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Back You are here: Home Social Justice Animals It’s time to abandon the idea of ‘human’ rights

It’s time to abandon the idea of ‘human’ rights

SubhumanThe category of the ‘subhuman’ is inherent in global gendered, racialized and economic violence, throwing up questions around the relevance of concepts of ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ for effective theories of justice, policy and social movements. Instead of fighting dehumanization with humanization, a better strategy may be to minimize the human/nonhuman boundary altogether. A new discourse of cultural and legal protections is required to address violence against vulnerable humans in a manner that does not privilege humanity or humans, nor permit a subhuman figure to circulate as the mark of inferior beings on whom the perpetration of violence is legitimate. We need to find an alternative discourse to theorize and mobilize around vulnerabilities for “subhuman” humans, writes Maneesha Deckha.

13 December 2010

One of the organizing narratives of western thought and the institutions it has shaped is humanism and the idea that human beings are at the core of the social and cultural order. The cultural critique humanism has endured, by way of academic theory and social movements, has focused on the failure of its promise of universal equal treatment and dignity for all human beings.

To address this failing, a rehabilitative approach to humanism is usually adopted with advocates seeking to undo humanism’s exclusions by expanding its ambit and transporting vulnerable human groups from “subhuman” to “human” status.

Law has responded by including more and more humans under the coveted category of “personhood”. Yet, the logic of the human/subhuman binary typically survives this critique with the dependence of the coveted human status on the subhuman (and the vulnerabilities it enables) going unnoticed.

This gap in analysis is evident in how most of us think about violence and its related concept of vulnerability. Some would even say that what sets us apart from nonhumans is a capacity for vulnerability.

Others who address human-nonhuman relationships more closely might say that what sets human apart from nonhuman animals, if anything, is our capacity for violence.

More particular still, feminists would highlight the masculinist orientation of this violence against nonhumans, animals and otherwise, noting that institutionalized violence against nonhumans primarily occurs in male-dominated industries.

Yet, the discourse around (hu)man violence against animals is muted in mainstream debates about violence, vulnerability and exploitation in general. More common is a concern with violence against humans and how to eliminate it and make humans less vulnerable.

This theorizing largely proceeds through affirmations of the inviolability or sanctity of human life and human dignity, establishing what it means to be human through articulation of what it means to be animal.

The humanist paradigm of anti-violence discourse thus does not typically examine the human/nonhuman boundary, but often fortifies it.

The failure to address this boundary and its creation and maintenance of the figure of the subhuman undermines anti-violence agendas.

The humanism of violence

One of the most violent places imaginable is the modern day slaughterhouse. The rate of killing inside is swift and of unprecedented proportions. In the United States alone, around 9.5 billion animals are killed per year. To put that in perspective, that amounts to 250 cows per hour and 266 chickens per second.

This figure does not account for all slaughter of animals for food in the United States, merely the extent of killing of land farm animals. The overwhelming number are born, raised, and killed for consumption making the violence against farm animals the most pervasive form of institutionalized violence against animals.

These statistics also fail to capture the suffering animals endure while in the slaughterhouse, where they are raised for slaughter.

All of this infliction on animal bodies is perceived as legitimate violence because of the nonhuman status of the species involved. The law buttresses this cultural acceptance. Animals are the property of corporate and human owners; theirs is a near universal status in western legal systems, which facilitates their instrumental use and exploitation for human ends.

Due to the humanist parameters of our typical framings of violence, when we do think of violence against animals, it is only certain forms of violence that enter the realm of legal sanction.

The protection that animals receive in western common law systems extends to protection from “cruelty”. Yet, “cruelty” only covers a fraction of the violent activities against animals and even then is designed to protect owners’ property interests, rather than recognize any inherent interests of animals themselves.

According to Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University, part of what characterizes postdomestic society in the United States is the invisibility of violence against animals.

Contrary to the seemingly insatiable appetite for animal blood sports several centuries ago, postdomestic sensibilities against this type of bloodletting have become the norm due to an aversion to viewing animal slaughter despite the acceptance of slaughterhouses and the knowledge of the hidden and routine violence against animals that occurs there. Postdomestic societies brutalize animals, but hide the brutality.

