Tuesday, 26 May 2020

I am human, but I'm not a humanist

and I’m not the kind of Marxist that reads Marx, but I did attempt the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 because I was interested in the idea of “species being”- the “conscious life” and “conscious activity” which Marx ascribes only to humans, who make their own lives ‘the object of [their] will.’ 

Marx defines humans against other animals: only humans fulfil themselves (“produce”) best when their basic physical needs have already been met, while other animals have their whole purpose, according to him, in meeting those needs. But capitalism destroys our species-being (this “advantage over animals”). We're reduced to working for survival, while the value created by our labour goes into capital, and we are alienated from each other: “each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself as a worker.”

(And doesn’t it feel obscene, the masque of workplace interactions: me simpering ‘hello’ at my boss, who could sack me, or the man I saw standing at a self-service checkout, sneering “Yes please?’ into the void to activate some functionary to work the machine for him, as if that function was all they were?) 

Snog, Marry, Avoid
Philosophical definitions of the human tend to identify human attributes by declaring their absence in other animals (who are inattentively lumped into a totalised Other long after the publication of The Origin of The Species in 1859). For Adam Smith, only humans barter, for Lacan, only humans lie, for Levinas and Heidegger, only humans really die - Derrida discusses this in The Animal That Therefore I Am. But, as primatologist Franz De Waal writes, the traits that distinguish us belong to a pattern of specialised traits marking out different species, all developments from a common evolutionary history, solutions to the same problem of maintaining life. We can understand ourselves better in relation to other life-forms than in opposition. Like apes, humans negotiate the world very much through our hands - we have a “handy” intelligence. Like horses, we prefer places with views.

Humans thrive, like other animals thrive, by being free to enjoy our particular nature, and what De Waals calls our “magic wells” of ability - for humans, things like language, communication, arts and sciences - the things that I think are meant by what Marx calls our “spiritual inorganic nature.”

Marx writes that humans are part of nature, and nature part of the human mind, “the material, the object and the instrument of [our] life activity”. At the same time, the polarisation of humans and other animals is fundamental to his definition of species-being. His figurative language also uses the human:animal binary to show how humans are denatured: the worker under capitalism is made “bestial”, “an animal reduced to the minimum bodily needs”. 

The way the idea of ‘the animal’ is used to represent degradation reflects human actions towards animals, rather than some mindless and wretched quality actually belonging to every other creature in existence. Because of what we do to them, animals represent bodily life that is brutalised and exploited, while the disembodied mind represents mastery - the force which is able to exploit. This dynamic has been fundamental to how people are treated under capitalism, whereby the rational force (the coloniser, the capitalist) subjugates the gross, lucrative body (women, workers and colonised people).

Marx writes that communism is “the restoration of man to himself”, giving us “time for intellectual exercise and recreation” and ending the corruption of human relationships by the hierarchies of the workplace. I think left wing politics should always focus on this connectedness: social connection and solidarity; self-determination  and purpose in our actions; connection with the rest of nature. Marx equates communism to humanism, but to focus on the supremacy of the human, almost making a religion of our species, seems to me to be at odds with the reality of what we are (a product of evolution whose traits are homologous and analogous with those of other creatures), and how we live (in ecosystems, baby! Getting bat disease!).

“Life has not always existed and will not always exist”; “the shapely feminine arm… is simply the hooked wing of the primordial bird and the pectoral fin of the fish”. What a delight, what a fucking boon, to be part of the world! If we value ourselves, we have to value all of it. Politics should be about living our best life (as I believe Marx put it), which we can only do as animals, and in nature.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Blue Collar Beasts: review of 'A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things'

I read books, unlike you, you fool, and have just finished A History of the World in 7 Cheap Things by Raj Patel and Jason Moore. In brief, it describes capitalism as an ecological model which draws on natural resources, including human work, and also shapes them. Different chapters describe the appropriation and control of territory, energy, labour, care, food, money and human lives, processes of cheapening which serve each other. For example, production of cheap energy allows the cultivation of cheap food which fuels cheap work &c.

