An article from this summer in Psychology Today by Katherine Compitus demonstrates how far critical social theories can take us if fully imbibed. In the article, Compitus attacks “speciesism,” which is “the concept that one species (usually human) considers themselves superior to other species.” No species is superior, just different, says Compitus. Instead, she prefers to relegate all species to the lowest common denominator: “We are all living beings.”
Compitus is horrified that some anachronistically minded people haven’t yet bought into this—the barbarians, if you can believe it, still use oppressive words like “master” and “owner” to “describe their superior position in relation to their pets.” This offends Compitus on principle because she has sanitized her memory of any real distinction between humans and other animals. But speciesism is all the more terrible because “Recent studies in the intersectionality of oppressed people and animals have shown how similarly marginalized humans are treated to non-human animals.” For example, there are “similarities between the way women are oppressed by society and how animals are dismissed, bullied, and oppressed by society.”
Speciesism is also a problem because it, and the “oppressive language” endemic to it, is tantamount to anti-black racism. Compitus looks to Benedicte Boisseron’s Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question (2018) which employs Critical Race Theory (CRT) to analyze how both people of color and “non-human animals” are marginalized and oppressed, and how (per intersectionality) the oppression of one by the dominant class (in this case, white humans) reinforces and compounds the oppression of the other and adversely affects the relationship between the two groups. (We will return to Boisseron later.)
To combat the racist implications of our language, and the “dominance theory” embedded therein, Compitus advises speaking of “including” the dog, not “using” it. We don’t own dogs; we are their “guardians,” not “masters.” We don’t discipline or “correct” or punish animals; that’s bullying.
“Some people use the anthropomorphized title of ‘pet parent,'” to refer to themselves, says Compitus, and she has no problem with that; “it’s very affectionate.” Compitus finds this a marked improvement form the oppressive titles mentioned above, but she cannot help but add that she prefers “the more formal ‘animal guardian’.” For her, even the word “pet” is “diminutive and has a negative connotation, as if the animal is beneath the status of the human.” Compitus goes on to plead with pet owners—sorry, guardians—to earn the respect of their pets. “We want our pets to respect us and to listen to our directions because they love us and want to behave. As with a human child, we want to have the well-being of both parties in mind.”
So why do humans act so detestably, so dominantly?
“Speciesism may reveal more about our vulnerabilities and fears as humans than anything about the animals we oppress and put down.” What we need to realize, she advises, is that the human-animal bond is a “mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors and considered essential to the health and well-being of both.” Here Compitus is quoting the American Veterinary Medical Association.
To combat the tyranny of speciesism, we must, we are told, flatten the distinctions—eradicate them, really—between human and “non-human animals.” We must realize the equality of value between the two species. We must consider the mutual benefit of both at all times. Compitus suggests, therefore, that we cleanse our language of our own narcissism and “Victorian Era terms like ‘master’ and ‘owner’ and ‘leader’ and instead speak to the mutual respect in this relationship.” “Can we truly ‘own’ another living being?” asks Compitus rhetorically. What we are permitted by Compitus is an “enriching and fruitful relationship with another living being, whether human, dog, cat, horse, rabbit, cow, or pig.”
Compitus may seem fringe, but she is working from the assumptions, and toward the aspirations, of a distinct critical social theory of relatively recent vintage (predictably) known as Critical Animal Studies (CAS). In 2012, the New York Times was already reporting on the advent of CAS at top universities, Dartmouth, NYU, Wesleyan, etc. Noting that animal studies emerged from Cultural Studies, the article continues, “Some scholars now ask: Why stop there? Why honor the uncertain boundary that separates one species from all others?” Let that sink in. That was 2012. That was before anyone outside of the academy was really talking about critical social theories. That was before Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo had captivated the popular imagination (and the Amazon bestsellers list). That was before Black Lives Matter played out the convictions of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in real time.
The article mentions the evident influence of Jacques Derrida, especially his long essay “The Animal that Therefore I Am,” on animal studies. There is some distance between animal studies (and CAS) and Peter Singer’s admittedly provocative proposals in Animal Liberation (1975), which nevertheless did influence the rise of animal studies. Singer questioned the justification of hurting animals and excluding them from moral consideration. Singer’s utilitarian ethics, rather than elevating animals to human status, tend to diminish humans to animal status, but he never quite suggests a complete erosion of the distinction as such.