Thus, anti-cruelty laws cover these blood sports today, but not much else beyond basic sustenance and shelter. “Cruelty” typically only extends to protection from “unnecessary” suffering and excludes all forms of current or “postdomestic” institutionalized violence against animals.

It is not that postdomestic societies are any less violent than predomestic ones. Rather, only the “excessive” violence against animals, i.e., that which is not related to any culturally mainstream profitable or recreational practice, is outlawed while a multiplicity of institutional violence venues are kept hidden or filtered from full view.

This approach to animal “protection” is compatible within a legal regime that classifies all nonhuman beings as property rather than persons and is premised on a species divide that is foundational for western cultures in general.

Statutes outlawing cruelty co-exist with the slaughterhouse. It is a mistake though to assume that the slaughterhouse is an “animal rights” issue of no consequence to humans beyond the working conditions for the slaughterhouse workers.

The role of the subhuman in current manifestations of violence

I will endeavour to illustrate the productive role of the subhuman figure in three contemporary instantiations of violence:

1)      detention of individuals in anti-terrorist militarized and police camps;

2)      contemporary slavery and/or slavery-like practices; and

3)      the laws of war.

a) Violence in the camps

In her latest book exploring the intersections of race, gender, culture and violence, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics, postcolonial feminist scholar Sherene Razack discusses the lawlessness that attends the rise of the “war on terror”.

In doing so, Razack highlights the phenomenon of the “camp” – spaces where states pass laws or take other measures to create a lawless zone untouched by rule of law principles. Camps are not a new phenomenon and may be established for a variety of purposes relating to state control.

But a notable feature of many camps dispersed throughout the globe today is who primarily lives there – racialized individuals identified as terrorist or migrant threats and thus in need of containment and discipline.

For Razack, the reason for this resides in the camps’ reliance on a type of “race thinking” – “a structure of thought that divides up the world between the deserving and undeserving” – that sustains the legitimacy of indefinite detention, war and violence.

Razack connects this concept of “race thinking” with respect to the camps dispersed throughout the world to Foucault’s argument requiring the presence of racism to justify the state’s sense of legitimate killing and biopower.

The war on terror is another instance of the state seeking to purge from its boundaries those racialized Others whose values are cased as in conflict with “our” own.

Gender frequently figures into this process of racialization, helping western nations accentuate the purported values on which the west and non-west differ by pointing to the systemic gender violence and oppression as part of the Others’ culture, and never their own.

The classic colonial argument of the non-west requiring and benefitting from western imperial invasion to save non-western women from their “misogynistic” culture and “dangerous” men has clearly been operative in the war on terror.

While the intersection of race and gender is often acknowledged in understanding the etiology of justificatory narratives for war, the presence of species distinctions and the importance of the subhuman are less appreciated.

Yet, the race (and gender) thinking that animates Razack’s argument in normalizing violence for detainees (and others) is also centrally sustained by the subhuman figure.

As Charles Patterson notes with respect to multiple forms of exploitation:

Throughout the history of our ascent to dominance as the master species, our victimization of animals has served as the model and foundation for our victimization of each other. The study of human history reveals the pattern: first, humans exploit and slaughter animals; then, they treat other people like animas and do the same to them.

Patterson emphasizes how the human/animal hierarchy and our ideas about animals and animality are foundational for intra-human hierarchies and the violence they promote.

The routine violence against beings designated subhuman serves as both a justification and blueprint for violence against humans.

For example, in discussing the specific dynamics of the Nazi camps, Patterson further notes how techniques to make the killing of detainees resemble the slaughter of animals were deliberately implemented in order to make the killing seem more palatable and benign. That the detainees were made naked and kept crowded in the gas chambers facilitated their animalization and, in turn, their death at the hands of other humans who were already culturally familiar and comfortable with killing animals in this way.

Returning to Razack’s exposition of race thinking in contemporary camps, one can see how subhuman thinking is foundational to race thinking.

One of her primary arguments is that race thinking, which she defines as “the denial of a common bond of humanity between people of European descent and those who are not”, is “a defining feature of the world order” today as in the past.

In other words, it is the “species thinking” that helps to create the racial demarcation.