Patel & Moore take a holistic view of the ecological and humanitarian devastation that fuels capitalism, and refuse to see its activities as outside nature. In support of this perspective the concept “work” is applied to nature - the Earth and animals in their capacity as providers - as well as to things humans do.

Inexorably obsessed with animals, animals on my mind, on my jumper, photos of dogs surrounding me, howling and panting softly under my breath, I was interested in the authors’ conception of animal “work”. The term’s used broadly to describe what capitalism’s instruments do to enable profit. I thought this was useful in detaching will from work - so much of the labour extracted by capitalists has been forced and without volition, or else the volition is a mask forged by necessity, which is why my cover letters always insist that I’m “passionate” about tedious occupations that fundamentally make me puke.

However I think the multiple meanings of the word meant several ideas were at risk of becoming clotted over the course of the book. At one point it gets etymological, the Latin root of travail being trepaliare, to torture (though conversely the root of the English work is werk, as in “to werk it in a sexy manner”). The authors discuss the werk of survival, which is not always fun; work done under conditions of exploitation; work being historically “integral to life” but also, under capitalism, an “organising principle” and means of control. Necessary or not, most of the work described is negative, but the authors gesture in one chapter to the potential of work to be uncoupled from drudgery. Creativity, the building of communities and cultures, is also work.

When this came up I felt there were more careful distinctions to be made between human work and the work of nature, particularly that of animals. It’s made clear in the book that the opposition of humans:nature or humans:animals is artificial, and also that this opposition is a “real abstraction” made actual by the assumptions we make and the way we live. It bears stating that animal work, above all that of livestock, has distinguishing factors. Humans are immiserated and destroyed in various ways, but they’re not farmed. For animals there’s no redemption of any work that serves human purposes, it can’t liberate them because it’s not for them. It’s not work that can be organised against by its subjects either. And while subjugated humans are made into “things” (“things” which have often been conceptualised as animals), livestock is literally made into inanimate matter, into food. The word “work” sometimes means things for people that it doesn’t mean for any other life form - after all, it’s a human word.

This isn’t to undermine the book’s argument, and definitely not to downplay atrocities visited on people, but the distinction is needed, because without recognising the difference between the way humans and animals are used, there’s a risk that referring to “animal work” is to make rhetorical use of their presence as an exploited resource, but then to turn aside at the “work’s” apotheosis. At that point the human:animal divide is a very real abstraction, easy to see in slaughterhouses, and in cellophane-wrapped or jarred or tinned components of creatures in the supermarket aisle.

The book once refers to “acts of chauvinism against human and animal life”, and gestures several times to the grotesqueness of the meat industry, especially the quantity of animals reared and destroyed. But it doesn’t pursue this idea of animals as real lives, and as victims - for the sake of its argument, they are still “things”. In that way, the authors perpetuate the human: nature distinction without questioning it. Granted it’s not an animal rights book, but it didn’t need to be - to acknowledge the differences between human work and nature’s work would only take a few words, and words are cheap.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Taking the Michael

What follows is a portrait of Michael Gove - the methods, the man, the mango - through three news stories in 2018. 

1. Infamous Grouse

It's grouse shooting season, and though most of us will not have bagged any grice, a lucrative industry exists around the hobby, which sees an estimated 700, 000 of the birds shot each year. The practice has a range of environmental consequences, from the collateral shooting of other wildlife to habitat damage, decline in species such as mountain hares and hen harriers, and massive carbon dioxide emission from burning heather.

A campaign group's FOI request revealed that Gove met with owners of grouse moors and encouraged them to make a voluntary (non-binding) "commitment" (yes I'm doing plenty with my punctuation, enjoy) to end heather-burning, so the government could fend off a compulsory ban on the back of an EC investigation into its potential infraction of european environment law. Two of those attending the meeting were Tory donors. 

This chat between friends was the scene of a particularly blantant statement of intent from a government which, with reverse performativity, will "demonstrate its intent" to act, to ensure that action will never take place.

This early stage in the portrait reveals a politician of impervious dishonesty, barely bothering to cover his tracks, but I can't think of a time when members of this government have faced consequences for telling lies.

