S. Marek Muller, Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Studies at Florida Atlantic University, is interviewed on her latest book Impersonating Animals, discusses animal rights and the law, and considers how people of faith can take practical action in support of animals.
Tell us about yourself and why you became concerned with animal issues.
I’m a long-time vegan who studies arguments regarding human and nonhuman animal rights. I became infatuated with nonhuman animals at age 5 when my parents gifted me an encyclopedia of dogs for a birthday present. I memorized the entire thing! As an autistic person, I always found it easier to connect with dogs and other nonhuman animals compared to that of my peers due to my social awkwardness and anxiety. I volunteered at animal shelters so I could socialize with dogs and cats as opposed to the kids at school. Because of that bond, I was really always concerned with animal welfare. My turn from animal welfare to animal rights happened when I was completing a Fulbright grant in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and was much closer to animal life than my usual U.S. American urban lifestyle. During a cold Mongolian winter, I locked myself in my room and read Gary Francione, Peter Singer, Josephine Donovan, Amie Breeze Harper, and Carol Adams. I made the switch to veganism and I’ve never looked back!
What is the message of your latest book Impersonating Animals and what inspired you to write it?
I come from a family of legal professionals and almost went to law school instead of getting my PhD. I grew up around the courtroom and therefore developed a pretty in-depth understanding of how legal professionals function in relation to the broader public and how the law changes over time. My book essentially shows how “the law” is not a scientific institution with no relation to the public. In fact, laws don’t change without significant pressure from the lay public. Law is thus a professional field and a public conversation. My book attempts to show how achieving legal rights for animals by granting them legal personhood is an essential facet of animal rights, but alone is not enough to secure the total liberation of species. I offer a “critical vegan rhetoric” as a potential guide for scholars and animal activists interested in animal rights, human rights, and the inevitable intersections between the two.
What is animal rights law and has it proved effective in protecting animals?
It’s almost hard to define “animal rights law” since, to be frank, it barely exists. Most animal law is better termed animal welfare law since it is focused on treating animals well, but not granting them legal rights or personhood. In fact, the few lawyers who argue for animal rights law are often laughed at or thought of as radicals–these are the people who say that it’s not enough to mandate larger battery cages for farmed chickens, but rather that those cages ought to be banned altogether and those birds freed from unjust captivity. Animal rights law, for that reason, is more of an idea than it is a practice. Animals are legal objects under the law (with a few international exceptions) and for that reason don’t really have “rights” as we often think of them. Animal rights law is centered around creating legal situations where animals have a chance at justice vis-a-vis attaining legal standing, legal rights, legal personhood, etc. Because the law is a codification of moral principles, it’s important that the law reflect animals as subjects, not merely objects.
What approach do you take to the issues of the law and animal rights?
The old adage says that “history is written by the victors.” The law ought to have a comparable motto, namely that “law is written by the powerful.” For that reason, I take a critical approach to law that is sensitive to the inequities and imperfections inherent in the legal system. Laws have been and in many areas continue to be racist, heterosexist, ableist, and speciesist–and the justifications for legal discrimination are typically based in similar arguments using dehumanization and animalization. My book offers an “Ecofeminist Legal Theory” as a means of studying and interpreting animal law wherein I do not interpret the law as an unbiased science but rather a very imperfect and human creation. Thus, like any other human creation, it is in need of constant critique and reformation.
As for animal rights, I consider myself a vegan feminist. That is to say, much like authors Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, Greta Gaard, and A. Breeze Harper, I very much respect the canonical works of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Gary Francione, but do not consider their ideas to be “enough.” Using feminist concepts such as caring, empathy, and moral contextualism, I’m less focused on if an animal matters because it has “interests” or because it has “sentience” – rather, I argue that anyone and anything matters because it exists. Therefore, I am committed to a concept called total liberation — a view of social justice that encapsulates all species and even affords the possibility of rights for “non-sentient” beings such as rivers or trees.
How might fruitful dialogue concerning animal issues take place? Can faith groups play a role in this?
As a human person, I can confirm the following: humans are primarily motivated by their own self interests. One reason the animal rights movement struggles so much is because speciesism is built into the anatomy of most societies. Since animals are so different from “us,” then why should we help them? Since animals don’t talk like “us,” then how can we possibly listen to them? As a communication scholar, I think it’s important to note that people need to think less about dialogues about animals and focus on dialogues with animals. Animals tell us what they want and need, but in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Fields like cognitive ethology that focus on the emotional, moral, and linguistic lives of animals are thus an essential part of beginning a genuine dialogue with animals instead of about them.
But, in moments where the animal is not available to defend itself in an argument, it is important for humans to see how speciesism inevitably impacts other damaging -isms pertinent to the pursuit of social justice. For instance, women, people of color and disabled people have historically faced legal and social discrimination on the basis that they are somehow “less-than-human”–that is to say, too “animal” to deserve the full legal and moral consideration. Dehumanization tactics work because animalization is considered such a terrible thing. As an autistic person, I am often considered unemotional and robotic–similar to how Rene Descartes once called animals “unconscious automata.” When I see arguments that animals don’t need rights because they don’t have human emotions or thoughts, I immediately see the latent ableism in that argument and know I need to say something about it.
Faith groups are essential to these conversations because, like law, faith is fundamentally an amalgamation of moral principles that are codified in important texts and enacted by devoted followers. Faith groups are particularly attuned to questions of good/bad, right/wrong, and other moral quandaries. By consistently questioning the basis of ideologies that harm humans and nonhuman animals–even if that might mean reinterpreting tenets of religious texts or principles to account for new discoveries–people of faith afford the public ample opportunities to question what appears “normal” and “natural” (e.g. eating meat, exploiting animals for entertainment) and advocate for change from a moral, not instrumental or selfish, standpoint.
What practical actions can people of faith take in support of animals?
Ultimately, people of faith need to assess the moral foundations of their belief system. Is humanity made in the image of God because we are the only species of value? Are humans meant to be creation’s stewards or its despots? To what extent is faith embedded in law and vice versa, regardless of a country’s dedication to a separation of Church and State? By critically interrogating what faith is, what faith does, and how the ideologies undergirding particular faiths impact human and nonhuman animal “Others,” people of faith are particularly suited to advocate for moral reconsiderations of justice. Practically, of course, I would hope that this means adhering to an anti-speciesist ethic. This would include going vegan (where veganism is interpreted as avoiding the exploitation of nonhumans animals as far as is possible and practicable) while also noting how fighting racism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. are equally fundamental to dissolving speciesism. Humans are people; people are animals. Ideally, animals will soon become legal people as well. Ergo, people of faith (and people of no faith, for that matter), ought to fight for the rights of nonhuman animals just as hard as they fight for the rights of humans.
S. Marek Muller is Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Her latest book Impersonating Animals is available through the Michigan State University Press and other good bookstores.