animal welfare

Veganism is not a boycott

I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to get one of my upcoming Taste Better columns down closer to the preferred 1,000 word length. I spent way too much time trying to preserve the whole thing. It is abundantly clear to me now that, while somewhat helpful to the discussion, an approximately 650-word discussion of how veganism fails as a boycott is a bit of a tangent.

That said, I will probably post here again when the column goes up and refer back to this post, in case you want to see how it fit into the original piece. The passage I am preserving down below would have basically acted as a segue breaking up a paragraph on veganism as way of taking personal responsibility for abolishing animal exploitation and how, for many of us, this is still not enough.

For a handful of reasons, it’s good that I made this cut. First, now the column is down to a more digestible thousand-word proximity, which will make Jason Doucette and my readers over there happy. Second, the column is a bit more focused. And, finally, I kind of wanted this particular excerpt to be made available sooner rather than later, due to a recent post by Mary Martin over at Animal Person. The column I extracted this excerpt from won’t go up for another month or so.

I have included just enough of the paragraphs before and after to help the piece stand alone. I look forward to your thoughts in comments, as always.

Going vegan is taking personal responsibility for abolishing animal exploitation. In this respect, it is an essential step toward achieving animal liberation and their right not to be treated as property. Nothing else comes close.

Unfortunately, legal processes are not yet open to eliminating the property status of animals, mainly because at this time not enough people in our society support such an idea. Activism on the corporate level fails as well, particularly with respect to boycotts, which are generally a tool for reform, not for abolition.

In a typical boycott, faced with public pressure, companies institute reforms that eventually restore confidence in their business. Once such measures are in place, consumers return to purchasing its products and the boycott ends. However, respecting the right of animals to not be treated as property means never accepting their use for our trivial interests in food, clothing, entertainment and so on. In other words, the boycott can never end.

By way of example, a boycott of one company because its workers were caught using chickens as footballs only serves to express disapproval over using chickens as footballs. It does nothing to convey how seriously wrong it is to have bred that chicken as a commodity in the first place, which is ultimately how he ended up as a football. Once the company can assure the public that the chickens it owns are no longer being kicked around, there is nothing to prevent consumers boycotting the company for this abuse from buying its products again. But the company still owns the chickens, and the chickens’ intrinsic interests are still subservient to the economic interests of the company.

Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson, Smithfield and others will never stop enslaving animals until the demand for such products subsides to the point that no profitable system can be found to carry on, hence the need for consistent, widespread vegan advocacy, not a boycott. After all, it’s not one particular company that’s a problem, nor is it the way these companies produce the products, per se. It is the products themselves–it is the fact that the products are even products to begin with.

The issue is becoming particularly urgent as we see animal exploiters, with help from some animal welfare organizations, carve out a whole new “conscientious consumer” category, adopting and touting “humane reforms” that ultimately improve their bottom line while doing nothing to eradicate the perception of animals as property. Quite the opposite, “humanely-raised meat” (and related labels) help consumers to feel better about eating animal-derived products, many of which have been called “guilt-free”, as if selectively breeding, mutilating, dominating and killing sentient beings for no good reason can ever be considered guilt-free.

For many, what seems to matter most is that animals live their lives as pain-free as possible while they are being exploited, never mind that their rights are being violated so long as they are property (since, as discussed, the interests of property can never be properly balanced with the interests of the property’s owner). Illuminating the faulty basis for some people’s dietary choices, some vegans have reportedly gone back to eating meat now that it’s allegedly “happy”. A recent issue of Good Magazine even highlights a former animal activist who is now a rancher! If a boycott means improving the treatment of animals, and not eliminating their use as commodities, then this is where it ultimately leads.

Companies must know that we will not eat any of their products, as long as they are derived from animals. So, unless vegans are boycotting Tyson or Smithfield in hopes that they will eventually stop exploiting animals and will become all-vegan companies (don’t hold your breath on this one), they must be vegan for other reasons. That reason must be abolition.

