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Privilege and the Hierarchy of Oppression within the Animal Rights Movement

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There is little doubt that even in 2016 girls and women all over the world face a disproportionate amount of discrimination, of verbal and physical violence, and a lack of recognition in gender parity. In Australia, as in many other countries, the glass ceiling is barely dented when it comes to female representation in government, big business, and academia. For women of colour the obstacles faced by a predominantly white patriarchal western world are even more difficult to overcome. And these ‘brick walls’ to equality become higher and wider when you’re a woman with a disability, or who is lesbian/bi/pansexual, and/or transgendered/gender fluid. Every day can be a struggle to be heard, valued, or even to just survive.

Men, more specifically white, heterosexual men, are predominantly the perpetrators of oppression and discrimination in English speaking countries. White, straight men hold most of the power, and wield the privilege. But being a white, heterosexual male doesn’t make one automatically an abuser or oppressor. There are good men who want to see gender equality, and those who even consider themselves feminists; just as there are white men who are fervently opposed to any form of racism or bigotry. Within the abolitionist vegan movement, many male activists see all forms of discrimination and oppression — against humans and nonhuman animals — as morally wrong. This is at the heart of abolitionism as defined by Gary L. Francione.

So how is it that, in the midst of this (seemingly) common ground between female, male, transgendered, and non-binary gendered vegan advocates, we have good people being accused of sexism and racism for expressing a difference of opinion or engaging in civil debate about human and animal rights?

Before I give my opinion on this question, let me give you a little background on me. I was born, forty-five years ago, a female, named Susan. I lived in a middle-class home as the youngest of four children to a minister of religion and a primary school teacher. I was sexually abused within my family as a small child, bullied at school for my perceived sexual orientation and difference, and suffered depression and suicidal ideation through my teens into my late twenties. I completed high school, but have been a university drop-out a number of times. I was sexually assaulted at age eighteen, and sexually harassed and physically assaulted in my work in the transport industry at thirty. I struggled with issues relating to my sexuality, and suffered with post traumatic stress disorder through my late twenties and early thirties. I was homeless for several years, living in caravans and short-term emergency accommodation, and often had to rely on food handouts, or pawning my belongings to get by. At thirty-three, after a lifetime of hiding gender-related issues (even from myself), I started to transition as a female-to-male transsexual. Despite rejection and push-back from some friends and family, I now live a more authentic and contented life, identifying as gay male. For the past eight years I’ve been on a disability pension with chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and anxiety.

Two and a half years ago, after a short period of being on a plant-based diet for health reasons, I stumbled across a video on YouTube of Professor Gary Francione giving a keynote lecture at a university. The abolitionist approach to animal rights, and reading ‘Eat Like You Care’, had such an impact that I pretty much went vegan overnight. I started to engage on Facebook abolitionist vegan pages, and tried to learn as much as I could about non-violent, unequivocal, vegan advocacy. I was already a supporter of many human rights issues, and could see that veganism was in line with rejecting all forms of oppression.

It wasn’t long into my vegan advocacy that I noticed something, not peculiar to veganism, but rife on Facebook and other social media forums: the fact that engaging in lively debate and reasoned criticism were often labelled as “attacks”, “bullying” and “oppression”. Of course, I recognise that whether or not someone uses abusive or patronising language, comments can be belittling and negative. However, this characterisation of criticism as bullying has led, in some quarters, to good advocates not being able to express their differing opinions without being accused of ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’. A hierarchy of oppression has been created that rates each person based on how many privileges they possess or are denied. It may be recognised that a gay, transsexual man with a disability faces prejudices and discrimination, but not as much as a woman of colour. It then follows that a gay, disabled transman cannot criticise or question a woman of colour’s point of view, and that if he does he must therefore be sexist and/or racist.

A person’s colour, gender, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability and/or mental ability does not naturally confer goodness or evil, rightness or wrongness on them. These attributes in a world of otherness do mean that some groups of people experience difference as excluding them from moral consideration. But implying (or directly saying) that some people are discriminatory merely by being born a certain gender or race is reinforcing the very “otherness” that divides humans and excludes some from having a voice.

