I shouldn’t have to write this: on Veganuary-bashing

I’m going to do something stupid in this post, maybe. I’m going to give more exposure to an article that should never have been written.

The article is titled The Annual Veganuary Fail (you can find it with Google, unfortunately). It criticizes (an understatement) the wonderful Veganuary campaign. Veganuary, as you may know, is about getting people to try vegan for a month, and see where that takes them.

The article is the stuff that I usually try to ignore. However, it contains so many arguments that pop up again and again especially among newly minted vegans who believe in Gary Francione’s “abolitionist approach”, and the Unified Theory of Everything that I thought it was valuable to share some thoughts. Furthermore, I know the Veganuary organizers personally. They’re great people, and I think it’s good to speak up when great people are attacked or misrepresented (and I think we’re not standing up enough against this kind of bashing).

The original text is in bold, while my brief thoughts (I’m being selective and I’m trying to stay polite) are below it. Here and there, I will link to other posts of mine, in case you’re interested in reading more thoughts. Oh, and you may notice how I get a bit exasperated and exhausted near the end.

So, take a deep breath; here we go.

pig veganuary

 

The Annual Veganuary Fail

Original article: It’s getting to the time of year again when Veganuary start their fundraising campaign for January. If you’re unaware of who Veganuary are, the quick explanation is that they’re a charity that fundraises off the back of trying to get people to go vegan – for a month.

My comments: Now this is a pretty bad start. It is a very uncharitable and disingenuous description of Veganuary. If we differ in opinion about tactics, I suggest that we at least start from the idea that we have the same intentions and ambitions. We all want to help animals. There’s no need to imply that people who use tactics we don’t agree with are money-grabbers.

You may be thinking “great, an organisation that takes veganism seriously for once.” I hate to burst your bubble but, if that’s what you’re thinking – you would be wrong.

Telling people they are wrong – especially with this much conviction when we’re certain of so little – is rarely the most productive way of advancing mutual understanding. 

On a fundamental level, the mere concept of Veganuary itself is a rejection of fundamental nonhuman rights.

Note how the word “fundamental” occurs twice in one sentence…

Think about it for a second. They’re not informing people about why as a matter of fundamental morality we need to be vegan, they’re asking people to make what is nothing more than a personal choice decision.

First of all, I’m not sure how the author arrives at this impression from the Veganuary campaign. If you go to the “why” section on the Veganuary website, the first reason listed is “animals”: “Animals are able to perceive and feel, and experience pain and happiness just as we do. Production of food and clothing causes them to suffer in innumerable ways.” I’m hard put to see this as presenting people with “nothing more than a personal choice decision.

Secondly: whatever works. It’s a very common theme among some animal advocates to insist on the moral argument, and on being “crystal clear” that others have an ethical duty, a moral obligation, to go vegan. Even if that were true, presenting things as an obligation, and telling people they have to do things for the reasons that we want them to have is a recipe for failure. People don’t like obligations. They’re very unattractive. Presenting something as a moral duty is the kind of preaching that many people are allergic to. Presenting things as a choice is much more appealing. The Veganuary people know this, and are applying that knowledge. They are only bound by what works (even if it’s not always easy to find out what that is).

It’s a gimmick and an insult to the vulnerable victims of non-veganism. It’s the animal equivalent of “Movember” where some men decide to grow a moustache to help people with certain forms of cancer or mental health issues. The difference is that the latter doesn’t involve fundamental rights violations and so therefore will not be harmed by gimmicks; the former does involve fundamental rights violations – via our treating sentient beings as resources – and so relegating the issue to one of personal choice in the form of a 1-month trial is a denial of the very real exploitation that occurs on account of non-veganism.

Why would Veganuary be an insult to the animals? Why would it involve “fundamental [here we go again] rights violations”? Just because Veganuary doesn’t play the moral obligation card enough? Enough with the demagoguery already!

If you’re not with me so far…

I’m afraid I’m not. But let’s continue anyway, for the heck of it.

… consider how you might feel if we relegated other forms of fundamental rights violations to 1-month a year gimmicks. What about “Feminibruary,” where for the month of February we ask rapists to make the personal choice to stop raping women for that month? Outrageous! Preposterous!… you may think – but it’s okay. If we steal Veganuary’s logic, we’ll have “reduced the suffering” of women by “inspiring and supporting people across the globe” to not rape in February. Wonderful! We’ve provided absolutely no information about why people shouldn’t rape in the first place, but we’ve made a lot of money off the back of fundraising, and made the rapists feel better in that month for “reducing the suffering” of women.

What’s outrageous and preposterous is this eternal and absurd comparison of eating animal products with rape. It doesn’t make any sense to compare something which 99% of the population condemns (rape) with something which 99% of the population actively celebrates (eating animal products). Even if you think that something isn’t any less wrong when everyone does it, at least you may want to consider that such completely different situations may require different strategies and ways of communicating about them.
It’s amazing how often I see this argument turn up, with the people explaining it believing they are so, so right, while I think they are so, so… misguided. (Posts that I have written about this topic: On comparing animal rights with other social justice causes and Is asking for baby steps speciesist? and Slavery Free Mondays.)

To the extent that Veganuary would find my “Feminibruary” idea offensive but think that Veganuary as a concept is just dandy – they engage in outright speciesism. By portraying veganism as some month-long trial, a personal choice, a way to “reduce suffering” (hello welfarists, I’m looking at you), they effectively deny the existence of fundamental nonhuman interests in life and serve to perpetuate the very same speciesism that feeds non-veganism in the first place.

First of all, it’s so easy to throw the accusation of speciesism out there. Following the author here – and continuing with his analogy – it would seem that it would be speciesist to not physically attack people in slaughterhouses, supermarkets or restaurants for processing, buying or eating meat, because if we saw a rape happening, we’d also jump up and try to stop it and beat up or punish the rapists, right? (See my post When the term “speciesism” gets overused.)

Furthermore, I’m not sure how anyone can say that Veganuary “effectively denies the existence of nonhuman interests.” Veganuary is a campaign by a couple of people who care a lot about animals and who have even invested a lot of their own resources in this project. They do that exactly because they believe animals have interests. They do what they do to get as many people on the vegan wagon, through whatever arguments and tactics work. They use a proven and psychologically sound strategy: trying on something for size, without any commitment for the long term, is something way less scary for people than a lifetime commitment, which as we know, most people don’t want to make right away (see Why Veganuary is a great campaign and The imperfect veganism of Erza Klein).

