As with many animal activists, my path to advocacy has been crisscrossed with life-changing intersections and punctuated by important milestones. One of the most influential landmarks in my road to activism was Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, which compares myths about meat-eating with myths about what it means to be a man. Reading Carol’s book, it is impossible to ignore how a patriarchal society has marketed eating animal flesh as manly and debased women along the way. She’s also the author of many other books, including Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook, and co-editor of The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Carol about animal activism. Our conversation ranged from using social networks to whether activists need to watch disturbing undercover video footage. Not surprisingly, Carol began with a topic that’s close to her heart.
“We’ve got a problem with sexism in the movement, so that the people who traditionally have cared, who are women, are not always heard as well as male philosophers are,” she said. “The male philosophers the animal rights movement has held up are really wonderful people, but they draw on a male-based philosophy — that of rights or Utilitarianism — and this assumes the individual is autonomous, and it’s a male model, emphasizing rationality over caring and autonomy over interdependence. One thing the animal rights movement needs to do is to become more alert to incorporating feminist attitudes throughout the movement. So instead of having nearly-naked women saying, ‘Stop harming animals,’ we should have a variety of people saying, ‘I care about animals, and I’m a better person for that.’ Not, ‘I’m a better person than you, but maybe a better person than I was.’ Instead of being absolutely confrontational, so that we allow other people to take their unease with emotions and bring it out of themselves and blame us for making them feel uncomfortable, we can find a variety of ways to help people sit with their feelings and learn how to listen to those feelings.”
Carol, who has devoted much of her writing to exploring the links between species oppression and gender oppression, said the animal rights movement often disowns women and disowns emotions that are equated with women. “So I feel like we have to evolve the movement to lift up caring and lift up the people who care — i.e., women — rather than sexualizing them, and appealing to socialized men who have been taught that maleness equals not caring.” She believes that when it comes to animals, many otherwise caring people keep their feelings at arm’s length. “When someone tells me, ‘I don’t want to know what’s happening to animals; I’m afraid to care,’ I often say, ‘Tell me about your childhood relationships with animals.’ I want to know what kinds of scars there are from a time when they might have cared and what happened to that caring. I’ve looked at how families handle the death of a pet in the United States, and they do it really terribly — ‘Oh, it was only a pet,’ ‘We can get a new one,’ ‘Oh, stop crying’ — so that part of the movement to adulthood is putting down the feelings that are associated with being a child. But those are really good and honest feelings. That’s why in my own writing I’ve written prayers that speak in the voice of a child who’s lost a beloved companion animal to provide a way to show that grief is part of what we are going to feel if we care about animals, and to model how to move through grief.”
Yet in responding to the plight of farmed animals, Carol said, female animals are often overlooked. “It’s this abuse of female reproductivity that disappears from the radar so often. I mean, I know that animal rights groups are lifting it up more and more, but I still think that the fate of the dairy cow and the egg-laying hen is one of the most serious issues for us to address. If we eliminated forcing cows to get pregnant, you’d eliminate 50 percent of hamburgers, too.” She noted that meat-eating would not exist if female animals were not exploited. Yet, she observed, meat-eaters still manage to take credit for the presence of animals on Earth. “Meat-eaters argue, ‘Well, the animals come into life, into existence, because we want to eat them. The animals owe us their lives.’ No, the animals come into existence and owe their mothers their lives. It’s the mothers who are being the most oppressed because they’re going through constant pregnancy.”
As our conversation turned to the use of hidden cameras to capture graphic images that can be used to educate consumers and activists alike, Carol said she worries that the animal rights movement might focus too narrowly on these upsetting videos. “I think that sometimes that’s not necessarily going to be the best way to change people. I don’t want to just shock people. I know some people are changed that way. I remember when I used to go to AR conferences they’d have this one room that just showed a film with one horrible image after another. The young people coming out of that room were weeping and feeling so powerless. In terms of change, I know there’s a new Mercy For Animals video that’s tied to the egg industry. I appreciate their work, but I can’t watch these anymore, and I think it’s OK to say to people, ‘You don’t have to watch these. What we’re looking for is consciousness.’ We don’t need, necessarily, to have these images burned on our retinas.”
When I mentioned that some activists feel we owe it to the animals to watch such videos, she said, “Again, it’s a male model of change versus a feminist model of change. It’s not about owing. It’s about asking, ‘How can I nurture the best relationship possible for all animals?’ I’m an animal, too. I do not need to inflict suffering on myself if the consciousness of what’s going on is already there. I think women often are going to be more obedient to these exhortations because, again, of the sexism in our society. But if a lot of women already are socialized to care, then our experience of those videos may be drastically different, and I think that needs to be acknowledged. Extraordinary expectations do not need to be laid down on animal activists. We’re already there. We should ask, ‘What’s the best I can do as an individual linking up with others?’ Everyone answers that differently, but our answers become part of a chorus that’s the same.”
Besides videos, then, what tools for change does Carol recommend? “In Living Among Meat Eaters I ask, ‘How do we know how change happens? Why do we think there’s one model for change?’ I think we fail to recognize that the right brain can also bring about change. That you can incubate and you can be stimulated by art to change. I think because activists are often more likely to be left brained and rational, they fail to take account of the way the right brain can be enlisted to help people change. In the book I say that meat-eaters are perfectly happy eating vegan meals, as long as they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. What I mean by that is people hate being self-conscious about what they’re eating. Eating is supposed to be directly experiential — it’s not supposed to have a theory to it. People think vegans are going to examine everything. One of the most important things I think we do is just having vegan meals for people. They leave and think, ‘Gee, Carol’s a vegan. That was a really great risotto; it was so creamy. So…that was a vegan risotto.’ So I’ve given them a chance to incubate, and the next time they come back to me they’re not as threatened, because I’ve enlisted their right brain to work with me rather than just arguing with the left brain that might not want to change.”Carol also likes Facebook, which she joined earlier this year. “When I get friended by someone I don’t know, I generally accept the friending, but I’ll ask them to tell me about their activism,” she said. “Oh my gosh, the wonderful responses I’ve gotten! People write, ‘Thank you for asking,’ and often they’ll talk about the influence of my books. Some will say, ‘I’m a quiet activist. I’m uncomfortable speaking in public. But I make vegan meals.’ Some say, ‘I’m a full-time teacher, but I also write letters, or rescue strays and help them get new homes, or I’m doing this or organizing that.’ I’m just so grateful for them. No one has to tell them to go watch a video. They’re way beyond that.”
My sincere thanks to Carol Adams for her time and her contributions to the movement. You can learn more about Carol’s work at her Web site.