Will Kymlicka, “Animal Rights, Multiculturalism, and The Left”

On April 25, 2013, Kymlicka gave a talk at the Graduate Center which tackle very important issues surrounding animal rights and the Left. He asks, following John Sanbonmatsu, why the Left (marxism, feminism, post-colonialism and so on) have largely been indifferent to human violence against animals.

Although they championed the critique of hierarchies amongst humans, they largely failed to challenge human domination of animals. There have not been many attempt to extend feminist, post-colonial and multiculturalist theory to violence towards animals.

Besides the usual suspects (religion, human exceptionalism and the force of habits), Kymlicka investigates three explanations. Following Arluke, we can think that the Left has not been receptive to animal issues because (1) animal studies would be competing other more important causes (following a zero-sum amount logic), (2) because we run the risk of trivializing human injustices by equating violence towards humans and other animals and (3) because of the spectre of Cultural Imperialism (claiming the vegan imperative would be performing whiteness).

He very clearly and carefully debunk all three worries:

1. Animal concerns would challenge more important causes: It is wrong to think that fighting an injustice is detrimental to other forms of injustices. Oppressions are linked in an interconnected web and we should not be ignoring any form of oppression.

2. Risk of trivializing human injustices: they see interest in animals as a parody. Some people think that holding on to human exceptionalism is necessary to protect some disadvantaged humans, minority or oppressed groups. Kymlicka rightly points out that this is an empirical issue and that we gave evidence to the contrary: the more people believe in human supremacy over animals, the more they tend to be racists and to discriminate outgroups (See Costello and Hodson).

3. The Spectre of Cultural Imperialism: “Animal advocacy may be aimed at protecting vulnerable animals, but many people on the left worry that it will end up reaffirming the privileged status of white middle-class westerners, while stigmatizing minority groups and non-western cultures. Western culture are seen as humane and civilized and others as uncivilized and barbaric.”

  • 3.1 Animal advocacy is associated with a critique of minorities practices and
  • 3.2 Veganism is associated with rich western society and claiming the vegan imperative is seen as performing whiteness.

It is true that public discussion over animal cruelty focuses on the practices of minorities and outsiders (like eating dogs in China), but it is not animal right activists who do that, it is people who support our common farming practices. From an animal rights perspective there is no morally relevant difference between eating dogs and pigs. None is less inherently cruel than the other.

Kymlicka claims that we should avoid the way in which the public debate usually focuses on cruelty and unnecessary suffering because of the fact that it will always target the practices of minorities and other cultures:

“Invoking cultural imperialism as grounds for indifference to animal rights is not only theoretically arbitrary, but counter-productive. […] The conceptual framework of `cruelty’ or `unnecessary suffering’ is catastrophic for animals, but it is also bad for minorities. The concept of “cruelty” or “unnecessary suffering” invites – and indeed makes inevitable – culturally biased mobilizations of animal issues.”

Practices involving cruelty are by definition those that are not customary in the majority society. This is explicit in animal cruelty laws: they exempt generally accepted practices in the mainstream society. So by definition, the existing legal framework can only target minority practices (or individual psychopathy). Majority practices are inherently immunized from moral and political scrutiny.”

“This is intrinsic to the legal structure we have at the moment. It is inevitable that the majority practices will serve as the normative standard for evaluating animal practices. So, if we continue to use this language of cruelty and unnecessary suffering we are inherently privileging majority animal practices. Because all human violence, or almost all human violence, against animals is unnecessary in the strict sense: human can live flourishing lives without eating meat, wearing leather and without visiting caged animals in zoos and circuses. None of the suffering involved in those practices is necessary in the strict sense […].”

“From a legal and political perspective, necessary suffering is likely to be whatever we, the majority, do to animals in our generally accepted practices, and unnecessary suffering is what you, the minority, do to animals, particularly if we’re not so keen on you, the minority, in the first place.”

“Anyone who cares about racial and cultural hierarchies should be very concerned about this inherent bias in existing animal cruelty laws and norms. And yet, remarkably, the left has no response to it. The left worries that embracing animal rights will involve complicity with racial bias, and so remains silent about animal oppression. In reality, it’s the opposite: it is precisely by remaining silent that the left is complicit in the perpetuation of a legal and political framework that is inherently biased against minorities.”

“In short, neither majority nor minority is called upon today to justify how they exercise power over animals. Embracing a postcolonial, anti-racist AR agenda – what we call a Multicultural Zoopolis – would have, as its first task, challenging this conspiracy of silence. Such a conversation would be uncomfortable, for both majorities and minorities, since animal exploitation is built deeply into the fabric of contemporary societies. But there is no reason to assume that such a conversation must erode multiculturalist commitments, at least not the sorts of multiculturalist commitments that have been embraced by the left. A Multicultural Zoopolis agenda would be inconsistent with conservative or communitarian conceptions of multiculturalism that endow communities with the right to maintain and reproduce their cultural traditions untouched, regardless of the ethical content or justifiability of those traditions. But this conception, which would accord minorities a right to maintain practices of forced arranged marriages, or honour killings, or female circumcision, has never been embraced by the left. Rather, the left has embraced a transformative conception of multiculturalism, rooted in social justice, human rights and citizenship, aiming to contest status hierarchies that have privileged hegemonic groups while stigmatizing minorities. This progressive conception of multiculturalism, at its best, operates to illuminate unjust political and cultural hierarchies, to de-center hegemonic norms, and to hold the exercise of power morally accountable.”