About 18 months ago I joined in on a conversation on a vegan forum, where, as is sometimes the case, there were differing points of view. I made a comment, expressing my opposition to the opinion piece, and was immediately called out by the author of the article for my “straight, white, male privilege” and for attempting to “mansplain” and “silence” women and women of colour. There were several nasty comments that followed, echoing the author’s position, to which I made no further reply and left the discussion. I returned later to the page to express my frustration, and to explain that I was a gay identified transsexual male, who had experienced oppression as a female for more than thirty years. The author’s presumption that I was being oppressive, apparently by virtue of my male name or bearded profile photo, was exactly the kind of dismissive and prejudicial behaviour of which the author was accusing me. The administrator of the page refused to weigh in, as they felt no responsibility for the sharing of a third-party’s article, despite being well aware of my history of issues surround my sexuality and gender identity. After the author back-pedalled, giving me a qualified apology and justification, the whole post was deleted from the page, and the apology — such as it was — was also removed. My civil, reasoned, and ‘on topic’ comments were silenced because of my perceived privilege. And when that privilege was proven to be only half accurate, and blatantly unfair, I was again silenced for pointing out their hypocrisy.

This position of “get them before they get you” or preemptive self-defence may not seem unreasonable. When I first dealt with my history of childhood and adult sexual abuse as a female person, I was so traumatised and emotionally triggered all the time, that I saw 100% of men as perpetrators/abusers. Every father with a small child, every husband with his wife, every male that crossed my path, I saw not only as a prospective abuser, but — by default — an actual perpetrator. This skewed view of men was understandable, but not commensurate with reality.

While some forms of privilege are a birthright, and there is no doubt that without any further action those born with that privilege are given special treatment, there are also forms of privilege which we can acquire: economic, political, academic, and social. The power that flows from these privileges can be wielded against those who do not fit the mould, or who are deemed “less than” or “other”.

Excluding any member of the moral community is wrong. Silencing any person because of their actual or perceived privilege or lack of privilege is also wrong and discriminatory. All manner of humans, of all genders, ethnicities, cultures, sexuality, gender identity, and age — including “straight, white males” — must have the ability to have a voice, and for that voice to be one of agreement or dissent. It is not automatically ‘sexist’ for a man to disagree with a woman, or ‘racist’ for a white person to disagree with a person of colour, or ‘transphobic’ for a cisgendered woman to disagree with a transgendered woman.

I am no more “right” for having an opinion as a white male, than I am “wrong”. While women and people of colour have been and continue to be oppressed and silenced by those with privilege, being born white, male or heterosexual should not preclude a person from being an activist against racism, sexism, heterosexism or transphobia.

We have a community of abolitionist vegans, virtually and in real life, who are doing their best to fight for the rights of animals, and to help shift the paradigm towards a vegan world. To directly state or tacitly imply that some members of that community are oppressive or bullies, simply by virtue of their expressing a different point of view, and based only on a superficial and essentialist perception of their identity, is detrimental to the animal rights movement. It’s dishonest and manipulative at worst, and misguided and deluded at best.

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  • T.A. McDonnell

    Powerful and moving essay. Thanks to Benjamin MacEllen for the courage to put it out there and to Ecorazzi as well.

  • Mark Caponigro

    Not surprising that there should be such unjust strife, such energy devoted to disempowering the ones we disagree with. Just a couple of days ago it was my shocking and disappointing experience to see posted in an abolitonist vegan Facebook page, as if it were an insight into an enemy’s wicked heart, a most moving video interview by Nathan Runkle, founder of Mercy for Animals (a group the abolitionist vegans like to attack), of a few years ago, in which not only did he say nothing that was opposed to abolitionist-vegan doctrine, but he also explained how his experiences as a gay man in a basically homophobic society helped him understand more profoundly the even more unjust situation of nonhuman animals. It seems what he actually said mattered nothing at all; his words were misinterpreted, or ignored; and the whole point of that posting was to hang up for abuse a figurehead of a disliked deficient animal-rights group.

    So Benjamin’s testimony just adds to the picture: The tactics of personal destruction are the norm in the online conduct of abolitionist vegans.

  • freeda brocks

    Funny that a Gary Francoine fan should write this.

    • jan

      Yeah the ban anyone who disagrees / spend inordinate amounts of time sifting through each profile of Black Vegans Rock (and others) to discuss their perceived “moral baseline” tact isn’t an ‘open to others with an opposing point of view’ crowd in my experience and observation.