More importantly, Singer’s flare for the outrageous never directly evidences any radical political motivation, unlike CAS (as we shall see). Singer’s Benthamite analysis of “speciesism” was a critique of what he saw as illogical and immoral brutality against animals (i.e., sentient beings). He therefore sought to morally erode the species divide. But as CAS scholars point out, Singer continues to operate from liberal assumptions (see below) whereby Homo sapiens—via our purported unique possession of reason, autonomy, and language—are elevated as the standard by which all other species are judged vis-a-vis their dignity and rights. CAS is certainly out to do no less than that (sans the presumptuous liberalism), but also endeavors to do much more, most notably, discarding the standard of rationality and autonomy all together.
Critical Animal Studies: Humans and the Others
The distinction between, and origins of, “posthumanism,” “animal studies,” and CAS is debatable, but rightly or wrongly, the three are often used interchangeably. We need not concern ourselves too much with such an inconsequential intramural debate but CAS, in particular, is in focus here. Put simply, CAS is especially focused on the “exploitative dimensions” of human-animal relationships “as well as social change.” It is also self-consciously intersectional.
Unsurprisingly, some CAS proponents castigate their more mainstream precursor of animal studies as “arid and shockingly detached” and as trading in little more than irrelevant “ivory tower thinking.” This is the type of criticism leveled by CAS’ers at armchair thinkers like Singer. Putting the “critical” in CAS requires aspirations for political action and structural change.
Maneesha Deckha—a law professor at the University of Victoria (Canada) who spends her time drumming up articles on “Veganism, Dairy, and Decolonization”—considers CAS a subset of posthumanist studies and animal studies, the latter two not being quite coterminous. Like the umbrella disciplines under which it sits, CAS questions at the outset the “traditional boundaries of the human subject” that has been “foundational to Western thought.”
CAS, like other critical disciplines, latches on to the Foucauldian idea of the dispersal of power, applying this, obviously, to human-animal relations, the former being the dominant group and the latter subdominant. Clearly, to even begin such analysis, the traditional distinction between the species must be replaced with the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy applied to other group dynamics. That is, animals simply become one dominated group among many. This examination of power is not limited to traditional sources of hierarchical power but, rather, includes language, narratives, cultural norms, and spaces inhabited (i.e., the cultural hegemony).
And, of course, there’s the “epistemological impact” of power relations. The dominant (in this case, human) ways of knowing must be decentered in order for the marginalized (in this case, animals) to be “relocated.” Animals must be realized as subjects with subjectivity (i.e., a perspective) rather than objects, and thereby be seen as “persons” worthy of dignity and (non-traditional) autonomy (i.e., markers of personhood). Wherever the contextualized cultural markers of personhood do not materialize, injustice is necessarily present.
One method of establishing animal subjectivity advocated by CAS thinkers is through centering animal perspectives in literature. Whereas most animal characters in stories (usually allegories like Orwell’s Animal Farm) merely serve as conduits for human expression (i.e., “aesthetic exploitation”) or as background props and scenery, CAS-minded writers seek to cultivate genuinely animal perspectives in their literature.
The denial of animal subjectivity by the dominant culture (i.e., humans) correlates to their status as “Other,” a Postcolonial Theory concept popularized by Edward Said’s Orientalism. As Said theorized, the dominant, colonist (Western) Self can only make sense of itself by “othering” another group against which distinctions can be made. An “Other” must always be present to act as the catalyst for the development of the colonizer’s identity. It is assumed that this dynamic conjured up by Said explains all components of dominant culture.
Law, for instance, is defined over and against whatever is deemed lawless by the dominant culture—more on that later. Likewise, that which is rational is determined by whatever is irrational. Civilized only exists in relation to uncivilized. And so on it goes. Note well that for those who accept Said’s characterization of these elements of culture, the development is purely negative, and for the sake of maintaining an us v. them conflict, that is, to marginalize through socially constructed (i.e., arbitrary) differences in order to subjugate.
