Lisa Kemmerer is a philosopher-activists and professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billings. Her work and activism include anymals, the environment, and disempowered human beings. To date, “Dr. K” has written and edited nine books and is tirelessly working on a series of projects, while teaching full time.
In this interview, she talks about her way to activism, the value of verbal activism, how sexism and male privilege still prevail in the movement, her survey on harassment and discrimination in nonprofit organizations, and her studies in religion. She further discusses her new work on the role of violence in the anymal rights and liberation movement, and the ways in which it has shaped both our activism and activists.
Q: How did you first become involved in animal rights or animal liberation activism?
Tom Reagan writes in one of his books that there are three ways of coming into activism and one of them is that you are just born that way. I think I was just born that way, but it was fostered by my parents.
That sensitivity to nature and anymals was in my parents. It was just a matter of time until everything aligned to push me straight into the movement.
Q: Do you feel that your activism focus has shifted over the years?
It has shifted so much! I would say that I grew up more firmly in the environmental camp, and there was also some pretty strong feminism in my mum and my sister. And with my father as well. My sister sent me a flyer on downed cows. That was what pushed me toward a change of diet and a clearer focus on anymals.
That flyer pushed me towards anymal activism, but it was many, many years until I started to look back and recognize that environment and feminism needed to be incorporated. I ultimately recognized that they were very much part of animal activism, that they were overlapping, and needed to be addressed together.
As a white person racism was a harder journey, a longer journey, and it took more work to understand. Being open and caring isn’t enough. There is a lot of learning that has to happen, and a lot of struggling inside, to recognize white privilege. Seeing my privilege has really helped me to understand what many men seem to go through with feminism, and what many people seem to go through with speciesism.
So this struggle is a good thing. As humans, we are all in this together—speciesism, that is—and there is really not an anymal activist out there who hasn’t had to go through this same process in some ways, with regard to human privilege.
Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.
[Image description: Lisa kneeling on the ground, carfully hugging a white chicken at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary U.S.
Lisa has her head tilted and her cheek is lightly touching the chicken's head.
The chicken is standing upright with her eyes half closed as seems to enjoy the affection.]
Q: Did you begin to look into the interconnections of oppressions before you started your PhD?
What pushed me off to get my doctorate was sexism I experienced in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was working. This made me really want to explore oppression, but inside, what mattered to me wasn’t the fact that I was oppressed as a woman, but the oppression that I saw in anymals. Yet in the end I have finally come to see that any form of oppression supports all forms of oppression.
Q: Speaking of anymals – a term that you coined – which role do you think does language play in advocating for others?
I introduce my students to the term anymal, even on the 100 level. This term encourages them to ponder how we use “animal” and why we don’t include ourselves. We all know that we are animals, but we speak about animals as if we weren’t. It is so much a part of the speciesism, and the exploitation, and “othering.” So, I think language is very important.
I came up with the term anymal when I was a kid. This term was part of language activism in my life before my teenage years. I guess I understood the power of language and its importance even prior to high-school.
My sister and I were reforming our language in ways that empowered women when we were young. I remember we used the term “WOW” for “women of the world.” Looking back, it seems we were trying to empower ourselves in a world that we knew disempowered us.
Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.
[Image description: Powerpoint slide that describes the term "anymal". It reads: "Anymal: Animals from every species other than the species of the speaker/author. If a chimpanzee signs "anymal", humans are included but chimpanzees are not. Anymal avoids using "animals" as if human beings were not animals, avoids dualistic, alienating terms (like "non" and "other"), and avoids cumbersome terms (like nonhuman animals and other-than-human-animals)]
Q: In terms of empowering women and distributions of power, do you feel like things have changed over the years? For instance, in “Speaking up for Animals” you wrote that although most attendees at the first animal rights conference you went to were women, most speakers were male. How does this compare to the last conference you went to?
There are more women in more positions of power, but sexism has not changed. So while I see more women in more leadership positions, there is also more sexism. I think the mechanism of that is that, in my lifetime, I have watched anymal activism go from a real side-line, marginalized, hardly-anyone-knows-about-it sort of a movement to one that even here in Montana people know about. It has become a very well-known form of activism. I think that is the main shift.
