Stephanie Trierweiler: Bridging human and animal rights

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 5:35pm

Stephanie Trierweiler

Stephanie Trierweiler Buy this photo

The routine abuse of animals across several major industries is well documented, but the vast majority of people in the United States continue to use animals as commodities in various aspects of their life. This is especially prominent in our diets; the average American man eats 6.9 ounces of meat per day and, according to a Tyson spokesman, overall meat consumption has steadily increased over the past five years. While plant-based eating is becoming more culturally accepted, still only about 3 percent of the population adopts a totally vegan or vegetarian diet.

One of the major rationales for going vegan or vegetarian — and arguably the most polarizing — is the wish to advance animal rights and welfare, the idea that eating animal products is cruel and unethical. In my eight years of being vegetarian, I’ve had countless conversations with meat-eating friends, classmates and family members about the ethics of meat. Arguments against vegetarianism/veganism have run the gamut from hypothetical scenarios in which I’m stuck on an island and, somehow, only have animals available as food to exasperated sighs of bacon simply being too good to give up.

Eating meat has felt, at times, like an even more delicate, difficult discussion among my social circles on campus, which are filled with progressive college students who often advocate for multiple social causes. I’ve heard time and time again a line of thinking from progressive friends who eat meat that revolves around how vegans and vegetarians unfairly ignore human issues. For example, I’ve often heard that vegans and vegatarians are hypocritical because they need to care more about underpaid immigrants who pick their vegetables — despite the fact that raising animals for slaughter requires significant crop production and workers in slaughterhouses often face post-traumatic stress disorder and other health issues.

This kind of logic, depending on context, implies that vegetarianism/veganism is either directly at odds with human interests or that it’s too trivial to consider while we are battling against so many other forms of oppression. But growing up, my feminism actually materialized in part because of the mental work I was doing by transitioning away from meat — reevaluating my daily choices, examining the violent power structures in customs I had previously taken as a given, realizing how the erasure of a group’s voice can completely erase consideration of its interests. These thought processes, and the more intentional relationship I built with my food as a result of them, catalyzed a more progressive mindset as a whole in me.

Why are many of my peers — otherwise committed to recognizing the experiences of those with marginalized identities — quick to dismiss work on behalf of animals that suffer for our consumption? In an environment where it’s considered critical to raise awareness of discrimination against various groups of humans, why treat the oppression of animals and of humans as incompatible worlds, as being unconnected? Why is our gut instinct to draw a line in the sand when it comes to our relationship with animals?

I believe the narrative of animal activism being at odds with human activism, or at least peripheral to human activism, is misleading. It likely stems from, at best, defensiveness about the notion of erasing habits so intricately linked to our culture and lifestyle or, at worst, a complete emotional separation from species considered edible or otherwise designated for our use.

Several recent theories have examined a kind of dominant ideology that pervades our mental understandings and institutional treatment of animals, ultimately guiding us to oppress them and see our perceived supremacy over them as normal and natural. For example, social psychologist and professor Melanie Joy argues that carnism pervades our society and convinces us eating certain animals is a given, not a choice. Professor and philosopher Peter Singer has popularized the concept of speciesism, or a prevalent attitude among humans of bias against non-human beings because of their species.

There’s a more integrative way to approach this issue, and I saw a reflection of my own journey with vegetarianism and feminism in my Sociology of the Body course last semester. Sociology lecturer Luis Sfeir-Younis began the course by illustrating societal conceptions and treatment of animal bodies in the first two sessions. Throughout the semester, he teased out the distinct experiences of other marginalized groups such as women, people of color or fat people. He often showed how these groups are dehumanized through being compared to — or implicitly treated like — animals.

In my interview with him last week, he explained his intentions with the course structure: “Because we are human beings, it is sometimes hard to be critical of our own experiences. The conversation on animals gives us the kind of distance that allows us to go more in-depth in understanding the concepts of the course. There is no living being that has been objectified as much as animals, to the point that the legal system in most countries considers animals to be things, to be property.”

Sfeir-Younis’s teachings demonstrate how oppression of marginalized groups is achieved through common mental processes such as homogenization, which removes individual identities and consequent empathy for members of a given group. If we think of certain groups as a category, rather than a set of individuals with sentience, consciousness or personalities, it’s much easier to ignore their interests and justify poor treatment of them.

“Animals are homogenized into one category even though they are billions of unique beings,” he said. “We use language that makes them distant from ourselves, apart from ourselves, as being instruments for our own satisfaction and pleasure … When we talk about the bodies of women being fragmented, it’s hard for people to understand that. But when we talk about animals, people can see how a body is divided into parts we’ll be using or consuming in the future.”

He’s careful not to make judgments on the relative importance of different groups’ suffering. But, he emphasizes how certain common elements thread through the mechanisms of injustice against many groups: “In my opinion, when you work for animals or for any other cause, you are actually trying to dismantle the same matrix that causes the suffering of different kinds of humans and non-human animals.” His course ultimately bridges the gap in the two supposed worlds of oppression of animals and oppression of humans. It doesn’t ignore animal issues, but instead utilizes them as a key framework for understanding oppressive processes as a whole.

Empathizing and advocating for one group can help us, in turn, develop more empathy for others. Learning about animal issues and adopting a vegetarian or veganism diet can especially reinforce progressive action in other areas because it’s one of the simplest, most practical ways to embody personal values and truly live one’s convictions. It’s the kind of activism that tangibly plays out multiple times a day, each time we sit down to eat.

My journey with vegetarianism has profoundly changed my understanding of my own potential to impact lives and fight for a cause. I implore readers to think critically about the oppression of all beings and what they can do on a day-to-day basis to fight these systems.

Stephanie Trierweiler can be reached at