2. He sold us a pup*

In February this year, Gove's "cavalier" Animal Welfare Bill was found wanting by a Commons committee. The first clause of the Bill aimed to enshrine animal sentience in British law, stating that ministers should have "regard" to the welfare needs of animals when making and implementing law. It failed, however, to define key terms including:

"a)The definition of “sentience”;
b)The definition of “animal”;
c)The definition of “welfare needs of animals”;
d)The definition of the phrase, “Ministers of the Crown should have regard to”;
e)The scope of the legislation, i.e. whether it should apply to all policy areas;"

meaning that if passed it could have led to a chaos of unproductive legal challenges of literally anything on animal welfare grounds, all without offering meaningful protection to animals.

The committee noted that while Gove had at one point made headlines by talking big about how leaving the EU would allow us to reform the breeding and trade of puppies, the proposed bill didn't include any measures pertaining to these "professed objectives." Its limited scope and lack of accountability mechanisms were criticised, and it was added that the "symbolic" intention of the Bill "to reinforce that the government recognises sentience in(some) animals was probably unnecessary," as precedent for this already exists in British law.

Now I see a former Minister for Education lacking in the most basic academic or ministerial competence, and a windbag bloated with empty promises and specious justifications. But I also wonder to what extent Gove's ineptitude is a deliberate form of planned obsolescence in his own laws, and how much comes down to laziness and indifference.

3. Promises, promises

As the boss at DEFRA, Gove has a significant role to play in warding off the apocalypse, which bodes well. At the start of this year the Government put out a 25 year environment plan, setting out policies on sustainable farming, landscape preservation, increased efficiency, reduced waste, marine and global environmental protection, amidst a rhetoric of nationalist schmaltz.

Last month, the Environmental Audit Committee met to discuss the plan and an upcoming bill to be based on it. It was found that the plan "lacks details of how [its] objectives will be achieved," and that its proposals don't support the government's "stated ambitions" for the environment. The preservation of EU legislation after Brexit hasn't been safeguarded and work towards effective legislation has been pencilled in, "expressed in terms of further consultations and long-term aspirational targets without supporting delivery plans." As with the Animal Welfare Bill, its language was called out for being imprecise. 

In January Gove promised to reform the current system of agricultural subsidies for landowners (including grouse moor owners), payments which are primarily based on the amount of land owned rather than the use made of it. This is an area where leaving the EU is an opportunity for massive improvement. By June he was rowing back, suggesting that he would reduce subsidies for all farmers rather than put caps on payments to large landowners. If Gove was in any way committed to reform - to redirecting subsidies towards environmental good practice, to protecting and restoring wildlife - it's not clear why he's cronying up with large landowners who gain most from dysfunctional subsidies, and scheming to protect heather-burning.

Perhaps it's not the hottest take to suggest that Gove is systematically disingenuous, or that his stupidities merge seamlessly with his cunning. These three stories from this year show a consistent strategy of using vague language in the service of anti-feasance. Gove isn't the first to use words about the environment and animal welfare to make himself more palatable. This practice is yet another way of treating animals and the natural world as an exploitable resource, not just for profit but for soothing ideas and vacuous, consoling lies. 

*According to Wikipedia, the phrase 'to be sold a pup' comes from "an old swindle, where one would be sold a bag purportedly containing a piglet, but which actually contained a puppy."

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Never Mind

People’s diets are changing. Not enough, but a fair bit: people are increasingly cutting down on meat (or decreasingly cutting up meat) and that’s grrrrrrrrreat. But I’ve still got a bone to pick. (Hah!)

Something that’s happened in my life more times than I can count is that someone explains to me that they’re eating less meat, not because they care about animals, but because of the environment.  (I say ‘more times than I can count’, but now I come to think of it, I remember every fucker who’s ever said this to me, and the look on their face when they said it.) And I always want to respond, Why? Why don’t you care about animals? Is it because you’re a knob? (I’m a great laugh to go to the pub with, and have loads of friends too.)

There is a conviction deep-rooted in our culture that humans and animals are fundamentally different, and that whatever the genetic and behavioural similarity between us, we can’t ascribe to them feelings that we would recognise in ourselves. This is considered the intelligent and objective viewpoint, despite the fact that it has all the logical credibility of maintaining that, when your eyes are shut, you can make everything stop existing.
"where's your hat mate?"

