Beyond Species Podcast

It was a great honor and pleasure to be interviewed by Stephen Dent for the Beyond Species Podcast. We had a very interesting conversation about imagining multispecies worlds, and we discussed, challenged, and speculated on several different stories of the multispecies bestiary that was a part of my PhD dissertation. These involve thought exchanges on octopuses, sheep, and monsters specifically. Here are the episode notes as well as a link to listen to the interview. Also make sure to check out some of the other episodes in this impressive collection of conversations on anti-speciesist research and activism.

EPISODE NOTES

Episode 29. In this episode, we hear from Dr. Michelle Westerlaken. Michelle explains her concept of multispecies-isms or multispecies worlding – a response to speciesism that looks for traces of how we humans interact with other species in our everyday lives, so as to imagine how relationships might take place in a non-speciesist future. Michelle’s work draws in strands from a range of disciplines, including interaction design, posthumanism and indigenous ways of knowing. Michelle finds the ethic of care a challenging but generative concept worth exploring. She also discusses the concept of the Bestiary in her thesis, which opens up spaces for nonhumans to “tell” stories, as well as to push our questions around speciesism into controversial territory. Gaming can also provide imaginative spaces for vegans to explore their ethics and enact non-speciesist worlding.

Listen to the podcast here.

(image and episode notes via Stephen Dent)

What is the opposite of Speciesism?

The word ‘speciesism’ (pronounced species-ism), is still not a widely used term, but actually has been around since the 70s. When academics or animal activists mention this term it usually refers to the oppression and exploitation of animals justified on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. I wrote about this notion earlier on this blog as well as in the form of an entry in the critical posthumanist genealogy. The latter opens as follows:

“The term ‘speciesism’ […] refers to discrimination on the grounds of belonging to a certain species. Thus, speciesism includes the assignment of different values, rights, or special consideration to individuals based solely on their species membership. Continuing the analogy to discriminatory practices like racism, sexism, classism, and others, the term was further popularised by philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Since then, the term ‘speciesism’ has been usually appropriated with regard to practices of human domination over animals and the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights and freedoms that are granted to humans.”

Over the last decades, the field of Critical Animal Studies, animal activists, as well as scholars from other fields (including post-humanism and eco-feminism) have articulated a large body of work that critically analysed speciesist practices, norms, and understandings that problematises the way in which other animals are treated in our societies. The two links in the first paragraph of this post are a great starting point for those of you that want to understand this further. What is important here is that people who problematise speciesism are interested in challenging the basic assumptions that underly the normalisation of animal exploitation. This makes it fundamentally different compared to, say, advocate for treating animals better within their current environments. Anti-speciesists are therefore often (but not always (!)) anti-capitalist and/or pro-vegan.

One of the most pressing questions, I find especially crucial with regards to design, is to try and understand what the opposite of speciesism can actually mean. In fact, this is a question that became the driving curiosity for my PhD research. Researchers and activists often focus on articulating the meaning of terms like non-speciesism, anti-speciesism, or post-speciesism, but also notions of post-humanism, post-colonialism, or post-anthropocene. This is all very helpful in understanding the major issues of our time, but these words say nothing about what such worlds contain, besides saying what they are not.

Earlier I made a quite simplified analogy about the difficulties in designing or imaging a non-chair. What I meant is that it is philosophically impossible to design or imagine something by only trying to describe what it not. To be able to design particular worlds – worlds that we want to bring into being – we need to actively and continuously create those concepts that fit with the unfolding perspectives that embody and inhabit those worlds. With regards to this challenge, the notion of non-speciesism is counter-productive, and even paralysing, because rather than creating a new concept to think-with, in only offers a break-down (non-) of the problematised concept (speciesism).

(a quote from Vinciane Despret 2016: 47)

So what concepts can we actually use instead? And is it even possible to put non-speciesist interactions into words if they are so scarce in our societies? And can we create or use a concept that can allow for a flexible and ever-evolving understanding (rather than a reductive or too definite notion that attempts to describe something we have a hard time imagining in the first place).

During this PhD project, I went on a two year quest to find the right words and discovered something odd: many people that problematise speciesism do not know the answer to this question. This is to say that they do have very clearly developed intuitions towards the kinds of respectful and compassionate relationships they (intend to) have with other animals, but they are not sure what words to use to describe these interactions. So, many people know quite well how to live these worlds in practice, but do not describe them as a concept.

