The following article was originally published on Medium, on February 14th, 2020
“pertaining to the animal kingdom” (as opposed to vegetable or mineral)
“any sentient living creature” (including humans)
Less than 24 hours after Joaquin Phoenix took the stage to accept his well-deserved (and long overdue) award, the internet was alive with commentary about what was, without a doubt, a cultural moment worthy of our attention.
Given Joaquin’s history, it’s possible that Big Dairy might have seen it coming. Practices such as forced insemination and separation of mother from baby are fundamental to their continued existence and, as evidence of these dreadful facts continues to come to light, it seems the best they can do is try and convince us that it’s all “for the protection of the animals” and that, (quite in defiance of evolutionary principles) cows used for dairy are, conveniently, the only mammal that lacks any maternal instinct. (This mother might take issue with that assertion, as might this mother, as well as countless farmers who have come to recognize the bellows of their cows as mourning cries.)
But slightly more interesting than the industry attempting to defend itself is the indignation expressed by some on the supposedly progressive left, offering an ideal illustration of exactly the egocentric worldview Phoenix referred to in his speech:
“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.”
While it’s true that these words reveal more about the writer’s state of privilege than they do about the actor’s, perhaps we shouldn’t hold against Harriet Hall the fact that she has chosen to use this opportunity to bring to light a sentiment that is common among the nonvegan progressive left.
As unpopular as it might be to say so, The tragic truth is that the very real struggles pointed to in Hall’s paragraph pale in comparison to the anguish endured by humanity’s nonhuman victims. To suggest otherwise indicates either ignorance of the facts or a simple lack of concern for the colossal implications thereof, the latter of which is a shortcoming not unique to Harriet Hall, but one that is shared (whether openly or otherwise) by nearly everyone. No matter where we stand on other social justice issues, species privilege puts us all in a position where we are (for the most part) completely unaware of how unaware we are.
While women fight passionately for the right to obtain a legal abortion, the routine, systematic sexual brutalization of nonhuman females is business as usual in the animal industry, and human females (with the exception of vegans) offer them no solidarity. As we lament the injustices of income inequality, nonvegan women continue to stand in line to buy cheese, butter and ice cream, while bovine mothers wail for the nursing newborns who have been wrenched from them, and then face the daily humiliation of mechanized milking alongside their grieving sisters, aching for the touch of their babies, as mother’s milk is pumped from their bodies to feed those who have ordered the execution of their offspring.
What could be a more glaring expression of the insidiousness of the patriarchy than the fact that those who identify as feminists are willing to use their names, their voices, and their platforms to defend and downplay the sins of this industry? Not only does the obscene business of animal slavery make a mockery of the founding principles of the women’s rights movement, which was, at its roots, a movement against violence, but its very business is that of commodifying everything that characterizes female bodies as being female.
The animal industry turns eggs, milk, and babies themselves into merchandise, and female bodies into factories, transmuting the miraculous alchemy of the life force into a mechanism that simply drives the production line, while lining the pockets of some of the wealthiest in the world: millionaires and billionaires who have become rich from the sale of products that disproportionately sicken our most underprivileged populations.
People are easily offended when animal activists reference human slavery and the Holocaust, as though the differences of the victims somehow cancel out any similarities in the offenses committed against them. We are told that to make such comparisons is disrespectful to the real victims, the victims who are most like us. We might want to consider though whether what we are offended by is actually a question of who the victims are, or more a question of who the perpetrators are. We can read, hear and learn about such atrocities with a combination of sorrow, regret, and compassion, as long as the slaveholders and the Nazis are individuals we can separate ourselves from, but our response rapidly turns to a combination of guilt and shame when we’re compelled to think of ourselves as wearing the uniforms of the guards.
But this is the system that has indoctrinated us all. The species prejudice that permeates the very atmosphere surrounding us hides the consequences of nonvegan choices behind factory and slaughterhouse walls, ag-gag legislation, and the unwavering intractability of our collective denial. And just like with all forms of bigotry, it is the far-too-frequently unexamined belief in our own supremacy that allows us to close our eyes to the suffering of “the others” when we ourselves receive some kind of benefit from it. We have all been so taught. We can’t be blamed for our conditioning, but we areresponsible for what we do about it once our blinders are removed.
When Joaquin Phoenix took the Oscars stage, his speech invited us to take an honest look at the prejudices we still cling to, and to see the similarities rather than the differences in all victims of oppression. When we look just a little beyond the surface, we can see that the experiences of those we disregard as being too different to matter are, in fact, a reflection of what we, ourselves, would experience if we were the ones whose lives had been appropriated by the animal exploitation industry. When we give genuine consideration to these tragic figures, we find that we are not bearing witness to the experiences of strangers belonging to a foreign world incomprehensible to us, but into the lives of our own kind; as long as we allow ourselves to simply recognize them to be, as we are, animal.
A final note: Joaquin’s closing lines were painful because he allowed us to see, just for a moment, the very real sorrow he has been forced to bear for nearly thirty years, having held his older brother in his arms as he died needlessly, and having never been given the chance to see just how brightly his star could have shone.
Such rare authenticity could be the very antidote to the culture of toxic masculinity toward which the Independent columnist falls just short of accusing him of contributing, as well as a service to all who hunger for any honest illustration of what it looks like to be real and unguarded in a world that keeps us all increasingly hesitant to lay down our armor.
As a man who has used inscrutability as his primary defense against the insensitivity he and his family were shown during their time of personal anguish, it was a beautiful thing that he should choose to use his most public moment to date to allow the entire world to witness not only a tiny fragment of his grief, but also, we can hope, a little glimpse of his healing.