The Pseudo-Zen of Regulated Animal Use Activism

There's a certain kind of mystical, pseudo-Zen to the rhetoric and thinking of those who propose more regulated animal use in order to end animal use altogether. For reasonable people, it's often very difficult to understand the regulated-use position and requires a lot of repetition to take (you know, sort of like a mantra). Because I'm an open-minded, big tent person who hates divisiveness and disparagement, I've prepared this handy list of Zen koans with some thinking about them to explain.

The first koan: “We can promote veganism by promoting everything but veganism.” You'll frequently see this referred to as “promoting an indirect approach,” and it has wide backers in the regulationist crowd. I find this an odd sentiment in a movement that also claims to be in favor of direct action, but considering that most of the 'direct action' they support, at best, achieves almost nothing except an indirect increase in demand for, government protection of and public sympathy with animal exploiters, I suppose it's not all that surprising. But let's examine the thinking behind this claim. It suggests, quite seriously, that explaining to people clearly that animal use is a moral problem is wrong. It suggests, quite seriously, that we should pretend that animal use is not a moral problem in order to convince people that it is.

On its face, the 'indirect' approach proposes that irrational arguments that don't propose change and don't encourage alternatives are more effective at promoting change than rational arguments that point out the moral necessity of change, the easineess of that change, and the ready availability of alternatives. No feminist would propose this about rape, and no anti-racist would propose this about lynchings, and yet, animal advocates aren't even supposed to speak up on behalf of nonhuman animals, and if they do, they're encouraged to apologize for taking animals seriously. In short, this is a proposal to us to not only abandon those who need us to speak for them, unequivocally, directly, and firmly, it proposes an abandonment of common sense and effective political praxis. I leave you to meditate on what the sound of “no advocates advocating” sounds like (hint: absolutely nothing, or worse, and more commonly, apologias for nonhuman animal use).

The second koan: “We must make animal use more expensive and less expensive.” Actually, you rarely hear this argument phrased in this way, but I'm waiting for the day that it happens. Normally, it's expressed as two different proposals: first, that advocates should work with industry to lower production costs and second, that activists should work with industry to raise production costs. Which is it? I want to make my position clear on this as an advocate of the oppressed who only made it to college-level calculus.

Left between working diligently to bring the cow and her calf out of slavery versus shaving (or adding) pennies to the oppressor's profit margins and twiddling their bottoms lines, I'm going to focus on the former. Maybe it's because I don't own stock in Burger King, KFC and other champions of animal use the way regulationist groups do, or maybe I could just never get the hang of using a calculator to make life and death decisions about nonhuman animals. I care only and exclusively about the rights of nonhuman animals not to be used as property and the end of their property status, period. I consider campaigns promoted on the basis that it will drive up costs or lower them for animal exploiters to be morally and intellectually derelict.

But, let's think about this argument more. What this argues is that tiny fluctuations in price make a serious difference to demand and that tiny bits of activism make a serious difference to price. Neither idea is in close touch with the reality of animal agriculture. The animal agriculture industry is heavily, heavily, heavily subsidized, and exploiters regularly go to the well of public funding with the argument that their production costs are DRAMATICALLY ESCALATING OUT OF CONTROL. In fact, costs have gone up over the last 200 years, but gradually. Nevertheless, people are using more animal products than ever before. If production costs go down, cha-ching! That just means more profit and more money for their marketing departments. In light of consumer demand and government subsidy, it's a profitable industry.

So, why bother with this kind of campaigning if it doesn't benefit animals in any way? Ask the abacus. The organizational policies of most NGOs are driven by whether or not they can sustain themselves financially (obviously). Donations are driven by claiming victories whether there are any, either by claiming to drive up production cost or by reducing it. Every player in the regulated animal use game gets a slice of the pie. It's a mutually beneficial if sometimes personally complicated relationship; imagine when Harry Met Sally, but think When Benito Met Adolf. Yes, that's incendiary, but seriously, start writing letters to any regulationist organization proposing that they refuse all future donations and see how far you get.

The third koan: “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” I find this argument the most baffling. Usually, it is expressed as “none of us really knows how to end animal slavery” or, more intelligently, “there's no evidence that promoting veganism will be successful”. Mostly, this reflects a cut and paste job (literal or metaphorical) from some regulationist organization's Web site.

This does not reflect a “tactical difference” between abolitionist and regulationst groups. It is a wholesale refusal of strategy (and reality), and a blanket pass for anyone who wants to do anything and claim that it's on behalf of nonhuman animals to feel good about themselves. It is not a way to promote creativity, an open movement or critical thinking, but instead, a way of dismissing differences of opinion, careful reasoning, reality, evidence, you know, all the stuff important to make a decision about how best to help nonhuman animals. You don't need to think, it argues, just dress up in a chicken suit, go naked, break some windows, glue some locks, buy some easily avoided animal products, say you care, but don't act on it, euthanize some healthy adoptable companion animals, traumatize some children, but most of all, be sure to sign your donation check.

