Month: April 2008

Thanking the Monkey

For today’s entry, I originally set out to review Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals (Harper Collins, 4/29/08, $19.95), a forthcoming book written by my friend, Karen Dawn, but I ended up churning out a somewhat rambling essay instead, which some of you faithful readers may have come to expect from me anyway. At this rate, publishers are going to stop sending me books.

Karen’s activism was influential at a certain point in life when I found myself getting involved in animal rights activism (and it’s clear from this book that she intends for a great many other people to get involved in some form of animal activism as well). While we certainly share a number of opinions, and she has written plenty with which I can agree, Thanking the Monkey illuminates various ways in which I have come to see animal rights and AR activism differently from Karen.

Despite her efforts to remain as accessible to as many potential readers as possible–and, for the most part, I think she succeeds here–there are many who will likely reject the book out of hand due to a fundamental difference between her “loose” definition of animal rights and those who take animal rights very much to heart as an ethical matter. It’s no surprise, then, that Karen specifically addresses abolitionism very early on (page 5, “Anti-Welfare Warriors”), though it may be more surprising to some that elsewhere in the book she quotes one of the more outspoken proponents for the abolitionist approach, lawyer, philosopher and professor Gary L. Francione. For those just arriving to the party, abolitionism is summarized by Francione as “a nonviolent approach to animal rights that (1) requires the abolition of animal exploitation; (2) is based only on sentience and no other cognitive characteristic, and (3) regards veganism as the moral baseline of the abolitionist approach.”

I’m not implying that self-described abolitionists will reject this book or be concerned about the impact it might have on readers solely because of this particular passage, thought it does unfairly and incorrectly suggest to readers that abolitionist animal rights activists (ARAs) are “anti-welfare” (not to mention “warriors”, which belies the peaceful foundation of abolitionist ideology). After all, I don’t know any animal activist actually opposed to a meaningful reduction in suffering for any being. Abolitionist advocacy is at odds with welfare advocacy not because it’s “easier to persuade people to stop eating veal while calves are crept in crates and deprived of iron,” as Karen puts it, but because pursuing husbandry reforms as an animal rights activist is defective on both empirical and ethical grounds.

It may well be the case that animal products with “humane certified” labels are more likely to be perceived as ethically acceptable food choices by the public, which may indeed make it more difficult to convince people on certain grounds that animals are harmed when we use them as a means to our ends. But that does not dissuade the abolitionist who knows that, as long as animals are subjected to commodity status by humans, they will continue to be harmed. No, the point is not that husbandry reforms make the job of ARAs harder, or any similar such dubious claim. That point is that husbandry reforms implicitly and explicitly claim that animal use can actually be made humane and, thus, animal rights is rendered moot. For an ARA, it simply makes no logical or ethical sense to promote a “gentler” use of animals that reinforces their status as human property while simultaneously claiming to oppose their use.

So here we have the primary reason most abolitionist ARAs are likely to dismiss Thanking the Monkey. In taking a relatively “loose” view of animal rights, Karen and others in the field of animal protection have stopped advocating animal rights altogether. As she writes, if the world were to go vegan, like Matthew Scully (author of Dominion), “would it matter, at least to the animals, whether or not he spoke about rights?”

Certainly animals don’t have any idea what a moral or legal right is, at least as far as we know. I’m certain, if they could answer us, they would ask us to simply leave them alone. But isn’t that the point of animal rights? It isn’t about their perceptions. It’s about their liberation. If everyone went vegan, of course there would be no profit in commodifying animals. And, certainly in such a world it would likely be easier to pass a law actually granting animals the right not to be used instrumentally. But, how can we ever expect the whole world to go vegan when the “animal rights movement” itself plays down the importance of veganism, and when the majority of activism centers around modifying the treatment of animals, rather than opposing their use altogether?

This “humane movement” has turned the animal rights movement into a loud call to reduce suffering, an honorable cause to be sure, but one which does not ask that people go vegan, and which does not even challenge the use that makes their suffering inevitable. Yet animal exploitation will not be abolished while all our attention is focused on how they are treated, and as long as the assumption that their use is justified goes unchallenged. It is this very assumption that is at the root of the problem that ARAs seek to address.

Over the past year or so, AAFL has made more of an effort to focus better on the roots of animal exploitation, which has led me to a greater awareness of what “animal rights” really means. At least two years of my life as an animal rights activist was spent doing work that, as I later understood, had nothing to do with animal rights. Sure I was raising awareness of institutionalized animal cruelty and promoting veganism, but I didn’t even fully understand or express the concept of “animal rights” until just over a year ago. You can imagine how floored I was once I actually “got it”, when I realized that “animal rights” activism as I had previously understood it was actually welfare activism, the pursuit of husbandry reforms within animal agribusiness, not advocating the basic moral right of animals to be free of unnecessary and harmful human domination.

