Offending comparisons

One place in life where a lot of good could be done through a clearer understanding of logic arises in cases of offense. We sometimes seem to believe that to be the cause of someone taking offense is by itself a wrong. But this ignores the fact that people can be mistaken in their offense: Someone might not intend the offense that another feels. In some cases, the offended may simply misunderstand what is being said. The feeling of offense, however, is as bewitching of our rational faculty as is most outrage and indignation. (A classic on the philosophical dificulties here is Joel Feinberg’s
Offense to Others).

Tim Wise in a recent article, “Animal Whites” in the leftist journal “Counterpunch” uses a battery of arguments to show that certain members of the animal right’s community, especially PETA and its founder Ingrid Newkirk have a race problem. Much of the article is flippant and progresses by a series of truly awful arguments, but along the way a couple of interesting issues are raised concerning the use of comparisons in arguments and the nature of offense.

Wise accuses animal rights proponents of “misanthropy” for the comparison between the suffering of animals and humans. The idea seems to be that if you care about animal suffering you therefore do not care about human suffering (or you hate humans). Perhaps this is true in some cases, but it certainly does not follow from the fact that someone devotes their efforts to ending animals suffering that they therefore don’t care about all of the millions of human beings who are suffering.

But this fallacious argument leads us to what matters most to Wise–the comparison of human suffering and animal suffering, or more specifically his offense at the PETA photo-display “Are Animals the New Slaves?”

>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking.

Wise seems to think that if you compare two things in regard to one similar attribute (My car is the same color as my shirt), you imply that they are similar in all attributes (My car is my shirt), or in other attributes (My car would be comfortable wrapped around my body). Thus, if PETA shows that the treatment of African-American slaves in the past and the treatment of animals in the present are similar in some regards (use similar technologies, for example), then PETA is saying that African-Americans are animals, or are similar to animals in ways that would legitimate offense (e.g., the outrageous and shameful history of racist attempts to demean African-Americans (and other people) through comparisons with animals). But this, of course, does not follow from the original comparison.

>The “New Slaves” exhibition, currently making its way around 42 cities over a 10-week period has drawn outrage, understandably, from African Americans. And, typically, representatives of the blindingly white, middle class and affluent animal rights establishment, show no signs of understanding whence the anger emanates.

>To wit, Dawn Carr, PETA’s Director of Special Projects, who has admitted that lots of folks are upset about her group “comparing black people to animals,” but who, in PETA’s defense, doesn’t deny that that is what PETA is doing, but rather insists it’s OK, because the exhibit also compares factory farming to other injustices, “like denying women the vote or using child labor.” In other words, don’t worry black people: you’re not the only ones we’re comparing to animals!

Here we see that Wise is clearly committing the logical mistake in the last clause. The point might be made more clearly by saying that PETA is not comparing people to animals so much as comparing treatments. To say that someone was “hunted like an animal” is not to say that the hunting was right, that they are an animal.

But Wise imagines the animal rights proponent defending this comparison on the following grounds:

>Now I’m sure there will be some animal liberationists who read this and who think that since animals are sentient beings too, and since they have the right not to be exploited for human benefit (positions with which I don’t disagree), that comparisons with the Holocaust, or lynching are perfectly fair. To think otherwise, they might argue, is to engage in an anthropocentric favoring of Homo sapiens over other species.

Wise acknowledges that because animals and humans are similarly sentient, comparing their suffering seems reasonable. But he rejects this argument:

>But of course, whether they admit it or not, most all believers in animal rights do recognize a moral and practical difference between people and animals: after all, virtually none would suggest that if you run over a squirrel when driving drunk, that you should be prosecuted for vehicular homicide, the way you would be if you ran over a small child. The only basis for a distinction in these cases is, at root, recognition of a fundamental difference between a child and a squirrel.

>Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but if the folks at PETA really think that factory farming and eating the products of factory farming are literally the equivalent to human genocide, then, to be consistent, they would have to argue for the criminal prosecution of all meat-eaters, and War Crimes Tribunals for anyone even remotely connected to the process. After all, if you consume a factory-farmed chicken, you are, by this logic, implicated in mass murder, the same way many whites were in the lynching of blacks, by purchasing the amputated body parts of the latest victims of white rage.

>To draw any distinction at all–and to not support criminal incarceration of meat-eaters the way one would for a cannibal the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, indeed, draws that distinction–is to admit, whether openly or not, that there is a difference between a cow and a person. That difference may be quite a bit smaller than we realize, and that difference certainly doesn’t justify cruelty to the cow–and it may indeed be so small that we really should opt for vegetarianism–but it is a difference nonetheless.

But in his attempted refutation, Wise has shifted the “refutandum” from the plausible claim that there is a moral similarity between harming animals and humans because of an objective similarity in their character as sentient beings. Now he is arguing against the implausible claim that there is no moral or practical difference between animals and humans. This is a straw man.

These arguments have been addressed in the voluminous literature on animals and ethics. The essential point, I think, rests on Peter Singer’s distinction between “equal consideration” and “equal treatment.” To argue that animals and human beings deserve equal moral consideration does not imply that they deserve the same or “equal” treatment.

As an aside, I would point out that in the first case the essential difference is that we have good reason to believe that the cause of killing the squirrel was not negligence on the part of the driver but far more likely “negligence” on the part of the squirrel (If I leap in front of a car, the driver is presumably not prosecuted for killing me). The other two are more complicated, though again the fact that there are some moral and practical differences between animals and humans does not imply that the comparison between animal suffering and human suffering is illegitimate, which was the claim that Wise should be addressing.

Having failed to make the argument that there is good reason to be offended by this comparison, Wise turns to an extended ad hominem tirade against the “whiteness” of PETA. Being unable to offer an adequate argument he tries to implicate the position in racist motivations or blindness and thus to dismiss the substantive claims that PETA is making (The following paragraphs are unedited and are the actual conclusion of the article).

>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking. After all, the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression.

>Perhaps if animal liberationists weren’t so thoroughly white and middle-class, and so removed from the harsh realities of both the class system and white supremacy, they would be able to find more sympathy from the folks of color who rightly castigate them for their most recent outrage.

>Perhaps if PETA activists had ever demonstrated a commitment to fighting racism and the ongoing cruelty that humans face every day, they would find more sympathy from those who, for reasons that are understandable given their own lives, view animal rights activism as the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, rather than as a struggle for greater compassion for all.

>But then again, if the animal rights movement wasn’t so white and so rich, it would never have thought to make such specious and obviously offensive analogies in the first place.

If my analysis of the logic of the comparison is correct, then we can understand why this comparison can seem offensive to some without that offense being legitimate since it rests, like Wise’s article in general, on a logical mistake.

But there is I think another ground for affront that seems to be lurking unclearly in the back of Wise’s mind and might be more reasonable–the suggestion that the suffering endured through the shameful institution of slavery, or the genocidal policies of Germany, is being trivialized through this comparison.

>The very legitimate goal of stopping the immense horror of factory farming–which horror should be able to stand on its own as an unacceptable cruelty, in need of immediate action–gets conflated with the extermination of millions of people in two separate Holocausts (that of the Middle Passage and that in Europe), thereby ensuring that damn near everyone who hears the analogy will conclude that PETA is either completely insensitive, at best, or bull-goose-loony, at worst: no offense meant to geese, by the way.

Wise confuses comparison and conflation here, but I take the mention of insensitivity to be a suggestion, however inchoate, that the comparison is taken to dishonor the suffering in the two holocausts, by not recognizing the distinctive character of these “two separate Holocausts.”

Whether this is reasonable will depend upon whether one takes the similarity between animal and human suffering to be valid. If one believes that the suffering of animals is less significant than the suffering of human beings then one will find this comparison perhaps offensive. Whether one is right–and in what precise sense it is true, if it is true–to think that animal suffering is less signficant than human suffering is a question that must be answered by careful ethical reflection.

