Interview #1: Simon (animal activist, P.H.d. candidate, Animal Liberation Trier)

Representation has always been a key topic on this blog. However, up until this point, I tackled this topic rather one-sidedly and wrote about topics solely from my perspective. Since I want to avoid talking for others, especially for marginalised groups of people, I decided to reconsider my approach to writing.

I took some time off, in part due to my studies, in part due to this process of self-reflection. In the process, I decided to launch a new project. Since this is the first entry into this new format, I would like to explain the idea behind this briefly.

In this format, I hope to provide a platform for people to talk about topics important to them and a place for them to convey their thoughts without any censorship. These interviews are supposed to be a place for artists and activists to provide a small glimpse on their work and talk about the subjects important to them freely. Therefore, in this format, I hope to look into how people got interested in a given topic and to offer some resources that can serve as a starting point for those who wish to look into the topics themselves. Accordingly, if you are interested in animal rights activism and academic research, today’s post might be of particular interest for you, as Simon talks about these exact topics today.

1.         Could you introduce yourself and explain what it is that you’re doing?

Simon: I’m an animal activist and a P.h.D. candidate at University of Kassel. I do research on the historical human-animal relations in the German Vegetarian movement from around 1850 to 1935. I think, I should explain this, since it isn’t all that obvious.

On one hand, I observe how vegetarians talked about animals, for example about the meanings given to animals in this context. I also consider the anthropological difference, i.e. how vegetarians at different times positioned humanity in comparison to animals in their argumentations, for example whether they considered humans at the centre of creation and thus claimed that they have obligations towards other animals or whether they considered humans to be just another animal and so on. Apart from this dimension, I also write about the behaviour of vegetarians towards animals and their interactions with one another.

One example of this were vegetarians who wanted to found a colony to establish a paradise and killed ants that hindered the settling process, or vegetarians who hit their horses and then wrote poems about how sorry they were about this. I’m particularly interested in this tension. From our modern perspective, it doesn’t make sense to kill ants or hit horses as a vegetarian, but if you consider that at the time insects were deemed to be the lowest of all animals and incapable of feeling pain or that they were just thought of as vermin, it makes sense that vegetarians behaved like that back then.

So you observe how vegetarians treated animals differently?

Simon: Yes, but I try to put more emphasis on the animals. What did it mean for an animal to live in a vegetarian environment and what impact did the choices of humans have on the bodies of animals and vice versa? Additionally, there were vegans whose argumentation was strictly based on ethics who also rejected any use of animals. Conversely, there were people who considered empathy with animals a weakness or a feminine trait who put the well-being of society at the centre of their argumentation without any concern for the welfare of animals and then there were others who put animal welfare at the centre of their argumentation.

Would you also like to talk about your activism?

Simon: Ok, first off, I’d like to explain the difference between animal rights, animal welfare and animal liberation, since that is an important part of my activism.

Unfortunately, animal welfare often just restricts itself to animals that are sympathetic, such as baby pandas. That always works, as to be seen with WWF. This can also concern farm animals if you want to improve their living conditions. One criticism that vegetarian movements held against animal welfare back then, and one that I would share today, is that animal welfare does not reject the use and killing of animals but merely aims to improve the conditions of animal usage and killing. To me, this is anthropocentric, this is a one-sided decision that is imposed on animals, as humans want to use them, hence to mend one’s conscience so to say, they want to reduce the suffering of animals. That’s the criticism I would direct at animal welfare.

Animal rights go a step beyond that. You hope to grant animals basic rights, such as a right to live and a right on autonomy, the last of which can be problematic if you think a little bit further. Cats and dogs are spayed and neutered for their own well-being but then again, there’s the question as to how far we should get involved in this or not. Apart from a right to live and of autonomy, there are demands of political representation, which would mean that humans would represent the interests of animals as speakers, which in turn is strongly criticised by the animal liberation movement.

