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What do we mean when we refer to animal oppression?  How does oppression of animals operate?  How would animal liberation overcome animal oppression?  What does animal liberation mean?  I use the phrases “animal liberation” and “animal oppression” on a regular basis, to the point where I had to take a step back and assess what I meant from these phrases.  Before formulating my own conceptualization of these terms, I wanted to know the brief history of “oppression” and “liberation” and how activists and philosophers describe them.

Oppression, justice, and liberation in Anglo-American thought

Just to be clear, I am not a philosopher.  Nor am I a historian.  Nor am I a theorist.  I am a writer, with an apt for researching and critical thinking, who cares deeply about envisioning radical reconstructions of human-animal relationships in civilization.  When I noticed a lack of clarity and consistency in the use of animal oppression (let alone oppression in general), I approached the problem simply from the position of a critical thinker with strong roots in ecology and no ties to an academic institution or a formal school of thought.

The term “oppression” derives from the Latin oppressionem, which means the act of “weighing on someone’s minds and spirits.”  By the mid 14th century, oppression was used to refer to “cruel or unjust use of power or authority,” and this meaning still persists more or less today.  This begs the question of what it means to be just and uphold justice.  “Justice” stems from the Latin justitia meaning “righteousness, equity” and since the mid-12th century refers to “the exercise of authority in vindication of right by assigning reward or punishment.”  In social justice movements (including animal liberation), when we demand justice or just treatment, we approach it from the position of demanding compliance under the morality of fairness and equity.  A system based on fairness requires impartial and objective judgment from the ones whose authority it is to uphold justice.  That means under a system of justice, there will always be a power hierarchy and unreasonable faith that public officials can aspire to their duty of performing impartial and objective judgments for as long as they are in office.  This “impartial” system doesn’t include the realistic presence and impact of large corporations in our lives and their partial influence on our government still struggling to aspire to its morality of justice.

The definition of liberation in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a movement seeking equal rights and status for a group.”  To liberate an individual or group of individuals is literally to set them free.  Therefore, liberation can be interpreted as the act of bringing freedom.  And freedom is a basic core condition that’s difficult to explain except to say what it’s not; free literally means “not in bondage.”  Freedom can also be synonymous with autonomy, which is self-governing.  Autonomy is a state more applicable across cultures and across species than freedom because autonomy can exist in various forms without losing the integrity of its meaning.

Throughout the history of civilizations, groups have only received “liberation” so long as those in positions of privilege and power have been willing to grant it to them.  The oppressed group can resist all they want, but as long as they participate in civilization and depend on the system’s structure for survival (even while suffering oppression from it) they will only receive liberation through the mercy of their oppressors.  In this sense, we can expect no less with the struggle for animal liberation.

Ann E. Cudd’s Theory of Oppression

In her book Analyzing Oppression, Ann E. Cudd lists six points that a theory of oppression must address in order to be useful:

  1. Who is really oppressed?  Who benefits from oppression, if anyone?
  2. How does oppression originate?
  3. How does oppression endure over time?
  4. How do institutional structures of oppression form?
  5. Is oppression an inevitable feature of civil society?
  6. How can oppression be overcome?

She also names two major forces that drive oppression: material (economic) and psychological.  I also include ecological forces of oppression that can’t be reduced to economic reasons.  Examples of ecological forces include habitat loss, habitat destruction, displacement/forced removal, and regional food source depletion.  What makes ecological forces distinctive from economic forces are the dependence on place and space rather than a particular resource.  The Trail of Tears was an ecological force of oppression because it involved the forced removal of indigenous peoples (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee-Creek, and Seminole nations) from their homes onto a reservation which became available only through the displacement of other indigenous peoples (Kiowa, Pawnee, Comanche, and Shawnee nations).

In order for the event to be labeled as oppression, it must have these four criteria:

  1. The harm condition.  This is where oppression results from an institutional practice.
  2. The social group condition.  This is where oppression is perpetuated through social institutions and/or practices and it exists apart from institutional oppression.
  3. The privilege condition.  This is where another social group benefits from institutional oppression.
  4. The coercion condition.  This is where unjustified coercion or force brings about the institutional or social oppression.

Throughout her book, Cudd makes a key distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” use of force.  Illegitimate force she labels as oppression.  Legitimate force is basically any institutional use of force that doesn’t meet the criteria of oppression.  Cudd used the example of some men accusing the domestic law that requires them to pay child support of oppressing men in favor of women.  This is not a case of oppression because the gender roles that inform the cultural expectation of placing children with their mothers actually “privileges men and oppresses women.”  As a result, Cudd’s theory seeks to counter unchecked use and misuse of the term oppression.  This is based on the problem of defining oppression primarily through subjective experience.  The distinction, then, serves as an attempt toward objective oppression, where measurable factors determine legitimacy.

To explain why oppression persists despite its harms, Cudd argues that the oppressed are co-opted through their short-run choices to reinforce the long-run oppression of their social group.  As a result, the forces are the motivational factors that lead the oppressed to submit to their condition.

In Cudd’s theory of oppression, resistance to oppression may be seen as a path toward liberation through rhetoric and symbolic strategies, economic strategies, armed struggle, and legal strategies within political states.

