13. Why We Oppress? Why Animals?

Just a few days from now, on January 27th, the world will observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date marks 75 years since liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Hitler’s most notorious death camp. It’s an appropriate opportunity to question why we oppress and why animals.

Why We Oppress?

Oppression may be defined as the denial of another sentient being’s rights, freedoms, and/or opportunities. It can be as common and localized as bullying in school or employment or domestic violence and as disastrous and global as the Holocaust and the genocides that have followed and continue to this day.

The roots of oppression are varied:

  • Low self-esteem. Most bullying and domestic violence is related to people attempting to salve their low self-esteem by demeaning and controlling others. The low self esteem may be instigated by the oppressor having been bullied.
  • Fear. Sometimes we oppress people of different color, culture, or religion for fear that they may harm us. Demagogues explore that powerful emotion to control public opinion.
  • Revenge. This involves making up for perceived past wrongs, as in most genocides that followed the Holocaust and the end of colonial rule in Asia and Africa.
  • Transference. Victims of oppression feeling that they have license to oppress others, forming an oppression cycle.
  • Convenience or financial gain. This is by far the most common root of oppression, accounting for both slavery and animal exploitation. Slavery was ended by a civil war that cost an estimated 600,00 lives. Animal exploitation is getting phased out gradually, through technological innovations like the invention of kerosene, development of the steam and internal combustion engines, and investments in plant-based meat and milk products.

Whatever its root, no form of oppression can ever succeed without the support of social norms.

About Social Norms

All societies maintain certain rules of behavior, or social norms, in order to survive. All members of society are expected to behave in accordance with these norms. They are shaped by our collective needs, desires, and morals, but also by powerful commercial interests, by our public officials, and most importantly, by the failure of dissenters to speak out. They may also be exceptionally arbitrary, like the Nazi norm of hailing Christians and gassing Jews, or the Western norm of petting dogs and eating pigs.

Social norms govern our behavior more powerfully than our religion, our laws, and our parents. They are further refined and specialized in our group norms that apply to our immediate social and professional surroundings. They define our frames of reference – the mental lenses through which we perceive the world around us, so we don’t have to question everything we hear and see.  

Understanding the extraordinary power of social norms provides a clue to the key question asked by historians in the wake of the Holocaust: was the Holocaust a peculiarly German phenomenon, or are other enlightened societies capable? The question was answered by Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaaac Bashevis Singer who wrote “To the animals, all men are Nazis.” Yes, we are all capable. Indeed some of our best friends and dearest family members still subsidize animal atrocities every time they shop for food.

Fortunately, social norms can be reformed through judicious, well planned campaigns. Recent examples can be found in social attitudes toward local policing, climate change, and alternative expressions of sexual identity. We will address the strategies for social change in future blog entries. 

It’s Never About the Victim

One of our greatest failings in confronting oppression has been our intense and exclusive focus on specific victim groups. This is terribly counter-productive. It sets up a “victimhood” contest among victim groups about which deserves more consideration and sympathy. It distracts us from forming a united front to address the roots of all oppression. It lends a veneer of legitimacy to the oppressor: “maybe they deserved it.” It has even given some victims license to oppress others.

But oppression is not about the species, race, religion, ethnicity, or gender of the victims. The only necessary criteria for selecting a victim or a victim population are vulnerability and distinct appearance from the majority, or at least, from the power structure. Animals fit these criteria perfectly and are therefore universally oppressed.

The victim’s perceived low moral value has been suggested as a reason for oppression. But the moral value we assign to victims is based pretty much on our personal history and relationship. We spend a small fortune protecting the welfare of our family dog, but not a cent to feed a starving child  in our local shelter. Still, some social justice organizations look at us askance, because they think that we are comparing the moral value of their victims to that of pigs and chickens. 

Why Animals?

Finally, why be concerned about oppression of animals, people ask, when so many human problems remain unsolved? When nearly 800 million people on our planet go hungry every day? When millions don’t have access to adequate medical care? When genocides continue?

Here’s why:

  • Because animal oppression is the key to all oppression. Animals are the most vulnerable, and therefore, the most oppressed sentient beings on earth. We believe that, when oppressing animals becomes socially unacceptable, so will other forms of oppression.
  • Because oppressing animals is the gateway to all oppression. When we tell a child that the dog on his couch is to be loved and cherished, but the pig on his plate is to be tortured, and slaughtered, we are providing his very first social permission to discriminate and to oppress.
  • Because they share our own feelings of joy, affection, sadness, and grief. And they can suffer.
  • Because they are an integral part of our fondest childhood memories. Toy animals were the very first objects we handled. Our favorite fairy tales revolved around animal lives. Our family dog gave us unconditional love, when our schoolmates or even our siblings would not. Rekindling these feelings may mitigate or reverse the oppressive mindset.
  • Because we can. Because, each year, each of us has the awesome power to spare 100 sentient beings just by choosing a diet that also happens to be better for our personal health and for the health of our planet. We don’t have that kind of power to save human victims of oppression.

On the long road to ending oppression, dropping animals from our menus is a necessary first step.

The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Farm Animal Rights Movement

3 thoughts on “13. Why We Oppress? Why Animals?”

  1. The following is an important lesson I’ve learned from Alex and incorporate into our organization’s advocacy.

    All forms of oppression follow a very similar trajectory. It goes like this:

    You’re different from me.
    Therefore, you must be less than me.
    If you’re less than me, I can harm you.

    We’re all susceptible to this type of thinking and certainly the majority of the U.S. population engages in this dynamic when deciding what to eat.

  2. Wonderful, insightful and compassionate comments Alex. I’ve cited two quotes that address the independent rights and freedom from oppression all animals deserve. Note that your thoughtful remarks in this blog are truly appreciated even as far away as Tampa, Florida.

    Tom Bird, Ph.D. Board Member of Florida Voices for Animals
    “The Rights of Animals”
    Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.

    And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

    They are not our brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

    Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928
    “Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”
    ~ Thomas Jefferson

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