Interview a Professor: Prof. Lindgren Johnson

A devoted animal ethicist, Lindgren Johnson is a lecturer in the English Department, faculty advisor for Animal Justice Advocates at UVa, and a member of the writing program. Through her study of language, Lindgren resists humanism’s violence and challenges preconceived notions of animal ethics. These past few years, I have witnessed Lindgren’s devotion to the ethical consideration and treatment of animals through our work together in Animal Justice Advocates. This past week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindgren and getting a closer perspective into the incredibe work she does recognising animals and ethics in the English Department.
1. First, can you tell me a little about how you incorporate animals and bioethics into your work in the English Department and as faculty advisor of Animal Justice Advocates here at UVA?
 
Well, I’m part of the writing program and am currently teaching a first-year writing course, “Writing Animals,” as well as an upper-level writing course on social justice. I wouldn’t say that I “incorporate” bioethics into my work--as an additional ingredient to be folded into the mix--but that my work is grounded in bioethics (and in this interview I am broadly defining bioethics as ethically-driven thinking, writing, and action in relation to living beings).

Of course, when you’re dealing with systemic violence, that violence is so often hidden by the unethical use of language (by deflection, euphemism, metaphor, etc). To take the rhetoric of “humane slaughter,” for example, the operative action here is slaughter (a technical term that is simultaneously a euphemism). That killing is then modified by its supposedly “humane” nature, which aims to convince us that the very act of unnecessary killing is done out of care, which is not true. Language attempts to transform the unethical into the ethical by a cruel sleight of hand. The irony is that we humans are “cushioned,” as one of my students once put it, from our unethical acts by our unethical language. But what would it mean to use language and writing to attend to the needs of others (and to recognize that, if a “cushion” is to be distributed, it must go to those who are being assaulted, as we simultaneously work for the end of such assaults)?

So while I remain deeply optimistic about the potential of writing as an ethical practice of thought, discovery, and advocacy, I am also deeply suspicious of it—and not just in the ways it can so easily misrepresent violence and injustice, protecting those who are assaulting others. Much of my own research has focused on the various ways that writing (and the discourse of “the human” which it has traditionally upheld) has historically been weaponized against vulnerable populations, human and nonhuman, forced upon others as the means by which they must prove their “value.” As a teacher of writing working out of such a tradition, it is my responsibility to confront and resist this weaponization of language. Writing should work to create a world that is responsive and attentive to the lives of others, a world that cares.

With Animal Justice Advocates, so much of this work has already been done by the students, and the question becomes one of effective advocacy. Since this is only the second semester of this student group, we put a lot of time this semester into defining AJA in terms of its philosophy, where it wants to focus its efforts, and what it wants to achieve. The result is the Education without Violence campaign, which calls for the university to 1) divest from all forms of violence against animals and 2) become actively involved in the pursuit of animal justice. In fact, I think the Education without Violence Campaign is worth quoting in full:
 
“Animal Justice Advocates at UVA is an organization that upholds students as valued participants in our education, committed to ‘leading lives of honor.’ The UVA Honor Committee frames our honor code as one that ‘calls us to be honorable to each other not merely by not committing transgressions, but also by doing reverence to the other in our midst.’ The Education Without Violence campaign takes this commitment to revere ‘the other in our midst’ seriously as we challenge our university not only to divest from violence against animals, but also to become a leader in progressive and compassionate education. Moving forward with great hope in the university, we are nonetheless mindful of the university’s history of oppression, and while committed to and focused on issues specific to animals, we aim to promote an understanding of the intersections of systems of oppression affecting animals, humans, and the environment. At a university founded on the principle of student governance, it is our responsibility as students to insist that the pursuit of knowledge be rooted in compassion; the alternative is a university grounded in oppression.”
 
 
2. What is the thread that runs through your work?
 

The thread that runs through my work is a fundamental resistance to humanism’s violence (against both human and nonhuman animals), which I first witnessed in nineteenth-century, black-authored slave narratives. These narratives, at pivotal moments, demonstrate the ways that humanism is not at work in the resistance to slavery, but in its very production.
 
What I came to see was that, while these black authors’ lives (and the genre itself, in many ways) depended on moving into “the human” (and the rights and protections such an identity theoretically and potentially confers), they were often writing a humanity that fundamentally resisted violence against themselves and also nonhuman animals—a humanity that did not always distance itself from and dominate the nonhuman animal world as the means by which it defined itself. They are redefining humanity as they write their way into humanity. It is these moments of deeply ethical writing by former and fugitive slaves, which resist both white and human exceptionalism—both racism and speciesism--that challenged my worldview. My work, then, challenges the widely-held assumption that privilege is necessary to engage in animal ethics (as I also believe we need to think much more thoughtfully about what constitutes animal ethics) and insists that violence against humans and animals is connected and should be addressed at its root.
 
 
3. What is an area of animal ethics you don’t like writing about- whether because it's over-discussed, a particularly difficult topic for you, or another reason?
 
