An Interview With Jim Mason
By Claudette Vaughan
First published in Vegan Voice
Jim Mason is a high-profile person in the animal rights movement who makes a definite connection between non-human animal cruelty and the wider picture of power, privilege, patriarchy, and persecution. He says his vegan meals are, in part, rituals that help him observe and reaffirm his opposition to animal slavery and its destructive effects on animals, human culture, and the living world. Being vegan nourishes him physically, spiritually, and politically.
It wasn’t surprising to find Jim heading down to the poorest, most backward American southern states to fund spay/neuter programs (as well as rescue groups and others).
“Funding,” he says, “goes into small grants to grassroots groups, people in the trenches, in the frontline of animal protection work. These are the programs that are actually saving lives and preventing suffering.”
Advocates can make a difference and change attitudes, even in difficult regions, if you are willing to work, roll up your sleeves, and set an example to the community at large.
In your book An Unnatural Order you speak about how humans are destroying themselves, other life forms, and the planet. How are we doing this?
We are destroying the planet because of the myths of human supremacy and dominionism—the belief in our God-given ownership of the world. Because of nearly universal belief in these myths, human beings—in unprecedented numbers—are exploiting the planet’s soil, air and water, and its plant and animal life as so much private property. The world is our oyster, we believe, so we pluck it, break it open, rob its pearls and devour its tissues, thereby killing it. Because of these myths, we put human life above all other life and we license ourselves to use or destroy it to further our own lives. Our view of the world has, as Alfred Crosby put it in his book, Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge U. Press, 1986), “at its base a matter of the direct control and exploitation of many species for the sake of one: Homo sapiens.”
We are destroying each other through racism, patriarchy, militarism, imperialism, human overpopulation, monotheist fundamentalism, and other social evils that are all too evident today.
The point of my book is to explain how these myths and social evils arose with the beginnings of agriculture—particularly animal domestication—or, as I prefer to call it, animal slavery. I argue that as human beings learned to take control of animals, plants and nature, they traded a sense of kinship with the living world for a sense of ownership of it.
What is a “ritual of dominionism”?
A ritual in the anthropological sense is any activity that serves to express, remind, reaffirm, reinforce, and perpetuate a society’s world view and way of life. For example, some Christian denominations practice the ritual of holy communion to express, reaffirm, and perpetuate their belief in Jesus the Nazarene as the Messiah, Christ, Savior and Son of God—a belief which is the central tenet of the Christian faith. Stone-age hunting tribes practiced complex rituals before the hunt to express, reaffirm, and perpetuate their belief in animals’ souls and powers. (On this note, in my book, I explain why I think they may have hunted—at least, at first—more for spiritual power than for edible protein.) Observing holidays is another kind of ritual; Americans, for example, observe Thanksgiving to express, reaffirm, and perpetuate certain religious and nationalistic beliefs.
I suggest that vivisection may be, in part, ritual because it expresses, reaffirms, and perpetuates our belief in human supremacy over other life. In vivisection, we celebrate both our own importance and our mastery over the “secrets” of life. Just look at the glory heaped on the vivisectors! They are regarded as superheroes of civilization for their probings and manipulations of non-human beings. They claim, of course, concrete results: great strides in medical progress, great advances in the conquest of illness. For one thing, health care systems and human health seem to be getting worse, not better. Secondly, the strides and advances might well have been greater if medical research had been more true science instead of nature-dominating rituals.
You have spoken about pornography being a ritual of dominionism. How does that relate to non-human animal degradation?
This section of the book is taken from Susan Griffin’s wonderful book, Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature (Harper & Row, 1981). Every worldview needs its rituals to keep its values alive and strong. Patriarchy’s values are male supremacy and female inferiority; women are fit only for breeding, tending the males’ families, and males’ sexual pleasure. Pornography supplies words and images that reduce women’s bodies and lives to these roles. A steady stream of such words and images keeps up the mindset: men on top, women = sexual commodities. Griffin says: “For above all, pornography is ritual—[It] imparts a vision of the world. The altar for the ritual is a woman’s body. And the ritual that is carried out on this altar is the desecration of flesh. Here, what is sacred within the body is degraded.”