I read an excellent review by Francis Gooding of this book by Frans de Waal, which points out the similarity of emotional behaviours between humans and other animals. A favourite extract (from Gooding, quoting de Waal):

"Apes often greet each other by 'placing their lips gently on each other's mouth or shoulder and hence kiss in a way and under circumstances that greatly resembles human kissing'". For de Waal, 'Dubbing an ape's kiss 'mouth to mouth contact' so as to avoid anthropomorphism deliberately obfuscates the meaning of the behaviour'.

To acknowledge this gesture of affection for what it is - something we have all experienced (except for you, Billy No-Mates) - risks being held as a dewy-eyed projection of sentiment. A stupid fallacy: believing that experiences are defined by the fact that they occur in us, so a priori refusing to accept that they can be real in other species.

In Gooding’s words, our understanding of ethology has been skewed by studies which "set out to prove the scientists’ preconceptions instead of basing [their] conclusions on close observation". This striving towards ignorance has a clear agenda: to justify our treatment of animals, as if their consciousness is of no value. To excuse the most miserable cruelty because their pain isn’t the same as our pain, just like their love isn’t the same as our love. That’s why it’s ok to rip a calf from its mother and slaughter it, or keep it for a short life in a metal box. That’s why it’s ok to eat whatever you want, because it tastes good to you.

This paper that I read (heroic of me to read something so boring - I did it for you) is a nifty example of that kind of bad science. It makes the point that core ‘emotion states’ are a shared evolutionary feature, not just among mammals, and that these shared states manifest in various ‘characteristic species-type behaviours’. The authors base their claim on neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and observation.
Illustration of emotions as expressed across species (upon seeing your mum),
as found in Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

So far so good. The authors then argue that two things follow on from emotion states: behaviour and ‘feelings’: the subjective and conscious experience of emotion. We have no certain way to understand the latter in other animals, so according to the authors, their distinction between emotion states and feelings ‘frees us of the need to identify human-like feelings (or indeed any feelings) in other animals’. What they don’t explain, but merely take as read, is why it is necessary to  be ‘free’ of this need. Is it rational to assume that a shared trait suddenly fractures into total ontological difference, existence vs nonexistence, between us and every other species of animal, based on nothing but the fact that we understand ourselves, as if there could be nothing else to understand?

Talkin bout species? Talkin bout specious anthropocentric arguments, am I right?!!!

One reason for wanting this distinction is unpleasantly suggested in the phrasing of the final sentence in the article, which compares scientists that research the ‘elusive property’ of emotion ‘in humans and those working on less complex but more experimentally tractable model systems’. My italics.
Image result for hello clouds hello sky

So at the risk of coming across a bit hello-clouds-hello-sky, what I want to say is that animals are incredible and complicated and sensitive and amazing, and often in ways that are directly relatable to the way we are. Features that scientists have historically claimed are unique to humans (tool use; self-awareness; empathetic perspective taking; episodic memory - that is, awareness of time; ability to use language) are time and again proved to be shared by different species, and not only mammals: crows, for example, have evolved a capacity for individual inventiveness, just like the apes that we are, because they faced the same challenges to survival. The real foundation of our ‘objective’ structure of ontological isolationism is nothing but ignorance, an ignorance that many of us gain from preserving.

There is an unknowable aspect to other animals, much as there is to Tories, but this shouldn’t be a reason to set limits on the spectrum of our empathy. What we do know (and, if we look, can often see quite clearly) is much greater than what we don’t know. They have emotions, they experience suffering and its obverse. I can’t see any excuse for overlooking this. It should be no more acceptable to say ‘I don’t care about animals’ than it is to say ‘I don’t care about humans’.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Meat the Packers