But, we might at least make appeal to intention here. If it is the case that someone intends to trivialize the human suffering, offense would be legitimate. But if we have no reason to think that this is the point of their comparision, then it does not seem reasonable to find this offensive. I don’t think that this settles the question, but it does, at lesat, allow us to differentiate a substantive disagreement from the confusions that arise from the feeling of outrage and that plague Wise’s article.

There is, perhaps, also a third possible reason for taking offense at the exhibit, and althogh Wise doesn’t address this, it seems plausible to me that it is the ultimate motivation for many who are offended. For some, the use of images of racial violence appears as an appropriation of this suffering for political ends not shared by those who feel racial solidarity with the victims of that violence. There is a feeling of ownership of the suffering, and therefore a feeling that the use of this suffering for what appears to be an extrinsic political goal is illegitimate. To be honest I don’t know what I think about this objection, but it is an entirely different objection that anything Wise has raised in his article, and would need separate and careful consideration

There are ultimately difficult and troubling issues here that confront the animal rights movement when it attempts provocatively to cause awareness of the magnitude of animal suffering. There are, however, two important questions: First, whether the offense that some people feel is justified; Second, whether the offense that some people feel is too high a strategic cost for the activists.

One could not, however, do better than to read the very thoughtful foreword to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery by Alice Walker before taking offense.

8 thoughts on “Offending comparisons”

  1. The leftist stance on animal liberation presented in the above article offers a socialist interpretation of environmental ethics (see Murray Bookchin). From my extensive knowledge of Environmental Ethics (one class), I can see the point that the author is trying to make, though incoherent as it might be. I believe it goes something like this:

    1) Cruelty to animals is an extension of social and economic iniquities among humans present in our cultual practices

    2) If we address these social and economic injustices first, then by extension we will resolve the animal cruelty issues correlated with these injustices

    3) PETA is not addressing these social and economic injustices among humans

    4) Therefore, PETA is barking up the wrong tree (missing the point)

    (1) and (2) are plausible premises (that require extensive explication). (3) is the main point of contention, and seems to be heavily argued for in the “Counterpunch” article. We see this through the use of class-based language, where the arrogant “middle-class whites” are insensitively trivializing the centuries of injustice perpetrated by whites against minorities and their own working class and poor. Thus, we see not only that (3), but that PETA is in fact perpetrating further social and economic injustices among humans (by being rich and white, and insensitive).

    I tend to agree with (1) and (2) in a certain sense, but these premises are so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. This leaves us with (3), which may or may not be true, depending on the the methods determined to realize (2). Why PETA must widen its focus and join forces with the ACLU, the Rainbow Push Coalition, the NAACP, and all the other special interests is uncertain. Perhaps PETA feels that there are already enough groups fighting for the rights of people that one organization should be allowed to fight for the rights of animals, so that the “New Revolution” isn’t just a human revolution.

    People on the Right and Left seem to give PETA a lot of crap, and some of it is deserved, but to argue that PETA’s mission is contrary to human liberation is missing the point. It is another neck on the hydra that constitues the global rights movement, and what the above author should actually be arguing is strategy and not ideology.

  2. Good point. You may be right that the article presupposes a Bookchin-esque position–I think if that is the author’s point, your presentation of it is far clearer and more to the point.

    To be honest, I struggle a bit to find your reconstruction in the author’s own words, though it may be there as you suggest in class language.

    The interesting thing about the work of Marjorie Speigel (The Dreaded Comparison: Animal and Human Slavery), Carol Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat), and Charles Patterson (Eternal Treblinka), is that they argue that the oppression and domination of racism and sexism cannot be separated from the oppression and domination humans exert over animals. So that working to undermine the latter is in fact working to undermine the former.

    Bookchin, I think, has argued similarly in defense of social ecology from more radical environmentalist positions: That we undermine social domination through undermining the domination of the environment and vice versa. The two struggles are confluent rather than at odds with one another.

    Ultimately I think that Wise is more concerned with the accusation of racism and with his offense at PETA’s use of these images, than he is with redirecting their efforts to his own struggle.

  3. I see what you mean. I think I was arguing for what Wise should be criticizing PETA for, and not what he actually said. I was having a conversation with some friends about this last night (they brought it up), and all of them seem to hold the same position as Wise about PETA, so I think the aversion and outrage against PETA is relatively widespread. But my friends had far better arguments than Wise.

  4. Having been taken to task for what you term “a series of truly awful arguments” (oh my!), and having been alerted to said raking over the proverbial coals, I took the time to read the critique of my article Animal Whites: especially because I have run across your website before, and really enjoy it, not to mention, as someone who takes argumentation seriously, I certainly want to know if I am making arguments in a particular commentary that are weak.

    So, I read it, and honestly feel as though the critique was, though logically laid out, not particularly germane to the points actually made in my column. In some places, indeed, the critique seems to be missing what I was saying altogether. Though this can occasionally be the fault of the original writer–in this case me–as one’s point doesn’t always come across clearly depending on the quality of the writing itself, in most cases here, I feel that whoever composed this critique honestly wasn’t paying very close attention.

    So, in the interest of clarity, and so any critique of my position will actually be a critique of what I have truly said and meant (rather than a caricature of the same), I will now seek to clarify.

    To begin, my point was not to show that PETA and Newkirk have a “race problem,” per se, as you claimed. My point was ultimately to call into question the propriety of the comparison between factory farming and either slavery/lynching or the European Holocaust. To do that, I mentioned a number of things, among them my belief that this kind of comparison is one made much more readily and easily, and without compunction by a group like PETA because it is indeed so overwhelmingly white, and thus not as likely to feel (at a deep and abiding level) the personal horror, especially of the lynching comparison.

    This isn’t much of a stretch, really. I mean, do we really doubt that Jews are more sensitive about the Holocaust than non-Jews, or that blacks are more sensitive about slavery/lynching than others? Not that others can’t also feel and care about these horrors, but that those who have been the targets tend to have more heightened sensitivity on these matters, and especially to the comparisons made by others to their particular experiences with suffering? Surely this is common sense and needs no further explication.

    In other words, and as I actually said, PETAs whiteness, and middle class and affluent class position, allows its principal activists not to have to sweat the vagaries of the class system or white supremacy. This, in effect frees its followers to focus on animal rights issues, and to make the kind of comparisons, which frankly, most people of color who SUPPORT animal rights (AR) would be far less likely to make, for several reasons, not the least of which is the strategic absurdity of it, but also including the historical recognition of what it means to be compared to animals. This is not to denigrate the value of the AR cause. It is simply a point about the way that race and class privilege sometimes blind activists with good intentions to the problematic nature of some of their actions, arguments, etc.

    Returning now to the critique. You suggest that my claim for AR misanthropy is based on the idea that, “if you care about animal suffering you therefore do not care about human suffering (or you hate humans).” But of course, an even halfway careful reading of what I actually said will indicate that such was not my argument. I did not say that people who care about animal suffering do not care about human suffering. After all, I identified myself at the outset–first line in fact–as someone who agrees with the vast majority of the AR agenda. As such, I am someone who cares about animal suffering, and I say so explicitly. It hardly makes sense to think that I would then use that as the basis of the label “misanthrope,” if I were then going to condemn misanthropy.

    I made an accusation of misanthropy in very specific and limited contexts, as any careful reader of the piece can see. I suggested that misanthropy seemed to inform and motivate two specific comments, made by two specific AR activists, whom I quoted at the outset, and others who I could have quoted but didn’t, in the interest of space and non-redundancy.

    One was a very flippant remark made by one such activist to me, back in college. During that time, I was engaged (along with many others) in anti-apartheid activism, in which the goal was to prompt our college to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.

    Though I didn’t give the full set-up to the quote, including the exact scene, place, time, etc. in the article being critiqued, it seemed like such a crazy comment, I didn’t feel I needed to. In any event, this person came out to the site of a teach-in that was being held on apartheid in SA, and during the teach in, instead of engaging on the issues at hand, decided to change the subject, by announcing that “every day was apartheid day for chickens,” and that what the school should really do, as its first priority if it wanted to demonstrate its decency, would be to stop serving meat products. He would say these things, and others to the same effect, on a few other occasions as well during that time.