There are some terms to discuss here. For example, terms like ‘animal liberation‘ or ‘animal justice‘, have important functions in animal activism as they advocate for liberating animals from their current oppressors or granting justice to victims of oppression. These terms, however, point towards the actions that should be undertaken to end a perceived injustice (for example through protest, civil disobedience, laws, or sanctuaries). All of these are crucial stages towards creating a non-speciesist society, but do not describe such a society itself.

The term ‘ethical veganism’, is sometimes also used to describe post-speciesist societies, but this term usually refers to a consumption ideology: vegan shoes are made without animal body-parts, vegan milk is made out of plant-based ingredients, etc. The term was originally coined by Donald Watson in 1944 to differentiate the ‘Vegan Society’ from vegetarianism, to indicate a specific diet (The Vegan Society n.d.). When extending this to every-day encounters and interactions it would be unusual to say that I just had a vegan encounter with a squirrel, perhaps confusingly implying that we did not eat each other. The term also presupposes that eating another animal or their products is by definition excluded from a world that is not speciesist. Imagining a society beyond dietary habits requires a concept that can account for the variety of relationships that can be formed between animals in a non-speciesist society.

Other terms, like ‘animalism’ or ‘sentientism’ – derived from a broadening of a ‘humanist’ ideology – imply an expansion of anthropocentric modernist traditions of humanism towards zoo-centrism, merely raising the status of other animals, creating a new moral boundary at the question of what counts as ‘sentient’, as well as maintaining a modernist idea of higher versus lower entities that are ‘animal-like’. These ideologies tend to get stuck with questions like ‘what about plants, bacteria, fungi, and artificial intelligence?’, maintaining that, in order to be included into a framework that are offered serious moral consideration by humans, entities need to have certain ‘sentient’ (or human-like) characteristics.

Lastly, some other notions from post-humanist perspectives that generally aim to de-centre the human, such as eco-feminism, ecosophy, and bioethics, aim much more broadly at deconstructing the category ‘human’ as something unique, distinct, and at the centre of the world. Although a non-speciesist framework might fit into these concepts, these categories are so broad that they do not sufficiently focus on our relationships with other animals in a way that includes a firm rejection of speciesism. In the abstractions and philosophies of the scholars engaging with these terms, the focus is often returned to the meaning of being human within these worlds, while I am more interested in conceptualising the relationships between humans and other animals. 

(a quote from Richard Powers, 2018: 292))

In my thesis, I started to use a placeholder to refer to non-speciesist engagements with other animals and called it ‘multi-species-isms‘, or as an adjective ‘multispecies worlds‘, and I have grown an attachment to these terms. With these words, I wanted to fabricate a concept that can account for multiplicity, while still sticking to the idea of ‘species’ as a useful reminder of the violence that is inflicted upon other animals. Without going too deep into my ecofeminist (Harawayan) interpretations of ‘worlds’, ‘species’ and ‘multiplicity’ here, I want to stress that there is no one-way definition that can be pinned down by humans, but many different ways in which mutually meaningful relationships between animals can be formed.

Multi-species-isms‘, I argue, can be used to identify the actual (rather than negating) ingredients of worlds that are respectful towards other animals (rather than speciesist). ‘Multispecies‘ does not only mean that multiple species are involved (and that it is often impossible to separate these living entities from each other), but is further expanded to include a multiplicity of perspectives in which all the involved entities are making worlds and influencing other worlds all the time.

This is all rather complicated, so some examples would be helpful. Ecofeminist philosopher Anna Tsing describes the world making of other organisms by saying that beavers make worlds by re-shaping streams, plants live on land because fungi made soil by digesting rocks, bacteria made our oxygen atmosphere while plants maintain it: in other words, each organism changes everyone’s worlds as they overlap (Tsing 2015: 22). Donna Haraway (in her 2016 book ‘Staying With the Trouble […]’) then uses the term ‘multispecies worlding‘ to describe a practice (or perhaps more like a kind of life-skill) in which we should be paying more attention to how humans and other animals continuously make, share, break, and give form to worlds, especially with regards to mundane every-day life. And not only in terms of suffering, but also – and perhaps most importantly – for finding ideas to continue worlding in other, more desirable [and definitely less speciesist], ways.