It’s not much to my credit, but I’d never given a thought to the welfare of people who work in the meatpacking industry until recently, when I read this harrowing and gross article. It describes a stressful, abusive culture, where workers report being denied access to toilets during shifts. This industry has been notorious for its abuses for over a century - certainly since Upton “Funk” Sinclair published his hyper-depressing novel of alienated labour, The Jungle, in 1906 - though, I admit, this had passed me by.
Within the last decade, similar reports have been made about meat-processing firms in the UK (for clarity, meat-processing firms are the ones where animals go in, and denuded salmonella- and ecoli-ridden mislabelled polyfillered corpses come out, and you eat them, you weirdo). In 2010, the EHRC released a report that detailed exploitation of migrant employees, who are less likely to seek redress; health and safety violations; verbally and physically abusive working environments, and, again, refusal of toilet breaks during shifts. Seriously, meat-guys, just let people go to the toilet, sheesh.
More recently, in 2015, the Guardian published this report on the poultry industry, rehashing the old formula of punitive conditions, abuse of rights, poor hygiene, strain and exhaustion. Some poultry barons got in a flap, claiming this report was not representative, but the way that the same types of abuse recur over years and across continents suggests that these problems are endemic in an industry which relies on “the product”, as employees call it, being processed on a vast scale, extremely quickly.

(All this is without addressing the psychological damage done to workers by being made cogs in a killing machine, more on which later …. )

I’m chary of comparing humans to animals, mostly because people find it insulting & I am a woman of extraordinary politesse. But it’s hardly surprising that an industry for which sentient creatures are fodder should treat the dignity and well-being of its employees with equal indifference. They are fodder too. As Keston Sutherland writes in an analysis of Marx’s language, capitalism is cannibalism. Labour is reduced to Gallerte, a jelly of extraneous meat, bone and tissue: workers’ time and energy, “brains, muscles, nerves, hands,” are ingredients in the production process which must be obtained cheaply and used economically to maximise profit.
I don't think you're ready for this jelly.
(As a point of interest, The Jungle nauseated its readers with accounts of the filthiness of meatpacking, based on Sinclair’s research. The one aspect of his descriptions never to be substantiated was that workers had been known to fall into the pork grinder and join their flesh with the pigs’, to be eaten by unsuspecting members of the public. Invention or not, the idea is irresistible simply because it finishes the picture, makes the missing link. In the grinder, “product” and labourer become one, as they are: in buying anything, we pay for the making as much as for the thing itself.)

There’s a flip side to my reluctance to compare humans and animals - there is a danger that in doing this animals are reduced to a metaphor for human suffering. But they are the real deal: helpless, with absolutely no potential to challenge their exploitation; totally unable to protect themselves from industrial structures; devalued. Almost no cruelty is considered beyond the pale in a meat industry whose ethical regulations are weak and go virtually unenforced. When it comes to suffering, animals are the real deal.

Another flip side (grease the pan, boys!): While I hate what they do, it would be unfair not to see the workers in the meat industry as victims. They’ve got to earn a crust, same as we all do (apart from my boss, a lazy fat-cat who sits on her arse all day). The work that they do is not just physically dangerous, and demeaning (toilets toilets toilets); it has been linked (by Jennifer Dillard) to Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress, a disorder resulting in nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, dissociation, amnesia. You can bang on as much as you like about how nature is red in tooth and claw, but most of us are not freakin’ White Fang; violence reverberates back on the perpetrator, in various psychological forms.

So, victims, yes. But Dillard also links the presence of meatpacking industries to increased local rates of violent crime. Cruelty to animals is a psychopathic trait signifying reduced empathy; meat-processing essentially hothouses violent behaviour. It follows that the effects of brutalisation within the industry will bleed out beyond its confines. Most meat-eaters are able to separate their personal kindness from the horrors of the production line; for those unfortunate enough to be on the factory floor, the reality must be much messier.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The apersonal is the political (your Dave is problematic)

