Why Animal Liberation Requires an Epistemological Revolution

By: Aph Ko

When you learn the language of the oppressor, you also inherit their world view. As Franz Fanon argues in Black Skin, White Masks, “A man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” [1]

In most of our mainstream social justice movements, whenever we talk about “whiteness” we tend to talk about it only in terms of representation or leadership, however, very rarely do we speak about it in terms of the actual theory we use to structure our understanding of oppression. 

A lot of activists speak of ‘decolonizing’ themselves from the system without realizing that the basic building blocks they have used to structure their activist campaigns are actually products of the very same system they’re trying to fight. We’ve inherited our conceptual tools and activist theories from the Eurocentric system that we’ve been trying to dismantle this whole time.

Before we can start “dismantling” systems of oppression, we first need to understand how we’re still chained to these systems through the theory we employ to understand and discuss oppression.

In other words, animal liberation can’t happen until we change the way we understand animal oppression.

In our mainstream animal rights movements, the dominant thought it: animal oppression is it’s own oppression and it has nothing to do with race or gender (or any other marker of difference).

This is a line of thought I’m quite familiar with considering I am constantly getting tweets or messages from animal rights activists who are upset with the mission of Black Vegans Rock. These folks are offended when activists try to talk about race and animal oppression…at the same time. Here is one quick example:

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 1.46.31 PM

One of my activist friends shared Black Vegan Rock with his friends on social media, and someone wrote this.

(For the record, there are also some vegans of color who agree with this sentiment precisely because they too have inherited a Eurocentric blueprint for animal rights activism that confirms the world view of the dominant class.)

The idea that oppressions manifest separately and then randomly “connect” at different points is exactly the problem I’m having with the animal rights movement and most other mainstream social justice movements.

What’s more, when activists who subscribe to Eurocentric thinking attempt to “connect” these issues or oppressions, they usually make disingenuous connections.

As Syl argues:

“Not only are these types of comparisons or connections absurd- even worse, they are over-simplistic characterizations of the ways in which these struggles and these wounded subjectivities relate to one another…So, really we’re not “comparing” anything in this type of thinking. We’re noting a common source. The connection we make is not found in the oppressions themselves or the oppressed bodies.”

Some activists share memes where different violated bodies are held up as examples of connecting oppressions, as though these bodies connect because of the ways their bodies are treated. In our movements, we have been organizing and theorizing around the literal physical bodies of the oppressed, rather than going to the root of these oppressions conceptually

meme

Most well-intentioned activists who use these memes are missing the point: What makes the physical violation of these bodies possible is their citizenship to the space of “the other” or the “sub-human.” 

slavery-today

Comparing and contrasting the literal/physical violations these subjects experience misses the conceptual boat because the reason why they are each oppressed is precisely because they ALL are citizens of the same sub-human space. Naturally, their oppressions might physically resemble one another because they have a common oppressor.They are not being oppressed because they are “like” each other. They are being oppressed because they have been labeled as “less-than-human” where human is defined as the superior and ideal white species.To keep “comparing” these literal/physical oppressions to one another to show how they are the same is tautological.

For example, saying, “Black people experience racism and, therefore, are treated like animals” is redundant simply because racism is already entangled with speciesism. What black folks are experiencing isn’t “like” non-human animal oppression…it is a layer of it. We are spending way too much time in our movements organizing around the physical oppressions of these bodies which is problematic because we’re not getting to the conceptual root of why these oppressions are happening in the first place. As activists, if we don’t get to the root of oppressive behavior, then we risk reproducing the oppressive framework in our own liberation movements.

This signifies that we are having a problem in our movements at the theoretical level.

We seem to be experiencing a crisis of uncritical thinking in our movements, partly because the theory we’re using to structure our movements is Eurocentric which is why folks are trying to make these oppressions “connect” rather than understanding how they’re fused to begin with. Eurocentric social justice theory suggests that all oppressions manifest independently and then connect at some point down the road.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 1.16.20 PM

There are more systems of oppression than I have labeled here in this diagram.

Syl writes, “It hasn’t occurred to many of us that this model of compartmentalizing oppressions tracks the problematic Eurocentric compartmentalization of the world and its members in general…”

A Eurocentric GPS 

Imagine you get into a car and you have a GPS. When you type in the address you get a map, a representation of the territory you’re in.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 1.24.24 PMThe issue we’re having in our activist movements is the map that’s showing up on our activist GPS screen currently isn’t matching the landscape we’re on. This is because the map for liberation has been provided to us by the dominant class. Therefore, all of the oppressed are in traffic, honking at one another. We are all lost trying to find the different roads the map keeps directing us to, but they don’t seem to be existing on our terrain. The map isn’t a real representation of what’s before us and all it’s doing is making us drive in circles, under the illusion that we are making progress on our trip.

