Would you say that you’re an ‘animal lover’? It isn’t difficult to find people who say that they are. Many of us have cats or dogs, or both – in the United Kingdom, for example, almost half of households have pets. Very often these animals are thought of as family members. And a lot of us enjoy watching television programmes, like David Attenborough’s, that bring the wonders of the natural world into our homes. Yet most of those who call themselves ‘animal lovers’ knowingly participate in animal cruelty – by eating meat, for example. Children easily appreciate the inconsistency here, but most adults still make excuses for their behaviour.
At the same time, many people in the animal rights movement reject the term ‘animal lover’. Not only do they claim not to love animals, a lot of them say that they don’t own animals, either. When they do share their lives with animals, it’s usually with rescued animals who they think of as companions rather than pets. They feel that the word ‘love’ devalues the work that they do, and they insist that it is possible to respect animals’ rights and work to make their lives better without feeling any affection for them. ‘Love’ doesn’t come into it.
It was partly in response to the label ‘animal lover’ that pioneering animal ethicists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan adopted an overly-rational approach in their work – one which has since been critiqued by ecofeminists, who instead emphasise relationships and explore our interconnectedness with nature. Some philosophers even argue that ‘love’ is the wrong motivation for justice. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer writes:
No one, except a racist concerned to smear his opponents as ‘nigger-lovers’, would suggest that in order to be concerned about equality for mistreated racial minorities you have to love those minorities, or regard them as cute and cuddly. So why make this assumption about people who work for improvements in the conditions of animals?
The term ‘animal lover’ has been used to denigrate people who display affection or concern for animals. Those who care about animals are often characterised as abnormal – as the term ‘crazy cat lady’ illustrates. While tropes like this exist for women, men’s affection for animals is confined to the image of the pitiful singleton who lives with his cat and no one else. (There’s also the country man and his dog, but he’s typically understood as unaffectionate; he may enjoy the dog’s company, but he doesn’t express that joy.)
‘Real men’ aren’t supposed to care about animals – but our own experiences reveal the opposite to be true. After years of campaigning for animal rights, Kim discovered that he could also love animals, when he was adopted by a homeless chihuahua called Boobaa who welcomed him into his heart. And during an especially painful period in Philip’s life, when he had to move back into his parents’ house, he formed a close friendship with their cat, Minnie; that relationship taught him that animals can have complex personalities, and that some are even capable of empathy. We know that our experiences aren’t unusual. Lots of people – girls and boys, women and men – have loving relationships with other animals, and do everything they can to make them happy.
The idea that we shouldn’t care about animals has its basis in notions of superiority and inferiority – the same hierarchical logic that holds that men and boys are more important than women and girls, and that ‘white’ people are more important than non-whites. As Alice Walker writes in her preface to Marjorie Spiegel’s book, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, ‘The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.’
The term ‘animal lover’ is particularly problematic, because – as Singer’s quote suggests – it echoes the term ‘n*****-lover’, a racist insult that has been used to disparage those who defend human rights. The term ‘n*****-lover’ isn’t very common today, but historically it was used in a variety of colonial contexts around the world, such as Aotearoa New Zealand, where it was aimed at Pākehā (Europeans) who defended Māori rights.
Some people argue that we shouldn’t draw associations between our treatment of animals and racial oppression, because comparisons between certain ethnic groups and animals have themselves been used to oppress people, but as Spiegel writes:
Comparing the suffering of animals to that of blacks (or any other oppressed group) is offensive only to the speciesist; one who has embraced the false notions of what animals are like. Those who are offended by the comparison to a fellow sufferer have fallen for the propaganda spewed forth by the oppressors. To deny our similarities to animals is to deny and undermine our own power. It is to continue actively struggling to prove to our oppressors, past or present, that we are similar to our oppressors, rather than those whom our oppressors have also victimized. It is to say that we would rather be more like those who have victimized us, rather than like those who have also been victims. Let us remember that to the oppressors, there is often very little difference between one victim and the next.
In their book, Aphro-ism: Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters, Aph and Syl Ko further explore the relationship between racism and speciesism, arguing that the two are inextricably connected. As Syl explains in one of her essays, ‘Racism is simultaneously anti-black and anti-animal, as seen by racial ideology’s elevation and celebration of “the human” and “humanity” particularly as Western and white.’ We will not dismantle racism or speciesism if we do not address these connections.
