Until Every Animal is Free: a Conversation with Saryta Rodriguez (Part Two)

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Until Every Animal is Free: a Conversation with Saryta Rodriguez (Part Two)

I was excited to get to talk to author Saryta Rodriguez about her new book Until Every Animal is Free, recently published by Vegan Publishers. Our conversation ranged from revolutions in medical testing to de-extinction with a few detours into ‘welfarism’ and other interesting areas. Because we had so much to talk about, this interview is split into two sections. This is part two, so it’s worth reading part one if you haven’t already.

I was interested to read your thoughts on cloning, a topic I rarely see addressed in the animal rights movement. Many people might expect an animal activist and environmentalist such as yourself to be enthusiastic about the prospect of de-extinction* promised by genetic engineering. Can you explain what your reservations are and what it’s like to find yourself in opposition to some environmentalists who are often seen to be allied with the vegan movement?

Yes, certainly! I actually did not arrive at this conclusion right away. When I first heard of de-extinction I did immediately think it was a good idea— until further reflection and research helped me realize myriad problems. For starters, animals that were extinct many, many years ago, may have lived in habitats that no longer exist, or that are scarce. So, if we de-extinct them, where will they go? (Similarly, their source(s) of food may be limited or no longer existent; how will we feed them?) They will ultimately be left at our mercy, and no such animal can ever be said to truly have “autonomy.”

Secondly, it’s important to note I think that the term “de-extinction” does not literally mean, “bring back dead animals.” That is still impossible. What it means, rather, is to genetically manipulate existing animals in order to recreate animals that mirror, as closely as possible, the extinct ones— which is a violation of the autonomy of the existing animals and, therefore, to me, patently unethical.

Finally, I am concerned that spreading this message that we can bring back the dead will cause folks to be even less ecologically minded than they already are. Some people at least pay some attention to endangered species and take action for them, but if everyone believes that it’s possible to just bring back whoever we kill, then there will be less of an incentive for us to be mindful in our actions, and the rate at which we each contribute to environmental destruction may increase. People need to take these matters seriously and be committed to preventing extinction rather than relying on de-extinction to undo the damage we cause.

You briefly touch on some examples of religious teachings that seem to support compassion toward animals. I wonder if you have read Kim Socha’s Animal Liberation and Atheism and how you would respond to her argument that ‘with hierarchy - and concomitantly, human supremacy - as a base religious arguments for animal liberation will always crumble when interrogated’?*

I personally am an atheist, and the examples I mention of religion are just examples I find inspirational, whether they are “true” or “happened” or not. I think we can all learn a lot from religious fables, independent of whether or not we believe in a God/Goddess or Gods/Goddesses. I treat these as I would any other fable or story — they do not have special meaning to me because they happen to be religious in nature.

I would like to note, however, a very intelligent insight found in John Sanbonmatsu’s The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject:

One of the weaknesses of the left, in fact, has been its historical reluctance to declare itself openly as a moral and spiritual movement, hence to put forth a bold ontology and ethics of its own. Gramsci, like Marx, failed to specify the normative or ethical content of his “religious” vision, apart from socializing production through an ethical relation between leaders and led. But socialism cannot give us our ethics; our ethics gives us our socialism. That is, because our foundational moral beliefs and commitments define our perceptual objects for us, they play a crucial role in shaping the specific form of action that we end up with. It is therefore important that we take care to spell these out.*

In other words, while he does not say the left should declare itself a religious movement outright, he declares, and I’m inclined to agree, that in its desperation to appear “rational” and even “respectable”, the left often minimizes the spiritual elements of its goals — such as empathy and justice— in favor of pushing forth the more “practical” reasons for its platform, such as both human and environmental health. The left has been characterized negatively for so long as a collection of misfits in crappy clothes, smoking pot and checking their homes for wire taps every ten minutes, that we’ve overcompensated by shying away from using examples such as religious fables or quotes from religious leaders in our work— to our own detriment.

What is needed is not merely a new vision of what a particular industrial or political structure might look like — such as folks like Marx and Gramsci attempted to give us — but a wholesale re-imagining of society itself, complete with a sound ethical foundation. Looking to past example of how society has been imagined, be they religious in origin or otherwise, strikes me as perfectly reasonable in trying to reimagine society today.

I am uncomfortable with the blurring of the terms ‘moral’ ‘empathetic’ and ‘spiritual’ which often seems to happen in discussions like these. Like you, as an atheist, I do not need to believe in an intangible spiritual essence to myself, other beings or the world to formulate a coherent moral framework that informs my choices.

In order to create a society with the sound ethical foundation that we both want, don’t you think it is better to rely on secular moral philosophy that can stand up to rigorous investigation rather than fables?

