Debate Declined

» September 19th, 2012

The day after “Vegan Feud” came out in Slate I got a call from Professor Gary Francione, of Rutgers University. He took exception to what I wrote, and went on to articulate it here. After our conversation (which was perfectly civil), and several productive e-mail exchanges, I accepted Gary’s offer to appear on his podcast to “discuss” our respective positions on the issues I raise in the article.

Yesterday, after almost two weeks of reflection, I changed my mind. Indeed, based on several conversations I had with activists whose judgement I deeply trust, I backed out of the podcast. Here’s (in part) what I told Gary: “I’ve decided not to appear on your podcast. While I’m not pleased about going back on my word, I’ve reached the conclusion, as I’ve watched you promote this podcast, that it will accomplish nothing except intensify the polarization that I’m trying to minimize. Put differently, it appears to be an ‘event’ that’s designed to be more about Gary Francione and James McWilliams, and our respective followers, rather than the cause of animal advocacy to which we are both dedicated.”

I’m posting this information because I know that many readers have been anticipating this debate and I felt you deserved an explanation. The last thing about this I will say (forever) is that I am not declining to appear because my arguments won’t hold up (although I will admit that I’m nowhere near as talented as Gary when it comes to verbal sparring). I’m simply more productive developing those arguments in the context of Eating Plants and elsewhere, as I will continue to do with a passion. I hope you can understand.


PS: Look for new content this weekend. In the meantime, please check out some of the articles posted in “On Interest” and many recent comments, which have been really interesting. Finally, The image above is of Buster Keaton, who, if you’ve yet to figure it out, is a personal favorite. That man did his own stunts.

28 Responses to Debate Declined

  1. Rebecca Stucki says:

    Yay! I didn’t join in the fray or read too many of the comments, because the animals are out there and need us now. My time, certainly, can be better spent doing advocacy. A good decision, James.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    would prefer to see Prof. Francione and Prof. Steve Best go at it as they have a great deal to resolve

  3. Lucretia says:

    Good call. Engaging with him is pointless.

  4. Susan Valle says:

    Great decision, James. Better to spend your energy on something more productive.

  5. John T. Maher says:

    I disagree with this decision. The unity thing is just wrong and it is better to have a full exposition of opposing viewpoints if these issues are ever to be resolved

    • Mylène says:

      I agree. I would think that an academic would willingly engage in an earnest intellectual debate to back up his criticism or dismissal of another academic’s research and theories, rather than write off clarifying the criticism or dismissal as somehow ”destructive”. Columbia University Press offered an opportunity for a written debate, lest anyone fear that substance would be trumped by ”sparring skills”, but I’m told that was refused, as well.

      It’s really unfortunate.

  6. Aurelia says:

    Whilst I agree that the only way to resolve our differences is to air them I disagree John that unity is wrong. However James I respect your decision as I also suspect such a discussion may have devolved into mud slinging which solves nothings and helps no one.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Maybe I should have written that disagreement within the veg/vegan movement is unavoidable, healthy and inevitable. The concept of “unity” is misleading because it is not possible, artificial and contrived. I would have liked to have seen the debate held as a discusion

  7. Mary Finelli says:

    I think having an e-mail discussion might be best, to honor the agreement yet try to avoid gotcha opportunism.

    It was extremely inappropriate to have posted the article on Slate in the first place. It is a public venue and posting that article merely served as fodder for the meat industry and other anti-animal interests. It was extremely disturbing and disappointing. I have to question what the motivation for it was.

  8. [...] discussion with me in October, after Columbia University Press printed my reply, he McWilliams withdrew from the [...]

  9. I’m surprised and disappointed that Professor McWilliams changed his mind. His refusal to engage in civil discourse will certainly not further his stated goal of reducing polarization.

  10. I am so disappointed that you have backed out of this discussion James. Truly let down. These are very important issues and it is imperative that animal rights activists understand them in order to make the movement more effective. I do believe it would have been a civil discussion and you both would have raised questions that many people are thinking about. We need to create a forum for open discussion of these issues.

  11. Dave says:

    I am truly disappointed, but not surprised, that McWilliams is backing away from the discussion.