We are offended by a concept such as “Feminibruary” because it is relegating the fundamental rights of women – to bodily integrity, to not be made to suffer, to not have their interest in life denied, to not be used as a resource – to nothing more than a month-long personal choice for those who readily engage in the exploitation of women. It is saying that the personal choices of those who engage in that exploitation matter more than the rights of the victims. It’s saying that the exploitation of women is not a fundamental matter of morality.

So again, what the author seems to be saying is that we have to tell people that they are under an obligation to feel and do as we vegans do; otherwise, they are fundamentally infringing on animals’ rights. I don’t think such a message works very well, but if you want to try it, go ahead, but at least don’t attack other people for using another message. And maybe stop ranting at campaigners like the Veganuary folks about how they are just into raising money, as well as being unethical for other reasons. 

Veganuary is no different in concept to my “Feminibruary” idea. Animals too, are sentient beings, with fundamental interests in not suffering and continuing to live. Their exploitation is every bit a matter of fundamental morality as the exploitation of any other sentient being with those similar interests. It makes no difference whether they’re human or nonhuman – all sentient beings are equal when it comes to being used as resources. The existence of Veganuary as a concept alone, is a denial of this, and so before we even consider the content of their fundraising, they’re perpetuating speciesism.

I think the author, me, the readers, and the Veganuary people all agree about the exploitation of animals being a matter of “fundamental morality.” Again, that is exactly what Veganuary is all about. As the stakes are very high, and as we understand the incredible suffering and injustice that is happening, we need to do something about it. And what we do should be based on what we believe or know works, not just on a theory or an approach invented by some professor or other. Veganuary isn’t a denial of anything. Or maybe it’s a denial of the dogma that we have an ethical obligation to present veganism as an ethical obligation, instead of doing what works.

Things get even more messy when we delve into the actual content. They claim to want to “reduce the suffering of animals while making veganism more appealing to the mainstream.” By focusing on “reducing suffering” alone they are embracing welfarist ideology. Most likely that of “the father,” Peter Singer, who maintains that because the animals we exploit lack more sophisticated human-like cognition, they don’t have an
interest in continuing to live – they only have an interest in not suffering.

Reducing suffering is a different approach from asking for animal rights. Both approaches may have their strong points, and this is an area where we could be open and curious about each other’s viewpoints and philosophy, rather than just saying the other side is wrong. Both a consequentialist and a deontological view can be respectable (although my money is on the former). What’s not respectable is to be dogmatic about what ideology we should use. And yes, while we’re at it, why not bash Peter Singer a bit: a man who has done more than almost anyone in the world to raise awareness about animal ethics. Makes a lot of sense.

The perpetuation of this false ideology is just another string to the bow of speciesism that Veganuary have aimed at the non-vegan public. They intend to let their arrows of confusion fly around the London underground this year where they aim to have 50,000 people partake in not raping… whoops, sorry, thought I was talking about Feminibruary again for a moment. Ahem – where they aim to have 50,000 people being “vegan” – for a month. No education as to why people should be vegan for life, just like we should always respect the fundamental rights of other humans and, you know, not rape them… ever. Just asking people to be vegan for a month for no apparent reason other than to “reduce suffering,” and they believe this will somehow make veganism “more mainstream.” Because, of course, as you know, animals don’t care that we’re killing them by the trillions every year for no good reason.

Someone fills the London underground with vegan posters, and we’re gonna complain and compare this to an appeal to temporarily stop raping. I leave it to you to assess the absurdity here for yourself.

Of course, Veganuary can help make veganism more mainstream. There is no evidence that telling people that they HAVE TO BE VEGAN FOR LIFE! works better than an approach where you tell them to try it out for a month and guide them along with daily mails, recipes, etc. But of course, there is the dogma: the “abolitionists” appear to believe that even if something else would work better, they still wouldn’t be ethically allowed to campaign that way. Following Francione-dogma trumps achieving results, apparently.

Animals just want to suffer a little bit less in January. That’s all they want – how silly of me to think they need more from us than that. My bad, Veganuary. But hey, it’s cool if you don’t want to go vegan in January anyway – It’s your personal choice to decide whether you want to engage in rights violations that month, right?

Pleeeeease, you’re killing me…

I mean, you’ve been given no real reason to take it seriously. Those rights violations would need to be made more “mainstream” in order for you to take them seriously, right? Whether or not you choose to observe a woman’s right not to be used as a resource in February is no different to whether or not you decide to give up drinking in October – damn it, I did it again didn’t I? Let me start over. Whether or not you choose rape women in February is no more a matter of your moral concern than whether you decide to go alcohol- free in October to “reduce the suffering” of your liver, right? – wait, I know. I know. I’ve done it again. I’ve confused one gimmick concerning the fundamental rights of a sentient being for another.

So many disingenuous, strawman arguments and so much absurdity here that I’ll leave this paragraph to you.

Obviously, I’m being facetious. What can I say? I’m sorry. I have a habit for doing that. What I really want to say is – Veganuary. Cut the crap.

I agree with “Cut the crap.”

Take the fundamental rights of animals seriously and use the zillions you’ve raised through fundraising over the years to actually do some real vegan education and educate – yourselves for starters – and then the non-vegan public. Educate about why we need to go vegan and stay vegan in recognition of the fundamental right all sentient beings possess not to be used as a resource. Educate about the nonhuman interest in continuing to live that we deny even exists through our “personal choice” to exploit them.

Zillions through fundraising. Sure. Let’s get more concrete. I checked with the Veganuary team. The campaign has been run for 12 months on around £70,000. The London Underground campaign was crowdfunded and raised around £30K more. Matthew and Jane, the initiators, work for free and told me they will never earn an income from Veganuary – in fact, they’ve put in around £200K of their own money since the start, and live in a small rented home. There are three other members of staff who are now paid very humble salaries – far less than they could earn outside of animal advocacy.

And we must recognize this, not just for January (what kind of insult is that anyway?) – but for life. That is the very least we owe animals. Just as recognition of fundamental rights is the very least we owe other humans.

Again, good luck telling people they have to go vegan for life. Again: is it more important to stick to one’s rules and ideology than to have actual results for animals? I know, I’m starting to repeat myself…

But wait – I’m getting carried away again aren’t I. You’re not going to do that, because you can’t fundraise as effectively from the truth as opposed to something as ambiguous as “reducing suffering.” You won’t make as much cash. It’s not “mainstream” enough – how very sad.

And once again, here’s the nasty implication that the Veganuary people are in it for the money. Deplorable. Really.

