s what you need to take into account when thinking about how people behave and think.
Men (not all men) may love women for the pleasure or comfort they may bring, but they’re (not all men) not interested in women having the same autonomy over their lives (material, intellectual, bodily, whatever) as they do.
Of course, this is a simplification of a complex subject upon which volumes are written. It’s a starting point to think about how this plays out between human-animals and how that also plays out between human and non-human animals.
At this point, you might be worried about whether as vegans we’re also objectifying companion animals. And to some extent we are. That’s the trouble with domestication, which is a tricky and complex issue by itself.
We’ve created a liminal world where a variety of animals must live within the confines of the human world. And more and more are bred into existence for our pleasure. But with respect to companion animals, there are so many in need and we cannot ignore that need. So, with us they must live and we must provide for them in the best way possible.
A vegan answer isn’t always perfect. As I say often, we live in a non-vegan, capitalist world and we must do what we can.
I explicitly exclude from my critique those who work on the line in animal agriculture. I will not lay responsibility at the feet of exploited workers – whether in the “West” or elsewhere – because animal ag workers worldwide are amongst the most exploited along class, race, immigration status, caste, and colourism lines. We get others to do our dirty work and leave them with the emotional and physical scars.
Non-vegans, that’s something you need to get comfortable with because you participate in that too. And don’t come at me with ideas of making their working conditions better. There’s no such thing. Not for the workers. Not for the animals. No one wants to die to be on your plate, in your glass or on your back. And it can’t be done in a way which would keep the prices as cheap as they are – even with inflation.
Yes, there’s exploitation in plant agriculture too. I know full well. If that’s the attempted counter-argument, it’s a fallacy and I suggest reading Benny Malone’s How to Argue with Vegans, for a thorough review of fallacies (and he too was a guest on my podcast).
Why are we uncomfortable calling a spade a spade then?
Speciesism facilitates objectification. And objectification facilitates the relentless exploitation of animals, people and nature. These are the norm, worldwide. There’s no way around acknowledging that. So why would anyone feel anything other than justified in leading a non-vegan life? Engaging in non-veganism doesn’t sit in a sphere where there’s (yet) a recognition of a moral wrong.
It’s up to us to make the best possible and clearest argument to help people recognise the basic notion of fairness compelling us to include animals in our moral community. And we owe this effort as a minimum mark of respect towards non-human animals.
Instead of calling a spade a spade, why do we feel the need to resort to terms like cognitive dissonance, and, frankly, even carnism, an excellent critique of which Corey Lee Wrenn wrote some years ago? Of course there are moneyed interests and propaganda by the animal agriculture industry attempting to drown out clarity – and for that, I recommend Jason Hannan’s collection Meatsplaning: The Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial. Both Jason and Corey were also guests on my podcast in Season 1.
Why do we need to appease non-vegans with a variety of words instead of just saying, “well, you’re being speciesist and you’re objectifying animals.” Maybe followed by, “Are you okay with being and doing that?”
Would we do that in a human context? Would we say oh it’s cognitive dissonance to be sexist? Sure, it’s uncomfortable for us to realise everyone we know is speciesist and objectifies animals. Maybe we just need to make peace with that discomfort. The animals don’t have that choice.
For the non-vegans
Are you a non-vegan? Then you’re speciesist and you objectify animals. Does calling yourself speciesist make you uncomfortable? Yes, then stop and be vegan. If you control what you eat and wear, then you can be vegan. If someone else controls it, then try what you can to change that.
If it’s “I’m not speciesist, but I need to eat animal products because [insert any and all excuses]”, you’re still speciesist and you’re objectifying animals.
And if you’re comfortable saying, “Yeah I’m speciesist and I’m happy objectifying animals”, that’s a hell of a lot more honest than many. In some ways, preferable to the mind-numbing excuses.
I don’t believe I’m being judgmental. I’m not judging you or yours as good or bad people. I’m simply stating the obvious. After all, the billions of land animals and the uncountable number of sea beings slaughtered each year is undeniable. Someone’s asking for them to die and it’s not vegans. How what I’ve written makes you feel is something you need to analyse.