Scholar-Activist Spotlight with John Sorenson
Ian Purdy: What inspired you to write Constructing Ecoterrorism: Capitalism, Speciesism and Animal Rights?
John Sorenson: What inspired me to write the book was the efforts of animal activists who have dedicated their lives to helping animals, speaking out against the atrocities that are inflicted upon them and working to create a more compassionate and just society.
IP: What were your goals and intentions with the book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
JS: Rather than being applauded for their noble, principled and compassionate work to rescue animals from harm, activists are denounced as foolish middle-class sentimentalists, misanthropes, or dangerous terrorists. In spite of the fact that activists are simply attempting to put into practice those same principles that almost everyone claims to hold (such as being kind to animals, not harming them needlessly, etc.), they are despised and vilified. I wanted to look into how that happens, challenge these representations and demonstrate what are the vested interests that allow this to be the dominant story.
In general, I’m interested in how things get talked about – discourse, images, representations, propaganda. So in my first book, Imagining Ethiopia, I looked at how war and national identity in the Horn of Africa were presented by various actors in those struggles and by media. In Constructing Ecoterrorism, I’ve followed those same interests to consider how animal activists have been portrayed in media and corporate propaganda and how police and state security forces act on behalf of those corporate interests to attack and undermine the animal rights movement. Looking at anti-animal rights discourse is particularly interesting because of the fundamental contradictions it contains and the various gyrations involved in what is, essentially, the effort to defend exploitation, cruelty and injustice. Almost everyone, even the person who’s running a slaughterhouse, claims to care about animals and to be concerned about their welfare. Now, it’s obvious that this simply cannot be true in a society where billions upon billions of animals are killed every year for food, clothing and sport and in laboratories, etc.. Essentially, animal activists are pointing out these contradictions and saying that we should live up to our stated beliefs and values, we should not harm animals unnecessarily, and if we are concerned about animals’ welfare we should not harm them. A message like that is far too radical because it means people would have to actually change their behavior, which is inconvenient and, even more seriously, it would affect the profits being made from exploitation. So those who are sending such a message have to be marginalized and silenced. This happens on various levels. While corporations spend billions of dollars on the magic system of advertising that operates to normalize all the horrors that are involved in animal exploitation, anyone who is a vegan has experienced the limitless flow of irrational arguments, deception and calumny that are involved in defending it. This includes everything from preposterous claims about “humane slaughter” to the fetishization of bacon as a substance that provides such intense pleasure that it negates any moral consideration of the agony that animals must endure so that we can obtain it. The presentation of animal activists as terrorists is one more tactic in this general process. It’s a technique of placing their arguments outside the boundaries of what is thinkable.
But I also wanted to point out that this is not just a process that unfolds in rhetoric, it’s not just something that is talked about. So I wanted to spend some time discussing how corporations and police are involved in changing laws, infiltrating activist groups, using direct violence against activists or inciting violence as a means to justify repression and so on. I also wanted to put this in the context of repression against other forms of activism and how media frame other social justice movements.
IP: What do you mean when you say that ecoterrorism is “socially constructed”?
JS: This is part of a critical theory approach. As Max Horkheimer pointed out traditional theory has seen the world as a collection of facts to be understood while critical theorists believe that the accepted order of things needs to be questioned and challenged. Traditional studies assume that there are certain actions that can be defined objectively as terrorism. A social constructionist approach maintains that it is not the actions themselves that constitute terrorism but rather who defines them and how, so that the same actions can be labelled as terrorism or not, depending on who commits those actions and why. For example, the use of terror by states to maintain control over subordinated populations and resources is a longstanding feature of imperialist history but those actions are rarely defined as terrorism. This isn’t because the facts are unavailable but because of the particular ideological orientation of those who have written about terrorism, with an almost-exclusive focus on anti-Western terrorism. So certain violent actions, including assassinations and killing of large numbers of people, can be carried out for political purposes and with the intention of frightening groups of people and not be considered terrorism, because they are done by Western states or their allies. On the other hand, nonviolent actions that cause no harm to any persons and do not even damage property, can be condemned as terrorism because they are committed by people whose ideological beliefs are seen as a threat to the existing system.
IP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned from researching and writing the book?
JS: I think the most surprising thing I learned was just how much violent rightwing groups – white supremacists, anti-tax groups, Nazis, etc. – can get away with. When they have been found with stockpiles of deadly weapons and have openly stated their plans to kill large numbers of people, including the police themselves, or even when they have actually put their plans into motion, killing people, it’s rare to see these groups designated as terrorists. Instead, they’re presented as lone actors, or individuals who have some mental problems and little attention is given to the ideologies they espouse.
IP: What are some of the recurrent themes of repressive government and corporate propaganda? What are some outlandish examples of propaganda?