I can hear the protests already – “we’re effective, that’s all that matters!”
Effective at what? Perpetuating the age-old idea that animals don’t care about continuing to live? Perpetuating the idea that concern for the rights of animals is not a matter of fundamental morality but a matter of personal choice? A gimmick that one can partake in over a trial period with no real idea as to why? Yeah. Congratulations – I’m setting off party poppers right now in celebration.

If people try Veganuary for a month, many of them will get familiarized with the ethical problems of eating animal products. Moreover, they hopefully will have experienced that vegan food can be tasty, doable, affordable and convenient. That may make their hearts and minds more open to the ethical arguments. Attitude change often follows behavior change rather than preceding it. (See also Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement.)

Lets raise a glass and toast Veganuary for never failing to hit the final nail in the river-coffin that sends every animal down the waterfall and into the hands of corporate welfarism. Lets toast the perpetuation of denied personhood in favour of human supremacy and personal choice.

Oh boy. Can we finish already? I can’t take this anymore.

Way to go. This has to stop.

I’d love it if some things would stop. What has to stop is cruelty to animals, animal suffering, killing animals, injustice. Whatever you want to call it. We’re all in the same boat and on the same page here, I think. But what I’d love to stop also are articles like this, criticizing well-meaning, smart, committed and authentic advocates.

Articles like this are what following Francione-dogma leads to. If you believe you’re influenced by the theories of Gary Francione, think about them again. Keep an open mind. Know that nothing in life is black and white. Follow the evidence where it goes instead of just accepting and repeating the dogma. Know that our work is not about building and following a consistent grand theory of everything, but about having a positive impact for animals in the real world.

p.s. – Inevitably some people will tell me either that I’m wasting my time, or that I’m just continuing the bashing, or that I’m giving more attention to something that shouldn’t get any attention. You can read my motivation for speaking out here.

Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.

steps

 

Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy

 

Compromise isn’t Complicity: Four Reasons Vegan Activists Should Welcome Reducetarianism – and One Big Reason Reducetarians Should Go Vegan

This guest post is by Hillary Rettig. She is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way and other works, and a ten-year vegan and vegan activist. She is a cofounder of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of In Defense of Animals’ Sustainable Activism Council. The views expressed here are hers alone. Visit www.lifelongactivist.com and www.hillaryrettig.com for more on Hillary and her work, and she welcomes your emails at hillary@hillaryrettig.com.
In this article, Hillary examines the strategic value of approaches that call for reduction of the consumption of animal products, rather than their outright elimination, as a stepping stone on the way to abolition.


In 1806, British abolitionists faced a quandary.

For more than twenty years, they had been working to achieve a single overarching goal—to get Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the British slave trade—but had experienced defeat after defeat. Now, in the wake of several expensive and humiliating failed wars, including the U.S. Revolutionary War and Anglo-French War, as well as reports of France’s post-revolutionary Terror, the public and political mood had turned hostile. Even former supporters were now denouncing the abolitionists as “seditionists” and “Jacobins” (after the guillotine-wielding extremist French party).

bury the chainsThe abolitionists were “deeply discouraged,” writes Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains, his terrific history of the movement. But right at that dark moment, abolitionist and naval law expert James Stephen came up with a novel idea: instead of introducing yet another doomed-to-fail abolitionist bill to Parliament, why not instead introduce one that merely made it illegal for British subjects to invest in, insure, supply or otherwise participate in slave trading by France and its allies, including notably the United States? And that legalized the seizure of French and allied slave ships by British navy vessels and privateers?

It was a genius idea for three reasons. First, it would play to post-war nationalist sentiments. Second, naval and maritime interests would love it, since the officers and crew of ships would be entitled by law to claim a percentage of the value of any illegal ship they captured. And third: what Stephen and the abolitionists knew—but what was generally not known by the British public and politicians—was that around two-thirds of British slave ships sailed under either the French or U.S. flag. So the bill, while seeming like an innocuous piece of patriotic fluff, would actually dismantle a huge percentage of Britain’s slave trade.

Nevertheless, the other abolitionists hesitated. Along with the moral question of whether it was right to settle for a partial solution to an absolute evil, there was the strategic question of whether the bill, by eliminating competition, might actually wind up strengthening the remaining slave trade. And there was also the public relations question of whether the public might perceive the abolitionists as implicitly endorsing slavery conducted under Britain’s own flag.

Fortunately, they decided to follow Stephen’s plan. After some adroit political maneuvering – nicely dramatized in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace – the Foreign Slave Trade Act was passed. It was, from an abolitionist standpoint, an outstanding success. As anticipated, it immediately knocked out a huge part of Britain’s slave trade—and, contrary to abolitionist fears, actually destabilized the rest. And it reinvigorated support for abolition.

Small wonder that, a scant year later, the long-sought-after abolitionist bill was finally passed.

This wasn’t the only tough compromise the abolitionists made, by the way. They had made an even tougher one nearly twenty years earlier, when, at one of their very first meetings, they voted to work only on shutting down the slave trade and not on freeing Britain’s (and its colonies’) slaves. They didn’t make that decision lightly—they knew it meant leaving more than half a million people enslaved, most in horrific circumstances in the Caribbean sugar fields. But they considered that battle unwinnable at that time. (They did hope that eliminating the slave trade would lay the foundation for future emancipation—which it did!)

steven-pinker_2380350b
Steven Pinker, reducetarian.

The U.S. abolitionists made a similar compromise when, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, they agreed to give up their insistence on including language mandating full racial equality, so as not to jeopardize passage of the the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

And, about a hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., similarly compromised when, despite his hatred for poll taxes, he agreed to support the removal of a contentious poll tax ban from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so as not to compromise that bill’s passage.

More recently, we’ve seen progressives settle for the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) as a stepping stone to single-payer health insurance, and LGBT activists accepting civil unions en route to winning full marriage equality.

Every social justice movement compromises.

Now it’s the vegan and animal rights activists’ (hereafter referred to as “vegans”) turn. A group of activists have announced a new “Reducetarian” campaign designed to get people to, as the name implies, reduce their consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and other animal products (hereafter all referred to as “meat”) for reasons including animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. Although some vegans have always embraced the “reducetarian” approach–if not the actual name–the creation of a formal Reducetarian movement takes things to a new level, especially as its supporters include such non-vegan notables as legendary human rights activist Noam Chomsky, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and scientists and best-selling authors Birute Mary Galdikas, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. These are all people with enormous credibility and influence who, even if they don’t yet share our goal of global veganism, could do a lot to help the vegan movement.

