There Is No Perfect Side To Take

Jonathan Dickstein
10 min readJun 20, 2019


How the Aidan Cook/Kamala Harris incident exhibits the complexites of human and nonhuman allyships

I wrote almost everthing but the opening paragraph of this essay nearly two weeks ago, shortly after activist Aidan Cook disrupted Kamala Harris at the MoveOn event in San Francisco. By the time I had finished, the intensity of the public debate had subsided, so I thought it unnecessary to share. However, given DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung’s recent apology for the entire disruption (why was it not Cook?), perhaps the content is still relevant after all.

I am friends with Aidan Cook. In fact, I am good friends with Aidan Cook. I am also a white man. If either of these these facts delegitimize my point of view in your eyes, by all means click away. I’ll only add that I do not attempt to deny, trivialize, or in any other manner obscure the harm inflicted by them. Aidan Cook harmed people. Many types of people. Full stop.

I only question the reflex conclusion — vocalized by many animal advocates, now including Hsiung — that Cook’s disruption was indisputably wrong, a mistake, something for which they should fully apologize. By “fully apologize” I mean to admit that the act was wrong regardless of its poor “optics” or questionable efficacy, regardless of the accuracy or urgency of its message; it was plain wrong because a black woman speaking about a human rights issue was publicly silenced by a male-presenting white person. On that score, I ask how much the demand for unconditional atonement is informed by animal advocates’ own internalization of both speciesism and ableism.

“For the animals” doesn’t make it harmless

I presume that most, if not all, animal advocates would agree that if animals were capable of doing so, they would be absolutely justified in disrupting any and all public figures to draw attention to their situation. Their disruptions would be right no matter the identity of the humans disrupted, and no matter the fear or emotional harm it caused those humans and others around them. Reflecting on this idea I posted the satirical headline pictured above shortly after Cook’s disruption drew national attention and debate:

“Dying Factory Chicken Storms Stage, Grabs Mic From Kamala Harris.”

The headline is comedic as we know that chickens do not possess the physical or mental abilities, nor linguistic faculties, to carry out a tactical mic-grab. It is not mockery, but merely an admission of their differing capabilities. But it is also very tragic. Given the undeniable hellscapes that are the chicken flesh and egg industries, we all would (and should) support any chicken who, hypothetically speaking, could disrupt a politician to spotlight their cause. The identity of Kamala Harris as a black woman would scarcely matter in this unlikely scenario, for not only is there is no precedent of chickens or any other animals silencing black women, but also because the scale and scope of industrialized animal violence is unimaginably great, and virtually all humans are active or complicit in it.

But facts are facts. It was not a chicken who disrupted and silenced a black woman in that theater in San Francisco; it was Cook, a male-presenting white human person. White people have a long, well-established history of silencingacross the entire specturm of severity, including murder — not only black women, but black and brown people of all gender identities. There is no doubt in my mind that Cook harmed non-white and non-male-presenting humans, among others, stimulating fear and aggravating past trauma. I acknowledge that Karine Jean-Pierre was both genuinely scared and worried, and most likely Harris was as well. (I have absolutely no desire to analyze and instrumentalize Harris’ speech and body language during and after the disruption, which others have done ad nauseaum. I assume that she was psychologically harmed by Cook). Cook also harmed folks in attendance at the event, as well as those watching on television or online, live or replayed.

“But it was Kamala Harris.”

I assume here (rightly or wrongly) that Harris’ personal politics are irrelevant in this discussion. In some interviews, Cook cites Harris’ inadequate and problematic positions on non-animal and non-climate-related issues as motivations for the disruption. However, this emphasis on Harris’ political record was conspicuously absent the day of the action, and also in Cook’s subsequent op-ed explaining their motivations for the disruption.

I do not believe that Harris was uniquely targeted, and if so, it relates more so to her position as a state representative in California, the state in which Cook resides and the event took place. Speculation beyond this claim is fruitless, and I will accept here that Harris’ politics do not impact her identity and vulnerability as a black woman, a black woman publicly silenced by a male-presenting white person. This point persuades me to reject one-to-one comparisons with BLM activists’ — Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson — disruption of Bernie Sanders in 2015, Cook’s own disruption of Sanders in 2016, and DxE activist Priya Sawhney’s disruption of Jeff Bezos just four days after the Harris disruption.

