Branding the Movement

» January 24th, 2013

A woman in England has recently planned to publicly brand a man she met over the internet in order to raise awareness about branding in the dairy industry. Evidently this is not an uncommon act of solidarity with the poor animals who endure this unnecessary form of mutilation hundreds of thousands of times a day. A group in Tel Aviv has been honing this strategy of consciousness raising for years, even making a film to circulate their stunt. Thusly inspired, the London resident, who has been vegan for two years, will dress as a slaughterhouse worker and take a hot iron to the chest of man in order to, well, encourage by-passers to go vegan. Good luck with that.

Regrettably, what I think will happen is that non-vegans who witness this intense and gratuitous act of violence will recoil in horror not at the fact that cows are branded but that these attention-seeking vegans are patently offensive. It seems reasonable to ask if this is a form of protest that’s for the animals we want to help or the egos of the activists who will get major media attention and live with a brand on their bodies to highlight their dedication for all to see and, maybe, admire. Hard for me not to see this in more generous terms, especially given that humans tend to congregate around violence and—as a crowd—indirectly celebrate the violence as a perverse form of entertainment. Sort of like passing a bloody car wreck on the highway.

The woman doing the branding isn’t unaware of the potential for her stunt to backfire. She explains, “We’re taking a huge risk because so many people will see what we’re doing as extreme, but in the past you had suffragettes, which was hugely controversial. Females only have a vote now because women chained themselves to railings and ran in front of horses. We have to move with the times.” The problem is that her historical analogy is twisted and self-serving. And wrong. If women never ran in front of horses women would still be voting. If anything, given that one reason for disallowing the female vote was the sexist assumption that they were hysterical, running in front of horses was counterproductive.

But there’s another problem I see with the branding. It’s trivializing to the dairy cow. It reminds me of something that happened when I was in college, during the days when extreme forms of political correctness were infecting campuses and Allan Bloom was a name on everyone’s lips. There was a “physically-challenged awareness day” or something like that, and  a bunch of perfectly able-bodied people hopped in wheelchairs and went to class, evidently to empathize with those who were bound to a wheelchair for life. I had a friend who was permanently confined to a wheelchair and had this to say about these acts of ersatz suffering: “that’s bullshit.”

He was correct. And this is why I think human branding is a major mistake. It suggests that a human can comprehend the full suffering that a diary cow endures when, if fact, that’s not possible. Branded for life, the human gets up and walks away, forever free and, in the circles he runs in, imbued with greater activist street cred and a media profile. The cow we’re supposed to empathize with goes back to the rape rack, the mechanized milker, and—when she dries up—the slaughterhouse. No human act of protest could capture the complete scope of that horror.

All that gets branded in this stunt is the animal rights movement. And the message is that we’re a bunch of headline-grabbing lunatics.

18 Responses to Branding the Movement

  1. I’ve been following the 269 movement for a while now and know a number of people who’ve gotten tattoos, which, while not my bag, I thought was quite a statement. But on another level — mostly to do with the branding, I think — I’ve been very uncomfortable with 269 Life, and I think you’ve just articulated why. Thank you.

  2. kathleen says:

    Unfortunately it’s often the lunatic stuff that makes the headlines. If live human branding is another way to make the headlines, and the guy is willing to be branded, I say go for it.

    I don’t see it as trivializing the dairy cow. The dairy cow can’t speak up for her rights like a human can, whether it be a woman, Black, gay, Native American, etc. She lives on an alien planet among alien humanoids and can’t speak our language. She is an entirely different species and doesn’t even mingle among us, as she is kept locked away and hidden. She can’t walk with us or talk with us.

    I don’t mind that there are vegans who want to spread the message this way. They aren’t being violent or rude or angry- just making a statement, and if some passersby are able to think a little more deeply about this subject, then I think it’s worth the effort. I wouldn’t choose to do this myself, and I don’t necessarily think it’s the most effective way to advocate for the rights of animals, but I don’t mind the infinite varieties of advocacy that each individual brings to the table.

    Thank you for sharing James. I always enjoy your blog!

