ANIMAL(S) MATTER(S) CONFERENCE: THE FUTURE OF CRITICAL ANIMAL STUDIES

 On April 23rd. 2010, organised by, among others, the Philosophy Department of Liverpool University, this conference was attended by some 70 people, among whom, three members of the QCA committee.

 Critical Animal Studies (CAS) developed in the United States from the Center on Animal Liberation Affairs (CALA) as an academic forum for studying the animal liberation movement. In 2007, CALA changed its name to the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS) with the aim of transforming higher education into an inclusive environment for all species. CAS is an expanding academic field guided by a commitment to the abolition of animal suffering, with particular focus on vivisection.

The ten conference speakers, drawn from academic disciplines of theology, politics, philosophy, ethics, feminism, the arts and Animal Rights (AR) campaigning, shared common ground in seeking to expand morally, politically and creatively our thinking and action regarding animality and the inclusion of other species.

There follow a partial précis of the papers we heard over the day.

 Alastair Currie, Policy Advisor of PETA UK, spoke on Gauging, Changing and Mobilising Public Opinion: Challenges for AR Advocates.

 Alastair listed figures for the Key Performance Indicators which give an idea of how the public will accept, for example, vivisection. If it is for medical research, 70% are accepting of the practice, if the animal suffers no “unnecessary suffering”, 71%. If done to counter life-threatening disease, 50% are in favour, and 68% if there is no alternative.

The picture is depressing: experiments on animals are now at the highest level for 20 years and 87% of the public are “conditional acceptors” of it, with men more likely than women to do so. The proportion of people agreeing that more research for alternatives needs to be done declined by 16%.

 In the case of fur, there is much feeling against expressed, but fur sales have gone up by over 58% compared with the end of the 1990s – a 169% growth over the past 10 years.

 A brighter picture emerges in the case of hunting – a majority of the public, of all parties, is opposed to repeal of the ban.

 Alastair mentioned some legislative measures aimed at reducing animal suffering – an end to sow stalls, battery cages, the Cosmetics Bill, a probable ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, on fur farming, the EU seal fur ban in 2009, the Hunting Bill, the 1986 whaling moratorium and, in general, the 2006 Animal Welfare Bill.

 Numbers of vegetarians remain pretty static. Some 2-3% of the British public appear to be vegetarian, though the picture is not wholly clear, as the definition of “vegetarianism” is wide – we have all heard fish eaters describe themselves as “vegetarian”. The figure for vegans is some 0.3% = 180,000 in 2010.

 It would be interesting to have an idea of the number of people who are members of AR groups, but that was impossible to discover.

On public perceptions: in general, there was disagreement with the suggestion that there is little cruelty to animals in this country.

Tactics available for use were listed: “shock horror”, informing the public, synergistic benefits – for instance, vegetarian food is good for us – “fight the power”, reasoned argument, celebrity endorsement, outrage, welfare protection and “extremism” – what will work?

The domino theory, where one lab is targeted and closed and the assumption is made that this will lead to the next closure, assumes that everything and everyone is the same.  The Gandhian “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you… then you win” is unfortunately not necessarily the case.

What do we not know? We don’t know why people become or stay vegetarian, who are the AR people and are they changing, are the groups gaining/losing support or is the position static, which tactics are most effective in generating adherence to AR principles, is animal welfare an obstacle to change – for instance, it is not clear that organic meat eaters become vegetarian in due course. How much is our message understood?

What now? We need more research, links between academia and campaigners, method not just theory, to find out what does work and evidence-based advocacy.

A conclusion was that much campaigning is of the slash-and-burn variety – and it should become sustainable.

 Robert Garner, Professor of Politics at the University of Leicester presented a paper In Defence of Sentiency: A Critique of One Version of Animal Rights.

 In a very thought-provoking talk, he made the broad distinction in the animal advocacy movement between New Welfarism – or Animal Protectionism, and Animal Rights Abolitionism, both of which he saw as worthwhile.