As Razack notes with respect to the specific logic infusing the camps, they “are not simply contemporary excesses born of the west’s current quest for security, but instead represent a more ominous, permanent arrangement of who is and is not a part of the human community”.

Once placed outside the “human” zone by race thinking, the detainees may be handled lawlessly and thus with violence that is legitimated at all times. Racialization is not enough and does not complete their Othering experience. Rather, they must be dehumanized for the larger public to accept the violence against them and the increasing “culture of exception” which sustains these human bodily exclusions.

Although nonhumans are not the focus of Razack’s work, the centrality of the subhuman to the logic of the camps and racial and sexual violence contained therein is also clearly illustrated in her specific examples.

In the course of her analysis, to determine the import of race thinking in enabling violence, Razack quotes a newspaper story that describes the background mentality of Private Lynndie England, the white female soldier made notorious by images of her holding onto imprisoned and naked Iraqi men with a leash around their necks.

The story itself quotes a resident from England’s hometown who says the following about the sensibilities of individuals from their town:

To the country boys here, if you’re a different nationality, a different race, you’re sub-human. That’s the way that girls like Lynndie England are raised. Tormenting Iraqis, in her mind, would be no different from shooting a turkey. Every season here you’re hunting something. Over there they’re hunting Iraqis.

Razack extracts this quote to illustrate how “race overdetermined what went on”, but it may also be observed that species “overdetermined what went on”. Race has a formative function, to be sure, but it works in conjunction with species difference to enable the violence at Abu Ghraib and other camps.

Dehumanization promotes racialization, which further entrenches both identities. It is an intertwined logic of race, sex, culture and species that lays the foundation for the violence.

b) Present-day slavery and/or slavery-like practices

While humans may not legally be property of other humans in any country, many human rights scholars and activists largely argue that non-legal slavery and its trappings still exist in a wide variety of industries where children and adults are kept imprisoned to perform labour of some sort against their will and for little or no remuneration.

Kevin Bales is at the foreground of this area of activism and scholarship. He is President of the American-based Free the Slaves organization, a sister organization of the Anti-Slavery International based in the United Kingdom.

In his book, Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves, Bales identifies three core components of slavery today: “control through violence, economic exploitation, and the loss of free will”.

Again, it is the denial of humanity that is identified as the dynamic that exposes individuals to being perceived and treated violently as slaves. This is not to deny, of course, that the causes of slavery are multiple; poverty, extreme capitalism, international debt policies, greed, state corruption and apathy, and armed conflict are just some of the causes Bales identifies.

Yet, the subhuman figure highlights the conceptual vehicle, a denial of equal humanity, which facilitates violence against humans to compel their labour.

c) Laws of war

The resonance of the subhuman figure may also be found in western jurisprudence relating to the conduct of war. As the title of his recent article, ‘Species War: Law, Violence and Animals’, intimates, law lecturer Tarik Kochi argues that a species war is at the root of war and violence generally.

He notes that the “laws of war” that describe how nations may engage each other in combat differentiate between two categories of violence: legitimate and non-legitimate violence. He insists that the human-nonhuman distinction is the primary political distinction organizing the laws on war and not, as many would believe, the notion of friend-enemy as Carl Schmidt espoused.

Kochi locates the war of humans against nonhumans as lying at the crux of race war and western political and legal theory.

In making this claim, Kochi’s argument joins posthumanist, postcolonial and feminist theory by locating species difference as intricately connected to the axes of gender, race, and cultural difference. He adds to Razack’s “race thinking”, which incorporates gender and religious/cultural difference, but misses adverting to species difference.

From our treatment of nonhumans we learn that only certain deaths are valued in our cultural and legal order as “genocide” or “murder” while others are comparatively diminished through their representations as “slaughter”, “culling” or “harvest”.

Kochi’s emphasis on legitimate violence and life value explains this approach to the human/animal distinction, a binary which goes on to inform what humans may do to other humans in executing war.

Whether it is the laws of war on what counts as legitimate violence, the logic of the camps as to which bodies may be subject to violence without legal rights and protection, or the flourishing of contemporary slavery and/or slavery-like practices, the subhuman figure is critical to producing violence against humans.