    I thought that the Slate piece was a very odd and unfortunate article. It provided only a poor caricature of Francione’s position, it was entirely (entirely!!!) silent on the content of Francione’s decades of legal theorizing on the relationships between property, property owners, and legislative reform — i.e., the very things which make Francione’s view so powerful — and it gave the abolitionist position no real opportunity to respond to the weak objections raised against it. Just a terrible piece of writing, due to either a lack of research and theoretical familiarity, or a lack of care, or both.

    My guess is that Francione’s response on the CUP blog made McWilliams aware of just how badly he’d misrepresented and missed the mark. And so I’m not surprised that McWilliams has decided to end the discussion at this point.

    If McWilliams is genuinely interested in unifying people and changing minds, he might begin by reading, thinking about, and responding to the arguments put forward in Francione’s books.

    • Melody M. says:

      I have to absolutely agree with Dave on this. Although it’s James’ prerogative to back away from the discussion and he need not justify to anyone why he’s choosing to do so, it is truly disappointing given the Slate article’s *gross* misrepresentation and oversimplification of Francione’s work.

      To end the discussion is terribly unfair to Francione, Francione’s position, and to James’ position itself. If James strongly believes in the strategic power of the new welfarist/reformist approach, then it should be something he can discuss at length and, dare I say, defend. Does he have to defend it? No. But, simply put, if you’re going to very publicly call someone out on why their position isn’t “ideal” or suggest that abolitionists/non-reformists should cow-tow to reform, then you should at least allow those you are calling out and misrepresenting, to defend their position and represent themselves. Anything else you put forth is just unfair journalism and biased (un-researched) opinion.

      It’s a shame that the Slate article did nothing more than feed the flames AGAINST alternative, non-mainstream ideas and approaches to animal advocacy. From what I’ve seen it has done nothing more than make people who’ve not even bothered to read Francione’s work or understand it, *blindly* follow what others say about it and him. I’m not surprised as this seems to be pretty typical amongst most advocates–those who think that we don’t need theory to inform our advocacy work or who believe that taking the time to read, write, and understand theory is “passive” activism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without theory, we have nothing of value to say. With what other tools do we rationally convince others that animals matter morally?

      The Slate article silenced the opposition. Not engaging in an oral/written discussion with Francione does the same. You cannot expect unity among advocates and approaches if you’re only interested in hearing what one side has to say, being tolerant of only your own opinion, and then disengaging from those who seek to clarify their position and disagree with you.

      This whole ordeal, from the article to this point, is just a shame. Although I identify with abolitionism given my understanding of Francione’s moral position and the legal theorizing that informs it, I read the Slate piece with an unbiased eye because James is a perceptive, intelligent writer and a good friend of mine so, I wanted to hear him out. But I have to say, anyone who reads the article with an open mind, without choosing a side, with the intention of maybe being swayed from their own position–can see that it was just terribly unfair to Francione and his work.

      If it wasn’t for all the “cleaning up” I feel like I’m obligated to do in order to salvage mine and Francione’s position because of the Slate piece–lest we have more advocates blindly following the mainstream and speaking for “us” when they’ve not done their share of the homework–I’d shrug the Slate piece off like any other article that misrepresents and oversimplifies any position. As it is, it has been too widely publicized and its damage to a position that is often attacked without being understood, is pervasive.

  12. carolyn z says:

    I appreciate this and I’d like some folks who don’t appreciate it to hear me out if possible. I think the very fact that it’s framed as a debate is problematic because Prof. Francione is trained in argument as a lawyer and not trained in classic logical debate as, say, a philosopher. So it wouldn’t be a debate in the true philosophical sense with a fair moderator anyways. I think it’s set up automatically to have a level of contention at its core, however civil its casing. That being said, I think a conversation between these two men would be important and fascinating and could be done in a really productive way. I just think it would be better framed as a discussion or maybe even an interview– one interviewing the other or both asking each other formal questions without the built-in opportunity for live reactiveness– etc. I would love to see that. Once again I have to say I see a lot of people here not realizing all of the wonderful gray-area options of human communication…

    • John T. Maher says:

      Prof. Francione is a philosopher as well as a law professor. I make the same point that a “discussion” would be preferable above

      • carolyn z says:

        He is a philosopher by trade by not by training, not really– his doctorate work is in law and that’s a whole other world in terms of arguing, I think we all know that, let’s be real here. Lots of people have BAs and MAs in philosophy, but that doesn’t entitle us to be arbiters and experts of the art of public debate. I think we’d all be calling James out (rightfully) if the roles were reversed here (ie. not a philosopher or debater by training, no unbiased moderator.)

