Do animals deserve the same respect as black people?
That’s the question posed in an online exhibit by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The exhibit pairs a slave auction with a cattle auction, two hanging black men with a hanging steer, herded Native Americans with herded cattle, a burning black man with a burning chicken, a shackled black ankle with a chained elephant hoof, and a pygmy in a zoo with a monkey in a dress.
The introduction includes a quote from Alice Walker that says animals “were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites.” A quote from Peter Singer says the suffering of enslaved animals “can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans.”
“What is the common link between all atrocities in our society’s past?” asks the opening paragraph. “The African slave trade, the massacre and displacement of Native Americans, the oppression of women, and forced child labor, were the products of a dangerous belief that those with power have the right to abuse those without it.” The text concludes that “our generation still operates in the same way. The only difference is that yesterday’s victims—used and abused because they were ‘different’ and powerless—are now of other species.”
You can imagine why the exhibit has upset some people. They think it’s racist. They’re wrong. Racism draws invalid distinctions. PETA does the opposite: It omits valid distinctions. It equates animals, blacks, and whites, because it misunderstands the nature and history of equality. Abuses of blacks, Native Americans, and women were products of a belief in subordinating the inferior, not the powerless. We learned to respect others not for their disabilities but for their abilities. That’s why we’ll come around eventually—and only partially—to animal rights.
I say this as an animal rights sympathizer. If you ask yourself which practices of our age might come to be seen in hindsight as wrongs we didn’t yet comprehend, the increasingly unnecessary killing of higher animals for food is high on the list. But PETA’s appeals to pity and piety don’t help. Its exhibit accuses our “human-dominated society” of “tyranny,” “exploitation,” “cruelty,” and an “oppressive mentality.” It charges that we “take advantage of our power over [animals] for the sake of pleasure and profit.” It bleats that they’re “powerless,” “weaker,” and “unable to defend themselves.” It asks us to be “compassionate,” “caring,” and “defend … oppressed groups.”
This isn’t how white people came to accept racial equality. Racial Attitudes in America, a comprehensive study published by Harvard University Press, offers plenty of evidence that ability was a more salient consideration than guilt or weakness. “Data collected by the National Opinion Research Center … indicate that more than half of the white population surveyed in 1942 assumed that blacks were less intelligent than whites,” the study reports. Gradually, this assumption was discredited. Socioeconomic factors in IQ scores were exposed. Unions admitted blacks. President Truman integrated the military. Whites began to see blacks as peers.
By 1977, when NORC began asking people to assess various explanations of persistent social inequality, the percentage of whites who asserted black inferiority had plummeted. Over the next 19 years, the authors note,
Two of the explanations exhibit highly significant trends in opposite directions. In-born ability as an explanation was not heavily chosen (26 percent) even in 1977 when the set of questions was first asked, and by 1996 it was agreed to by only 10 percent of the white population. Taken alone, this decrease might well suggest that explanations in terms of “discrimination” have found increasing support within the white population. On the contrary, discrimination is also mentioned decreasingly, and significantly so, over time.
In other words, whites didn’t accept blame for blacks’ problems. What they accepted was that blacks had equal ability.
Something like that will gradually happen between humans and animals. Not the equality part—sorry, PETA—but the ability part. Every week we learn something new about animal brainpower. Crows fashion leaves and metal into tools. Ravens understand spying. Pigeons deceive each other. Rats run mazes in their dreams. Prairie dogs make different sounds to denote different animals. Dolphins teach their young to use sponges as protection. Elephants can mimic trucks. Chimps can pick locks. Parrots can work with numbers. Dogs can learn words from context. Caterpillars can build webs to catch snails. Octopuses can use some arms to disguise themselves while using other arms to sneak away.
As technology makes it easier to do without animals for food and labor—a trend illustrated by cars in the present, and laboratory-grown meat in the future—our increasing awareness of animal intelligence will prod us to give up the worst offenses, starting with butchery of higher mammals. We won’t do this because we pity them for being locked up. We’ll do it because we respect them for picking locks. And we’ll still use chimps to test our drugs, because the faculties worth respecting in them are that much more powerful in us. “We Are All Animals,” PETA pleads in the title of its exhibit. Yes, we are. But some animals are more equal than others.