Although the moral and ethical standards of society have changed tremendously in the past hundred years, many groups insist that we have a long way to go before we reach true fairness and egalitarianism. Groups and individuals that want to reduce (if not eliminate) animal cruelty are a fine example. Their cause is a just one, but they considerable challenges in attracting the attention and thought that their issues deserve. This may be why the term “animal slavery” (with all of its troubling implications) is cropping up more and more frequently in their rhetoric.
A Historical Perspective
It’s always important to bear in mind that one of the attributes of human slavery that were most loathsome – one of the key factors in getting it abolished, in fact – was that it treated human beings no different than livestock. Slaves have no right of self-determination; they are not allowed to choose their own course in life. In many historical cases, even a slave’s family life was at the mercy of his or her owners. Compliance with an owner’s desires is enforced by the threat – and very often, the reality – of force.
When abolitionists crusaded to make human slavery illegal, they concentrated on informing the general public about the worst abuses of the system, emphasizing how it inherently dehumanized slaves and set them equal to animals: Nothing more than property to be manipulated according to its owner’s whim.
The Modern Usage Of The Term “Animal Slavery”
Today animal slavery is a term that sees rather frequent use among the vegan and anti-animal-exploitation communities. Most of the people who use the phrase do so with the intention of provoking controversy by reversing the historical equation of slaves and livestock. By emphasizing that the suffering inflicted on livestock can be as harsh as that suffered by slaves, they hope to advance the opinion that the suffering itself makes its infliction immoral.
This is a strategy that’s both risky and effective. On the one hand, it easily attracts cries of insensitivity from those whose ancestors have experienced the effects of enslavement at first hand. To co-opt their history into the debate over animal rights is, in the opinion of some, to belittle it.
On the other hand, a direct and more sensitive comparison between human and animal suffering is exactly what animal rights activists are looking for. Invoking the image of human slavery (shocking as it is) can bring much-needed attention to the very real suffering that animals in many industries are subjected to.
Why You Need To Exercise Caution
As noted above, raising the specter of comparison to human slavery is an extremely provocative act. Activists who choose to use the term animal slavery are walking a tightrope whether they want to or not. To employ the words casually or confrontationally is to attract the wrong sort of attention; this ends up hurting the animal rights activist’s cause rather than helping it.
A more open, gradual, and even-handed raising of the question — Why is suffering less immoral when it’s an animal that’s hurting — is a better way to introduce the powerful idea of slavery and its injustice to the animal rights debate. Inviting someone to consider the plight of abused animals and pointing out how similar to human slavery their situation is may help change minds and win more supporters.
In the end, exploring the similarities of animal cruelty and human slavery can be extremely fruitful for activists who want to discourage the use of animal products. They have to resist the temptation to push for maximum provocation by using the term “animal cruelty” as a confrontational declaration. It is the discussion of the issue, rather than one of its possible conclusions, that will help the cause of the activists.