The Inescapable Speciesism of “Progressive” Media

By Justin Van Kleeck

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Having lived with chickens for several years now, I can quite clearly see just how impossible it is for mainstream America and the media serving it–whether far “right” or far “left”–to step back from a conceptual framework that positions non-human animals as lesser beings here for our consumption.

A rather jaw-dropping example is a recent article in Mother Jones about the problems with so-called “cage-free” eggs. As we all should expect by now, the article shocks no one in its shocking revelation that the “cage-free” label on a carton of eggs means much less than most starry-eyed egg-eaters think it does…

Articles like this are endlessly frustrating because they assume, reinforce, and depend upon the premise that non-humans (in this case egg-laying hens) are, inextricably, objects within the human food system, and thus they emphasize the details of treatment over the ethics of use.

That is, in ethical terms, they are asking the wrong questions because, in virtually every single case, they are depending on a conceptual framework in which chickens (like other consumable animals) are food, always and already and forever...

Every single journalist who wants to do a story on the “transition” (ha ha) to “cage-free” eggs (ha ha) should, instead, take a big step back and think about a few other issues, if they actually want to do some compelling (or “progressive” or even fucking less exhaustively trite) journalism.

1. Where are the boys? Chickens (like most species) give birth to roughly equal numbers of male and female offspring. But where are the boys at these supposedly more “humane” cageless egg farms? Answer: they are dead. They are almost all dead (the few who make it out are usually dead, just at a later date) because hatcheries (where virtually every chick today is born) kill them outright…because no one wants them. Why in the name of profit would a farmer raise a boy–feeding and caring for (ha ha) them–the same way as a hen who will lay the eggs that farmer sells???

2. How many of these supposedly “happier” hens are going to lay like mad for a year or so, then lay fewer eggs, and then either be slaughtered *because* they are less productive or die because they develop one of the inevitable health problems laying hens experience as a direct result of selective breeding for egg production–including egg-yolk peritonitis, ovarian cancer, or one of the many other related conditions?

3. As long as major media outlets (as well as so, so many vegans…) promote the notion that there is a “better” (read “acceptable”) way to use non-humans for food, what you will encounter is a gentrification of the food system (“happy” animals are expensive animals, obviously) coupled with a continued exploitation of non-human animals for human food, to the utter detriment of the non-humans. There is no necessary (or even sufficient) imperative to stop eating animals in a narrative that says treating them “better” is less deplorable than treating them like Descartes’ automata.

To take the position that “nicer” exploitation is somehow acceptable means both condoning violence and excusing the vast number of humans who actively crank out endorphins over being “compassionate” animal lovers/exploiters, completely ignoring the paradox that recognizing the need to be “nicer” to animals necessitates asking why they deserve to be treated any nicer than cogs and robots. At all.

This happens all the time, of course… One glaring example is how NPR, the great bastion of liberal media, seemed to do story after story in the summer/fall of 2015 on how rough of a time the food industry was having because Avian Influenza was killing (or causing to be murdered) millions of laying hens, which meant egg prices were going up. GASP–chefs and bakers had to look at plant ingredients instead, or pay more for eggs as supply decreased!!!

The complete inability of supposedly progressive journalists and media to actually think about the underlying ethical problems and real-time implications (on the victims) of the exploitative, speciesist food system is borderline criminal. To watch instance after instance of it occur is as disconcerting as it is disappointing.

But then again, what incentive would the media outlets–catering as they do to a culture as pleased by bacon as it is by “happy” eggs–have to do otherwise than applaud mediocre measures that make everyone feel nice as they eat their omelette?

The answer: none.

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Nonhuman Animals Are Others: On Learning to Judge and the Limits of Choice

By Charlotte Eure

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Everyday Feminism recently published a video that asks, “Does Feminism Require Vegetarianism or Veganism?” The editors introduce vlogger Celia Edell as “a feminist vegetarian who doesn’t apply her choice to others.”

So you know you’re in for a slimy ride into the more tender parts of hell: those rotten sections of our culture where we feel like everything is cool and totally a choice and all about personal preference. In those special caverns, we find endless excuses for our complicity in oppressive systems. We get there and love to say, “You know what? You do you. I can’t judge!” Which is especially funny when moments earlier we were banging the gavel to shut down fundamentally the same garbage we now find ourselves swimming in like it’s a private pool on a hot summer day.

If the video stuck to a discussion about why feminists are not required to be vegan, I likely wouldn’t have a problem with it. Unfortunately, Edell gets into the idea that being vegan/vegetarian (two entirely different concepts, by the way) boils down to personal choice. In fact, she says, some people can’t be vegan, so. …So what? So we just shouldn’t care about the horrific injustices of animal use? We shouldn’t care, for instance, that cows are impregnated over and over to continue producing milk until they can’t stand any longer, at which point they are killed? That the dangerous practices of slaughtering vulnerable animals and stealing babies from their mothers has serious psychological effects on workers, who are often demonized for abuses inherent to the work? We shouldn’t examine why someone might struggle to be vegan?

Institutions and ideologies exist which constrain our choices and teach us to engage in oppressive behavior, and the powerful often thrive on limiting our access to knowledge and alternative resources. Animal use doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the foundation of the exploitation and oppression of those marked as other. Vegans, including those with eating disorders and limited access to resources – vegans completely erased by the rhetoric in this video – have grappled with these issues and contributed to a complex conversation about power, privilege, and ethics that is absent from Edell’s video. Instead, we get a disappointing moral relativism and frustrating refusal to accept accountability.

When we speak on issues of injustice from a place of ignorance as though we are an informed source, we are more likely to reinforce oppression than to challenge it, especially when we occupy spaces of privilege and try to speak for people outside those spaces. A paltry discussion of animal rights is not necessary to make the point that feminists can be disengaged from movements for nonhuman justice and still be feminists. To leap from that point to one that minimizes nonhuman oppression and erases already marginalized members of the vegan community reveals a lack of care to truly understand the subject from more relevant perspectives and histories not the vlogger’s own, which is why her argument ends up being about opinions instead of systems.

It’s hard to discern at times when we might do more harm than good by speaking when we know the dangers of silence, but there is so much potential for growth in learning to recognize those spaces where we should listen before we speak. Before you feel you have to add to a conversation, you might find that others have already spoken on the topic with much more grace, nuance, and experience than you could have. And that should be a good thing! Our world needs more people willing to seek out the critical and creative voices who have devoted their time and energy to movements for social change than act like everything’s relative so they can stay comfy in complicity.