Opposing Objectification in Nonhuman Animal Advocacy
by m seenarine, 070815
During the last two decades, the vegan movement has largely turned into a self-deification and self-congratulatory cult, with a single-minded strategy of ethical grandstanding using the vegan moral stick. In contrast, vegans' own contradictory over-consumption habits and objectification of females and nonhuman animals have largely remained conveniently unexamined. Moreover, there is an dangerous trend of demonizing critical thinking and critics of any form of nonhuman animal advocacy.
In discussions with other vegans, I am often critical of the white, male middle-class bias in the movement. I question lavish animal advocacy banquets and the over-consumption involved in most vegan events. I frequently oppose the promotion of 'vegan options' at restaurants and other businesses that profit from nonhuman animal exploitation, and call out PETA's objectification of females. I was therefore not surprised when I first heard about the National Animal Rights Day (NARD) objectified practice of displaying dead nonhuman animals to the public as a form of vegan advocacy, but I was hugely disappointed by their debased objectification of inert animals.
The NARD is an annual event in May/June, started in New York City in 2011 by Aylam Orian. Their public demonstration involving the use of lifeless animals was instantly embraced by vegans across North America, and hundreds of people around the world donated to their fundraising campaign. The New York event quickly spread to seven other cities in the US and Canada - Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Seattle, Northampton, Toronto, and Ottawa.
The organization and its supporters plan to continue this practice indefinitely, and declare on their website, “This tradition will continue until the day when all animals could live on their own terms.” However, participants ignore that being removed from trash bins and objectified through public displays may not be on nonhuman animals' own terms.
Vegans' use of nonhuman animals for any reason is a complex ethical issue involving agency, consent and objectification. This complexity should not be reduced and justified as part of vegans' desperate emotionalism. Looking at the pictures of the NARD events leaves me deeply disappointed and appalled, and I often end up ranting for days about it on social media.
However, each year, during May and June, whenever I try to point out NARD's objectification of nonhuman animals, my critique is viewed very differently from my other dissents in animal advocacy - as an attack on the entire vegan movement. On social media, many friends have blocked and unfriended me for being critical of their participation in this glorified and reified 'dog and pony' show using dead animals. And the critical comments I wrote on NARD websites were simply ignored.
In 2015, my concerns over the spread of NARD's objectification grew when I learned that vegans from Europe were flying in to New York, ironically to participate in an event about consumption. I started a petition asking NARD to stop their objectification of nonhuman animals, and it stated the following:
“The public display of objectified nonhuman animals without their consent is similar to their exploitation by factory farms. In both situations, animals are used without their consent. If nonhuman animals are truly equal to humans, then their consent is important, otherwise displaying their lifeless bodies amounts to selfish objectification and promotion of necrophilia and rape culture. Consent is essential to the feminist movement, to autonomous embodiment, and it is disappointing to see so many women participating in a ritual sacrifice using nonhuman animals without their consent and appropriating their victimization as part of human deification.
The exploitation and use of nonhuman animals by purported vegans without consent sends the message that consent is never required, which legitimizes and reinforces the exploitation of nonhuman animals. These animals did not die so they can be objectified and exploited. Vegans would not want their rotting bodies displayed in a public spectacle, and it is not equal to treat nonhuman animals in this way without their consent. And if their consent cannot be obtained, then they should not be used.”
Within minutes of posting the petition on my Facebook page, I was attacked by NARD's supporters with an aggressiveness that surprised me. My critique was deemed as “bull shit,” and “disgusting, misleading and extremely ignorant!” The founder of the group threatened to sue me for slander, and I was accused of being “just another angry vegan” who should “stop breathing.”
The irony of being hastily condemned to death for opposing vegans' use of dead animals did not escape me. In addition to the death wish, I was quickly outcasted from the vegan commuity by an avid NARD supporter who declared, “ethical vegan is not something you can call yourself after starting this petition.” Significantly, not a single vegan came to my aid or defended me against the barrage of disrespectful comments I received. My ethics and activism were continually called into question, as one of NARD's participants put it, “What do you do for the animals besides eat vegan?"
As an ethical vegan for 30 years, I observed and studied the movement as it grew from the early 1980s to become two percent of the US population. I do vegan outreach every weekend, create vegan art and clothes, and recently wrote two important books on the subject which hopefully will be published next year. One book is on climate and diet, Meat Climate Change: The Second Leading Cause of Global Warming, and other links the oppression of women and animals with rise of patriarchy, Cyborgs Versus the Earth Goddess: Men's Domestication of Women and Animals.
My three decades of activism, art, research and scholarship were all tossed aside and the substantive issues raised in the petition were completely ignored. Instead, my own individual efforts are measured against the alleged effectiveness of NARD's events As one proponent concluded, “Have you gathered 100's of people in one place and put on an event to change the way people see animals?”
