Racism and Animal Rights

It is customary of advocates favoring equal consideration for nonhuman animals to make reference to human-centered examples of exploitation such as the African slave trade and to equate hostile attitudes towards nonhuman animals with racial discrimination. The idea is to show comparisons between action and ideology in the hope that the opponents (or at least the fence sitters) of the animal rights debate will see the pattern in the systemic discrimination of groups deemed inferior in value to another. But this has not been entirely persuasive, since the belief at the heart of the opposition to “animal rights,” i.e. the belief in human moral superiority, is not directly challenged.

Racial supremacists and human supremacists share the same basic fault—they believe that their standard for bestowing moral consideration on others—whether skin colour, religion, tradition, or genetic heritage, is something objectively true, sanctioned by either an absolute Divine authority or Nature itself. We can debunk this myth quite easily—since Nature (whether governed by a supreme human-like creator or not) does not grant humans special favor or treatment, whether based on race or species or gender or religion or any other criteria. Gravity and weather do not give humans preferential treatment.
The most stubborn racial supremacist may believe that God sanctioned him to be superior to other races, but volcanoes will not alter their lava flows to demonstrate this alleged truth.

The evidence for humans not being designated a superior organism except in the minds of those who hold to the myth is well beyond overwhelming, but while many people will immediately clue into this when discussing racial supremacy or gender supremacy or religious supremacy, they won’t immediately make the logical connection when the discussion changes to human supremacy. This is the last refuge for the bigot.

It is further complicated when the issue of race comes into the discussion as it pertains to the behavior of non-caucasians in how they treat nonhuman life forms.

If an animal rights advocate criticizes hunting or religious violence when carried out by so-called racial minorities then they risk being labeled a “cultural imperialist,” wealthy Western troublemaker, or a racist.

The closer one lives to Nature without industrial means, the more one is apparently entitled to commit acts of violence and discrimination against other species.

This is the perception held by not only the exploiter but many animal rights advocates. This may even be highlighted in serious philosophical discussions where survival in the barrens or starvation on a boat is mentioned as an example where it is justified to harm nonhuman animals.

But there is a double standard at work here. For if one is poor and of any racial extraction, it is not usually considered permissible for the person to exploit and kill other humans for subsistence or basic survival.
If one lived in an environment where a need to kill other humans for survival was a routine occurrence, then it would be strongly encouraged or demanded that the person or persons relocate or alter their survival patterns to be in harmony with accepted moral standards. The morality of exploiting other humans when it is not absolutely necessary would trump any lifestyle or tradition argument. Even a Caucasian critic wouldn’t usually have to worry about being called a racist because they oppose these activities of non-whites.

If we are to be fair and just in our moral principles, then claims of human moral superiority would be rejected as an absurd fantasy, and racial character and economic status would not be deemed an excuse for harming innocent lives when alternatives exist.

If a tribe was killing humans for food, we would offer support to stop this from happening. Ideally, this should be the same principle when dealing with any human group in their systemic exploitation of nonhuman animals if we regard all humans as equal.
This isn’t extreme or unreasonable; it is merely exercising fairness and consistency in moral policy. This basic concept of morality is like the sun—people in different regions have different words for it, but they all mean the same object. The principle of regarding yourself and others as equal and deserving of respect is universal to any human society on earth—we are simply refining it for consistency and fairness. Implementation of such a view is another matter.

Nonhumans are not held to the same standard of conduct since they cannot follow human laws—but humans decide that their own behavior needs to be controlled, thus they are required to behave in a consistent and a fair way as decided by society. Nonhumans are merely beneficiaries of this requirement.

To punish nonhumans for not being able to follow human concepts of morality when one knows they cannot, is like punishing a blind man for not being able to read warning signs. Even criminals who deliberately breach laws of conduct are treated with more respect and compassion.

And as we know, no moral belief is perfect—we don’t condone concentration camps for mass murder just because we cannot stop every homicide. The same is true in the reality of exploitation of nonhumans.
If we cannot stop every accidental killing of an insect or microbe, then this doesn’t justify slaughterhouses, zoos, vivisection laboratories, etc which require tremendous resources, energy, and effort to bring into existence and maintain.

We know that humans of any racial heritage are capable of discrimination, unfairness, bigotry and exploitation. We also know that humans of any ancestry have dealt with wars, crime, slavery, illness, disability, injustice. We do not allow someone descended from a family who was slaughtered in a war to justify their own behavior against others because of their ancestor’s plight. Thus to be fair and just, someone descended from a designated ethnic group that experienced slavery does not mean they have the right to justify their own discrimination and exploitation of others by citing this link.

