Think you are not a racist? Think again

'Moral High Ground' by Marc Perlish

Racism is a word that is tossed around a lot lately and one that creates a buzz. Race and ethnicity based bias is an attitude which many say they oppose, deplore and condemn. But why? What’s wrong with racism? Why shouldn’t you feel superior to other human beings because of their origin? Is it immoral to discriminate or exploit based on a sense of superiority? Before we pat ourselves on the back for not harboring such bigotry and for being moral beings, we have an obligation to answer those questions and others. I think we may be surprised by what we reveal.

Imagine some of the answers: Racism is founded on a false premise; no race or ethnicity is superior to another; we’re different but equal. A sense of superiority can lead to immoral behavior: discrimination, oppression, exploitation and violence, towards those who are the most vulnerable. It may result in inequality, misery and death of those who are viewed as inferior.

If you believe that racism is irrational and immoral, what if you hold a similar prejudice – a discrimination solely on the basis of species membership? Does feeling superior to another species have any logical or ethical foundation? Is it morally acceptable to oppress, exploit, abuse and kill other sentient beings who are members of a different species? If so, why?

Speciesism, much like racism, is a bias founded on the assumption that humans are superior to other species. It provides no moral consideration for individuals of other species and leads to their exploitation, enslavement and death. If you don’t see the similarity to a racist ideology, just replace the words “other species” with “Jews” or “blacks”, and this will sound very familiar.

Speciesism leans on the unfounded premise that people are more intelligent than all other creatures, and therefore have the right to dominate and use them in any way they desire. From sources of food and clothing to the subjects of entertainment and experimental testing.

There are studies that refute the intelligence superiority. Evolutionary biologists from the University of Adelaide in Australia think that other members of the animal kingdom have superior brains, we just don’t recognize their intelligence. As one of the researchers say: “science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beings.” There are endless examples of animals’ intelligence. Chimpanzees have an extraordinary working memory capability for numerical recollection, better even than that of human adults. Birds can migrate long-distances due to their cognitive capacity to recognize habitats, create mental maps, detect magnetic fields and more. There are so many more examples of animals’ cognitive capacities. We underestimate the brainpower of animals by using intelligence tests that are based on humans. In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? primatologist Frans de Waal says that we don’t really know or understand the extent of the animals’ brainpower.

Non-human animals have many qualities that are superior to ours which suggests that we aren’t better than them, only different.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re smarter than all other beings. Does that give us the moral right to dominate and use them as commodities, tools and revenue generators? After all, we don’t exploit and harm other human beings whose cognitive capacities aren’t at our level. It’s not acceptable to oppress individuals with intellectual disabilities. Babies are no less valuable to us merely because they cannot verbally communicate (we love and value them more because they’re so vulnerable). On the other hand we exploit and kill pigs who are smarter than three year old children. Intellectual capacity isn’t used as a moral criterion in humans, so why apply it to non-human animals?

What’s more important than whether or not we’re smarter than other sentient beings, or whether we possess other qualities they don’t, is our shared ability to feel and suffer. And suffer by our hands they do. Each one of us has victimized thousands of animals throughout our lives. Just think about the flesh of animals you ate during your life; chicken, pigs, cows and lambs, who were tormented in fear and pain while being slaughtered (including those who were “grass fed” or “humanely raised”). Consider the hundreds of millions of adorable male chicks who are ground up alive annually (since egg producers, “free range” and “humane” included, have no use for them as they can’t lay eggs) so you can enjoy your omelets.

Why do humans feel superior to other humans or animals? Our beliefs and attitudes, regardless of their morality, are shaped at a young age by our society and culture, and continue to be reinforced every day of our lives. Formal racial discrimination and slavery were rooted in the society of their time. Most of us oppose the enslavement of humans not because we thought long and hard about it and concluded it’s wrong, but because we grew up in a culture where it was socially unacceptable. If you were a white who lived in the U.S. two centuries ago, when African Americans were considered chattel, most likely you too would have accepted slavery, much like your great grandparents and the majority of their generation.

Speciesism and the enslavement of animals, are deeply embedded in our culture, and their morality, or lack of, is rarely questioned. From the moment a baby is born and throughout their life, they are shown by parents and society that the lives of animals are dispensable. Fed with cow milk that was meant for her calves, and later with animal eggs and flesh, wear their wool and skin, and gawk at them, confined in zoos. Never thinking about the unethical and appalling treatment those innocent, sentient beings have been through to be our food, clothing, entertainment, and more.