Unsurprisingly, many activists within the “animal rights movement” are caught up in the welfare paradigm of “animal rights”. So many of us became vegan and got interested in helping animals due to the efforts of organizations that conduct these husbandry reform campaigns, which seems to have led to a type of circular thinking along the lines of “That’s how I went vegan, so it must work. Why fix something that isn’t broken?” The problem is that, while some people are disgusted enough by institutionalized cruelty toward animals that they go vegan as a result of husbandry reform campaigns, the actual animal rights message is left out, and activists end up spinning their wheels chasing after the myriad forms of suffering caused to animals that will continue so long as their use goes unchallenged.

I know that, when I went vegan, I didn’t have any real clue about animal rights, and part of the reason is because no one seemed to be talking about it. I figured, like so many others, that if the people at “animal rights” organizations call themselves animal rights activists, what they do must be what ARAs do, so I followed the recommendations of those who had been around for a long time and surely knew better than myself what I should be doing. And, hey, who doesn’t want to end animal suffering?

I didn’t understand the root causes of all this animal suffering until later on. Like other new activists, I was under the impression for a time that the best and most “pragmatic” way to help animals now was to pursue an agenda that focuses on means-to-an end tactics and panders to public sentiment, whether it be the health argument, the environment or reducing animal suffering. I’ve even been at a demonstration where one activist got in everyone’s face and loudly claimed that they’d never need Viagra if they only went vegan. It was offensive and embarrassing. All these approaches ignore the issue of animals’ rights altogether, apparently out of fear that the public will not relate or will tune them out. Of course, I saw a lot of people tuning out the Viagra message, too.

It’s a little like a popularity contest, isn’t it? Don’t challenge the status quo if you want people to like you. Dilute yourself to the point where you won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities–play down any differences you might have–and you will find more people accepting you. By pandering to the public and keeping sights aimed so low, this conformist strategy appears to have worked for the humane movement, at least in terms of mainstream acceptance.

Animal welfare organizations have grown rather prominent and–dare I say?–influential, prompting a lot of back-patting and general sentiment that animals are being taken more seriously than ever, but in what way? And to what effect? We’ve seen no discernible shift toward a world that understands animal rights, much less one that embraces its ideals. The number of vegans in our society is still statistically insignificant–a rounding error, if you will. I do see a lot more attention around “conscientious omnivorism” and “humane” labeling, but certainly an ARA shouldn’t be promoting or otherwise endorsing the exploitation and consumption of the very animals they seek to protect.

Unfortunately, animal rights ideals have been misappropriated and misrepresented in the course of compromising “the message” to connect with a wider audience. As some in the “animal rights movement” will tell you, “animal rights” is a really just a catch-all term that doesn’t necessarily refer to the moral or legal rights of animals at all. Ironically, the so-called “father” of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer, does not even accept the concept of rights (Karen also points this out in Thanking the Monkey). Like many in the humane movement, Singer prefers to use the term “animal rights” as a handy rhetorical device, or a banner under which to operate dramatically in the public eye, which is a clear misrepresentation.

When polls indicate that a majority of the public agrees with certain AR views, what we are seeing is merely an agreement with the diluted, “loose” perception of animal “rights” as being anything meant to improve the conditions of animals exploited for human benefit. In effect, that sympathetic portion of the public associates AR with improvements in animal treatment, not the abolition of their use altogether (though traditional welfare advocates are doing their best to make sure that their constituencies are clear on what both abolitionists and new welfarists[1] ultimately want). Of course, the only people I’ve come across that disagree with improving conditions for animals are those primarily concerned with keeping the cost of their hamburgers, burritos and pizza low, no matter what the cost is to the animals.

Perhaps it’s these very people that have convinced many would-be animal rights activists that we shouldn’t be focusing on spreading abolition of animal use by promoting veganism and animal rights. After all, people like those described above will “never” go vegan, or so the story goes. Instead, we’re told we should be seeking to engage a broader population that agrees that factory farming is horrible and will support efforts to make animal agribusiness more “humane”. In this way, we will at least reduce the amount of suffering encountered by billions of animals every year. If, in the meantime, our campaigns manage to shock some of the more sensitive types into going vegan altogether, then so much the better.

But isn’t this backward? Shouldn’t animal rights activists be promoting veganism and, you know, animal rights? Shouldn’t husbandry reforms be a “side effect” of our work, as the industry responds to the inroads we’re making with veganism and AR, instead of veganism (and more often vegetarianism or “conscientious omnivorism”) being a side effect of “animal rights” activists promoting the consumption of less-cruelly-treated animals and their secretions?