In other words, the “intersections” the map tells us is there simply aren’t real because the territory we’re on has no intersections. We are existing on one massive field labeled sub-human where these systems are fused together and embedded within the soil of the terrain. Syl writes:

“The territory is this massive domain of Others, whose scope can only be grasped when we dig deeper to go beyond the constraints of the specific -isms and see ourselves as- following Frantz Fanon’s words- damned beings by virtue of lacking a full ‘human’ status.”

Eurocentric Logic

Our activist GPS is programmed with coordinates from the “Human” terrain which is why we can’t get to our destination. The activist GPS we’re using doesn’t realize that these oppressions are fused together already. The goal for those of us who are minoritized is to spend time creating new maps. We need to orient ourselves towards the human/animal divide, rather than only our own specific physical oppression.

Some activists fail to realize how the maps they’re using to guide themselves towards liberation are very Eurocentric. My proof is in the ways some activists try to analyze their own oppression without a meaningful analysis of speciesism. For example, check out this video Everyday Feminism shared where a feminist goes on for 11 minutes explaining how animal oppression doesn’t really relate to women’s oppression which is absolutely ironic. Eurocentric maps for liberation make it possible for other popular feminists like Akilah to explain intersectionality to feminists using animal products as props. [2]

akilah

There’s almost something tragic and comical about activists failing to realize the blatant missing piece to the activist puzzle: that your own oppression is anchored to your citizenship as a “sub-human” or “animal” in contemporary society. This is what makes racism, sexism, and all other “isms” possible. These “isms” are expressions of being labeled “less-than-human.” Therefore, this isn’t just a race-based or gender-based issue, it’s simultaneously one of species as well.

If we’re not organizing around this human/animal divide, then we aren’t properly getting to the root of our oppression.   

Within a Eurocentric analysis, activists have to spend all of their time “connecting” issues together because everything is always and already singular and separate at the root (which should be our first sign that the theory we’re using is designed around the experiences of the dominant class…not our own). 

When White People Become Racialized/Animalized

This massive domain of sub-humans also includes some white folks who fail at attaining “ideal” homo sapien status. We can look at the ways low-income white people in the U.S. are racialized and framed through a sub-human narrative where “redneck” is used as a racial marker to distinguish between ideal white homo sapiens who are successful, wealthy, and “civilized,” and low-income folks who are “naturally inferior” and beyond recuperation.

Shows like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” ride on “trailer-trash” aesthetics and redneck/country stereotypes in order to propel the narrative of the show. In this article on Jezebel titled, “Honey Boo Boo Struggles with Bodily Functions” the writer features a video from the show where Alana (the lead character known as Honey Boo Boo) is sitting with Miss Georgia, who is framed as the ideal white human subject.

Alana’s character is juxtaposed with this white ideal woman to demonstrate how Alana is naturally inferior because of her class status, such that she can’t even perform ideal white femininity. It’s so far removed from her natural character. Alana shoves cake into her mouth and expels gas on camera. The fact that Alana is so young bolsters the idea that her inferiority (due to her “low class” status) is innate. She even uses “ratchet-style” language, suggesting that her class status positions her as being “closer” to blackness than ideal whiteness. Her inability to restrain herself and perform as a proper white human feminine subject marks her as naturally inferior and inherently needing to be “tamed” and “controlled.” [3]

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 7.45.25 PM

Miss Georgia is to the left and Alana is to the right.

 The animalization of beings labeled or framed as “sub-human” suggests that ‘animal’ is itself a racial opposite to the glorified white species. This means that “whiteness” signifies not only race and skin tone, but also an ideal way of being. “Animal” signifies a different type of racial citizenship that’s informed by characteristics from those labeled “sub-human.” 

Exploring the “Sub-Human” Territory and Abandoning the Eurocentric Map:

Let me just say this now: Our mainstream social justice movements are doomed so long as Eurocentric theory is used to structure the logic of these movements. (Yes, this means that even activists of color can be reproducing some of these issues in their campaigns).

The fact that some folks are able to subtract race from the animal oppression conversation is terrifying simply because for so long, the mainstream movement has been celebrating and throwing resources at efforts to “fix” the problem without thoroughly examining what the actual problem is and how it’s sustained. How are we supposed to ignore the racial elements to the speciesist hierarchy? The farther you stray from the ideal white homo sapien imagination, the easier it is for you to be labeled “sub-human” or “animal.”

This is also scary because oppressed people who are buying into Eurocentric logic are using that same logic to supposedly fight Eurocentric systems that are oppressing them.  You can’t create effective liberation movements if you don’t completely understand the anatomy of your oppression. 

social_darwinism

Syl writes:

“White” is not just the superior race; it is also the superior mode of being. Residing at the top of the racial hierarchy is the white human, where species and race coincide to create the master being. And resting at the bottom as the abject opposite of the human, of whiteness, is the (necessarily) nebulous notion of “the animal”.

In order for the oppressed (sub-humans) to have a new citizenship that isn’t inferior to those in the dominant class (glorified white humans), we need to have an epistemological revolution. This means that as critical black folks who reject Eurocentric logic, we have to fight, not just for vapid superficial representation in the mainstream movement, but for the right to produce knowledge, to create theory, and to re-articulate the way oppression actually manifests.Through this, animal liberation will be a byproduct of our epistemological revolution.

