Recently, I spoke with Lauren Choplin, Communications Director for the Nonhuman Rights Project. Lauren is an incredibly thoughtful writer and editor. I will always be grateful for her editorial guidance on my forthcoming book Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives. Below is a condensed interview with Lauren, focused on her important work with the Nonhuman Rights Project and her career as a writer.
HF: Tell me about your position as Communications Director for the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) and how you became involved with the organization.
LC: I started volunteering with the NhRP five years ago while I was in grad school at Rutgers. At that time, the organization was about a year and a half out from filing our first lawsuits demanding recognition of four captive chimpanzees’ legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty. As for me, having been vegan for six years after following a friend’s lead, I was just discovering the field of animal studies through a fantastic modernist literature course I took with Marianne DeKoven. I think I read about the NhRP in an introduction to one of our theoretical texts; as I learned more, I remember being struck by the moral and legal forcefulness and clarity of what the NhRP was planning to do and why. Like many people, I had never thought about nonhuman animals’ legal status per se nor what we mean when we say “animal rights.” The NhRP’s focus on research and argument also appealed to me as a lifelong introvert who never felt comfortable at, say, street protests where I had to do anything that would draw attention, like chanting or even holding a sign! A year after I helped with an administrative task, then Executive Director Natalie Prosin remembered my writing background when they needed a new social media manager. I was happy to do it and found myself even more invested in the work once we filed suit on behalf of Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. From there, I took on as many volunteer projects as they had to give, and to make a long story somewhat shorter, I wound up leaving my PhD program early to work for the NhRP, first as Communications Manager and now as Communications Director. I run our social media pages and our blog, coordinate media coverage, write and edit all sorts of things, and respond to all general inquiries (I write a lot of emails, which I thankfully enjoy!).
HF: You do even more than your job as NhRP Communications Director requires. As a freelance writer with two masters degrees in English and Creative Writing, you often focus on the intersection of social justice issues like human rights and nonhuman rights. How do these and other matters of justice fit together for you?
LC: I wish I did more! One reason I sometimes miss academia is having so much time to explore these kinds of intersections; I can only hope I do them justice now.
My interest in nonhuman rights grew out of my veganism, not necessarily my commitment to human rights and social justice. But where they all immediately connected for me, whether I was thinking about literature or politics or just my own human self, was with this question I had, a frustration really, about how to get people to care about problems that are systemic—to recognize them as such and support and take meaningful, concrete action that will build toward real justice.
For inspiration, I always think back to my college activism with the Jubilee movement, which is about eradicating the odious debt incurred by developing countries at the hands of the rich. Jubilee has done such a good job of taking a relatively abstract issue and showing how much suffering it has caused all over the world. The NhRP aims to do the same by raising awareness of, and working to change, the suffering made possible by nonhuman animals’ legal “thinghood.”
And I’ve always appreciated your focus on core issues facing humans and other animals. You articulate the connections between human rights and nonhuman rights, with a focus on shared vulnerabilities, in ways that help people see that nonhuman rights aren’t a threat to anything but cruel practices.
HF: Thank you, Lauren. That’s a kind observation. Like you, I’ve gladly allowed my career to be steered by my concern for others. How has your interest in social justice most driven your studies and career?
LC: I suppose it’s made me disinclined to pursue any other studies or career! I do enjoy arguing for what I believe is right. As my family could tell you, I’ve been doing it since I was a self-righteous kid documenting grievances in my diary. I’m not as annoying as I was then, I hope!
HF: I love that answer! Like many writers, you are an avid reader. Are there fiction or nonfiction books that have helped shape how you think about social change and resistance?
LC: Absolutely! To share just two, I continue to find endlessly fascinating Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which asks us to consider why we don’t resist systems that exploit us (and/or “nonhuman” others). Ishiguro offers no easy answers to this question, however, which is precisely why I love his book so much. Another powerful novel is Dorothea Dieckmann’s Guantanamo, told from the point of view of a tortured prisoner. The narrator numbs the reader with weirdly flat descriptions of violence, which, in my view, are meant to suggest that we shouldn’t wait until we identify with or feel full-blown empathy for suffering individuals to oppose practices we know are wrong. Because sometimes empathy won’t be there, or it won’t be strong enough to move you from your passivity—not because you’re a bad person, but because of systemic factors beyond your control. Factory farming, for example—so many barriers exist to people looking at a package of ground beef and imagining, much less feeling empathy for, a cow, much less the billions of cows who die to become ground beef. But this doesn’t mean we give up all ethical responsibility and call it a day. You can take a stand without feeling everything you think you’re supposed to feel.
HF: That is quite profound, Lauren. You belong to a group of women writers with unique and deeply thoughtful perspectives. I’ve observed that the community of women writers is rather supportive and collaborative—why do you think this is?
LC: I agree wholeheartedly with your observation! I think it’s because so many women know what it’s like to be shut out of or talked over in conversations. Perhaps this leads us to prioritize working well together. Whatever the case, I deeply value all my women writer friends!
HF: What do you think the future holds for women writers?
LC: Even more support and collaboration, I hope—we’ll need it.
HF: How do you think women writers can contribute further to social progress?
LC: By pointing out and helping to deepen understanding of the connections between seemingly distinct forms of oppression. Only then can we truly take a holistic approach to combating them.
HF: Thank you, Lauren. I always love talking with you. Is there anything you’d like to share about upcoming NhRP events?
Thank you, Hope! I feel the same way. Look out for our first lawsuit on behalf of captive elephants early this fall, and several new campaigns nonhuman rights supporters will be able to get involved with directly!