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What is Speciesism?

Human Supremacy

The term speciesism relates to a moral superiority that puts human interests above some or all nonhuman animals or the assigning of a hierarchy to animals in relation to their value.

Speciesism is an ideology—a belief system— that legitimates and inspires animal oppression by fusing moral significance with (a) membership in the human species and (b) human cognition. Speciesism is used to exclude nonhumans from the moral community because they do not belong to the species Homo sapiens and because (most of them) do not possess our peculiar form of cognition. This ideology thus creates a hierarchy of moral worth, with human animals at the apex, followed by all other animals, who are measured in terms of their cognitive nearness to or distance from humans.

Prior to our understanding of the physiological similarities and common evolutionary origins between species, the devaluing of animal interests could easily be supported by reference to common sense about superficial differences (such as inability to “speak” to humans), to religious texts, or to intellectual ideas made popular for their usefulness (such as those of Descartes, who saw animals as machines that did not feel pain).

Today there exists a pervasive cultural socialisation that ensures that many take our oppressive relationship to other species as “natural”. It is this, combined with vested corporate and state interests, that maintains exploitation on an unimaginable scale.

These barriers to equality remain to the detriment of all life on Earth. For the abuse of power through hierarchical order manifests in many interacting problems. Just as unequal power relations between nations, genders, races, ethnicities, classes, and sexualities have resulted in the historical oppression of certain groups, so unequal power relations (as a result of different evolutionary adaptations) have resulted in the historical oppression of all other species by one.

"Whenever you see a bird in a cage, fish in a tank, or nonhuman mammal on a chain, you're seeing speciesism. If you believe that a bee or frog has less right to life and liberty than a chimpanzee or human, or you consider humans superior to other animals, you subscribe to speciesism. If you visit aquaprisons and zoos, attend circuses that include "animal acts," wear nonhuman skin or hair, or eat flesh, eggs, or cow-milk products, you practice speciesism. If you campaign for more-"humane" slaughter of chickens or less-cruel confinement of pigs, you perpetuate speciesism." [1]

Interweaving Oppressions

Just as the characteristics of sex, race and sexuality are irrelevant to the inclusion of other humans in the moral community, so too is species classification irrelevant when it comes to the capacity to be harmed and the right not to be the property of another. [2]

Being the property of another involves the commodification of another sentient being; treating them as an object, as a something rather than a someone. [2]

Speciesism therefore shares similarities with other forms of oppression such as sexism, racism and homophobia/heterosexism. By rejecting speciesism on these grounds it also entails a rejection of these other forms of discrimination by advocates of animal rights. A criticism of the commodification of animals necessitates a criticism of the commodification of women, people of colour, gay and lesbian persons and other oppressed groups. Therefore, sexist campaigns and the like have no place in animal rights campaigning. [2]

While even those who hold racist beliefs generally understand the concept of racial equality, the idea of living without using animal products is incomprehensible to the majority of humans. Speciesism is even further engrained than other forms of discrimination and our exploitation of other animals is often invisible. [2]

Non-Speciesist Language

The language we use to describe our use of animals further conceals this abuse.

"Words are political. They can foster oppression or liberation, prejudice or respect.Just as sexist language denigrates or discounts females, speciesist language denigrates or discounts nonhuman animals; it legitimises their abuse". [1]

The way we speak about other animals is inseparable from the way we treat them. Many of the words we use to describe animals either positions them as things (i.e. 'it' instead of 'she' or 'he'), or use euphemisms to describe their body when used for food (i.e. 'beef' or 'pork' instead of 'cow' or 'pig'). [3]

Carol Adams has talked about the way animals become absent by the way that we talk about them in relation to meat. We use terms to ensure that we are detached from the reality of meat once being part of someone (It's interesting to note that humans are rather comfortable in their difference to birds and fish and therefore feel comfortable in not using alternative terms for describing their flesh). [4]

Our language also uses euphemism in describing the ways we exploit and kill animals (i.e. 'tame' or 'domesticate' instead of 'enslave' or 'subjugate', 'cull' or 'harvest' instead of 'kill'). Reflecting on the words we use is an important opportunity to examine our beliefs about other animals and why cruelty so often becomes invisible.


This article originally appeared on the Animal Rights Advocates website. Animal Rights Advocates Inc. (ARA) is a volunteer-run not for profit animal rights organisation based in Perth, Western Australia that campaigns for the abolition of animal exploitation.

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