Of course we don't know that promoting veganism will automatically result in abolition. That would be like predicting whether the Yankees or the Dodgers will win the World Series ten years from now. All we can do is think clearly, plan effectively, and work as hard as we can to lay the ground work for change. Still, we know that human beings, typically, cannot fly. We have ample evidence that walking off a cliff will not result in human beings sprouting wings or levitating. From this, we deduce that gravity exists.

I can tell you now, we know what will never, what could never, result in the abolition animal use: self-styled animal advocates running around town telling people that it's not only okay for people to use animal products, but that it's in the interests of nonhuman animals for them to do so. In spite of at least 200 years of animal welfare activism, as Gary Francione argues, animal use is only on the rise. If attitudes are changing, it's because common sense tells people that animal use is wrong and more and more people realize that it is totally unnecessary. The regulationist movement does it's best to convince people otherwise, but thankfully, not everyone is taken in by the absence of thinking.

The fourth koan: “It matters not what we do but what we say (sometimes).” This is a koan developed by the new welfarist crowd. It proposes that, so long as we say we're in favor of abolishing the property status of nonhuman animals, we don't have to actually work on campaigns that stand a serious chance of abolishing their property status, we don't have to take nonviolence seriously, we don't have to promote veganism, we can just engage in romantic, emotionally reactionary and self-aggrandizing posturing. In fact, with some animal advocates, you'll find this in combination with the first koan, which involves believing that we can only promote abolition by promoting anything but abolition. Very, very confusing.

But let's peek behind this rhetorical curtain. If we're opposed to animal use, we should say so. If we want to end their property status, we should say so. But if someone's going to work on campaigns that promote regulated use, what's the difference between that activity and any other welfarist activism? Nothing. Furthermore, what this proposes is that we should focus our time on incremental changes (an extra 1/4” of cage space, nicer killing tools, etc.) that will make no meaningful difference for nonhuman animals rather than on working on incremental changes that will (reducing demand by educating new vegans).

Let's imagine, momentarily, all of the welfare reforms in the history of the world, everywhere, and add them up. If they were all overwhelmingly successful (they aren't), were never overturned, ignored or skirted (never the case), were not just local but globally effective (never are), addressed all species (never do), it would still not result in a single animal going free. What animals deserve is our most focused, considerate and diligent efforts, not in the promotion of welfare reforms, which are meaningless anyhow, but the incremental change that is embodied in each and every new abolitionist vegan.

Deep thoughts born of long and fruitful experience, eh? I'm thankful that I was born simple-minded and that, in spite of the best efforts of many, I've never improved. I don't have the imagination for the 'indirect approach', don't understand the math behind the stock market, believe the evidence when I see it and most of all, I believe in saying what I mean. I often blurt out “I think you should take the rights of nonhuman animals seriously and go vegan!!” Perhaps that's not very deep or even stylish of me, but I grew up in a small town in the corn belt and I believe sincerely that that's what I owe nonhuman animals.

If demand is the problem, and legal and social acknowledgement of the personhood of nonhuman animals is the only meaningful first step toward a solution, the most meaningful things we can do are to go vegan, educate others about veganism, and, if we can, to adopt and restore the personhood of nonhuman animals with love and care. Veganism is the absolute and unequivocal baseline of what we owe them. A directionless carnival of whateverism based on mystical soundbytes is not the best way to make change for nonhuman animals: animal adoption and abolitionist education are.

If you're working on regulationist campaigns now, you'll probably feel a little disparaged by these comments. I know; I'm a big meanie, but if you peak just beyond your nose, you'll see that the use of nonhuman animals calls us to a serious dialogue in which we all must be willing to acknowledge that there is more at stake than our own egos (and I don't mean donations). On the bright side, it's not that I want you to stop working or to stop being vegan; I want you to get off the 'kinder, gentler use' vs. 'no use at all' fence, to go vegan (if you're not already), to promote veganism as a moral imperative and to engage in work that stands a serious chance of ending slavery.

Most of all, I wrote this blog because I believe that you want to end animal use, that you can change your thoughts and your work, and because, brothers and sisters (and folks in between), I believe that nonhuman animals call us not to apologies, half-measures and excuses, but to work together to pull the system down brick by brick, vegan by vegan, rescued animal by rescued animal, with hard work, determination and good faith.