    Putting aside strategic and practical considerations of whether that was the “time and place” for such a comment, that this statement was more than just an attempt to get people to see connections between human and chicken suffering should be obvious. He was interjecting, in the middle of a discussion about the torture of black people in SA, to change the topic altogether, as if to say, “hey, you think they got it bad? Well, let me tell YOU about suffering.” That was the tone, and if you’d been there you’d have known it was also rather deliberate on his part. He was trying to minimize human suffering so as to elevate awareness of chicken suffering. This is very different than what we were doing by focusing on apartheid. After all, none of us had gone to the campus PETA meeting and said “hey, screw the chickens, let’s talk about South Africa.”

    Picking an area to focus on is fine, whether SA, AR, or anything else. But responding to a discussion of one particular evil with an interjection about another evil minimizes the first evil, whether deliberately or not. That seems fairly characterized as denigrating, in this case, humans and human suffering. And callousness to human suffering is one of the first hallmarks of a misanthrope.

    The second statement was made by a young law student who adamantly refused to do pro bono work (as required by the Law School in order to graduate), if it meant working for people or causes involving human victims of injustice. She demanded to work with animals, in a way that was unbelievably dismissive, once again, of human suffering.

    Perhaps the problem, is that the comments themselves, absent a full set up, or in lieu of having been there or heard them, don’t translate as clearly and offensively on paper as they do from first hand experience (or in the case of the second quote, second hand as the statement was relayed to me by someone else who had been there and could provide the overall setting). If so, that is my fault as a writer. But it does not mean that I was making one argument, when in fact I was making another. I was not arguing that focusing on AR, let alone caring about it makes one misanthropic. That was a label used, fairly or not–and we can honestly disagree about that–to refer to specific people who made specific comments, that in my opinion were undergirded by misanthropy.

    Likewise, I accused Newkirk of misanthropy (or amazing strategic incompetence, take your pick, or perhaps both) for her comment that people shouldn’t have babies because “having a purebred human baby is like having a purebred dog: it’s nothing but vanity, human vanity.”

    Putting aside the fact that this comment demonstrates Ms. Newkirk’s ignorance of population biology and genetics (namely, there are no “purebred” human babies as such), it seems almost impossible NOT to see this as portending a deep-seated contempt for humanity. Especially when you combine it with others of her famous statements (which I didn’t mention in the piece for reasons of space), such as her comment that humans are a cancer and the world would be better off if we were wiped off the planet tomorrow. If that’s not misanthropy, then the word has lost all meaning.

    And so the charge of misanthropy, made only with regard to certain folks in the AR movement, seems to be valid, at least by the limited terms upon which I issued it.

    Next, you discuss my concerns re: the PETA exhibit “Are Animals the New Slaves?”

    In the article, I wrote:

    “That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking.”

    To which, you replied:

    “Wise seems to think that if you compare two things in regard to one similar attribute (My car is the same color as my shirt), you imply that they are similar in all attributes (My car is my shirt), or in other attributes (My car would be comfortable wrapped around my body). Thus, if PETA shows that the treatment of African-American slaves in the past and the treatment of animals in the present are similar in some regards (use similar technologies, for example), then PETA is saying that African-Americans are animals, or are similar to animals in ways that would legitimate offense (e.g., the outrageous and shameful history of racist attempts to demean African-Americans (and other people) through comparisons with animals). But this, of course, does not follow from the original comparison.”

    Quite right, but of course, you have mischaracterized both the PETA exhibit, the nature of the analogy being drawn therein, and my condemnation of it. As such, the above paragraph has no meaning whatsoever and is irrelevant to the subject at hand.

    Interestingly, I did not claim that PETA was literally saying that black people are animals, as the above critique accuses me of having done. Rather, I simply said that PETA can’t seem to understand what it means for a black person to be COMPARED to one, especially, in this case, with regard to the horror of lynching.

    Having said that however, I should point out that Newkirk herself has confirmed that black people ARE animals, as with everyone else, and that this IS what they mean, as with her blog post after the uproar first started over the exhibit, in which she said “We’re all animals, get over it!” in reference to black folks who were upset. Nice.

    So what you accuse me of saying, presumably unfairly and because of a lapse in my own logical abilities of inference, is actually not what I said, but it IS what PETA means, on second blush.

    Certainly at no point did I suggest that PETA was saying that animals in factory farms and blacks being lynched shared “all attributes.” That is a straw man argument made by you, but never by me. My point was that black folks are rightly upset about having their experience with lynching, (in which crowds would gather, have picnics, sever black folks’ body parts to save as souvenirs, take pictures of the spectacle to mail to friends, and sit around and laugh it up as if were all a great big party) compared with the experience of cows or chickens, or circus animals, as they also analogize: all under the rubric of “slavery.”

    The larger point was of course about the kind of blindness that often afflicts white people when it comes to racism: folks who have very little understanding of the history of white supremacy and how those affected by it are still waiting for whites to give a shit about THAT, and its modern day consequences (rather than denying those consequences, as most whites, in fact do, according to all available survey and polling data), and certainly before they go off using the imagery to make their own points about something else. It’s a matter of decency, humility and accountability, which PETA seems to think nothing of.

    My critic then accuses me of making a logical mistake, by accusing PETA of comparing people to animals, when all they were really doing was comparing “treatments” of both. I could actually make a clear argument for why the treatment of circus animals, and even factory farming, for example, is not equivalent to the treatment of slaves, especially those lynched, contra the PETA campaign suggesting they are comparable, but such a discussion is not necessary here, in order to acquit my argument of the charge of being beset by a “logical error.”

    Plus, this subterfuge about the treatment itself, in a technological sense, being similar (and presumably that that is all PETA meant, and thus it’s OK) is really quite absurd, even if that were what they were saying. After all, we “burn” fossil fuels, just like lynchings used to involve the “burning” of people. We shoot injured horses just as the Nazi Einsatzgruppen shot Jews. We give unwanted animals lethal injections, just as the Nazis administered the same to many children they experimented on. But the mere fact of similar treatment does not mean the two things are either equivalent or should be compared as even remotely similar.

    In the first case, whatever we think of burning fossil fuels, no one suggests that they should be given standing, as minerals, not to be burned. In the second instance, we see the shooting of the injured horse to be compassionate, and in the third, we feel the same way about the unwanted dog. In other words, there are always these other moral considerations that enter in to whether or not treating two or more entities the same, in the technical sense, amounts to treating them morally the same, such that both should be condemned. In the case of factory farming vs lynching, though the call is admittedly tougher than in the above easy cases, the point remains: moral considerations must enter into our deliberation as to whether or not the PETA analogy is appropriate, and in this case, chief among them is whether or not we afford equal moral status to the animals, about which I will have more to say below.

    Having said all that though, as it turns out, my claim that PETA was indeed comparing not just treatments (which comparison again, could be contentious enough), but animals and humans per se, was justified by the statement made (and what wasn’t said) by PETAs Dawn Carr, as mentioned in the paragraph immediately preceding the accusation of my logical error.

    To wit, Carr acknowledged that many people are upset about her group “comparing black people to animals” (her phraseology). She then defended the exhibit NOT by saying, as my critic above does, that they were only trying to show certain similarities in treatments, but rather by ignoring the accusation to which she has just given voice, and instead arguing that it’s not offensive or shouldn’t be.

    In other words, though she had the opportunity to deny that PETA was making a literal comparison here between humans and animals, she did not do so, in spite of having just admitted that that was the charge being leveled against them. To repeat the charge and then not take direct issue with the characterization is to, in effect, assent to the charge. The maxim, after all is “silence gives consent.” And of course, as noted above, Newkirk is very blunt that people are just animals and that black people should get over it.

    The comparison is literal to PETA: not metaphorical, not stylized, not an attempt at irony–literal, according to the people who run the place. Though you would like to acquit them of the charge, by redefining their campaign and its purpose to suit his/her own fairly apparent sympathies, their own statements, and lack thereof in the face of the accusation of suggesting literal equivalence, give the lie your apparent obfuscations.