Hunting when practiced by Caucasians of urban extraction is generally regarded in a negative fashion—that these are people who enjoy killing for pleasure. When practiced by rural residents it may be tolerated more, and if the subjects are non Caucasian they are mostly supported, even by some animal rights advocacy groups.
Human societies that have access to industrialized technology, and in fact live in association with urban societies while at the same time seeking to maintain pre-industrial lifestyles, exhibit a double standard in their moral values. They are willing to embrace modern technology and instruments but reject any notion that they should give up violent behavior that co-exists with Manifest Destiny or tribal warfare.
If they are willing to give up human slavery or human sacrifice (which was also practiced by some tribes) than surely it is no outrage to suggest they treat others as they would wish to be treated themselves. An Inuit would no doubt say that a Canadian of European descent has no moral right to exploit them, so what right do they have to do the same to seals, polar bears, elk etc? They cannot claim they are natives of the Arctic as a polar bear is, since the latter requires no artificial means to survive-while humans do.
And as mentioned, at the same time they seek to preserve their traditional lifestyle (while giving up some activities like infanticide), they seek to embrace non-Inuit technology and lifestyle.
Christian Manifest Destiny and Inuit Manifest Destiny only differ in the identity of the victim facing discrimination and exploitation.


Some opponents of animal rights beliefs such as anti-racism pundit Tim Wise claim that animal advocates are motivated by racism (see his article titled “Animal Whites” published in Counterpunch).
This charge has often been used by exploitation industries in an attempt to silence critics (i.e. the Canadian fur trade enlisting Inuit trappers to promote the fur industry, Japanese whalers accusing activists of cultural imperialism etc.). Such a tactic helped to stop Greenpeace’s protests of the Canadian seal pup slaughter.
It is important for advocates to dissect this attack and the underlying philosophy behind it if one wishes to make a stronger case for animal rights issues.
If one truly believes that humans are equal then race is irrelevant. To suggest that some humans deserve special consideration or moral exemptions because of their ethnic or cultural background is to endorse an ethical double standard.
Although many AR advocates in the Western world are white (despite there being advocates of every color and creed—even in countries with oppressive regimes like China), this is hardly a cause for concern since gender equality and discrimination against gays and lesbians were also championed by a largely white demographic. Would someone like Wise charge that they demonstrate their racism by not focusing on skin color issues instead? Since he is working from a bias that regards human supremacy as an axiomatic truth the answer is probably no.
A more serious problem with Wise’s claim is that he overlooks the fact that a large number of animal activists are women. Is he, a white male, trivializing the historical discrimination faced by women in suggesting that real discrimination is race-based? It is quite a leap of arrogance on his part to suggest that they cannot make up their own minds about what causes they choose to focus upon.
The concept that one must follow a hierarchy of compassion and that some discrimination and exploitation is more important than others is not something usually debated among human rights advocates; however such attacks are all too commonly used against animal rights advocates.
Furthermore, his distaste for recent Peta campaigns using the African Slave Trade and Nazi Concentration Camps demonstrates a willful ignorance about human history. The word “holocaust” refers to the ancient Hebrew practice of sacrificing a male animal upon an altar of God. That this word was used in WW 2 for human suffering does not negate the word’s original definition, nor bar animal advocates from using it towards their own charitable causes. And it is fact that comparisons between African slaves and nonhuman animals were a common occurrence throughout the slave trade. Indeed, how often do we hear advocates for human rights causes using the phrase “they were treated like animals,” as a shorthand to identify treatment that is considered wrong(since everyone knows how violently nonhuman animals get treated in human society—worse than the most despised of criminals).
In conclusion I will highlight the words of pro-slavery writer James Boswell–much like the proponents of hunting and zoos, he claimed that the exploitation of human slaves was not only Biblical (in fact there is no condemnation of human slavery in either the Old or New Testament) but compassionate:
“The wild and dangerous attempt which has for some time been persisted in order to obtain an act of our legislature, to abolish so very important and necessary branch of commercial interest, must have been crus(h)ed at once, had not the insignificance of the zealots who vainly took the lead in it, made the vast body of Planters, Merchants, and others, whose immense properties are involved in that trade, reasonably enough suppose that there could be no danger. The encouragement which the attempt has received excites my wonder and indignation; and though some men of superior abilities have supported it, whether from a love of temporary popularity, when prosperous; or a love of general mischief, when desperate, my opinion is unshaken. To abolish a status which in all ages GOD has sanctioned, and man has continued, would not only be robbery to an innumerable class of our fellow-subjects; but it would be extreme cruelty to the African Savages, a portion of whom it saves from massacre, or intolerable bondage in their own country, and introduces into a much happier state of life; especially now when their passage to the West Indies and their treatment there is humanely regulated. To abolish that trade would be to shut the gates of mercy on mankind.” Boswell, J., Life of Johnson (N.Y.: Modern Library Edition, 1965) p. 365. Original source:  http://www.al-islam.org/slavery/6.htm
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One Response to Racism and Animal Rights

  1. Alex Jones says:

    Separation and abstraction is a source of cruelty to both human and animal.

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