One may see the relationship between animal degradation and pornography on a couple of levels—maybe more. Most obviously, porn reduces women’s wonderful, living bodies to sexual “meat” for men; and animal degradation reduces animals’ wonderful, living bodies to edible meat for humans. In both cases, myths, beliefs and rituals are employed so that the supremacist beings can enjoy their pleasures in the flesh of exploited beings. In both cases, the essential oppression is slavery—the supremacist being has property in the body, flesh, and life of another being.
Then there is the historical relationship. Patriarchy was the invention of the original animal domesticators, the various prehistoric herding tribes—pastoralists, as anthropologists call them. (They also invented monotheism, by the way.) Animal herding tended to be male work, and the animals tended to be male property. The strongest male was the chief owner and the tribal leader. These tribes were aggressive and powerful militarily; they became the ruling classes of the ancient Middle East well before history begins. Their code of war, conquest, and male supremacy was woven into Western civilization from the start. At the bottom of it, of course, is animal slavery—so-called domestication.
The dominionist culture we have inherited is entirely about exaltation of “humanity” over nature. One cheap trick for exalting ourselves is to degrade nature. It’s so much easier to feel superior when you regard the Other as base, low, crude, and inferior. This is what the white supremacist does, and what the male supremacist does, and what the human supremacist does. The supremacist literally jacks himself up by putting the Other down. The male supremacist uses pornography, among other things. The white supremacist uses lynching, humiliating stereotypes, apartheid, and other tools. The human supremacist uses every trick in the book—especially denial.
What are some rituals of dominionism that spring to mind, in relation to non-human animals?
For me, one of the most obvious rituals of dominionism is the circus and similar spectacles that use performing animals. These are rituals mistaken for entertainment. Children naturally are fascinated by animals and want to see them run, jump, and play. Children can relate to those activities. So what do we do? We remove children from seeing animals in nature where they run, jump, and play their own games, where they play to the beat of their own drummers. Instead, we take children to the circus and they watch animals dressed in silly outfits perform tricks imposed on them by trainers—things like dancing bears, elephants doing headstands, seals playing ball. Of course kids are amused by these tricks, but in the process they are infused with several ideas: Animals are under our control, animals are inferior to us, animals do our bidding. These rituals—these “entertainments”—serve to humiliate animals, to strip them of their dignity and their natural behaviors, to reduce them to objects.
Others? Bullfights, rodeos, and hunting are essentially staged, man-over-beast contests with the deck heavily stacked in man’s (let’s be honest about gender here!) favor. These entertainments offer testosterone-poisoned macho men arenas in which to display their manliness over great, powerful, dangerous beasts. And by extension, these manly men are displaying (and expressing, reaffirming, and perpetuating) patriarchal civilization’s mastery over nature, for powerful beasts always symbolize the awesome forces of nature—forces that would overwhelm us, we think, if we did not constantly assert our human mastery.
How to start undoing these rituals? For me, I have to start with the understanding that THEY ARE RITUALS and plan the campaigns from there. This understanding can empower protests and education on more levels than we are now using. For example, protest the circus for its cruelty to animals, but also protest the circus for the way it brainwashes our children and robs them of empathy and of their potential to respect, to wonder, to be awed, to be fascinated by the real animal. Protest animal fights for their cruelty, of course, but also protest them because they legitimize and perpetuate violence in culture, they desensitize us, they stifle empathy, and they prop up the shaky, dubious myth of human supremacy over nature.
If vivisection is a very sophisticated modern ritual of dominionism, what are the undercurrents operating that substantiate the near-fanaticism with which it is promoted?
Well, I can speak only to American culture, of course. In the U.S., there is virtual mass hysteria over health. People are obsessed with disease, dying and longevity. This obsession is fueled by several things. For one, the corporations make lots of money selling products of all kinds. With the left hand, they pour out products that pollute the planet and our bodies and make us sick; with the right hand, they offer us products that purport to make us well. In the process, they exploit animals in laboratories with both of those hands. All the while, the corporate media make their profits from advertising these products, so the media feed us a steady diet of misinformation that keeps us worrying about our health. Just watch one of the major network’s six o’clock news shows sometime. You’ll see a barrage of advertisements of products for hemorrhoids, flatulence, incontinence, headache, indigestion, aches, pains, insomnia, constipation, body odor, hair loss, weight loss. You get the message that your body and health are steadily falling apart and you need these products to keep well and feel good.