JS: Certainly, one of the main recurrent themes is violence. Animal activists are consistently depicted as violent, dangerous and deadly, despite the fact that none of them have set out to kill anyone and the fact that guidelines of the Animal Liberation Front explicitly take a position against causing harm to any animal, including humans. Among the most outlandish examples is the repeated claim that animal activists are so fanatical and so filled with hatred for their own species that they are planning to destroy the human population entirely, using biological weapons. In reality, the actual “crimes” committed by activists consist of actions like that by Dr. Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save, who was charged with criminal mischief in 2015 for giving water to dehydrated pigs crammed into the sweltering trucks that transport them to slaughterhouses. Another case is that of the four activists prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for writing in chalk on a sidewalk in California. Although that case was thrown out of court in 2010, it did not stop the government from charging Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang as terrorists under the AETA for allegedly rescuing mink and foxes from fur farms. So these are certainly outlandish examples of propaganda but they go beyond that because they have consequences for activists and demonstrate how the legal system is designed to serve particular interests. For example, the AETA was designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that represents the interests of corporations and produces model legislation to serve their interests, handing these over to members of Congress to be signed into law. In February 2016, Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison and in March Lang was sentenced to time served. Those who profit from animal exploitation were ecstatic over the sentencing. For example, UCLA neurobiologist David Jentsch, founder of the pro-vivisection lobby group Pro-Test, exclaimed on his blog that this was a “huge court victory” while Alan Herscovici of the Fur Council of Canada added comments about how “encouraging” it is to see that the vivisection, fur and meat industries are recognizing their common interests.
IP: Based on the experience of writing the book, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of animal and environmental activism in North America?
JS: The question is an invitation to quote the motto famously-associated with Antonio Gramsci: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I don’t know if it’s a matter of optimism or pessimism but of recognizing the situation and doing one’s best. Of course, we can expect all of the repressive tactics mentioned in the book to continue. However, despite the repression that activists face in North America, certainly it’s much easier to be an activist here than it is elsewhere, where the repression is direct, extremely violent and severe. As we know from the June 2016 “On Dangerous Ground” report from Global Witness, 2015 was the worst year on record for the killing of environmental activists, especially in Brazil, Philippines and Columbia. Even internationally-known activists are not safe, such as Berta Caceres who was murdered in Honduras in March 2016 because of her opposition to hydro-electric development and big dams in that country. Her name was on an assassination list given to a military death squad that had been trained by US marines and the FBI, part of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the US has given to Honduras where “human rights violations are state policy,” as Caceres’ daughter says.
In Canada, the power of the animal exploitation industries is so entrenched that no government is willing to implement even minor changes to our long-outdated anti-cruelty laws, even when these contain specific exemptions for the atrocities inflicted on animals as standard industry practices. Every political party leader has to put on a cowboy hat and show up at the Calgary Stampede, which the CBC presents as good fun. Even on the left, there’s still a very discouraging widespread lack of awareness of animal rights as a matter of social justice. For example, Naomi Klein’s recent book on climate change doesn’t mention animal rights issues or the impact of meat consumption, despite the enormous environmental damage it causes. Anthropocentrism and speciesism are very strong on the left, unfortunately, and that has created an unwillingness to recognize the progressive and emancipatory character of the animal rights movement with its vision of compassion and justice and liberation for all beings.
In terms of environmental activism, the issues could scarcely be more serious in terms of climate change, extinction of biodiversity and deadly consequences for human populations. While there is more awareness of the impact of Alberta’s tar sands development, many people still support mega-projects that devastate the environment. For example, there is the current struggle to stop the huge Polish copper and silver mining corporation KGHM Polska Miedz from opening up the Ajax Mine right on the edge of Kamloops, a city of 90,000 people in southern BC. The project will destroy wildlife and lakes and turn the entire region into a toxic waste dump, poisoning the population. KGHM is one of the worst polluters in Europe and is facing millions of dollars in fines for environmental damage it caused in Chile. Although indigenous Skeetchestn and Tk’emlups societies are opposing the mine, KGHM donates money to the Liberal Party, BC Premier Christy Clark is a big proponent of mining development and the local Chamber of Commerce and business interests are endorsing the project, so activists have their work cut out for them. But there are opportunities for environmental groups and indigenous societies to work together.
IP: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
JS: I’m working on two edited books with Atsuko Matsuoka from York University. One is called New Directions in Critical Animal Studies and includes a variety of perspectives from activists and academics. There’s a similar mix in the other project on Rethinking Human-Canid Relationships, looking at our ideas about and interactions with coyotes, dogs and wolves. That connection and dialogue between activists and academics is important and something I want to encourage, rather than just trying to write some theoretically-dense book that impenetrable to all but a few graduate students. That connection between activism and scholarship has always been one of the most appealing and impressive things about the Institute for Critical Animal Studies.
More about: Constructing Ecoterrorism.