One common and troubling obstacle that human and non-human animal rights advocates face is the insistence that violence against others is “justified” because of some perceived or imagined threat. Exploitation and killing of marginalized people and animals often hinges upon the claim that “I feared for my life,” or “it was my life or theirs.” Of course, there is a general agreement that self-preservation is fundamental to the right to life, and whatever one does in response to a threat of one’s life is presumed justified until proven otherwise.
However, when we refuse to challenge or even question this claim, the opportunity to “prove otherwise” is completely forestalled, and opens the door to abuse and violence under the pretext of self-preservation.
“I feared for my life”
As such, when an armed cop—who is professionally trained to deal with dangerous situations and armed with lethal and non-lethal tools to handle such situations—or even a vigilante kills an unarmed citizen under questionable circumstances, he knows he can evoke “fearing for one’s life” to absolve him of his violent response, whether or not his response is proportional to the threat, or if there was even a threat in the first place. And when the victims of such violence are already marginalized by society and stereotyped as “dangerous,” the trope of self-preservation shuts down any hope for justice or recompense.
Death is not the only way a powerful group can “neutralize” a perceived/imagined threat that a marginalized people pose. Simply containing or restricting the movement and actions of that minority can be enough, as we see in Jim Crow U.S. (including the “new” Jim Crow of the prison-industrial-complex), apartheid South Africa, and Israel-occupied West Bank. The “threat to life” is re-articulated as a “threat to safety”, a less-severe trump card that does not as easily justify killing, but is nonetheless as compelling.
Self-preservation in this context is especially potent because it eliminates any moral ambiguity of the actors (“We have to segregate them from us because they’re dangerous.”) and operates as a feedback loop: it justifies mistreatment and sets up the marginalized group’s response to their mistreatment as “proof” of the danger they pose.
“I feared for my health”
When it comes to animals, in particular animal consumption, people use the same self-preservation pretext to justify the formalized torture and killing of animals by the billions, annually. In this case, the perceived threat does not come from the animals themselves, but from the lack of killing and eating them, and the “threat to life” is re-articulated as a “threat to health.” This is usually expressed as “I need animal protein” or “if I don’t eat meat, I won’t be healthy.” Just as the “dangerous” stereotype works to support violence against marginalized people, this self-preservation trope works in tandem with another powerful narrative—meat = health—that allows it to to be used unchallenged.
Self-Preservation or Self-Aggrandizement?
There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to preserve one’s life, health, or safety: as stated before, a right to life implies a right to protect one’s own life, and health and safety can contribute to a better quality of (and chance at preserving) life. Yet far too often self-preservation is used as a cover by the powerful who want to maintain or increase their power, and justify the continued mistreatment of marginalized others. That is why it is important to question what and how someone is posing a threat, and to examine if this threat is real or imagined, and if it falls conveniently along already existing lines of social division and power.