A friend of mine said to me recently that she believes animal rights are the fight of the 21st century; that fighting for the liberation of animals is the social justice movement taking shape in our time. If she’s right – and I believe she is – then we have only just begun.
If you look back at any cultural shift in terms of equality, be it civil rights, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights – movements that are by no means over and whose struggle continues in various forms across the globe – there was one thing they all had in common, especially in the beginning: they were collectively laughed at. It was a joke to think that black people, homosexuals, women or any previously considered “less than” group of individuals could possibly warrant the same rights and privileges as their white, male, heterosexual counterparts. They weren’t seen as living beings with the same desire to live a life free from suffering, ownership or governing interference of their most basic rights. If occasionally they were seen as equals, it was only on a selective basis, when they were found to be “useful” in some way that further served the already-existing patriarchal establishment. We still do it today: women are given all the room and opportunity to voice their opinions so long as the topics are getting married, raising children, going shopping and staying thin.
Animals, through no fault of their own, have what I see as two additional and enormous obstacles to overcome: they are a different species and they only have humans to speak for them. Even though animals do speak their own language (a pig does not need to say the words, “That hurts,” for a human to know they are hurting them), humans choose either not to learn it or not to hear it. When another human speaks out on behalf of the pig and points out that the animal is indeed being hurt, that person is laughed at or written off.
Animal rights are marginalized in the news as well. In last week’s story about the decision to overturn a previous agreement made by Canada’s RCMP officers to wear more animal-friendly toques during the winter month’s instead of the traditional muskrat fur (which requires the skin of approximately 3 muskrats to make one hat), the Environment Minister stated publicly in the House of Commons about the reverse decision:
“I would like to assure Canadians that the Minister of Public Safety has taken action to ensure that the historic fur hats worn by the RCMP will not be discontinued, despite the efforts of radical animal rights activists.”
She went on to add:
“The RCMP decision, which is causing much glee among anti-fur activists, is being fully overturned. Our government will always stand up for Canada’s hunters and trappers.”
There were several ways to announce that without putting down activists and frankly, sounding so gleeful herself. There was no need to add “radical” or even “anti-fur” before the word “activists” (they are fine with faux fur). There was certainly no need to point out their “glee” prior to reversing a decision that she knew would make them feel the opposite. (I really wonder about politicians sometimes and if any of them understand the art of speaking respectfully to all of the people they represent even if they don’t stand for all of their beliefs personally. I mean, I’m a Canadian and I certainly wasn’t “assured” by this decision.)
Animal rights is a joke right now. Mention the word “vegan” and people roll their eyes. Attempt to talk about animal rights outside of stray cats and dogs and people quickly end the conversation. Read any article on farmed animal welfare that makes the news and there will always be several posts in the comments referring to “tree-hugging hippies” or “animal-loving freaks”. I was on the subway the other day and couple of people were talking about a work function that involved food and one of them said about a colleague, “Yeah, he’s into all that vegetarian crap. You know how they are.” Watch a sitcom and more often than not, vegetarians will usually be the butt of some joke eventually (vegans aren’t even on the radar yet as television characters).
People dismiss animal rights because they don’t take it seriously. And they don’t take it seriously because they don’t understand the issues. They may read a headline or two but the status quo right now is fully in their favour. They are encouraged to eat meat, assured that dairy is necessary, even healthy, and are fed a constant stereotype that people who work or speak on behalf of animals are feeble-minded, misguided and “radical”. It’s a hell of an uphill climb for those trying to educate people on the reality of their food.
But that’s what it will take. Education. Information. Exposure. Shining a light in the darkest corners of secrecy so that everyone can see. That is what worked for every other movement in our history and that’s what will work for this one.
Don’t think it can’t get violent either. The same friend who believes this is the fight of our time also believes that if you are a serious activist who devotes their life to this cause, your life may be threatened at some point. Anything that admonishes the status quo will not be taken lightly by those living comfortably in it. I believe she is correct on that front as well. We need look no further than the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Stonewall riots or the arrests and imprisonment of early suffragettes to know this to be true. If you want to hear some of the death threats Ingrid Newkirk gets, the President and co-founder of PETA, just watch the first one minute and twenty seconds of I Am An Animal when she reads a few. And people think she’s crazy.
Though looking at history can be despairing, strangely enough, it is through history that I also have hope. We look back now as a society and can’t believe that it was only in 1955 where a black person in Montgomery, Alabama was expected to give up their seat on the bus if a white person got on. We look back and cannot believe people were lynched simply for the colour of their skin. We look back in disgust at how Japanese Canadians were treated in World War II, sent to internment camps, losing much of everything they owned in the process. We shake our heads in disbelief that women were publicly mocked and jeered just for marching in the streets to win the right to vote. We are appalled at hate crimes committed against anyone in the LGBT community and we shudder at the oppression they continue to face.
This is my hope for the animal rights movement: that in time, people will know. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen. The animal rights movement is growing. Not because it is wealthy or powerful or popular – even the celebrity vegans get written off. It is growing because it is ethical and it is just. The status quo in historical social justice movements were eventually proven to be a lie and animal rights are no exception. Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, we don’t need meat and dairy to survive and we certainly don’t need animals to suffer in the way they have been just so we can please our taste buds, wear certain clothing or be entertained by them for a few hours. Animals deserve the right to live and to be cared for. ALL animals. They are living, breathing, sentient beings and just because some people want to deny that truth doesn’t make it any less so.
Like so many social justice movements, what was once mocked and laughed at, I hope one day we will look back as a society when speaking of our treatment of animals and say, “Can you believe we used to do that?” I hope one day we will have a museum that shows wall-sized images of inside factory farms – the rape racks, the gestation crates, the battery cages, the forced molting, the scalding tanks, the bolt guns, the electric prods, the meat hooks, the dehorning irons, the castration pliers – the billions killed. And I hope we hang our heads in shame and wonder how on earth we ever came up with the term, “humane slaughter.”