Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Book for Young Speciesists

Not long ago, while visiting my parents, I found nineteen books from my youth that belong to a series published by the National Geographic Society: "Books for Young Explorers". The full series comprises several dozen titles released between the early 1970s and mid 90s. Retailers often list them as appropriate for children aged 4 to 8 years [0]. As examples from my collection demonstrate, most of the books are about nonhuman animals: "Baby Bears and How They Grow" (1986), "Animals and Their Hiding Places" (1986), "Creatures of the Woods" (1985), "Life in Ponds and Streams" (1981), "Strange Animals of Australia" (1981), "Wild Cats" (1981), "Animals that Build Their Homes" (1976), and "The Playful Dolphins" (1976).

The entries in this series I find most intriguing specifically address an aspect of human/nonhuman relations. My set includes "Baby Farm Animals" (1984), "What Happens at the Zoo" (1984), and "Helping Our Animal Friends" (1985). Although each of these is worthy of analysis, this essay focuses on "Saving Our Animal Friends" (SOAF hereafter), which was written by Susan Mcgrath and published in 1986 [1]. SOAF is laden with pictures, and only 19 of the 32 pages contain text. Each page, excluding the final two, has approximately 100 or fewer words.

Notes from Sociology
Why write about a book intended for kids? Early childhood is when most humans first absorb their society's speciesism. We teach them to uncritically accept and defend discrimination based on species and the routine exploitation of nonhuman animals on a massive scale. It's safe to assume that children reading SOAF are already being regularly exposed, as part of their primary socialization, to the speciesist values and norms that deeply permeate society.

Before proceeding, it should prove helpful to define speciesism and the three sociological terms just used: values, norms, and socialization. Skip ahead to the analysis of SOAF if you question my credentials in this regard or don't have much time to spare [2].

Speciesism is a socially constructed ideology. In other words, a set of widely held beliefs and expectations that are developed, transmitted, and maintained by the interactions of society's members. Speciesism exists to legitimize and justify species based discrimination against, and oppression of, sentient beings. Similar to racism, sexism, ableism, and other ideologies of discrimination, speciesism validates and explains society's use of an irrelevant criterion to determine that a certain group should be treated and valued differently. In this case, that criterion is species. Just like race, sex, and physical ability, species is a completely arbitrary reason to confer lower moral status.

Human actions, ideas, and institutions are speciesist when they fail to provide equal consideration and respect to someone or everyone who does not belong to the species Homo sapiens. This failure can occur simply because the individuals in question aren't human or because they are deemed not to possess one or more traits exhibited by certain humans, like language or abstract reasoning. Equal consideration is a component of almost every moral theory [3]. It requires us to treat similar interests in the same way unless there is a morally sound reason to treat them differently. For instance, humans and chickens both have an interest in continued existence. Respecting it in one case but not the other, such as by needlessly murdering chickens for food, is speciesist.

There is an important but often neglected distinction between discrimination and the ideology that supports it [4]. The following example highlights this distinction: Refusing to acknowledge nonhuman animals' basic right not to be treated as property is speciesist. This decision and the exploitive behaviors typically associated with it, like eating flesh and secretions taken from enslaved nonhumans, both constitute discrimination. We could rationalize denying nonhumans' rights and using them as resources on a wide range of grounds: tradition or custom, the victims not matching the cognitive sophistication of humans, the idea that ‘they're just animals’, and more. These responses derive from speciesism — the ideology of species based discrimination.

Values are "enduring beliefs that certain patterns of behavior or end states are preferable to others" [5]. As broad notions of what is good and bad, values help us assess what we experience and make decisions. However, unlike norms, they don't involve behavioral guidance for specific situations. Some values are almost universally held. Examples include personal freedom from slavery and the satisfaction of basic survival needs. Others are only held by certain individuals and groups. These values often revolve around concepts like individualism, nonviolence, tenderness, efficiency, imperialism, peace, equality, nationalism, cooperation, or aggressiveness.

One component of speciesism is the value, found in essentially all human societies, holding that nonhuman animals should remain exploitable but well treated things. Another such value maintains that humans should be the dominant beings on earth. Its manifestations include pejorative use of the word animal, some humans' reluctance to readily acknowledge they actually are animals, and arrogant claims about being at the ‘top of the food chain’.