About 1,5 years ago I started to create annotated illustrations of the encounters I experienced, or learned about through stories of other people, that I think could be examples of already existing ‘multi-species-isms‘. I’m sharing some of them in this post and many more will be part of the PhD thesis when it’s ready (expected in September 2020). Feel free to use and share these illustrations, but please don’t forget to credit or cite. :)

I think it is crucial for researchers and activists to be able to further articulate their thoughts on the kinds of futures they find desirable, instead of only focusing on what they are against. With regards to speciesism, this is very difficult, because speciesist practices initially seem to be everywhere. Creating repertoires of ‘multi-species-isms‘ is therefore particularly important for future oriented forms of thought in fields such as design or arts, as well as for practices of community building and policy making. I hope that these drawings, rather than prescribing certain ways of living, most of all allows you to relate to these stories with your own imaginations, and figure out their meanings for yourselves. Because it is up to everyone to negotiate these stories further and find inspiration to contribute your own ideas as to how less speciesist futures can be given form.

References

Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say if we Asked them the Right Questions? (Buchanan, B, (Tr.)) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, Donna. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Powers, Richard. (2018). The Overstory. Portsmouth, NH: William Heinemann Ltd.

Singer, Peter. [1975](2009). Animal Liberation. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

The Vegan Society. (n.d.). ‘History’, retrieved May 14, 2019 via https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history

Tsing, Anna. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Breath of the Wild – Vegan Run

Update: please find a reflective follow-up post on my experience of playing BOTW as a vegan here. Alternatively, the research paper on this topic can be found here.

(this post contains minor spoilers of Nintendo’s Zelda – Breath of the Wild game)

goat2

I find it seriously quite difficult to live a completely vegan life style in reality. Every meal or purchase involves another complicated decision making process. Most of the time it works out, but sometimes I make compromises or I lack the confidence to insist on my veganism when it requires some cooperation of other people. Maybe my friends want to go to a specific restaurant that doesn’t have any vegan options. Perhaps I’m traveling for work and I am in need of healthy food/proteins to keep my energy levels up, but all the vegan dishes include a collection of carbs, sugar, and a tiny leaf of lettuce. Or maybe I’m simply too weak to refuse the amazingly good looking salmon sushi (I know… it’s all my fault!!). And what?! Beer is not always vegan?

More difficult scenarios occur as well. Do I want to sit on my friend’s leather sofa? Is my occasional painkiller tested on animals? Do I still use that old leather bag? What is my hairbrush actually made of? What if I accidentally kill an ant while I’m walking through the woods? Is it wrong to be madly in love with someone else’s puppy? AAAAHH! Life is hard (not really, I realize that I’m privileged, although please mind that veganism itself is not a privilege, the ability to make food choices is).

It is actually quite hard, if not impossible, to imagine and live my life as a complete non-speciesist. BUT WAIT… WHAT IF I COULD LIVE A FULLY NON-SPECIESIST LIFE IN A VIRTUAL WORLD INSTEAD?

Zelda – Breath of the Wild

It was the first time I saw somebody play Nintendo’s new Zelda game. In the game, my friend walked around the forest, picked up a tree branch, walked towards an innocent red little Bokoblin, and started beating him to death:

me: NOO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! This creature didn’t do anything to you, why did you need to kill him?

friend: Well, because it gives me more resources and the game wants me to do it.

me: But that doesn’t mean you have to!

friend: I play however I want to, and you play however you want to ok?

me: fine.

bokoblin
Cute little Bokoblin, right?

So I started playing Zelda with the same non-speciesist intentions I have in real life in the attempt to do a Vegan Run.

Before you start getting angry, please note that here I do not claim that in playing Zelda, or any other game for that matter, we should abandon all forms of violence (although I fully support critical readings of oppression towards others in different media forms (particularly with regards to sexism, racism, and speciesism).

Instead, in a much more personal and carefully set-out thought experiment, I imagined that within this virtual world, I could perhaps get much closer to speculating and philosophizing about the non-speciesist lifestyle of Link (the main character of the game). In other words, I approached the game with the question: could it be possible to live a vegan lifestyle in a more satisfying way within this virtual world, compared to real life? Perhaps it would be easier, because there are significantly less complicated options and choices to make within Zelda’s virtual environment, as opposed to real life. And perhaps this experience could propose new ideas about our views on non-speciesism, living together with animals, or it might give us some new (non-oppressive) ideas about the design of future (virtual) worlds.

