Privilege and the Hierarchy of Oppression within the Animal Rights Movement
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.