Make Humanity Great Again
May - June 2021
CW: brief, abstracted references to slurs for many marginalised groups. Discussion of ableist modes of thinking.
“I’ll buy free-range eggs when no child is going hungry.”
This statement from my year 10 chemistry teacher (let’s call him Mr McGee) sparked a heated debate. His logic was simple: (young) humans mattered more than the wellbeing of chickens, so Mr Mcgee donated to charity the money that he saved by buying cheap battery-farmed eggs. Partially founded in our instinct to promote the survival of our species, this is an incredibly common attitude. So much so, in fact, that even in a seminar discussing policies for nature conservation, a colleague of mine said they would still always choose the policy that protected human wellbeing first. But this Humanity First attitude, when embedded into our deepest cultural structures like it is currently, is dangerous. It is dangerous because it in fact threatens our own survival, but perhaps more pressingly, our liberation.
The desire to protect our own is laudable, but to imagine we can survive independently is ludicrous. Take the decline in insect species as a well-known case; scientists and farmers are so worried about insect extinction (especially bees) because the loss of such key pollinators would wreak havoc on global food systems, threatening the vast majority of our crops. Some might say the eradication of biting and stinging pests is a good thing but we, like all creatures, are utterly dependent on other species. And it’s not just bees - ecosystems are intricately intertwined in ways we barely understand. See, for example, how an attempt to eradicate malaria by killing mosquitos with DDT resulted in collapsing houses and parachuting cats! When we make decisions that put Humanity First we make the mistake of thinking there can even be a “first” while endangering both ourselves and others with egotistical interventions. To conserve and protect nature does not ignore the needs of humans, but enshrines them.
Mr McGee’s battery chickens are not exempt from this interdependent survival. Big agriculture industries are reducing biodiversity (both by breeding limited varieties of animals and destroying wild habitats) and holding animals in densely-packed conditions. Together these factors result in a much higher development and transmission of zoonotic diseases - diseases like COVID-19. This is only one way modern agriculture is endangering us; it is well known how intensive farming and especially meat and dairy production are significant contributors to the climate crisis that threatens all life on this planet. The saddest part, however, is that the hungry human children Mr McGee prioritised over chickens are in fact hungry because of the battery farms. Poor conditions for animals go hand-in-hand with poor conditions for humans, with farm and slaughterhouse workers some of the worst treated in terms of pay, at-work safety, and human trafficking. Furthermore, agriculture’s rampant appropriation of land is modern-day colonialism, undermining (often indigenous) people’s food sovereignty and forcing them into precarious, capitalist economies. So while Mr McGee’s spare cash goes towards patching up world hunger, his battery-farmed purchases contribute to the systems of inequality.
Yet the parallel exploitation of animals/nature and humans goes even deeper than our food systems; the Humanity First attitude is holding back our fundamental liberation. Speciesism - the prejudice in favour of one’s own species - is closely related to, if not at the core of, every other -ism. In ‘Intersectionality and Posthumanist Visions of Equality’ (2009) Maneesha Deckha explains how the matrix of race-culture-gender in systems of oppression rely upon the formulation of the ‘animal’ (NB: these theories come from animal studies so I discuss animals, but I believe the theories can easily extend to nature as a whole). Let me briefly demonstrate: black people are called monkeys and Jews called dogs; women are considered at the mercy of their biological (i.e. animal) bodies just as gay people succomb to their “inhuman” desires; trans people are “beasts” while foreigners are “savages” because of their “barbaric” treatment of animals; disabled people are deemed lesser for their physical or mental resemblance to animals; and pig, snake, cow, parasite are all unquestioned insults. Deckha describes how the co-constituted oppression of animals and humans results in a system of animalised animals (caged, eaten, tested upon), humanised animals (given cultural status), animalised humans (tied to their bodily existence, exploited), and humanised humans (constructed as the norm). In other words, when you dig down into the fundamental processes of prejudice, the oppression of humans is wholly reliant upon the oppression of animals.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the interconnection of animal and disability liberation. In her utterly brilliant book Beasts of Burden (2017), Sunaura Taylor argues the liberations must happen simultaneously because these systems of oppression have the same core - who gets to be defined as a person. If you are considered a person (i.e. a humanised being) you are deserving of agency, life, and protection from suffering. Speciesism and ableism strip animals and disabled humans (also disabled animals) of those rights by constructing them as non-persons. They are not given the right to choose the course of their life, or even whether they have the right to life at all, because in cognitive and/or bodily terms they are deemed not fully human. This is the core of the other -isms too, though rarely so explicitly expressed. The difficult question that Taylor therefore asks is - why does lacking certain capacities justify oppression? Or, when it comes down to it, why is it so bad to be (like) an animal?
