Bookforum talks with Sunaura Taylor

Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation BY Sunaura Taylor. The New Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

A few years ago, while Sunaura Taylor was researching her new book, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, she came across the story of a fox who was born with the same disability that Taylor has—arthrogryposis, a contracture of the joints. A hunter saw the fox and shot it, in what he called a “mercy killing.” But by all indications, the fox was healthy and surviving well. “The concept of a mercy killing carries within it two of the most prominent responses to disability: destruction and pity,” Taylor writes.

The anecdote tidily encapsulates Taylor’s domain: the overlap between the oppression of animals and of people with disabilities. Though the movements for animal and disability rights may seem like natural allies, they’ve often been at odds. In Beasts of Burden, Taylor tries to mend this rift. She writes, “I [am] convinced that we cannot have disability liberation without animal liberation—they are intimately tied together.” The result is a startling, rigorous, and moving narrative that reframes the question of how we assign value to a life. I spoke to Taylor about her writing over coffee in the East Village.

What inspired you to write this book?

The ideas in the book were conceived while I was at UC Berkeley getting my MFA, and I was painting a very large oil painting of a chicken truck, which is a common sight where I grew up in Georgia. When we were kids, my siblings and I became vegetarians. We had one of these classic kid epiphanies: What!, meat is animals? We had a kid rebellion against meat and soon our parents became vegetarians, too.

I don’t know how it started, but my siblings and I began holding our breath whenever we were in the car and the chicken trucks drove by. At first it was just because of how horrible they smelled. But then it just became this symbolic, ritualistic thing—holding our breath because of the suffering—a sort of morbid kid thing to do. I think, to me, these chicken trucks were objects of extreme cruelty that were just a part of the daily world, that people didn’t really pay attention to.

At Berkeley I did a lot of research for that painting, and I realized that even though I’d been a vegetarian for a long time, I’d never really researched how meat and other animal products are produced. I was simultaneously getting increasingly involved in disability activism and the disability community out in the Bay Area, so I was able to start thinking about both things at the same time. I started to see disability in the animal stuff I was reading, and started to see concepts of animality in the disability work that I was doing. After that painting I began writing more about these issues, and then before I knew it, I realized I had to write a book.

It seems like the book is in part about bringing together two groups of people who had been talking past each other. How have animal rights and disability rights been at odds?

Animal rights advocates have often had a challenging time connecting to other social justice causes, where, in part because of legacies of dehumanization, there’s often a tendency to not be in dialogue with animal rights work. At the same time, because so much animal rights work has had a kind of white, middle-class, normative positioning, they haven’t done a very good job of trying to be intersectional until pretty recently. In other words, it’s not just a problem of not being in dialogue with disability—animal rights theory has had this problem with many different kinds of conversations.

But what’s different about disability is that many animal rights scholars, particularly Peter Singer for example, have used intellectual disability to theorize about animals in a way that has been very dangerous for disabled people, and has actually put disability activism and animal activism at odds. One of the main things that I wanted to do with this book was to point out that that’s not the only way. Not only are the two not at odds, they are actually each essential for each other’s liberation.

In what sense?

For one thing, we are all so incredibly interdependent, and I think, more and more we’re going to see the ways in which we need to start considering non-human species as essential to the surviving and thriving of all of us. But I also think that there are particular ways in which certain forces—ableism specifically—that have—and that continue—to oppress disabled people are also at work when we devalue animals. I’m thinking of the ways that certain abilities and capacities are valued over others. Like the fact that disabled people and non-human animals are considered to be lacking in various capacities—from rationality, to language, to walking upright, to being physically independent—how this real or perceived lack of certain abilities leads to a justification of exploitation.

In addition, disabled people are often considered dependent, and a large part of the devaluing that disabled people face comes from that notion. It might not be as obvious, but I think that the concept of dependency plays a really powerful role in the devaluing of animals too. The idea that some animals are evolutionarily dependent on humans through domestication has been used to justify not only the broader, more mainstream animal agricultural industries (Temple Grandin does this for instance), but has also been used by people who promote the idea of a sustainable, humane animal farming, such as Michael Pollan. The idea is that animals would be worse off if we left them to their own devices—that it’s actually a mutual relationship of care, and that the price that animals pay for the care we give them is their bodies, their meat. It’s a calculation: “Oh, I’m caring for you, so in order for this to be justified for me, I get to eat your flesh.” But I’m challenging the way that we think about interdependence and dependency.