According to this common, flawed reasoning among activists, critics are only legitimate if they can win a competition over vegan outreach and attendance numbers. Since animal advocacy organizations like NARD have institutional advantage, they can easily win and therefore automatically silence criticism from individuals and small groups. The result is that only institutional criticism is legitimized, which almost never occurs due to a defacto institutional code of silence. For example, animal advocacy organizations like Sea Shepard, Humane Society, FARM, Mercy for Animals, and COK, have never criticized PETA for their frequent, gratuitous objectification of females.
The entitlement and self-righteousness of NARD's vegan supporters were readily apparent. One stated, “It is extremely ignorant to think a dead animal who was thrown into the garbage to rot should give consent.” Another wrote, “How can you have any doubt about their consent considering the suffering they went through.” It was suggested that I should simply “stop worrying about other Vegans methods” that were all obviously beyond disapproval.
However, objectification of nonhuman animals is not beyond reproach, and Martha Nussbaum argued that a person might be objectified if one or a selection of the following properties are adhered to - instrumentality, or being used as a tool for another's purposes; denial of autonomy, as if lacking in agency or self-determination; inertness, as if without action; fungibility, as if interchangeable with other objects of the same type, or with objects of other types; ownership; and denial of subjectivity, as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences. Alarmingly, NARD's objectification of nonhuman animals falls into almost all of Nussbaum's categories.
Inertness and Silencing
Humans have agency and can decide about the use of their bodies and burial rituals, but nonhuman animals have limited agency that must be respected. The inertness of lifeless nonhuman bodies is essentially characterized as being useful for a presentation, as one of NARD's supporter put it, “I believe the dead animals is what makes it powerful.”
The nonhuman animals on display are clearly objectified through reduction to their bodies and appearance in a lifeless state. Sentient beings with preferences and desires, who are capable of profound social relationships, and who have inherent value apart from their exploitation, are presented essentially as inert objects. Their entire lives and a lifetime of experiences are reduced to an inert state which erases their former vitality and agency as live subjects.
Further, inertness reinforces the notion of passivity and lack of resistance among nonhuman animals. The silencing of publicly displayed inert beings is complete as they cannot vocalize, and their once real voices are co-opted by human activists who by choosing to utilize them in this way, subversively participate in further silencing.
Ownership and Emotional Use
NARD's vegan supporters falsely assume that having an emotional connection to animals automatically legitimizes ownership and use of discarded bodies of nonhuman animals. For example, one conceded that “it may be a complex ethical issue, but I am comfortable coming down on the side of this powerful and compassionate event that brings together the victims of violence and those who would give them voice.”
Inert nonhuman animals re-claimed by vegans do not benefit in any way since they are already dead, however pictures of activists posing with nonhuman animals' objectified bodies are posted widely on social media. This may create the impression that nonhuman animals' victimization is simply being appropriated for the emotional use and aggrandizement of NARD activists. For example, on participant argued, “These events are understandably controversial but their power in raising awareness and even in inspiring more energetic and passionate action from those of us who are already vegan goes beyond words.”
Illogically, nonhuman animals' lifeless bodies are considered as 'rescued' or “saved from horrible conditions,” as one of NARD's supporter wrote, which conveniently serves the emotional needs of vegan 'rescurers.' Nonhuman animals are anthropomorphized, or given human characteristics, as a part of the event. For example, they are all given human names. Another aspect of being anthropomorphized is when the inert nonhuman animals are held and publicly displayed in a ritual way, similar to a religious offering or animal sacrifice. And, after the event is over, the nonhuman animals are cremated with activists in attendance as part of human burial ritual and emotional use.
In her book, Nature Ethics, ecofeminist Marti Kheel wrote extensively on the instrumental use of nonhuman animals by environmental conservationists. However, Kheel's analysis is largely ignored by NARD's vegan activists whose instrumental use of other creatures is actually perceived as a benefit to nonhuman animals. One supporter wrote, “This art demonstration memorial funeral is profoundly impactful and shocking to many.” And another argued, “We are asking people to see and think about beings they generally ignore.”
Using animals as a means to an end, for a greater cause, without any benefit for the individual beings that are being used, is fundamentally instrumentalist, but NARD's participants have decided that their objectification is necessary. For example, one wrote, “I do agree it is complex and I am interested to read more but also think these things are being done for positive change.”
Evaluating the 'effectiveness' of advocacy is a complex issue as indicated in the Humane Research Council's vegetarian study which showed that recidivism is close to 80 percent after a few years. NARD does not present any research or data to justify their objectification, and no amount of data can ever justify the lack of consent. There are many animal advocacy approaches that are, or can be, just as effective without employing an instrumentalist view of nonhuman animals. The “ends” of animal liberation does not justify the “means” of using any nonhuman animal without their consent.