We’re in the admittedly uncomfortable zone of species-inclusive intersectionality now, because when oppressed people struggle with being dehumanised it feels distasteful to say “well actually being compared to an animal shouldn’t be an inherently bad thing.” Nevertheless, Deckha argues that looking beneath the concept of dehumanisation allows us to address the real questions of equality, justice, and modes of oppression. Likewise, Taylor argues that the conflict between human and animal rights is an imagined one, as our fight for justice cannot be too inclusive.
However, many would still argue that fixing humanity’s problems of oppression should happen first as the easier and more important task. But here’s the sticking point: dismantling our constant prioritisation of humans and humanity is vital because the absolute liberation of humans is impossible while animals are oppressed - to oppress someone, all you have to do is define the human as an animal. Essentially, how we conceptualise and treat animals is the litmus paper for how we treat the Other. All oppression is centred around the construction of another being as Not Like Me/Us so that you can justify mistreating them. Since they are more different from us than any kind of human, animals and nature are the ultimate Other as the only beings we can never fully relate to. That difference then translates into shades of Otherness which can be applied to humans. True liberation can only happen when we fundamentally question why difference is a justification for mistreatment.
My language of “Humanity First” and the title of this essay was, therefore, a very pointed choice. Saying that humans come first means we will always have certain kinds of humans coming first. Thus the patterns of self-protective nationalism are mirrored in the mainstream rhetoric around climate action. Compare these choices by those in power: they decide to hoard supplies of vaccines instead of helping the most vulnerable countries; they decide to fund resource-intensive electric cars instead of wildlife restoration. Both decisions are justified through the disregard of the Other, and both decisions endanger the long-term, coordinated survival of humanity and other species. It may seem like the sensible choice, but if we continue to prioritise the needs of humans before all else our world will not survive, nor will it be just.
In article references
Blas, Javier (2008) ‘UN warns of food “neo-colonialism”. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/3d3ede92-6e02-11dd-b5df-0000779fd18c
Deckha, M. (2008) ‘Intersectionality and Posthumanist Visions of Equality’, Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender and Society, 23(2), pp. 249–268.
European Parliament (2019). ‘What’s behind the decline in bees and other pollinators?’. Available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20191129STO67758/what-s-behind-the-decline-in-bees-and-other-pollinators-infographic
Goulson, Dave (2019) ‘Fantastic mini-beasts (and how to revive them)’. Rewilding Britain. Available at: https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/blog/fantastic-mini-beasts-and-how-to-revive-them
Rozenbaum, Mia (2020). ‘The increase in zoonotic diseases: the WHO, the why, and the when?’ Available at: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/research-medical-benefits/the-increase-in-zoonotic-diseases-the-who-the-why-and-the-when/#:~:text=Caused%20by%20the%20spill%20over,diseases%20in%20humans%20are%20zoonotic.
Taylor, S. (2017) Beasts of burden: animal and disability liberation. New York: New Press.
Sustainability Illustrated (2014). ‘Systems Thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)’ Video 3:38. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17BP9n6g1F0
Haraway, D. J. (2003) The companion species manifesto: dogs, people and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.
Kafer, A. (2013) Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, UNITED STATES: Indiana University Press.
Wolfe, C. (2003) Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago, UNITED STATES: University of Chicago Press.
If you are interested in reading any of these texts but have trouble finding them because you don't have university access, don't even think about getting in touch with me. I couldn't possibly help you out by illegally sending you PDFs of knowledge that has been arbitrarily restricted to the privileged few...
Here's some questions/reflections to get you thinking about this topic on a personal level:
Next time you insult someone, notice if you use language that is derogatory according to its relation to beings of nature.