The ranks of the dead
   A sure-fire winner in any argument is to say, ‘I don’t care’. This sentiment remains frustratingly acceptable in debates about vivisection in particular (it’s the ultimate standpoint of Prof Tipu Aziz on this interesting radio programme), and pretty much defines media (non)coverage of most animal welfare issues.
   Even among really excellent, self-critical thinkers, there tends to be an assumption either that animals don’t matter at all, or that they are far, far down a priority list so long that it becomes binary, divided into what does and doesn't matter. This binary in turn becomes oppositional: anything that advances humans is good, and animal interests must not be allowed stand in its way; time and energy given to the protection of animals is time and energy taken away from a more worthy cause.
   As far as I’m aware, there’s no orderly shopping list of actions to eliminate suffering worldwide. The instrumentation of injustice tends to be systemic, and the effects intersectional*, and in many cases there is no opposition between animal welfare, environmental and humanitarian agendas. Mass livestock farming, for example, tortures and destroys animals on an oceanic scale, but the environmental devastation it causes is likely to get messy for humans in the near future, even here in the loveable west. Looking out for animals is an integral part of global progressive movements, not some kind of Marie Antoinette-ish dilettantism.
   But where there actually are competing interests of humans and animals (notably in the case of medical research, until science progresses) - I’d say that it’s bad to the point of evil to categorically dismiss any harm done to animals provided humans benefit. Forms and scales of suffering are comparable between species - pain isn’t an exclusively human property. I don’t deny that victims can be ranked and prioritised, nor do I question (for now) the social contract that compels us to value humans most. I’m just saying that animal concerns shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand - the scale and severity of harm felt should be given due weight, and thought given to whether humanitarian ends can justify cruelties that most of us wouldn't want to imagine.

   There are orders of suffering and, as discussed below, some are worthy of privilege. But this principle shouldn't be used in service of the binary outlined above, or in any other way to invalidate entire groups because they’re not top of our list.

“A Private Matter

   If you have the stomach for it, I’ve got some beef with a parallel and related binarization of suffering: that of the concrete over the abstract, the individual over the many, the case study over the graph. As much as I don’t care for “I don’t care” as a comeback, it’s not always better to reduce problems to what we are able to care about. 

This week, David Cameron has learnt to his visible discomfort that his privacy isn’t as sacrosanct as he thinks it should be. The fact that the prime minister initially thought of his dodgy tax-avoidance as meriting the electorate’s delicacy is symptomatic of his class arrogance, and also of a doublethink regarding politics and private finance that is not exclusive to members of the cabinet. The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.
   Some of Cameron’s defenders have claimed, weakly but not implausibly, that he was trying to protect his family from embarrassment. Few have bothered to respond to this: Cameron’s family loyalty obviously cannot trump his accountability as Prime Minister. But I'm sure that Cameron would dogmatically put his family’s wellbeing, and privacy, above anything - and until now he has quite successfully presented this as a virtue, not a moral limitation.
   In fact, Cameron and his family have publicly lived through perhaps the most unspeakable of personal tragedies: the loss of a child. It feels and, probably is, incredibly vile to mention this at all, because in the ranks of suffering children have a special status. That kind of loss is untouchable, and it feels unacceptable to bring it into partisan discourse. Privacy serves here as a protection of the child and of the family’s grief - this is not public property
   But, uncomfortable as it is to attack him on this, Cameron has repeatedly brought his bereavement into his political statements, and used it to blur the neglectfulness of his government towards families who care for disabled children without the support of massive personal wealth. Cameron cannot be unaware of the way that his programme of austerity has targeted people with disabilities, including children. To pretend that he can relate to parents hit by his policies seems like the height of hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy which it feels like a violation to address. Reverence for individual examples of suffering is a silencer; this can be abused.

Je ne suis pas ...

   As a tad bit of a utilitarian, I’ve been thinking occasionally about what makes a child’s suffering worse and more important than an adult's. It’s one of those things that it seems stupid as well as a bit tacky to analyse, but here goes. It’s not just that children are helpless - so are many adults - and innocent, by which I mean a combined lack of understanding and power - which animals have par excellence. And it’s not simply that they have a lot of potential life left, and so their loss is greater when they die - it’s not like we lose sympathy for chronically ill children with shortened life-spans (unless we’re an old-school Nazi, which we aren’t). The privilege of their helplessness and innocence comes from the fact that it’s transitory: they aren’t adults, but they will be adults, and are valued for a positive absence. The special status relies on them being one of us, but not yet.
   I would not and could not for a moment dispute the special status of children, in life and in suffering. But in political discourse there’s an extent to which this regard itself has to be ring-fenced. The exploitation of the special status for children can lead to grotesque hypocrisy.