The view of the abolitionists, amongst whom he mentioned Gary Francione, is that no reformist attitude really works; reforms are counter-productive in that they make it more acceptable to the public to exploit animals; they are also almost always unsuccessful, in that animals have the status of property.

Robert dealt with the Ethical Dimension – he analysed two positions:

Sentience, in which the proposition is that it is wrong to treat animals in ways that will harm them and:

Use – it is wrong to use animals at all.

Advocates of the Sentience Position maintain that we can achieve rights for animals whilst using them, whereas those for the Use Position say that only an end to use will suffice.

 As Robert finds the Use Position both difficult to sustain and not necessary, he defends Sentience: animals have the right not to have suffering inflicted upon them.

The ethical rejection of the Use Position centres on the personhood argument. Animals are not persons, so they are not harmed in such fundamental ways. Humans have an intrinsic interest in liberty – but animals have an instrumental interest – that is to say, they have an interest in the avoidance of suffering.

It is argued that humans have a greater interest in the continuance of life. If faced with the choice between saving the life of an animal and that of a human person, it would be difficult to justify not choosing the person.

An additional argument involves marginal cases. Some humans are incapable, for various reasons, of autonomy. If “marginal” humans are persons, then animals are too.

But the reverse may be the case: “marginal” humans are not, for reasons such as age and mental capacity, autonomous, and may not have an interest in liberty or even life. Therefore, neither do animals.

We do treat “marginal” humans differently. There is a greater interference in their lives, but we do not, in other ways, treat them as we do animals. Human life of all qualities is universally regarded with respect – but animals’ lives are not.

So to sum up that argument – we are morally entitled to use animals, but not to kill them.

To return to the argument that the Use Position is not necessary: an animal’s interest in avoiding suffering still holds. Animals’ lack of personhood does not reduce the moral importance of their interest in not suffering.

Points to consider: Why is it less important to inflict suffering on animals than on humans? Are all human interests morally superior to those of animals?

It is politically more astute to adopt the Sentience Position and to concentrate on reducing suffering, which would be a public policy reform. Using animals in vivisection and intensive farming cannot really exist without the infliction of suffering, so the sentience position has some force.

Converting people to vegetarianism will not have the same effect. This is an ethical choice, so if the authorities agree to facilitate this by providing vegetarian food for those who have chosen it, the system is perpetuated, as the meat choice will have to be available as well.

Robert took some questions. The first asked about wild animals not under human control – the response was that more work is required on this issue.

Another questioner asked if indeed animals do not have an intrinsic interest in liberty – the reply was that they lack the cognitive ability. Most people accept that humans have a greater interest in life.

In what way do they not have an interest in liberty? Lack of liberty does not present as many problems to an animal as to a human. For instance, free range is not wholly free.

But the performance of natural functions is important and the question is – does lack of that lead to suffering? Doctor Stephen Lewis of Liverpool University mentioned caged birds, for whom the lack of liberty is total.

 Dr. Anat Pick, Senior Lecturer and programme leader in film at UEL, spoke on the topic of Creaturely Ethics: Beyond the Discourse of Rights.

 Anat chose the word “creaturely” as an opening to the religious vocabulary she used, and began with two propositions: the concept of rights is ill-suited to how we interact with the world, and:

The following quotation by the French philosopher and writer Simone Weil is of some significance: “The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence.”

 Anat recognises vulnerability as a source of ethical values. Vulnerability, shared with all living bodies, human or not, equals finitude and mortality.

The extension of rights to animals is based on their capacities to feel and to suffer. Since we can do anything to animals, theirs is a test case for ethics in general.

In Human Personality, 1942, Simone Weil shows that rights are allied to power, so rights-based justice is “victor’s” justice; it is based on force. The weak cannot demand, but can only accept, what the strong concede to them, and intra-species justice reveals this disparity of power. Do we not recognise the suffering of animals? We know it is happening, but as we are systematically numbed to this suffering, we continue to hurt them because we can – knowing is not a precondition of good behaviour.

