The 2012-2013 Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series at The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Dr. Will Kymlicka on “Animal Rights, Multiculturalism, and The Left” April 25th 2013
At the 2013 Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series, Professor Kymlicka argued that the “social Left” has been particularly indifferent towards animal rights advocacy. In this lecture, Professor Kymlicka showed that the Left’s stance is not only theoretically unjustified but that it is also not anti-ethical to multicultural commitments, as he understands them.
What can explain this? Theoretically, the Left has long shed its Marxist view of humanity as intrinsically defined by a self-conscious ability to transform the external world and inherent capacity for cooperative activity. There is in fact a recognition that not everyone is capable of this transcendence and that the conception itself possesses not only a tendency to the creation of and sustaining of cultural hierarchies but also a privileging of the productive power of men over the reproductive power of women, those of able bodied over those with disabilities, and European intensive agriculture over indigenous traditions and practices of subsistence. While it is accepted that a multiplicity of forms of human flourishing and notions of the good are embodied in our ontological existence, it has however not recognized that humans too are animals, finite and vulnerable, and like them, humans are also conscious, feeling, communicative selves interdependent with other conscious and subjective selves.
Part of the problem is that the Left has tended to treat social justice struggles as zero sum games. Kymlicka recounts of the way that the old-Left had taken this position against women’s rights advocacy on the grounds that these would be “distractions” from more important “class struggles”. In fact, we know today that the recognition of multiple forms of injustices strengthens rather than undermines the “salience” of “justice”. This is largely because injustices are interconnected in similar practices and processes of domination that exclude, silence, and coerces.
Another correlative reason has been the belief that animal advocacy trivializes and diminishes the “moral seriousness” of human injustice. For Kymlicka, this belief actually exposes “the existence of a steep moral hierarchy between human and animal injustices”. What predominates in actuality is a non-Marxist and in fact non-Judeo-Christian view of divine creation, that our “good” is “conscious, perceptive, feeling, communicative” which follows a good that is in fact “continuous” and not hierarchically privileged over that of animals. Research suggests the more we share in “shared species narcism” the more we tend to “dehumanize” social “out-groups, immigrants and minorities”. The more we establish equality between human and animal goods we tend to “reduce prejudice and strengthen belief in equality amongst human groups”.
For Kymlicka, the root of these problems is in the imperialism of our culture; we have “racialized minorities” in such a way that animal rights advocacy has become part of the part of the way Western culture stigmatizes non-western cultures as barbaric and backwards. The problem is the way that animal advocates have not successfully fought and thus empowered Western culture to justify racial hierarchies over others (e.g. indigenous peoples and the whale hunt, Jews and Muslims with the ritual slaughter; ritual practices of the Santeria religion, Chinese-Americans and live animal market in San Francisco). The problem is that the issue of animal rights advocacy has been instrumentalized, often as “a pre-text to criticize minorities” to legitimize “exclusion and racial hierarchy”. The response to the risk of instrumentalization from the Left in other areas of social justice has been to “renounce” efforts to “instrumentalize the issue and to take proactive steps to divorce the universality of moral principles from claims of superiority of particular cultures”. Kymlicka points to women rights advocates who “emphasize the contestability of beliefs and the heterogeneity of moral sources from every society and culture, against essentialist views that see gender equality as part of the cultural DNA of the west”. Here, Kymlicka argues that efforts to create “forums” and organizations that can encourage the equitable participation of minorities in the debate and shaping of “gender equality, along with the awareness that these forums can also privilege Western viewpoints”. The Left has already developed methods for the “conscious and proactive inclusion, dialogue, cross-cultural learning and listening, commitments to consistency and self-reflective inquiry, epistemic humility, efforts to avoid tokenism, essentialism, and exoticism”.The instrumentalization of cruelty and unnecessary against minorities also mobilizes “cultural bias” — which itself excludes the inhumane practices and the billions of animals killed in Western culture itself.
There is certainly a need to engage in dialogues over the ethical justification of the treatment of animals today. Kymlicka argues that while that conversation would undoubtedly be difficult and “challenging to our practices” it would not however “erode our multicultural commitments”. He notes that
“multiculturalism at its best operates to eliminate unjust political or cultural hierarchies, to de-center hegemonic norms, and to hold the exercise of power morally accountable. Viewed in this way multiculturalism and animal rights are not in conflict”.
The Left has developed the “strategies” to combat “cultural imperialism”. “Cross-sectional study of animal rights would be more conducive to cross cultural learning than the current framework of cruel and unnecessary harm” applied in mainstream animal advocacy discourse — in fact, the “customary majority practices” that have “predefined” the majority practice into the current “framework” as default. Leftists “animal rights framework would set us on the path to discover new moral frameworks for animal and human relationships beyond that of property”. The animal rights agenda would “de-center and denaturalize majority practices, open up space for cross cultural learning and shine light on power and privilege that have been immunized from ethical accountability”.