Why would animal rights activists behave like traditional or “classical” welfarists when their end goal is abolition? New welfarists are doing the sort of work that you would think should be done by traditional welfarists and the industry or, in other words, by the very people who believe it’s acceptable to harm animals by using and killing them, so long as they lead “happy” lives in the span between their artificially-induced births and prematurely-induced deaths.

The ethically consistent stance of an ARA, on the other hand, is that it is never acceptable to harm sentient beings unnecessarily, and that our means should resemble our ends. We should not be partnering or otherwise aiding animal exploiters in profiting off the bodies and deaths of animals. We should clearly, consistently and rationally–even emotionally–promote veganism and animal rights together as inseparable concepts.

Surely if we lead unwaveringly with this stance, a society that is already horrified by a variety of unnecessary animal uses will eventually follow. By focusing consistently on veganism and AR as moral imperatives, we push the envelope, dragging everyone else behind us (despite some kicking and screaming), thus sparking reactionary husbandry reforms as the animal use industries vainly struggle to salvage their profits. This can be done without having to compromise our own vision and ethics in the process, and without resorting to the same “ends justify the means” mentality people use to rationalize animal use and consumption.

Just because it’s conceivable that a welfarist approach may someday meaningfully reduce some of the most egregious suffering caused to animals does not make it animal rights work. It’s welfarism, plain and simple. Now, new welfarists are obviously different from traditional welfarists in that, unlike the classical welfarists, new welfarists claim to seek abolition, but they do believe that continuing the centuries-long welfare tradition of attempting to reduce the suffering of institutionally exploited animals will somehow inexorably lead to animal liberation, or will at least pave the way for a world that accepts that animals ought to have rights.

This view has led people who once sought the complete abolition of animal use to pursue activism that is inconsistent with their belief that it is wrong to use animals, typically in order to achieve apparent compromises from industry. But this assumes that any sort of gain in the negotiations between animal exploiters and reform advocates results in progress for animal rights, which is simply not the case. These compromises are only accepted by the industry when they are good for PR or otherwise improve the bottom line, with very little exception.

The animal use industries will, of course, fight with every last dollar any action meant to totally abolish its use of animals. There are obvious, deep-rooted reasons of self-interest for this, not to mention fundamental ideological differences, and that is precisely why any “victory” claimed by “animal rights” advocates in this situation cannot be said to be a victory for animal rights. The only regulations with any chance of being approved are those which merely specify how animals may be used, not whether animals may be used for a given purpose in the first place.

What’s more, much new welfarist activism actually supports the efforts of classical welfarists and even the animal use industries itself. Examples include partnering with or applauding “humane” label certification programs, generating reports to demonstrate how certain husbandry reforms are more efficient and profitable, publicly honoring slaughterhouse designers, and promoting companies like Wolfgang Puck and Burger King, which traffick almost exclusively in the flesh and secretions of sentient beings. These campaigns make it rather hard to tell the difference between the new welfarist and the traditional welfarist.

Now, this isn’t to say that those working at organizations who partner with agribusiness don’t personally believe in abolishing animal exploitation. Clearly many of them believe that, somehow, by engaging in these compromises and trade-offs that keep animals entrenched as property in an exploitative system, they will someday get them out of it. But it just doesn’t add up, logically, nor in terms of moral consistency. I don’t write these things to belittle or otherwise denigrate anyone’s beliefs or the work they have done and continue to do to try to help animals. However, I think it is vitally important for all of us to think very critically about our activism, and how we go about living animal-friendly lives, and that is why I am asking you to strongly consider my words.

Regulating animal enterprise’s treatment of animals does not address the fact that they are being used in the first place, which is of course the root of the problem. We cannot solve the problem without addressing it directly. Using the closest human example of slavery as an analogy, requiring slave owners to exploit their property more gently would have done nothing to get slaves out of servitude. While slaves might have welcomed a gentler whip, or a cap on the number of lashings they might have received per day, they would still have remained the property of other human beings and, as property, their interests in pretty much anything would have remained necessarily subservient to those who owned them, even the most “humane” masters.

Similarly, despite all the cries of victory when a husbandry reform is approved to phase out a particular method of animal treatment in, say, 10 or 20 years, such regulations (assuming they are not overturned or circumvented) do not lead to the abolition of animal use. Animal rights is not even on the table, and most welfare-oriented organizations–craving “legitimacy”–are eager to keep actual rights for animals away from the table, out of concern that AR is simply too radical a position to put forward for mainstream acceptance.