An artwork of the ALF, an animal liberation movement. This is not connected to Simon’s activism. picture by stuart hampton on Pixabay

According to the latter, there would still be a hierarchy if we gave animals rights in a human society and humans would just talk for animals. There’s a certain criticism of states in general involved, as the animal liberation movement stems from an anarchist environment that rejects hierarchies and states, hence the criticism of hierarchies.

I consider myself an animal activist. On one hand, I get the point of the animal liberation movement, as it wouldn’t be necessary to grant animals rights if all animals would just be considered to be the same, since there wouldn’t be an interest in their exploitation anymore. On the other hand, I also think that it is necessary to grant animals rights, as similarly to human rights, you have to assure that the lives of animals are respected. It should be a given that you don’t just run around killing people but still, you have to ensure that no one does so.

I practice animal activism.

2.         How did you first get into activism and research? And what made you decide to become an activist yourself? And in addition to that: how did you decide to opt for a Ph.D.?

Simon: In 2014, I attended a protest against animals at circuses but back then, it didn’t really make me want to be active myself. The first time I got into contact with institutionalised activism was on my stay abroad in the US, when I started working with Mercy For Animals. When I returned from the US, some groups were founded in Trier, so I joined them and started working with them on a weekly basis.

And the choice of going for a P.h.D. was just a logical consequence of that?

Simon: That’s right. I see that as an extension of my activism. Public discourse about the place of animals in society is often seen as a thing of the 2010s, among the lines of ‘suddenly, the trend of veganism was a thing’.

However, as my research shows, the dialogue about this is not new at all and despite it being a different time, many of the arguments that I still use today had already been made much earlier and people had approached this topic based on the same logic as me. Of course, there were arguments that don’t really make sense from a modern perspective or ones that just aren’t relevant anymore, but especially ethical aspects that are still addressed to this day, were already relevant back then. I also feel like the experiences that vegetarians made back thenwere really similar to what vegans experience today. For instance, there were arguments at the dinner table or people told you vegetarianism or vegetarianism didn’t make any sense.

I find these parallels really interesting. Additionally, I think that it can be profitable to look back at history and realise that these debates aren’t that new at all and that they’ve been around for quite some time. Vegans aren’t just some weirdos who just made things up but there has been an ongoing tradition, partially of global thinking. In part, I can recognise myself in that and it’s almost like a search for the origins of my own activism.

3.         What gives you inspiration and motivation for your work?

Unfortunately, the first part of Simon’s answer wasn’t recorded, so I tried to summarise his points briefly: Since Simon already touched on his motivations in question 2, it wasn’t that bad though. For him, it is mostly intrinsic motivation that drives him and he has a general interest in the topics. All his work stems from his mindset.  

So you hope to provide an alternative to anthropocentric views with your research and you try to put more emphasis on the animals, as history obviously focuses on humankind, since we write and document it. Essentially, you try to add a perspective that pays more attention to animals and adds this facete to the otherwise anthropocentric view on history.

Simon: Yes, that’s also one of the goals of animal history and the historical Human-Animal studies. Another interesting part of Human-Animal Studies is the search for alternatives to a hierarchical view on the relations between animals and humans and so far, this has not really been examined in the German context. The role of animals in the rejection of animal murder, or rather the supposed rejection of it, if you think of the ants, has not been considered thus far. My activism and research both essentially result from the same mindset.

4.         Is there anything related to your work that you are particularly proud of? Was there a special moment in which you thought: ‘This feels right’, a moment that you hold dear or a milestone if you will?

Simon: I could answer that for both, my research and activism, separately. In my research, it is rewarding to see argumentations that we use today in works from the 19th century and to find people whom I would have liked to have met, for instance, Gustav Struve who led two riots for the revolution of 1848 and posed early socialist demands. His wife did the same and she was an advocate for women’s rights as well as a vegetarian. I think it’s interesting to see that people in the middle of the 19th century already recognised aspects that are still relevant to us.