As the reader might have guessed at this point, CAS puts Said’s theory to good use: human and humanity is defined as a matter of socially constructed difference over and against animal and animality. Society portrays animals as instinctual, violent, irrational, etc., in order to, as Deckha puts it, “distinguish and underscore that which we wish to claim for ourselves (rational, self-conscious, orderly, logical, tempered, deliberative, altruistic, etcetera) as uniquely human.” Human is an oppressive Western construct through which anyone deemed not quite human can be marginalized (i.e., animalized). That is its purpose in Western discourse and hegemonic, dualistic (Cartesian) narratives.
Within this postcolonial paradigm, humanity and animality (as political products and mechanisms of power) are never static. “Both humanity and animality are continuously produced but are never finished products. Moreover, both terms can be applied to humans and other animals in discursive acts—both humans and nonhuman animals can be subjects of animaling and humaning.” That is, each can be subjected to a socially mediated process of being identified as animal or human, respectively, with the attendant socially constructed stereotypes of what it means to be “animal” or “human” being the relevant object of interest.
To CAS scholars, speciesism is also a symptom of, and intricate to, western ways of knowing over and against indigenous (human) ways of knowing that (in some cases) present non-anthropocentric worldviews. The successful colonization of the indigenous mind, therefore, is partially—whether they can quite pinpoint how or describe exactly why does not deter them from pressing on—due to the establishment of speciesist distinctions. A deconstruction of said distinctions, then, leads to liberation not only of the animals in view, but of all colonized beings. Following the reasoning of Paulo Freire, CAS theorists also posit that the deconstruction of the species binary liberates the colonizer who is trapped in his own oppressive role, void of an emancipatory, utopian imagination.
All socially constructed distinctions, none of which (they believe) have any basis in biology or genetics, must be discarded in order to dismantle the hegemony of the dominant group—now white, male, cisheteronormative, humans. The allegedly artificial barrier between human and non-human animals is no exception. The connection drawn between species distinctions and sub-humanization of colonized groups by CAS scholars provides further ammunition for this effort.
Heteronormativity and Humanormativity
The use of Postcolonial concepts by CAS is neither coincidental nor inconsequential. Invoking the “self-Other” dichotomy of Said connects CAS to other critical disciplines, especially Postcolonial Theory itself but also to Critical Race Theory.
In a revealing passage on the necessity of working for social change, Deckha makes the connection between human subjugation of animals (via human-animal dualism) and colonist subjugation of the subaltern:
Undoing this entrenched self-Other relationship between humans and animals requires not only wide-scale social change but also an ongoing vigilance by those who wish to improve the conditions of the lives of animals to monitor and evaluate their representations. The existence of animals as humanity’s Other prompts CS scholars to caution how humans theorize about them even when an end to their exploitation is a theorist’s goal. Even with benevolent ends in mind, humans still shape how animals are represented in discourse and thus hold the epistemological power.
Moreover, beyond a certain level, an incommensurability arises, making it impossible for humans to fully ‘know’ animals. Indeed, to long to ‘know’ animals for many reasons—to be closer to them, to understand them better, to learn more about ourselves—mirrors colonial desires to ‘know’ the non-Western Other for the colonizer’s own purposes.
Later on, Deckha is even more explicit, noting that CAS scholars self-consciously identify parallels between “animal Othering and the Othering of marginalized humans,” and even suggests that “animal Otherness serves as an archetype for all forms of Otherness.” The exclusionary tool of the “Othering” is, it is thought, employed at will by the dominant group(s) to control those they wish to subjugate and define themselves by opposition thereto. The conception of the “Other” is infinitely malleable, governed only by the will of those who wield it.
So, for CAS theorists, limiting human personhood status to the possession of rational faculties, self-awareness, language, and moral sense is completely arbitrary, nothing but a power game to justify the “dismal treatment” and the “Othered status” of animals and unjustly elevate humans. Deckha says that the same characteristics that traditionally in Western society have been uniquely applied to humans can also be weaponized to “domesticate and police human groups that are troublesome to the hegemonic order.”
All of this is reinforced by CAS’s intersectionality. The discipline is not meant to stand alone or conceptualize human-animal relations separate from intra-human relations. “To the contrary, CAS views gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other axes of socially constructed difference as indelibly connected to the constitution, meaning, and impacts of species difference.”
