Linked Oppression

Credit goes to my husband, Julian, for the title of this blog.  Even though he didn’t coin the phrase, he used it when a co-worker made fun of the animal rights t-shirt he wore during Toronto Pride week back in June of this year.  The shirt shows six of the PETA bunnies in a row, each one a different colour that represents the Pride Rainbow. Underneath it says: Rights for All.  When his co-worker “jokingly” said to Julian, “So, you want rights for gay rabbits?”  Julian said to his colleague, a gay man, “No, I want rights for all, just like the shirt says. Linked oppression – you know about those, right?” Julian and his colleague have known each other for years so the ribbing goes on fairly frequently.  But I loved Julian’s response.  Not only because it shut his colleague up but it summed up so much.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said (a quote I’ve mentioned before), “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It is only since becoming a vegan that I have been able to make this connection; I really didn’t see it before.  I think it’s difficult to as an omnivore and I think this blind spot is the same reason that people see animal activists as not caring about humans or human problems.  I now understand that if animals are given personhood and rights under the law, how much better of a chance would women, immigrants, the elderly, children, people with disabilities and other minorities have?  If the lowest of the low – animals – are finally seen and declared as living beings that deserve protection from harm and freedom to live, how then could we not also grant that same recognition to marginalized humans already considered “above” them?

I’m not saying only fight for animals – not at all.  Any fight or protest on behalf of oppression is worthy and necessary.  The problem is, animal rights are often seen (and presented in the mainstream) as separate, not really linked to other forms of oppression or cruelty at all but rather as a “special interest” or something only “animal lovers” do (a term I personally loathe because my activism has little to do with an actual feeling of love – it is much more related to my feeling of indignation over what is being done to animals and my desire that justice and freedom be extended to all living beings).  In the same way that racism can often be linked to poverty, lack of opportunity, and unfair treatment, or sexism can be linked to lower wages, harassment and domestic violence, the abuse of animals can also be linked to other suffering – even the FBI now officially recognizes this.

In October of last year, the Bureau began tracking cruelty to animal offences since they have long been aware that cruelty to animals can expand into crimes against humans. Previously, crimes against animals were only labelled as “other” making it impossible to gather precise data on the link between those who abuse animals and then go on to abuse humans. But now, along with homicide, arson and assault, animal cruelty has been classified in the U.S. as a Class One felony and will be broken down further into four categories which will be identified upon arrest: simple or gross neglect (such as leaving animals outside for days with no food or shelter), intentional abuse and torture (mutilations, beatings), organized abuse (cock-fighting/dog-fighting) and animal sexual abuse. The data will be collected in January 2016 and after that, “take several months” to analyze and compile the official statistics.

Of course, animal cruelty is generally only associated with happening to “pet animals”, a group society is already firmly behind. But what of farm animals? Every pig, cow, chicken, turkey, sheep, duck and fish endures at least one of those four categories every day on a factory farm. In fact, I would argue that the category “organized abuse” is exactly what factory farming is. But no one wants to hear that because that would make us all criminals, accessories after the fact each time we tuck in to a piece of flesh or drink a glass of milk.  Additionally, as welcome as these changes to the law may be, I still get the sense that tracking animal cruelty has less to do with animal welfare actually becoming a priority and far more to do with protecting the welfare of humans. Classifying animal abuse is important but we are still just treating the symptom; it still doesn’t solve the puzzle as to why people feel they can abuse or consume certain animals in the first place.

Oppression occurs for a multitude of reasons ranging from being a different colour to being a different species.  Why “different” can’t just be that – separate but equal – I don’t know.  Why “different” so often translates into “less than” or “not-as-important-as” or even worse, “being wrong” is a sad testament to our progression as humans. Why do humans continue to define themselves and animals by their differences rather than our similarities? Perhaps because it is easier, more obvious and therefore takes less energy. Yet the energy and time we then spend trying to rationalize our behaviour for the mistreatment of those who are different defies belief.  We have spent centuries warring over these differences and continue to spill the blood of millions of farm animals in Canada each year just because they are not dogs and cats.

Different is not always easy to understand – I get that.  It’s not as if I get along with everybody!  But while I don’t have to become best buds with everyone who is different from me, I would be wrong if I went out of my way to deny them their rights simply because I didn’t understand them.  And I would certainly be wrong if I killed them for no other reason than they weren’t me.

I don’t need to know why we view animals as different – that’s obvious: I can see that they’re different.  What I want to know is why having four legs instead of two or speaking with a grunt instead of words makes their lives less important.  I want to know why we think their different genetic codes and biological attributes makes it okay to maim and slaughter them in the millions every year.  I want to know why we think it’s okay to breed them and then have the audacity to take their children away.  I want to know why we think any of this is okay. Because when I look at them, I see no reason why it should be.

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