At an animal history colloquium, it turned out that I had found a nice niche for my research and it was a great feeling to know that I am now working on something myself and that I might find out things that others haven’t discovered yet. That just gives me intrinsic motivation and boosts me. Every time I find a new thought articulated by a vegetarian at that time, it’s interesting and I can align it into the broader picture.

So, whenever you find something relevant to your studies, there’s a small moment of joy that confirms you in the choice of your topic and shows you that it’s the right field of research for you?

Simon: Yes. There’s also a certain fear connected to a thesis. The topics you research have to be in a niche that has not been fully examined yet. For instance, the revolution of 1848 has been accessed for the biggest part and before starting your research, you don’t know whether or not that applies to your field of research. You don’t know if your topic hasn’t been examined because there are no sources or nothing to examine and apparently, I was really lucky and found a niche that offers a lot to explore.

When it comes to activism, there are lots of formative moments, especially if you see how someone is having an epiphany and making a realisation. I think, pretty much everyone has grown up under the notion that humans are superior to animals. Even if you haven’t grown up with the mindset that animals suffer the same as humans and that they are deserving of kindness, there is always this level of practice. No matter if it’s subconsciously, consuming animal-based products is always hierarchical and exploitative. Animals and humans are never on par in this process and there’s a massive ideology behind that, which Melanie Joy called carnism. It is normalised to eat animals and ‘Why should we change that?’

Gif by surgeactivism on giphy: https://giphy.com/SurgeActivism/

Seeing how people realise that there is an alternative to this mindset, that there is a vegan, anti-speciesist alternative, is cool. That ties in with the separation between idea and practice: I think that many people already think in a vegan way but don’t act upon it, which in turn creates an inner conflict that can be solved in a discussion. There were people who told me they’d go vegan after a discussion and of course, you can’t tell if they are really going to do so, but the possibility that talking to them might have been the first or final incentive for them to go vegan is nice.

Maybe in addition to that inner conflict: you could also connect that to animal welfare or similar thoughts. If you walk down a street and see a bleeding bird stuck in a fence, your first impulse isn’t ‘Sick, they’re dying, so I can eat them’. Instead, we instinctively realise that there’s a living being that is suffering and that we have the power to help them. Even people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan and who consume animal products or wear leather help animals in trouble. I think that this awareness is something intrinsic that you just have to act upon and that realisation still has to make it into society. You’ve got a positive self-perception and if you are confronted with the suffering you cause, it can trigger defence-mechanisms that prevent this realisation.

To name a specific example: there was a student who attended a presentation I gave on animal rights and veganism and went vegan afterwards. When I met her later, she told me that she stuck with it and that it made her happy and that was really cool. It’s great to see that people don’t view us as unworldly hippies but realise that what we say has a point. To connect that back to the example of the bird: I think this vegan, anti-speciesist mindset lies somewhere dormant in everyone and can be awakened. That idea gives me hope.

5.         Do you have any tips for people who are looking to get into animal rights activism or into your field of research? Any recommendations for beginners, organisations or literature to check out?

Simon: In terms of activism, there are lots of initiatives everywhere and just approaching them can help. It all comes down to what you’re willing to do. Disruptions, in which you interrupt the normalised process of eating animals, demand more of you than a demo, for example and it depends on how introverted or extroverted you are whether or not that’s the right thing for you. But things like a demo where you just stand silently and hold a banner or something are really simple and they can be helpful to get started and to find friends who make things easier for you. If you approach a group as a single outside person, it can obviously feel like an insider-outsider-type of thing but from my experiences, I can say that folks are happy if you approach them.

But you should be wary of which organisations you approach. Anonymous for the Voiceless, for example do important things for veganism but they’re questionable when it comes to positions on human rights. They struggle to take a stand against racism and sexism and try to separate concerns of animal rights from politics. They think that pronouns could distract from the animals, for example. When they were asked to take a stand due to the BLM movement last year, they said that they would do so if BLM took a stand for animal rights and I just thought ‘What the hell?’

