Thursday, April 04, 2013

Dreaded Comparisons

Duncan Richter has recently raised an eyebrow at the factory-farming/Holocaust analogy, understandably. However, I just today started reading Marjorie Spiegel's The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, which makes a different, possibly offensive comparison, and just got to this paragraph, which seems worth serious consideration:
Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist: one who has embraced false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by comparison to a fellow sufferer have unquestioningly accepted the biased worldview presented by the masters. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our masters, past or present, that we are similar to those who have abused us, rather than to our fellow victims, those whom our masters have also victimized. (30)
I think that last sentence packs a gut-wrenching punch. But then I think, for example, of "the Elephant Man" (Joseph Merrick) (ignore the end of the clip; punch line of sorts below):

But perhaps even if Spiegel is right, we know well enough what Merrick means.


  1. I think there are different ways that one could be bothered by comparisons like this. You might object that slavery or the Holocaust is far worse than the treatment of animals, either specifically because the former involve human suffering (which might be considered worse then the suffering of less aware beings or just more important than the suffering of 'lower' species) or because you believe that the former just happened to involve more suffering (i.e. you aren't at all speciesist, you just get that result when you do the utilitarian calculation). But another way to be bothered is simply by the desire to make the comparison in the first place. Of course if it forces itself on you, as I think it does with many people, then there it is. But there is something wrong, I think, with encouraging people to make the comparison, or with enthusiastically setting about adding up all the suffering involved. It's a bit like going to one funeral after another and then sitting down in the pub and trying to work out whose death was worse. It's not regarding the two things as comparable (i.e. adding up the suffering in each case and getting similar results, or perhaps results that find the animals' suffering far worse) that troubles me. It's making the comparison in the first place. As if each batch of suffering were a limited whole that could be weighed rather than a kind of moral black hole or an unhealed wound in the universe. Whose screams are louder? It is poor taste to measure.

  2. Whose screams are louder? It is poor taste to measure.

    I think that's right, but so far it doesn't strike me that that's what Spiegel is doing. (It also doesn't seem like what Elizabeth Costello is doing until she suggests that factory farming is worse than the Holocaust because it (f-farming) is 'without end'.)

    But Rachels does seem to be doing precisely that kind of measuring...

  3. I agree. To be fair to Rachels, I still have not read the whole of his piece. But there is a kind of criticism to which he might be open that others avoid.

  4. Page 24 might be helpful on this question:

    This is not intended to oversimplify matters, however, and imply that the oppressions experienced by blacks and animals have taken identical forms. A complex web of social, political, and economic factors sustained slavery and made possible the life of a slave as it was known. This book in no way attempts to make the case that these factors are the same for animals; there are distinct social, political, and economic factors which create and support the subjugation of animals, as well as differences between the possible manners in which blacks and animals could respond to their respective enslavements. On this latter point, one very notable difference is exemplified by the history of slave rebellions. While there innumerable instances of animals having escaped from zoos, circuses, slaughterhouses, etc., animals’ natures vis-à-vis humans seems to preclude the possibility of organized rebellion, while enslaved blacks managed to overcome overwhelming odds and stage rebellions and innumerable organized escapes. But, as divergent as the cruelties and the supporting systems of oppression may be, there are commonalities between them. They share the same basic essence, they are built around the same basic relationship – that between oppressor and oppressed. So, even though we may think the experiences of black people in this country as being unique – which they were – there are many disturbing similarities between their treatment at the hands of white people in the United States and the treatment of animals at the hands of a large sector of the American population. Indeed, just as humans are oppressed the world over, animals receive poor treatment in nearly every human culture on earth.