Per Colleen Boggs, animalization as a form of othering is effective in its purpose of degradation only because of the predominate, Western logical of human exceptionalism. In the same way, Deckha claims that “The interlocking oppressions of racism, sexism, and homophobia… are driven by mechanisms of shame and violence related to animality.” In other words, those oppressions are made possible, in some way, by the presence of the human-animal dichotomy. Hence, addressing oppression (of any kind) with “anthropocentric concepts such as human rights” will only further entrench the hegemony; it is to fight oppression on the terms of the status quo. Instead, CAS advocates say that the human-animal boundary should be minimized at every turn and across all critical disciplines.
The work of Carmen Dell’Aversano demonstrates well this cross-pollination of CAS in other critical theories, in this case, Queer Theory. Dell’Aversano posits, inter alia, that just as heteronormativity deems heterosexuality (as well as monogamy) the norm and regulates dissenters accordingly, “humanormativity” dictates that humans must romantically and sexually relate only to members of their species. Dell’Aversano, of course, considers the human-animal distinction to be as much an oppressive social construct as the gender binary. Just as gender-non-conformist are socially and culturally punished for violating cisheteronormative norms, so too are humans who sexually transgress the human-animal boundary and violate anthropocentric codes.
Dell’Aversano also borrows Judith Butler’s idea of gender performance and argues that humans perform their species identity according to a cultural script which, in turn, determines not only how they treat each other but how they treat non-Homo sapiens. This is especially stifling for erotic expression. The merger of CAS and Queer Theory must, therefore, endeavor to liberate love across species lines. Deckha implores all critical theorists to realize that “human and animal interests can no longer be understood as mutually exclusive and separate concepts.” The anthropocentric lenses must be removed if all species are to experience true liberation—oppression exists, more or less, in the aggregate, remember. CAS literature constantly stresses the interconnectedness of all oppressions.
Members of the CAS brigade have not yet convinced all their fellow Crits to get on board with the integration of CAS into other critical disciplines. Richard Twine has lamented this stubbornness—once again, from the old guard feminists—at length. Critical scholars who refuse to recognize that the oppression of animals parallels and is interlocked with, for example, women’s oppression are simply behind the times and fail to realize the mutual benefits available through disciplinary integration. Feminism, says Twine, should embrace its kinship with posthumanism. Rejection of this merely perpetuates the status quo (i.e., human-animal hierarchy) that also oppresses other marginalized beings.
Speciesism and Racism
The same basic move made by some Queer Theorists and Critical Feminists is performed by Critical Race Theorists too. As Deckha demonstrates, it is the ambition of CAS practitioners for CAS to be integrated into all critical disciplines. Harlan Weaver suggests that CAS’s understanding of the intersection of human and animal identities has “the potential to change how we understand the relationships among the categories that define humans and nonhuman animals in a way that has important implications not only for animal studies but also for scholarship invested in critical race, feminist, and queer theories.”
It is this connection, the ability of CAS to become relevant for CRT, that should worry us most. The capacity for, and general gullibility toward, race issues amongst the American intelligentsia lately does not bode well in this regard. Seemingly any idea that is presented as relevant to the question of race in America is, at bare minimum, given a hearing, no matter how patently absurd. Since CAS theorists are intersectional in their thought and believe that (human) oppressions are not merely parallel to animal oppressions but are interconnected, it is easy to see how race is brought into the mix. Cary Wolfe even equivocates between speciesism as ethnocentricity. We dismissively laugh at the admittedly wild assertions of CAS scholars to our peril.
The work of Bénédicte Boisseron, mentioned earlier by Compitus, is one example of the potential for a merger between CRT and CAS. In an interview about her book Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question, Boisseron, a scholar of black diaspora studies and CAS, claims that black Americans do not just have a double consciousness, as W.E.B. DuBois claimed, but a triple consciousness because there is “something that is intrinsically animalized in the way that the African American is perceived in America.” For support, Boisseron points to the use of dogs against runaway slaves in the antebellum South and again by police against Civil Rights era demonstrators. She identifies an intersection between the dog and blackness in America, the investigation of which is the subject of her book.
