You Aren’t a ‘Voice for the Voiceless’

By Amanda Houdeschell

You’ve seen the phrase on T-shirts, tattoos, memes, and in social media bios. Those making this proclamation are typically vegans who care deeply about animals. But where do we draw the line between effective advocacy and human savior complex?

What is the Human Savior Complex?

  • In a video for Everyday Feminism, Celia Edell describes the white savior complex as “… racializ[ing] morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems. It implies that they always need saving, and that white people are the only ones competent enough to save them. This is very obviously untrue, and it’s a harmful message to relay.”

Just as the white savior is destructive to the cause of racial justice, the human savior is destructive to the cause of animal liberation. We are reinforcing a narrative of helpless, vulnerable victims, when in reality it is our fault that they are struggling. Implanting egg-laying hens, transporting elephants from circus to sanctuary, or saving someone from a slaughterhouse are not services we provide. They are reparations that are long overdue.

Edell’s criticism of white saviors taking away from the identities of non-white people is applicable to the animal rights movement as well. The current narrative is that animals do not fight for their own liberation, and we have conveniently decided not to correct this perception. We often say that the animal rights movement is made up completely of allies — but this could not be further from the truth. And yet we center ourselves in their stories. We’ve elevated animal rescue over animal care. We are taking up too much damn space. 

The human savior complex reveals itself in our language. Christopher Sebastian, in his talk “Allies in Arms, The Danger of Wearing Veganism as an Identity,” responds to activists claiming to be the voice for the voiceless by stating: “Animals can speak. Implying that other animals don’t have voices is a speciesist and subtlely ableist aggression, and it erases their identities.”

When we analyze the damage a human savior can do, the necessity of anti-speciesist advocacy becomes apparent. Let us apply another problem exemplified by white saviors — giving more of an identity to white saviors than to the non-white people who are marginalized — to the animal rights movement. An example of this is a video of a hen’s rescue, with the captions “We found her. We rescued her. We showed her love. We brought her to safety. We treated her wounds. We gave her a name.”

Framing the entire video on the rescuers instead of the person who was rescued is a classic example of the human savior complex at play. As their allies, we have a responsibility to tell their stories, not ours. The last sentence is especially alarming. Naming is an act of dominance. Just because names have become a necessary part of our society does not mean that we should pride ourselves in this display of power over nonhumans. I have a daughter who I call Luna, but I know that her biological mother had a different name for her in their own language. I do not have the capability to understand Luna’s speech, and so she can never communicate with me what her real name is. We should acknowledge the gravity of this disruption in our relationship, rather than seize the opportunity to hoard control. Hana Low of The Microsanctuary Movement says it perfectly in their introduction of Bear: “This is my friend. I call him Bear. He has his own name, in chicken language, but I don’t speak chicken so I thought of a name for humans to call him.”

Bear and his caretaker, Hana

Voiceless?

What makes nonhuman voices so different from ours that causes us to label them voiceless? Is it the lack of language? The lack of verbal speech? The lack of ability to communicate with us? None of these is sufficient because none of them is a blanket statement about all nonhuman animals, and all of them could be applied to certain humans in certain situations.

“Although they lack vocal cords, fishes of at least hundreds of species ‘talk.’ In ways that include vibrating their air bladder, grinding their teeth, and rubbing bony parts of their body together, they produce sounds ranging from buzzes and clicks to yelps and sobs,” Joan Dunayer writes in Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Just as humans communicate with one another through body language, so do other animals communicate in many other ways beyond verbal words. One need not spend a long time with other animals to learn that they too verbally express themselves. Dogs bark in joy when their family comes home. Roosters crow to alert everyone of daybreak. We are so quick to separate ourselves from other animals, but are pigs not calling out to us in terror when they scream before their deaths? How callous we are to say they are without speech, while plugging our ears to their cries.

There are billions of humans who do not speak the same language as me, with whom I am unable to communicate. Just as humans are able to learn new languages, so are nonhumans. Washoe was the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language. Not only did she learn over 350 signs, she also taught ASL to her son, Loulis. To say that these individuals — and others like them — are voiceless is to also imply that humans whose only language is ASL are also voiceless. Where do we draw the line?

Understanding Systemic Silencing

We have not learned to speak nonhumans’ languages, but that is not the reason that humans aren’t listening. Oppressors have been speaking the same language as the oppressed for thousands of years, and yet today injustice still abounds. To assume that humans would grant animals rights if we could only understand their words is to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of other liberation movements.