The conviction that some of us are more important than others, and the belief that it’s okay to hurl abuse at people for caring about others – whether those others are human or non-human animals – are harmful ideas, and we must resist them. We think it’s time to embrace the term ‘animal lover’. We want to transform the label, and infuse its meaning with a commitment to animal rights. Love is something that all of us have in common – those who call ourselves ‘animal lovers’, and those of us in the animal rights movement. All of us care about animals, even if we express our love in different ways. And every day, more of us are becoming animal activists: initiatives like ‘Meatless Monday’ are growing in popularity, and more people than ever before are adopting vegetarian diets and vegan lifestyles, often citing our horrendous treatment of animals as the main reason for making a change.
The Politics of Love can help us to think through our relationships with other animals. Love can be thought of as an orientation, or ‘attitude’ – as, that is, a way of relating to the world that we share. The Politics of Love elaborates this relationship: it affirms loving values, such as compassion, truth, and justice (all of which are affirmed by the animal rights movement), and it upholds commitments, such as its commitment to non-violence.
Even though it isn’t always viewed as such, our treatment of other animals is a political issue. To love animals is political. Politics is a dimension of ethics – it concerns its relational aspects – and as feminists have long maintained, ‘the personal is political’. What we eat is political, in the same way that who’s cooking dinner tonight is political – especially if we’re eating others! When we understand this, we see ‘choice’ as yet another privilege.
What does love have to do with this? Love is something that all of us view as important. As such, it can unite us. Focusing on love helps us to see that compassion is a value that all of us share – even if we don’t express our compassion very well, or are reluctant to acknowledge its basis in love. All of us want to express our compassion for animals, whether our love for them sprang from strong affection or from a deep respect for their rights. The Politics of Love urges us to come together, and it supports us in doing so.
Importantly, the Politics of Love also gives us direction. As well as allowing animal activists to see that our work is, in fact, loving, it can extend our concern. We have both experienced this: Kim’s relationship with Boobaa gave his activism a depth that it previously lacked, and Philip’s relationship with Minnie helped to ensure that he didn’t ignore other animals while he was developing the Politics of Love. Simultaneously, it enables those who call themselves ‘animal lovers’ to see that more is required of them than just attending to the needs of their companion animals, or speaking out against the abuse of animals that they like such as dogs, while ignoring similarly abusive activities like rodeos and circuses. Significantly, the Politics of Love asks not only that we care about animals’ suffering, but also that we care about them – just as it asks us to care about each other, as beings who have intrinsic value.
In her book Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook, ecofeminist Carol J. Adams suggests that those of us who don’t eat meat should understand meat eaters as ‘blocked vegetarians’, as vegetarians who are somehow stuck. This allows us ‘to restore to meat eaters the humanity their own actions sometimes deny.’ This strategy allows us to view them positively, learning from our interactions with them, rather than being discouraged by the rude and frustrating behaviour that meat eaters sometimes exhibit. She writes:
Viewing meat eaters as blocked vegetarians also gives us a place to stand, and a fulcrum. We truly are the mover rather than the moved. We are inviting them to us, not trying to conform to their agenda. In addition, we are optimistic: we believe in the possibility of change. We did it. Craven we may once have been, but we overcame our fears and cowardice. That is why we can believe in change for others: we were once there.
The Politics of Love develops this strategy, but it recognises that vegetarians and vegans can also be unskilful in love. It asks that we treat each disagreement as an opportunity to learn. It is important that we do this from a place of humility: each of us has something to teach, and even more to learn. If those of us who identify as ‘animal lovers’ commit to learning from those in the animal rights movement, and if those of us in the animal rights movement make a similar commitment, we will nurture a caring world for everyone.
Even though those who will benefit most from our strengthened love are non-human animals, we too will be better off because of it. The Politics of Love can free us to be our loving selves. With its intersectional commitment anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-classism, and its determination to dismantle all forms of oppression, this vision of politics critiques patriarchy and with it those conceptions of masculinity that teach us that men don’t care about other animals, as well as sexist stereotypes that encourage us to believe that caring about other animals renders women ‘crazy’. Animal liberation is human liberation.
There are, of course, people who neither particularly enjoy being around animals, nor work for their well-being. What of them? Love asks us to actively extend our circle of concern, and it challenges us to recognise those who our privileges allow us to overlook. Importantly, it teaches us that speciesism is similar to racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of hierarchical thinking, and it urges us to understand that in order to overcome one of these, we must struggle against them all. It requires us to see that respecting animals’ rights is not optional – any more than, say, respecting gay rights is optional. It is not possible to respect rights without loving, because respecting rights is, inherently, an act of love.
It is time to embrace our love of non-human animals. In doing so, not only will we better express our compassion, but we will also be able to love more fully. All of us will benefit from this – but those who benefit most will be the animals, who will be, and feel, loved by us, and who will have a much lesser chance of being victims of human cruelty.
We are all animal lovers.
A lightly edited version of this article was published by Sentient Media on November 29, 2019.