That’s why many vegans, including myself, welcome the Reducetarian campaign. But others are like the 1806 abolitionists: deeply uncomfortable with a “partial solution” that asks people to reduce their meat consumption rather than eliminate it. These vegans typically refer to themselves as “abolitionists,” and I will use that name for them in this article, although it is important to note that the vast majority of vegans, including many pro-reducetarian vegans, share the goal of abolishing animal exploitation. While I think the abolitionists are well intentioned, I would respectfully ask them to consider these four points:

1) Compromise is Fundamental to Societal Change. As the above examples illustrate, the idea that compromise is complicity is ahistorical. It’s also illogical, since all solutions, to all problems, are partial. Plus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.”

CompromiseAlinsky also writes: “Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles… But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word… A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian.”
So, yeah: as beef consumption declined – due to public health concerns, E. coli scares, vegan activism, and other factors – chicken consumption increased. And we’re also seeing the growth of the “humanely raised” meat industry, which (as the abolitionists fear) is almost certainly helping some consumers rationalize their meat eating. Undesirable as these developments are, why would we expect any different? Power doesn’t give up without a struggle. These developments are not signs of failure, as some of the abolitionists seem to think, but of success. We’re changing consumer behaviors, and forcing the meat industries to react.

2) Change, in Humans, is a Process. Alinsky says an activist’s primary duty is to, “see the world as it is.” Reducetarian supporter Peter Singer, in his activist primer Ethics into Action, gives similar advice: “Above all, keep in touch with reality.” Well, here’s the reality about humans: We often learn, and change, slowly. We find it difficult to break bad habits. We crave. We lapse. We’re egocentric. We are susceptible to social pressure and corporate propaganda. And we often choose short-term gratification over a greater benefit delivered over the long term.
These are just some of many behaviors that most of us wish we, and others, weren’t susceptible to. (And they all have reasonable explanations, by the way: the short-term gratification thing—which psychologists call myopic discounting—makes sense given that, for much of our species’ six-million-year history, we lived in such dangerous circumstances that if you delayed a gratification you might not live to experience it.) Is there even one abolitionist who hasn’t committed every one of these regrettable behaviors in one realm or other of her life?
Moreover, the barriers to veganism are substantial and include not just the pervasiveness of animal exploitation in our culture and economy, and the resilience of animal agriculture as a capitalist system, but the central and intimate role that food plays in our lives. A few years back when I attended foster parent training, for instance, the teachers stressed how one of the most welcoming and comforting things you could do for a new foster child was to feed him foods he was used to.
peter singer mixAbolitionists don’t want to hear any of that. Their mantra—“Go 100% vegan. Right now. It’s easy.”–reflects a stubborn unwillingness to accept the realities of human nature and the mechanisms of personal change. As Singer put it in his book: “Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They… lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change.”
Some abolitionists, it’s true, do acknowledge the reality that many people change in stages; only they argue that vegans should never actively promote the incremental steps. However, not providing support for the most common method people will use to attain your goal is a weak strategy. Also – as I hope this article will demonstrate – it’s not difficult to both applaud someone for taking an incremental step while also helping him keep his eye on the prize.

3) Let’s Skip the Whole Pointless Discussion of People’s Motives. Yeah, research shows that ethical vegans lapse less. That’s one data point among many that are relevant to promoting veganism, and it pertains to some people and situations but not others. (For more on this, see Tobias Leenaert’s excellent talk on why “compassion costs too much” for many people.) In any case, if our goal is truly to reduce animal consumption as quickly as possible, then the solution is to create a mass market for our ideas, similar to the way Apple or Coke or Disney creates a mass market for its products. By definition, that means welcoming people with diverse motives.
rettig mass marketAlso, as Leenaert points out, ethics don’t just influence behavior, behavior can also influence ethics. We often see this when social justice-, public health-, and public safety-type laws are passed: people comply reluctantly at first, and then more willingly as their views change. Antidiscrimination laws and laws mandating seat belt use are two examples; and it’s also worth noting that the act of parenting itself is probably a universal application of this principle, since it often involves mandating behaviors with the hope that those behaviors will instill ethics.
Since behavior can influence ethics, we should be encouraging people to move toward veganism out of any and every possible motive. Which brings us to…

4) The Vegan Movement’s Immediate Goal Should Be To Create Billions of Reducetarians. A currently popular abolitionist-type graphic shows cows lined up waiting to be slaughtered, with the caption, “Baby steps are cool. We’ll just wait on this line until you embrace veganism.” The truth, however, is that reducetarianism actually offers the best hope of saving those cows. If everyone in the U.S. reduced their meat consumption by just the modest target of one meal per week—around 5%—that would save around 450 million cows and other animals each year in the U.S. alone. To achieve the same result, the abolitionists would have to convert approximately 4.5 million meat eaters to complete veganism (based on the oft-cited statistic that a vegan saves 100 animal lives/year). That number, incidentally, represents more than three times the current total of U.S. vegans.[1]
rettig convert 5%

If I were one of those poor cows, I’d totally support reducetarianism.
To get from the carnist world we’ve got now to the vegan world we want, there will have to be many intermediate steps. Our immediate goal should be to create billions of partial / lapsed / struggling / uncommitted vegans, a.k.a. reducetarians, because that will not only eliminate the most animal suffering the most quickly; it will also lay a strong foundation for future progress.
Yes, we’ll probably have to coax those reducetarians along step by step, probably rebutting loads of misinformation—not to mention, rationalizations and equivocations—along the way.
And, yes, we’ll also have to cope with ever more devious ploys from an animal agriculture industry desperate to maintain its profitability. (Beef fat-fueled airplanes, anyone?)
And, unfortunately yes, we’ll probably have to make some more difficult, and probably even tragic, compromises.
But that is the path we’re going to have to follow, because, contrary to abolitionist fantasies, there simply is no other.