For Weil, justice is a basic expectation of the heart, in spite of experience to the contrary. We have a child-like expectation of good.

Rights are often coupled with obligations in the argument advanced against granting them to animals. But they are not symmetrical; my rights are another’s obligations. “A man left alone in the universe… has no rights, but has obligations.” (The Need for Roots.)

 Anat proposes that what makes us sacred is our vulnerability and dispossession. As her field of expertise is visual culture, she illustrated her argument with a photo of a fox, sitting on a grave in the Jewish cemetery in Hackney. This picture, in which both the fox and the deceased are unaware of each other and of their shared vulnerability, highlights everyone’s mortality.

 The concept of Creaturely Ethics recognises the suffering of animals and asks what are the limits of our obligations?

 A questioner asked where this leads us? Anat replied that we continue to pursue the objective of abolition of animal exploitation, whether by welfare or by more radical means, but the rights argument is not working. What is lacking is a religious dimension and an awareness of the “sacred”.

 Dr. Karen Morgan, of Cardiff University, spoke on Ethical Veganism and Animal rights: Learning from Feminist Research and Activism.

 Karen summed up some of the current disappointments of the movement – media perception and their association of the words “Animal Rights” with “terrorism”, the entrenched interests and power of the meat/dairy and biomedical industries, the failure of ethical veganism to reach the mainstream and, in the movement itself, some squabbling and lack of focus on the end point.

 However, feminist thinking may well shed light on new lines of enquiry, challenging oppressive power relations, advancing debate and enhancing the understanding of both.

Karen cited the example of Lady Constance Lytton, a suffragist who was an early member of the Vegetarian Society.

“To oppose red meat is to damn the masculine presence in the world” a significantly disturbing concept (Moir & Moir, 1999), was countered by the American writer and animal advocate, Carol Adams, who observed that “(dairy products) are produced by other female animals who are oppressed by their femaleness… essentially surrogate wet-nurses”.  (2006)

There is a clear connection between the exploitation of women and that of (predominantly, in terms of numbers) female animals.

 That connection is also valid in the case of family violence. Adams observes that companion animals are abused as surrogates –“Animal Cruelty is family violence”.

(my note: something the Bolton group Paws for Kids knows very well. Also, in a recent talk to a representative of the NSPCC, I was offered leaflets entitled Cruelty to Animals, Violence to Humans).

 What can we learn from Feminist Activism?

 The reworking of concepts – agreeing on central questions – working together towards a mutual goal – avoiding demeaning and exclusionary language – appropriation and misrepresentation of discourses (for example, the issue may be redefined: in talking about violence perpetrated on women in the home, it will be mentioned that men may suffer also in this way, even though statistically it is much rarer) – barriers to participation.

 We may suffer disarticulation – our concern for other animals may be undermined and trivialised.

We also need to challenge the normalisation of the abuse suffered by animals and work to locate that abuse within public debates. The success of the feminist movement in moving from grass roots campaigning to taking the issues into the mainstream could serve as a model to raise the profile of ethical veganism and animal rights.

 From Dr. Richard Twine, Sociology Lecturer at Lancaster University, we heard a paper on Putting the “critical” in Critical Animal Studies. What does it mean?

 Richard argued there exists a dichotomy between Critical Animal Studies (CAS) and Animal Studies and that CAS addresses failings in AS. CAS responds to such issues as species extinction and climate change and advocates for boycotts, demos, activism and ethical veganism.

 “Are you eating your subject matter?” is a fundamental question to pose and Richard describes veganism as subverting masculinity, refusing commodification and adopting an anti-capitalist stance.

 However, it is important to note that Richard argues for a conception of CAS that retains the ability to be in dialogue with those from antithetical moral positions.

 

 

 

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