We Don't Have to Choose

On Being Animal, part 3

The rise of grain-based agriculture made taxation systems functional on a large scale, which allowed for centralized power. Thus were born the relations of domination that have become so familiar in so many ways. Jared Diamond (noted in the previous post) called this "the worst mistake in human history." Chellis Glendinning describes it this way:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.” (My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, 1994)
The dominance mentality gave us slavery and colonization and continues to give us large-scale oppression. The agricultural revolution created a dominant class, and put us all in service to whatever was hierarchically above us. Women are to serve men, the poor are to serve the rich, people of color are to serve whites, and nonhuman animals are to serve human animals.

I think – I hope – that we human animals are beginning to figure a way out of the dominance orientation that came over us 12,000 years ago. I hope we can keep the agriculture and cities and civilization while also providing more contact with nature and ending the dominance that agriculture and civilization made possible. Whether the problem is racism, sexism, homophobia, or speciesism, its all really one problem: hierarchies of dominance through which we commit the fundamental immorality Immanuel Kant called treating others as a means only and not as ends in themselves.

So if the question is, "should we worry about nonhuman animals when there are so many human animals suffering?" the answer is: "worry about nonhuman animals" means striving to dismantle the domination paradigm -- and dismantling that paradigm is also the only way to alleviate human suffering. As long as we think it's OK to subjugate any being, then our brains are primed to think its OK to subjugate humans. Conversely, if we learn concern and respect for other species, we will be less able to allow oppression of humans.

A study published 2018 Jan in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology assessed how speciesist respondents were. A sample item would ask, for instance, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “humans have the right to use animals however they want to.” Follow-up questionnaires established that the attitudes were stable. Participants were then measured for biases based on ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The researchers wrote:
“We found significant positive correlations of speciesism with racism, sexism, and homophobia.”
The study also included further tests that suggested speciesism, racism, sexism, and homophobia all have the same psychological roots in
“a tendency to embrace hierarchy and rationalize existing social orders.”
There appears to be, wrote the researchers,
“a common component of generalized prejudice that drives different types of specific prejudicial attitudes.” (Caviola et al., “The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018. Qtd in Brandon Keim, "What Racism, Sexism and a Belief in Human Superiority Have in Common," Anthropocene, 2018 Feb 21)
The task before us is not to choose whether race oppression, class oppression, gender oppression, species oppression, or oppression of our environment is really the biggest problem. They all come from the same acceptance of domination. The task before us is to replace domination with compassion, with concern and respect. Becoming more compassionate people in any area helps us become more compassionate people in all areas.

I do regard the suffering of human animals as more important than the suffering of nonhuman animals. If I had to choose between getting a human child or a pig out of a tiny crate into which they’d been stuffed, of course I’d choose the human child. I'd choose freeing the human over freeing 50 pigs. But we don’t have to choose. We don't have to choose.

Caring about any suffering improves our capacity to care about all suffering. I believe that truly dismantling racism will entail a shift in thinking and that shift will also increase the number of vegetarians – because kindness begets kindness. And from the other direction, attention to animal cruelty facilitates attention to cruelties to humans, whether based on race, gender, class, or LGBTQ status -- because care for the well-being of the other – whether the other is another species or another human – engenders more care for the well-being of all others. "Love is love is love is love."

It doesn’t come all at once. Your door in to the path of compassion might be race issues or climate change issues or species extinction issues or factory farm atrocities. But all the doors eventually lead to the same place: the replacing of all relations of dominance with relations of respect, concern, care, and compassion.

Here at Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation, our mission -- the reason for our existence as a congregation -- is, in part, to foster compassion and understanding. We gather for that purpose: to help each other be ever more compassionate and understanding. This congregation -- every member, friend, and visitor who walks through our door -- helps foster my compassion and understanding. I hope these words have helped foster yours.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "On Being Animal"
See also
Part 1: Our Animal Condition
Part 2: The Greatest Cruelty on the Planet and the Worst Mistake in History

Text has been adapted from this sermon:

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