Monday, 24 May 2010

hear me roar: a forum to consider the parallels and intersections between equal rights and animal rights and society and law (a talk)

Last week I attended a lecture at Victoria University, organised by Lawyers for Animals and Victorian Women Lawyers. Entitled 'Hear Me Roar: A forum to consider the parallels and intersections between equal rights and animal rights in society and law,' I was interested but cautious. The speakers were Moira Rayner ('Freelance writer, lawyer, academic and Executive Member, Lawyers for Animals') and Dr Siobhan O'Sullivan ('Research fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Member, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics; and Member, Secretariat of Barristers' Animal Welfare Panel').

O'Sullivan spoke to the topic 'Animal Invisibility and Animal Suffering: what can feminism and refugee rights teach us about insidious animal suffering?' I am always cautious about talks/topics that seek to compare one issue to another, just because this so often results in the further marginalisation of one of those groups, or some form of oppression olympics (or, my favourite, 'XX is the last acceptable oppression.'). Appropriation is also often a big part of it. Anyway, that's why I was cautious but interested going in.

O'Sullivan highlighted the way, in the animal protection movement, it is often women who do the work, but men who right books and speak. She noted Adams as an exception to this,* and as someone who drew the link between commodities.

Animals as commodities, women as commodities. This is part of the idea of public and private, and why she uses the term 'invisible suffering.' This is where women's and refugee rights come in to it - these two groups have previously had to deal with invisible suffering.

She also talked about liberal democracy, and how it works on a group functionality - therefore as an individual it is problematic to complain.

The idea of the public/private divide can be seen in how laws around animals have progressed: the first laws were for beasts of burden, because these were the animals on the street, these were the animals one could see abused. It was not for many years afterwards until laws were extended to companion animals, and O'Sullivan's contention is that this is because companion animals were in private.

She points out that there is a similar ish problem in refugee rights - it is very difficult to hear refugees speak, and it can be very difficult to gain access to refugees and see/'believe' their treatment, as they are housed away from the mainstream community. Do they really need to be housed away from the community, on Christmas Island? Or is it just so that we can't see them, and therefore can't understand what's going on?

Rayner spoke without a powerpoint (!!), and talked less about the idea of gender and more about the idea of power. She emphasised that Australians are very uncomfortable with talk about rights unless it is in regard to self rights. Rayner took a very large over-reaching approach, talking about many countries around the world, and many issues, especially regarding dependency relationships (such as children, animals, disabled persons), and linked these relationships all to power. She also included a bit of a rights history, talking about how the giving of rights was first to animals, then to children, and then to women, and then to racism and religious persecution.

Rayner circled around with some action points for animal rights activism, that have clearly drawn from other forms of rights activism, and also that I think can be a good reminder in other forms of rights activism:
  • change language leads to a change in perspective - therefore use language carefully
  • advocate for rights
  • appeal for feminists who stand up for rights of women, dependents, and other marginalised groups to extend to animals
O'Sullivan talked around some interesting topics, but didn't really go in to them in depth. Rayner talked quite a specific topic and also circled it around (which is hard to demostrate in my notes), and was quite thought provoking. The talks were brief, which can make it difficult to talk in depth, I acknowledge this, but I felt like in some regards they were just a bit too surface-y.

My concerns regarding appropriation and eyebrow raising were not unfounded but there were no sirens going off, and my notes only include three uses of the red pen, which was good. This is mostly, though, because it was a lot about what feminism can do for animal rights/the lessons learned, rather than anything else.

In many ways it was clear that this talk was to a generalised, nebulous feminist/ medium-engagement woman (the white, middle-class, western-world sort), and kind of a low-level discussion (nothing too heavy or controversial, unless you think animal rights are controversial) but the discussions of intersectionality and links between oppressions were at least there, which I always appreciate.

There are some things I would have liked to see discussed, or things that could be discussed subsequently. I would have liked to talk more about the intersections - there was some talk about domestic abuse, and I thought that the points about public/private were very interesting, but I would have liked to talk about the intersections more. I definitely want to talk more about power and how that translates to a lack of power and privilege for certain groups. I would also like to talk about the economic and cultural assumptions surrounding a lot of the talk of animal rights - I know we were talking from an Australian legal basis, but there were lots of examples from other countries and they were all of a certain type of culture and yes.

Flowing on from that, and unrelated to animal rights, I want to talk about the racism in refugee rights and how that relates to the public/private, but that is for another time. :o)

*please note that I have issues with Adams, which are touched on here and here.

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