   When Alan Kurdi died many of the expressions around his death felt offensively tasteless, none more so than the adults who lay on a beach dressed as him. This was crass and presumptuous because though of course we should identify with refugees, who are dehumanised by distance and anonymity, we cannot ‘je suis’ the death of a little boy - we are not him. We don’t have that innocence. Another eyesore was a mawkish cartoon of his soul floating to heaven on angel wings, a child as cute as he is dead - this published in the Mail, that famous defender of migration rights. Why pity a child, when you can’t pity the adult that the child could have grown into? And why pity one child, when you can’t pity thousands? Why should greater magnitude drive tragedies further down our priorities list?

   Relevant, timely or conveniently bite-sized examples of suffering have their uses in forging the emotional responses that allow us to form ideas of justice, and shape our politics. But focusing on the particular can skew perceptions, and lead to woolly, self-indulgent thinking, and hypocrisy. Suffering should be contemplated in broad and utilitarian terms, weighted not according to who or what is suffering but, where possible, by scale and degree. The problem is the harm done, not the victim.

* I feel indebted to Ash Sarkar, who has been very pithy on systems underlying intersectionality

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Get thee behind me, hipster

Millennials come in for a lot of flak, what with being incoherently blamed for misfortunes imposed by take-the-money-and-run capitalist boomers etc, but if you ask me our one unforgivable fault is a tendency to get cute. Thus we cutely spend our time debating whether Emma Watson should appear on our ten pound notes alongside the motto illegitimi non carborundum, then in May when the Tories get in we’re all like :’(

One of the many minute things to grind my minute gears in recent weeks has been this bit of aw-shucksery from the Guardian:
The centrepiece of a roast is usually a giant hunk of meat dripping in its own juices. A monstrous piece of animal that you now have full dominion over. You’re setting an example for the rest of the world. You are all-powerful now, and all the creatures of the Earth must tremble before you, lest you cook them as well.
I know, it’s meant to be tongue in cheek. But it’s not really ironic, because it does really suggest that eating meat makes you feel powerful, and, recognising the idiocy of that, doesn’t question it, but treats this grotesque thought process as an adorkable part of a gratifying culinary experience.

Courtesy of the Observer

The violence of this attitude might ring a bell with readers of Carol J Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, along with a sicklier grace note. Meat is objectification: something that’s been dominated and extracted from consciousness or agency, the object having more value because it once had consciousness and agency which was taken from it. In a nutshell (which is how a hipster would probably serve it), meat represents much of what is despicable and odious in masculinism, but also, because it’s food, has a feminised and domestic facet that can appeal to ‘new men’, who tie their big beards behind their pinnies and experiment with ways of making their base sense of entitlement look most palatable. Not that women don’t do this: I think that for women too interactions with meat can combine masculine and feminine, and sexual, motifs in a particularly self-indulgent way. Possibly the most hateful example of this is Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession by Julie Powell, a journey of unnecessary self-discovery via the mutilation of corpses.

3 victors in a 'trying to look like a burger' competition

Artisanal butchery is not down to earth, it’s a retrograde affectation. Think of the lumbersexual, of the Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall on his photogenic smallholding, of TV chefs proving their authenticity by executing lambs live on camera. “It’s the natural order, people have always eaten meat,” says the straw man. This aspect of the meat conversation is bullshit: people have always been murderers, rapists and genocidal despoilers, but that doesn’t make it ok. And since it’s increasingly obvious not just that we don’t need to but that we mustn’t indulge in this killing, the last thing we should be doing is fetishizing it, allowing it to seem naughty but nice, or even (gawd help us) sexy.

As a final mention, just because I think it’s worth saying, animal issues are not isolated from other liberationist movements. As Adams points out, violence inflicted on animals is violence that will, in some form, be visited on oppressed humans; it belongs to the same paradigm of objectification and entitlement. First they came for the pigs, but I was not a pig so I said nothing. Then they came for me ...