Weaver is in substantial agreement with Boisseron, arguing that animal identities are shaped by their “connections with human-specific categories,” and that the “most prominent among these is race.” This goes both ways, of course. Animals are shaped by human categories and humans can be shaped by animal categories. Pit bulls in particular—which are usually designated a “dangerous breed,” what Weaver calls the “production” of the Pit bull identity—are frequently connected (explicitly and implicitly) with race (black or “white trash”) and criminalization. Practices involving animals deemed problematic (e.g., dogfighting) only occur in “racialized and marginalized places” such as ghetto areas. Dog breed-based legislation (e.g., confiscation and forced euthanizing of Pit bulls in municipalities) are always responsive, claims Weaver, to racialized incidents of criminality like the Michael Vick case. Dogs, just like people of color, are victims of racialization of norms, space, policy, etc. On the flipside, people of color are victims of the animalization of dogs. (Weaver also problematizes rescue efforts of “dangerous breeds” as an assertion of “tacit” whiteness, viz., the dogs are painted as having been corrupted by black environments.)
The basic argument of CAS theorists like Boisseron and Weaver is that the affiliation of black humans and animals has been intentionally reinforced by white humans throughout history so that black humans can be designated sub-human. The solution to this degradation of black humanity is not to simply elevate black people but to eliminate the allegedly arbitrary human-animal construct—to take away the oppressive weapon all together, as it were. If there is no distinction between human and animal, how can marginalized humans ever be dehumanized?
Like CRT, CAS recognizes the power of law and legal norms as part of the hegemonic apparatus. The human-animal binary will never be eliminated until western legal regimes are cleansed of all vestiges of its anthropocentric assumptions.
“Law is anthropocentric.”
Over the past couple of decades animal issues have enjoyed greater scholarly attention, and animals have been afforded more legal protections including pseudo-personhood. But CAS scholars think animal law, as a discipline, has some problems. It has not yet been liberated from the liberal paradigm of law which necessarily hampers the subversiveness of any advancements in animal rights. Indeed, it is their belief that even engaging in “rights discourses” effectively bends the knee to the liberal status quo in law. Activists for animal rights, in general, have not integrated a critical understanding of difference or the interconnectedness of oppressions. These oversights make it impossible to combat speciesism—”oppression based on cultivated social understandings of biological difference.”
As mentioned already, animal issues are not just parallel to human ones but interconnected. Deckha says bluntly that the guiding belief of CAS—viz., that “animal issues” extend into the community writ large and that the species divide is one of many “socially constructed differences” employed to subjugate the Other, thereby reinforcing the power of the dominant group—will benefit Social Justice efforts (for humans) if sufficiently integrated therewith. The interconnection of animal exploitation and human injustice will not only aid social justice efforts for humans but, it is the hope of Deckha, will “popularize animal issues” with the general public.
But first, the anthropocentric limits inherent in the liberal premises of Western legal regimes must be dealt with. This entails the rejection of Enlightenment liberalism’s two core values: 1) a premium on reason, and 2) casing the rational and autonomous agent as the central subject of law. “Sameness logic” (i.e. like cases decided alike) also hampers progress. Additionally, some scholars will add conceptions of sovereignty to this list.
Attacking these legal norms is nothing new for critical theories. “Trashing” Western legal proceduralism and values was the favorite pastime of the Critical Legal Studies movement. Criticism of legal formalism (or liberalism) is also a primary interest of Critical Race Theory. CAS has simply put its own spin on the practice, and for different ends.
Since the possession of reasoning capacity serves as threshold issues for personhood and human (legal) rights the posthumanist critique cannot consistently trade in said threshold issues in order to disrupt their anthropocentric exclusivity. They are themselves anthropocentric standards promulgated by humans to privilege humans. Under those standards, animals are necessarily associated with the realm of base, irrational emotions—the “animal soul” in classical metaphysical terms—an association that necessarily marginalizes animal subjectivity.
The threshold standard of autonomy in conjunction with rational agency in the liberal paradigm that dominates law presents a similar obstacle to recognition of animal subjectivity. To CAS perspectives, both the rationality and autonomy are fictions furthered by artificial dichotomies (i.e., reason/emotion, autonomy/dependence). No being is purely rational or purely autonomous. Such standards are therefore bunk.
