Conversation / 14 March 2019

Find Points of Agreement and Start There

Interview with pattrice jones, ecofeminist writer

pattrice jones is an ecofeminist writer, educator, and activist. She is the co-founder of VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vermont, an LGBTQ-run farmed animal sanctuary. We talked about the animal rights movement and why we can't separate it from other social justice movements.

You became vegetarian at the age of fifteen. Why?

I had a step-father who was very into health food. In a book he had brought home, I read that vegetarianism was a very healthy diet and could help solve the problem of world hunger because it required fewer resources. I had also seen a poster, on the wall of the health food store, about eating a plant-based diet for the environment. It occurred to me that, since we don’t need to eat meat to be healthy, killing animals for meat could not be justified by the idea of self-defence. Eating meat was killing for pleasure, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. This was in the 1970s in the USA, and I remember specifically thinking that I was against the Vietnam War and that it wouldn’t be consistent to be in favour of other kinds of killing. I also remember having a very vivid mental image of a cow and thinking that I would not want to kill her.

You also came out as a lesbian at the same age. And even though you became a social justice - LGBTQ- activist, you didn't quite make the connection between human oppression and oppression towards non-human animals right away, right? Why do you think this was the case?

I hadn’t yet thought deeply about speciesism or human supremacy, and so I wasn’t able to see the connections. I was still looking at things from an anthropocentric point of view. If you don’t think about the animals themselves, then whether or not you eat meat or dairy is a personal dietary or religious choice, rather than a political and ethical stance.

How did you become vegan?

Two things happened at the same time. In my scholarly life, I was exploring the historical roots of racism, and this led me back to the historical roots of sexism, which led me to the historical linkage between patriarchy and pastoralism (animal herding). At the same time, due to some donations that my partner had made on behalf of our household, our home mailbox was flooded by mail from animal advocacy organisations, from which we learned all about present-day exploitations of animals. We quit eggs immediately after learning about egg factories. Dairy took a little longer, because I just didn’t want to believe that I had been unwittingly participating in such cruelty for so many years. Even though I’ve been vegan for almost 20 years now, I still feel bad about how long it took me.

Why do we need intersectional approach to social justice movements - including vegan movement?

For the same reason that we must think ecologically when trying to solve environmental problems. Intersectionality is, at heart, the recognition of the fact that systems interact with each other in sometimes complex ways. Just as ecosystems are complex and interactive systems of relationships, social systems are also complex and interactive. Nothing happens in a vacuum. So, just as we might have to pay attention to air pollution produced by a factory, miles away, when trying to figure out why the fish in a pond are dying, we may have to pay attention to gender when trying to protect those fish from being tortured by men who think of fishing as a sport.

The problem with an intersectional approach often seems to be that it is hard to grasp, it seems a bit vague. What does it mean in the most concrete way? What does it mean approaching social injustices intersectionally and how can we apply this approach?

I understand that, because the word has become faddish and is often misused, someone might feel this way. However, there is nothing vague about intersectional thinking. Intersectionality is a conceptual tool, a way of analysing the problems we are trying to solve, not an identity nor a political position. When we think intersectionally, we look for the ways that systems of oppression support and otherwise interact with one another. This is not quick or easy to do, and perhaps it is the wish for fast answers that lead people to use the word in vague or superficial ways.

But I have just given one concrete example: In many cultures, hunting (including fishing) for sport is an activity that men use to demonstrate their masculinity. Therefore, efforts to end hunting that do not account for the important role that this activity plays in the identities of its participants are unlikely to succeed.

Another concrete example: Speciesism tells us that humans are uniquely rational, that rationality defines the human being, that this rationality is a kind of superiority, and that this superiority entitles humans to exploit animals. This ideology also plays a role in sexism (which holds than men are more rational than women) and in discrimination against people with mental disabilities (who are treated as if inferior, often in the exact same ways that animals have been exploited.)

You can find more information and examples here:

How are speciesism and racism interconnected? This was the ‘key’ interconnectedness for you, the one that made you question speciesism?

This is not a question than can be answered briefly. I will recommend the books Afroismby Aph and Syl Ko and Sister Veganby Breeze Harper. I will say that, for me, the key similarities are in the ways that the perpetrators think about themselves. Consciously or not, white people tend to centre themselves, think of themselves as the norm, see difference as inferiority, andnotsee the ways that past and ongoing violence gives them unearned privilege. All of this is also true of humans in relation to other animals.