“All the evidence suggests that if animals similarly demanded space and dictated the terms of their liberation, they would be met with all the same outrage that their human counterparts experience,” Christopher Sebastian says in the talk mentioned above. While it is important to understand that calling nonhuman people “voiceless” is senseless and untrue, we must also frame their oppression within the larger systems at play. No matter how many times slaughter footage is shown on the streets, there will always be someone who refuses to see. No matter how many times a cow verbally mourns for her kidnapped baby, there will always be someone who refuses to hear.

Changing the Narrative

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” ―Arundhati Roy, The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture

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This remarkable and often-quoted statement was made by author, actress, and political actress Arundhati Roy. The following sentences are also note-worthy: “I am a writer who cannot claim to represent anybody but herself. So even though I would like to, it would be presumptuous of me to say that I accept this prize on behalf of those who are involved in the struggle of the powerless and the disenfranchised against the powerful. However, may I say I accept it as the Sydney Peace Foundation’s expression of solidarity with a kind of politics, a kind of world-view, that millions of us around the world subscribe to?” (emphasis added)

I firmly believe that animal rights activists must look to other social justice movements in order for us to reach our full potential. Let us follow in Roy’s footsteps and not claim to speak on behalf of nonhuman animals but to stand in solidarity with them. Let us not claim to be the voices of the voiceless but to amplify the voices of the silenced.

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10 Replies to “You Aren’t a ‘Voice for the Voiceless’”

  1. Human savor complex = White savior complex you conveniently left out in this piece. Other ways I agree with the sentiment of this.

  2. Really helpful perspective Amanda. You have a real gift with writing, btw! I have used the “voiceless” reference and recall feeling vaguely uncomfortable with it but only understand why now. Thank you!

  3. Exactly. Its not that animals don’t have a voice, its that people don’t listen.

    Its the same way about humans “discovering” animal intelligence. Animals have always been intelligent, maybe more so than humans. Its just that the animal intelligence is a different kind of intelligence than that which we are used to comparing to humans. It is not a fair or realistic comparison. So just because animals communicate and learn differently than humans, doesn’t mean they have less intelligence. It just means that humans need to expand their minds beyond their limited perspectives to include all living beings. Animals have lived on this planet longer than humans and they have managed to raise offspring, build homes, build communities, and thrive without destroying the environment like humans have. So who is really more intelligent?

  4. Very well put. In solidarity with our fellow animals – not “animals” – which suggests human animals are something other than, and superior to.

  5. The statement “being a voice for the voiceless” was not likely created to imply animals and other nonhumans don’t have a voice. Rather, it’s meant to be a catch-phrase, a statement that catches attention and magnifies something ignored. I agree that calling nonhumans voiceless does cast a shadow of ignorance, and you clarified that well; they do have voices but we don’t listen. As for naming someone nonhuman, I disagree that’s an act of dominance. It’s important to give names to nonhuman individuals, whenever possible, as this is a statement that they are someone, an individual with “personhood” – an intelligent, conscious, being.
    Humanity’s history is built upon domination and oppression, and the legacy continues. It’s built into our DNA and needs to be extracted or we will surely kill ourselves off. One of the fundamental reasons to live vegan – to end the cycle of dominance and oppression over others. The leftovers of our inherited dominant genes still exist, and I imagine it will take many more generations, at least, to create a truly peaceful, civilized world.

  6. Note the “I speak for the voiceless” image only shows dogs and cats. There are far more species in the world than dogs and cats, and indeed, they are only a tiny minority of animals harmed/killed by humans. I feel as if this statement most appeals to the “eating a hamburger while petting my rescue mutt” contingent.

  7. Valid points, but not the whole story. When I use this phrase, I am not saying that other animals literally have no voice in the sense of vocally, or otherwise, communicating, which would be nonsensical. I mean they are voiceless in the sense of not having, and being denied by most humans, access to systems of communication and power, not ‘having a voice’ in the sense of ‘having a say’, and I know that most of my vegan friends use it in the same way. I also mean voiceless in that most humans have no desire to listen, do not even acknowledge that other animals are communicating and that no matter how loudly, desperately and endlessly they speak, no-one, except for vegans, are even trying to listen, respect and act. I have also used it to de-centre myself in conversations with non-vegans when they, so often, attempt to disappear other animals by centring me. Having said all this. I will, in future, use your phrase ‘amplify the voices of the silenced’ as I think it’s a better, more inclusive phrase and, hopefully, less liable to be misunderstood, so thank you very much for it.

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