With a bit of background research, I quickly discovered that (as expected) other vegan Zelda players had very similar intentions. Interestingly, although the game encourages you to turn in to a violent masculist bully machine (like my friend quickly signed up for), the game also allows you to successfully live off apples, mushrooms, and other veggies, run away from anything that tries to attack you, and ignore any side-quests that try to convince you to abandon this goal and become part of the dominant masculist culture (sounds much like real life, right?).

Since I am still playing the game, I cannot share any final reflections or insights. Nevertheless I wanted to share some of the situations and challenges I got myself into so far:

What to Wear?

In the first minutes of the game, Link wakes up in his underwear, but the player quickly finds some old clothes to put on. They seem to contain some leather straps, but I figured that since they are very old, I might as well hold on to them. Throughout the game players can upgrade their clothes. Some of these contain leather or wool, but there are certainly some other vegan options as well.

2017051120081100-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
Link’s old clothes

2017051416541200-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
Nope, no thanks, there’s definitely leather in that costume

What to Eat?

Perhaps just like in real life, assembling a vegan diet is possible, but sometimes challenging. Here I am just running around in Hyrule, collecting apples, mushrooms, and other veggies. Happily ignoring the numerous attempts in which the game tries to convince me to hunt innocent forest creatures, kill for fun, and cook with animal ingredients.

2017051121052100-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
Tasty vegan dish!

2017051121475700-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
What do you mean perfect? If I could speak, you would certainly fail to understand my ideas about meat and seafood!

No, I Won’t Help You Out, Farmer

To progress in the game, it is sometimes necessary to kill mechanical monsters (made of machine parts), defend myself from creatures that attack me, and work towards restoring peace in the Hyrule kingdom. However, some of the side quests include speciesist practices that I’d rather ignore:

2017051416595700-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
In this quest, I am supposed to find the chickens that were lucky enough to escape the farm, and put them back into the enclosure. I don’t think so!

2017051412555300-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
Actually, here’s what I did instead: I grabbed all the chickens that remained in the enclosure, and freed them as well. I felt lik a hero and I wish I could do this in real life too!

Don’t Try to Lure Me into Becoming a Bully

Playing the game with these non-speciesist intentions, makes me much more aware of the numerous attempts that the game takes in convincing me to become a violent bully. These are some of the speciesist loading screen tips I got so far:

2017051416311000-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051416220000-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051215242800-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051122092700-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051122400800-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051120515900-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051122050600-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39

And no “Bro”, I am certainly NOT thinking about riding a horse, no matter how many times you try to convince me to:

2017051418041700-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A392017051418042200-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39

2017051418113500-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39

2017051413462300-F1C11A22FAEE3B82F21B330E1B786A39
Wait, am I in a commercial for eggs that was subsidized by the Hyrule government?

However I must admit, living a non-speciesist life in the worlds of Zelda is much harder than I expected it to be (but still easier than in the real world). As an example, some questions I’m currently struggling with include:

  • What do I do when I receive an unwanted gift or reward that contains an animal product for completing a challenge? (for example a costume that contains leather)
  • If a creature attacks me, and I had to kill it (which I consider to be within the boundaries of non-speciesism), do I pick up the items they leave behind, even if they contain animal products, or do I leave them lying around in the forest?
  • Are the strings of the bow (a weapon in the game) made of horse hair?
  • Should “evil” creatures made of mechanical parts be considered as species?
  • If I am required to kill an “evil” animal (one that bullied other beings or stole items) as part of the quest to restore peace to the Hyrule kingdom, is this speciesist?

Let me know what you think or if you have any other questions I should include!

 

Update: please find a reflective follow-up post on my experience of playing BOTW as a vegan here. Alternatively, the research paper on this topic can be found here.

25% PhD Seminar: Imagining Non-Speciesism

After a bit more than 1,5 years of PhD-ing, next week it’s time for my 25% seminar. It will take place on May 2nd at Malmö University (10.15-12.00). I will present the current state of my research which includes a theoretical framing as well as some ongoing design projects that involve cats, dogs, ants, and penguins. After this talk, there will be a discussion on my work together with Prof. Maria Hellström Reimer.

In the seminar I will be drawing from my newest paper. Part of this text will be published soon in a special issue on the topic of ‘Utopias’ in a journal called Antae. Please find the abstract for my talk below. Let me know if you’re interested in receiving the full text and/or attending this seminar!