As many of us have realized, the only way for us to abolish our own contribution to animal slavery is to go vegan. Doing so rejects the speciesism that contributes to our society running roughshod over animals’ interests in avoiding pain and suffering, feeling pleasure, bearing offspring, nurturing their young, and so on.

But for some, as big a step as going vegan may have been, it is not enough.

Happy meat reaches its apex

If you thought the “happy meal” Good Magazine cover was disturbing, wait until you see this Toronto Life magazine article (WARNING: corpses suspended in the background of the photo leading this article). 2008 appears to be the year that happy meat reaches its zenith.
If this doesn't bother you (and, please, really?), just try reading the article while replacing descriptions of other animals with human beings. This is where welfare or humane reforms are taking us. The author of this article has written a number of “foodie” articles for the magazine, on butter, meat, dairy, what have you, even while recognizing that animals are not mere steaks on legs. As long as the mindset continues that nonhuman animals are ours to do as we please, we will only be pushing further and further into this territory.
It's so important that our work focus on the rights of animals to not be treated as property. Recognizing them as more than things but still keeping them property results in them continuing to be used for our own purposes. They are brought into the world by humans almost like some sort of cruel joke. Because, as soon as the time is economically most beneficial, each of these beings is snuffed out and turned into a product. Regardless of how well they are treated in the interim, there is nothing happy or humane about that.

Happy meat on cover of this month’s "Good"

So, the magazine is called Good. The whole thing smells bad to me. I saw this cover at the checkout stand while at Whole Foods (fine purveyors of happy meats… I understand the meat is so happy it jumps up and dances for you if you light up a disco ball).
 
 
As you can see, this month’s cover features a picture of a cow being “pampered” (including food, a nice brushing, and a radio playing music) below the headline, “Happy Meal,” which is revolting in and of itself (can you imagine a human being depicted similarly?). In case you can’t read the low quality, slightly-blurry iPhone pic I snapped, the caption reads: “Why pampered cows make tastier steaks.” Forgetting that it probably ought to have said “make for tastier steaks” (do the cows come up tableside and make steaks for people, a la Douglas Adams?), the only thing more disgusting than this cover was the article itself, which I quickly scanned through before leaving. 
 
I’m telling you, this article sells the happy meat but good. This is where welfarist activism is taking us, folks. Not that this will surprise some of you, but even a former PETA-supporting vegan talks to the writer about the benefits of”humanely raised” beef, calling the transition from activist for the animals to someone who cares for then kills her own animals a transformative experience, in so many words. If you want to really get your blood boiling, take a look, but please don’t support the magazine by purchasing. 
 
I put the copy I was browsing back on the rack… backward. Wooo, passive-aggressive activism (passivism?).
  

By the way, also at the Good website, here is the article’s dedicated page (though, no text), along with some unhappy comments. There’s a video promoting the issue featured here as well, which is hosted at YouTube (from factory farms to family farms, in a nutshell). Interesting comments under that, as well, including something we’re going to be hearing more and more as happy cows become the new “reality”:  “They don’t know they’re on death row.”

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.

The Truth About Foie Gras?

This “enlightening” piece by John Mariani in Esquire magazine leads off with:

Animal rights activists say duck liver is evil, the by-product of an abusive system. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Mariani doesn’t know what he is talking about. First of all, actual animal rights activists consider the consumption of duck liver–and all animal-derived products–to be wrong because doing so involves the totally unnecessary commodification and exploitation of another living being, not because conditions for producing foie gras are simply inhumane. Mariani is confusing rights with welfare, which is no surprise considering how many animal rights activists do the same thing.

Then the article actually gets started, spending its focus entirely on the relatively high welfare experienced by force fed captive ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ massive operation in the Catskills, where he “didn’t see any of this suffering those crazies are screaming on and on about.” Regardless of how foie gras is produced at this or any other facility (clearly not all facilities are the same), rights violations are occurring. This article conveniently forgets (or does not care) about whether the ducks have an interest in living in their natural environment, expressing natural behaviors and doing something other having their livers fattened up so they can be slaughtered as a “delicacy.”

