Review: Striking at the Roots

Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism
by Mark Hawthorne
O Books, $19.95 (Jan. 25, 2008)
282 pages

I recently started a three-part column over at TasteBetter.com, called “Opportunities for Activism.” What occurred to me after writing that column is that it’s not enough to simply outline various types of activism; you need to inform that activism with education, despite the “just do something” mentality that pervades the animal protection movement. It’s precisely that approach that keeps animal activists from focusing on the actual cause of all this suffering and cruelty that so many of us work so hard to fight.

As I was already working on my follow-up column, Mark Hawthorne’s new book, Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, arrived in the mail. With a name like “Striking at the Roots,” you’d certainly expect that what lies between these covers will help activists better understand the basis for animal exploitation and eradicate it. Unfortunately, SatR does not fulfill these expectations.

Toward the end of the book, Hawthorne offers a quote from pattrice jones–an articulate, thoughtful activist whom I admire–in which jones discusses the value of multiple approaches in any given movement. The problem I have with using that quote in this book is that the animal welfare movement and the animal rights movement are distinctly different. The first focuses on improving the welfare of animals, while the second focuses on advocating moral rights for animals and one day securing their legal right not to be treated as a means for human ends (i.e., as property, entertainment, food, etc.).

An animal rights movement with a diversity of approaches applied toward securing rights for animals (i.e., tabling, leafleting, writing letters, demonstrations, public speaking, and so on) is indeed stronger than an AR movement that focuses only on, say, writing letters. What is missing, though, is the background required to know whether one is leafletting or demonstrating on behalf of animal rights or animal welfare. Despite the fact that most, if not all, of the various types of grassroots activism catalogued in SatR could be employed in the service of improving animal welfare or animal rights, there is virtually no discussion of the forces that perpetuate and encourage animal exploitation or how to address these forces, and therefore the book fails from the start to help animal activists truly strike at the roots of animal oppression.

Instead, the book relies heavily on long-time activists to make its recommendations, many of whom work for various national organizations. One such recommendation is for grassroots activists to focus on welfare campaigns while simultaneously downplaying the importance of animal rights rhetoric and education. Suggesting, for instance, that leafleting requires almost no background in the issues makes no sense. If an activist is confronted by a member of the public and does not have a strong grasp of animal rights, then there is very little that activist will do to advance the cause of animal rights in that moment. After all, the activist with no background in the issues doesn’t even really understand the concept of animal rights. Also, by not understanding whether the literature s/he is distributing addresses the use or the treatment of animals, s/he may not realize that s/he is doing little to expose or condemn the roots of animal exploitation, either.

Now, in his introduction, Hawthorne does draw a distinction between the animal rights and animal welfare movements, and notes that he is well aware of the divisions within the animal protection community over the appropriate path(s) to animal liberation. He understands that animals are “sentient individuals with their own interests” and “an intrinsic right to exist on their own terms, free from any human exploitation,” but he ends his intro with a call for reform. So despite this brief preamble, SatR winds up focusing on the symptoms of animal exploitation and avoids the root causes, an approach which could well harm the animal rights movement. The last thing animals need are more animal rights activists who don’t think about what they are doing and why. Too many animal rights supporters out there already have no idea that, in promoting welfare reforms, they are not doing anything substantatively proactive to help secure the rights of animals.

So, while Hawthorne has come up with a very practical guide to specific activities that could well be put into service of animal liberation–HSUS’s Paul Shapiro offers some tips on leafleting, for example, that are quite valuable, despite an earlier assertion that we should downplay animal rights rhetoric and instead focus on systemic abuses–a reader following SatR‘s suggestions to the letter would be promoting the interests of a humane or welfare movement, not the animal rights movement. Any successes activists have promoting veganism to reduce suffering or promoting legislation to reduce the most egregious forms of animal abuse in factory farming operations will leave the roots of oppression completely untouched.

Despite the assertions of many of the book’s participants, animal rights activists simply cannot afford to devote so many of our resources to reforming what are basically the symptoms of animal exploitation. It is the job of a humane reform movement to leverage society’s disapproval of animal abuse so that it can improve conditions for animals, certainly. But, if we are indeed concerned with the widespread adoption of animal rights principles, activists need to focus on shifting the perception of animals as things to be used in the first place, and that won’t happen as long as we do nothing to challenge this assumption. If we do address the roots of our society’s justifications for animal use–targeting its “might makes right” mentality and its sense of entitlement–animal abuse will necessarily be addressed. So it makes logical sense that animal rights activists ought to be striking quite literally at the roots of the oppression that allows cruelty to occur in the first place, rather than striking at the symptoms, and there are many ways to do that. It is important to recognize this, since we all have different interests and gifts that we can bring to bear on the problem.

So, go on: read the book. Get inspired with ideas for the types of activities in which you may want to participate on behalf of animal liberation, but be skeptical about suggestions you will find to limit rhetoric about animal rights or to focus heavily on welfare campaigns. If you really want to strike at the roots of animal oppression, you will thoroughly educate yourself about animal rights, you will seek to understand with greater clarity the forces that keep animals in abusive situations, and you will start to consider just what you ought to be doing and saying to raise this awareness in others, and how best to be doing it and saying it, in order to maximize your contribution to the wholesale shift in our society that we are going to need if we truly want to see an end to animal suffering.

For example–just to reference a handful of chapters–there’s no reason why, when leafleting, you can’t make a concise, sensible and accessible case for animal rights if you educate yourself well on the matter, rather than dwelling merely on reducing animal cruelty. There is no reason why your letters can’t take an opportunity to present animals as sentient beings with interests that matter. Tabling is an excellent opportunity to talk about animal rights in a coherent fashion, rather than simply glossing over the subject of use and focusing instead on the treatment of animals. Even demonstrations and protests can take a singular act or area of animal cruelty and use it as an opportunity to educate people about the root causes of this treatment, exposing the power dynamic of oppression that makes cruelty to other sentient beings possible, and why it is wrong. The section on food outreach is practical, and fairly agnostic, frankly, so there is much to be learned there.

You get the idea. I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bath water, as they say, but (despite my own participation in the book) I simply couldn’t have recommended Striking at the Roots for its practical aspects without first offering my opinion on how best to apply its suggestions, all the more so because I very much do believe that the most important activism we can perform is that which strikes at the roots.

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