Norms are the countless "rules or standards" that specify how "group members are expected to behave under given circumstances" [6]. They are socially enforced. This means that violating a norm, by behaving in a manner deemed improper for the situation, can elicit a range of sanctions (disapproving reactions) from people around us. Likewise, we might receive approbation for complying with a norm. Both forms of social response are typically more effective or influential when provided by friends, family, peers, coworkers, or anyone ranking above us in a hierarchical group to which we belong or aspire. A response generally has less impact when it originates from strangers, out-group members, or people of lower social status.

Anxiety about the possibility of being sanctioned can cause us to abide by norms we disagree with. Our own sanctioning of others' violations is sometimes intended to demonstrate or prove that we are truly compliant with a norm. Here again, we might feel compelled to ignore our objections to a norm. With prolonged exposure to a social environment where a norm is enforced consistently, it can be internalized. In other words, we can learn to view a norm as true or rational. The primary reason we comply with such norms is that we consider them appropriate, not that others expect it.

There is a difference between norms, as discussed in sociology, and what is commonly referred to as ‘the norm’ or ‘normal’. The former always concerns what should be, while the later often concerns what is. For example, after referencing data, we might say that it's ‘normal’ for 30 year olds in a particular region to be married (likely because greater than 50% of said population fits the criterion). If we asked a variety of unmarried 30 year olds about pressure from their friends and family to find a partner, we would learn something about society's marriage norms, such as how they differ according to an individual's age, sex, location, race, class, religion, and other factors.

It can be helpful to categorize norms as either mores or folkways. This addresses the fact that some norms are held in higher regard, and how we react to transgressions can vary greatly. Mores (MOR-ays) are norms associated with strong emotions and moral judgments. The violation of mores is not merely ‘bad form’, it's considered highly offensive or unethical. The social responses used to help enforce mores are generally severe. They can include fines, imprisonment, mandated treatment, assault, torture, and death. You probably recognize the following mores: We are expected not to engage in non-consensual sex acts, drive vehicles while heavily intoxicated, steal someone's money, or sell drugs deemed illicit.

Folkways are norms for what is customary and habitual. When challenged, they are often explained or defended with expressions like ‘that's just the way things are’ or ‘well, of course, everyone does it’. Violating a folkway is considered strange or distasteful but not morally wrong. The social responses that help enforce folkways are usually mild. They can include frowning glances, laughter, reproachful comments, and gossip. You might have experienced the following folkways: Our age, sex, and location affect expectations for how we should dress, adorn ourselves, and style our hair. We are expected to maintain a certain level of personal space when interacting with strangers. The age and class of those we interact with help determine expectations for first name usage. We are expected not to scratch certain areas of our body in public.

In certain circumstances, we are expected to participate willfully, if not enthusiastically, in the exploitation of animals who aren't human. These norms are usually folkways. Violating them tends to carry quite manageable repercussions from the people we interact with. For instance, barring a lactose allergy, not joining our non-vegan friends or family for ice cream made from cows' milk (or a trip to the rodeo) might trigger some eye-rolling or teasing, but we probably wouldn't be ostracized from the group or disowned by our family. Not surprisingly, the prevailing norms among an assembled group of vegans would differ dramatically (you would be expected not to eat such ice cream!).

Socialization is the "ways in which individuals learn" norms, values, skills, knowledge, motives, attitudes, and roles that are "appropriate" for someone in their position [7]. It's how societies and groups initiate new members and attempt to regulate how they behave and think. Socialization begins at birth, if not earlier, and continues as long as we aren't dead, permanently unreceptive to external stimuli, or living in complete isolation from other humans (which is nearly impossible).

Any individual, group, or artifact we interact with is potentially a source or ‘agent’ of socialization. In other words, anything that humans do or make can socialize others. This is because most of our actions and creations embody our ideas. Those that don't probably embody our compliance with society's norms and values. In either case, notions of what is proper are transmitted. For example, many forms of play emphasize the importance of winning, and certain clothes suggest that we should desire to be seen as sexy or fashionable.