  • Thank you for your article, Benjamin. Personally, I believe we all need to extend a bit more compassion and understanding towards each other. That doesn’t mean we can’t have healthy debates, but I try to always give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Your heart is in the right place until proven otherwise.

  • Dede River

    Thoughts on Ben McEllen’s blog.

    While being white doesn’t automatically make one a racist, and being male doesn’t automatically make one sexist, both do confer privilege. Functioning within the social system that confers that privilege can disempower
    others, regardless of the “intent” of the privileged. The white male professor who speaks over the female academic of colour has an amplified voice, and enhanced “credibility” granted to him regardless of his belief in equality. It is like the rich and poor competing on a “level playing field”. The field is anything but level. It has been skewed since birth.

    Although it is true that not all people of privilege seek to exploit that privilege. It is equally true that not all people engaging in “lively debate” are actually engaging in constructive critique. Just like giving people the right to free speech is not always an advance for diversity, particularly when the freedom is exercised by groups like the KKK or the American Nazi Party. Sometimes, perhaps often, “robust debate” is a euphemism for a full-on argument or harangue. It is one thing when someone makes a point with the intention of pointing out weaknesses in another’s argument, so that they can correct it. It is another thing when the criticism is delivered with a sarcastic sneer and the criticism extends beyond the work to the person, and they are called stupid, pathetic, etc. It is also a case of someone with power using their position to deliver polemics in a closed environment, full of uncritical supporters of that person where their opponent has no voice and no ability to reply. This is not “lively debate” by any criteria.

    And while colour, race, class does not confer goodness or badness, it is not irrelevant. And we need to emember that formal declarations, like Francione’s principles of abolitionism, are not necessarily reflected
    in behaviour. How many religious people have used doctrines that verbally support empathy, acceptance, mercy, and forgiveness, and yet their personal behaviour has been tyrannical and abusive, often making family members their targets.

    I’m aware of the attack that was made n Ben as a straight white male. While it is clear that his attackers were in the wrong, the lesson to take from that is that “principle” is capable of being used as a club to beat people over the head. The case doesn’t make women as a class into abusers, nor does it negate arguments against men telling women “what’s what”. It does make clear that good principles can be abused, and that it is up to us as people to hear one another without prejudice and preconception. It makes clear that simply “letting fly” with abuse is not productive, and is sometimes manifestly unfair. Ethics is not entirely the principles we hold like flags, it is what is in our hearts and actions. Are we actually trying to help move things forward, or are we delighting in crushing our “foes”? I don’t think Ben is actually defending abusive behaviour, but I do
    believe he is taking a position that presumes the “rightness” of one side, and therefore is willing to overlook nastiness and unfairness, and comments manifestly intended to be hurtful, rather than being “constructive debate”.

    Where there has been large imbalances of power, those with power have at times been excluded. Women’s space has excluded men, black people have decided they want to talk among themselves. Lesbian and Gay people often find it easier to address their own issues without it being open to all comers, including those promoting homophobia. This may be discriminatory, but is not an example of structural discrimination.
    Men excluded from discussions among women may be discriminated against, but it is not sexism, which is the structural oppression. Vegans, or even abolitionist vegans, may want to work things out with others they know share their basic views, without trolls or welfarists pushing their point. But ultimately, activism always occurs in the public arena. LGBTI people must make their points to straight and/or cisgendered people. Black people make their demands of society as a whole, and so on.

    There is no hierarchy of oppression that means we need to consider someone’s voice more relevant than others. But it is clear that we need to consider the voice of an oppressed group when we are addressing that particular type of oppression. We can’t just talk over them, particularly when privilege and structural inequality is involved,
    and say we all should have an equal voice. Voices are not equal. That does not mean anyone’s voice must be accepted without consideration. It does mean we need to listen to what other are saying, particularly
    those whose voices are often minimised, and give it consideration.

    What is not fair is when someone with a great deal of power, and a leadership role in the community, is unfair, and treats others without consideration, or with contempt, in their actions and speech. That’s particularly true
    when that person with power and authority also ticks all the boxes for privilege: race, class, education, gender, sexuality, status, nationality, and wealth.

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