    Then you examine two examples or mini-thought experiments that I used in the piece to make the point that even most AR activists, deep down know there is a fundamental and even moral difference between humans and other animals, one that goes to the heart of their relative value(s). My point in offering these thought experiments/examples was to demonstrate, again, the fundamental absurdity of the Holocaust and lynching comparisons, and indeed, their offensiveness, because they both imply a moral equivalence or equivalence of value between humans and other animals that is unsustainable, as per the thought experiments. And again, if you don’t think there was an implied equivalence here, then you haven’t read PETAs own remarks about the campaign, nor Newkirk’s, etc.

    The first posited two contrasting scenarios: in the first, a drunk driver (or for that matter, I could have said simply careless one, or reckless driver, whatever), runs over a squirrel. In the second, the same driver runs over a child. In both cases, the victim dies. Would anyone argue that morally speaking (putting aside the current boundaries of the law, but rather, assuming a just world) the squirrel killer should be prosecuted? Of course not. But in the second instance, can we imagine NOT insisting that the driver be prosecuted? Of course not. Now, to the extent the law is the mechanism by which societies seek to make their moral choices concrete, there must be a lesson to draw from the distinction here: namely, that the life of the squirrel simply is not of equal value to the child. Not even close. If it were, we would mete out some punishment, even if slightly less, but, in fact, we wouldn’t, and no sane person would suggest we should. I will come back to this, and your response to it, but now to the second thought experiment.

    The second example is more pertinent actually, and more telling than the one above, and torpedoes the notion that factory farming is literally equivalent to mass murder of humans on a moral scale. Keep in mind, as I noted in the article, Ingrid Newkirk has actually compared Nazis FAVORABLY to meat eaters (not just factory farmers) by saying that “Even the Nazis didn’t eat the objects of their derision.” So, in keeping with the “logic” of that fairly deranged comment, I asked whether or not AR folks would support, in an ideal world, the criminal prosecution of meat eaters, and those who farm cattle, etc. After all, if killing and eating animals is actually as bad as (or even remotely close to) the Holocaust (remember the exhibit was “Holocaust on Your Plate”), and meat eaters are worse than Nazis (their claim, not mine), then to be consistent, they would HAVE to support criminal prosecution of meat eaters as mass murderers. By the same token, to support the prosecution of Jeffrey Dahmer for murder and eating human flesh (as everyone would, to my knowledge) but NOT support the prosecution of those who kill and/or eat chickens, hamburgers, etc is to admit that these lives are not of equal value.

    Think about it (though this is not something I said in the piece): in the 60s, when white juries let white killers of black people go, what were they saying? Only one thing: the lives of those black people were not worth the same as the lives of whites, since they would have punished the same white person for killing a white person, rather than someone who was black. The unwillingness to punish was due to the belief that the lives of blacks were worth less, morally speaking, etc. Now of course, we can realize how horrific that was, and now would condemn anyone for suggesting that those whites should have gone unpunished. But here’s the catch: we all know that there is no way that anyone would EVER suggest that meat eaters should be sent to prison. So whereas the placing of less value on black lives was obviously absurd and morally repugnant, the placing of less value on the lives of chickens (by not prosecuting those who eat them) is something that is not at all absurd. And to believe it is absurd is to force oneself to support prosecution of chicken eaters, as with people killers/cannibals.

    The critic suggests that I have erected a straw man by arguing against a position that no one in the AR movement, or PETA had taken: namely, that there is no moral or practical difference between humans and animals. But in fact, AR activists, especially PETA do in fact suggest there is no moral distinction (even as they admit practical differences of function, intelligence, abilities, etc), and they argue this, not from a simple perspective of sentience, but from Tom Regan’s notion of animals “experiencing themselves as the subject of a life.” Because animals experience their lives AS lives, they are due equal moral consideration. But if this were really true, AR folks would have to support prosecution of those who deprive these “morally equal beings” of their subjective life experience. And they don’t. And this demonstrates that at some level, AR folks don’t even believe their own shtick.

    To compare the Holocaust or lynching with meat eating or factory farming is to suggest not just “similarities,” but direct moral equivalence, especially when you consider the kinds of things said by Newkirk, which seem to point to the motivation behind the campaign. If you call meat eating a Holocaust on Your Plate, or factory farming “slavery,” you are not merely implying a common thread of inhumanity and cruelty (which point could be made, fairly, without the use of those particular memes), you are literally begging your audience to see them as the same thing, morally speaking, and to be equally outraged by them. My suggestion that this is what they did, and that this position is intellectually and morally indefensible, was not at all unfair, certainly not a straw man argument, and has yet to be philosophically, or logically refuted by you.

    You then mention Peter Singer’s distinction between “equal consideration” and “equal treatment” so as to suggest, in effect, that PETA really was only asking for the former and not the latter (if by the latter we assume that this means animals and humans deserve the same moral consideration). But this is, while clever, both a dodge of PETAs actual actions and beliefs, not to mention, far afield from a mere analysis of my article’s internal logic. In other words, we are now drifting off into the realm of a philosophical debate itself, which is fine, but quite separate from the project of ascertaining whether or not my column contained or lacked logic in its own right—the latter of these being the purpose of this blog, or so it seems, and not the former.

    In any event the Singer reference is irrelevant, for a few reasons. First of all, Singer does not believe that animals have rights. He is not an AR philosopher, as indeed he differentiates between rights, as such, and “consideration of interests,” as sentient beings. This is not really what PETA rests its own arguments upon, and certainly not Newkirk. They do not argue from a Singerian perspective, and certainly have not defended these exhibits or conceived of them in those terms. Rather, they tend much more towards the Tom Regan-esque perspective, which is one of animal rights and equal moral value. And again, by insisting on using the exact memetic devices of “Holocaust” and “lynching” and “slavery,” they have clearly intended to equivalize those events with factory farming, and to a lesser extent, meat eating itself.

    They are not simply suggesting that animals should be given equal consideration of their interests, and they are not hoping only for that much more sober (and deeper philosophical) connection to be made in the minds of the viewer of the exhibits. The graphic nature of the visuals ensures that this was about equating one meme with the other; one symbol with the other. It is virtually impossible to believe they had any other purpose here, and to say so, while maintaining a straight face.

    Then, in a claim so silly that I doubt even you can possibly believe it, you suggest that the problem with my squirrel vs child hypothetical is that “the essential difference is that we have good reason to believe that the cause of killing the squirrel was not negligence on the part of the driver but far more likely ‘negligence’ on the part of the squirrel,” since “If I leap in front of a car, the driver is presumably not prosecuted for killing me.” In other words, the reason we wouldn’t prosecute the squirrel killer is not, as I suggest, because we actually place less value on the squirrel’s life, or should, but because the squirrel wasn’t entirely blameless in his own demise.

    This is bizarre.

    First, we do not have “good reason” to believe that the squirrel’s death was not due to driver negligence. After all, the example was very explicit that the driver was drunk. I did not use a hypo where the driver simply hit a squirrel accidentally because the squirrel darted out in traffic, and I avoided using that kind of example quite deliberately, because of course, we don’t prosecute anyone who accidentally hits something or someone who darts out in traffic, thereby hastening their own demise. The driver was drunk in the hypo, and, it should be pointed out, the squirrel was sober. For all we know, the squirrel could have been on the sidewalk, the drunk driver ran up on the sidewalk and killed the squirrel, and we STILL wouldn’t prosecute the driver, even in a “just society.” It has nothing to do with “leaping in front of the car” for God’s sakes, and surely you must know that.

    So the reason we don’t prosecute the driver who hits the squirrel, even in a “just society” in which animal life is valued far more than it is today, is that there is simply a difference—one of relative value and moral worth, as horrible as that may sound—between the squirrel and the kid. Same thing with the meat-eater vs Jeffrey Dahmer example, which interestingly you don’t respond to at all, but rather, refer to as “more complicated.” Yes indeed, more complicated: so much so that you feel no need to address it at all. Not even to call it illogical. All you say here is:

    “…the fact that there are some moral and practical differences between animals and humans does not imply that the comparison between animal suffering and human suffering is illegitimate, which was the claim that Wise should be addressing.”