As a child I used to go to our neighborhood market on Fridays to get a carp for gefilte fish. I recall watching the fishmonger net a carp from the carp pool. The live fish, would struggle inside the net. The fishmonger would then place him on the bench, and smash his head with a heavy wooden tool. He then would take a knife and slash the fish’s stomach, taking out the insides from the bloody animal… I remember the visual details vividly, but what’s surprising is that I don’t recall my emotions. Was I horrified by the brutal killing of such a lively creature? Did I feel compassion for the fish who endured unimaginable pain while suffocating and then by the final blow to his head? Was I appalled and shaken by the blood and organs which were pulled out of his body right in front of me? I wish I could say I was, but I don’t remember. The fact that the visuals of the fish killing are fresh in my mind, shows that the experience had a significance for me. But this memory may also suggest how removed I was from empathizing with the fish. Perhaps I saw it so many times as a child that it seemed normal. It won’t be until many years later that I realized that fish, like other animals, have the right to be free exploitation and I stopped eating them. Fish can feel pain and they suffer when they are being suffocated while pulled out of water. As a child I accepted the centuries old, unjust, and cruel treatment of animals without considering all its implications. This was a huge blind spot.

What’s interesting is that there is a reason why we overlook moral codes when it’s permissible. It’s called opportunism. Supremacy can benefit groups and individuals who are powerful and entitled. They can target and utilize the disadvantaged and vulnerable for their own benefit. Slavery was central to the U.S. economy and helped to stimulate its prosperity. From slave owners in the south to banks, insurance companies, shippers, and universities in the north, all benefited from the free work force of the black people. Similarly, enslavement of animals is a key part of the world economy. Whole industries and economic centers are based on using sentient beings as commodities and revenue generators. Take for example the food industry that is centered around meat, dairy and eggs. Everything from farms, slaughterhouses, transporters, and supply chains to food manufacturers, supermarkets, restaurants, and many, many more. Not only whole industries and businesses profit, but each one of us enjoys and benefits, on the backs of the animals.

If you think you are a moral person who doesn’t support racism and slavery, keep in mind that you live in a place and time where this is the norm and you are part of the herd. How well you conform with the norms is not an indication of your morality and compassion. Your daily treatment of the most vulnerable beings, the non-human animals, and whether it is motivated by a sense of superiority, entitlement, and opportunism is an indication of your decency. Devaluing the lives of other beings, to the point of eating their flesh, is not only bigotry, it’s also cruelty.

If you believe that consuming cow milk or pork chops is worth the violence the animals went through, aren’t your actions and morals the same as those who benefited from the slave trade? Only the victims are different?

We exploit and kill animals under the guise of necessity. However, their flesh is not necessary to our diet, nor are their milk or eggs. To the contrary, a plant based diet is healthier. Nonetheless, we enslave and brutally kill sentient beings so we can indulge ourselves for a few minutes at dinner and holiday tables, parties and restaurants.

And to those who think it’s fine to kill and eat animals who were raised in “humane”, “free range”, or “family” farms, I have this to say: all of that feel good, sugar coating is besides the point. The animals are not ours to exploit and kill, much like slaves weren’t, regardless of how “humanely” some of them were treated.

If I haven’t convinced you that you aren’t a superior being, then shouldn’t your superiority necessitate the moral obligation to be thoughtful and aware of the animals’ suffering done in your name? Isn’t it your responsibility as a human being to act humanely and defend, rather than contribute to their abuse? Shouldn’t you, as a supreme being, have the emotional intelligence to feel compassion towards sentient beings?

There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme suffering we cause our fellow earthlings will be viewed as barbaric by future generations. But we shouldn’t wait for history to judge us. Follow the footsteps of the few who challenged the status quo of white superiority when that was considered the norm.

Please reflect on how your daily actions intersect with the lives of non-human animals. Make choices based on what’s morally right rather than on habits. Choose compassion over animal exploitation and death. It’s a place to begin as though you are putting on new glasses and looking at the world anew.

“If you want to know where you would have stood on slavery before the Civil War, don’t look at where you stand on slavery today. Look at where you stand on animal rights.” Captain Paul Watson

Picture courtesy of Marc Perlish

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6 Responses

  1. ziva says:

    Food for thought; an interesting take on racism.

  2. Deb says:

    How true. That last quote says it all.

  3. Rita Anderson says:

    Once more, this compassionate and intelligent woman has succeeded in challenging others to take a true look at who they think they are versus who they really are. Thank you, Zahava! You are raising conscious awareness with your honest and thoughtful questioning!