Accordingly, CAS scholars advise animal law advocates to quit playing the liberal legalist game via reductive standards of rationality and autonomy. Arguments for animals to be treated like humans in a given area simply (i.e., honorary human status) entrenches the “core subject [i.e., the rational, autonomous human] and logic of sameness,” which are inherently hierarchical, within the Western legal regime’s theoretical basis. “To locate animal law within liberalism is to try to fit animals into a theory that neither values animals for who they are nor values the range of response that humans have to them.”
Instead, advocates must equivocate between humans and animals to erode the speciesist distinctions in law, thereby forsaking sameness logic. It is fundamentally offensive to CAS’ers that claims for equality, dignity, and personhood must proceed in liberal societies by such logic. Deckha laments, for instance, that same-sex marriage was forced to take this route. In the same way, she criticizes Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project for extending the right to life, freedom, and non-torture to apes through a “correspondence approach” (i.e., sameness) which “elevates a particular trait as the threshold criterion for moral worth and legal personhood.” This standard perpetuates human dominance over and against animal perspectives and experience.
To break the stranglehold of the liberal human hegemony, CAS scholars push theorizing ethical status for animals from an “animal-centric framework rather than a metric deemed important to humans,” and through “the valuation of difference, being-ness, and life in general.” CAS’s critique of law is, perhaps, its most insidious aspect. By eroding the basis of human (positive) law (i.e., the human being), law’s entire moral, pedagogical or normative, retributive, and ameliorative function immediately falls flat. The ability to analyze the just or unjust nature of law is diminished entirely.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King agrees with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He then delineates the difference between the two, establishing the unique dignity of human beings as the bedrock of his analysis predicated on the logic of sameness. Following the classical tradition, King conceived of law, at root, as something discovered by man, not purely man-made (i.e., positive), and, therefore, as principles (like anatomy) based on human nature. Hence, because human nature is static, so too is corresponding principles of morality. Invoking Thomas Aquinas’ classic division of law, King writes,
An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority… segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.
CAS has no patience for this outdated sameness or correspondence logic, the perpetuation of archaic Western legal formalism. How could MLK be so backward? Surely committal of the sin of speciesism is enough to have him extinguished form the cultural memory.
End Game: The Abolition of Man
The final frontier of critical social theories is the blurring of species lines. The end game is the complete liberation of man through the abolition of his distinct status in nature. As CAS scholars themselves recognize, CAS threatens to deal Western thought, perhaps more than any other critical social theory, a severe, possibly fatal, blow. To depart from the heretofore assumed elevation of human beings over other living things on the basis of their unique rational faculties (i.e., intellect and will) is to completely destabilize all Western thought upon which civilization is based. Indeed, equality movements of the past two hundred years have been built upon this very assumption.
During the Civil Rights Movement, black demonstrators at the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike famously carried picket signs that read “I Am a Man!” The bid for equality, legal and otherwise, and dignity was predicated on their unique human status shared with white people. The argument was that they, as human beings, possessed all the requisite faculties and sensibilities to be deserving of rights and liberties afforded to humans in our society. Those protestors in Memphis did not advocate for the abolishment of the elevated standard of man in nature, but rather to be afforded the status of said standard which they had been unjustly and irrationally denied. They demanded humane treatment. The arguments of civil rights activists then were arguments from sameness and universalism, that is, the exact “liberal” thinking that CAS and its other critical theory cousins detests.
By contrast, CAS endeavors to lower all humans to animal status—maybe even to plant status—that is, to obliterate the distinctions on the basis of which the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s argued for suffrage and equality for black human beings. CAS evidences, yet again, that the ideology behind the critical social justice movement from which CAS itself springs is not a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement but a stark repudiation thereof—CAS, perhaps, most of all.
Conclusion: Animal Farm
CAS presents a truly frightening prospect: the elimination of the most basic foundation of Western civilization, the priority and unique status of human beings. The result is the relegation of all “living beings” to animal status. Ironically, where CAS theorists think that the elimination of species distinctions will eliminate the means of oppression, it will, in fact, almost certainly make it easier to dehumanize whoever the marginalized group happens to be. If we are all relegated to the lowest common denominator then whatever can be done to an amoeba can be done to a human person. Any argument otherwise would be arbitrary and capricious.