“Multiculturalism and animal rights are not in conflict, but flow naturally from the same deeper commitments to justice and moral accountability, and there are tools and strategies for defending progressive causes, whether of animal rights or human rights, against the danger of instrumentalization and cultural imperialism.”

(Will Kymlicka & Sue Donaldson)

He convincingly argues that animal liberation is not a movement which reinforce the white privilege and that “any credible account of post-colonialism and of feminism need to be post-humanist”.

Part 1 (one-hour conference). Download the paper on Kymlicka’s Academia page.

Part 2 (question period)


Une excellente conférence de Kymlicka sur la gauche et la cause animale.Il déconstruit trois mythes qui ont empêché la gauche de dénoncer les violences envers les animaux.

1. Défendre les animaux porterait ombrage à des causes plus importantes. Kymlicka : combattre une injustice ne nuit pas au combat contre d’autres injustices. Les diverses formes d’oppression sont liées.

2. Défendre les animaux risquerait de trivialiser les injustices commises envers les humains. Certains pensent que soutenir la suprématie humaine est nécessaire pour protéger les minorités opprimées. Les recherches tendent au contraire à montrer que plus les gens croient en la supériorité humaine sur les animaux, plus ils tendent à être racistes et à discriminer les groupes humains étrangers (voir Costello and Hodson).

3. Le spectre de l’impérialisme humain: les défenseurs des animaux sont faussement associés aux critiques contre les pratiques des minorités et des autres cultures en raison de la mécompréhension de la théorie des droits des animaux et le véganisme est faussement vu comme un privilège des sociétés occidentales, riches et développées.

Kymlicka soutient que soutenir les droits des animaux, au contraire d’être une façon de soutenir le privilège blanc (performing whiteness), est la seule façon crédible d’être post-colonialistes, féministes et de défendre le droit des minorités.

En voici un extrait que j’ai traduit :

“Invoquer l’impérialisme culturel comme une raison d’être indifférent aux droits des animaux est […] contre-productif. Le cadre conceptuel qui fonctionne en termes de “cruauté” et de “souffrance non-nécessaire” est catastrophique pour les animaux, mais aussi pour les minorités. Ils invitent et rendent inévitables les usages culturellement biaisés des enjeux liés aux animaux.

Par définition, les pratiques impliquant la cruauté sont celles qui ne sont pas d’usage commun dans la société majoritaire. Cela est explicite dans les lois contre la cruauté envers les animaux : ils exemptent les pratiques généralement acceptées dans la culture majoritaire. Donc, par définition, le cadre légal existant peut seulement cibler les pratiques des minorités ou la psychopathie individuelle. […]

De nos jours, ni la majorité, ni les minorités ne sont appelées à justifié la façon dont ils exercent leur pouvoir sur les animaux. Adopter un agenda des droits des animaux postcolonialiste et antiraciste – ce que nous appelons une Zoopolis multiculturelle – aura pour tâche première de mettre au défi cette conspiration du silence. Une telle conversation sera inconfortable, autant pour les majorités et les minorités, puisque l’exploitation des animaux est profondément enracinée dans le tissu même de nos sociétés contemporaines.

Cependant, il n’y a aucune raison de penser qu’une telle conversation éroderait nos engagements pour le multiculturalisme, en tous cas pas le genre d’engagements multiculturalistes qui ont été défendus par la gauche. Un projet pour une Zoopolis multiculturelle sera incompatible avec les visions conservatrices et communautariennes du multiculturalisme qui octroient aux communautés le droit le maintenir et de reproduire leurs traditions culturelles intactes, sans égards aux aspects éthiques et justifiables de ces traditions. Mais cette conception, qui accorderait aux minorités le droit de maintenir des pratiques comme celle du mariage arrangé forcé, des crimes d’honneur et de la circoncision, n’a jamais été adoptée par la gauche.

Au contraire, la gauche a adopté une conception progressiste du multiculturalisme, enracinée dans la justice sociale, les droits de la personne et du citoyen, qui visent à contester les hiérarchies qui ont privilégié les groupes hégémoniques en stigmatisant les minorités. Cette conception progressiste du multiculturalisme permet d’illuminer des pratiques injustes et des hiérarchies culturelles, de décentrer les normes hégémoniques et de tenir l’exercice du pouvoir moralement responsable.”(Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson).


Part 1 (one-hour conference). Download the paper on Kymlicka’s Academia page.

Part 2 (question period)