Is multiculturalism bad for animals?

I would like to caveat this post by admitting that I’m not the first person to use this title. Casal (2003) uses it for a rather grotesque article that I do not believe contributes much to the conceptual debate about animal rights and multiculturalism. Casal’s title is a play on Susan Moller Okin’s famous volume Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?

Being an ethical vegetarian as well as a person who dabbles in postcolonial/multicultural scholarship is highly difficult at times. I believe that some vegetarians/vegans are entirely obtuse to other forms of oppression, including the persistent marginalization of indigenous groups. However, I also think that a lot of the arguments commonly used to justify cultural rights fall short when we consider animals.

This is a topic about which I am deeply torn, and therefore, I don’t seek to offer any conclusive answers. Rather, my intention is to set out my thoughts on the debate as clearly as possible and hopefully provoke thoughtful discussion amongst my readers (or at the very least to encourage further reflection about our immediate reactions to this topic).

Cultural rights are a hot topic in contemporary political theory. Political theorists are deeply divided about whether or not culture can be used as either (a) a trump card over individual liberties in certain circumstances, or (b) a justification for differential legal treatment, such as exemptions on motorcycle helmet rules for Sikhs. Theorists disagree about whether culture is an appropriate justification for either of the above, and indeed, some disagree as to whether culture actually exists.

Anne Phillips, for example, writes in Multiculturalism Without Culture that multiculturalism may “[appear] not as as cultural liberator but as a cultural straitjacket, forcing those described as members of a minority cultural group into a regime of authenticity, denying them the chance to cross cultural borders, borrow cultural influences, define and redefine themselves.”

One of the main charges brought against multiculturalism is that when we assume that cultures are internally homogenous, we risk creating minorities within minorities. When we want to say culture X believes Y, we have to listen to a certain subset of said cultural group. When we pick cultural representatives, we risk paying attention to only the elite elements of that culture, taking their biases and traditions to be representative of the group as a whole. This is, for obvious reasons, rather problematic. It risks reinforcing oppressive social norms and assuming that everyone within a culture thinks the same things. This is obviously a preposterous suggestion. Cultures are sites of contestation, meaning that traditions are constantly being questioned, altered, and reconstituted.

I tend to think this type of argument is quite compelling (although, I do think that culture has strategic value, something I’ll probably discuss in a different post). I think this argument is even more compelling in the case of animals. Those who do think that we should allow cultures to act in ways that are antithetical to peoples’ rights think that we should only do so in cases in which people nominally have the right to exit said culture (see for ex., Kukathas).  Animals have no ability to consent to oppressive social behaviors. Nor do they have the ability to exit societies that are oppressing them. It would seem as though they are one of the most vulnerable groups in any society.

It makes sense, therefore, to say that culture does not provide a blanket justification for the maltreatment of animals, and arguably, cultural claims in no way justify our mistreatment of animals.

While I find this somewhat compelling, I am hesitant to say that culture is entirely irrelevant to debates about animal rights. I think that all advocacy occurs in a specific historical context, and to ignore that historical context makes one prone to reproducing structural injustices. A lot of animal rights activists are highly condescending toward indigenous peoples, whose ‘traditional’ modes of existence are often in one way or another inextricably tied to the consumption of animal products. Many of these groups hunt in order to survive, which is arguably the most humane and natural way that one can consume animal products. (That being said, I do not believe, as some authors have written, that all indigenous people value animals as ‘relatives.’ Indigenous people are prone to animal cruelty as well.)

While I do not think culture is always a trump card, it seems naïve, and frankly imperialistic, to say that culture is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. What I am not sure about, however, is how much culture should influence this debate.

This question, for obvious reasons, causes me a significant amount of cognitive dissonance.. I think the debate on both sides is often reduced to overly simplistic tropes—invocations of ‘culture’ must be more nuanced, and universalist arguments for animal rights could do with being a little more sensitive to the imperial context from which those claims arise. It is crucial that we are sensitive to overlapping and intersecting modes of oppression when talking about these issues. It’s not as simple as screaming “culture” or “but what about the animals?” Our discussions about this topic can and should be more thorough.


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