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We don’t talk enough about animal suffering. That’s why Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscars speech matters.

The Best Actor winner elevated the moral worth of animals to a national audience.

Joaquin Phoenix accepts the an award for his Joker performance at the Academy Awards on February 9, 2020.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Joaquin Phoenix has been speaking his mind as he’s made the rounds on the awards circuit. During his Golden Globes acceptance speech for his Best Actor win for Joker, he talked about climate change. At last week’s BAFTA awards, he talked about systemic racism in the acting community.

And at Sunday night’s Oscars, where he again won Best Actor, he talked about another enormous societal issue, one that seems to be gaining more visibility recently: the rights of animals.

Here’s what Phoenix said:

[We have to] continue to use our voice for the voiceless. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively. I think at times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.

It was a powerful speech, but what made it stand out from other similar awareness-raising speeches we’ve heard from the Oscar stage was its explicit calling-out of speciesism.

Ethicists and advocates have been arguing for a long time that modern factory farming is unconscionable and that animals, like people, deserve to be part of our circle of moral concern. But rarely have they commanded a platform like Phoenix’s.

By including “animal rights” in the same sentence as a litany of other pressing issues — gender inequality, racism, queer rights, and indigenous rights — Phoenix elevated concern for the welfare of animals as something no less important than caring for fellow human beings.

Less than 5 percent of Americans are vegetarians and vegans, and it’s still the case that many people have barely heard the moral case for the end of factory farming. It’s certainly not a topic that comes up often on national TV. Even a committed vegan like erstwhile presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) couldn’t quite give the cause of ending animal suffering a full-throated airing during a primetime presidential debate (though, to be fair, he did put forward an ambitious plan to end factory farming).

Perhaps because he didn’t anticipate needing to win over Iowans, Joaquin was less circumspect:

We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up. But human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious, and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.

I’m no Oscar historian, but that’s probably the most detailed jeremiad about the plight of animals on the Academy’s stage ever. (It should be noted that this wasn’t the first time Phoenix has mentioned the issue — he gave a shoutout to the Hollywood Foreign Press at the Golden Globes for serving a vegan meal at the ceremony.)

That animal rights was the issue mentioned on a stage as big as this one reflects that something is changing in the fight for animal rights.

In the past few years, states have passed laws restricting some of the worst cruelties of factory farming, and courts have overturned laws banning undercover investigations on factory farms and limiting sales of plant-based meat alternatives. Meatless burger sales are soaring — even among meat eaters — suggesting that lots of Americans are interested in eating products not derived from factory farms and slaughterhouses.

The lives of animals, billions of which we slaughter every year, deserve consideration up there with the other issues on which Phoenix has spoken out. It was cool to see it happen at the Oscars.

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