Moreover, framing objectification in terms of its 'effectiveness' on the feelings of human animals is deeply anthropocentric and further denies the individual agency of nonhuman animals. The issue of consent must remain central to thinking ethically about nonhuman animals and treating them as full equals, and instrumentality denies this.
Objectification through fungibility is treating a subject nonhuman animal as if she or her is interchangeable with other subjects of the same type, or with subjects and objects of other types. NARD's supporters falsely equate lifeless nonhuman animals for those that are alive. They also use individual inert bodies as stand-ins for animals enslaved in factory farms, and for the dissembled parts of nonhuman animals sold in stores.
For example, one of NARD's participants wrote, “The dead bodies are treated with utmost respect. More so than the meat in plastic wrap at the grocery store.” And another argued, “The animals are dead and most would have been rotting in a dumpster somewhere by now.” Utilizing the notion of interchangeability denies individuality and autonomy to the very nonhuman animals being displayed.
As a comparison, if feminists discovered a dozen murdered naked females, it would not be legitimate to parade their bodies in a public display to raise awareness of femicide and the dangers other women face. Similarly, parading dead nonhuman animals in a human spectacle does not give voice to voiceless animals in need of rescuing, as claimed. It merely normalizes the objectification of all nonhuman animals through fungibility.
Denial of Subjectivity
Despite their intentions, the organization and its supporters' declared purpose of using lifeless nonhuman animals to serve specifically as absent referents for their former lives, and for other nonhuman animals still trapped within factory farms, results in treating the displayed subjects as objects. This denial of subjectivity to the displayed inert bodies is similar to the use of erasing terms like 'meat' and 'bacon' to refer to nonhuman animal carcass and pigs.
NARD's supporters' arguments are based on false equivalency involving their own subjectivity, removing whatever limited agency nonhuman animals may have as lifeless beings. For example, one stated, “If I was enslaved and killed in such a brutal manner as factory farmed animals, or discarded so maliciously like millions of cats and dogs, I could think of no greater honor than to be given that dignity of a funeral of sorts, followed by a proper burial back in the Earth.”
However, this ignores the fact many humans with agency choose to keep their casket closed and specifically request no public viewing. By displaying nonhuman animals without consent, vegans act as if there is no need for concern for the feelings and experiences of nonhuman animals, and human animals, who may reject any form of ritualized public objectification.
Honoring nonhuman animals comes from respecting their lifeless bodies and not assuming that they would want to participate in human ideologies and death rituals. Projecting human needs and desires and assuming nonhuman animals would think the same is far too convenient and self-serving, especially since the animals do not benefit in any way. A private burial may be a different matter, and but the choice to cremate nonhuman animals further distorts the natural process of bacterial growth and organic decomposition.
Consumption, Dissent and Advocacy
Consent is fundamental to equality and there are many aspects to this display that have to be taken into consideration. In opposing the complexity of objectification in compulsory carnivory, vegans must be careful not to mirror instrumentalist views and objectification that serve to reinforce carnivores' hegemony. Being vegan does help to reduce suffering, violence and greenhouse gases. However, personal change does not stop there since veganism is not a panacea for the world's woes. Over-consumption is the larger problem, not just animal-based diets.
Over-consumption is a moral issue, equally as important as diet, and non-food over-consumption affects animals in many ways, including extinction. Over-consumption is characteristic of Westerners and the global middle-class, and vegan diets can vary significantly in greenhouse gas emissions, depending on farming method, form of transportation used, amount and source of ingredients. Vegans who drive a SUV, or who take ten plane trips each year, create a larger ecological footprint that most people on the planet, and this level of consumption does have a severe impact on biodiversity and ecosystems.
The single-issue focus on ethical diets in NARD's event is limited in many ways. For example, it serves to hide the fact that all forms of over-consumption are relevant, including those generated by vegans and animal advocacy organizations. And it ignores the interconnecting oppressions of females and animals, or how people of color are animalized as part of a sex-specie hierarchy. Before lecturing others on consumption, vegans must acknowledge that there are huge issues like classism, sexism, racism, labor, and other factors in the movement that are largely ignored. We only grow as individuals, and a movement, if we remain critical.
Please sign the petition and tell NARD to stop objectifying and abusing nonhuman animals!
m seenarine is the founder of Climate Change 911 and author of Cyborgs Versus the Earth Goddess: Men's Domestication of Women and Animals and Female Resistance (2017 Xpyr Press), Meat Climate Change: The 2nd Leading Cause of Global Warming (2016 Xpyr Press), and Education and Empowerment Among Dalit (Untouchable) Women in India: Voices from the Subaltern (2004 Edwin Mellen Press).