Conceptualizing Oppression and Liberation in the Animal Liberation Movement

The term animal oppression is used extensively in the animal liberation community.  It’s used with an assumed understanding of what oppression is, in addition to animal oppression.  But just exactly what do we mean when we refer to animal oppression?  Surprisingly, very few animal liberation proponents have actually defined what they mean by animal oppression.  Here are two I’ve found so far:

“The exploitation of other animals and the justification of their mistreatment not only closely resemble human oppression but are inextricably tied to it. While the primary focus of this book is human oppression of other animals, the thesis is that such oppression is motivated primarily by economic interests and, what is more, that it is profoundly and permanently entwined with human oppression of other humans.”–Dave Nibert, Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation

“ICAS defines animal oppression and domination as torturing, marginalizing, or killing animals.”–Institute for Critical Animal Studies mission statement

What these interpretations of animal oppression have in common is that they both have a different interpretation for what animal oppression means.  Nibert’s account employs an economic analysis of oppression where exploitation is the source of oppression, and the Institute for Critical Animal Studies equates oppression with the act of causing suffering and killing animals, regardless of the context.

In regards to liberation, the main interpretation of what animal liberation means has taken its shape through the abolitionist approach, touted by Gary Francione and rooted in Tom Regan’s deontological ethics.  The assumption is that animal liberation will manifest in society when animals lose their property status.  Property status is an objective measure.  As a result, it ensures that the existence of property will remain and institutions as such will more or less stay the same, except with some adjustments of inclusion/exclusion boundaries.  Rest assure, the on-going struggles against the oppression of animals would continue.  African Americans certainly didn’t stop suffering oppression with the abolition of American slavery.  We can expect no differently with animals.

In his interview with Abolitionist-Online, Norm Phelps says the following about animal oppression:

“Our various systems of belief and our social and economic institutions do not create animal oppression.  They simply provide after the fact justifications for it.  When a belief system or economic system that has supported animal oppression collapses, animal oppression does not end as a result.  It continues right on without missing a beat, and a new justification is created using the vocabulary of the new system.”

Once again, we’re left with the problem of not knowing what animal oppression means or with any unified conceptualization of animal oppression.  Additionally, we run the problem of summarizing all harms against animals as oppression and expecting that all harms enact in the same way across human cultures.  Living in European-based civilization and knowing very little alternatives for how to live as our ways of life spread thanks to imperialism/colonialism, we tend to generalize how all humans live and interact with other animals based on our social ills.  Phelp’s idea of animal oppression continuing despite the dissolution of social and economic institutions only stands ground if we’re assuming that all human societies are organized through civilization, which they aren’t.  When it comes to civilization, his statement on animal oppression does hold merit, however.  Humans have historically shown that through civilization we do not live in mutual autonomy and respect with other animals (let alone other living beings and each other).

Re-conceptualizing Animal Oppression, Re-imagining Animal Liberation

The modern definition of liberation is very difficult for me to accept because equal rights and status provide no room for contextuality, which is a fact of life.  Additionally, demanding equal rights and status depends on our current understanding of justice, an understanding I think is not sufficient for reconstructing mutual reciprocity and healing animal relations in civilization.

By focusing on oppression with an implication for justice, we fail to address one of the most important aspects of life as we know it—relationships.  When animal activists talk about animal oppression, we’re somehow unable to talk about animal bonds in the same discussion.  It’s as if the only (important) interaction humans have with other animals is that of social oppression.

At the same time, perhaps we talk about animal oppression so much because it seems like we almost have to, to counteract opponents of animal liberation that try to illegitimize animal oppression, while saying what we call oppression is actually the “human-animal bond.”  Unfortunately, this argument corrupts the very essence of interspecies animal bonds, where mutual reciprocity occurs rather than indentured servitude.  However, neither the animal liberation movement nor “human-animal bond” advocates provide visions and livelihoods of ways that honor our necessary relationships with other animals beyond oppression.

Using Ann E. Cudd’s theory of oppression as a guideline, I define oppression as the ecological, economic, and psychological/emotional harms derived from social systems of control created and sustained by particular social groups that deny the mutual autonomy of other groups living in society.  Under my definition, any system of control of one group over another is unacceptable.  Oppression does not depend on the presence or absence of a morality of justice.  This is because justice requires impartial and objective judgment, which offer no place for immeasurable qualities in lived experience such as relationships, feelings, and meaning.  Justice doesn’t offer belonging, mutuality, sense of place, or meaningful relationships.  It simply values what’s fair and it requires people in power to decide what’s fair and ensure rough estimated equality.  Needless to say, that is easier said in theory rather than done in practice.  As a result, I don’t think that relying on justice will aid us in our resistance to animal oppression, especially since following Cudd’s full theory of oppression, the harms against animals could be considered justified (like in Yale University’s statement on vivisection recently) and therefore legitimate because of the differences between humans and other animals interpreted as natural inequalities.

Also, in my definition of oppression, addressing the oppression requires more than objective analyses to bring oppressed groups to a level of mutuality with the oppressors.  By mutuality, I mean a shared understanding between groups (and their members) that is based on respect and continual communication.  It requires a radical acceptance of how important intersubjectivity is to our lives.  In our acceptance, we would have to change how we organize ourselves socially, make our livings, interact with others, and participate in communities.

When I think of animal liberation, I think in ecological terms, where species live in interdependent autonomy by means of communication and reciprocity.  To acknowledge other living beings’ autonomy while recognizing our interdependence requires empathy and respect.  Liberation is the act of letting go of the institutions and social processes that bind us to exploitation and injustice.  As a result, I envision animal liberation as a world where human societies live with other animals without trying to dominate them.

After all of this information I’ve shared about oppression and liberation and what they mean, I’m still left with unanswered questions as to how to move forward in the animal liberation movement.  How can we attempt to understand and address oppression in a way that acknowledges the importance of relationships and meaning-making in healing the wounds from oppression?  How can we envision animal liberation that ensures mutual autonomy between individuals and communities?  Hopefully, fellow animal liberation proponents will engage in this dialogue with me, and direct experience with nonhuman animals will help me address these questions.

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