When we think of oppression, should we be including non-human animals?

Beth Levine, LCSW-C on Feb 03, 2019

Oppression is the act of using power over another for control or unjust treatment.  Humans have a long history of oppressing others, whether the oppressed be handicapped or disabled people, Native Americans, African Americans, women, the poor, LGTBQ, or Jews, to name a few.  We recognize oppression because victims experience feelings like sadness, fear, or joy, are aware of their own lives and the lives of others, want to live, and feel pain.  We wouldn’t say we are oppressing a rock when we sit on it or use it to make cement (although we would support a position regarding our oppression of the earth and its resources).  

A systemic oppression that not many people, including therapists, are familiar with is called “speciesism.”  Richard Ryder, a psychologist, coined the term speciesism in 1970 to refer to the prejudicial belief that humans are so superior, so exceptional to animals that we can use them as we wish.  Humans “forget” that we are animals too.  Like us, cats, dogs, cows and chickens all feel pain.  Lambs, ducks and pigs all have consciousness and want to live.  Similar to other forms of oppression, like racism or sexism, the treatment of an individual is determined by their membership within a particular group. Katrina Fox writes, “Just as less value is placed on certain people based on their sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or other defining characteristic, so too are animals afforded even less consideration and moral worth based on the fact they are a species other than human”.  

Drawing a line between Blacks and White, Jews and non-Jews, LGBTQs and heterosexuals, is the same process as drawing a line between human animals and non-human animals.  The dominant group arbitrarily draws a line, privileging themselves and subordinating the other.  The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all injustice.  

When they realize that their behavior is not consistent with their values, people typically get defensive.  The defensive position is often a part of our speciesist culture.  An easy way to assess whether something is speciesist is to replace the nonhuman animal idea with a human word or concept.  For example, people often say veganism is a process.  Would it be okay if murderers said that giving up murdering people is a process?  Another example is the position that we’ve always eaten animals.  Would it be acceptable if someone defended their right to kill people because the human species has always killed?  Some people say veganism is a personal choice.  It is a personal choice, like murder is a personal choice.

Veganism is the commitment to not use our power over another, including species other than our own.  Vegans are conscientious objectors to participating in violence toward another, no exceptions or caveats.  Therapists are on the front-line of understanding and dealing with defense mechanisms and play a pivotal role in helping society heal, whether ourselves, our clients or our culture. Working towards a vegan world is not only a step toward peace, but also of mental health, as we become more fully integrated and compassionate, make conscious choices, and honor the interconnectedness of all life.

The following authors authors contributed to this article:

Alexandra Arbogast, LICSW, LCSW-C, C-IAYT
Susan Costello, MA, LMHC, CPCC
Christine Jackson, LICSW
Rima Daniellle Jomaa, LMFT
Beth Levine, LCSW-C
Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LMHC
Valerie Martin, LCSW, RYT, CSAT
Vicki Seglin, Ph.D.
Jean Shirkoff, LCSW
Sarah B. Stewart, Psy.D., PLLC
Krista Verrastro, MA, RDT
Sherry Zitter, LICSW

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