Socializing agents you may be subjected to include families, schools, friends, peers, toys, language, books, movies, television, music, electronic games, news media, talk shows, advertisements, sports teams, social clubs, neighborhoods, subcultures, political parties, religions, governments, and workplaces. Depending on the circumstances and stage of your life, certain agents will be more or less relevant than others.

Primary socialization is the first and most important form of socialization we undergo. For the vast majority of people, it takes place in early childhood, a life stage beginning with infancy and ending somewhere between ages 5 and 8 [8]. Skills acquired during this period include using a toilet, speaking a language, forming relationships, and following rules.

Primary socialization provides basic tools needed to successfully live with and communicate to other humans. It gives us the opportunity to undergo secondary forms of socialization, which involve specialized sets of skill and knowledge like those required in workplaces and social clubs. If primary socialization is not received in early childhood, becoming a ‘fully functional’ member of society is difficult or impossible. This has been demonstrated by cases involving children who have been neglected in the extreme or grown up feral.

Humans develop a unique personality and concept of themselves during primary socialization. We become aware of our statuses relative to other members of society and the roles we play in various groups. Ideologies, such as classism and sexism, can also be assimilated. For instance, children usually have some beliefs and expectations concerning poverty and the place of women in the family or society. The perspectives, assumptions, and identity formed during our youth typically remain with us and help shape our adult lives. However, socialization is not destiny. The outcomes of our lives are influenced by choices we make and biological factors like genetics.

Socialization is driven by three main processes. Observation: Exposure to socializing agents offers countless cues, both subtle and not, about what is proper in a given context. Our actions are often delayed and subconscious imitations of something we witnessed. Conditioning: Other humans help regulate our behavior with rewards and punishments. Encouragement, compliments, and praise can reward. Disparagement, physical abuse, and criticism can punish. Instruction: People try to teach us what is ‘correct’ for someone in our circumstances. We regularly receive training, advice, and orders.

In the following examples, each process helps socialize a child to adopt one norm and one value. Volume Norm: While visiting the library, a six year old named Sandra loudly calls to her father from across the room. She is hushed by an employee and notices a displeased patron frown at her. Looking around, she observes that everyone else is being quiet. While walking home, Sandra's father reminds her that there are places where people should speak softly. Sharing Value: The next day, during a play period at kindergarten, Sandra builds a castle but won't let anyone else use the blocks. Some of her peers chastise and then physically isolate her. The teacher reports Sandra's behavior to her father, and during the ride home he tries to explain why sharing is important. When the next play period comes she decides to draw but observes a group of children happily dividing the blocks among themselves. Of course, the outcome in either example is uncertain. Norms and values are rarely internalized in just a day or two.

Back to the Book
In all likelihood, SOAF won't impart a new and foreign set of norms and values. Rather, it will reinforce the speciesism already integrated into nearly every child's thoughts and willful behaviors concerning nonhuman animals. The book will probably be viewed as an authoritative source of information, and it explicitly states ideas that most readers hold but would have difficultly articulating. Ultimately, however, SOAF represents just another possible factor among the perpetual onslaught of socializing agents that transform children into speciesists — from how their questions are answered by parents and teachers to the roles played by nonhuman animals in the toy sets they play with and television shows they watch. Nevertheless, if we hope to challenge an ideology like speciesism, we should be able to recognize its presence a book like SOAF, which purports to be about helping nonhuman animals.

Elephant Held Captive at a Zoo
The text starts by reminding us that we share our world with "many wild animals". It asks, "Have you ever held a frog in your hand?" An image of a smiling boy doing exactly that spans the first two pages. This notion that nonhumans can be subjugated and harassed at our whim for amusement or education is reproduced on the next page, which discusses the confinement facilities we call zoos. Visiting one allows us to "learn about" pandas, elephants, tigers and the members of others animal species we would otherwise never encounter. Assurance is offered that these captive individuals "are well cared for and have plenty to eat". This is consistent with the centuries old value that says using and killing nonhumans is morally acceptable if done ‘humanely’ and without ‘unnecessary’ suffering (also known as the ‘animal welfare’ view) [9].