To the Abolitionists: Have Faith
In their ignorance of, or disdain for, history, strategy, and psychology, abolitionists pursue ineffective strategies, the “baby step” graphic’s coercive shaming being one example. Here are two others:

*Glib Theorizing. “One of the deep flaws of [reducetarianism],” wrote one abolitionist on Facebook, “is that it approaches the problem only as if it were a question of quantity while it is a qualitative difference between not being vegan and being vegan… And nobody will have any idea of what animal rights are if animal rights activists engage in this confused talk of meat reduction as if they were not actually talking about suffering individuals.” This comment sounds compelling, and it got the most “likes” of any abolitionist comment in the discussion, but, like many abolitionist statements, it makes no sense. Is a life saved via reducetarianism “qualitatively” different than one saved by veganism?
Beyond that, the statement is factually wrong: the Reducetarian website not only explicitly discusses animal suffering, it lists it as the very first reason to reduce one’s meat consumption.
Another comment in the same thread compared the idea of meat-eating animal-rights advocates (the subject of an article by Reducetarianism campaign co-founder Brian Kateman) to “slave-holding black-rights advocates,” and concluded, “Nope, sorry.” But why would we turn away any ally to our cause, especially if their activism, aside from being useful on its own merits, could actually (as discussed above) bring them closer to becoming vegan? And when, once in a while, someone embedded in an oppressive system actually does make a valuable contribution? masterofthemountainI’m guessing the commenter doesn’t know that British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recruited active slave-ship doctors and crew members as informants to aid in his organizing, or that it was the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson who abolished the U.S. Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Also, where do we draw the line? If someone eats honey once in a while, does that invalidate their credentials as a vegan advocate? How about white sugar (often processed using bone char) or the beetle-derived red food dye cochineal?
Should a pescatarian be prohibited from speaking out on the plight of chickens?

*Making Things Up. One abolitionist recently claimed—again on Facebook—that increased meat prices (a goal of humane reforms) don’t reduce meat consumption: “People will buy it if they want it regardless of price. People who smoke will bitch and moan about the cost of cigarettes….Yet they still smoke.” Leaving aside this person’s trivializing of the realities of tobacco addiction, a two-minute Google search would have showed that he was wrong about both cigarettes and animal products.[2]
Another recently wrote, “The science of habit formation speaks stronger for going vegan and getting used to it rather than keeping reducing meat.” I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and have read more than fifty books and countless articles on that subject, and I can promise you that NO reputable expert would say that. Most, in fact, would say the opposite: that trying to change everything in your diet all at once is a recipe for failure. For example, in Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” For that reason, her recommended diet plan, “has you take things one food group at a time.”
And societal change also happens gradually! Citing evidence from the civil rights and gay rights struggles, Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book The Power of Habit, says that “small wins,” as he calls them, tend to synergize and wind up having, “an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

Although abolitionists are quick to accuse others of speciesism, in my view the willingness to dismiss—especially on such flimsy grounds—tactics that demonstrably save nonhuman lives smacks of human privilege. So does their dismissal of welfarist strategies, like the elimination of battery cages and gestation crates, that have the potential to greatly reduce nonhuman suffering. “Suffering matters,” as the late animal activist Norm Phelps said.

What these examples also demonstrate is how much the abolitionists fear and distrust not just non-vegans—which, besides being unfortunate on its own merits, will make it hard for them to influence anyone—but the process of activism itself.

I urge them to be more optimistic. Dr. King’s arc of history bends towards justice not just because most people’s hearts incline toward justice, but because the fight for justice has always attracted the best—smartest, wisest, most creative, most passionate, and most persevering—people. We also have the advantage of (as Harry Potter reminded his friends during the darkest hours of their fight) “something worth fighting for.”

Moreover, we’ve inherited, from prior generations of activists, a set of best practices—including compromise, inclusiveness, and eyes-on-the-prize pragmatism–that, if followed, will guarantee a win. It won’t be a “complete” win, because that never happens. (There is still human slavery even today.) And it won’t happen as quickly as we would like—it never does. But probably, especially if we all work together, it will happen faster and more thoroughly than now seems possible.

To the Reducetarians: Go Further

At the end of his monumental history of the decline of violence in human societies, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Reducetarian campaign supporter Steven Pinker writes, “To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness….It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred.”

Yup.

So, to Pinker and all the other Reducetarian supporters, I say the following, with the greatest possible respect:

You have done a wonderful thing by publicly advocating for people to reduce their meat consumption.

However, now that you’re on record as understanding that animal agriculture is cruel and wrong, I urge you to go vegan as quickly as you can, and to encourage other reducetarians to do the same.

Some might argue that because life itself is a series of moral compromises—we’re culpable every time we drive, fly, pay taxes that fund warmongers, or buy any non-organic or non-fair-trade item—occasional meat-eating is acceptable. But it’s likely that eating animals is by far the cruelest and most destructive behavior you directly engage in.

Besides, for every bite of meat you give up, you’ll gain something infinitely more profound and satisfying: the knowledge that you’re not just listening to your better angels, but are, once more, on the right side of history.

 

[1] Per Asher, Green et al., vegans currently represent about .5% of the U.S.’s population of 320 million, or approximately 1.6 million persons. 
[2] http://ps.oxfordjournals.org/content/90/1/229.full. “In most cases, egg production has decreased in European countries like Germany that have enacted stricter housing standards or banned cages altogether…Egg production in Germany declined by approximately 13% from 2000 to 2007.”

Confessions of an abolitionist

This is a guest blog by a friend. I think it contains valuable insights in the process vegan/animal rights activists go through in terms of their emotions, their relationships with omnivores and other vegans. The author prefers not to be named, but is prepared to answer feedback in the comments section.


I have always despised the word ‘journey’ when discussing veganism; that and ‘baby steps’ have been the bane of my life over the last year or so since I began identifying as an ‘abolitionist vegan’. It seems ironic, therefore, that I now find myself on my own ‘vegan journey’.

Let me take you back to my first year as a vegan. Luckily for me, I found all of the aspects of veganism very easy to adapt to; I had been vegetarian for quite some time before that and had ‘flirted’ on and off with veganism over the years. I was, however, always a vegan at heart. From a young age I hated cruelty towards animals and often felt more affinity towards my cats and other animals than I did with my own friends. It seemed logical therefore that I became vegan and avoided all animal use.
Going back to my first year, despite finding many aspects of being vegan easy, I began to get more and more depressed. I became addicted to Facebook and joined every vegan group I could find. I signed petition after petition and tortured myself with graphic images. I began to feel nothing but animosity towards non vegans and I was an angry and volatile person when discussing veganism. I shared post after post, day after day, accusing non vegans of being barbaric and murderers; they were even ‘rapists’ for consuming dairy products. I did actually ‘make’ a few new vegans this way. However, many blocked me and probably thought of me as another ‘vegan lunatic’.