        • John T. Maher says:

          I accept this

        • The thing to keep in mind that an invitation was extended to do a podcast — an informal discussion and not a formal debate.

          Also, Columbia University Press extended an invitation to both to do instead engage in a written discussion/debate, but Prof. McWilliams declined to do that, as well.

          • carolyn z says:

            Well, it is a podcast but it was indeed framed as a debate.

            As per GF’s own admission, the invitation about written discussion was literal heresay. Something he heard through the grapevine that wasn’t confirmed, unless I’ve missed a new development.

            That’s all I really have left to say, though. I appreciate the discussion here.

  13. Spencer Lo says:

    Like many on here, I too wish for the debate/discussion, though I think James’ reasons for declining are admirable (even if misguided). The issue is a polarizing one, and will likely remain so for a very long time. So I can understand the inclination not to contribute to further polarization, which the debate/discussion would probably do.

    But ultimately, I think some debate/discussion needs to happen because that’s the only way to move beyond the impasse — maybe with different participants (if not James, perhaps philosopher David Sztybel). So I suggest that people start to float possible candidates around (preferably people in academia) who are willing debate Francione.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Carl Cohen? Donna Haraway? I wish JMC had chosen to be on Francione’s podcast but I understand that a discussion/debate/public airing or disagreement may not be a medium with which he is comfortable so I understand. I am a little suspicious of the purported reason that JMC states “it will accomplish nothing except intensify the polarization that I’m trying to minimize”. Full disclosure: I was scheduled to be on a panel this summer with Francione and was sort of looking forward to a spirited discussion but then the organizers reconfigured the panels and moved me to a different one and the result was no posthumanism v. abolitionism discussion was held. I still want to see Steve Best v. Francione so I can understand the points of disagreement but I understand that this is unlikely as Francione has, according to Best, declined what I thought would be a very interesting debate.

    • Spencer Lo says:

      Apparently, someone sent Francione my comment suggesting David Sztybel as a possible debate candidate. I had commented on Francioine’s fb page (asking about his 90s debate with Peter Singer), and in his response, he brought up Sztybel and asked why I recommended him. Did I visit Sztybel website, Francione asked? If I had, then I had no judgment in his view; if I hadn’t, then I was shallow for recommending someone because he merely disagreed with Francione. Francione’s comments were very critical of Sztybel, and of my suggestion that Sztybel be considered. I then replied at length defending my suggestion.

      Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, our comments were deleted and I’m currently unable to post on Francione’s fb page (at this point, I’m assuming there is some technical error). But I saved my reply and thought readers may be interested to see it.

      Thanks Prof. Francione for describing the debate—I wish it was recorded as well. Maybe a future debate?

      As for David Sztybel, I have indeed visited his website and on his “Academic” and “General” pages, there are published writings where he interacts with your work. I believe his “Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism” was peer-reviewed, so Sztybel is obviously familiar with your views. My suggestion—and that’s all it is—for a possible, civil debate to take place between you two, particularly on the “welfare reform” issue that divides you and McWilliams, is grounded in the belief that direct scholarly interaction is a good thing. If not Sztybel, then maybe someone else, but it seems to me that Sztybel, with a PhD in analytic philosophy, who has interacted with your work in publications, is a unique candidate for defending the so-called “new-welfarist” side of the issue. He has done so in several places, including over at ARZone. Since his arguments have gained in popularity, it may be worthwhile to explain why people shouldn’t buy into them. So my suggestion that you consider engaging him isn’t “merely” because he disagrees with you—no, I’m not that shallow—but because: (1) he apparently understands your work, as evidenced by his publications, both scholarly and nonacademic, (2) his position has gained in popularity, (3) his arguments are clear and rigorous, IMO, and therefore merit attention, and (4) he is a serious philosopher of some repute.
      Now perhaps you believe Sztybel’s arguments are very weak and so engagement would be a waste of time, but are they any less rigorous than the ones McWilliams advanced in his Slate article, which is the main publication of his criticizing your approach? Are they any less weak than the other “new-welfarists” you’ve debated? I suspect most people looking forward to your McWilliams-debate were disappointed when he withdrew (as I was), mostly because they were hoping for clarity on a divisive issue, which the debate could have provided. But some debate (many debates) should happen because the issue is important. So I suggest that if not McWilliams, then Sztybel is a plausible choice (though not necessarily the only choice).