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 15.32.21

Title of the Talk: Imagining Non-Speciesism

Abstract  

We live in a world where (non-human) animals are killed and abused in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension. This killing is ubiquitous and omnipresent, and yet largely invisible to most people. Once we come to the realization that the normalization of animal oppression is something that we should oppose, envisioning futures that abandon ‘speciesism’ requires an almost unimaginable rethinking of our current society. Yet, resistance and alternative practices do exist. These forces consist of alternative opinions, attitudes, feelings, meanings, and values, which are not considered to be the norm, but can somehow still be accommodated and tolerated within dominant culture.

In this modest approach towards imagining non-speciesist futures – which invites serious ethical consideration of animals – I aim to bring those under-emphasized and hidden alternative perspectives to light in order to make them more valid and more real as practices that counter hegemony. By paying attention to existing philosophies and personal affective accounts, this project highlights alternatives and possibilities for designers/artists, in the broadest sense of the word, to imagine and shape futures that are utopian, not just for humans, but for animals as well. I conclude by arguing and exemplifying how shared encounters with animals that are open to surprises, joy, and playfulness can inspire us to re-negotiate relationships with other beings. In this set-up, we can explore alternative scenarios, practice our sensitivity, develop empathy, and try out different realities together with other animals.

Animals & Other Forms of Oppression

Little Bird

A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (2/4)

In my previous post I discussed the term speciesism and questioned what a non-speciesist approach in my research could mean. In this post I will suggest how we could use theories from other forms of oppression to think about our relationships with animals.

Intersectionality

The term intersectionality refers to overlapping systems of oppression, discrimination, and domination, which are all interlinked. In other words, this theory invites us to think about how things like racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism are connected: they exist on the same premises, they are built on each other, and they are influencing each other.

In her 1988 book The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel illustrates a range of startling similarities between human and animal slavery. Comparing speciesism with racism might sound insulting at first, but then we see the examples: removing children from their parents, similar means of transporting, the unhealthy living conditions, the hunting down of escaped individuals, experimentation on their bodies, and the list goes on.

515e7a29IgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

But the similarities between different forms of oppression do not stop there. If we look at systems of oppression based on gender (particularly regarding women), we see that in a patriarchal society both “animals, and women are objectified, hunted, invaded, colonised, owned, consumed, and forced to yield and produce” (Collard, 1988).

Furthermore, we can see that these different forms of oppression are interrelated and not separable. Meaning that the stereotypical image of the oppressor and the oppressed is shared between things like gender, race, or class. Some examples:

  • Trophy hunters are most often white males that aim to shoot the biggest animal, which is usually a male (Kalof and Fitzgerald, 2003);
  • Most meat and farm animals are females, while most butchers and farmers are males (Calvo, 2008);
  • 84-98% of the animal cruelty cases in the US are committed by men (Herzog, 2011);
  • Farm animals are usually bred specifically according to characteristics like docile, affectionate, good mothers, and dependent, which are often assigned to value women too (ibid);
  • Farming and butchering labour are usually considered as jobs for a lower class in western society and the culture of meat eating is deeply entangled in manifestations of class and privilege. (Here you can find a more elaborate essay on this topic)

Please note that these are statements related to extreme engagements with animal oppression. In society we can also find numerous examples that contradict with these stereotypes. However the most important insight for me here is that the more we break down different forms of oppression and their relationships with each other, the more we see this:

“Any oppression helps to prop up other forms of oppression. This is why it is vital to link oppressions in our minds, to look for the common, shared aspects, and fight against them as one, rather than prioritising victim’s suffering (the ‘either-or’ pitfall). For when we prioritise we are in effect becoming one with the oppressor. We are deciding that one individual or group is more important than another, deciding that one individual’s pain is ‘less important’ than that of the next.” (Spiegel, 1996, p.30).

In other words, if you are against the oppression of human beings, it becomes particularly appropriate and important to extend the field of concern to animals (Selby, 1995). Or perhaps as philosopher Albert Schweitzer noted (including my adaptation): “Until he [we] extends the circle of his compassion to include all living things, man [we] will not himself find peace.” (Schweitzer, 1987, originally published in 1923). I would even go as far as saying that in this logic, it becomes a paradox to say that you are against things like racism or sexism, while putting a burger in your mouth. Yes, I just said that out loud and I mean it.

Anyway… what does this have to do with my research?