Yes, absolutely! I don’t think relying on any specific religion will ultimately yield the result we want. I just think that examples, such as fables and specific quotes, from religion help articulate our ideas and inspire action, and so don’t think we need to actively shy away from employing these. But ultimately, any moral philosophy based strictly on any one religion cannot hope to change society, because then getting everyone to convert to that religion would be a prerequisite for social change. I also think relying on religious doctrine to organize society absolves us to an extent of personal responsibility, and people are more likely in general to stick with a regimen or way of life if they feel personally responsible for having chosen it, and for their impact on the world — rather than just going through the motions because someone said everyone should, and everyone else seems to agree.

Your book serves as a partial survey of the current state of the animal rights movement. You discuss the prevalence of ‘humanewashing’* used by companies and provide examples of organisations that you admire and see as positive forces for change. Can you give us a brief sketch of the current animal rights movements landscape and explain how the companies you critique and the organisations you support fit in?

One fundamental distinction that exists within the Animal “Rights” Movement (I prefer to speak of liberation myself, as whether animals have rights is tricky, given that many humans in many instances still don’t have rights. Whereas rights are given by society, liberty is something with which we are born— no one has to initially “give” us liberty in order for us to have it.) is that between welfarists and liberationists. Welfarists concern themselves primarily with incremental changes, such as bigger cages and pens for animals being farmed, while liberationists aim to see animal agriculture ended once and for all.

While the welfarist position is tempting, given that so many animals are suffering right now that it’s hard to not want to improve their lot right away, and full-scale liberation may still be a ways off, it is ultimately not my preferred position for many reasons. One is that I worry that when the public hears of these small-scale victories, it perpetuates the notion that animals are property, and as long as this property is treated reasonably well we may continue to treat it as property. To me, animals are not property— period. Secondly, many of the incremental changes proposed by welfarist organizations fail to account for the damage they may do to non-farmed animals. For instance, in an interview with ARZone, Lee Hall, author of the book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down to Earth, points out that “…expanded cages and pastures take habitat away from free-living animals.”

The left has been characterized negatively for so long as a collection of misfits in crappy clothes, smoking pot and checking their homes for wire taps every ten minutes, that we’ve overcompensated by shying away from using examples such as religious fables or quotes from religious leaders in our work— to our own detriment

I do mention some incremental changes in my book, such as the bullhook ban in Oakland, CA and other cities, but this I included specifically because of what former mayor Quan said at the end of the hearing at which the bullhook ban was accepted as a proposal to be voted on in the following weeks: “Honestly, I am certain that the day will soon come when we will see a ban on elephants being used in circuses altogether…” I was surprised to hear a notable politician say something so patently liberationist that it gave me hope that this incremental change would lead to bigger changes soon to come (without, as welfarist initiatives around farming often do, displacing or otherwise disadvantaging other creatures).

Many welfarists claim that they, too, are liberationists— liberationists who care too deeply for animals suffering right now to wait until liberation happens in order to help them. Where I disagree with these folks is that I worry their successes are actively delaying the moment of true liberation by satisfying the public with crumbs, such that they are less vocal about demanding the loaf. If people think there’s a “humane” way to kill someone, they may never consider the very notion that killing is wrong— whether the victim is human or bovine or porcine or aquatic or avian.

This is what humanewashing means, and Whole Foods is a great example of this. Whole Foods has successfully convinced many of its consumers that buying its deli meats is an act of “Animal Compassion” (as a sign reads over its deli meats section at several, if not all, locations). It uses perverse slogans such as “Cook a fish, save a fish!” to imply that you are not only not hurting but actively helping animals by eating their dead bodies.

Direct Action Everywhere has been campaigning against Whole Foods since January of this year, while PETA recently filed a lawsuit against the corporate giant for false advertising.

I chose to highlight four groups as being successful in putting animal liberation on the public agenda: Animal Liberation Victoria, Direct Action Everywhere, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Nonhuman Rights Project. I felt that the first two are successful mainly in using a) protests/extended campaigns and b) open rescue and investigation to get the issue on the table. The latter two are successful in using the letter of the law to further the cause, and even campaigning for those letters to be changed. The Nonhuman Rights Project in particular has been challenging since at least 2013, if not before, the legal definition of personhood.

Finally, I appreciate your intention to create a ‘safe space’ where advocates can respectfully and rationally discuss the future of the movement. In the book, you write ‘Maintaining a safe space, to me, means hosting a space- either physical or virtual- of mutual respect and acknowledgement, where people feel safe speaking openly about their views. This, too, is a bigger challenge than it may appear at first.’

What do you see as the most important discussions that either are not yet being had or are not being given enough attention?

Well, I have to admit first and foremost that I doubt I’ll say anything here that others haven’t already said elsewhere. Creating a safe space has been a hot button issue for a long time now, in various circles— social justice, various businesses, and even schools. Based on my experiences, however, I can issue a few warnings here…

One thing that is crucial in not just creating but also maintaining a safe space is to allow dissent. What that means is not simply to say, over and over again, “We welcome and allow dissent,” or something to that effect. What it looks like in practice is, if someone in your group offers their personal opinion publically, even if that opinion is not in line with that of the leadership, provided the comment is made respectfully (i.e. doesn’t insult anyone, doesn’t use offensive language, etc.), leadership should not contact that person to express dismay at the comment.