Peter Singer is both a hero in the animal rights community and a villain in the disability rights community. In the course of writing the book, how did you navigate these conflicting narratives?

He’s definitely a confusing figure for me because he was my hero as a kid. He did so much work in opening up the animal rights conversation, and he still does. But so many people in the disability community just despise him, because he advocates for a lot of things that are incredibly ableist. And, unfortunately, I feel that he has been largely unwilling to take critiques from disabled people to heart. At the same time, disabled people (and others) sometimes misrepresent or misunderstand what he’s saying. While some of the things that he’s saying are extremely dangerous for disabled people, some have also been taken out of context.

There are numerous aspects of Singer’s work that are troubling for disabled people, and some are only tangentially related to issues of animal rights. So I’ll focus for a minute specifically on the problems with his arguments for animal liberation. Basically, Peter Singer’s argument in Animal Liberation is that the claim to equality that human beings make cannot be based on any sort of capability or physical or mental attribute, because not all humans will share any single attribute. So, not all humans will have a certain IQ. Not all humans are white. Not all humans are men. And he brings in, of course, histories of discrimination against various populations to show that when equality has been based on attributes such as these in the past, it invariably has left out specific populations. So, he’s saying that, really, the only thing that all human beings share is sentience, which, in his framing, is the ability to experience a life—for example, the ability to feel suffering or pleasure.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a problematic argument.

At first, it’s a beautiful, anti-ableist, anti-speciesist argument: When there’s a variety of life, when a being—animal or human—experiences a life, we need to take that experience into consideration. But then he makes a leap, and says, “Does that mean that taking the life of an animal—a chicken say—and taking the life of a human are equally bad?” That’s where he starts coming up with these more complicated and, in many ways, more troublesome ideas about what makes a life—I don’t really want to say “more valuable” because it’s not more valuable—but what would make killing one sort of being worse than killing another sort of being. To do this, he ends up privileging certain capacities associated with rationality—the ability to imagine a future, to comprehend death, and so on.

To be clear, in the book I do not argue that killing a human and killing a chicken are equally bad. What I’m arguing is that we do not have to know the answer to that question in order to create a more just world for both disabled people and animals and everyone else. In the book I try to expose the ways that these sorts of frames pit different communities against each other. Basically, I reject the terms of these sorts of either/or arguments.

Can you reconcile the power of Singer’s animal rights work with his ableist views?

One of the biggest problems for reconciling Singer’s work and a disability politics is that because he is a utilitarian invested in lessening suffering, and because he equates disability with suffering, he reinforces stereotypes of disability as solely a personal negative experience that needs to be avoided, versus seeing it as a social justice issue.

I ended up in a similar place to Harriet McBryde Johnson, the disabled lawyer who wrote a piece on Singer for the Times a while back. Basically, I think so many of his ideas are held by the mainstream, but he doesn’t sugarcoat them like most people do. In her piece, Johnson wrote that to call Singer a monster is to “make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics,” as well as some of her friends and family.

So I respect him, and I respect his willingness to communicate and talk to someone like me—I was just an artist in an MFA program when I emailed him, and he was willing to have a dialogue with me. I respect him but I still really disagree with him.

You write a lot about the importance of intersectionality. What does that term mean in the context of animal rights?

I think the first time that the importance of intersectionality to animal issues really struck me was in doing research for the chicken truck painting. I realized the extent to which factory farm animals are disabled. They are bred to be disabled. They live in extremely toxic and confined conditions. Not only are they bred to be disabled, they become ill and disabled in multiple ways because of their environment. Because I am a disability scholar and activist, I was trying to think through what that disability meant for those animals, and why disabling the animals that we eat would be beneficial for the industry.

And what is the benefit?

Animals are specifically produced to be disabled so that they will be more profitable. Cows produce far too much milk for their udders to hold, and so their legs will break under their own weight, for example.