When I started familiarising myself with the abolitionist approach, it all started to make sense. I loved the straightforwardness and the ‘no bullshit’ approach adopted by the likes of Gary Francione. I felt that finally I had one simple answer and an effective way to advocate. It was also comforting to see that abolitionists didn’t advocate petitions or the sharing of graphic images. I finally felt content. I became a better advocate both online and in person in many respects; I was calmer and more confident. Few people could argue with me, such was the strength of my conviction.

helen

After a while, I noticed that I began to feel unhappy again. My disdain for non vegans had been replaced by disdain for other vegans. Ironically, I began to feel more comfortable around non vegans than vegans who didn’t share my abolitionist views. Indeed, I felt that if someone wasn’t an abolitionist, they weren’t ‘truly vegan’. My posts promoting veganism on my facebook page had started to become diluted with posts critiquing other organisations who weren’t ‘vegan enough’. I started to delete friends who promoted single issues such as anti fur campaigns and God help anyone who shared a petition to my page. Vegans started to be separated into ‘abs’(abolitionists) or ‘wellies’ (welfarists). If they weren’t in the former camp, they weren’t people I really wanted to associate with.

When I saw criticisms of the abolitionist approach, I and my ‘colleagues’ would come down on them like a ton of bricks; they were welfarists, they didn’t care about animals truly etc. Oh and of course, the most popular slur; they were ‘speciesist’. Any critique of the abolitionist approach automatically meant you were welfarist or speciesist. We would all respond in tandem, that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’ and accompanied with that would be an analogy of the holocaust or slavery(this isn’t just an abolitionist trait.
I see this amongst all vegans). I think few of us used our own words or analogies after a while; we would simply churn out the same rhetoric used by Gary et al. Whilst all of that was going on, I honestly felt like I was doing the right thing for the animals. If we had all these ‘fake vegans’ in our midst, how were we ever going to change the world? It didn’t cross my mind that the world certainly wasn’t going to change whilst we constantly bickered with one another.

Recently I took a break from vegan advocacy to gather my thoughts and started reading various different articles, webpages etc. I was shocked to see how much animosity there was to Gary and his ‘clan’, I felt part of that clan to a certain extent but also understood the criticism as I read his page and saw nothing but argument after argument. I felt drained reading it, I had always defended Gary’s need to block so many people as ‘It’s an abolitionist page and if people don’t agree with him, then tough, they should be blocked’.
However, seeing it with fresh eyes, I just felt despondent and sad. On one day he had managed to write about four status updates- each one fiercely criticising other organisations (from DXE to Vegan Outreach) (Whilst I’m not a fan of the former, I went on the Vegan Outreach website to see if it was true that they were ‘absolutely hostile to the idea of veganism’ and noticed they must have said vegan about 5 times in just a few paragraphs). I simply didn’t/don’t want to be a part of this hatred anymore and I started to panic; what if these organisations I have mocked actually do mean well?!!!

So where am I now you may ask? Well currently I am terrified of being called all of those things I called others. I’m certain the abs would be calling me a welfarist for daring to criticize the dogma if they read this. It’s horrible to think that I can’t even have a change of heart for fear of criticism. And what’s worse, is that the criticism will be that I don’t care about the animals enough- something that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I have also started to admire other prominent vegans who certainly do not fall into the abolitionist category but who are passionate about ending all animal use; they just go about it a different way. Bearing in mind, I am not an economist, nor can I see into the future, I don’t actually know the best way of advocating anymore. As an abolitionist, I was certain it was telling everyone that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’. As for vegetarians and meat reducers, I found them despicable- the ultimate traitors to the cause. Now I feel happy that they are doing something (the dreaded ‘baby steps’) and I will, where possible always encourage and support these people to do more and become vegan. What I now refuse to do is to put them down, or compare their reduction of animal products to a ‘rape free Monday’. I’m sorry but that analogy never has nor never will work as we simply don’t view rape or murder the way we view consuming animal products as a society. Just because I see what we are doing to animals as the greatest atrocity of all, it doesn’t mean I will win over others by making comparisons that will simply get their back up.

In conclusion, what has changed? I am even more passionate about vegan advocacy than ever before; I absolutely believe that animals are not our property and are not ours to be used. I want the world to go vegan more than I can possibly convey. I cannot stress this enough. But what has changed is that I now believe we have to adapt our approach to suit the audience if we want to make a real change. It’s not about speaking the truth all the time and I think we forget that. We may feel that if we don’t say the absolute truth that we are being immoral and that we are letting the animals down. Well maybe, just maybe, we are letting the animals down by being so dogmatic in our approach, the use of our words and our tone. Sometimes, we need to bite our tongue when someone says they are making steps towards veganism for example. Yes, it’s frustrating that they’re not there already and yes they are continuing to cause harm by their purchases but let’s see what happens if we congratulate them and be more encouraging (I’m not suggesting that all abolitionists adopt this ‘all or nothing’ approach but it is undoubtedly very prevalent). Finally, I think we should concentrate on our own advocacy methods and stop focusing on other organisations and how ‘evil’ they are. Maybe they are trying a different tactic too. Let’s stop thinking the worst of one another and let’s start thinking for ourselves.

Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?

I get a quite a bit of criticism from some people for my blogposts and videos. I’m being told that I’m telling people not to be vegan and that hence I’m an anti-vegan. I’m being told I’m not vegan myself because I’m not picky about wine, because I would eat a steak for 100.000 dollars (which I can use for animals), or because I would make small exceptions if I thought it was better for people’s idea of vegans and veganism, and therefore for the animals.

Trust

It seems that abolitionists in particular have a hard time with what I write. I should actually put the word abolitionist in quotation marks, because all of us in the animal liberation/vegan movement are abolitionists, at least in terms of objectives. In terms of strategy, we differ: my tactics and communication are often not abolitionist, but rather pragmatic and incremental.

I realize there is a chasm between abolitionists and pragmatists, if I can put it that way (I use the word pragmatist rather than “welfarist”, which is the usual opposite of abolitionist, but which is a complete misnomer). And I have been thinking about that chasm, and what could be at the basis of it. Because the animosity and downright hostility that these two groups feel for each other, at times defies explanation.

One would think that we could agree to disagree on strategy, and that at least we wouldn’t second guess each other’s intentions. Yet that’s exactly what happens. What’s at the core of the hostility seems to be a lack of trust. Abolitionists don’t seem to trust that pragmatists really, really want an end to animal (ab)use, that they really really want a vegan world. Conversely, I think some pragmatists may have similar doubts about abolitionists, believing some might be more interested in a vegan club than a vegan world.