For another fuel, look at the American lifestyle: We are a lazy, overweight population. We are so alienated from nature and our physical well-being that we drive everywhere or lie slouched in front of a TV or computer screen—all the while overeating corporate fast/junk food. Of course our bodies and our health fall apart, and when they do, we want a quick fix—a pill, surgery, a new organ.
Another fuel is our human-supremacist obsessions with our science and technology—scientism, technologism, you might call them. We maintain a tremendous sense of supremacy and power over nature through our tools. We think that we can solve any problem, correct any error, with our science and technology. Thus a lot of people smoke and get fat and otherwise ruin their health—all the while expecting medical science and technology to provide powerful medicines, organ transplants, heroic surgeries. Of course, the corporate health care system rubs its hands with glee because they can charge an arm and a leg (pun intended) for them. They tell us: Go ahead, indulge yourselves on factory-farmed animal products; when your heart fails, give us a mere $100,000 and we will gladly stick in a new one from one of our baboon farms. The capitalist insurance industry loves this system too. They fuel our fears of life and death, of high medical costs, so that we obediently pay exorbitant monthly premiums to protect us in case of a health failure. And we do so eagerly because the whole system causes huge health risks, constantly reminds us of them, and constantly promises cures.
You have coined a term called “misothery”. What does this mean and is it related to misogyny at all?
The word misothery (miz OTH uh ree) is coined from two Greek words, misos, “hatred”, and ther, “wild beast” or “animal”. Thus it means, literally, “hatred of animals”. More broadly, it means hatred / contempt / despising of animals / animality / nature. It is very similar in construction, meaning and use to the more familiar word misogyny, which comes from the Greek root words misos and gune, “woman”. There are all too many examples of misogyny, of course. Maybe one of the most common is an attitude expressed in one of Norman Mailer’s works: “Most men who understand women at all feel hostile toward them. At their worst, women are low, sloppy beasts.” Plenty of other examples can be found in X-rated pornography and some of the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. These are hateful attitudes; they indicate strong contempt and loathing.
I coined misothery because I could find no word in the English language to express the similar sort of strong, negative feeling about animals, animality and nature. The word “speciesism” is too mild, as it means merely discrimination or inequality of regard. Similarly to “sexism” and “misogyny”, sexism is discrimination, un-equal treatment; misogyny is strong hatred and contempt for women. “Speciesism” connotes unequal regard for animals; “misothery” connotes vicious, strong, deep hatred and contempt for animals. For example, just look at “animal” in any dictionary: One meaning is “an inhuman person; brutish or beastlike person”, someone who is horribly cruel and violent. Other examples of misothery are our traditional attitude toward wolves, rats, snakes, cats, bats, and other species who challenge us or threaten us in some way—or so we believe. (I say traditional because these attitudes are slowly changing in some places.)
Misothery arose in the first place as early agriculturalists learned to demystify and control the forces of nature—by clearing forests, damming rivers, irrigating crops, selecting seeds, and—above all—enslaving animals and controlling their lives. In that early stage, they still had the leftovers of the Paleolithic-era regard for animals as ensouled beings who represented the spirits and powers of a greater, more mysterious natural world. Animals were more or less sacred. As agriculturalists took over nature, they had to bring animals down off their pedestal, so to speak. They were needed not as gods, but as property and commodities. The old beliefs in the animal powers had to go in order to make way for animal slavery. As with any form of slavery, the slavers had to reduce the status and strip away the dignity of the enslaved. Thus misothery begins to be seen in the art, legends, myths, and laws—the culture—of early agrarian societies. By the time history begins c. 3,000 BC, misothery (and misogyny) are overtaking and displacing the earlier views of animals (and women).
Do you think there is an innate need in our species (and culture) to dominate other life forms we dismiss as “inferior”? I mean, if it is innate, then we can’t help ourselves. On the other hand, if this behavior arises from conditioning, then why aren’t we attempting to help ourselves out of the morass we have created for others, the planet, and ourselves?
It seems there will always be this debate over nature versus nurture—over whether some particular human behavior is the product of heredity or environment, of genes or culture. Perhaps, some day, people will be sufficiently educated in basic biology and anthropology to understand that human behavior is directed by both.
