humane movement

Abolitionists: Fringe or Core?

Background

In its May+June 2008 Reader Letters section, VegNews magazine is taken to task by its activism advisor:

In the recent article about the humanecalifornia.org ballot initiative (“Taking the Initiative,” Jan+Feb 2008) to ban some of the worst confinement practices on factory farms, I was disappointed to see equal weight given to statements by a fringe group opposing such bans. Attacking progress may make the critic feel relevant but does not result in meaningful change for animals. Such negative views are not widely shared in the animal protection movement and should not be portrayed as if they are to newer activists who can sometimes easily be pushed to a counterproductive approach.

The author of this letter is activist/attorney Bryan Pease of Animal Protection and Rescue League, an organization that actively promotes husbandry reform campaigns such as the initiative favorably discussed in the article.

Writer Mat Thomas begins the piece by claiming that, if passed, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act would “set a new precedent for animal protection by improving the lives of more farmed animals than any voter initiative in US history.” He goes on to repeatedly quote the senior director of HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign in support of the act’s benefits. HSUS is, along with Farm Sanctuary, one of the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act’s main proponents. Thomas sets aside just one paragraph in the middle of the article to ‘balance’ the piece with a perspective from Friends of Animals’ legal director, Lee Hall.

After briefly paraphrasing Hall’s question as to whether “husbandry campaigns truly cultivate respect for animals or merely reinforce their status as commodities,” Thomas wraps up the paragraph with a single quote. Hall asks where society can find a coherent message, if not from vegetarian activists, “Steadfast support for the movement to opt out of animal agribusiness would cultivate and strengthen genuine respect for animals and the ecology.”

Marginalization

For the crime of including this single bit of animal-friendly critical thinking, Pease expresses his disappointment that “equal weight” was “given to statements by a fringe group.” Maybe he expected readers not to go back and examine the Jan+Feb issue, but anyone who does so will see that Hall didn’t receive anything resembling equal weight in Thomas’s article. Equal weight for the abolitionist viewpoint would have meant offering a more meaningful opportunity for Hall to describe how husbandry campaigns reinforce animals’ status as commodities, which is ultimately at the crux of this debate. Of course, such a discussion would have undermined Thomas’s thesis.

Still, Thomas’s lop-sided approach is not enough to satisfy Pease. Unable to brook any dissent, he attempts with his bullying letter to debase an animal rights activist who was simply asking us all to ponder whether husbandry reforms are actually effective animal advocacy and to suggest that it would be consistent with vegetarian ideals to ask people to opt out of consuming animal products altogether. In addition to calling such a view “negative,” Pease packs his brief letter with other loaded, unsupported and biasing terms or phrases, like “attacking progress,” “may make the critic feel relevant,” “counterproductive” and, most notably, the marginalizing “fringe,” when describing Hall’s group, Friends of Animals.

In effect, by browbeating readers–and even VegNews’ editors–with his authoritarian argument that abolitionist statements should not be given “equal” weight, Pease demands that the magazine suppress opposing views. Even more pernicious, and in the same vein, he patronizes newcomers to animal advocacy by trying to prevent them from hearing other points of view, a suggestion that newer activists are incapable of thinking for themselves.

In light of his predilection for censorship, it should come as little surprise that Pease does not mention Friends of Animals or Lee Hall by name in his letter. It’s as if he is afraid of bringing further attention to them. But perhaps his greatest disservice to FoA, to animals and, frankly, to the animal rights movement is his cavalier dismissal of the organization as a fringe group. I wouldn’t object here if you found Pease’s attempt to marginalize abolitionist animal rights activists to be eerily similar to ongoing efforts made by those profiting from animal exploitation to marginalize vegans and animal advocates (poke around the Center for Consumer Freedom’s website, animalscam.com, if you don’t know what I mean). His VegNews letter is a very deliberate attack on a group promoting animal rights and veganism, and from the same guy who claims that Hall is attacking “progress”.