Animal activism that fixates on welfare standards inevitably comes down to stand-offs like this one: “Hey, man, these animals are treated better than a lot of people. Get off our backs so we can get on with eating them.” Sure, the animals most people eat most of the time are treated atrociously, and the only way to make sure one avoids this cruelty is to avoid eating them. But this path does not lead to respecting animals’ rights. It implies rather that it’s acceptable to eat a hamburger (or foie gras, for that matter) if you know the “food animal” led a life comparable to your own “companion animal”, even though you’d never consider eating your companion (voila: moral schizophrenia).

“…there’s no need to feel guilty,” Mariani concludes. But he has not made that case at all. He has simply put forth another weak attempt at justifying unjust behavior by making it seem harmless (note that he doesn’t focus on the slaughter, though). He’s succeeded in making welfarism look foolish, but he has not even begun to understand animal rights.

Two pigs better than none?

I’m seeing Verlyn Klinkenborg’s New York Times opinion piece, Two Pigs discussed all over the place these past two days, so I’m not going to add any additional commentary in this space. However, I thought I’d share the letter I sent yesterday:

I have an intellectual exercise for your readers. Let’s substitute “dog” for “pig” in every sentence of Two Pigs (Opinion, Oct. 25, 2007) and see if people respond so romantically to Klinkenborg’s ode to killing.

Be sure that your letter to the editor includes your full name, address, email, current location (where the letter is being written from), and day and evening phone numbers so that you can be reached in the event they consider your letter for publication.

Wolfgang Puck ‘not going soft, or, heaven forbid, vegan’

From my headline, I’m sure you will understand my annoyance at this Newsweek piece written by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, whose recent “happy meat” proclamation has the media all aflutter. There’s little doubt that animals raised in accordance with Puck’s “humane” program requirements will experience varying degrees of improved welfare conditions before their untimely demise–solely to appear on the menu of Puck’s more than 100 restaurants–but most of these improvements will be relatively minor.

When one considers that not eating animal-derived products in the first place completely eliminates the intentional, avoidable suffering of individual animals, the most straightforward and effective way to reduce animal suffering overall (and end your contribution to it) is simply not to eat them or their eggs and milk. Now that is taking the interests of animals into account. Instead, this allegedly benevolent “culinary philosophy” deceives the public into believing that there is a humane way to eat from the animal world. The whole thing is really a PR campaign masquerading as a show of compassion, and this article is probably the clearest proof of that.

As some have pointed out, this emphasis on “happy meat” is actually promoting an ethos that would have us believe that it’s perfectly acceptable (and, in fact good) to eat animals in the first place, as long as they’re treated better before they’re slaughtered. As Puck says, “Yes, they’ll be killed for food—but until then, they should have a nice stay on Earth.” Of course, this also promulgates the notion that a brief life of easy meals, some small semblance of a “natural” lifestyle and protection from predators is a “nice stay,” and well worth the end result: traumatic transport and slaughter to end up on someone’s plate. Forget what the animals want.

Hammering this point home is a poll that asks, “Would you pay extra for meat from animals raised humanely in a free-roaming environment?” Where’s the option to abstain from animal flesh entirely, Newsweek? Irritating.

Ironically, the cognitive dissonance is evident in Puck’s own words. “As for foie gras, my customers and I can easily live without it.” Total disconnect. He completely neglects to offer the obvious fact that we can easily live without the veal he serves in some of his restaurants, much less pigs, chickens, eggs, and so on.

It’s apparent that activism focusing on the treatment of animals will bring about many more of these frustrating “changes of heart,” a perverse sort of “progress” that makes many people feel even better about eating the products of animal exploitation. Despite Puck’s avowed disdain for veganism, consumers have the power to more meaningfully reduce the overall suffering of animals on this planet by going vegan, and by influencing eateries in their community to incorporate vegan options into their menus.