But sometimes disability is not profitable. I have this cartoon that I was so amazed to find—an old pamphlet by Swift and Company on why you shouldn’t beat your animals, because it’ll bruise and “cripple” them and then the value of their meat will fall. Both things are true. On one level, farmers would say, “No, we don’t want our animals to be disabled, because then we can’t send them to slaughter.” But that is ignoring the fact that the vast majority of animals are actually bred to be disabled.

If we think about all of this in relationship to how these industries also disable the low-income, largely people of color, and often undocumented people, they hire, or the harmful effects of pollution on the people who live next to these factories, then we really see the importance of thinking about social justice issues as connected.

In animal rights discourse and disability rights discourse, the concept of “suffering” plays very different roles. How do you approach that rift?

The disability community has really tried to push back against the idea of suffering for many decades—that disability does not equal suffering, that our lives are not less worth living, that our lives are not pitiable. And the animal rights community has really done the exact opposite. They’ve said, “Animals suffer, and we really have to pay attention to this suffering.” I think both communities are starting to realize the ways in which pushing back against those frameworks has left out really important areas of thinking. What does pleasure mean to animals? What is joy to animals? What is a life worth living to animals?

For disabled communities, suffering is a part of disability, whether in terms of chronic pain or discrimination, or even in terms of loss. Both realms have been around long enough that they’re no longer just fighting back against these forces, they can be more subtle in their thinking. It was much easier for me to do this work now then it would have been ten years ago, because, within politicized disability communities there’s an openness to talking about suffering that there wasn’t a while ago. And there’s also more openness within animal communities to not focus only on suffering. Thinking about suffering from these two perspectives is particularly fruitful conversation, because it draws the attention of each side to what has been left out from the dialogue.

Although the book is about justice and, to use an imperfect word, rights, it’s also concerned with language and metaphor, and what we mean when we use certain words. You take issue with the idea that animals are voiceless populations. What is it about the word voiceless that you feel does a disservice to animals?

Well, I think I was particularly aware of the problems with that phrase because of how the word voiceless has been used for disabled people, and how disability communities have challenged this patronizing and infantilizing idea. One of the most common rallying cries of disability rights is actually “Nothing about us without us”—pointing to the ways disabled people themselves have too often been left out of the decisions that impact their lives. We see this more often in communities where people are intellectually disabled, but it is true as well for those with physical disabilities. And I think part of what disability studies and disability activism does is make us think of agency in different ways, and encourages us to recognize and be attentive to different ways of expressing agency and needs.

One anecdote I give in this context is a video from a slaughterhouse of a cow who is trying to turn around in a kill chute. It’s so obvious to anyone watching the video that the cow completely has a preference to not move forward toward the things that are clearly scaring her (sounds and presumably smells of other cows being killed ahead of her), and in fact is trying desperately to get out. I think that the more agency we look for, and the more agency we grant animals, the more we’ll be able to understand them, and I think that will really change the way we interact with them.

Social and environmental justice movements in recent decades have been moving away from rights-based frameworks, which often force us to draw lines between who deserves or does not deserve certain rights. What might replace a rights-based framework in your mind?

Rights-based theories are both really problematic, and also, because of the world we live in, really, really necessary. I talk a lot in this book about feminist conceptions of care, and feminist theories of animal rights, which expose the limits of rights-based theories. Of most concern is the ways that rights-based frameworks make it necessary to show that animals are like humans, in order for them to be granted protections. To be able to make legal claims one has to have certain intellectual capacities—so this framework has its limits and drawbacks for both animals and disability.

And so that’s one of the main drawbacks to that way of thinking—that animals have to be similar to human beings. It is against this anthropocentric way of thinking where I think disability activism and disability studies can be really fruitful—that is, in embracing and thinking critically about difference. Which sounds cheesy, but actually, the variety of difference in the animal world is just mind boggling and opens up space for us to think about justice and ethics in radically different ways. How do we think about animals ethically without just thinking about animals that remind us of ourselves, or their capacities that remind us of ourselves? Instead of just saying, “Hey, animals or disabled people deserve rights because they can do this and that like able-bodied human beings,” what would it mean to actually think about the ways in which other beings experience the world?

Madeline Gressel is a writer and an editor at Nautilus magazine.