Somehow, we need to find that trust; the trust in each other’s good intentions and in each other’s love and respect for animals. If we then differ about what strategy is efficient, or even think that the other’s strategy will not lead us to where we want to be, things won’t get so out of hand.

Like I said, I’m a pragmatist. I don’t tell people that veganism is the moral baseline or that they should go vegan, but suggest that they take whatever steps in that direction that they are comfortable with. I suggest we are patient. I suggest people don’t spend too much time worrying about what’s in bread or wine or fruit juice, and over doing the impossible. I suggest that every step is good. I never say meat is murder, I don’t accuse people of being immoral, selfish or hypocritical if they are not vegan, as we won’t really endear people to our cause this way. I also suggest that we need to work together with other organisations, sectors, companies, governments and that we need to be practical and pragmatic in this. I believe that a big mass of meat reducers is a faster way to arrive at a vegan society than slowly increasing the number of vegans (though I think both should be done). I also believe that people can evolve from health concerns to animal concerns, so I talk about what I think interests them.

Basically, I want to make it easier to eat vegan, and I believe that convenience is the basis ofwhich we can build our critical mass. All of that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the world should be vegan. I believe in that as much as the people who unequivocally say that vegan is the moral baseline believe it. I also believe it’s realistic to get there. I do believe that not just the suffering of animals is wrong, but also taking their lives.

I think saying that we need all approaches is way too easy, and I believe some are better than others. I follow the one I think is best, and I hope you do the same (the one you think is best, that is). But I believe that an in-your-face, veganism-is-the-moral-baseline-approach can coexist with a pragmatic, incremental approach.

What I also believe is that it will be a lot harder to be successful if we don’t trust each other.

Slavery free Mondays

I feel compelled to write once again on how campaigns like “Meatfree Mondays” are compared to “slavery-free Mondays” or “child abuse-free Wednesdays,” putting part-time vegans/vegetarians in the same camp as part-time slave holders or part-time child abusers.

This comparison may sound justified for just a fraction of a second, if you don’t think about it too much. At first sight, it seems quite in line with our antispeciesist stance, and it is something that might cause committed activists, especially young ones, to easily shout “Yeah! Right on!” The argument is that anything less than a demand to go vegan is speciesist, because we wouldn’t ask for anything less than total abolition of a crime with similar issues that involve humans.

But I think the comparison doesn’t hold water at all. More importantly, it’s ineffective.

First of all, as I wrote in “on comparing animal rights with other social justice issues“, public support for these different issues varies immensely – child abuse or slavery are things which the vast majority of people disapproves of (let’s conservatively say over 95 % of the western world, and somewhat less globally), while eating animals is actually celebrated by about the same proportion of the population. Issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies, no matter what you think your truth might be.

Secondly, even those who make the “slavery free Mondays” argument do not act the same way when confronted with instances of animal abuse and instances of human abuse. Nobody does that. If we really believed that today, in this society, we should see eating meat in exactly the same light as beating a child or having slaves, the implications would be enormous. It would mean not going to any supermarket – because you wouldn’t support any store where slaves are sold or any establishment that owned slaves. It would mean actively boycotting your local, regional or national government – because you would oppose a pro-slavery government. It would mean trying to stop people from buying or eating animal products, always and everywhere, because that’s what you would do you if you saw someone buying a slave or beating a child today.*

truth vs result

Think also about the effect you are having on the average person when you tell them that eating meat only three days a week is like hitting your child only three days a week. If you think that’s credible or effective, I’d suggest you talk to some of the people you say this to, either in real life or on Facebook, and get their opinions on the matter. If you don’t care that people can’t take your truth and are turned off, then maybe it’s a good time to check what is most important to you: saying your truth, or actually changing things for animals? The two don’t necessarily coincide.

Finally, remember that the general downward trend in meat reduction in western countries and the increase in vegan options is mainly driven by… those “part time slavery supporters” and “part time child abusers” (read more on that here).

* For the sake of the argument, I’m making an abstraction of the fact that supermarkets and restaurants may carry or use products that are the modern day equivalent of slave trade products. Some chocolate is a case in point.

Why I’m openly criticizing Francione (final post)

Some people asked me why I’m criticizing Francione (and the franciobots) like this, and are telling me I’m making the same mistake he does: going against people who basically have the same purpose.  Or they are saying that it is a waste of time and energy. In part, these are sound objections, and I’m sure part of me is driven by some amount of frustration – rarely a productive emotion – by what I see happening.

You see, I feel it had to be done.

I feel that there is not enough criticism of Francione’s approach and his behaviour out there. Maybe it is because the organisations and individuals he targets are more civilized than he is (and than I am, apparently). Maybe they don’t want the movement to seem even more divided than it already is. And undoubtedly, they are investing their time in things that are more effective.

But I feel that especially new activists, when falling for Francione’s tirades about how awful and ineffective animal rights organisations are, should be able to hear some other voices too. These few posts are my modest contribution to the body of material critical of Francione and those who mindlessly follow him in his negativiy. And if especially the post on the Rise of the franciobots may be seen as slighly rude towards some people, I hope it gives those same people an impression of what it is to be on the receiving end of criticism.

I do not think that Francione is all bad. Like I said, his books have their merits, and if put to good use, he has the charisma and eloquence to do real good in this world. And personally I support his stance against violent tactics. But there’s so many buts. The way he maintains and widely publishes that organisations are counterproductive and that their staff have sold out, the way he opposes all welfare reforms, the way he personally attacks people and groups, the way he has everyone blocked from his Facebook who disagrees with him (go ahead, try!), the way he even tries to block speakers from conferences… Those are all things that I think cannot and should not be condoned. I feel I should not tolerate that kind of intolerance.

Anyway, I’m finishing this series of posts here, because indeed, there are more productive and peaceful things to focus on. But I’ll finish with expressing some hopes…

mapI hope that activists can see that rather than betraying the vegan message and selling out to the industry, most organisations are pragmatic and strategic (rather than overly ideological and purist, like Francione is), and this is nothing to blame them for. Quite the contrary. Maybe the animal industry’s response to, for instance, HSUS is an indication. Francione, on the other hand, does not even feature on this map the meat industry puts together.

I hope that activists can take note of how damaging the divisive attitude of Francione is, and how the industry profits from it.

I hope we can all believe in each other’s good intentions, in spite of differences in approach.

I hope that, even when people don’t actively support them, they at least stop opposing welfare reforms

And I hope, most of all, that someday we can be the united, undivided movement that the animals need and deserve.