What I found in my studies is that women almost always begin social justice movements. When you look back through time, you can clearly see that it was women who formed the backbone of pretty much every social justice movement at its beginnings. And then, as movements become more powerful, money comes onto the table, and paying jobs, and then men often step forward to take these paid and empowering positions.
Women have even encouraged this in the past because they understood that in a sexist world, men’s voices carry legitimacy. There was a time in the 80s when women in the movement specifically tried to draw men into the movement and put them in positions of power. In such a sexist culture, without men at the helm, we would have been dismissed as a bunch of weird, whacked-out women caring about chickens and bunnies. Male voices gave the movement legitimacy in our sexist culture.
I think there is another important factor at hand that I would mention: men are taught from their earliest years to be providers, that it is their job to earn money and to support others. One of the reasons that females have been the activists is that working for free and doing services has always been a woman’s responsibility, whereas it has been the men’s responsibility to earn money, to have a job, and to provide for others. So in many ways, each is fulfilling the roles that our culture has provided.
Of course sexism is not necessarily the fault of contemporary men. As with racism, it is not my fault that racism exists - but as a privileged white person, I am responsible for helping to bring change. We all need to work together to bring these changes. No one group, whether males or white people, can make these changes. We have to work together, and we are all responsible for doing our part. Men in particular need to work on sexism; whites need to work on racism; all people need to work on speciesism.
Q: Do you feel like growing the movement and moving from grassroots activism towards big animal rights organizations has reinforced the dominant culture and with it encouraged sexism in the movement?
We’ve become mainstream. And we’ve wanted to become mainstream. Obviously it is important to draw in more people. Social justice activists must appeal to the larger population. If they don’t, they are not going to attract activists. But with the larger culture comes sexism and racism and heterosexism and transphobia...
To appeal to the mainstream, most social justice groups foster sexism. As I write in the book I am working on: What man is going to join an organization that he feels emasculated in, when there are other groups at hand? As a movement, we want to be more mainstream, we want more people, but we don’t want the sexism, the racism, the ageism, the ableism, the heterosexism, the transphobia, or any other form of oppression. So we have to be aware of what is happening, why it happens, and we have to consciously fight these isms.
Q: What would be your approach to fight sexism and other forms of oppression in the movement? How can we address these issues as individual activists or in a group?
The first thing is awareness - education. We need to read, listen, watch videos, attend conferences, and have these topics on the agenda for activist meetings - and apply what we learn. We can also ask those further along the path what they would recommend for reading. Then we have to apply what we learn. We can also talk to others instead of reading, but we have to be careful not to exhaust people. I mean, it is not the responsibility of women to educate men about sexism any more than it is the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about racism. I am usually fine with talking to people, if they are truly interested. It drives me crazy when people ask me questions and it is clear that they are not open to what I have to say - they just want to defend their point of view. I have no time for this. It is exhausting and it’s a dead-end.
It is important to make sure that women have safe spaces in organizations, that people of color have safe spaces - spaces where people can meet without privileged people to talk about what is going on in the movement (and much more).
Organizations need clear policies on oppression, publicly posted. Solving the problems at hand is a very active process. First, education; second, implementation.
Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.
[Image description: Close-up picture of Lisa speaking in the Netherlands.]
Q: Is this something that is widely applied? You created a survey, which explores how harassment and discrimination in the movement. What did you learn about these processes from the study?
I did create a survey to study privilege, harassment, sexism, racism—all of these—inside the movement. (You can find the survey here or you can find it at CANHAD.org under “speak out” and “share your story”. You will need about 20 minutes.) The survey is showing that policies are lacking in our movement, and that even where they exist, they are blatantly ignored. The most important thing about the survey is that it is collecting hard data. As far as I know, it is the first survey ever done to specifically explore racism, sexism and other forms of oppression inside our movement. It is central to the book I am working on.
We have known about sexism in the movement for at least 20 years, probably 30. But without hard data, it was always easy for those in power to push aside concerns, to ignore complaints, to pretend that sexism is not a problem in this movement. But let’s face it - just as I don’t feel racism, men don’t feel sexism. So we need this data to be able to say “here, this is what women are reporting, these are their experiences.” With data it is no longer a matter of just comment and hearsay. We will have the data, we will have the information. I want this information so that sexism and racism are longer a hidden part of our movement - isms will be exposed from within.