*

Notes:

[1] Obviously using “man” to refer to all beings is problematic. However, I agree with the premise that when you inhabit a given space (where you don’t set the terms), you tend to inherit the problematic norms of that space.

[2] I am not suggesting that activists can’t learn and grow throughout their careers. If you read some stuff I wrote even LAST year, you would be shocked at how much my perspectives have shifted. However, I’m merely pointing out a trend (especially within mainstream feminist spaces) that clearly disregards animal oppression, partly because a lot of feminists don’t know how to include it in their analyses or they don’t think it really matters. This points to an even larger problem with the theory they’re using to understand their own oppression considering our oppression is overtly anchored to the human/animal divide. These popular analyses are celebrated by the mainstream precisely because they don’t tamper with the comfortable frameworks people are already using.

[3] I first saw this clip from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” when I was taking a PhD seminar in Feminist Surveillance Studies with Dr. Rachel Dubrofsky. One of my classmates was writing a paper on this topic and I remember we were analyzing this clip. At the time, I didn’t have the analysis I currently do now, but looking back, I see the ways that Alana is framed as being “sub-human” and “wild.”

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Why Animal Liberation Requires an Epistemological Revolution

  1. Great analysis. I was struck by this line: “Eurocentric social justice theory suggests that all oppressions manifest independently and then connect at some point down the road.” Question/comment: When I was still reading mostly white male authors on the topics of animal rights and veganism, I read The World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle. In this book, he posited that all human exploitation – racism, sexism, etc. – actually stemmed from the development of herding culture. (I’m oversimplifying a bit; the book goes into quite a bit of detail.) This made a lot of sense to me at the time, but now that I’m reading more diverse voices I’m not so sure. Have you read Tuttle’s book, and if so, what do you think of his analysis?

    Like

    1. Thanks for commenting Pax. I’ve actually never read Will Tuttle at all, so I can’t really comment on his concepts. I don’t know if I agree with the idea that all “isms” stem from “herding culture” (though admittedly, I’m not familiar with this concept..I’m just using context clues lol).

      I personally find the category “animal” to be an interesting one. So, I’m not only advocating for rights for non-human animals, I’m also trying to get minoritized activists to see how their oppression is deeply entangled with the category “animal.” I don’t know if I could accurately say that ALL oppressions stem from X because that might be a bit reductive. I think oppression is always evolving. I’m just trying to highlight how our oppressions are entangled at a level deeper than the surface-level connections I see in memes and some intersectional analyses:)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I have struggled to put into words the feelings I have about this issue when I see it play out (as with the everyday feminism video and comments on it). You not only put those feelings into words but gave me so much more to think about and learn from. I am so happy to have been directed to you by a post about the video on Portland Vegans of Color.

    Like

  3. Aph! You and Syl are doing such trailblazing work! I really appreciate how you two deploy concepts and ideas commonly associated with the Ivory Tower in your work (epistemology, phenomenology, etc.), reconfiguring them to become relevant and attractive to a broader audience. On a side note, I also enjoy your web-shows, Black Feminist Blogger especially. Anywho, I am extremely grateful for the work you and Syl do- I’m always earnestly checking the Aphroism site for updates! Thanks 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you *so much* Malik! We’re so glad that you’re reading our material. We are definitely trying bring different types of concepts to the mainstream. Thank you so much for the support Malik!

      Like

  4. Marvelous, inspiring, revolutionary work as always. You have put into words many things that I have intuitively been picking up on for a long time, as well as a few that I hadn’t. I make a point of avidly devouring every essay that you and Syl put out, and have recommended your work to many people, both within the vegan movement and beyond.

    One question I must ask…of all the various dehumanizing categories, why do you always leave out sizeism? One of the main factors that might put a person into the ‘animalized’ category is the size and shape of their body, especially when combined with other ‘sub-human’ identities (e.g. gender, race, class, age, ability, orientation, etc.) This is is an enormously important aspect of the ‘animalization’ of humans, considering such perceptions of big, black men as ‘beasts’, thick/plus-sized women as ‘cows, pigs, whales, etc.’, and large black children as…well, not even children at all. Of all the factors that might lead an individual to be animalized, it seems like the size and shape of their bodies is at the top of the list.

    Also of note is that in the case of weight, size is seen as malleable, which means that the dominant class essentially forces people (and especially women/femmes) into a state of constantly fighting to AVOID animalization and obtain/maintain their humanity, leading to a chronic struggle consisting of dieting, punitive exercise regimens…and sometimes starving, purging, pills, surgery, and other extreme forms of body modification.

    Really interested to hear any thoughts you might have on this issue

    Like

  5. This is an INCREDIBLE post. I can’t even begin to explain just how much it made everything click for me – just so brilliant. This should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares about social justice and anyone even thinking about doing any work in critical animal studies – it just makes SO much sense. Thank you.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s