From then on you were writing a lot about the interconnectedness of sexism and speciesism. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Do you believe a person can be a feminist, but not an anti-species-ist?

Well, this is the most historically long-standing intersection, dating back to the days when male adulthood meant being the owner of land, animals, women, and children. Because the linkage between woman as animals, as beings to be controlled and exploited by men, goes so deep, there are hundreds and hundreds of concrete examples we could give of ways that animals are feminised, women are animalised, and masculinity is associated with demonstrations of power and control over women and animals.

But yes, of course there are very many feminists who do not yet see these intersections between sexism and speciesism. They include women who have done the most important work on subjects like rape and domestic violence. We will not win them over by telling them that they are not feminists! Instead we must develop the ability to speak — as feminists — with other feminists about the connections that we perceive, leading them to realise that their own values are inconsistent with the exploitation of animals. We must also somehow convince the many men in the animal advocacy movement who know nothing about feminism to keep quiet, or to go talk to other men about problems like masculinity and hunting, rather than shouting at women about cows.

How does ecofeminism come into play with those questions? Could you tell us a bit more about the most important notions of ecofeminism? Why it is this a theoretical approach you see as necessary in our society?

Ecofeminism is a kind of feminism that pays attention to nature and animals. In my view, this is a bringing together of intersectional thinking with other kinds of ecological analysis. One important insight is that ‘nature’ tends to be seen as a female to be controlled and dominated by ‘man’. Even environmentalists can adopt this view, when they talk about ‘saving the planet’ as if they were superheroes saving a damsel in distress. Ecofeminism at its most useful encourages us to learn from the others who share our ecosystems in order to bring ourselves back into balance with those systems.

A lot of people have problems understanding how we might transcend the human/non-human dichotomy. What do you tell those people?

Of course, we are a unique species, as is every species! So, there is no problem with recognising that fact! The problem is that we have defined ‘human’ in a way that not only tells lies about other animals but, in turn, encourages us to believe untruths about ourselves. Human supremacy prevents us from seeing humans accurately, and this makes it difficult for us to solve our persistent problems. So, for example, if we would stop falsely believing that rationality is the primary driver of human behaviour, we might take better account of the role that emotion plays in leading people to do things like ignore the evidence of climate change.

When talking about animal liberation, we generally tend to divide approaches into two categories: Welfarism and the animal rights movement. But you spoke about the problem with the concept of ‘rights’. What is the problem with this concept of rights? How does this come to play in a broader sense in other areas of society?

The property-based legal system that currently divides the world into countries, with borders policed by armed guards and internal laws enforced by armed police, is inherently violent. At the same time, it is our current reality. Within that reality, ‘rights’ can be an important tactic to gain real relief from suffering for people and animals. But true peace and freedom will require us to rebuild our communities from the ground up.

At some other point you were contemplating a form of radicalisation or rather a separating process of right (and left) wing politics. You called it ‘group polarisation’. Can you tell us a bit more about this concept?

Group polarisation is the process by which groups with different views become more convinced that they are correct and the other is wrong. They then become less able to productively discuss their differences, much less come to any kind of consensus. We are seeing this, politically, all over the world right now, mostly due to social media. Vegans and other animal advocates need to watch out for this, because it can make you less effective as an advocate. If you cannot imagine what the people you are trying to convince are thinking or feeling, you will not be very persuasive.

If I understand it correctly, group polarisation can widen the gaps between groups of people with different political and social stances. It seems logical that we must, if we want to spread our ideas, try to do the opposite - to build bridges and come closer - not even more far away from people. So, how do we do that?

First, make sure that you regularly have conversations with a wide variety of people. In real life, not online. This will improve your ability to communicate with people who don’t already share your points of view.

Next, find some points of agreement and start there. For example, you could join some local environmental effort such as cleaning up a river. Or you could start a community garden. Working together on something that you do agree about creates a good relationship. After that relationship is formed and there is some friendly feeling, you can begin to discuss the things you don’t agree about.

