The Assimilationist Appropriation of 'Liberation'

Debates between the movements doing nonhuman animal advocacy often revolve around "welfare" and "rights." (I say "movements" because there are many different ideologies driving several divergent social movements.) I'm increasingly less interested in the welfare-rights debate. I think both welfare and rights are limited, although the former is more conservative than the latter.

One of the things I'm very interested in communicating with this blog is the difference between assimilation and liberation, and where veganism fits in. Unfortunately, the distinctions between assimilation and liberation are never really discussed with regard to veganism specifically, and nonhuman animal advocacy more generally. While the rhetoric of "liberation" is often used, the nonhuman animal advocacy movements are decidedly dominated by assimilationist principles, campaigns, policies, and practices.

While the modern nonhuman animal advocacy movements are often dated to the publication of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, this book set out a strictly assimilationist and accommodating philosophy and strategy for nonhuman animal advocacy. In fact, in that book Singer uses a pro-assimilation and pro-accommodation argument to dismiss veganism, writing:

it should be said that, in our present speciesist world, it is not easy to keep so strictly to what is morally right. Most people have difficulty enough taking the step to [lacto-ovo] vegetarianism; if asked to give up milk and cheese at the same time they could be so alarmed that they end up doing nothing at all. A reasonable and defensible plan of action is to tackle the worst abuses first ... animal flesh and factory farm eggs.

This strategy of assimilation and accommodation was the general approach taken in Singer's more recent book The Way We Eat, co-written with Jim Mason.

The term "liberation" in the title of Singer's first book was appropriated in a very colonialist fashion from the Black liberation and women's liberation movements. While Singer bases this appropriation on comparisons between speciesism with racism and sexism, his definition of "speciesism," "racism," and "sexism" are all based on an ineffectual liberal, psychological-based concept of "prejudice" (e.g., "Speciesism ... is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species."). This "attitude"-based approach is rejected by the women's liberation and Black liberation movements, which define sexism and racism as power-based and socially constructed ideologies.

Singer's concept of "liberation" is based on his core utilitarian principle: "equal consideration of interests." In the essay "Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary?," Singer writes, "The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions." Singer's total philosophy is based on "the like interests of all those affected."

Yet, at the heart of the Black liberation and women's liberation movements is an assertion and empowerment of differences. As such, Black liberation activists directly challenge the limitations of the assimilation and accommodation approach favored by the civil rights activists that assumes Whites and Blacks have "like interests." And women's liberation activists challenge the limitations of the assimilation and accommodation approach favored by liberal women's rights activists that assumes men and women have "like interests." The liberation movements realize that by assuming that everyone had the same interests the assimilationists in effect promoted the normalization of the dominant White male interests, often hidden behind "color-blind" and "gender-neutral" rhetoric.

Perhaps the best illustration of liberationism embracing differences, and rejecting the assimilationist obsession with likeness, is the queer liberation movements. By adopting the term queer, the movements are making it clear that we aren't seeking the "virtual equality" of "like interests" promoted through assimilation to the heteronormative status quo. Rather, we seek recognition of the validity of different interests which ought to be respected. Yet, while appropriating the term "liberation," Singer relies completely on the very assimilation and accommodation approaches to racism and sexism that the liberation movements fundamentally reject.

Singer's strict assimilationist approach to speciesism, racism, and sexism is very problematic. By ignoring the issues of power, which is so basic to any form of oppression, Singer actually ends up promoting speciesism, racism, and sexism through his philosophy. For instance, in his essay "Is Racial Discrimination Arbitrary?," Singer supports the backlash concept of so-called "reverse discrimination." That is, Singer doesn't recognize White supremacy or heteropatriarchy. A long these lines, Singer has repeatedly argued that male domination is the result of evolution, as opposed to an actual form of social oppression.

As far as the dominant nonhuman animal advocacy movements are rooted in the philosophy of Peter Singer, these movements are both assimlationist and directly hostile to liberation-based nonhuman animal advocacy. In contrast, veganism, which predates Singer by three decades, is aligned liberationism. In fact, it is exactly the radical liberationism of veganism that has repeatedly been attacked by Singer. In his essay "A Response," Singer writes about how he won't:

advocate veganism to others, or at least not to those who are not already in the animal movement, because at our present stage of development of our society's concern for animals, this seems to be asking more than most people are prepared to give.

Of course veganism is "asking more than most people are prepared to give." It is the very fact that veganism challenges what people are "prepared to give" -- that is, it challenges our human privilege and system of human supremacy -- that it is lines up with liberation instead of assimilation. Thus, Singer, deeply commitment to assimilation and accommodation, expresses disdain for veganism directly and more indirectly for all liberation movements.