Theses on Francione: The right not to be used as property as a discursive framework

When Marx and Engels argued for a dialectial materialism (in distinction to Feuerbach's contemplative materialism), they began the work of creating for themselves (and the rest of us) a set of tools for engaging more accurately with moral reality. In redux, they were calling on us to leave behind a process of sitting around, imaging how the world works as a set of material phenomena, to study observe material phenomena to understand how the world works materially and then to set about changing it in accord with our moral views. In that sense, Marx and Engel's work, while philosophy, is deeply informed by both science as well as intellectual and logical rigour; and I think at least that part of their work provides an excellent model for abolitionists.

Like all works of moral and theoretical genius, Marx and Engels' was both a definitive moral statement (a wall that said 'no further' to vice). But it also provided an open framework to apply and advance their thinking (an open door to virtue). Today, Marxists think about class struggle in ways slightly different from Marx and Engels entirely because their work was not historically bound in utter terms. Their thought was flexible and creative. It laid the ground work for people not just to apply their ideas, but to talk about them, think about them sincerely and to draw new and different moral conclusions in light of their work and the change in historical and social circumstances.

Prof. Francione's Six Principles of the Animal Rights Position in particular and his broader theoretical work in general do the same, and this blog is mostly a thought experiment on his argument that all animals have a right not to be used as property. His argument is both a definitive moral statement (that we should not use other animals unjustifiably, including human ones, and that veganism is the unequivocal baseline for that view), but it also opens a framework for the rest of us to think further and sincerely about what that means. Of course, we must oppose sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, speciesism and other forms of irrational prejudice, we must promote the abolition of animal and not merely it's regulation, and we must better understand nonviolence as a moral imperative. But what else might we infer reasonably from the moral and theoretical framework that Francione's work creates? A handful of theses and aphorisms follow. Again, these are thought experiments to encourage discussion and thinking, not definitive statements, and none of them are particularly original, drawing almost entirely from Gary's work (except, of course, where he might disagree).

First, and foremost, Francione's work encourages stop thinking of morality as a merely a (deontological) checklist or a moral (utilitarian) calculation. Veganism is the unequivocal moral duty we owe other animals, but Francione has also argued that legal animal rescue and adoption, as well as creative nonviolent vegan education, are also very important. This creates a moral framework that a) requires us to consider new ways to understand what is possible and practical in terms of avoidance of animal use (the veganism part) and b) new ways to understand how we may work to end the property status of animals in particular, but all uses of animals in general. In short, Francione's work encourages to think about morality seriously, to allow it to permeate our lives as a lived daily practice, both in terms of what we owe others, but also how we might act more virtuously, to go past 'baselines' when there is an opportunity for us to do so. As abolitionists, we should allow our thinking about both our duties and how we can act more virtuously, as well as how we can engage with moral reality more accurately permeate our daily lives.

Second, I see one of the logical implications of Francione's work and its focus on nonviolence as being incompatible with supporting a modern military and modern military violence. It's certainly possible for people in the military to be vegan, and this is not a criticism of those presently in the military. In the United States (at least) funding for post-secondary education is remarkably low and yet military service among the poor is remarkably high. It's not a coincidence, but except in cases of self-defense, it strikes me that modern militarism of almost any kind would involve an abridgment of the sixth principle (if not others). Furthermore, Francione's work provides us with a framework for understanding modern military service as a kind of indentured servitude if not slavery. Those in the military are frequently used as instruments and indeed, the military often joking refers to its human resources as property. As abolitionists, I believe we should absolutely oppose the draft, almost certainly most military interventions and even the modern military as an organ of the state.

Third, it seems to me only reasonable that we should oppose modern human trafficking and slavery (whether legal or illegal). This seems obvious on its face, but there are also a number of liminal professions that we allow to function on the margins of society that resemble a kind of slavery in practice, even in they appear to involve a reciprocal contract relationship. For example, we should think further about whether teenage sexworkers, soldiers, migrant workers and other kinds of labour do not involve 'being used as property' or something very much like it. For other (Marxist) reasons, I oppose the sale of all labour, but if the sale of one type of labour does not involve similarly legitimate choices by profession, does not provide the same or similar protection from abuse, etc., (e.g., if the sexworker does not have the same type of choices and does not enjoy the same protections as does the Harvard law graduate), this poses us with a serious moral problem, even if it's not quite the same moral problem that nonhuman animal use poses us today. We have to ask, why is that the case? What implicit sexism, racism, classism or other irrational prejudice informs this inequality? Furthermore, we have to seriously ask, what should we do about? and take our answers seriously. As abolitionists, we should (at very least) oppose unequivocally systems of literal human slavery (e.g., in coffee and chocolate production, modern sexual slavery), but we should also work to rearrange society in such a way that also opposes the commodification of human beings.