    Interesting point: so let’s take things step by step as related in this clause.

    First, let’s make no mistake, “that there are some moral…differences between animals and humans,” (in which those differences favor humans) is already more than PETA acknowledges. It is simply not what they believe, especially Newkirk. Practical yes, but not moral, which is why they see nothing wrong with comparisons the likes of which I was critiquing. If anything, one could even argue that PETAs positions place higher value on animal life, morally, than human life, as with Newkirk’s many comments that humans are a unique burden to the planet, and that humans “have no right to life,” which is a right that she of course does believe extends to other animals. Again with the misanthropy.

    So although your statement above is absolutely true, so far as it goes, it is contextually irrelevant because it seems to ascribe to PETA a belief that its leadership does not share, so as to validate their “mere” comparison of suffering. But they do not merely seek to compare suffering. They mean to convince humans that we are on no higher a moral plane of value than other animals, and perhaps less, since it is we who pollute, we who deforest, we who factory farm, we who have zoos and circuses, and on and on.

    Comparing suffering is not morally wrong per se, as per your above comment, but though true, this fairly begs the question of whether or not doing so is strategically sound (which of course is a point I was also making: namely, that it’s not). This point, made a couple of different ways in the piece, is utterly punted by your critique, apparently not worthy of discussion.

    Furthermore, the fact that moral differences between animals and humans don’t preclude comparisons between animal and human suffering (again, true so far as it goes), does not mean that humans are not right to be offended by the comparison. This is the other point I was trying to make: that PETA really should understand why blacks, for example, are shocked and appalled by the exhibit in such large numbers. The specific devices/images/memes employed for the purpose of PETAs comparative exhibits cannot but shock in most cases, as they are seen (understandably so) as the exploiting of black suffering to make a point unrelated to black suffering or the black liberation movement (still ongoing, and not, as you seem to imply at one point, merely about “the shameful and outrageous HISTORY” of racism). I’ll have more to say about what you view as the propriety, or lack thereof, of taking offense down below (which concept, I must concede is one of the most bizarre notions I have ever stumbled across: as if it’s really up to us to tell others when they should and shouldn’t take offense at something—in other words as if offensiveness were something objectively true or false, when by definition it is not, but I digress.)

    You then accuse me of launching an ad hominem tirade against the whiteness of PETA. You even put whiteness in quotes, which is funny, as it seems to imply that there is some argument as to how white dominated PETA is, when, frankly, no such argument is tenable.

    But in any event, the critique of whiteness is not ad hominem, as anyone who reads the excerpt you provided (in its entirety, to your credit) can easily discern, provided, that is, that they know the meaning of the term ad hominem. I assume you know the term and its meaning, in which case, accusing me of doing it in this instance suggests that you didn’t read the passage very carefully.

    An ad hominem attack on PETAs whiteness would have sounded like this:

    “What do you expect from PETA: just a bunch of white people!”

    Or perhaps, “Those white motherfuckers at PETA…what do you expect from shitheads like that?”

    Or even: “White people always do racist shit like this.”

    But what I said is quite different from all of those, and not just because of the lack of the word shit and motherfuckers, as with the last two cases. In my case, I made a point (and one is free to disagree with it, but it is there, plainly, in black and white) that the reason PETAs whiteness is relevant and problematic is that such a group will not likely have the consciousness around racism (at a personal level) to think twice before making the kind of comparisons made in the lynching exhibit.

    Furthermore, it is precisely because of whiteness (and relative class affluence) that the bulk of AR activists can even focus attention on AR issues in the first place. This is not meant to denigrate AR activism, as said before, but merely to point out that it takes a certain amount of personal privilege, thereby freeing oneself from having to daily sweat the vagaries of class and racial oppression, to allow one to spend time working for the liberation of animals.

    Now, before you argue that this point is arguable, and perhaps a leap on my part, lacking a clear logical basis, consider the alternative. Namely, if one doesn’t accept the idea that AR activism is disproportionately white because of relative privilege, (to think about, focus on, and become involved in AR activism as opposed to dealing with economic marginalization and white supremacy) as I am arguing, then one must seek to explain whence the whiteness comes? There must, after all be a reason.

    The only other possible explanation for dispro white AR activism would be that one must believe whites are simply more caring, compassionate, love animals more, are more altruistic and selfless, etc. than blacks, Latinos, Asians, etc. And I would posit that anyone who believes any of these things is by definition a racist, not to mention, making an argument that is utterly absurd on the face of it. After all, it is also whites who are dispro behind factory farming, the fur industry, circuses, poultry processing, and all forms of animal cruelty: thus, one would have to believe that whites were both inherently more kind AND cruel, at the same time—a position that makes no sense and is indeed essentially impossible.

    Bottom line: my critique of PETAs whiteness was not based on whiteness itself, as some essential evil or problem (which is what an ad hominem would have suggested). Rather, I was critiquing their whiteness based on what whiteness too often MEANS, in the sense that it can blind the recipients of white privilege (at root, the privilege of not having to sweat ones race as a negative social marker or think about race at all) to the ways in which race plays out for others. Thus, whites (even well intentioned) can adopt strategies and tactics and messages that offend people of color, and indeed reinforce and reinscribe racial division and even racism itself (structurally speaking), to the detriment of the common good.

    And of course, I was noting the rather obvious truth that people of color are not likely to respond well to PETAs campaign, especially because the group is made up disproportionately not just of white folks, but white folks who have rarely been active to any large extent in antiracism struggles. While it is certainly legitimate for activists to choose AR as their focus, and not anti-racism, it should not surprise those AR activists, when, having chosen their area of concentration, they then catch flak from those whose own struggles are used to score points for the AR movement, as with the exhibit. As I said, if the AR folks had personally been involved with the antiracism cause, and therefore had relationships and connections with, in this case the black community, they would likely have received less resistance, and more sympathy for their cause. Of course, had they forged those connections, it is unlikely they would have chosen to make the lynching comparison, out of respect and strategic considerations, in the first place.

    All of this is arguable, as with most things, but not by way of calling it ad hominem, It is far from that.

    Now we come to a truly amazing and disingenuous portion of your critique: namely, the discussion of whether or not taking offense at the lynching exhibit is legitimate. I find this bizarre because it presumes that what is offensive and what is not can or should be determined by some objective calculus or criteria. But of course, that notion is absurd, as offense is, by definition, in the eye of the beholder, and is entirely subjective. As such, to tell others what should and should not offend them is to assume that you have the right to dictate the terms of someone else’s emotional reactions, and to judge them from some tabula rasa position.

    To demonstrate the absurdity of this “legitimate/illegitimate offense” standard, consider that by this argument, if I happened to call someone fat, and they took offense, I could say, “oh, it’s not legitimate for you to be offended, because I actually consider being fat a good thing—I like people with larger body frames!” Oh, well gee, in that case…

    Or for that matter, racist jokes, which are rarely offensive to the person telling them, could be brushed aside as no big deal, or if American Indians take offense (as many do) at Indian mascots for sports teams, we could say that their being offended was illegitimate because the teams weren’t trying to be hurtful—some even say they are “honoring” Native Americans. Oh, well gee, in that case…

    What this entire discussion reeks of is the all-too-common practice by majority group members (whites, men, folks with money, heterosexuals, able bodied folks, etc) to tell non-dominant and oppressed/marginalized group members that they are “oversensitive” and need to “lighten up.” How horribly typical, and easy for us to say. We aren’t the ones targeted by racism, sexism, straight supremacy, ableism, the class system or any other form of oppression, so “getting over it” must be mighty damned easy for us, considering we have so little to get over in the way of group-based denigration. Although you don’t come out and say this outright, it’s hard not to hear that as the subtext. There is a long and ignoble tradition of telling black people, for example, that they are taking offense illegitimately and overreacting. Pardon me for thinking you are keeping with that tradition.