A false corollary

So, what sort of “progress” is Pease claiming? He doesn’t tell us. If, as many modern animal advocates do, he means progress toward the abolition of animal exploitation, then his claim is untenable. This is the message Hall was trying to deliver. Unlike Hall, who recognizes that husbandry reforms are inconsistent with an abolitionist approach, Pease and others believe such reforms will somehow lead to abolition, as if there was a correlation between regulating the treatment of animals and abolishing their use. But there is no correlation.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act is not progress toward abolition because it does nothing to address the root causes of animal suffering. Instead, it superficially focuses on the symptoms of their use as property: their ill treatment in factory farm operations. Further, assuming the act is passed and not later overturned–and that it is actually enforced–we won’t necessarily see any empirical reduction in animal suffering. The suffering will simply look different, as animals are transferred out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. Now, if someone has developed a new-fangled gauge for quantifying the suffering of animals for the sake of comparison, please let me know, but this would still miss the point: The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act intends to replace one form of animal exploitation for another. Even if someone could empirically prove that this act would meaningfully reduce the suffering of animals, it is hard to see how one can call it progress for animals when its aims are not even pointing down the right ‘slippery slope’.

Regardless of any regulations successfully mandated by husbandry reforms, the industry will go on using animals in hatcheries, on farms and feedlots, during transport, at stockyards and in slaughterhouses. After all, there’s nothing to stop them. Farmed animals are property of the industry, things for owners to use for their own benefit, and laws regulating the treatment of animal property further entrench the commodity status of animals, as Hall suggests.

Paving the way… to happy meat?

Worse, such laws make the use and consumption of animals seem more palatable. As far as traditional welfarists (i.e., those who accept the use of animals for human ends) are concerned, their moral obligation to reduce the suffering of those whom they wish to eat will have been discharged by this act, and now they will proudly eat their ‘humane’ animal products. If I had a dollar for every time someone responded to my veganism by stating that they only eat cage-free eggs or free-range flesh, I could probably cover the hosting costs for this blog.

Speaking of money, another way ‘humane’ organizations undermine abolitionist advocacy is by selling animal exploiters on the improved economic efficiencies, the potential for increased demand, and the market premiums associated with adopting husbandry reforms, going so far as to produce research reports supporting these claims. Why are animal protectionists promoting husbandry reforms as a means to increase demand for animal products? Such tactics, like the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, facilitate the enhanced exploitation of animals, without doing anything to prevent animals from being used as a means to human ends.

In order to abolish animal exploitation, wouldn’t it make sense that the means to this goal resemble the ends? In other words, shouldn’t animal rights activism be focused on eliminating the roots of animal suffering–that is, the instrumental use of animals for human benefit? It is hard to see how such an approach can be construed as ‘counterproductive,’ as Pease claims. On the contrary, abolitionists are critically engaged in pursuing effective campaigns to foster veganism while engendering respect and meaningful protection (rights) for animals, which seems to me rather more productive than easing the consciences of those who consume animal products.

Fringe v. core

Perhaps Pease is correct in one sense. While it is hard to see how any rational being might consider Hall’s views negative, it is clear that they “are not widely shared in the animal protection movement.” This should come as no surprise, given the widespread shift toward husbandry reform campaigns carried out by activists participating in what is still frequently referred to by many as the ‘animal rights movement’.

The appeal of the phrase ‘animal protection movement’ is no doubt its value as a generic, catch-all phrase calculated to create as broad a band of supporters as possible to negotiate non-rights husbandry reforms with industry or to push legislative initiatives, while not scaring off supporters and potential supporters with the term ‘animal rights’. Even when the term ‘animal rights’ is mentioned, it is often used to describe non-rights protections or activities, either as a “loosely” defined term or “as a rhetorical tool as part of a political campaign”. In effect, ‘animal rights’ has become rhetorical shorthand to refer to any ostensibly pro-animal activity, even those that have no direct correlation with securing basic rights for animals.

To achieve and maintain ‘legitimacy’ with institutions and the public, the ‘mainstreaming’ of the animal rights movement into the animal protection movement–a rebranding, if you will–has led to the suppression, marginalization and even outright rejection of those who promote the movement’s core animal rights ideals. Activists that advocate for an abolitionist approach to animal rights are labeled ‘fringe’, ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ in a bid to put as much distance between them and husbandry reform advocates as possible. Now, I don’t know about you, but it would seem to me that–in a movement claiming to be in favor of animal rights–the activists whose means are consistent with the movement’s abolitionist ends should be considered the core, not the fringe.


Learn more about the arguments discussed above by reading Gary L. Francione’s Rain Without Thunder.