This year Googlers for Animals invited Ingrid Newkirk, CEO of PETA, to give a talk at their headquarters. She planned to discuss the prejudice underlying racism, sexism, and speciesism. When some Google employees heard she was going to compare racism to speciesism, they complained, and Google banned her from giving the speech after she had already arrived on site.
After the event, Google made a decision to vet all speeches given by members of outside organizations. They also decided to ban any speech that compares racism with speciesism.
Animal rights activists, in their attempt describe abuse, often point to comparisons between human suffering and animal suffering and how they are related, including the kind of cruelty involved and its underlying justification. One of the comparisons that has been made is the similarity between human and animal slavery.
But in spite of the similarities some people are offended and believe the comparison is an appropriation or co-optation of African American history by a largely white vegan group. Others believe it is bigotry.
In a recent article in Culture and Ethics Wesley J. Smith called the comparison between animal ownership and Antebellum Slavery an “odious comparison.” He went on to say that the animal rights use of such a comparison is “misanthropic” and “racist.”
So in its attempt to abolish or at least moderate, speciesism, the animal rights movement is at risk of being tagged as racist and misanthropic, certainly a toxic combination.
Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the comparison between human and animal enslavement.
When animals are compared to slaves, most people assume slavery in America is being referred to, and often the graphics used do represent African American slaves. This is mostly a function of the relatively recent occurrence of slavery in America and actual photographs and illustrations available. But is not an issue of Ante-Bellum American slavery. It is about the institution of slavery itself.
Slavery is an ancient practice that was present in most parts of the world. It was found through Africa, the Middle East, and among the Aztecs of Mexico and Maya of Central America. The first historical reference to slaves is in the Code of Hammurabi from 1860 B.C. and the first Biblical reference is in Genesis.
Human slavery was a byproduct of civilization. It required a settled population, such as the city state of Sumer, supported by an agricultural economy with a steady food supply. Sumer was a socially stratified urban center with a class of poor/slaves at the bottom and the wealthy slave-owning class at the top.
However, animal slavery is much older than human slavery, beginning with the Agricultural/Neolithic Revolution several thousand years earlier. The Revolution introduced planting and harvesting of emmer and einkorn (primitive wheats) and peas, produced on a scale far beyond the capacity of earlier horticultural communities. The early farmers also started domesticating the wild animal ancestors of our sheep, goats, and cattle, whose labor plowed their land and pulled their wagons, and whose bodies fed their growing population. The descendants of those animals are seen today in factory farms and slaughterhouses.
The domestication of the animals was brutal. They were taken from their habitat, broken, and trained to wear harnesses and yokes and forced to work. All draft animals were beaten with whips or pushed with goads. They were bred for the characteristics that best served human needs, and their lives remained under the total control of their human masters.
So while Human slavery and animal slavery are not exactly the same in terms of time and circumstances they do share multiple similarities in that both humans and animals were subjugated, controlled, and abused.
- Both human and animal slaves were property that could be owned, bought and sold. Both slave and animal families were broken up at the owner’s will.
- Female slaves could be raped by those who owned them. Male slaves were sometimes castrated and the Sumerian word for a castrated slave boy, amar-kud, is the same word used for young castrated donkeys, horses, and oxen.
- Animal breeding is still controlled by humans, and dairy cows are artificially inseminated, which many compare to rape. Bulls today undergo electroejaculation to obtain sperm, and male animals not used for breeding are castrated. Thus both males and females undergo what would be sex crimes if done to humans.
- Treatment of both human slaves and animal slaves has been harsh and include beating, branding, shackling, and the use of metal collars and muzzles.
- Human slaves underwent horrific ocean voyages from Africa to America.
- Animal slaves currently undergo equally horrific shipping conditions both on land and sea.
However, there are also differences between human slaves and animal slaves.
- Animal slaves have undergone more torture and in greater numbers for a longer time than human slaves.
- Animals are bred to be exploited and born to be destroyed. They are merely resources and raw materials for human use as food, clothing, furniture, and they serve as ingredients of most of the items we use.
- Unlike human slavery, animal slavery continues openly and is accepted as a part of life in every country. In the course of human cruelty on this planet, “nothing can be compared with humans’ tyranny over animals, not even the cruelest, most oppressive tyranny of humans over each other.” (E.A.S. Manifesto)
Thus slavery is legally defined as a system in which property law is applied to human beings. It is an institution built on an unequal relationship with resulting dominance and oppression of the weak by the strong.
Animals fulfill the definition of slaves except for one thing—their species. And that is the point. The fact that they are not human allows their control and abuse to continue. Referring to animals as slaves is not racist; multiple ethnic groups were victims in the long history of slavery. It is not an appropriation of black slavery; no group can have a copyright on a worldwide institution.
The attacks on animal rights for using the human/animal slavery comparison is a way to keep animals in their place. It seeks to deprive us of the rhetorical devices—simile, metaphor, and analogy—that clarify and explain. It is linguistic speciesism.
Wesley J. Smith notes that conflating the concept of “rights” to include nonhumans seeks “to destroy human exceptionalism and shatters our status as the exclusive rights-bearing beings…” In other words, the speciesism enshrined in Religion, Law and culture must be preserved.
I suggest we not cave in to this kind of political correctness.
If we sincerely want to end the species barrier, we can start by not allowing the word police to demand language that maintains it.