That’s not how you should approach things. Instead, you should support as many social justice movements as you can and then, they are more likely to listen to you as well. All of them are dynamics of oppression with their own respective shapes but there are intersections and you can and should tackle all of them. However, unfortunately, there are organisations that refuse to do so and I would be cautious about approaching them.

For those who aren’t vegan yet and who want to make a different experience, I can recommend the Save Movement. That organisation exists in various countries and organises vigils in front of slaughterhouses, where animal transports arrive. Depending on the respective laws in your country, you can offer the animals water before they are taken to the slaughter house or you can at least pet them and calm them down. In Germany, you can’t give them water though. This is a special experience, as you can actually see the animals. Oftentimes, they are rendered invisible and if you see their suffering, it’s only over a distance and through a screen for instance.

‘If a pig approaches you and looks at you, lets you pet them and you know that’s possibly the first and final positive experience they’ve made in their life, ten minutes or so before they are brought to a gas chamber and killed, that’s an intense experience. I think that it helps you to understand why people make the decision not to use animals anymore.’

Apart from that, there are animal sanctuaries, which you can visit if there isn’t a pandemic around. There, you can get to know the animals and you can see that they are not all that different from the animals that you already love and hope to protect like dogs, cats and so on. That way, you get to experience them not as a distant object but as a happy living being.

You can visit some sanctuaries or support others by cleaning enclosures but that also depends on how they are organised. Sanctuaries can always make use of some help, be it through money or labour. They work in a difficult field and I think that their work is worth supporting, as they actively offer individuals a chance to live a happy life.

On this site, you can learn about farm sanctuaries in the US: https://www.farmsanctuary.org/

6.         Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Simon: I can imagine that someone might criticise my research because I come from a political background. I am an activist and I have a vision for change. It’s not like I’m a prophet or something like that but of course, I want to achieve something through my activism. There’s this notion that science has to be unpolitical and I’d like to point out two things. Firstly, saying that comes from a privileged position and secondly, science is always political, which can be both, positive and negative.

One positive example is feminist research, which offered various new viewpoints, shaped science and moved it forward and it also went back to a social justice movement, feminism. Based on the logic that science ‘has to be apolitical’, you would have to accuse feminist scholars of being biased as well. On the other hand, there are negative examples, in which sciences actively distance themselves from politics as an unpolitical entity and when they fail to take a position. Choosing not to be political, is also a political decision.

Exactly, that choice has consequences.

Simon: Beyond that, I’m wondering what’s the point in ‘apolitical science’, in science living in an ivory tower without any influence on the world around it. I think science that views itself as political like Feminist Studies and Animal History that observes possibilities of animals to act, one that doesn’t view them as passive objects of humans but as active individuals who can cause change, can be of particular value. Apart from that, I think you should consider how society treats animals, our stance on that and what we can do about it.

Closing thoughts:

That marks the end of today’s post and my first interview on this blog. Since representation is a vital part of this blog, tying in other’s opinions and takes was merely the next logical step for this project. I hope to offer a small platform for important topics and I’m looking forward to upcoming interviews. Are there any topics that you are particularly interested in and that you would like to learn more about? If so, feel free to tell me in the comments.

In the future, I want to start posting content regularly again. I wasn’t really able to do so these past few months but from now on, there should be new posts on a regular basis. You can look forward to new posts in my old formats and new content. Plus, who knows, maybe there’ll be some cooperations in the future?

If you’re interested in the Save Movement, check out their homepage: https://thesavemovement.org/

As always thanks for reading and thanks to the new followers. An additional shout out to Simon for taking your time for this interview!

-sovlpvnk

Published by sovlpvnk

On this blog, I talk about the alternative music scene and its ethics as well as LGBTQIAP+ -related topics. I mostly write about asexuality, political issues and their representation in media. Expect content in English and German every two weeks. Find more content on music on my instagram: @sovlpvnkblog

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