  3. It’s refreshing to finally see some thoughtful critique of this 269 movement that I’ve heard described by others in the movement as “the COOLEST form of activism seen in a while”. I tend to agree that this diminishes the experience of what the cow goes through and turns the attention onto the ‘hard-core-ness’ of the activist instead. An important difference between the branding of a cow and the self-imposed branding of the activist is the element of choice. Branding is not a choice taken on by the cow and human beings choosing to brand themselves (or tattoo themselves) glosses over the enormous privilege of getting to make that choice.

    I’m particularly confused by the adaptation of tattooing the number, rather than branding it, on the skin. Tattoos are not nearly so painful as hot iron branding and so the tattoo option seems to be even more of a simultaneous, somewhat cavalier dismissal and cooptation of the cow’s experience. To think that a person stopping into a tattoo parlor to get a number tattooed on the arm has any idea what the cow is experiencing is problematic at best.

    I certainly get that it’s supposed to be an act of solidarity; I just think it tends to focus the attention (as you say) on the ego of the activist and the activist’s hard-core ‘chops’ rather than the actual experience of the animal.

    Another small point is that the focus on branding seems a bit odd, unless the express purpose of the movement is to end the practice of branding. Branding is just one small part of a much more violent and invasive set of practices common in the dairy and meat industries. It’s possible that if this movement draws attention to anything, it would be to move forward a welfarist agenda of ending branding, rather than address the system of animal agriculture itself.

    • Mountain says:

      Exactly right. The human chooses to be branded, which the cow does not. Even if it is physically the same act, it isn’t the same act at all.

  4. Ashley says:

    I don’t know, James, I think I might disagree with you on this one. I’m usually quite wary of sensationalist stunts performed on behalf of animals, but I think the idea behind the original Tel Aviv branding was smart, and I think the execution was smart, and powerful. The activists took their knowledge of the macabre rubbernecking tendencies of humans to want to see footage of other humans getting hurt, and edited the only video of the footage in such a way that anyone wanting to see the actual branding would also have to watch factory farming and slaughterhouse footage, footage that many if not most animal-eating viewers would ordinarily turn away from and refuse to confront. Often, a glimpse of that footage is what makes someone decide to stop eating animals, or decide to do more research. In addition, the activists’ actions allowed them to rightly pose the question, “But if seeing this bothered you, or if this kind of violence strikes you as “extreme,” why doesn’t it bother you that it happens to billions of unconsenting animals every year?”

    I have a new vegan advocacy page on facebook and one of the projects I recently worked on was building a photo album called “Vegans Get Plenty of Protein,” with pictures of vegan athletes and/or thriving vegan activists doing interesting work. I asked Sasha Boojor, the founder of 269Life and one of the activists who was branded in the Tel Aviv demonstration, if I could include a photo of him from the demonstration. He said he would be honored but that he hoped he didn’t do the project a disservice by looking “too skinny.” I asked if he had another photo he would prefer for me to use and he said he didn’t really like having pictures taken of himself and was sorry he couldn’t offer another. He also removed the tag from the photo while leaving up the tag for 269Life’s page. Whatever else can be said about their methodology, I don’t think it was about ego for those guys. That’s not to say ego-driven activists won’t get involved in future demonstrations. But I really appreciated the symbolic power of the original branding, the questions it facilitated, and the smart editing of the footage that insisted viewers confront the violence of their food choices.

    Thanks for letting me think out loud, here.


    • James says:

      Thanks, Ashley. Always good to hear from you. I very much see your points, and in no way do I mean to personally demean the efforts of well-intentioned activists. You write, “But if seeing this bothered you, or if this kind of violence strikes you as “extreme,” why doesn’t it bother you that it happens to billions of unconsenting animals every year?”

      Yes, indeed. But this assumes non-vegans think the way we want them to think, that they make the connections we want them to make, connections that would be entirely rational to make. My fear is that the conspicuous spectacle-like nature of this violence will not lead to rational connections being made between human and animal pain, but rather knee-jerk dismissals based on the attention-getting nature of the act.

      I do, though, appreciate the point you make about the film.