Q: Was there anything from the survey that particularly stood out to you?
The information I am gathering is heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking to hear what the movement is doing to women. We know that women are the backbone of the movement, and what they are reporting is experience after experience that is damaging them, driving them out of the movement. The survey shows that this is just as true for racism. There are also reports of fat shaming, women who recognize that they are not being promoted because they don’t have the classic look to appeal to men in power. There are all sorts of terribly sad, shocking, results coming in. Sad and shocking especially in a movement where we tend to expect compassion.
Q: In your talks you mentioned that people who are subjected to discrimination and harassment in the movement often don’t want to speak out because they feel that this would harm the anymals and the movement? How would you respond to those with this view?
Let me read a short blurb from the CANHAD testimonial page, which anyone can access on the CANHAD website. It reads: “I have not spoken up about it because I fear others’ opinions. I still want to be an activist in a relatively small community and I especially fear not being believed nor taken seriously. I do not want to hurt the movement either, although rationally I know I am not the one doing the hurting.”
It is a very typical experience that those who are being oppressed are loyal to the movement. They don’t want to hurt the movement, so they won’t expose oppressors. But obviously if activists are being hurt, we have to root out the problem, we can’t just keep looking the other way. If most activists in this movement are women – and they are – and they are experiencing damaging sexism, then this is hurting the movement. We are hurting our ability to bring change by failing to stop racism and sexism - and ableism, ageism, heterosexism, etc.
Consider this quote from a different source - from my survey: “These experiences have damaged me and my life. They have taken away my confidence and strength in the movement. They have left me filled with no self-esteem, no confidence and full of self-hatred!” How can an activist who is harmed in these ways be an effective activist?
Q: It really is shocking, looking at all the testimonies... I have read through some of them and they are truly heartbreaking.
Many women answering my survey and also those leaving testimonials at CANHAD are naming names. It is fascinating to see which men have done what. And journalists have also exposed some of the problems going on in the movement, exposing people like Nick Cooney, Paul Shapiro, Nathan Runkle, Wayne Pacelle, and the rape scenarios at DxE. This doesn’t happen by chance - it requires organizing. It requires time and effort to expose these powerful, problematic people.
Q: I know. It is just hard being dismissed when we try to talk about interconnected oppression in more general terms.
Yes, but the good news is, when I used to teach students about harms to cows and pigs and chicken and mice and rats, many people just weren’t open to these concerns. Now, when I explain how anymal suffering is connected with world hunger, oppression of immigrants, women - more people take these problems seriously. Especially those who – and I live in a very conservative area – align with the Christian tradition. They are hearing something they can’t ignore.
Q: True. You have been researching and writing a lot about religions, in particular with respect to religious attitudes towards anymals. Do you feel that this is something that is often overlooked?
Yes, this was part of the focus of my graduate studies. But probably the primary reason for this focus is that I recognize it as a key channel for bringing change that our movement has largely ignored. Our movement tends to dislike religion, perhaps because people of faith talk much of love, but we see their cruel and unloving behavior towards anymals. I understand that. But we need to rise to the occasion. If there is a button we can push and it’s about to bring change, we need to push the button. Religions are just such a button.
Approaching people with an understanding of their religious commitment is a critically powerful tool. The catch is, we have to understand religions. I have studied not just one religion, but all the major religions, and some smaller ones as well. When I meet people I can talk to them from inside their tradition, and I can ask them pressing questions. And they know that their answers represent their religion - and their own level of commitment.
Religious people are usually serious about their faith commitment, making our work as activists easier. Somebody who doesn’t align with a religion can say: I really don’t care about the suffering. But I have never found anyone inside a religious tradition who would say such a thing. And when people of faith recognize that they care, and honestly see and hear what’s happening, they are called to change - or they are forced to face the fact that they really don’t care about anymals or their religion’s teachings. And this involves salvation!
Of course there are many people outside religious traditions who are just as committed to compassion and love as those within. The difference is that when someone is overtly connected with a religious community, it is a public, community commitment. When such a person is forced to see hypocrisy in their life, it stings - it matters.
Q: We have now talked about how you got into activism, your previous work on sexism and religion, as well as your survey. Are there any other projects and research areas you are currently working on?