CAS has followed the same trend in the academy as other critical social theories: slowly transitioning from a niche discipline to being regularly featured on course schedules to making appearances in mainstream publications. The sheer absurdity of the discipline and its core assumptions should not induce us to sleep on it, as they say. We must recognize that if half-baked ideas like “white fragility” can so easily and quickly capture the public discourse then so too can ideas like “speciesism.” The same lazy logic and resentful worldview animates—to use a word no doubt offensive to CAS scholars—both.
The New York Times article quoted above relays arguments based on a human-centric standard. That is, if certain non-human animals use language and even possess an analog to our conception of morality, then is a distinction really as stark as we imagine? That was 2012. Things have progressed since. Now, the cutting-edge scholars detest such human-centric arguments. The human-animal binary is socially constructed and should be dismantled because it is oppressive, full stop. To allow some animals to qualify for legal rights or a diminished form of personhood only perpetuates the liberal status quo that centers humans and elevates rationality.
This signals a big shift in only a few years. Presumably, CAS theorists were making such arguments all along. The difference is that they are now quite comfortable openly expressing them to the public, and even more so in college classrooms. This development is even scarier when we survey the gullibility of the media and intellectual class, at the moment, for anything having to do with race. The connection made between the speciesist binary and racism makes CAS ripe for more mainstream reception. Look for it soon at a course list, think piece, and protest event near you! If CAS is fully imbibed—not an unlikely prospect given what we’ve seen so far—we will move rapidly from “four legs good, two legs better” to “four legs good, two legs just the same,” or, if you like, “all animals are equal, some are more equal than others,” to “all animals are equal, and we are all just animals.” We are all farm animals now.
Were the Grievance Studies team to attempt another hoax today they might have a more difficult time. The CAS literature is almost beyond parody. A specious connection between dog parks, misogyny, and rape culture is one that a publication like the Journal for Critical Animal Studies would almost certainly accept. The only question would be whether “Helen Wilson” could come up with a proposal that was radical enough.
2. See generally Anthony J. Nocella II, John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka, “Introduction: The Emergence of Critical Animal Studies: The Rise of Intersectional Animal Liberation,” Counterpoints, vol. 448 (2014), pp. xix–xxxvi; The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the margins to the centre, Nik Taylor and Richard Twine (eds.) (New York: Routledge, 2014) (esp. pp. 1–16).
3. See generally Defining Critical Animal Studies—An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation, Anthony J. Nocella II, John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka (eds.) (Peter Lang, 2014).
5. Intersectionality of Critical Animal Studies: A Historical Collection (Radical Animal Studies and Total Liberation, vol. 5), Anthony J. Nocella II and Amber E. George (eds.) (Peter Lang, 2019). See also Harlan Weaver, “‘Becoming in Kind’: Race, Class, Gender, and Nation in Cultures of Dog Rescue and Dogfighting,” American Quarterly, 65(3) (Sept. 2013), pp. 689–709, 691 (Noting how intersections between human and animal identities “reveal how relationships between humans and nonhuman animals provide the conditions of possibility for specific experiences of race, gender, class, sexuality, species, and breed.”).
6. Steven Best, “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory into Action and Animal Liberation into Higher Education,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 7(1) (2009), p. 12 n. 9, available at http://www.criticalanimalstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/JCAS-VII-Issue-1-2009.pdf
7. Deckha “Critical Animal Studies and Animal Law,” Animal Law, 18 (2012), pp. 207–236, 213–214 (“The anti-exploitative and activist commitments are not defining features of human-animal studies as they are with CAS.”).
9. Deckha, “Critical Animal Studies and Animal Law,” Animal Law, 18 (2012), pp. 207–236, 212. Cary Wolfe, “Human, All Too Human: ‘Animal Studies’ and the Humanities,” PMLA, 124(2) (Mar., 2009), pp. 564–575, 565 (calling animal studies a branch of cultural studies).