Of course, animal rights won’t come at the legislative level any time soon, and that will continue to be the case until a much larger percentage of the population accepts the moral right of all animals not to be treated as a means to our ends. But this doesn’t mean that ARAs are doomed to fail, or that we should set our sights on a completely different kind of activism. Laws are passed in response to voter demand, which of course changes over time. One day the public will be as outraged over the use of animals for unnecessary purposes like food, clothing and entertainment as they currently are about dog- and cock-fighting, but only if we convince people that such uses are morally similar, not if we give them the impression that certain uses are acceptable as long as they do not involve the most egregious cruelties.

The effect of demand holds true for the corporations that exploit animals as well, for obvious reasons. Some day, animal enterprises will either have to shift to a vegan model in response to evolving market pressures or fold. Of course, neither the laws nor the industry is going to move away from our current paradigm unless voters and consumers do. But public demand will not shift away from animal use as long as we settle for “Humane Meat,” “Free Range” eggs, etc. These labels, and other public relations “carrots” offered to animal exploiters, have the effect of promoting “gentle” animal use, which has lead to a rather profitable market segment characterized by people (including former vegans) who believe that it is acceptable to use and consume animals as long as they are not being treated certain ways. How can we say that this leads us to a vegan world?

In effect, the activism of some very outspoken (former) animal rights advocates has, on the surface anyway, become nearly indistinguishable from the traditional welfarism that existed in Western culture for hundreds of years before animal rights rose to prominence in the 1970s. A movement that once sought to banish the use of animals for any purpose now trades away the lives of some animals in expectation of reducing the suffering of others, figuring that those sacrificed for gains today can be addressed when the winds of change are more favorable to them. Such an approach may be expedient, but it assumes that this “pragmatic” trade-off will succeed in achieving narrowly defined goals, and it tramples all over the moral rights we claim to accept for all animals.

For instance, in order to help end the annual Canadian seal slaughter, the humane movement has traded away the interests of other sea animals who are considerably less cute and, thus, less popular with donors who want to keep eating animals and their secretions, but don’t see the value in killing baby seals. People are told quite plainly by animal activists (frequently called animal rights activists by the media) that, if they boycott Canadian “seafood”, but eat “seafood” from other regions, they will help save seals from being massacred.

Someday, this campaign may actually generate enough support to pressure Canada’s government into abolishing the seal hunt, but history has shown that to be fairly unlikely. In the meantime, “animal rights” activists are trading away the interests of fishes and other sea creatures to benefit seals, which is just fine by “cuddlytarian” supporters, who have nothing to lose. They don’t benefit from the exploitation of baby seals, so ending their slaughter doesn’t negatively impact them. But asking them not to eat any animals from the sea does, so that campaign is swept under a rug, presumably for a later day.

But if ARAs don’t stand up for animal rights and veganism now, who will? How will AR and veganism ever be widely accepted if we are constantly downplaying their importance or backing away from them? If we don’t fully embrace AR and veganism and “own” their ideals unapologetically, then we have given up before we ever started, and that’s a great way to sell ourselves, the animals, and our fellow humans short. When we tell people that the only obligation they have to animals is to reduce their suffering, when we tell them that veganism is too hard or even optional, and when we distance ourselves from the idea that using animals as a means to our ends is unnecessary and harmful to animals, we “give away the store”. What a pessimistic approach.

There is no way that path will ever lead to animal rights. It leads away from the abolition of animal exploitation, and we would do well to pull out our compass right now and reorient ourselves. To use another metaphor, we cannot build an abolitionist house on a foundation that views unnecessary animal use as potentially ethical.

So how do we build an abolitionist foundation?

Start by first understanding that animals will never be free from unnecessary harm so long as they are dominated by humans, regardless of how they are treated by some. Recognize that animals must be granted the right to not be treated instrumentally by humans if they are ever to be free from this subjugation. Our use of animals must simply be abolished. Of course, this means abolishing animal use in your own life by going vegan, if you haven’t already. This is very much living the idea of being the change you wish to see in the world.

Next, learn to discuss with others how their behavior is inconsistent with their belief that it is wrong to unnecessarily harm animals, and encourage them to also go vegan. Promote the view that using animals as a means to our ends violates their basic interests as sentient beings and that, as fellow sentient beings, we cannot tolerate this lack of respect and consideration.

Spread these views throughout your circle of influence as far as you can, as intelligently as you can, and with as much confidence as you are capable of mustering. You will be taken more seriously and, consequently, so will the animals for whom you advocate. A movement grounded in this level of respect, clarity and consistency is the only long-term path to abolition.

[1]Defined by Gary L. Francione as “animal advocates … who claim to embrace abolition as the long-term goal, but who argue that welfarist regulation in the short term is the only thing that we can, as a practical matter, do now to help animals.”

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