  5. John T. Maher says:

    Now if everyone who queued in line for a burger had to recieve a brand on their rump at the point of sale, that would make a statement about the sado masochistic realationship ordinary consumers enjoy with animals, albeit animlas removed from all human contact except after processing into something devoid of all visual and other signifiers of identity and inherent cruelty. The branders above are just consentual freaks frustrated in their own ability to engage in creative activism. Or it is not about the animals at all but is about using actvism to falsley “legitimize” their branding fetsihes with other humans. If so these branders do not need that false legitimacy and should just be honest about wanting to brand each other and leave the critters out of it.

    • Mountain says:

      Everyone at a fast food joint gets branded, on their rump and on their belly. Admittedly, it’s initially painless, but it takes a toll over time. Soon enough, they’ll brand themselves with their insulin injections.

  6. Fireweed says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your take on this, James. But for additional reasons as well.

    The woman you spoke to who referenced the women’s rights movement would hopefully be appalled by some of the sexist imagery that has shown up on the 269 FB page. I’m surprised to be the first in this thread to mention the completely misanthropic orientation of the 269 ‘phenomenon’ as encouraged by Sasha himself!

    Here are some comments from an interview on ‘The Thinking Vegan’: “We cannot liberate animals by appealing to people’s kindness. We cannot liberate animals by appealing to people’s interest in health/ecology. Although we’ll get some more vegans, but surely not significantly more, and the price for that will be ruining the animal rights movement ideology. That is very dangerous, because the only chance for eliminating the animal holocaust is by having a strong ideology-movement that will produce committed activists that will try to end the holocaust in some other ways than propaganda (that will not end the animal holocaust for sure).

    The other part of the speciesist activists in our movement are the activists who also take part in human rights actions. This is a problematic and very crucial issue that I don’t want to get into too much because it is another whole interview, but I have to mention it. It’s unacceptable for anyone who consider themselves a non-speciesist vegan person to promote human rights. Can anyone imagine a partisan who fights at noon to liberate Jews from concentration camps held by Nazis, and at night to make conditions for the Nazis better? It’s a contradiction. We, as people who are committed to justice, cannot ignore that contradiction. We need to understand that theoretically, animals deserve rights just as humans deserve rights. Theoretically we are all equal in the moral status, but in reality, human rights come at the expense of animal rights. It’s a fact. As the socio-economic situation of people improves, more animals are abused and murdered. As more countries become free and developed, the more we’ll see industrialized animal agriculture. We mustn’t ignore this paradox. We need to comprehend that humans are the animals’ criminals.

    Theoretically, all humans deserve rights, but in reality, rapists’ rights come on the expense of women’s rights. We need to choose sides, the animals or the humans – we can’t choose both. Do we want to be on the victims’ side or on the criminals’ side?

    This is one reason why we should invest all our time in promoting animal rights, and not be active for people.”

    In my opinion, this 269 thing is a disastrous liability for the ar movement. I feel for those people who in their passionate zeal will be literally branded for life (or tattoed) in association with it and can only hope the majority will reject the cultish ideology some already seem in complete lockstep with on the group’s FB page. -Fireweed

  7. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I only have time to thank you for your rational assessment of this bizarre action and agree with your comments as I do for the opinion you had of the satirical’ Onion’ piece that you posted yesterday! Thank Goodness for your always thoughtful and sober judgements! Stay very healthy as I know you will because we NEED you!

  8. Tim says:

    Gosh. What’s with all the attacks? We’re all fighting the same fight and working to raise awareness. I get disgusted at how much time and energy is spent pointing fingers. It’s divisive and unproductive. Etcetera.

    • James says:

      I agree with you that far too much time is spent, and wasted, pointing fingers. That said, strategy matters, especially when poorly considered approaches have the potential to be counter-productive, undermining many of the gains the movement has achieved. This is why I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about strategy. It’s not to point fingers, but to enhance our strengths.

      • Fireweed says:

        Actually, Tim, we are NOT “all fighting the same fight and working to raise awareness” if some ar activists are discouraging (and therefore undermining) important efforts made to build bridges between social justice, environmental issues and animal advocacy.

