Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Philosophy of Race and Critical Animal Theory

Tom has an interesting post, that I started writing a comment to, and it became really long, so I decided to turn it into a blog post. You should go read it, it concerns tensions between animal ethics, philosophy of race, and the role of intuition in philosophy. Short, but smart. Go read, I'll wait. 

(Also, I am excited for his two new books coming out. His short monograph Levinas Unhinged, and his edited collection on Habit.) 

The point made my the philosopher of race (I wonder who it was?) is pretty common (though from from universal) in many philosophy of race, decolonial and postcolonial philosophy theories. And as someone who takes decolonial and postcolonial philosophy, nonwestern philosophy, and philosophy of race very seriously (and incorporates it in my scholarship and teaching) this is a real issue for me. I've written about these issues a lot on this blog, so I embed some links to past posts to do some of the work for me. Even though I do not fully agree with all of these posts. 

On the one hand, decolonial thinkers advance some of the best critiques of humanism, on the other they usually do it in order to talk about the need for a stronger humanism . And I do think that fights against anthropocentrism are useful for fights against racism (though they are not sufficient!). However, there is more than just the fact that people of color have been compared to animals and dehumanized, but the history co-mingling animal welfare and rights groups with obviously problematic, racist, and colonialist projects. Peta still engages in campaigns that are not only sexist, but frequently racist (often both ). And not just PETA, but if you look at the original animal welfare groups in Britain, you see some complex and interesting things. On the one hand, you have the The Vegetarian Society, which was viewed with disgrace, attracted a bunch of different radicals, and Gandhi credits with his radicalizing on the issues of colonialism. On the other hand, the RSPCA and the first animal welfare laws were all centered around class concerns, race concerns, and connected to explicit colonialists

I think there is a lot that needs to be done by critical animal theorists in order to help this. (1) Avoid the seduction of tokenism, of being able to point out a few diverse people in order to shrug of systemic claims of what is going on at conferences, edited volumes, etc. (2) Maybe we need to read less continental thinkers, and start reading more explicitly radical women and queers of color, decolonialist and postcolonialists, philosophers of race, and generally nonwestern philosophy. If I want an anthropocentric thinker who is critical of humanism, I don't always need to go after Agamben when I can read and cite Sylvia Wynter. (3) This will mean, also, to practice the sort of humility in engagement that can be really hard. To expect to be surprised, to be open to being wrong, and generally to not engage in that sort of way when one goes around and explains that the other side just needs to get how right you have been this whole time ("But don't you understand that anthropocentrism is behind racism? So thank you very much for no longer insisting upon your humanity..." etc.). 

None of this entails necessarily giving up our core ethics, or even being critical of other philosophers of race on occasion. For example, arguments about the cultural imperialism of vegetarianism and veganism that continue  simply ignore that other animals have culture is not very convincing or useful. 

In general, critical animal theorists need to admit that we do indeed, as a field, often have a problem with eurocentrism. No, this isn't unique to our field, and no, we are not all guilty of it. But none of that changes the fact we need to change our field.