An oft-used and rightly criticized (white) vegan practice is to juxtapose images of non-human animals in slaughter houses or other horrible conditions with images from the Holocaust or from slavery in the U.S. The latter are the two most frequent examples I have seen used. There might be other unfortunate juxtapositions that I am unaware of but the operating principle is to show the suffering, mangled, mutilated or dead bodies of victims, human and non-human, side by side.
The argument behind the juxtaposition seems to be that if you find one of the pair (the human suffering) unacceptable, then you should also find the other (non-human suffering) unacceptable, thereby stop doing it/participating in it/or something along those lines. The deeper premise is that human and non-human animal suffering is analogous. The simpler version of this idea is that human and non-human animals are fundamentally similar. This, in itself, is not an outrageous idea.
Unless you are Descartes, you know that animals are not mechanical creatures that feel no pain or pleasure. We share a central nervous system and many other things. Animals feel physical and emotional pain, get depressed, commit suicide and so forth. Pain is pain. But coming from members of dominant classes situated in historically colonialist, imperialist, racist states, comparing oppressed people who are still trying to establish their humanity in the face of such systemic oppression to animals is outrageous. (This is not the only problem with this view however. And this is not problematic only because it is coming from white people).
Also the kind of suffering evoked here is not any kind of physical or psychic suffering. We don’t see images of animal and human nervous systems or the like being compared. Similarly, we don’t see images of human and animal natural disease or death being juxtaposed. The suffering evoked here is one that is systematically inflicted by an oppressor. Let’s provisionally call this political suffering. Can this kind of suffering be analogous along human-animal lines? The short answer is no.
The lack of language, opposable thumbs, strategic intelligence and other such strictly human abilities make the oppression of animals total and absolute. For humans, there is almost always the possibility of escape and resistance, no matter how faint or how long in coming. When your tormentors are the same species as you are, you might have access to some of the same tools. On the other hand, humans can be broken and conditioned through prolonged oppression and indoctrination so that it does not even occur to them to use those tools, to resist or escape. But the capacity and the possibility remain.
Humans (for the moment grossly generalized to average able-bodied and/or neurotypical adult humans) can learn and unlearn at paces and capacities simply unavailable to animals, and utilize complicated strategizing, future-planning, deductive reasoning etc. Animals can avoid pain and seek pleasure, learn by induction and perform short-term strategic moves and that’s it. It may take us fifty, hundred or five hundred years to rise up and say Ya Basta, Edi Bese, Yeter Artık, or Enough is Enough but we eventually do. This is not the case for animals. We cannot expect a cow riot or uprising in the next hundred or five hundred years. (This is probably one of the reasons animal suffering of this kind seems to cause a bad case of the savior complex in some vegans. The golden opportunity to be the voice of the voiceless. In an even darker vein, this also means having –perhaps even desiring to have?– a constituency that cannot speak back. Incidentally, there are those who would like this to be the case with humans in solidarity and allyship situations. Here‘s a great post about it.)
In short, while the basic experience of pain or distress might be analogous in some sense, this kind of political suffering is not analogous between animals and humans. What is analogous, however is the tormentors: entitled humans with power who view humans and/or non-humans as resources to be exploited, as bodies that are expendable. But they are nowhere to be seen in this picture. In a sense, those who use these images are focusing on the wrong side of the equation. They are focusing on the sufferers who are not analogous instead of the tormentors who are. Instead of contrasting pictures of humans in mass graves and animals in similar situations, what if they reproduced images of the butchers, the Klan members, the masters, the hunters, the powerful, the oppressors? Instead of the pornography of suffering which most people unfortunately became immune & desensitized to, what if we circulated the images of the perpetrators? We are bombarded with images of victims (of [insert whatever atrocity, assault or oppression you can think of here] everyday, yet few, if ever, images of the oppressors, the aggressors, the perpetrators of such atrocities. Putting the spotlight on the sufferers, whether this is one’s intention or not, serves to hide the tormentors and oppressors.
Perhaps one reason why this is not the case is that it is not always easy to pinpoint the perpetrators. If I begin circulating the images of a bunch of minimum wage workers at a slaughter house, am I really exposing the perpetrator? Should I instead find an image of the CEO of the company that owns the plant? Should I instead find images of the CEOs of market chains that sell this flesh? Should I instead find images of millions of consumers who buy this flesh? Should I instead put up a picture of myself as a past consumer of this flesh? (This could be a good place to start. Most of us weren’t raised as vegans. I myself have consumed animal flesh for nearly 30 years. Sometimes I see most vegan propaganda as a disguised gesture of absolution. While perhaps understandable, this is not a solid base for politics.)
The sufferer is invisible and hyper-visible at the same time and the oppressor is nowhere to be found and yet ubiquitous.
This is similar to the way women may become hyper-visible as victims of patriarchal misogynistic, transmisogynistic and misogynoir violence where this is framed as “violence against women” always highlighting victims instead of perpetrators, making the oppressor invisible again. This focus on (a particular kind of , usually white cis woman) victim serves to mask a few things. Not all survivors of such violence are cis white women. “Male violence” which I used alternatively for some time doesn’t quite cut it either because not all perpetrators are necessarily cis men, though they seem to be the majority. Unlike the examples of systematic oppression and violence cited above, however, it is still easier to identify the perpetrators here. So why are we hiding the oppressor and exposing the victim, making them even more vulnerable?
One understandable but inexcusable motivation is to make suffering visible in order to arouse empathy/sympathy for the victims. “This could be you or your loved one.” (For one thing, depending on context this can be a plea for sympathy or an underhanded threat. It certainly seems like the latter to me when I see the dead body of a woman with a knife on her back killed by her ex-husband for daring to divorce him on the first page of a newspaper in Turkey. The husband is nowhere to be seen. And the message is: this is what happens to uppity women.) The juxtapositions of human and non-human suffering say something more: “this is you, you are the same.” But we are not, and this is OK. We don’t have to be the same to care about one another’s well-being. Human and animal suffering are not analogous. But our tormentors are. And another thing that is analogous is that for the tormentor the sufferers are the same. For those who justify animal-testing of products meant for human use, animals and humans are the same. An important feature of racist thought is that the members of races different than one’s own “all look the same.” Failure to differentiate and individuate the victim is the hallmark of the oppressor. So when you reduce human and animal suffering to one another, you are in fact speaking the language of the oppressor.
We should perhaps stop throwing the victims in the spotlight so much and making them more vulnerable. It denigrates the victims and helps/hides the perpetrators. We should instead try to locate and expose the perpetrators whenever we can. And be ready to find that the perpetrator looks very much like “us” or is/was, in fact, “us.”