    Beyond that problem, there are other issues here too.

    You argue that my claim for PETAs insensitivity is a suggestion that their comparison was “taken to dishonor” the victims of the two other holocausts, and then you argue that whether or not black folks’ response is valid (and also my claim of insensitivity vis a vis those black folks) depends on “whether one takes the similarity between animal and human suffering to be valid.” In other words, it’s only insensitive to those who make the a priori assumption that these things aren’t similar. Which is to say, it wouldn’t be insensitive to those who think the comparison apt.

    Well sure, and racist jokes aren’t insensitive to those who think they are no big deal. So what? In other words, if people are offended based on their own moral calculus, that has to be understood and dealt with, even if one disagrees with them. So, for example, if I tell a Christian that Jesus was a con man, they have every right to be offended, even though being offended only makes sense from the perspective that Jesus was quite a bit more than that. Someone who didn’t believe that Jesus was the risen son of God wouldn’t much care about him being called a con man, except in so far as they might think it was insensitive of course.

    Which brings us back to the point of strategy. If you know or can reasonably expect that a comparison between factory farming and meat eating on the one hand and lynching on the other is going to inflame black folks (and who, honestly couldn’t have seen this coming?), because after all, most blacks (as with most people at this time) really do think that animals and humans are nowhere near moral equals, nor that their suffering is the same (whether we’re glad about that fact or not), then it makes no sense to go ahead with the comparison from a strategic perspective. So the “reasonableness” of being offended, though absurd in its own right for reasons discussed above, is utterly irrelevant if you know people ARE going to be offended, for reasons that certainly make sense to them, and if that is going to harm your efforts.

    Up to this point, you had offered no criteria one could use in order to evaluate the legitimacy of taking offense at something, which obviously makes trying to judge the concept objectively an impossibility. But it is at that point that you offer said criteria, albeit weakly, by appealing to “intention.”

    You argue that “if we have no reason to think that this (trivializing human suffering) is the point of their comparison, then it does not seem reasonable to find this offensive.”

    Amazing, truly amazing: so much so that I wonder if you really believe this…

    Why should PETAs intent be the key here? Isn’t it valid to be offended by someone’s callous disregard for others feelings, even if they did not intend to injure per se? Upon what moral, philosophical or logical premise could you say otherwise? You nowhere make an argument from morality or logic for the intent standard, but rather throw it out there as if it were self-explanatory. You beg the question, why use an intent standard to either legitimize or illegitimize taking offense?

    By your standard, racist jokes should be forgiven by their targets, so long as the person who tells them says they “didn’t mean any harm.” By your standard, if I step on your foot and break a toe, so long as it was an accident and not intentional, you shouldn’t complain about how much it hurts (to say nothing of seeking recompense). By your standard, white college fraternities that hold “slave auctions” or have “blackface” parties should be excused because every time it happens (and it happens annually) they say “they didn’t mean anything by it.” By your standard, a black person shouldn’t be offended if a white guy comes up to them and says. “hey my nigger, what’s up!” because, after all, the white guy will say he has black friends, and he’s just trying to be friendly.

    By your standard, indeed, we’d have to ignore most forms of racial discrimination, because oftentimes, racial discrimination stems from actions that are unintentional, but nonetheless injurious. For example, companies that hire based on industrial standardized test score criteria, even though those tests are unrelated to performance, end up screening out people of color disproportionately, because the test scores, while not good indicators of ability, are very good indicators of educational experience, class status, etc. Same thing with gender bias. For example, if the NYPD wants to reinstate its 6 foot height requirement (which it really did have many years ago), even though the effect is to screen out women, as long as they could make an argument that they didn’t MEAN to block women (and after all, very tall women could still get jobs), by your standard, women should neither take offense, nor sue their asses.

    In other words, using an intent standard to determine whether someone should be offended by something, by definition, views the act in question only and always through the eyes of the perpetrator of the act. But this is morally offensive because the act is only an injury through the eyes of the target. So we reify the perpetrator’s actions and defer to their judgment, thereby ensuring that most everything that a reasonable person would view as offensive, either if they were a target or even a neutral observer, would be rendered inoffensive, and not worthy of getting upset about.

    Rather than this, it seems that we’d do better to adopt a standard of “reasonable expectation,” so that if you could reasonably expect that, in this case, blacks would be offended by the lynching exhibit you should a) certainly understand when they are, and not lecture them about how inappropriate their reaction is (which is what PETA has done), and b) probably rethink the act you’re about to engage in, if for no other reason than strategic interest.

    Which brings us to your claim that ultimately there are two questions: “First, whether the offense that some people feel is justified; Second, whether the offense that some people feel is too high a strategic cost for the activists.”

    With regard to the last of these, you are right, and this is a point I was making throughout the piece: namely, that it is too high, for reasons I think are pretty obvious, and which I mention in the piece.

    But the first of these makes no sense, as per my above reasons. Whether someone is right to be offended is not up to you, or some objective criteria—especially not an intent standard. By using such a standard we would make it unreasonable for most any racist or sexist or homophobic remark to be judged harshly, because the perps always say they meant no harm (and oftentimes, they really do mean it—they think it’s funny, or harmless, etc).

    That you close by encouraging people to read Alice Walker’s forward to the Spiegel book, is interesting. I don’t know your intention here, but it appears as though this throw-away ending is meant to imply that “see, here’s a black woman who thinks the slavery analogy is appropriate,” (and she does), as if to say that that means “regular” black folks objections are now effectively trumped. You may not mean this at all, but in context, I have a hard time seeing the point otherwise. Of course the fact that some black folks are not offended, has nothing to do with whether any blacks (or most) should be or would be, and are. Even right wingers can pull black folks out of their hat who trumpet the conservative line, but we all know that doesn’t speak to the larger black perspective, nor suggest that black liberals and progressives should automatically think like Larry Elder.

    That PETA may well have thought the philosophical endorsement of AR by someone like Walker insulated them from black anger in this instance, only indicates further how removed PETA is from average black folks (as opposed to Pulitzer Prize winning authors), and why they should probably think before acting in this fashion again, if for no other reason than to further their own strategic goals more effectively.

    In any event, please take these comments in the spirit they are intended (though, if you find yourself offended, who am I to judge?) 🙂 I enjoyed reading your critique, as much as I disagreed with most of it, and like I said at the outset, I love your site/blog, and will continue to do so, even if you take me task for future columns as well.

    Take care

    Tim Wise

  5. First of all, thank you for the careful response that you have given to my analysis. You show through it a concern for the truth and a seriousness about the obligations of rational discourse for which we must be grateful. I would like to respond to several points in your response, but I will do that in a series of comments. First, I would like to respond simply to the general orientation of response.

    What we try to do here (we hope successfully most of the time) is offer critiques of what we take to be the best “rational reconstruction” of the logic of opinion pieces. The limitation of the form of these pieces (700-1500 words among other things) and the vagaries of colloquial discourse require that we often supply through our interpretation what we take to be implicit conclusions or premises.

    Much of your response involves clarification of your intentions and correcting of mis-interpretations. The former are most helpful and the latter are just. I won’t, however, go through this point by point here as I think it would lead us away from some essential problems. I will range my comments under particular points of logic.

    In what follows I have tried to maintain the high standard for discourse that you set in your response, I hope I have succeeded.

    1. Your conclusion:

    >My point was ultimately to call into question the propriety of the comparison between factory farming and either slavery/lynching or the European Holocaust.

    Good. With a clarification of “propriety” here, we can set off on the real problem. It could mean (at least) politeness, strategic value, or moral correctness. I take it that you want to argue for the last: Along the way you suggest that you argue for the second; and perhaps it might be granted that the first is settled almost empirically (it is not polite to offend and people are offended).

    If I am right about this, then the point of the article is to show that the comparison (and hence the exhibit) is morally wrong.