———————————–

In case you want to read more, here’s just a small selection of resources critical of Francione:

On the road to liberation: scroll down to the very bottom, to the related posts

Suppremacy Myth

Ok then, Francione (see also the links under the article)

Science weighs in at last (by the late Norm Phelps)

Banned by fellow vegans

Vegan activism and the effectiveness of the abolitionist approach

Or read how Francione even fights with The Abolitionist Vegan Society here and here

I used to be a Francione fan (on Gary Francione and “abolitionists”, part 2)

(note: you may want to read Why I’m openly criticizing Francione first) 

Though Gary Francione has written a few books – which have their merits – he has mainly made a name for himself by criticizing animal rights organisations. Virtually no organisation, in his eyes, seems to deliver a net benefit for the animals. One could wonder: where is the appeal in this kind of message?

GLF list

Actually, I do understand the appeal of Francione’s message. More than that: I used to be a fan, back in 1997, when I first started with animal rights activism. I was writing my thesis about the human-animal relationship and got really enthusiastic about Francione’s book Rain without Thunder. And I was shocked: wow, this guy was the real deal, and lots of other public animal rights activists and organisations were actually betraying the cause of abolitionism, right? Now here was a man whose message was pure; here was somebody with a clear aim, who wouldn’t take anything less than total animal liberation for an answer. Yes, this was going to be a message that a lot of people wouldn’t want to hear, but… you can’t have rain without thunder, right?

I remember bringing this book up, very enthusiasticallly, to a leader of the animal rights movement in my country, Belgium. He didn’t react very positively to my enthusiasm. At that moment I wondered why, but I forgot about it. For some time, I remained under the illusion that Francione was right, and that all the others were selling out, leading us astray from our true cause.

It seems to be how today’s Francione fans think and act. They are raging against all kinds of groups, uncritically taking Francione’s words for true, believing that PETA, FARM, Mercy For Animals, the Vegan Society in the UK… have all sold out.

To those who believe that, I would say: talk to the really dedicated people in these organisations. Is it credible that those who put their lives in the service of the animals, some of whom started decades ago, and who have not eaten animal products for ages, and who have had a huge impact in creating awareness about veganism and animal rights… is it credible that those people have actually sold out? Is it credible that all of a sudden they have all become reformists or welfarists? Is it credible that they’re actually not thinking about strategy? Is it credible that they’re all less intelligent than you and Gary Francione?

So that’s the conclusion I reached myself, after a while. I talked to people in the movement. I started to see things from the perspective of the people we want to reach, instead of just adhering to dogma I heard again and again. So I no longer went along with Francione. I try not to doubt people’s good intentions, so although it requires quite a stretch for me, I try to still assume Francione is doing what he’s doing with the best intentions, out of compassion for animals, and that he actually believes what he says and preaches. And I want to believe the same about the people who follow him.

But I have moved on, and I hope my posts on this topic can help some followers of Francione to start thinking critically about his approach. 

Basically, if you’re an animal rights activist, this is a trajectory you might go through:

Phase 1: you discover animal rights, maybe through one of the organisations. You get into it deeper.
Phase 2: you discover Francione or the abolitionist approach. You think you’d do better to be very critical of the organisations you thought were good and interesting and effective.
Phase 3: you get over Francione and the abolitionist approach, see it for what it is, and you know that by supporting the work of most animal rights organisations, you are indeed contributing to abolitionism, only in a much more pragmatic and effective way than by adhering to Francionite dogma.

Back to Rain without thunder
Think about that title for a minute, and think of how often you see rain without thunder…?

Right: all the time.

Thinking is vegan. It’s allowed, you know.

On Gary Francione and the “abolitionists” (1)

(note: you may want to read Why I’m openly criticizing Francione first) 

People and organisations who work for a better world for animals may have different objectives. Perhaps the most common way of categorising these people and organisations is according to whether or not they want to stop all animals being used for food, clothing, experimenting etc, or whether they want to keep those practises but improve the living conditions for the animals in question. The first group wants to abolish, the second wants to reform. Hence: abolitionists versus reformers, or animal rights versus animal welfare.

However, this simple categorisation has been muddled. A group of people, led by professor Gary Francione, call only themselves the “abolitionists”, and consider many or most other groups and people (who are really abolitionist in their objectives) welfarists or “new welfarists”. Francione and his followers only consider abolitionists those who also follow their way of communicating about abolitionism. Hence, today, if you read about “abolitionists”, it usually refers to Francione and his followers.

Let’s take an organisation like PETA as an example. You can think of PETA what you want (you may consider them sexist, sensationalist etc), but their aim is clearly abolitionist, in the sense that most people and most animal advocates understand the term. PETA wants to abolish all use of animals by humans. Look at PETA’s baseline: animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment. Unlike most people though, Francione calls PETA a “new welfare” organization – despite the fact that their clear stated goal has always been to abolish the use of animals. Francione’s justification for this twisting of language is that some of PETA’s individual campaigns are reformist: they would improve the lives of animals but in themselves are not about the abolition of animals abuse. How valuable reformist campaigns are is not the point here. What is the point is that the objective still is abolitionist. Accusing PETA the way Francione does is much like accusing Amnesty International of being a pro-political imprisonment organization because – although their goal is to have political prisoners freed – they also campaign to improve the treatment of political prisoners.

The sad result of all of this is that many activists who follow Francione in the fake divide he has created, are now very critical and often openly hostile towards groups and people they do not consider “abolitionists” in their sense. They rant and rage against any organisation who, while believing in abolitionism, for strategic reasons doesn’t necessarily ask people to go vegan, who use the word vegetarian instead of vegan, who support Meatless Mondays, who support (or even who don’t condemn) reforms in animal treatment, etc. Thus, these otherwise well meaning activists partially undermine the work of many animal rights or vegetarian/vegan organisations, believing these do not want the end of all animal use and abuse. Many abolitionists go so far as to say that many or most organisations and tactics actually do more harm than good.

Allow me to illustrate Francione’s perception of and communication about the groups that he targets, with a post from his Facebook page.

AR conference

To say that hard working, well intentioned, and usually much more results-oriented activists and groups participating in the Animal Rights conference – which I have attended three times – have sold out to the industry, and to compare them with the Ku Klux Klan is not just beyond decency, it is unintelligent, it is immature, and it is, above all, false.

I sincerely hope “abolitionist” activists will start to examine Francione’s approach as critically as they examine others’.

I will follow up this part on Francione and “abolitionism” in another post.