Numerous animal species are discussed throughout SOAF. The omitted animals are those most routinely eaten and otherwise exploited in the book's primary market (the U.S.): cows, chickens, pigs, sheeps, and so on. Although ostensibly a book about ‘saving animals’, the author never indicates that we should consider not using nonhuman animals for food, clothing, or entertainment. This is not particularly surprising but it does send a message that is fully compatible with the status quo of a speciesist society.

Making Bird Feeders with Pine Cones, Peanut Butter, and Seeds
Front to back cover, a summary of ways "animals" have been or could be "helped": Feeding geese and ducks beside a lake. Operating a hospital for free-living nonhumans. Setting aside open land for elks. Restricting where motorboats are allowed, or erecting signs that warn about manatees. Protecting habitats with large parks and refuges. Not walking on beaches where terns lay their eggs. Assisting baby sea turtles to hatch and reach the water. Repopulating whooping cranes by placing any extra eggs into the nests of sandhill cranes (cranes will only raise one chick). Enacting laws that prohibit killing alligators and great whales. Not littering by always making use of trash cans. Providing seeds and pans of water for birds living near you. Putting out dried corn for squirrels and other animals. Building houses for bluebirds.

Veterinarians, other specialists, governments, and other institutions apparently play the most important roles. Apparently, a typical reader can have a morally exemplary relationship with nonhuman animals by performing some very minor actions, most of which won't occur on a daily or even weekly basis (if ever). To be clear, by themselves, many of the ideas listed above are perfectly fine. However, this book and the human community at large both make an outrageous assumption: We can be "the animals' friend" while ignoring our complicity in the murder and slavery endured every year by many billions of nonhuman individuals for what almost always amounts to trivial reasons (like pleasure, convenience, and tradition). For instance, humanity could easily fulfill all of its food and clothing needs with plants, synthetics, and minerals. Moreover, this change would dramatically reduce our environmental footprint, a benefit to countless sentient beings, both human and not.

Hawk Receiving Medical Attention
A hawk who broke his/her/zir leg appears on page 6. The suggestion is clear: We should hope for a speedy recovery and return to freedom. Most readers would have no problem with this. However, soon after feeling such sympathy, we might eat a chicken's leg for lunch then visit a zoo where peacocks are imprisoned for our entertainment [10]. During the primary socialization of our childhood, demonstrations of sympathy for animals we witness in distress or danger are often nurtured. However, this same period is when we acquire the ‘mental programming’ necessary to easily reconcile our intuition to be concerned about a sentient individual's wellbeing with our routine participation in the exploitation of nonhuman animals. Before we have much command over our rational faculties, speciesism is already integral to how we view the world. Chickens are ‘food animals’ according to nearly everyone we know and everything we have been told. Of course we eat their bodies and secretions; it's what I have always done and what they have been bred for. Likewise, the animals held in zoos are happy and well treated. Of course we hold them captive for our amusement; it's perfectly normal.

Socialization must have built-in redundancies to be successful. Norms and values might not be abided by or adopted if they are transmitted from just a single source. As with other ideologies of discrimination, the maintenance of speciesism requires the conditioning of society's youth to think in certain ways. It does not depend on this particular book, which only reaffirms what has already been, and will continue to be, established by a wide range of social influences. However, by recognizing the speciesist elements of works like SOAF, we better our understanding of what children go through. They are learning to accept the mass exploitation and murder of nonhuman animals, something they will perpetuate throughout their lives. In other words, the ideology that supports an ongoing atrocity is being transferred from one generation to the next. We can break this cycle by educating people of all ages about veganism. Inevitably, this requires us to confront speciesism.

Heart of the Matter
Like many "Books for Young Explorers", SOAF concludes with two pages of text titled "More About". While this section mostly just reviews and elaborates on what has already been stated, two passages stand out. The first is a discussion about hunting. Not inherently wrong, it becomes problematic only when done "too much" or "illegally", which can threaten "species on the verge of extinction". In other words, individuals should only be protected as a means of perpetuating the species to which they belong. The text does acknowledge that some people "regret seeing any animal killed". However, this intuition is immediately countered by describing how properly "regulated" hunting can actually "benefit wild animal populations". The second notable passage is an incisive account of the anthropocentric thinking that underlies both this stance on hunting and the book in general [11]:

Why do we care about wildlife? Different people might offer different reasons. But perhaps the most fundamental reason is this: the tremendous diversity of life on earth adds richness to our lives that cannot be replaced.