When that happens, people feel silenced, and when that happens, there may be one of two negative consequences. The first is that that person no longer feels safe voicing their opinion, and so you lose the ability to tap into their insight and possibly learn anything from them. Secondly, if this or similar things happen often enough, and someone feels they have been silenced, ignored or dismissed not once but two or three or even seven times, then sooner or later, that person is bound to leave your community.

Another aspect of creating and maintaining a safe space involves giving people a certain level of autonomy over their projects. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be any oversight or that no one is allowed to give the person feedback, but, say you task someone with being a website manager. If that person has ideas about how to improve the website, you should support them. If they feel that something about the process is going wrong, and want to revise the process, you should empower them to do so— because that’s what managers do. They manage.

Too much oversight/lack of autonomy over assigned projects makes people feel used— as if they’re not really the web manager or the blog manager or the workshop facilitator or the event coordinator, etc., but that you are dishonestly telling people they are without actually allowing them to fulfill their alleged role. This is demotivating, and leads to both a lack of trust and a lack of enthusiasm over the project.

One thing that is crucial in not just creating but also maintaining a safe space is to allow dissent

Finally, in all social justice movements, I think intersectionality is really crucial, and is perhaps one of the biggest things lacking in almost all animal liberation groups. I want to note here that intersectionality and diversity are not synonymous— and shamelessly plug the fact that I wrote an essay on this very topic that readers can find on UntilEveryAnimalisFree.Com, as a Supplementary Essay (or by viewing the link above).

Diversity means you have a lot of different people, from various backgrounds, of different ages and genders, etc., in a room together. This is an important part of intersectionality, but it is NOT intersectionality itself. True intersectionality means incorporating not just Black and brown bodies into your network (or bodies of varying ages, genders, etc.) but also Black and brown, etc. ideas. Aph Ko wrote brilliantly about this a few months after I wrote my own essay*, and I immediately revised mine to include her insights on the subject.

Many animal liberationists do not feel safe in animal liberation spaces because these spaces don’t always come out strongly against other forms of injustice, such as police brutality, veganwashing in Israel, about which I also wrote a Supplementary Essay: There is No Such Thing as a Vegan Country, or hierarchical power structures in which male activists habitually tell female activists what to do and ignore the feedback they receive from female activists. It is of the utmost importance when creating a safe space to not only protect the rights of your community members to voice their own opinions (again, provided these are voiced respectfully) but also to illustrate habitually that their ideas matter by actually changing course on occasion based on feedback from marginalized persons. It means precious little to tell a marginalized person, “You have been heard,” when there is no measurable result in the end, no indication following that shows you’re not only “listening to” or “hearing” the marginalized person but are actively changing the way you do things to reflect the insight(s) you’ve been given.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to, say, do everything every female activist tells you to do, because they are female. But if you find yourself telling the same female once, twice, three times over, that you will not accept her ideas, you should take a moment to ask yourself: “Are there any male activists in our community whose ideas I’ve dismissed this many times?” Or in cases when you simply don’t respond for a long time: “Do male activists have to wait this long for me to give them a simple Yes or No?” In order for a space to be equally safe for all those who enter it, everyone must be held to the same standard of comportment and subject to the same exact processes; anything short of that replicates the very hierarchies and injustices that social justice advocates seek to rectify.

These are subtle ways in which hierarchy and lack of intersectionality creep into even the most well-meaning communities. I’ve often seen men allowed to circumvent certain processes in order to do what they wanted immediately, while women had to wait weeks to endure the process and could not circumvent it. I’ve seen initiatives that were conceived by a person of color be handed over, without any explanation, to the control of a white person. In any community, this is awful, but it is particularly distressing to see or experience in communities that are expressly committed to justice for all sentient beings.

Saryta and I have different approaches to and understanding of some of the issues relevant to animal liberation (although we are similar in our discomfort with the term ‘animal rights’ and I thank her for correcting me on it!) and I am glad that we can conduct a respectful conversation about those differences in the ‘safe space’ that is RVGN.

Her book Until Every Animal is Free is an interesting read for anyone concerned with animal issues but also would serve as a thorough introductory text for someone curious about veganism or the animal liberation movement. What I most appreciated about Saryta’s book was her unwavering focus on the victims of animal agriculture and what she calls the ‘moral imperative’ for an end to animal exploitation. I must admit that I agree with her publisher that the chapter focused on health that was left on the cutting room floor is unnecessary – so many books that purport to be about animal liberation and especially veganism veer off into nutritional advice and recipes. Until Every Animal is Free is a book of ideas and its commitment to those ideas is its greatest strength.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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