The three comparisons are not only flawed but unnecessary for me to make my own point. If we assume that Cook’s “much bigger idea” centered on the awful situation of nonhuman animals in industrialized “farms”(as most critical animal advocates did, yet most likely inaccurately, as evidenced in Cook’s climate crisis-heavy op-ed), then we must return to the case of the dying factory chicken unable to disrupt Harris on their own.

Chickens ceaselessly fight for their own liberation, resisting every day, every moment, enduring conditions that make remaining alive an act of fierce resistance in itself. But their agency in this fight does not diminish their need for human agents operating in resilient solidarity, amplifying and translating their silenced, devalued, and ignored voices of resistance. Cook is one such human, working alongside the many others who identify as animal advocates. So if a hypothetical chicken would be justified in disrupting Harris onstage, why not this human activist acting in solidarity with billions of real, live chickens?

“Cook wasn’t the right person for the disruption.”

I’ll accept that. Another human could possibly have performed the same disruption without causing the harm that Cook did due to their identity. Without getting into the details as to why Cook executed the disruption and not someone else, can’t we still ask: “Even if Cook wasn’t the ideal person, is that enough to invalidate the action? To make it wrong? A mistake?” If the answer is yes, then are all disruptions performed in solidarity with animals that inflict some harm upon oppressed humans also wrong? Also mistakes? Does the identity of the activist make or break the justifiability of the action?

If so, then concerns for oppressed humans seem to take lexical priority over concerns for nonhuman animals. In the context of human-nonhuman relations, lexical prioritism holds that no matter how great or urgent the interests of animals, the interests of humans always take priority simply because they are “human” and not “animal” interests. Humans’ interests belong to a different ethical tier than animals’ interests, a higher tier with higher priority, and can never be neglected for the sake of animals’ interests. This could be called something like absolute speciesism.

Following this line of thought, actions performed by humans in solidarity with animals are unjustified when they cause any harm to humans, no matter how great or small the harm. This impenetrable human priority is not diminished by the fact that these very same humans — including already oppressed humans — routinely contribute to the mass oppression and exploitation of animals, even if to varying degrees of responsibility.

“But I’m anti-oppression, all oppression.”

As am I, but animal advocates’ support of lexical prioritism — or the discounting of animals’ interests to such an extent that it mirrors lexical priority — in socially tense situations is alarming given that the only principled defense of it is speciesism (whether it is “effective” or “strategic” is another issue). I absolutely agree that advocates should call out DxE for the choice of a male-presenting white person as a stand-in for animals for the disruption of a black woman, and with it Cook’s own apparent disregard for mitigating harm to black women and other vulnerable humans in their amplification of the animals’ cause. But these problems do not automatically invalidate the disruption, unless we accept deeply speciesist thinking about animals’ concerns. Would chickens themselves have opposed the action if they had understood though regretted how the action would inevitably cause harm to already oppressed humans?

One commenter — a DxE organizer — wrote the following below Hsiung’s live-streamed apology:

“I’m even sorry to any animal-exploiting farmers who I have scared by rescuing animals from their farms. I know it’s right to rescue those animals, but I’m genuinely sorry that in the process of rescuing and advancing open rescue that I’ve had to scare people who are products of a system.”

The commenter does not apologize for the action of rescuing animals itself, which they “know [is] right,” but only that “in the process of rescuing and advancing open rescue that I’ve had to scare people who are products of a system.” These “people” are not only “animal-exploiting farmers,” but also oppressed laborers thrust into slaughterhouse work due to systemic discrimination. While the commenter regrets scaring these people, knowing full well that many of them suffer from oppression themselves, they do not apologize for performing the animal rescues that caused these harms. If this is a legitimate position (which I believe it is, even if not ideal), then can we not also view Cook’s disruption in a like manner, and expect a sincere, public expression of remorse from Cook for the harm they caused Harris, Jean-Pierre, and others, without denouncing the disruption as a whole?

Taking Sides

I fear that animal advocates, especially those truly concerned with the distresses of all oppressed populations, unconsciously capitalize on the physical absence of animals and their inability to disrupt human society, particularly in situations where humans’ and animals’ concerns come into conflict, commitments are challenged, and simultaneous allyship is troubled. In a community climate where taking sides is virtually mandatory, genuinely sensitive animal activists often side — and unconditionally so — with oppressed humans in order to both affirm the accurate sentiment that “it’s not only about the animals,” but also, in my mind, to avoid community repercussions and even ostracism. This move is understandable, but still speciesist (and we are all still speciesists, despite our best intentions and claims otherwise); as there is zero risk of public criticism, community repercussions, or ostracism from nonhumans themselves, unconditional human allyship comes with no social cost whatsoever.