        Widespread veganism will remain a fantasy if it is portrayed (and/or thought of, and acted upon) as if it is some kind of holier than thou exclusive club outside of which all humans who don’t yet ‘get it’ are ‘the enemy’. How many people yet are born vegan?! Eco-feminist animal rights activists work to advance liberation for all by exposing the link between animal exploitation and other forms of oppression- not least of all because they are often mutually reinforcing.

        Yes, strategy matters. Critical thinking matters. For starters, those with a tendency to think that animal liberation can ever exclude human rights would benefit from exploring some of the important literature written on the sexual politics of meat over the last twenty years or more to understand why sexism in the animal rights movement is not only unacceptable but counterproductive.

  9. Tim Marshall says:

    interesting . I’ve seen both arguments and think they hold equal weight (some people will be turned off for each opposing reason and for some people this activism will be considered an eye opening and fair analogy) –
    some say its disgusting and 2 dimensional to compare the torture /maiming of a human or other primate with a sheep or cow or chicken because of our supposed greater capacity for fear ,grief and psychological damage and this piece has posited that the activist can go back to their cushy home environment vs a “rape rack”
    My stand is that this form of activism will affect a significant portion of onlookers in the desired way and some will be turned off cause they consider it masochistic, some cause they think its wanky privileged guys whose suffering will never approach that of a farmed animal .

  10. [...] with your food? We could make real theater of this by lining the milk suckers alongside the human branders and really get a public discussion [...]

  11. Miriam says:

    I am coming late to the table, I know, but I find that I have some thoughts that won’t go away, so I guess that means they need to make their way onto this blog. ;-)

    I will dive right in.

    First, I’m wondering where the historical support is for the assertion that the women’s suffrage movement succeeded DESPITE, as opposed to IN PART BECAUSE OF, the various street-theater protests launched by a number of courageous women during those times. Is this assertion supported by anything other than a feeling that everyone surely thought they were ridiculous because some people today clearly think so?

    Second, I’m concerned with the underlying implication here, which is that there is one “right” way to approach vegan activism (or perhaps a scant handful of right ways), and many wrong ways. My study of past historical movements (admittedly not that of scholars, but pretty darn good) teaches me that in EVERY successful movement, a PLETHORA of approaches was critical in achieving whatever successes were gained.

    Consider the GLBT movement. I came out 30 years ago, and was a GLBT activist before we even added the B and the T on in there. Do you have any idea how many times my fellow activists and I were told we were “dragging down the movement” because some of us were flaming queens and bulldaggers? Act like straight people, we were told, because otherwise you will Scare Them and we will Never Gain Our Rights. My crew cut (I’m a female) and my gay boy friends’ swishy ways were viewed with scorn and derision, even as we were doing the protests that everyone else was too scared to do.

    These are the same arguments being thrown around here. Don’t scare the flesh-eaters, we are told. There is One Right way to global veganism, and that is through measured thought and careful deliberation. Rationality will win the day. Clever arguments. Certainly not street theater, certainly not direct ALF-type actions, and certainly not 269-style brandings.

    But who were the folks who kickstarted the modern GLBT movement? Who were the ones who were instrumental in stirring up some shit? That’s right. The flaming drag queens and no-nonsense bulldykes at Stonewall.

    We forget now how absolutely TERRIFYING these people were to the mainstream het world. Seriously. Now they are more akin to amusing entertainments in Gay Pride parades, but then? They were as big and bad and scary as the self-branding vegans are today.

    And they helped to get the job done.

    Yes, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (look them up, please, if these are unfamiliar names) did a huge amount of work to help prepare society to get over their patriarchal obsession with mandatory heterosexuality. No one who knows GLBT history could deny that. But likewise, we cannot possibly deny the critical nature of the courageous flamers and dykes who refused to be anything other than what they were: loud, angry, insistent, and demanding.

    We could go on like this with every other movement, and the point is the same every time: there is no one right answer, or one little handful of answers, when it comes to making change in society. Some humans respond to well-reasoned arguments, pleas for mercy, and so forth. Some humans respond to force (e.g. laws passed to make them act right). Some humans respond to the primitive, symbolic actions of campaigns like 269, or the bloody photos of fetuses at Planned Parenthood (horrifying but no one can deny they were effective). So on and so forth.