The author reproduces society's belief that nonhuman animals only have extrinsic value. That they should be things valued according to the purposes we select for them: food, clothing, companionship, data, money, and so on. Free-living or ‘wild’ nonhumans are resources, both legally and socially, that can be hunted and harassed. If a species nears extinction, its members might be afforded protection. However, the individuals in question aren't suddenly thought to have intrinsic value. The concern is that eliminating their species would make our experience on earth less ‘rich’. Ultimately, individuals are always expendable, as long as their species will survive.

Consider analogous statements about humans who are discriminated against: ‘I care about women because of what they do for me’. ‘Black people are important because they add richness to my life’. Clearly, one of our most common beliefs about nonhumans would be deemed morally outrageous if applied to humans. This should be expected in a speciesist society. To conclude, a brief non-speciesist response to the question posed above:

Assuming "care about" at least rules out participating in murder, assault, and slavery — we should care about everyone who is sentient. This includes the vast majority of animals. If someone is sentient, he/she/ze wants to stay alive and has at least a basic form of self-awareness. We already "care about" humans who have no cognitive traits other than sentience. This is made clear by our moral judgments involving infants, the senile, and people who have transient global amnesia or severely impaired mental ability. To be consistent, and not speciesist, we must start "caring about" everyone who is sentient, regardless of whether or not they are human.

Nonsentient life forms like plants, fungi, and bacteria can be damaged and killed, but they can't be harmed. This is why we don't have obligations to them directly. However, it's possible to have obligations that involve or concern nonsentient life. For example, while cutting down a tree does not wrong the tree, it might fail to respect the interests of squirrels and blue jays who rely on the tree for food or shelter.

We live in a tremendously violent world permeated by discrimination based on race, sex, species and many other irrelevant criteria. Unfortunately, there are limits our ability to reject exploitation. In the broadest terms possible, people should do what they can. For example, if you can stop eating and wearing body parts and secretions taken from nonhuman animals — you should. If you are able to avoid purchasing items produced by humans in sweatshop conditions — you should. If you have the opportunity to use medicinal, cleaning, or personal care items that were not tested on nonhuman animals — embrace it. If you can choose not to join the group's trip to the zoo, aquarium, or rodeo — do it.

We must abolish nonhuman exploitation. Embrace your responsibility — become a vegan.

[0] For instance, see the Barnes and Noble product page for Jane R. McCauley's 1993 book "Africa's Animal Giants".

[1] Susan McGrath. "Saving Our Animal Friends" (1986 book)

Whereas SOAF focuses on free-living nonhumans, "Helping Our Animal Friends" focuses on humanity's relationship with domesticated nonhumans (mainly ‘pets’).

[2] I sympathize if you are reluctant to read what a random blogger has written about academic topics. I did reference several textbooks, lectures, and other materials while writing this section. However, it should be noted that my official schooling in sociology is limited to a bachelor's degree. Moreover, only a handful of citations are provided, and this essay has not been peer reviewed in any way.

[3] Gary Francione. "Introduction to Animal Rights" (2000 book) page xxv

[4] This distinction is identified by David Nibert in chapter 1, "Toward a Sociological Analysis of Animal Oppression", of his 2002 book "Animal Rights/Human Rights".

[5] H. Andrew Michener, John D. DeLamater, & Daniel J. Myers. "Social Psychology" (5th edition – 2004 book) page 439

[6] Ibidem at page 335

[7] Ibidem at page 51

[8] Definitions of life stages tend to shift over time and vary both between and within disciplines. Exactly when primary socialization gives way to secondary forms of socialization is not pertinent to this essay. In any event, trying to identify a precise age that can be universalized to every individual or culture strikes me as futile.

[9] Gary Francione introduces the distinction between animal welfare and animal rights in this slideshow. Roger Yates discusses the sociology of animal welfare in this two part podcast.

[10] Of course, what is morally relevant is not that all three cases involve birds, but that all three cases involve sentient beings. The examples could be adjusted accordingly.

[11] Emphasis added


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