Fourth, and somewhat related, we must seriously consider the reorganization of social relations between human beings so as to not use others as property. This doesn't, on its face, prohibit reciprocal exchanges and contracts, but it does call us to ensure these contracts are legitimately fair and that these kinds of exchanges are truly reciprocal. Anyone who looks at modern society can see that this is often not the case. Moreover, the prospect that we have a duty not to use others as property requires us to think much more seriously about social hierarchies in social relations. Some social relationships that involve authority, we may wish to keep (e.g., the relationship between teachers and students), but some we may not. More important, we must commit ourselves to scrutinizing how we relate to others socially and seriously consider that, even if another human being is not our literal slave, we may engage with them in a social relationship that may not accord them their personhood as meaningfully as we might.

Fifth, if we accord nonhuman animals inherent moral value and consider them as persons, then, as we (should) do with all persons, we owe them at least some moral consideration of their habitats. If we take nonhuman animals seriously as moral patients, then we must also take their homes, their drinking water, their food, and their share of nature as an instrument much more seriously than we have. Not every every environmentalist is an abolitionist (but s/h/ze should be) but every abolitionist should take the interest of nonhuman animals to their share of the ecosystem seriously.

Sixth, we must begin the social and cultural transformation required not only to end the property status of animals but to cultivate a habit of thinking of animals as persons both in ourselves and broader society. There is a gross misconception of Francione's work that he's 'only interested in ending the property status of animals' as if this were a vague abstraction, and as if we could all go home the moment the law changed regardless of what happens in broader society. This “critique” (and I use that word with remarkable generosity) is a kind of idiocy with that operates on many levels. I won't address it at length in this blog, but certainly, the whip that would have lashed Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, as well as the laws and social prejudices that made their 'use as property' possible, was not an abstraction.

The abolition of the property status of nonhuman animals is a shorthand for social transformation. It proposes the elimination of the single most prominent and serious barrier to taking the personhood of nonhuman animals seriously and unfettering our activists and broader society from engaging in a more meaningful relationship with nonhuman animals. It will provide a firm legal basis for challenging all forms of social prejudice toward nonhuman animals. Like all tools, however, activists must be prepared to use the legal status of animals as persons to protect the interests of nonhuman animals and to fight speciesism. As veganism is the moral baseline for the abolitionist movement, the abolition of the property status of nonhumans is a legal and moral milestone in our work to end speciesism.

In closing, today we stand at the historical beginning of our thinking about what we owe nonhumans. We have only begun to adopt the practices that take their interests seriously. In broad social terms, someone has just suggested to us that those we have taken for granted as our slaves have a right not to be used like our property. This will be the first volley in a long but morally necessary social dialogue. Nevertheless, it's an argument in which reason, science and compassion are all on our side. It is remarkably important that none of us to be silent. The first step for any of us is small, but profoundly meaningful and easy: to take the rights of animals not to be used as property seriously and go vegan.

Take the emo CD off repeat: pessimism is counter-revolutionary!

This just in: people are cruel, the world often sucks, there's injustice everywhere, everything seems hopeless. You may be the only anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, anti-speciesist you know. In fact, you probably are. You family and friends may be unsupportive or outright hostile to your views. Your coworkers may all be idiotic douches. You're at home, feeling forlorn. You painted your windows and your nails black, tossed on an emo CD and left it on repeat. Your thumb is probably looking awfully good right now and the bag you keep packed for the day you can get back into the womb is looking great. Now's not the time to give up or suck out. Now's the time to put on your steel-toes, grab a stack of pamphlets, hug your cat and hit the streets.

Of course, this isn't to make light of clinical (or any serious nonclinical depression) or other emotional and mental illnesses in any way, particularly compassion fatigue to which many activists are prone. Depression runs in my family, and if any vegan has any doubt about whether or not to take necessary medication, he or she should. Be sure to look into compounding pharmacies; it's practical and possible for you to do so. Also consider that there is often little meaningful moral difference between a battle with serious mental illness and being stuck in a lifeboat with a utilitarian. Both can be life-threatening and in those situations, we all do what we must.

What I'm chiding here is the tendency we all have to focus on the negative. I wish I had a dollar for every animal advocate who's ever tried to tell me that “people are evil by nature!”, that “we'll never see change in our lifetime!” or “let's put them in work camps!” (I say this last one a lot, but I'm only joking) or “people are just too dumb to get it!” Let's imagine that that is the case. Let's imagine that there is no hope at all. Let's imagine that you are the only vegan, ever. Let's imagine you'll live to be 1,000 (older than Methuselah). Let's imagine that nonhuman animals will never get free within your life time.

