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They Can’t Breathe

Today’s post is by contributing writer Shiri Raz, PhD candidate in the psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at the Bar-Ilan University, Israel.


“I can’t breathe,” gasped George Floyd during his final moments, begging for Officer Derek Chauvin to take his knee off his neck, but to no avail. Chauvin did not respond, even when Floyd’s cries became “Mom, Mom” ​​- the desperate cry of a man realizing he will never rise again. Less than a week later in Israel, another tragic and horrific death occurred as the cries of Iyad Al-Halak – a 32-year old Arab with Autism – were also ignored as he pleaded for his life. Border Police officers did not listen to his cries or those of his caregiver, who knew him and called out to the police that Al-Halak was disabled – and they shot him dead. 

Such tragedies are not one-off or fleeting episodes in human history – neither in the United States nor in Israel. They are not an exception but the rule. Racism is a position according to which one group takes superiority over another, a position which, at its least harmful, is used to justify the preference of the ruling group over the oppressed and at its worst, leads to the violence, persecution, humiliation and contempt of the inferior group. It is a mental and psychological position that allows one to see the other who is different from me as inferior.


Many of us are complacent in our belief that we are innocent of racism. We assume racism is the hallmark of the primitive and the ignorant, whereas our shock and horror at the murders of George Floyd and Iyad Al-Halak go to prove our mental and psychological structure is fundamentally different. But in truth, this is not the case: the emotional mechanisms enabling us to hold other lives in such contempt do indeed exist in most of us. Because although we may cluck our tongue reproachfully and fail to understand how a person remains indifferent to the cries of a dying person, we must realize that we are not fundamentally different. We too close our hearts and shut our eyes and our ears to block out the suffering for which we are indirectly responsible. We too put our knees on the necks of others every day – and for the same terrible reason: because they are different; because they are others.


Most of us – the enlightened ones, those of us who took to the streets to protest the horrific events at the end of May or at least replaced their social media profile pictures with black photos with the hashtag “Black_Lives_Matter” are active partners in discrimination of others that is equally violent: a discrimination based on biological type. This discrimination is what causes us to pet a dog with one hand while the other hand uses a credit card to pay someone to slit the throat of a young calf. This is the discrimination that breaks our heart when we see kittens being abused but prevents us from batting an eyelid in the face of the atrocities undergone by pigs or sheep in the meat industry. This discrimination is called “speciesism.” And if it brings to mind the word “racism” – this is no coincidence.


The term “speciesism” was coined by psychologist Richard Ryder in 1970 to describe the phenomena of varying human attitudes toward different animal species. The concept was soon adopted, and by 1985 it already appeared in the Oxford Dictionary, defined thus: “Discrimination against or exploitation of certain types of animals by humans, based on the assumption of human superiority.” Speciesism is the older and more introverted sister of racism. It is the oldest model, the prototype of human superiority, upon which are based all other kinds of racism known to humankind: racism, sexuality (sexism), ageism and the likes. Interpersonal ethics philosophers Tom Regan and Peter Singer, the most prominent theorists on animal-related ethics, based their arguments on the notion of speciesism and its transparence and how widely it is accepted and taken for granted in Western culture.


Their claim, like that of many others calling to unify struggles, is that it makes no sense for one person to fight for the rights of another – Black, female, LGBTQ or any other minority – if the person fighting simultaneously takes an active part in another kind of violent discrimination. Some say it is not only ignorant or illogical but sheer and cynical hypocrisy. The call for uniting struggles is also led by activists for Black rights, including Professor Angela Davis, co-founder of the Black Panther movement in the US, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Alice Walker and other supporters, who argue for the direct link between types of discrimination. They call upon us all to acknowledge the horrifying similarities between the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the human social hierarchy. The recurring argument of activists calling for the unification of human and animal struggles is, in simple words: Look bravely into the mirror and see whether we are consistent in mind and heart and find within us an inner truth and integrity in terms of justice and equality. Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether there is any meaning to the terms “justice” and “equality” when we use them selectively, only when they are convenient for us but not for those who need us most, as they are incapable of speaking up and communicating the injustice they undergo in human language.


Greater and wiser people than I have pointed out the connection between man’s ethical approach to animals and his relationships with other humans. Among them is Emmanuel Kant, the father of modern philosophy, who claimed: “A person who commits such acts of cruelty to animals, his heart is also crude to humans.” And that “one can know one’s heart in relation to his treatment of animals.” Mahatma Gandhi claimed, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress are measured in its relation to animals.” And writer Milan Kundera, expressing his sad thoughts on the matter, wrote that “a truly human goodness, with its pure spirit of freedom, can only be manifested when it is aimed at those who are forcefully dispossessed. The true moral test of the human race, the test to precede all tests (which is usually concealed), is how a man treats those who are at his mercy: the animals. In this arena, the human race is completely discriminatory; such a complete discriminator that all other discriminations are nothing but its derivatives.”


Victims of discrimination are victims of discrimination, whether they are Black, female, LGBTQ, Arab, Jewish or animals, and the formula is always the same: an individual with power, who arbitrarily and violently decides that their life is worth more than another’s. As long as we continue to practice this formula on a daily basis – at breakfast, lunch and dinner – we will never be able to get rid of all forms of discrimination. Until we recognize that this is the prototype of all discrimination, and fight speciesism as hard as we fight racism, we will never be truly free.



Shiri Raz – PhD candidate; psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. Shiri focuses her research on the psychoanalytic and linguistic aspects of people’s mental attitudes toward the consumption and use of animal-based products.

Shiri serves as a therapist for couples and individuals, specializing in work with vegans and mixed couples (vegans and non-vegans) in Israel and worldwide (through video chats). She is an animal rights activist, academic lecturer, resident lecturer for the Vegan Friendly association’s educational program and for the Animals Now (non-profit) organization, and a public speaker.

They Can’t Breathe

Christine Jackson, LICSW

Christine Jackson has been a therapist for fifteen years and maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. She has been an animal advocate for over four decades.

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APA Reference
Jackson, C. (2020). They Can’t Breathe. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Jun 2020
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