One of the biggest problems, when we talk about fighting consequences of group polarisation, I think, is the fact that it can be hard to try and overcome it without coming off as condescending. Wetend to think that theyjust have to hear that, gain education, gain our trust in that and they'll become us. But this is not necessarily so: People stand up for their beliefs, they know the same facts that we do and still decide to act abusively and hatefully. We may become themin the process and there's the possibility that no one changes their opinions. How can we navigate this situation?

First, remember what I can the Golden Rule of coalition building, which is to be as open to new information as you hope others will be. Just as there are some problems, such as animal exploitation, where you have information to share, there are probably social or environmental problems about which you know very little. By modelling a willingness to listen and learn, you can help to create healthier communities while also making it more likely that people will listen to you.

But, again, we are confused about human beings if we think that only facts and values determine behaviour. Most cognition is unconscious, and a whole range of social and physical factors combine to shape people’s decisions. So, we should also be thinking about ways to make it easier for people to behave kindly. We should be also thinking about emotion and desire. What is it that people want most deeply? How are they tricked into wanting things that hurt others? What can we offer that will feel even better without hurting others?

On the other hand, where and how do we ‘draw the line’ at ‘inclusiveness’? A part of an animal liberation movement is - quite openly - inviting non-vegans, people who are discriminating to one or more social groups and even Neo-Nazis into the vegan movement, calling the movement ‘apolitical’ and leaving a chance to harbour discrimination, violence and creating non-safe space. How do we navigate between group polarisation and the problem of including on the grounds of irrelevant criteria as it is ‘including just so we are inclusive’. By ‘excluding’ intolerant individuals, we are excluding intolerance itself, therefore, we are in a position to actually recognise veritable intolerance, rather than accepting discriminatory views based on irrelevant criteria (we could easily refer to Karl Popper’s take on paradox of (in)tolerance). We can easily start to build a community that is forgetting what it is fighting for. I feel this is already happening to some extent.

I think that it is one thing to talk with someone about veganism or animal rights and a different thing to invite them into your organisation. So, this is a false dichotomy. I am saying that it is important to learn to work with people who share some of your values, such as feminism or environmentalism, so as to develop relationships in which it is possible to speak productively about the things about which you do not yet agree. I also am saying that it’s important to understand the mindsets and motivations of the people whose behaviour you hope to change. That’s not the same thing as inviting Nazis to come to your events!

Let’s go back to intersectionality: Because speciesism and sexism are linked, feminists are our allies, even if they aren’t vegan yet. Because animals are harmed by climate change and other environmental problems, environmentalists are our allies, even if they are not yet vegan. Neo-Nazis are the opposite of allies: They cannot be truly anti-species-ist, because speciesism is built into the ideology of racism, which begins from the notion that humans are superior to animals, relegating some humans to a category similar to that of animal. Furthermore, even if they are vegan, they can only harm the struggle for animal liberation, by actively harming other activists and making it difficult for the movement to become the broad-based movement that can create substantial and sustainable change. The same is true for vegan men who batter or sexually assault women: They are acting from the ideology that says men can control women and animals, and they are harming fellow activists and the movement at the same time.

One of the biggest problems that the animal liberation movement is facing is, I think, the fact that non-vegans don't think this is a ‘real’ political issue and are mocking vegan movement as a cult, religion or sort of pushy ‘left-lib’ agenda. And helping this view to establish itself there are some organisations in the vegan movement calling themselves ‘apolitical’ – again. A situation very hard to navigate. What is your opinion on this?

I say don’t worry about it. Every social movement is initially mocked as irrelevant. And, every social movement includes people and organisations that approach the same problem from different directions. If some people want to pursue animal advocacy from an apolitical perspective, let them do whatever they can do for animals from that stance. As Ursula Le Guin said, ‘Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.’

How would your answer someone who is mocking the vegan movement for not being a ‘serious’ social justice political movement?

If they were mocking in bad faith, then I would not waste my energy arguing with them. There are plenty of ways to talk with social justice activists about animals. It’s tricky, since speciesism itself is what makes animal liberation seem unserious to them, but by asking questions you can help them begin to see that exploitation of animals is incompatible with their own values. But if you are being mocked, that’s probably a sign that the person is not open for a serious discussion.

Do you believe the animal rights movement should ally itself more clearly with progressive left-wing political options? Why?

We are trying to solve the same problems: Violence, inequality, environmental catastrophe, and the callousness towards other beings that both leads to and flows from capitalism, war, and other kinds of exploitation.