Does any of that make any difference, at all, to what we owe them?

Would you ever stop taking the rights of all animals not to be used as property seriously? Would you ever stop owing nonhuman animals your absolute and unequivocal solidarity embodied as a lived daily pratice in being vegan? Are people ineducable, or do they need regular guidance in order to 'get it'? Are they evil by nature or just confused, encouraged to think only about themselves and have their choices systematically limited by a system that pits all of us against each other?

I don't have the answers to these questions (sorry about that!), but I do know that the surest way to ensure that no one will ever be educated is to not educate them. The surest way to ensure that they continue to behave incorrectly is never to correct them. The surest way to ensure there will never be substantial moral change is to fail to insist that it is not only possible, it is probable, morally necessary and most of all, absolutely undeniably and immediately yours to make.

I've never claimed to know all that much about human nature (at least not after that period in grade school when I wanted to be a Jesuit, as I'm sure we all did). I minored in anthropology in university. Now that I do 'cultural studies,' there's some social science, but it's really more about understanding the art, literature, film and music of other cultures, not the inner workings of the human soul (if there is one). Human beings are remarkably diverse. Some good, some bad, a great many unattractive and smelly, only a few truly morally ugly, but each and every one redeemable.

Is there a human nature? I believe that we all exist in various states of moral confusion about what we owe other human animals and (especially) what we owe other nonhuman animals. This is true even among vegans. The cat, the dog, the cow, the pig, the fish, the giraffe, the soldier, the sexworker and the coffeepicker all have the right not to be used as property; and yet how many of us understand that in absolute completeness or strive to bring the two best words in the English language: justice and equality into our daily lives on a daily basis? No one is perfect; but our best is the best we can do.

I believe in a moral reality, but I also believe that there's often a great deal of fuzz between the way we think, the way we observe and that reality. The ability to be wrong about moral reality, however, our ability to misinterpret it, implies that there is a proper interpretation and that, should we wish to be moral and virtuous (and we all should), then we should strive to understand and act upon that moral reality as best as we can. But what I also know is that sometimes firefighters risk their lives to save companion animals, that Frederick Douglass got free, that the children in concentration camps banded together to protect one another, and that I went vegan a decade ago. I'm far from being the sharpest or shiniest tool in the shed and if I can go vegan, anyone can. At best, the evidence seems mixed.

But if you want things to be different from what they are today, the news isn't just good, it's absolutely wonderful: veganism is one of the easiest and also the most meaningful things you can do if you take justice and equality seriously. Authoritarianism is not the solution; it's the problem. Pessimism is not realism; it's counter-revolutionary. And what I owe nonhuman animals isn't a lot of soul-searching or complaining, it's work, determination and a little bit of love (but not in the utilitarian way).

I'm calling on us all to take the emo CD off repeat. If you're not vegan now, go today. If you're not already an abolitionist, learn more about how you can work to end animal slavery. But most of all, stop waiting for the world to change by itself. Stop waiting for leadership. Stop waiting for organizations. Remember that you are a force of nature, that you struggled out of a womb, that you fought your way through junior high-school, and that if anyone can change, it's you. Change the record, change yourself and change the world. Today is your day.

Unpack – the womb's just not that into you! Self-help tips for the deeply misguided

When I went vegan a decade ago, I was almost always happy to meet another vegan (or hell, even a vegetarian, but I was a different person in those days). Today, when I find out someone is an animal advocate, I tend to worry. Are they even vegan? It's an unfortunate reflex, but it seems like a declaration of a tip of a lengthy iceberg of personal problems that includes: a need to medicate one's self-esteem by running others down, a lack of attention growing up as a child that causes people to act out negatively for the attention it brings, or a generally arrested emotional development, or a lot of masculine posturing that would be better displayed on a pro-wrestling program (no offense to professional wrestlers). How long, I wonder, till this person reveals whatever severe emotional problems they have? Dare I get to know them?

Don't get me wrong. Everyone has personal problems. I have a great many, including all of the above, as well as an inability to proofread and a contrarian personality. And the idea that we could separate out all of our own deep seated neurosis from our work— our desire to change ourselves from our desire to change the world — strikes me as problematic. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. More important, conflating our own needs as individuals, or, as bad, our needs as a movement, with what we owe nonhuman animals only reproduces the moral problem: human beings using nonhuman animals as means to their ends.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many people get into the kind of 'animal advocacy' that promotes regulated animal use and/or allows for breaking things (and adopt the sorta/semi/kinda plant-based diet proposed by the Regulationist Cabal as veg*nism) because of other emotional needs. I have a further suspicion that groups that promote regulated animal use in place of abolition understand this and cater to the emotional needs of those 'veg*ns'. There's a great deal of emotional hand holding of human beings at the expense of nonhuman animal interests in regulationist activist circles. I'm not vilifying anyone individually or as a group for having difficult emotional lives. Certainly, that would include most people in the United States. But the question I would pose is whether fostering this emotional arrest by regulationist groups among activists is really helpful to nonhuman animals or to the activists themselves.