There is no denying we rely on animals and cannot avoid their "use", but that doesn't justify abuse or exploitation. How can veganism help or hinder this narrative?
Will it ever be possible for society to value nature's rights entirely equally? Or is human exceptionalism too deeply embedded in mainstream cultures?
Thoughts, comments, feedback welcome - go check out the post on instagram
Humane by Polly Creed
Humane is a new play from emerging writer Polly Creed that is based on interviews with people from Brightlingsea. In 1995 the small port town in Essex was suddenly taken over by protests against live animal exports. What makes the events so remarkable is that it was ordinary people reacting to the lorries carrying the animals through their town, and the stark politicisation of the small population has remained to this day. Polly tells the story through the lens of two mothers, Alice and Linda, following the joys and conflicts of friendship and motherhood amongst activism. As the protests become serious and police brutality rises its ugly head, issues of race come to the fore between the women.
The play is currently being released episodically as an audio drama on pretty much every platform for free, or you can buy yourself a copy to read. I am lucky enough to call Polly my friend so I was able to ask her some questions to explore in more depth the difficult juggling of more-than-human justice. The interview has some mild thematic spoilers but nothing specific, though of course I recommend listening or reading Humane first if you can.
With many, many thanks to Polly for answering my questions with such honesty and eloquence.
There's a big theme of visibility Humane, particularly how the single road in Brightlingsea meant the live animal exports were impossible to ignore. Also in the launch event, you and the guests discussed the varying success of animal rights activism with shock tactic videos and stories. How do you think the lack of direct visibility of animal suffering (and other environmental issues) affects not just the cause of domestic animal welfare, but how we value animals and nature more generally? Is this related to why the animals themselves are very much in the background context, rather than main narrative, of the play?
I am incredibly interested in the relationship between visibility and justice. I definitely think it’s true that society actively creates mechanisms to make injustice nameless, invisible, out-of-sight. If we can’t name it, see it, hear it, feel it, then it doesn’t exist, right? It’s why we build high walls around prisons, it’s why victim-survivors are manipulated to sign NDAs, and why animals are killed cruelly in windowless abattoirs in remote places.
Our company name ‘True Name’ actually is all about this idea of visibility and finding a name for things. We were inspired by the words of two incredible female activists:
'The first revolutionary act is to call something by its true name.' - Rosa Luxemburg
'In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.' - Rebecca Solnit
I think, as you say, this is something I try to explore in the play. The way that suddenly when something is visible, when it’s out in the open, when it is named, it becomes impossible to ignore. Visibility itself is a call-to-arms. I think if we don’t see animal suffering, it doesn’t exist. It was amazing interviewing people about what happened in Brightlingsea, because even 25 years on, many people (and often elderly people there) are still vegetarian or vegan. Once people had seen the suffering with their own eyes, it was impossible to dismiss any more.
I think the way the animals suffered in Brightlingsea is something I’d like to work with Imy Wyatt Corner, the director, to tease out more in the staging of the play, especially in our use of old news footage of the live export lorries and the crowds swelling around them. I think this is where an interdisciplinary, multimedia approach really comes into play. The suffering of animals, like climate breakdown, is something that is really tricky to write, especially without being preachy or crass; it’s too big, too terrible, it’s ineffable, it’s inexpressible in words.
So I think you have to tackle it through the lens of human stories. This is obviously flawed in a way, because it’s still centering the human perspective over a more ecological perspective, but I think it’s necessary in theatre as a medium. I’ve therefore tried to capture the collective trauma of the town, making the suffering of the animals visible in the reactions and emotions felt by Linda and Alice.
In your introduction to the published manuscript you say "Brightlingsea became a lens through which to explore a white feminism and brand of hypocrisy, of which I, myself, and many activist movements are guilty. We fight against the lorry in our own street, but fail to apply the same principles to our neighbour's street or the rest of the town." I think that's the most interesting thing about the play, that it shows how fights for justice aren't always complementary even though they could be strengthened if they were. Could you reflect on why you decided to put such an emphasis on racial issues (re: the final conversations between Alice and Linda and the revelation about Derek) in a play that initially presents itself as primarily about animal rights activism? What could we learn from this aspect of the Brightlingsea protests for our activism now?