But I believe that our nature- or genes-based behavior can still be shaped by culture to some extent. Take a couple of human traits, for example; let’s take two that are in opposition, just for fun: competition and cooperation. I think that we probably have “genes” or “nature” for both traits. Each of these will be either discouraged or encouraged in children depending on how they are reared—the parenting, the values of the community, the “culture” around them. If we value cooperation over competition, we will teach that to children; we will acculturate them to be more cooperative than competitive. Cooperative behaviors will be rewarded and competitive behaviors will be punished or discouraged.
But at present, there are cults and ideologues on both sides of the nature/nurture debate. For example, on matters of sex and gender, some insist that males are naturally violent dominators; others that women are naturally homemakers and nursemaids to children. This is called biodeterminism, and it says, “Biology (meaning genes/nature) is destiny”. The other extreme might be the Red Guard Maoists who believed that human behavior is putty that can be properly shaped with sufficient force—that we are driven purely by culture/nurture.
One cheap trick for exalting ourselves is to degrade nature. It’s so much easier to feel superior when you regard the Other as base, low, crude, and inferior.
In patriarchal culture, it appears, if you look at statistics, that men are violent dominators and women are homemakers and nursemaids to children. Are we stuck in these roles? No. Are we stuck with patriarchal culture? No. Are there any other possibilities for a more peaceful, egalitarian human society? Yes. See my book, An Unnatural Order, and see Peggy Reeves Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality (Cambridge U. Press, 1981). Sanday shows empirical evidence that bolsters the animal rights case: Sex and gender equality and non-violence are more prevalent in plant-based societies than in animal exploitative ones. This, she says, is because hunting and herding tend to be male work and a principal source of male pride, property, and power.
Ours is a violent, male-dominated, patriarchal culture because, as I explain in my book, our culture had its beginnings in the animal slavery-based societies of the ancient Middle East. Since those ancient societies were warlike and imperialistic, they spread their influence and their institutions throughout the ancient world. So that today you see patriarchy in China, Japan, Europe, and other regions that are far beyond the original homelands of these first animal-enslaving, patriarchal warlords.
What does “Life on Earth” mean to you?
The living world. All the living beings on this planet, from the smallest and simplest—one-celled bacteria (not all bacteria cause disease)—to the largest—trees and whales—and the most complex—the great apes? Cetaceans? Who knows? Who does the defining of “complex”? I think of it like this: This planet is encased in a thin layer of water, soil, and atmosphere which may be seen as a living skin made up of millions of kinds of living beings, which we have classified as plant and animal. The whole skin of the planet is alive with beings, and they come in many forms.
How can we make the public aware of their prejudices against other species?
We need to use science—biology and history and anthropology. Biology gives the intimate details on our close kinship with animals down to the molecular level. Chimpanzees, for example, share almost 99 per cent of our genes. Although some protest that it is speciesist to single out chimps and great apes, as a practical and tactical matter, it may be necessary to do so if we are to launch a wider discussion of speciesism.
History and anthropology, too, can—with proper study—show our close association and kinship with animals over the centuries. That was the whole point of my book, An Unnatural Order. I tried to show that human societies have not always carried speciesism and misothery in their cultures; in many times and places, human societies have carried ideas of kinship and continuity with animals, attitudes of respect for animals. I tried to show how these ideas and cultures were pushed down as agriculture and animal slavery spread around the world. This knowledge can help defeat the prevailing idea that our dominionist, speciesist, misotherous culture is “natural” and “the way things are”. Our movement could do a lot more on this front; we could use anthropology and history to teach the public about these long lost societies and their attitudes toward animals and nature.
We can continue to shed strong, bright light on the excesses of both speciesism and misothery. I would use more art, music, film, video, and literature to zero in on the hideous contrast between animals as they truly are (sentient, social, sensitive, intelligent, communicative) and the ways we tend to regard them (dumb, dirty, mean, dangerous, diseased). Our movement is big on protests, marches, and campaigns, but a little slow when it comes to using the arts and media to convey our messages.
Tell us your thoughts on the chapter, ‘The Rape of Lassie’ and the future of selective breeding programs.