So, I asked myself, rather than being hard-hearted, how could I play a positive role in helping these outer children come to terms with their inner adults? And so, I have written what I take to be a very thoughtful, helpful and most of all, nurturing set of self-help tips.

First, unpack, the womb's not really into you. A lot of the animal advocates I've met over the years have been really into reliving their childhoods. I find this kind of odd, but far be it from me to comment extensively on anyone's fetishes. My mother said I was born in a suit and a serious expression. I always wanted to be an adult, even as a child (and, of course, now that I'm an aging adult, I'm fighting it tooth and nail). Certainly, I understand the desire to correct a bad childhood. But when it comes to advocating for nonhumans, I'd suggest we put away childish things. The idea of drinking, eating candy bars, etc., for the animals is misguided. It's an opportunity for vegans (and not just vegans) to indulge themselves like everyone else, and although that's fine within reason, it's not activism.

Second, spit your thumb out when you talk so that adults can understand what you're saying. Harsh? Perhaps. But many of the vegans I have known over the years have been remarkably unclear, or worse, in their politics. Saying things like “it's a personal choice!” or “I'm not vegan, I just eat a plant-based diet” or other nonsense because we're afraid of someone else's judgement harms the interests of nonhuman animals. This reflects both a deep confusion and certain amount of moral dereliction. That doesn't mean that every discussion of veganism has to be a confrontation. But as Bob Torres has already more eloquently put it, “meek vegans suffer” and more important, they fail to be a firm voice for those who can't speak for themselves. Part of what we owe nonhuman animals is a clear and firm voice.

Finally, try to remember, it's about their emancipation, not yours. Not every little difference of opinion is a insult heaped upon your personal head. Veganism is, primarily, about paying what we owe to nonhumans because they have a right not ot be used as property, not medicating ourselves. If we're feeling blue, what makes us think that it's a nonhuman animal's job to make us feel better? Of course, I cuddle my cats and I have my own oxytocin addiction. And there's nothing wrong with thinking about the enormity that nonhuman animals face in order to put your own life in perspective. Things could always be worse is a truism, but it's often a helpful way to think about things. However, there's a difference between this and replacing our anti-depressants and a session with our psychologist with activism that promotes regulated animal use or engages in petty vandalism so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment based on falsehoods. Animals are not ours to use, whether it's to solve our emotional problems, to train and motivate staff or any other human reason.

I know. I'm terribly mean, but think of it as tough love. Be brave, little vegans! You can do it!! Not only do I believe in you, if nonhuman animals can't rely on you, who can they?

I learned everything I need to know about nonviolence as a moral imperative from my mother

I was recently discussing questions of violence and activism (a couple of months ago) with a colleague at Vegan Freak Forums. It was part of a related discussion that prompted my lengthy post below on militant new welfarism. But it's been on my mind lately as I read even other abolitionists (to my disappointment) coming out in favor of coercive activism.

I take the sixth principle of the animal rights position as written by Gary Francione very seriously. Actually, I take all of the principles very seriously, but it seems to me sometimes that there is some sense among self-identified animal rights advocates that the sixth and fourth principles are optional (but that's another blog). In general, I don't support home demonstrations, property destruction, illegal rescues or other forms of coercive activism as a general rule. Prof. Francione has some other articles that I think are worth reading on this topic:

That doesn't mean that I don't support the use of nonviolent force to restrain someone beating a dog if that's what's required; I certainly do. That doesn't mean I don't support an animal welfare officer kicking down a door to gain entrance to a puppy mill if that's what's required; I certainly do. That doesn't mean I want anyone reading this who has ever freed a rabbit to take the rabbit back to the lab. I certainly don't. And it doesn't mean I'm opposed to nonviolent self-defense (I'm not).

And to be clear, I haven't always been nonviolent. It was a long journey. I was a member of the Communist Party for a long time, and before that, I lived in one of the rougher areas of Chicago most of my teenage years and my young adulthood. Many of my friends ended up in street gangs, and let's say it was good luck rather than intelligence that kept me out of them. But eventually, I had to come to the conclusion that if I had a duty to act nonviolently toward nonhuman animals in light of their basic rights, then that included people. If it was a duty to respect the rights of animals not to be used as property then acting nonviolently as a activist was also a moral imperative.