Writing this play was a real education and a privilege for me. In many ways my experience researching and writing, and my awakening to my own white feminism, is mirrored in the play itself. Particularly in the character of Linda, although I hope I’m slightly further along on my journey than her!
Initially, I was drawn to the story as almost a ‘Calendar Girls’ style story about a group of older women, speaking truth to power and embarking on an unlikely mission of activism. To my shame, I didn’t even think about race. Due to my white privilege, I didn’t think about the whiteness of Brightlingsea or my own childhood growing up in that area. That wasn’t the story I was telling. I saw it all through the lens of environmental and feminist activism. I was not intersectional in my thinking about these issues.
However, as I began to research the play, race kept coming up. I found it niggling and uncomfortable at first. I tried to push it out of my mind. I just couldn’t go there. There was the odd remark here and there. I interviewed someone who was a major part of the protests who is mixed race and she told me some slightly unsettling things.This culminated in my discovery that a man who died during the protests, who in many ways I had started to turn into a martyr-like figure in my initial drafts and planning, had been part of the National Front in the 70s. I was shocked to find his name plastered over right wing, racist forums and in a Youtube video of a Johnny Rotten documentary about the National Front in the East End.
I really grappled with how to deal with this. I’m a white woman and I didn’t feel that I was the right person to be writing a play about racism. I was terrified of being tokenistic or misrepresenting the experiences of those involved. However, I realised that this *was* the story. If I wrote this play and didn’t talk about race, if I didn’t depict what had happened, I would be white-washing the events that took place. I would be pretending that racism wasn’t a problem.
I realised that in my whole research and writing process I was guilty of the same white feminism and hypocrisy that was in the play itself. I don’t know if I’ve got it right. I doubt I have completely. However, what I’ve tried to do is hold a mirror up to my own hypocrisy and blindspots. I’ve tried to embrace the knottiness and troubling nature of parts of this story - as well as celebrating the courage and brilliance of most of the people involved - and the way that activist movements often miss intersectional and anti-racist thinking. I think in doing this, I’m still probably guilty of centering a white perspective. However, I hope audiences might also notice this and the conversation can develop further.
Humane raises all sorts of difficult political and ethical issues - from balancing motherhood in activist spaces to police brutality (which is very timely with the resurgence of BLM and the new policing bill) to vegetarianism and veganism. Did writing the play change any of your views and/or what was the most important thing you took away from researching, writing, and developing it?
I think, as I say above, the biggest thing for me was realising how much in my activism I stay in my comfort zone; I see the world from such a white, middle class, able-bodied, cis feminist perspective. It made me reflect on my own childhood in rural, very white North Essex and the issue of racism in rural England.
Like many white women with similar privilege, I am simply not doing enough. I realised more and more that I couldn’t be a feminist without also actively fighting racism, without fighting climate breakdown, without fighting classism and every other form of injustice. This feels overwhelming and also, if I’m completely honest, almost made me feel quite cynical about activism and the factionist, myopic perspectives it can create. However, it also feels exciting. I feel we are at this moment where in the mainstream people are looking at things with a more complex, structural approach. I want to learn more about this and really educate myself further. It also made me reflect a lot more about who has the right to tell stories and which stories I can tell. I’m still thinking and exploring this a lot more.
Finally, is there anyone you know of who is creating around these themes whose work you would like to highlight?
Josina Calliste is doing incredible work with Land in Our Names, which aims to disrupt oppressive land dynamics relating to BPOC communities in Britain.
Farmerama is a very cool podcast sharing the voices behind regenerative farming. Each month, the show features farmers and growers rebuilding our food and ecosystems from the ground up.
Anita Okunde is a young climate activist who I met through the book launch and is doing the most amazing work talking about how the environmental movement can be more anti-racist
Staging Change is a grassroots artist-led organisation, which supports theatre makers responding to the climate crisis.
Theatre Green Book is an initiative by the whole of theatre – working with sustainability expert Buro Happold – to work more sustainably. In three volumes it sets standards for making productions sustainably, for making theatre buildings sustainable, and for improving operations like catering and front of house.
Find more of her work:
True Name Theatre: www.truename.co.uk
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