    Now my problem is that (as you come close to saying in the next two paragraphs) that you are trying to show this moral claim, by mentioning (among other things) the fact that “this kind of comparison is one made much more readily and easily, and without compunction by a group like PETA because it is indeed so overwhelmingly white.” I will grant the truth of the premise, but it is not clear how this shows that it is morally wrong without some additional claims that I am hard pressed to supply.

    Your premises assert a psychological fact that white people might make the comparison more readily than blacks, but this does not imply the moral claim.

    I think this is the crux of my problem with the article generally. You are trying to show one thing (impropriety), but your argument shows something else (the causal role of whiteness). Along the way you seem to use a series of arguments or related claims (misanthropy/hypocrisy of A.R.-ites, PETA is white and rich, the comparison is false, and the comparison is racist) to insinuate the necessary moral claim without establishing it.

  6. 2. Generalization: The charge of misanthropy. Your extensive reply shows that you have more reason in those two cases to suspect misanthropy. So with this clarification I would retract my attempt to explain for you the connection between the anecdotes and misanthropy.

    Nonetheless, a new problem arises. It strikes me that leading the commentary off with this was meant to do more than suggest that “I have met two people who have given me reason to think that two A.R.-ites are misanthropic.” Rather, I think the effect is expressed in the following sentences:

    >The misanthropy that seems to inform and motivate such comments, and literally hundreds more I could mention, guarantees that the otherwise valid principles upon which animal rights positions are often grounded will remain unexamined, and unrecognized in policy.

    >It is for reasons such as this that I have long wondered what is more important to the animal rights movement: actually ending animal experimentation, and other blatant cruelties, or being able to preen about as moral superiors who gain self-esteem by looking down their noses at others: be they meat-eaters or wearers of leather shoes?

    The first quotation is restrained and only infers the strategic mistake of the putative misanthropy. The second however generalizes (even if under the cover of “I have long wondered”) to the whole animal rights movement. I think that this involves a questionable generalization from two comments (though perhaps we must add the 100’s more misanthropic comments to the evidence) to the animal rights movement even if posed as a rhetorical question. You want to suggest that the A.R. view has more to do with moral superiority than with substantive and reasoned analysis. This is a way of trivializing it that is of a piece, I think, with your rich white people argument. Rather than addressing the argument itself (or even the text of PETA’s display), instead you dispose the reader against A.R. proponents by impugning their character or trivializing their reasons for their views.

    If you wanted to draw the appropriate conclusion from your anecdotes, it would be “I have met two animal rights activists who seem to me to be misanthropic.” Instead, it seems that you want to lead the reader to the belief that this sort of misanthropy and hypocrisy is plausibly widespread or even rampant. When I reconstruct the logic here, I am led to conclude that this involves an unsupported generalization at best with an element of a pre-emptive ad hominem. This is a fallacy where an irrelevant claim about the advocate is advanced in place of considering the truth of what is being advocated. You do not admittedly explicitly say, A.R. is false because its advocates are misanthropes. But the question rests on the relevance of your judgment of the misanthropic tendencies among A.R proponents of your acquaintance to your goal of showing the impropriety of the PETA exhibit.

    (To be honest I wouldn’t want to try to defend Newkirk on almost anything here (or most of what she is reported to say). I can’t even fathom what she might mean in speaking about “purebread babies.” Perhaps further context would help, but I doubt it. Nevertheless I don’t see the relevance except as I said to dispose the reader against the holders of the substantive view.)

    3. Comparison: Is it morally wrong or not? And did I characterize it and your criticism correctly?

    In the paragraph you contest I offer a disjunction between two possible conclusions (all attributes, or some attributes). You clarify that you were not arguing for the first, but seem to ignore the second. (We can leave aside the sense of comparison in which “all human animals are animals” is tautologically true and presumably not a reason for offense? I take PETA’s rhetorical retreat to this claim to be prompted by the ambiguity of the accusation that they are “comparing blacks to animals.” What is needed is clarity from the accusers about what precisely the offensive comparison is. It’s not the simple fact of animality as PETA points out since we are all animals. It is not the fact of singling out blacks for this comparison, since as PETA points out they don’t. Until the accusation is formulated in non-ambiguous claims about the grounds for offense, we should cut PETA some slack in their attempt to respond to an unclear accusation. (In general I think Carr’s and Newkirks’s responses seem confused and may not be better sources than simply looking at the text for the exhibit, which is completely clear on this question–and so I don’t think I am doing any redefining to suit my purposes, just reading what PETA says).

    Then, we are left with the other side of my disjunction: There is some collection of attributes which historically was used to denigrate, and which (it is claimed) is being repeated in PETA’s exhibit. So what are these? Let’s look at the PETA text for the exhibit (I’m not exactly sure about the relationship of the text at the website to the exhibit video, or the exhibit itself. Nonetheless I will take the text to explain the exhibit, and as more authoritative than Carr and Newkirk’s comments. You probably disagree with this).

    >Africans captured and forced into slavery were often compared to animals so as to somehow justify their treatment. They were called “brutes” and “beasts” because of the color of their skin. Their lives were considered expendable, and many died at the hands of their oppressors. The same oppressive mentality behind those actions leads to the slaughter of animals today.

    The last sentence asserts a similarity between “oppressive mentalities” and not between Africans and animals.

    > Beatings, lynchings, burnings: These cruel acts happen today just as in the past, only the victims have changed.

    This sentence points out that the same acts occur with different(!?) victims.

    The rest of the paragraph explicates the treatment of animals. The next several speak specifically about Tuskegee experiments and animal experimentation.

    In all cases the text seems to be going out of its way to assert that forms of treatment or an oppressive mentality is the object of comparison here.

    I have digressed a little only out of the difficulty I am experiencing in finding how I can connect your claim that outrage at the comparison between blacks and animals in the exhibit makes sense in the light of the history of the use of a (different) comparison to denigrate, with PETA’s exhibit. Once again my attempt to reconstruct your argument was an attempt to fill in the steps that seem to me to be necessary if it is in fact an argument. The more I look at it however the less I can find any connection: I may have over-interpreted your argument to make it into an argument where there perhaps is simply assertion.

    In your response, however, you shift the terrain a bit: Now you seem to want to argue that the comparison between lynching and the treatment of animals is what causes offense. That’s a different point and it may be justified. I would need to hear the arguments you mention. (In passing, I think PETA’s comparison here is ridiculous. “Lynching” means something very specific, unlike beating, burning, or experimenting on. So the comparison in terms of lynching is just simply false. I don’t know what “extra-judicial mob vigilante-ism” (excuse the coinage) could possibly mean in the case of animals!)

    Nonetheless, the distinction between treatment and nature is absolutely essential here if we want to understand PETA’ exhibit before finding it morally right or wrong. The reason they seem to think the comparison of treatments is justified and necessary is because of the fact of sentience. But, this latter comparison will approach the tautological comparison above as giving no grounds for offense I presume and being simply true (though some do deny it).

  7. 4. The mini-examples. I would have liked to address them more thoroughly, but I was trying to focus on the underlying argument. I’m going to skip them here again and add a comment later considering whether the A.R. proponent has an answer to these reductiones ad absurdum. As you point out we move to substantive philosophical concerns here rather than concerns with the logic of the argument. The point of these examples I take it is to claim that the A.R. position is not consistent and so is ultimately false. And then to infer that the comparison between treatments is not legitimate. I think this is a little confused. Whether or not the A.R. proponent is right to assert (if they do) that there are “no moral or practical differences between animals and human beings,” is a different question than whether we are right to compare suffering of animals and humans and the legitimacy of the cause of said suffering. The latter can be defended on much more plausible grounds than the complete absence of moral and practical differences. (And I note that the exhibit says absolutely nothing about this, though someone like Tom Regan seems to have denied it, in some sense, at least in the infamous Lifeboat example from The Case for Animal Rights.)

    I think that once again the ambiguity in the accusation of “comparing animals and humans” (and hence your conclusion) appear in your mini-refutations here. Now you assert that that comparison amounts to moral and practical identity, and that this is false. But I will turn to the substantive reductiones later.

