By Emma Silverthorn
Speciesism is arguably one of the most pervasive ideologies of our time, so much so that its suppositions are widely considered as fact. The term, coined by philosopher Peter Singer in the eighties, is in a nutshell a prejudice for ones own species against another species. It is from this viewpoint that human beings supposed rightful dominion and use of non-human animals is justified.
These justifications are made on a number of grounds – religious ones, ideas related to cleanliness, sentience and moral superiority – with the fundamental justification being that of human beings superior intelligence over animals. A rationale that almost makes our use of animals sound like a punishment for their inadequate intellectual capacity!
The system of speciesism though is far from simple, in that it doesn’t only divide human from animal but has numerous sub-categories within the animal kingdom. This hierarchy is based on perceived intelligence and sentience as well as a final term, which disrupts and often contradicts the first two; that is the animals’ usefulness to humans. Pets or companion animals are at the top of the pyramid after us, next are endangered animals and the larger, more intelligent mammals, those animals that appear to have a special bond or to have good relations with humans gain extra credit, farm animals are low down, and at the bottom of the chain are fish followed by crustaceans, these being so lowly that many ‘vegetarians’ consider themselves such and continue to eat them.
Dolphins are the ultimate example of a universally adored animal as they manage to tick all the boxes of human favour. They are mammals like us for a start; highly intelligent, appear to display emotion and even seem to get on well with humans- those stories of a dolphin fighting off a shark to save a human life. The recent outcry over the Fahroe Islands dolphin massacre highlights our affection for dolphins and their supremacy in the speceist pyramid. Elephants are way up there too, for similar reasons, I recently saw a post on Facebook stating that elephant poachers should face the death penalty, the writing was accompanied with a gruesome photo of a mutilated elephant. The socio-economic context of poaching was of course missing from the post. (For those interested in a more insightful study of elephants, both real and metaphoric, Martin Rowe’s book The Elephants in The Room is very good.)
However, the arbitary and Eurocentric nature of this hierarchy soon becomes apparent, with the obvious example of the South East Asian consumption of dogs and the hypocritical Western condemnation of that. Fido may be a member of the family in England but if he’s not in Vietnam then there is no rational or moral reason why eating him is any different than eating, for example, a pig. The intelligence argument going out the window, considering that pigs are rated fourth in overall intelligence behind chimps, dolphins and elephants.
The system then is fickle and severely flawed, cleverness only counting for so much, the apparent tastiness of bacon overriding this, the dominant aspect, of the ideology. As further example, chimps are experimented on in the name of medical research, as are man’s best friend. Beagles are the dogs most experimented on within medical research owing to their suitable size and placid nature. Understandably public vilification always follows the revelation of a dog-abuser in the press and the word ‘scum’ gets bandied about a lot, yet to criticize animal experimentation in public is a huge risk to the critic-“how would you feel if it was someone in your family who was ill?” “how can you put animal life above human?” etc. The third term again – usefulness to humans always wins and overthrows the first two – intelligence and feeling.
As a lifelong vegetarian and vegan of many years I would be incredibly happy if dolphins were no longer massacred, if elephants weren’t slaughtered for their tusks, and another dog was never again harmed by their ‘owner’, however the extremity of reaction against such acts manifest in the press and on social media forums often grates me. For one, less sexy but equally as cruel and in terms of sheer numbers more worthy of attention, than say the exploitation of wild animals, would be the life of a factory-farmed cow, chicken, pig, or sheep. I have to state here that my grandparents founded the charity Compassion in World Farming so I do have some bias towards this cause. A look at this sphere would involve more than signing a petition or Tweeting (thought both worthy actions) it would mean changing how one food-shops and eats three times a day. Secondly, there’s the issue of self-deceit involved in the vehement condemnation of these types of behaviours towards socially adored animals whilst an individual happily consumes cheap meat, or uses cosmetics tested on animals, or buys fur.
The accusations that usually follow when one critiques the principles of speciesism tend to run along the anthromorphic line. As an example, many years ago a good friend whose father is a pig farmer told me about how his dad had been annoyed when he’d had to stop using farrow crates for his pigs after a law was passed banning them in the U.K. and Ireland. This law came about in large part due to the work of CIWF. He said how his father felt his pigs seemed perfectly happy in their crates, even if, as he conceded, the pictures made the conditions look bad and that some people wanted to treat pigs like humans! This exchange for me embodied the divide and inherent misunderstanding between advocates of speciesism and those against it. I don’t believe that a pig or any other animal ought to be treated like a human, nor do I think any animal would want to be, it would be ridiculous! There is a huge divide between the species, even between our closest ancestors the chimp, there is of course a distinct gulf.
For me then, the argument against speciesism an ideology that allows and encourages both the flagrant, wanton abuse of animals and the systemised, legitimised use/abuse of animals comes back to the simple fact of all animals ability to suffer. It is a matter of sentience-that is the ability to feel and perceive things-humans and non-human animals are alike in this. Aside from the mounting research suggesting the depth of many species levels of empathy and the complexities of some animal social structures, the undeniable existence of a nervous system in all animals and as such that beings ability to feel pain and to suffer reveals both the convenient and callous nature of the belief system that is speciesism.
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