I think that if we wish to aim for a non-speciesist approach and aspire to improve animal welfare with our own research, we should position our discussions in the same field of critical theory that has informed other forms of oppression. Since the topic of oppression is widely discussed and researched across disciplines, existing insights are very relevant in finding answers to some of the questions we raise and can help to advance our field.

While looking at animals, play, and technology in specific, we could regard how fields like games studies, human computer interaction, or design based research have critically engaged with the topic of oppression in the past (for example through fields like critical games/design, serious games, speculative design, and design fiction) and how they aim to contribute to a better future for the oppressed. Additionally, if the aim of our research is to include animals in our research in order to figure out what sort of design artefact they would want, it might help to learn from existing projects that similarly aim to give a voice to ‘the oppressed’ in other contexts. You can find some interesting examples here, herehere, here, here, here and here.

In the next post I will discuss more about providing the animal with their own agency, a voice that we can listen to.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our trip to Helsinki in the fall of 2014, where we met some beautiful city-animals.

References

Collard, A. (1988). Rape of the Wild. Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth, Women’s Press, 1.

Herzog, H. (2011). Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Kalof, L., and Firzgerald, A. (2003). Reading the trophy: Exploring the display of dead animals in hunting magazines. Visual Studies, 18(2), p. 112-122.

Schweitzer, A. (1987). The Philosophy of Civilization. (Translation of Kulturphilosophie). New York, NY: Prometheurs Books.

Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books.

Spiegel, M. (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York, NY: Mirror Books. In Selby, D. (1995). Circles of compassion: Animals, race, and gender. In Selby, D. Earthkind: A Teacher’s Handbook on Humane Education, p. 17-32. Stroke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham Books

Animals & Us

DSC02206

A Critical Animal Studies Blog Series (1/4)

This semester I am following a course called Critical Animal Studies at Lund University. In this course, we discuss the topic of animals in society from a critical perspective. More straightforward: we discuss how we, human beings, massively engage in the oppression, exploitation, and domination of animals. Apart from the relevance of this course for my research and the political stances I take in my writings, this course had a very big impact on my personal life.

For these reasons I am sharing a series of four blog posts on my main takeaways of this course (let me know if you want to have the full reading list!). Moreover, we all inevitably participate in this oppression of animals and stimulate its continuation by the choices we make on a daily basis. Therefore it might be relevant for you to read along, discuss these topics together, and form your own critical stances. Let me throw in a quote by philosopher Jeremy Bentham to get started: “The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1988, originally published in 1789).

Speciesism

One term that kept coming back throughout the course was speciesism. In one of the readings it was carefully explained like this:

“Speciesism is the view that the interests of members of the human species are more important than the interest of non-human species. Thus, humans are justified in using non-human species in ways that depreciate the interests of non-humans in favor of the interests of humans. As with racism – where the interest of one race are valued more highly than the interests of another race, and sexism – where the interests of males are valued more highly than the interests of females, in speciesism the interest of humans is more valuable than the interests of non-humans.” (Mosely, 2009, p. 2)

Mosely continues to explain how this view is very deeply rooted in the morals and values we usually consider the norm in western society. In our culture, ethical values and ideas have been largely derived from frameworks from both philosophy and religion. In religion, it is usually assumed that men are born as higher creatures (other animals are placed under man’s domination). Likewise, the woman was created from man, to serve as helpmate and companion. In philosophical traditions, speciesist views were largely based on animals’ presumed incapability of reasoning: animals cannot reason, therefore they are inferior (Aristotle), animals have instrumental, but no intrinsic value (Aquinas), animals are no members of the moral community because they are machine-like, lack the ability to speak, reason, and act autonomously (Descartes).

However, some scientists and philosophers (such as Bentham, Mill, and Singer) have challenged these assumptions, by arguing for what we all know by now: humans and animals share the ability to feel things like pain, suffering, emotions, and pleasure. Animals are sentient individuals. Following ethical logic it is therefore morally wrong to ignore suffering caused by humans, solely for habits that are unnecessary to our survival (such as meat eating, entertainment (in zoos, fighting, circuses, etc.), experimentation, and farming). Exactly… we do not need these things to survive, so how can we morally justify the suffering we cause? (for references on this topic see: Pick, 1993; Noske, 1997; Best, 2005; Burt, 2006; Marino, Bradshaw, and Malamud, 2009.