But what about my mother? How do she fit in? When seriously considering how to explain why I'm deeply opposed to this kind of activism today, I thought about my mother. As most of you wouldn't know, just a few days before my I turned 14, she died of colon cancer. For those who don't know, colon cancer is often preventable and treatable when caught early enough, and when it's not it's often debilitating, very, very stressful, and very painful. It was almost certainly coming to terms with her rights as a human being to have a life free from pain and exploitation (which, I can tell you, cancer does not respect) that influenced me to adopt vegetarianism and then veganism.

Thinking of her, I realized that I couldn't even begin to imagine when it would be acceptable for someone (let alone me) to hit my mother, to threaten her, to break her things in order to get her to take the rights of nonhuman animals seriously or how these would be pratical ways to coerce her to go vegan. And yet, as a movement, we think these kind of actions will convince people to drop out of profitable businesses, to fold up shop, and to liberate their animals rather than just to sell them to a larger, more profitable and more aggressive exploiter with better marketing, security and public backing. Which can we honestly believe is more likely?

Leaving aside the moral questions, I've never believed supply-side tactics were worthwhile. As a Communist, the party trains you to understand basic economics (thankfully, proofreading is not similarly required). Globalization has rendered supply-side activism utterly moot in practical terms. Even if one vivisector/furrier/foie gras producers quits, another will only take his or her place. If one shop folds, another will spring up. If not in one county, then another. If not in one state or province, then another. If not in one country, then in another. In fact, never has it been more cost-effective in human history than it is today to lower the cost of a commodity (or to increase its profit margin) by simply moving the manufacture of that commodity to another country where the cost of labor is cheaper than it is today.

The idea that we can harm the industry economically by harming one supplier at a time is simply and totally without foundation. But even if it were, coercing one employee of one business in a global division of labor that consists of thousands to millions of businesses that produce billions and billions of dollars worth of animal products for billions of consumers who would simply seek out another supplier seems, at my most generous, totally pointless. But even if both were the case, the moral questions remain: should we undertake activism that focuses on (and understands out duty to be a matter of) harming the oppressor rather than helping nonhumans? should we undertake activism that draws us into rights conflicts when we have other perfectly legitimate avenues? The reasonable answer to both seems to be be no.

In short, where there is demand, even when the demand is illegal and there is widespread social and moral condemnation, there will always be demand (as contemporary illegal human trafficking clearly shows). The problem is demand, demand, and demand again. Just as the CP focuses not on harming businesses but turning workers into socialists, so vegans should focus not on harming businesses but educating people about animal rights and veganism. Education and mass organization with trained and committed activists are really the only practical basis for long-term change. But what about the moral questions to violence? Isn't some violence justified based on what they're doing? How about just a little to make us feel better every now and again?

While I agree my mother had no right to use nonhuman animals unjustifiably, the question is what to do about it. What kind of advice could I give to someone else in a similar moral situation given the way the world stands at present. Where are we to draw the line? No matter how many years it would have required or how many times, I would have had to try to educate her about veganism. As an animal, her basic rights to life free from pain and suffering, to be free from harm, was not something I could just dismiss. And so, how could I dismiss anyone's? I couldn't legitimately give my mother a pass, to excuse or ignore her choices, while repeating the paradigms of the oppressor with everyone else. Nonviolence was unequivocally what I owed her, what I owed others, and what I owed myself.

By violence, I don't mean boxing, wrestling, American football, or video game violence, etc., the things we typically associate with, and focus on as, "violence" when there are far more violent, far more commonplace behaviours we sweep away from the public sphere. But imagine hitting someone's mother, or threatening her in front of her other children (or the neighbor's children), or even worse, as some members of the animal advocacy movement have seriously proposed. I mean acting as a mob to satisfy our emotional needs at the expense of our own virtue, of our difference as a political movement that is seriously opposed to violence toward animals, and indeed, at the expense of what we owe nonhuman animals if we take acting effectively on their behalf seriously.

And by nonviolence, I don't mean simply avoiding those acts ourselves, but rather, embracing a broader attitude and cultivating a practice of taking the rights of others (all others) and their moral standing as ends in themselves seriously, and allowing that view to inform our social relations. I mean veganism (as an unequivocal baseline). I mean saying thank you. I mean tipping your waitperson well. I mean educating others (and believe me when I say I understand how ineducable some people seem, but that's the ocean we're in and we all might as well start paddling). And I mean rescuing and caring for any of the thousands upon thousands of nonhuman animals (cats, dogs, birds, gerbils, guinea pigs, pot-bellied pigs, chinchillas, birds, fish and others) who wait for us to restore their personhood, to care for them and to love them by perfectly legal means.