That part of the book describes some of the excesses of our commodification of animals for “pets”. The 300-odd breeds or varieties of dog illustrate our obsession with controlling the sex lives of animals to suit our frivolous needs. We have taken over dogs’ entire range of sexual and reproductive behavior to sculpt forms according to our sick values. We have played God with Canis familiaris and the result is a surplus of dogs in every size and shape—most of them extreme deformations of the original, ancestral canid. Every one of these breeds carries a long list of health problems related to these deformations and excesses in breeding: hip dysplasia, birthing difficulty, eye and breathing problems—you know most of them. The solution is to phase out the most extremely deformed breeds. Quit breeding them, or better yet for C. familiaris, breed their line back into others—regroup the dogs’ gene pool. In time, individual dogs will have all of their original genetic stuff back together and their original, natural healthy bodies and behavior.
The future? As long as animals are products and property, there will be circles of profiteers—whether we’re talking about companions/pets, farmed animals, animals in vivisection, or whatever. These profiteers will use every trick and scientific tool in the book—genetic engineering, cloning—to make a “better” product or property out of “their” animals. For them, “better” means cheaper to produce, more highly specialized, hairless, legless, fatter, leaner, bigger, and smaller—whatever they need in a product. Today, these profiteers are powerful, wealthy corporations with the most powerful, state-of-the-art tricks and tools. They control the laws and the regulations. They impose secrecy and patent protection on all that they do. The rules protect all that for them. They have made the rules to protect their property, to give them a bigger edge in competition in the capitalist system.
The future? Unless we are successful in building a large, popular movement for the rights of animals, animal slavery/exploitation will grow bigger and more ruthless around the world.
Are we strong enough collectively to forge revolutionary changes against a corrupt value system; for example, factory farming?
As you put the question, no, absolutely not. The only changes in factory farming have come in Europe, and those changes are not what you would call revolutionary. Some countries have banned veal crates, sow stalls, and battery cages, and the most extreme practices, but the animals are still mass-produced in crowded confinement. We are trying to promote the vegan lifestyle, but the meat industry’s promotions are outrunning us. For every person we convert to the vegan diet here, the meat industry converts perhaps dozens of people around the world to the SAD (Standard American Diet) rich in animal products.
If we want to reverse worldwide trends in diet and animal exploitation in general, we are going to have to build a much larger, more popular movement. As we approach that, we will gain more clout, more power to cause changes for the better.
What was your goal in writing An Unnatural Order, and did you achieve it?
I researched the book for 10 years and wrote it in two. I did it to add more ammunition to the case for animals’ rights—or, as I prefer to put it, to restore ideas about animal dignity and kinship and to destroy the myth of human supremacy. We have had many books of ethics and philosophy, so what I thought was needed were some arguments and information that might appeal to human self-interest. I wanted something to offer the skeptical and the blasé that might show them that these changes would be good for humans as well as animals. My research uncovered many helpful ideas from biology and anthropology, which I distilled into a whole new approach to the question of animal slavery in particular and of human/animal relations in general.
Central to my case is the understanding of how important animals have been in the evolution of our minds, intelligence, language, myth—culture, in a word. Some biologists say that animals made us begin to think, that animals are wired into our brains. This is an important and constructive insight—which I elaborate on in Chapter Three—but unfortunately it is getting lost to other louder and, I think, less constructive debates in the movement. Now, if this insight is true, then it begs a huge question for all the world: If animals empower our minds and culture, then what does it do to us emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and culturally, when we enslave them, reduce them, and subject them to many kinds of mass terror and violence? An obvious answer is: It causes a culture of mass terror and violence which lords control over all living beings; it makes us destroy life on earth—ourselves included.
This is the stuff that I thought would be seized upon by the movement and used to gain more serious consideration of our claims and more respect for our cause. In 1993, my book came out from one of the top U.S. publishers and it has been in print for almost nine years now, yet I am seeing no evidence so far that this important, central idea is being understood—let alone used politically—by our movement.
In fact—and I can hardly believe it myself—this is the first time I have been interviewed by an animal rights publication and given the opportunity to discuss these ideas. And yours is a publication not even in my own country, the U.S.. So I have a feeling of frustration. Here’s a new and powerful tool, and no one is using it.