Animals are not present or able to voice their displeasure with advocates’ discounting of their concerns, nor with the deescalation, postponement, or even abandonment of plans for disruptive action due to the identities of the human advocates and the foreseeable harms imposed upon oppressed humans. Their absence, and specifically their “silence,” eliminates social penalties for neglecting their concerns. For this reason I see the blanket condemnation of Cook’s disruption as not just speciesist but also ableist, as it only survives in an animal-free, pushback-free zone afforded by animals’ mass incarceration and “preferable unhearing,” as well as their differing cognitive, conceptual, and linguistic abilities.

“But the disruption didn’t even help animals. In fact it made things worse for them.”

Maybe. Maybe not. But that doesn’t make this criticism any less lazy. Superficially, it replicates the exact same response animal advocates consistently receive following literally every single action taken on behalf of animals. Disruptive advocates in particular, whether they disrupt for human or nonhuman causes, are relentlessly urged to advocate “in other ways,” because what they’re doing “won’t change anyone’s mind,” isn’t “effective,” and makes other advocates “look bad.”

The assertion is also substantively lazy for being completely speculative and assuming (as part of that speculation) that advocates themselves have no influence over the narratives that flow from an action, narratives that dictate public thought, feeling, and behavior regarding animals and disruptive interventions. Animal advocates are actually at the center of the proliferation of narratives concerning animals and animal-focused disruptions, just as vegans themselves routinely perpetuate — if not actually initiate — common stereotypes of vegans, such as the “angry” or “extreme” vegan, which are now tropes in mainstream discourse. By fully decrying Cook’s action without dedicating any time to, and explicit support for, the message motivating the action, animal advocates reinforced the mainstream assumption of the lexical priority of humans’ concerns over animals’ concerns, an assumption these same advocates would fiercely reject under almost any other circumstances. If the disruption “made things worse for animals,” so did the myopic response.

“Optics tho”

Yes the optics were bad, and bad because Cook was definitely not the ideal person for the disruption. But narratives are not born and buried in optics. Advocates’ obsessive focus on a assumedly static and insurmountable optics hindered the opportunity for continually and catastrophically neglected content (e.g. climate crisis, factory farming) to nuance the narrative. Discarding every feature but the video clip and the actors’ identities, reducing Cook to an “animal activist” caricature, critical advocates only reaffirmed the mainstream ideology that the messages of animal activists never really matter, since the animals they represent never really matter, and absolutely so when human interests hang in the balance. Likewise it reaffirmed the mainstream social justice ideology that oppressed humans’ concerns always outweigh animals’ concerns in situations where strategic planning involves the consideration of both. Hsiung’s apology may placate some human social justice advocates, but only by validating what they already think about the feeble status of animals’ interests.

“So you’re saying what happened was a good thing??!!”

My point is that one need not actively side with Aidan Cook, or even like Aidan Cook, to acknowledge that while their disruption was undeniably harmful to some humans, the causing of harm alone does not automatically invalidate the disruption. One can still publicly support Cook’s message, a message of solidarity with animal resistance, without supporting Cook as the mouthpiece for that resistance. I admit that this seems to open a Pandora’s box out of which any action undertaken “for the animals” is justified on the basis of the severity of industrialized animal exploitation eclipsing the collateral damage imposed upon humans, even systemically oppressed humans.

This position is not one I accept, even though there are advocates who do. But a strict stance at either end is untenable, for one pole only reproduces absolute speciesism and the other sanctions virtually any action performed on behalf of animals due to the scale of their oppression (something like an absolute animalism). I do not have an answer as to what the guiding rule could or should be, and sense that no such rule could or should exist. On a case by case basis we can interpret and evaluate actions, and publicly communicate a perspective that balances both the concerns of oppressed humans and oppressed nonhumans. In such a manner, we do justice to everyone, to those humans legitimately harmed by an action and the nonhumans whose crisis warrants foregrounding-by proxy given their inability to effectively disrupt human society on their own.



Jonathan Dickstein

PhD candidate, UC Santa Barbara