11. A good CAS scholar should also be dutifully aware of oppressive metaphors like, “herding cats.” See e.g., Cary Wolfe, “Human, All Too Human: ‘Animal Studies’ and the Humanities,” PMLA, 124(2) (Mar., 2009), pp. 564–575.
12. See Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Pitchstone, 2020), pp. 67–88. See also Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury, 2015), pp. 197–238 (examining Said’s thought).
13. See generally Vanessa Lemm, Nietzsche’s Animal Philosophy: Culture, Politics, and the Animality of the Human Being (Fordham University Press, 2009).
14. Deckha, “Critical Animal Studies and Animal Law,” Animal Law, 18 (2012), p. 218. See also Kelly Oliver, Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 21 (identifying a conceptual dependence between animality and humanity such that to acknowledge the dependence of the latter on the former effectively undermines the latter’s self-image as autonomous, sovereign, and rational). Like Oliver, Harlan Weaver’s idea of “becoming in kind” espouses an interdependence of identities in animal-human relationships, a “becoming” through “togetherness”.
“Becoming in kind signals the deep imbrications of identity and being that many relationships between humans and nonhuman animals entail. Consider gender—as the above story reveals, Haley [Weaver’s Pitbull companion] helps make my gender expression possible, for my gender is shaped by the space between us, just as her experiences of species and breed are shaped by my race, class, and sexuality. The ‘kind’ of becoming in kind indexes the role of these identity categories in relationships between humans and nonhuman animals. ‘Becoming’ indicates the nonstatic, processual nature of these relationships, a sense of negotiating togetherness as an ongoing process”
“‘Becoming in Kind’: Race, Class,” p. 690.
17. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (50th Anniversary Ed., Bloomsbury, 2018).
18. Colonialism and Animality: Anti-Colonial Perspectives in Critical Animal Studies, Kelly Struthers Montford and Chloë Taylor (eds.) (Routledge, 2020).
23. Colleen Glenney Boggs,” American Bestiality: Sex, Animals, and the Construction of Subjectivity,” Cultural Critique, 76 (Fall 2010), pp. 98–125, 98–99. See also Boggs, Animalia Americana: Animal Representations and Biopolitical Subjectivity (Columbia University Press, 2013).
25. “[P]ets occupy a special position as boundary creatures in the lives of humans, allowing humans to play with and thus reproduce dichotomies inherent to the contemporary Western worldview, such as human/animal, person/nonperson, subject/object, and friend/commodity.” Redmalm, An Animal Without an Animal Within, p. 5.
28. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, Chapman, & Hall, 1990).
30. Deckha, “Critical Animal Studies and Animal Law,” Animal Law, 18 (2012), p. 223 (“The principal belief that oppressions are interconnected, coupled with the advocacy elements, leads CAS to promote a coalition ethic that seeks to connect animal advocacy efforts with social justice efforts broadly.”).
32. Weaver, “‘Becoming in Kind,'” p. 691 (Weaver maintains that this is especially true in the case of “dangerous dogs” because “they reflect social conflicts about identities” [e.g., “What constitutes danger and in which bodies should it be localized?”] in the same way that race, species, gender, breed, and nation do).
39. Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel, The War against Animals (Critical Animal Studies, vol. 3) (Brill, 2015), pp. 223–272.
41. See e.g., Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Race Liberalism and the Deradicalization of Racial Reform,” Harvard Law Review, 130 (2017), pp. 2298–2319. C.f. Jeffrey J. Pyle, “Race, Equality, and the Rule of Law: Critical Race Theory’s Attack on the Promises of Liberalism,” Boston College Law Review, 40 (1999), pp. 787–827.
44. The priority of reason, human community (i.e. human sociability), and speech is inherent in the classical definition of law drawn from Thomas Aquinas, viz., “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 90, Art. 4.
45. See e.g., Karen L. F. Houle, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming? The Case of Becoming-Plant,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 9(1/2) (2001), pp. 89–116, available at http://www.criticalanimalstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/6.-Houle-KLF-2011-Issue-1-2Animal-Vegetable-Mineral-pp-89-116.pdf. See also Hasana Sharp, “Animal Affects: Spinoza and the Frontiers of the Human,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 9(1/2) (2011), pp. 48, 64.