Athough Andrew Wilkie was unable to convince MPs to support his bill to ban live animal exports, the issue of animal cruelty continues to weigh heavily on our national conscience.
Even so, the issue of animal rights will not gain real traction as long as it is viewed as completely divorced from, and subordinate to, the issue of human rights.
This was evident in the attempts to shame those who expressed outrage at the footage of the slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesian abbatoirs for not showing greater outrage about the suffering of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Moira Rayner, for example, although expressing sympathy for the tortured cattle asked:
"Does anybody see, other than myself, the dreadful hypocrisy of demanding … interruption to the export of live cattle, and the complete lack of outrage and demand for action to ensure the humane treatment of asylum-seeking, unaccompanied children?"
Similarly, immediately following Four Corners’ expose, an audience member asked the live panel on the ABC’s Q and A:
"While animals are experiencing cruelty and suffering on boats going from Australia to Indonesia, refugees sail past them in the other direction, also in unspeakable conditions. Which story is more likely to generate compassion from the average Australian?"
This question set off a torrent of like-minded comments on Twitter and spread to the mainstream press. SMH blogger, Sam de Brito, lamented that Australians "get in a tizzy about cows being mistreated in Indonesia, but shrug over boat people sliced up on rocks or children going crazy in detention". Prominent human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside, will give a talk at the upcoming Festival of Dangerous Ideas entitled "We care more about animals on boats than people".
These commentators are rightly concerned with the plight of refugees but they unfairly use the issue of asylum seekers to divert attention from the suffering of non-human animals by claiming it is morally defective to be concerned with cattle when there is so much human suffering.
There are two problems with this position.
Firstly, it presumes all those upset at the treatment of cattle don’t also feel the same way about refugees.
Secondly, it overlooks the fact that the same system that permits the oppression of human beings also approves the exploitation of animals. Many of those who advocate for animal rights do so from a position of opposing all suffering which results from that false hierarchy that values some living beings over others.
There is a long history of activists who have made the link between how we treat each other and how we treat non-human animals. One of the earliest, as Animals Australia’s Lyn White has repeatedly pointed out, was British politician William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the abolitionist campaign to end the slave trade and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
World War I saw the relationship between violence against animals and violence against humans discussed by pacifist, feminist and vegetarian writers such as Henry Bailey Stevens, Agnes Ryan and George Bernard Shaw. An editor of Nineteenth Century and After magazine wrote:
"In 1918 the spectacle of a herd of scared and suffering cattle hustled together in a van, and being conveyed to a slaughter yard, struck (this) writer as being at least as abominable, and as degrading to our civilisation, as anything he had recently witnessed on several hard fighting fronts in France and Italy."
The implication is clear: violence against animals, whose blood, organs and emotions are so similar to ours desensitises us to violence against humans. Once the mistreatment of animals is rationalised, so too can be the mistreatment of people.
Institutional slavery, genocide, and other injustices occur because people are conditioned to see those who differ from them as somehow lesser — in the same way we see other animals as lesser species. Their "otherness" makes their suffering justifiable. For many centuries, social justice advocates have called for people to focus on similarities between groups rather than differences. And for almost as long their efforts were resisted by a dominant culture that "naturally" saw men as superior to women and whites superior to other races.
This systematic subordination of marginalised groups extends to the animal world. Our fervent belief that animal life is intrinsically inferior has blinded us to the immense pain and suffering they endure at our hands. If the Four Corners footage has shown us anything, it is that animals are as capable of feeling pain and terror as acutely as any human being.
This willingness to inflict such pain on another sentient being not only causes that being to suffer, but devalues both the life of that animal and the humanity of its tormenter. It is the act of violence itself which is problematic — not only the object of that violence . Once violence is accepted as justifiable, then it can justified repeatedly.
There is no shame or hypocrisy in protesting the mistreatment of animals because human rights and animal rights are intertwined. It boils down to this: we too are animals, and as precious as our lives are to us, so too are the lives of non-human animals to them.
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