In short, I realized that I could not use the paradigms of the oppressor in the here and now in order to build a stronger house for those I love tomorrow. The desire to be violent and to see violence as a solution rather than as the defining problem of the world are a cross that none of us needs to bear. Often, to love is to sacrifice. To best love my mother, my cats, and other animals (human and non), I had to put away my own personal emotional needs for retribution, which was never really my right in the first place. In doing so, I traded the past for the future. I decided to give up on violence. If a nonviolent future is what we're after, so should we all. If every sentient being has a right not to be treated as property, then certainly, the best expression of our virtue finds itself not in acts of hatred against the oppressor but in acts of love on behalf of the oppressed.

Our words and our works: today is your day to make them consistent

Writing about the recent election in the United States, Immanual Wallerstein reminds us of the tendency towards reaction, even in social justice movements. His critique provides the basis for a similar critique of the contemporary animal advocacy movement.

“When, however, after the Civil War, the U.S. Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which made unconstitutional the exclusion from voting of African-American male citizens, the women's movement was dismayed that they were not included. Wendell Phillips, one of the leaders of the U.S. abolitionist movement, famously told them in May, 1865 that the demands of women's suffrage should not be pressed at the moment, for "this is the Negro's hour." Many women suffragists did not stand by mute. As a response, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony supported the presidential campaign of George Francis Train, a known racist, who however advocated women's suffrage. The outcome was a profound split in the feminist movement.”

For those who have a spare 10 minutes, I highly recommend the whole short and readable piece available here. The similarities between the collapse of a united pro-feminist, ant-racist and anti-capitalist struggle in the United States that could have coalesced around Emancipation offers a number of parallels to today's animal advocacy movement.

Today, regardless of the goals claimed and some of the higher level rhetoric espoused, the movement remains mired in a racist, sexist, speciesist and violent opportunism. It focuses not on advancing the rights of nonhuman animals, but on lining the pockets of industry and those claiming to fight industry with more regulation. Activists are encouraged, not to rescue and care for nonhuman animals as persons and to oppose their slavery. Instead, they are encouraged to donate money for the promotion of a kinder slavery for those who are still in shackles and to euthanize those who are free but unwanted. Is that really who we are?

Today, the movement focuses not a broad discourse of equality, but on tactics that foreground petty and vile displays of sexism and racism (coded but understood) that trivialize both human and nonhuman animals, indeed all animals in one go. Activists are not encouraged to promote veganism as a baseline for those who take nonhuman animals seriously as part of a braoder, unifying effort to respect and promote the basic rights of all sentient beings. Instead, they are encouraged to get naked, wear lettuce fronds or chicken suits in order to promote KFC. Is that really what what we want?

Today, the movement focuses not on promoting the rights of nonhumans on the basis of nonviolent vegan outreach as a moral imperative, but on harming the oppressor economically (or physically) with carnivals of threats, abuse and hysteria one week, while enriching that oppressor the next with free marketing for even the smallest, slightest changes in the frequency of lashes and the number of bars on the cell. Activists are encouraged, not to promote the abolition of the property status of nonhuman animals, but to attack or reward suppliers in what is an impractical, irrational and immoral effort to twiddle supply when the problem is now, always has been and always will be a matter of reducing demand for nonhuman animal products and labor. Is that really the best we can do?

“But our hearts are in the right place! And we're promoting veganism and the end of animal slavery someday by promoting anything but veganism and the end of animal slavery today!!” Today, the movement stands in the same shallow and shadowed backwater that it did almost 15 years ago when Gary L. Francione paraphrased Frederick Douglass, describing the animal welfare movement as wanting raining without thunder.

My questions are serious, not rhetorical. Is that all? Is that all we owe nonhuman animals: the fattened cow led to slaughter alone and terrified, to the fish yanked from the sea and clubbed, to the seeing eye dog who will live a life as someone's slave? Is that all we hope to be and to do ourselves? If not, then why isn't the animal advocacy movement working on anything different? They'll know us not by our words alone but also by our works. If our works promote a kinder, gentler slavery rather than an immediate, unconditional and unequivocal end to that slavery, then regardless of what we tell ourselves or others, there is no meaningful difference between "liberation" and "exploitation".

If you think you owe nonhuman animals something more than half-truths, inconsistency and ambivalence, now is the time to get started. Today is the day. None of us needs an organization to hand-hold us and tell us what to do. To summon a different future from the present moment, we only need to be educated, disciplined, thoughtful, polite and, most of all, unequivocal in our praxis (that sorely misunderstood union of consistency between our words and our works) that nonhumans have a right not to be used as property and that veganism is the baseline for respecting that right.

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