I am actually working on two books. One is dealing with the sexism and male privilege in the movement, including a chapter on racism (not written by me). The second focuses on violence and the place of violence in the movement, tying into ecofeminism and the innate violence of our culture. I am in over my head... as usual.
Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.
[Image description: Lisa squatting on the ground and smiling at the camera,
whilst stroking a tapir who is leaning in for a cuddle. Image taken in Peru.]
Q: Could you talk a bit more about your current work on violence and the areas in which you seek to expand this?
This has been part of my evolution as an activist. I would have been counted among those who felt that violence was a reasonable response to anymal suffering and exploitation. And with feminist studies and studies of eco-feminism, I now understand that this response is largely about the culture that I live in.
I see two threads that are important to follow: One is the demonizing of activists who use soft forms of violence, and the other is a culture that pushes us towards violence. Oppressing activists (ag-gag laws for example) makes it more difficult for activists to stay within the law.
I am not done with the book. It will take time to sort out what it all means and where my studies lead.
Q: When you talk about violence, do you also talk about violence towards inanimate objects?
I spent a lot of time discussing what violence is. I am very clear that violence against property is still violence. I don’t give it another name. Yet this type of violence is definitely distinct from violence against individuals.
Some activists deny that doing something like smashing computers is violence. But when you reflect on domestic abuse and men throwing things around the house to terrorize a partner - that’s violence! He may never touch her, but he is still violent. Smashing things is intended to terrify and to harm - and it does both.
I don’t think we can ever say that aggression against property isn’t violence. It is, and it does many of the same things. It works in the same ways. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t have different categories of violence. We must. It is a different form of violence when you directly hit someone versus when you harm them by throwing things around the room.
Q: Departing from that statement, do you feel that we should step away from all forms of violence in the movement?
I don’t know yet. Research leads me ways and I never know where it is going to lead me. Let me say that I can be very clear that I would have said ‘no’ previously, but I don’t know where I am going to end up at this point.
It really is hard to say because when I look at domestic abuse and how violence is used, I tend to lean completely away from it. On the other hand, when I look at the violence going on in the industry and I see methods of peaceful protests increasingly closed - what direction are we going to turn? It is a really complicated question.
I also don’t want to see activists in prison. We can’t do nearly as much good there. It hurts them, it hurts the movement, its ugly. I don’t want to see that happen, so I keep that in mind.
It tends to be our younger people who choose this form of activism. This is even more painful, because young people have years ahead of them. Instead, they are languishing in prison. I remember one who went on a hunger strike and died in prison because he refused to eat. Where is this beautiful person that was an activist for good causes and instead is dead?
Q: That is a really powerful but also sad statement to close on. Is there anything else at this point that you would like to share?
Sadness is much of a part of our movement. So I will end with this: We have to look after ourselves. Protect yourself. You don’t have to watch suffering just because you are in the movement. You don’t need to witness anymals suffering, you don’t need to watch videos that show the abuse of anymals. Over time these things wear on us. Please protect yourself. Please stay strong and healthy!
There are many people these days who don’t bother with books. So I am so grateful for those of you using contemporary media and doing what you are doing to help get the message out. My studies are nothing if I can’t reach people, so thank you.
Q: Thank you so much, that really means a lot! So, from your perspective, what can we do to protect ourselves and stay strong?
For me, long walks with my dogs - their presence, their cheerfulness, their willfulness, their antics. My rescued mutts pull me away from my focus on all the things that I wish I could change in the world.
Our movement is currently leaning toward subjecting activists to suffering, and it’s going to be years until we know the effects of this, but from my personal experience - decades of activism - this is not a good idea. We have to be healthy and strong. We need to support each other and be positive - this is one of the reasons why we need to fight sexism, and racism, and ableism, and ageism and heterosexism and all the other -isms out there. We need to work together and support each other to stay healthy and strong against the oppression we seek to change.
Further links: http://lisakemmerer.com
Coalition Against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination (CANHAD): https://www.canhad.org/ (and please take the survey)
Also view her talk on "Sexism and Male Privilege Among Vegan Activists" at the International Animal Rights Conference 2018
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are prepared to the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s best capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Vegan Rainbow Project itself. Please also not that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading past articles and/ or statements that are referenced in this interview.