I find talking about animal ethics particularly difficult. Part of the difficulty of teaching this material is that unnecessary violence against nonhuman animals is so normalized that it simply becomes a “topic” to discuss and debate. There is an obscenity in such discussions, which are nonetheless necessary, I think. Animal ethics, especially when you first broach it in a class, is really hard to talk about because it immediately elicits extremely defensive reactions from people who, as much as they claim they “love” animals, are deeply committed to killing them. You have to ask people to reconsider what they are referring to as “love” and also reconsider how they are defining their humanity, and that--of course—is a lot. But it, too, is necessary. And, in doing so, I firmly believe we come to experience our potential as a species, and that is world-changing and exhilarating!
 
 
4. What are your thoughts on scholarly pursuits of animal ethics in your field, at UVA, or in academia in general? What animal ethical questions do you believe need to be addressed more in public discourse or at the University?
 
I think a lot of work that presents itself as ethical because it takes nonhuman animals as its subject matter is not. Animal studies is a field that has emerged over the last 15 years or so and has really taken off in English departments, for example, because it is a fascinating way to think about issues of subjectivity and representation—animals become a litmus test for our thinking about “the other.” The problem is when our thinking about these representations becomes divorced from the living beings we are currently annihilating. Animal studies potentially provides, as a field, one more opportunity to exploit animals. Careers are carved out of this violence, pen in one hand, steak knife in the other.
 
Regarding what is happening here at UVA, violence against nonhuman animals is ubiquitous—you can see it in the dining halls, in the labs and classrooms, in the traps around Grounds. It is everywhere. The violence is both material and discursive: students are so often taught that this is simply the way the world works, and that in fact such an embrace of violence is necessary for “mature” thinking. I would argue, too, that the rhetoric of “sustainability” often gets deployed to mask and authorize such violence; it sounds so clean and green, doesn’t it? Who would be against sustainability? But sustainability sets the bar so low—it assumes a framework of taking rather than giving and utterly discounts the infinite nature of love, which itself exceeds the limited economy of sustainability: love reproduces itself and has no limits. “How many animals can we kill?” or “How can we kill nicely?” are the wrong questions to be asking.
 
Again, everyone should read AJA’s platform of Education without Violence. This is courageous writing because it speaks truthfully about systemic oppression and insists, once that oppression has been identified, on addressing it. The goals are audacious, of course, but as Karen Davis recently said at one of AJA’s panels, advocacy requires “optimism of the will.” You have to have the courage to recognize the atrocities we are currently committing as you simultaneously have the courage to recognize our species’ potential to love—not the “easy” love of friendship or attraction, but the agape about which Martin Luther King Jr. speaks and writes so eloquently. This is a love that we need to struggle to cultivate regarding our own and other species in the fight against all forms of systemic violence.
 
                   
5. How do you factor ‘moral distress’ into the public’s perception of animals?
                  
My understanding of moral distress is that it is a term that was first used to describe the experience of nurses unable to provide the care they thought was appropriate for their patients due to either patient unwillingness or doctor prohibition. In other words, their distress in not being able to care fully could not be alleviated. I often hear people say, for example, “Oh, I love animals and respect veganism, but I could never give up cheese.” This refusal to stop eating nonhuman animals and their secretions is presented as an inability when it is a refusal: it almost presents itself as a statement grounded in moral distress when it is actually a reflection of moral disengagement. Similarly, when “love” becomes the means by which you authorize unnecessary violence, then it is not love, and we need to say that out loud and not be afraid to say it.
 
I would also say that the more aware you become of violence against nonhuman animals and the more you move into advocacy, the more moral distress you will experience, as we cannot create a nonviolent world overnight. This is why is it is so crucial to have systems of support for animal advocates because you become “wounded,” to draw from the language of J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, in such activism—wounded both by the knowledge of what we do to animals and also wounded by those humans around you who do not seem to care--and who often treat those who do care with contempt. And that hostility to animal advocacy is rampant in academia. That being said, animal advocates--especially white advocates--always need to be aware that systems of oppression regarding race and gender, for example, do not somehow disappear or become irrelevant in animal advocacy. Animal advocacy must think and work out of a radical justice that is constantly, simultaneously, and directly challenging speciesism, racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression.
 
 
6. Can you name 3 to 5 people who you admire for their work advancing animal ethics?
                  
I would start with Frederick Douglass. It is his 1845 narrative that got me thinking about the ways systems of oppression support each other. More important, I think his narrative demonstrates, at key moments, an attempt to redefine humanity in radically just ways. Cary Wolfe and his groundbreaking work in posthumanist studies. Anat Pick’s work on “creaturely” vulnerability in film and literature. J.M. Coetzee’s inspiring fictional character Elizabeth Costello. The intersectional and activist work of Carol Adams, Karen Davis, Breeze Harper, Lauren Ornelas, and Brenda Sanders.
 
7. What contribution do you think animal ethics can make to the broader bioethics?                                          

I don’t see animal ethics as a contribution to bioethics; it is fundamental to bioethics, and bioethics does itself a disservice—it undermines its entire discipline and the very call to ethics—when it does not see animal ethics as fundamental.
                                    
8. Lastly, a fun question: what are you currently excited about in the field of bioethics?
 
AJA! I am excited about Animal Justice Advocates and thrilled to be part of this grassroots, student-led movement demanding a nonviolent education.
 

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