    5. Ad hominem. There are of course two forms of ad hominem argument commonly distinguished–abusive and circumstantial. The latter is the relevant one and I should have been clearer about that. Here the argument works by saying that X is false because its proponent is Y.

    >But then again, if the animal rights movement wasn’t so white and so rich, it would never have thought to make such specious and obviously offensive analogies in the first place.

    We need to distinguish the fallacy, however, from a legitimate explanation (psychological or sociological) of why someone thinks X is true. Your last several paragraphs (and the whole of the article in a sense) is ambiguous on this. Sometimes you seem to want to make the modest claim that you are simply pointing out that it is easier for a white person to make this comparison. I have no reason to reject that claim. But you also want to suggest more than this–that it is wrong (improper) for a person to make this comparison. You seem to suggest that that fact is tied to the racial identity and class.

    If you are simply pointing out the psychological fact that white people don’t feel as strongly about racial injustice, you seem to have a more than plausible claim. But if you have an argument here for the claim about propriety it will be a very bad one on this ground (“The comparison is improper because PETA is white and rich”), or this claim will be spurious (“The comparison is improper and PETA is white and rich” or “Now that we have seen that this claim is improper (which you haven’t), let’s consider why PETA holds it”). I think the article does not distinguish these two things clearly, and hence falls into circumstantial ad hominem argument whether deliberately or not.

  8. 6. Offense: If offense is understood simply as an emotional state then we presumably can never be wrong about whether it is occurring—and the only person to judge is the subject of that offense.

    But if offense involves something like a judgment about the world, then presumably I can be wrong in my judgment. So if I am cut off by someone on the highway, I could believe that it was deliberate and be offended at the rudeness, but subsequently learn that it was accidental (I was in the blind spot too long). My offense at the fact that I was deliberately cut off by another driver would have been mistaken.

    That is, there seems to be a distinction between being offended as a psychological state and being offended as a moral wrong. I think this distinction makes sense.

    In fact, I think the whole project of your response is premised on the idea that we can be right or wrong about these things (and that PETA is wrong). The question isn’t “are you offended,” it is “do you have cause for offense.” That distinction seems neither disingenuous nor bizarre to me.

    Thus, if the offense at the PETA display is motivated by a misinterpretation of, or deliberate refusal to consider, what is (explicitly and clearly) being said in the text of the display, then I think it is reasonable to say that such offense may be misplaced.

    I think, in fact, that there are other grounds for offense at the display than that it “compares slaves and human beings” or “it compares treatment of slaves and human beings.” I explored two in my original post that seemed plausible reasons for offens. Since then, it has struck me that there is a much more important third that quite strangely is almost absent from the discussion of this display. The really aggressive claim in the display is clearly that all human beings who support this sort of treatment of animals are complicit in an injustice analogous to the injustice of slavery.

    That is, I think, what we ought to be talking about if this debate was forthright. The problem may be that that would mean that we have to address the argument for the claim that our treatment of animals is profoundly unjust and wrong, rather than side-step it with accusation (veiled and explicit) of racism or psychological claims that address why someone might think this (being white) rather than whether they are correct to think this. It also means, I think, that the burden of argument will rest on the critic to show that this behavior and its institutional support is innocent. Perhaps I am wrong about the burden of proof here.

    That, I think, is the clear sense of PETA’s argument (leaving aside the claims about no moral or practical difference, or a ranking or other attempts to quantify the suffering etc. that are being imputed to the exhibit despite their complete absence from the explanatory text). It is a moral accusation. And that moral accusation I suspect offends many. The question of whether that moral accusation is justifiable is, I think, in many cases, being sidestepped for the much easier accusation of racism (which carries with its own moral authority and self-legitimation) on the basis of a contrived reading of the display that assimilates it to a racist discourse that is not obviously present in it.

    I can’t address all of your comments on offense here. I think you are imputing a set of motivations that weren’t present in my text, but I can’t easily defend myself from your psychologizing. (And I suspect I would be told that intentions don’t matter in cases of offense, with which I think I would disagree).

    Let me just say that it certainly isn’t a question of telling people to “lighten up,” it is a question of whether the “speech acts” that we examining are morally wrong or not.

    It seems reasonable to presume that offense when expressed is right and sincere, at least, until we have reason to believe otherwise. But the fact that someone is offended cannot be reason to conclude that the act should not be committed. Consider, for example, the history of pornography legislation in this country, or prevalent attitudes about homosexuality. When people were offended and angry at having to desegregate their schools, their offense was presumably sincere, but, I would want to maintain, mistaken and wrong. On your account I don’t see how we can easily maintain this.

    More than this, there is a danger that moral deliberation in general is crippled by your view. For example, I need to make a decision now whether to teach the analogy between racism and speciesism in Singer’s Animal Liberation. In order to do this, I need to know whether I am perpetrating a racist speech act in assigning this text and explaining this analogy. (On your view, if someone takes offense at it (whether they have understood it or not), then I am in trouble. Perhaps you grant that?) This is not a matter of arm-chair opining, but a matter of moral urgency.

    I must, of course, never ignore or trivialize a sincere expression of offense. But, at the same time, I must try to reach an understanding about the grounds of that offense through careful analysis and conversation and then make a judgement based on my best reflection.

    I must presume, I think, at least until I am taught otherwise, that there is a significant difference between spouting racist ideology and explaining this analogy. I am thinking very carefully about this, right now, and admittedly more than I have in the past, in part because of your commentary in Counterpunch. I would be most interested to know your thoughts on this.

    Now your refutation of my distinction between the fact of offense and the justification of offense, attempts to show that it leads to morally undesirable consequences (patronizing crypto-racism I think). But I would argue (a) it doesn’t necessarily lead to those consequences and (b) we need the distinction between taking offense and being justified in taking offense for the preceding reasons and many others.

    Further your reductiones ad absurdum don’t really address the point. I certainly don’t think that this is a carte blanche excuse for any speech act. And a claim to “just joking” is probably not entirely relevant to the question of whether the joke itself is right or wrong (though it may play a role in mitigating responsibility in some cases).

    What I think we must guarantee is the possibility of quoting, of distinguishing between the act of racial denigration and the reference to the act of racial denigration. I don’t think that the latter necessarily entails the former–otherwise even your “white guy” example becomes, in fact, a racist speech act, even within the protection of quotation. I think similarly that the PETA exhibit is referring to racial denigration and not engaging in the act of it. This difference is crucial here, and I think that many of the critics of PETA’s exhibit including you are effacing it.

    Now once again, that does not mean that I think PETA is innocent. I think there are other grounds for being offended by this campaign that should be evaluated. I also think that the argument can be made that the comparison is unjustifiable. Further, I am open to the possibility that it is strategically imprudent. I didn’t address this latter element of your article because although you mentioned it you didn’t provide much reason to answer the question one way or the other. To be honest I don’t know how to judge the strategy here. PETA is sensationalist. It thrives by being talked about. It seems to believe that any publicity is good publicity, even this. If that is so, then this is not a strategic mistake for them. But again we would need first to understand their strategic goals and compare these means to them. Will this bring the liberation of animals any closer? I really couldn’t say. Will it delay it any more? I doubt it.

    My point with the last comment in the original post is that serious people think seriously about the content of PETA’s display. Your attempts to impugn the advocates (as misanthopic, misled by whiteness and affuence etc.) doesn’t do service to this fact. I think we should look at the best attempts to explain and justify what is being displayed rather than taking pot shots at the sillier things that A.R. people might sometimes say or believe. Two places to start are Marjorie Spiegel’s book and the explanatory text of PETA’s display. You may be right about the cheapness of my closing, but it suggests that something other than ethnic grouping/color of skin is relevant on this matter, and that what we must do is figure out what view is right, not what skin color or class the proponent has.

    Again I hope this rises to the challenge of addressing your lengthy and thorough comments on my already too lengthy analysis. I have tried to focus on what seems essential to me.

    Once again I thank you for the response.

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