Arguments like, “we deserve better treatment because we are smarter or stronger”, quickly break down, since we still strive to prevent the unnecessary suffering of new-born children, disabled people, or the elderly. So what we are left with at the end is speciesism: we justify our arguments for causing animal suffering, solely because we classify humans, ourselves, as more important (much like the logics of slave-owners, Nazi’s, or misogynists, but more about that later).

Through intellectual reasoning and logic we come to a shocking revelation: what if we were wrong? What if the norms we have created, and widely accept, are built on mistakes? What if we are confronted with unjustified suffering everywhere, on a massive scale, and everyone is participating? If we conclude that speciesism is not justifiable, our thoughts about nearly everything in our lives will find change.

scale-and-title

The documentary called Speciesism deals with these questions in a very elegant way. Without the need for disturbing footage, the filmmaker discusses the logic of the arguments we have used to justify the elevation of humans above all other species. I would highly recommend you to spend 90 minutes of your life watching this enjoyable and thought provoking film. As the reviews say:

“For those unfamiliar with speciesism, there may be no more enjoyable introduction to this fascinating subject than Speciesism: The Movie. For those familiar with the topic, and searching for a way to introduce friends and family to the deeper questions, this film may be the perfect solution.”

Also, please talk to me if you have watched this film and you would like to know or discuss more!

Taking a non-speciesist approach

But what does all of this exactly mean for my research and personal values? In 2011, when I started doing my research about animals, play, and technology, researcher Clara Mancini released a manifesto called Animal Computer Interaction. This has marked the starting point for a recognized and growing research field that seeks to include animals as actual participants and/or users in the technology we develop. In this widely cited document she advocates for taking a “non-speciesist approach to research” (Mancini, 2011, p. 72). Explained as giving animals and humans equal consideration, respect, and care and protecting animals from suffering (Mancini, 2011). But what does it truly mean to take a non-speciesist approach?

If we want to contribute to improve animal welfare with our research, can this be framed within a society that is already deeply entangled in animal oppression, or does this have to start from its roots? If our entire society is built on speciesist norms, how can we escape this as researchers?

The field of Animal Computer Interaction seeks to help the animal, and yet its outcomes (mine included) consist of projects that largely stimulate and support institutions that could be questioned within a non-speciesist approach. These include things like animal enabled technology in zoos that exist for human entertainment, farms that exist for consumption, the use of assistant animals for human purposes, and domestic animals that are owned by someone. These projects seem to emphasize the need for treating animals better, but aren’t we allowing ourselves to continue to rely on speciesist norms?

Our research work (as well as the personal decisions we make in daily life) can have a big impact for the animals and humans in society. But if a non-speciesist approach already starts by not bringing your laptop to work in a leather bag (yep, I felt the need to change my bag), or not participating in projects that rely on – or stimulate – animal oppression, how can we start tackling the speciesism issue at its core? And how can the field of design help with this? I hope that asking these questions could be a start in itself. So let’s use our voice to discuss these relevant issues, instead of avoiding them, as ignorance will only lead to further alienation.

Next post I will discuss how we could look at similarities with other forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, or classism) to think about our relationships with animals and inform our research.

The picture in this post was taken by Alex Camilleri on our camping trip last summer on a Dutch island called Terschelling, where we met some beautiful animals.

 

References

Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Baird, R. M, Rosenbaum, S. E. (eds.), New York, NY: Prometheus Books.

Best, S. (2005). Genetic science, animal exploitation, and the challenge for demovracy. AI & Society, 20(1), 6-21.

Burt, J. (2006). Conflicts around Slaughter in Modernity. In the Animal Studies Group, Killing Animals, p. 210-144. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mancini, C. (2011). Animal computer interaction: A manifesto. Interactions, 18(4), 69-73.

Marino, L., Bradshaw, G., and Malamud, R. (2009). The captivity industry: The reality of zoos and aquariums. Best Friends Magazine, March/April 2009, 24-27. Available at http://www.english.gsu.edu/pdf/CaptivityIndustry.pdf

Mosley, A. (2009). Expanding the moral circle: From racism to speciesism. Available at http://www.smith.edu/pholosophy/expanding_moral_circle.htlm

Noske, B. (1997). Domestication Under Capitalism + The Animal Industrial Complex. In Noske, B., Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, p. 11-39. Montreal, CA: Black Rose Books.

Pick, D. (1993). The Perfect Abattoir. In Pick, D., War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, p. 178-188, London, UK: Yale University Press.