Do use your privilege & platform to speak for oppressed communities – and that includes cows

I do not want to dedicate a lot of time and space on Vegan Voices of Color to highlight white people. We all know at this point that vegan racists exist and are plentiful throughout the animal liberation movement. “White veganism” is trash and we relish dragging the trash into the trash can. But today I felt the need to hit on a different type of white person that we haven’t really addressed, even though they are just as irritating and damaging as those white vegans.

This is the liberal white nonvegan who loves to shit on animal rights under the guise of standing up for human marginalized communities, scoring as many ‘woke’ points as possible in the process (this tendency also applies to nonvegans of color on the left in general, of course).

Case in point: See Harriet Hall on Joaquin Phoenix’s recent Oscars speech:

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This phenomenon not only requires us to analyze Phoenix’s speech, but also to look at the bigger picture of white liberals throwing on their capes to push animals under the bus in some kind of half-baked defense of other oppressed communities (I know this type of person will have a big issue with us including nonhuman animals in oppressed communities, oh well). So let’s start with the speech. After winning the Oscar for best actor, Joaquin did what a lot of us who have been following his activism expected him to do, centered his acceptance speech on social justice issues, namely animal rights, but also racial, gender, indigenous, and queer rights, letting us know he has read up on the concept of total liberation.

Joaquin Phoenix Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actor

Beautiful and powerful speech, am I right? Of course we knew the typical right wing crowd would take issue with it (Republican senators in cohorts with the dairy industry are after him already), and that is only to be expected. But Phoenix has also been receiving hate from the left and center for including the plight of all sentient beings in his speech, rather than only humans. For example, see Hall’s “Joaquin Phoenix’s white male saviour speech at the Oscars was painful to watch,” which terribly misses the mark.

Phoenix rightfully stated:

[We have to] continue to use our voice for the voiceless…I think at times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity”.

Wow Joaquin! How dare you include ALL species in the fight for justice you privileged white man! You can––and should––use your platform to talk of human issues, but don’t you dare bring in the PETA crap!

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Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, not according to Hall (and others), because not only did Phoenix include the rights of all animals (remember, humans are animals too), but he went even further and spoke directly about the immense cruelty dairy cows endure in order for humans to enjoy their milk.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal”

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*Audible gasp* You crossed a line Joaquin. You’ve now entered territory even ‘intersectional’ or radical vegans of color have difficulty treading––being bold and unapologetic while including the oppression of other species in the fight for social justice. And Hall responded:

“It is a galling juxtaposition. Perhaps if he’d chosen just this one cause to champion, instead of lumping everything together, it wouldn’t have stung quite as much as it did. But to speak of the injustices of racism, of the experiences of people of colour whose history is steeped in slavery, then to discuss women, whose rights to bodily autonomy are still being challenged by anti-abortion laws across the States, and to mention queer rights, when members of the gay community have been beaten, criminalised and banned from marrying their partners — to utter these causes in the same breath as milking cows really only highlights Phoenix’s already startlingly obvious white male privilege”. 

Hall, then let’s talk about how nonhumans too are enslaved, given no rights to bodily autonomy, and are routinely beaten, criminalized, and wrenched apart from their families (or does speaking on this honestly cross a line that firmly separes the human/animal binary and prevents one from using these terms to describe the plight of other species?) Let’s talk about that too. As Christopher Sebastian states, “speciesism [a form of discrimination that involves treating members of one species as morally more important than members of other species even when their interests are equivalent] is also entangled with so much more. It’s the love affair with the prison industrial complex and a fetish for wrongful incarceration. It’s coupled with male domination and gendered violence. It’s encroachment on the lands of native lives and colonization of them. All these things have overlap between oppressed human communities and those of other species.” And to return to our original topic, as Sebastian also notes, “let’s also not forget that milk is sometimes regarded as a symbol of white supremacy. 

So Hall, I have a concept to introduce to you and it’s called TOTAL Liberation.

The concept of total liberation stems from a determination to understand and combat all forms of inequality and oppression. It is comprised of four pillars: [the first is] an ethic of justice and anti-oppression inclusive of people, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems.” – David Pellow, Total Liberation  

The notion that we cannot speak to the oppression of nonhuman animals while tackling human issues, let alone center them, is both absurd and steeped in the idea that other animals are so unworthy of care that we shouldn’t be fighting for their rights while oppressed humans suffer.

Hall claims that it’s egregious to “compare marginalized groups to bovine animals. It sends rather the wrong message”. And what message is that Hall? That all animals deserve protection from brutalization? The dairy industry is absolutely abhorrent as Phoenix pointed out, and your idea of “just milking cows’ ‘ is pitifully lacking any sensitivity to the reality of this industry. Moreover, Phoenix didn’t even directly compare humans to cows, but rather simply called out that cows too face injustice. I also feel the need to stress that comparing two injustices is not a great evil, though equating them can be messy and problematic. The dairy industry is absolutely sick and simply needs to be abolished. Hall still seems to view these nonhuman persons as mere commodities, while Phoenix is attempting to shift social norms to help found a world where the commodification of individuals––human and nonhuman––is but a disgrace of the past.

Phoenix is correct, these systems of oppression emerge from the fact that one individual or group assumes a right to dominate and exploit others. And as Christopher Sebastation writes: “Animal exploitation is the bedrock of imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy. You want to abolish oppression, you gotta include other species. The history of white supremacy and western imperialism is the history of animal oppression”. So if we want to talk about white savoirs and bad white men, let’s talk about the oppression of cows. Let’s include them and other nonhumans in our analysis of oppressive systems. Lets invoke their oppression when we speak of other forms of injustice. Hall claimed that Phoenix’s speech was almost unbearable to watch. Well Hall, I challenge you to watch videos of what really happens to dairy cows and see what truly is unbearable to watch.

This display of making it taboo to dare mention the oppression of other species in the same breath of humans has to stop. It is both disingenuous and does nothing to help the plight of human beings, yet does a lot to ensure that other animals remain excluded from our vision, to say nothing of our moral and political concerns.
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