    And given this — given the rock-bottom fact that all successful movements employ a variety of strategies and techniques ranging from dry scholarly discourse to down and dirty street or slaughterhouse activism — why slam the 269 campaign? Is it begging egg producers for another inch of space in cages? Is it asking people to please be nice to the animals before they are killed? These are strategies we should question, in my opinion, because the OUTCOMES are problematic.

    But the demanded outcome here, in the 269 movement, is clear: they simply deliver a message that the world needs to STOP THIS MADNESS. Just as monks set themselves on fire, these brave people brand themselves to make a symbolic point. We all know they chose to be branded (just as I chose to have 269 tattooed on my arm), just as the monks choose to set themselves on fire. Does anyone really not get that?

    But that’s not the point. Whatever types of activism we do, we choose them. That’s a no-brainer and irrelevant.

    The point of actions like 269 is to make people WAKE UP. LEARN. THINK. FEEL. ACT. All of these things and more. So, perhaps someone who hasn’t a clue about dairy will see that and say hey, what’s that about? And perhaps they will find their way to this blog or some other site where they will learn exactly what is wrong with dairy. That is one of the key points of such actions — to spur people into DOING SOMETHING.

    The reality is, the AR movement has always had a good mix of direct action folks, scholarly folks, and folks in between. We’ve also had a great time smashing each other over the head because we can’t accept the fact that some people have styles of activism that make us uncomfortable.

    So, how about we just stop, please? We all just need to do the kind of activism we are best suited to do, and appreciate the fact that other people do other things. As long as the strategy is sound — and again, there is no indication in history that such actions as 269 are unsound — then why the fuss?

  12. James, I am an artist in Iowa who just Sunday did a performance piece in concert with the 269 movement. I do not disagree with all your points.

    The branding is a momentary, consentual act that I got to walk away from. I have said as much in the op-ed i wrote for my local paper and a longer editorial I am trying to have published.

    What I went through is NOTHING compared to what the animals went through and yet people in my life have been so outraged by the violence against myself.

    My point is, if we are so outraged by this consentual act of momentary discomfort, why are we okay with the suffering and death of animals everywhere?

    And by “we” I mean society at large. I don’t consider myself a “269er” nor member of any particular group. I am a vegan, an artist, and an animal lover trying to make a difference however I can. On Sunday, it was with a dramatic performance. In the past, it’s been living by example. In the future, it may be writing and educating.

    I don’t get too involved in the politics of the movement. I found that to be greatly disheartening within the feminist movement as well. It’s easy to break down others’ approaches and criticize various elements within our movement. However, I feel that the more we can stand together the better. I do agree that there are ways to damage the movement, and I do my best to be mindful of the message I am sending.

    I have been planning this performance for four months and done a great deal of reading and research.

    Here is an excerpt from the shorter op-ed I wrote. this speaks to the HUGE gap between what I experienced and what the animals do:

    “My response to the apprehension and disapproval was “that is exactly what this event is about!” All the fear and concern for me, for ourselves, for the legal aspects and the possible outrage the event would cause, it was all for an act that is done to millions of animals every day. Why is it so objectionable against the human animal but not them? Their capacity to emote is no less than ours. Does a cow awaiting slaughter not smell the blood and fear of those before him? Does a mother cow not cry out when her child is taken from her moments after birth? Does a baby chick not feel pain as her beak is cut off without anesthesia? Or a young pig as he is castrated fully conscious? We cannot hear their cries and see their eyes fill with terror and say they are separate from us. Fear is Fear. Blood is Blood. Suffering is Suffering.

    I think we should all feel how those who declined to participate and the University officials who pulled my permit felt about this event. Only we should extend this feeling to all the beings who are subjected to this and more every day. What I went through is not even close to a fraction of the horrors the animals’ experience. I don’t see a distinction between them and myself, save for one crucial difference: I have a choice. I get to go home.
    I get to live.”

    many thanks,

  13. [...] McWilliams sums it up succinctly when he says in the article titled Branding The Movement And this is why I think human branding is a major mistake. It suggests that a human can comprehend [...]

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