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Where’s the Compassion? Reflections on Human Privilege

<st Carletonian of fall term, Anna Schmiel ’17 wrote an op-ed titled “Where’s the Tofu?: Reflections on Food Privilege.” As the person with whom she had a conversation, I would like to reaffirm my message and address some of the problematic statements she made in the article.

I do not intend to suggest that every person in the world can and should go vegan right now. Rather, I believe that people should consume animal products as little as possible. Given the widespread availability of nutritious, affordable vegan food and many people’s (including subsistence farmer’s) reliance on crops, most people can and should go vegan.
However, corporations, our families, and even our government tell us that consuming other species’ dead flesh, milk, and eggs is good and healthy. To be blunt, they’re incorrect. Countless reputable reports, studies, and books prove and extrapolate on this. Books such as the China Study, one of the most significant works published on human nutrition and longevity, detail how humans are physiologically ill-equipped to be omnivores. Meanwhile, studies such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production demonstrate how animal agriculture, particularly via factory farms and commercial fishing, wreaks havoc on the environment and global food security. So, given my space constraint, I will instead discuss the most ignored but most significant privilege in the food system: human privilege.
As Anna correctly points out, food privileges exist between people across geography and wealth. But human privilege also prevails. We not only unnecessarily abuse and kill billions of non-human animals on factory, family, and fish farms, but we have the gall to suggest that their sufferings are somehow less legitimate, less tragic, less real than ours. This is human privilege at work.

Anna also exercises human privilege when she suggests non-human suffering is neither “actually tragic” nor a “real-world problem”, and fighting for them is “fancy”- which I take to mean secondary to and less legitimate than fighting for humans. By implying that eating animals is justified if we “don’t put them in small cages” and “interact with them on a daily basis”, she asserts the dominating party (humans), rather than the victimized party (non-human animals), deserves to define the morality of the domination. This is highly problematic because it permits the dominator to construct morality in such a way that serves itself.  

But Anna is hardly alone in exercising her human privilege. We hold that “humane slaughter” is not an oxymoron when applied to a member of a species besides our own. We criminalize sexual abuse of humans, although we permit, and even subsidize, the exploitation and commodification of the female reproductive system of other animals (Egg farmers use a number of tricks, including starving hens, to boost egg production. Dairy farmers continually artificially inseminate [i.e. rape] female cows to keep them constantly lactating). We publicly fund education and protection programs for human children but we steal newborn calves from their mothers so that we may consume her milk and use the calves for future dairy, beef, or veal.

In a word, we are speciesists. While we have made strides against racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination, we continue to hold as fact that humans are more important than all others and can use non-humans as we please.

But we don’t have to be. Just as we limited and outlawed forms of human suffering, so too can we limit and outlaw non-human animal suffering. We can achieve a world where no one has to walk fearfully into a slaughterhouse, where no mother has to cry out for her stolen baby, and where people live longer lives freer of hunger and diet-related diseases. Further, I have a hunch that if we all started to act more compassionately towards animals, that compassion would spread to the human realm, resulting in less oppression and exploitation among humans. For example, we might think twice before cutting welfare benefits, banning same-sex marriage, and failing to enact universal health care. We might not even have to worry about corporations acting greedily and “grain becoming the new symbol of world hunger”, as Anna suggests might happen.

We are in a state of cognitive dissonance. We all understand that animals have feelings and self-awareness and are like us in most respects. You wouldn’t know it, though, judging by how we objectify (NASDAQ lists “live cattle”, “feeder cattle”, “lean hogs”, and “milk” as commodities) and otherwise abominably we treat them. But we don’t have to live with this cognitive dissonance. Not only that, but I, and virtually every fellow vegan and animal rights/liberation activist I have met, have found the process of abandoning speciesism liberating. The act of choosing every day to reaffirm and live out my values has proven more refreshing than any milkshake, more appetizing than any T-bone.

The author is a member of Compassionate and Sustainable Consuming, a student group that aims to create a dialogue surrounding the ethical, social, and environmental injustices that emerge from participating in a society heavily dependent on animal exploitation. For more information, please contact robinere@, massa@, or zacke@

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