Doing away with the subhuman

If this role of contributing to contemporary manifestations of violence played by subhumanization is accurate, a pressing question presents itself: should we continue to rely on anti-violence discourses (i.e., human rights or other “human” justice campaigns) that entrench the subhuman category?

In other words, human rights discourses do not instruct us to purge the subhuman category or the human/nonhuman divide from our critical repertoire. Instead, they seek to convince us that we should see all human beings as definitely human and not subhumanize them.

This approach does not effectively achieve its aims of protecting vulnerable human groups from violence because it leaves the subhuman category intact, a category that humanized humans can always assert should convictions sway about the relative moral worth of a particular human group.

The subhuman category is then poised to “animalize” or dehumanize the targeted group and generate corresponding justifications as to why the human group does not deserve better than subhuman treatment.

A better strategy would be to eliminate the subhuman category from the outset by impugning the human/nonhuman boundary itself and thus the claim to human superiority.

Time for a new discourse

That the human/subhuman binary continues to inhabit so much of western experience raises the question of the continuing relevance of anthropocentric concepts (such as “human rights” and “human dignity”) for effective theories of justice, policy and social movements.

Instead of fighting dehumanization with humanization, a better strategy may be to minimize the human/nonhuman boundary altogether.

The human specialness claim is a hierarchical one and relies on the figure of an Other – the  subhuman and nonhuman – to be intelligible. The latter groups are beings, by definition, who do not qualify as “human” and thus are denied the benefits that being “human” is meant to compel.

More to the point, however, a dignity claim staked on species difference, and reliant on dehumanizing Others to establish the moral worth of human beings, will always be vulnerable to the subhuman figure it creates.

This figure is easily deployed in inter-human violent conflict implicating race, gender and cultural identities as we have seen in the context of military and police camps, contemporary slavery and slavery-like practices, and the laws of war – used in these situations to promote violence against marginalized human groups.

A new discourse of cultural and legal protections is required to address violence against vulnerable humans in a manner that does not privilege humanity or humans, nor permit a subhuman figure to circulate as the mark of inferior beings on whom the perpetration of violence is legitimate.

We need to find an alternative discourse to theorize and mobilize around vulnerabilities for “subhuman” humans.

This move, in addressing violence and vulnerabilities, should be productive not only for humans made vulnerable by their dehumanization, but nonhumans as well.

Maneesha Deckha is Associate Professor at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law in Victoria, Canada. Professor Deckha’s research interests include critical animal studies, feminist analysis of law, law and culture, and bioethics. She is currently working on a book project analyzing the legal status of animals in Canada from a postcolonial feminist lens.

Among her recognition in the area of critical animal studies, in 2008 she held the Fulbright Visiting Chair in Law and Society at New York University and in 2006 her seminar on Animals, Culture and the Law received the U.S. Humane Society's Animal and Society New Course Award.

She received her BA from McGill University, her LL.B. from the University of Toronto and her LL.M. from Columbia University. This paper has benefitted from the responses received from participants in the Feminist Legal Theory Workshop on Violence and Vulnerability at the Feminist Legal Theory Project at Emory Law School as well as research support from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Maneesha can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This is an edited version of an article entitled ‘The subhuman as a cultural agent of violence’, which appears in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Volume VIII, Issue 3, Special Issue, Women of Color in Critical Animal Studies, 2010. The full version of the article, including references, can be read (freely accessible) on the journal’s website.



0 #1 Alex Melonas 2010-12-15 13:06
This essay was cogent. It seems to me that human-human violence is *always* justified by reference to the ontological dualism, human-nonhuman. In other words, inter-human conflict relies *for its justification*, psychologically and in our discourses, on reifying the categories "human"/"not human." The category "subhuman," that is, lacking in some essential way making the Other not-like-us, is firmly located in this human-nonhuman split.

Moreover, humanism is, besides being quite vapid, a telling discourse. By not problematizing the dualism it is predicated upon, it exposes the ontological reality of the human-nonhuman split. But when pushed to justify that split theoretically, the humanists' position is exposed as empty, basically constructed from the ground-up with concepts like “human dignity,” “the soul,” and so on.

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