      As for his plagiarism charge, I have little knowledge of about that, though I note you said he issued a retraction (presumably with an apology). So perhaps forgiveness is in order. Past misbehavior, if genuinely regretted, should enable people to let bygones be bygones—and more civil dialogue (which is what I’m proposing) would certainly help clear out hostilities, in addition to moving the intellectual issues forward.

      • Gary L. Francione says:

        Dear Mr. Lo:

        I absolutely forgive Sztybel for his accusation that I plagiarized Robert Garner. David retracted his accusation and apologized to me and to Professor Garner for what he admitted was his rash, irresponsible, and serious behavior.

        I also absolutely forgive Sztybel for his relentless ad hominem attacks on me over the years, including a blog essay in which he claimed that my always wearing black clothing (a fact that is itself false), is an indication that I am a “cult” leader.

        Although I do forgive him, I do hope you can understand both that I have no desire to have any contact with him and I am afraid that I can’t regard as serious any suggestion that I do so.

        I may disagree with Professor McWilliams but I regard him as a serious intellectual (his work on food history is superb and important) and I am quite sure that if we had the discussion that he had agreed to and from which he has now withdrawn, he would not have focused on the color of my shirts.

        Gary L. Francione
        Professor, Rutgers University

  14. carolyn z says:

    What I want to know is why anyone has to debate Francione at all? Is it just because he brought it up? Why can’t we just have our own discussions that include everyone’s theories should we deem them potentially valid, and why does Francione (or his followers, I’m not sure which) get to dictate the terms of this discussion–which we’re all already having perfectly fine on our own– by declaring and somehow convincing so many people that he should be debated, and by looking down on folks who don’t want to? That’s where the ego thing comes in, for me. He does this with most prominent animal rights writers and those writers have the right to not do it, or to take other routes with their work. Not everyone is magically obliged to “debate” Gary Francione, especially when it’s in his forum, on his terms, surrounded by his followers. He has good ideas and bad ones just like everyone else– he is not the magical arbiter of vegan discussions. We have our own personal power, we do not need idols, we can talk about this ourselves and already are.

    • Francione and McWilliams had a civil and productive exchange (as per Prof. McWilliams’ own description) following the Slate article and Prof. Francione extended an invitation to Prof. McWilliams to participate in a podcast to discuss the anti-abolitionist and pro-welfarist claims raised in the Slate article. How is this dictating any terms of discussion?

      “Not everyone is magically obliged to ‘debate’ Gary Francione, especially when it’s in his forum, on his terms, surrounded by his followers. He has good ideas and bad ones just like everyone else– he is not the magical arbiter of vegan discussions.”

      Where on earth is this coming from? A friendly invitation was extended by someone whose work was publicly criticized and dismissed to engage in a civil, intellectual and earnest discussion to examine the criticisms and dismissal further. Why is it such an awful thing that Prof. Francione would have invited someone who’d publicly criticized his work to discuss it one-on-one with him? I don’t get it. This has nothing to do with idolatry and it’s misleading to portray it as such.

  15. Pete says:

    +1 me to the list of the disappointed.

  16. Dan M. says:

    I think Francione makes some good points, but ultimately, his all-or-nothing, philosophical approach does little to help animals in the real world and affect change among meat-eaters. And isn’t that we all need to be doing?

    Kudos to McWilliams for not wasting his time.

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