Lately I’ve been fielding piercing questions from animal advocates from every point on the activist spectrum wondering something perfectly legitimate about my “positioning.” Many of these questions veritably twitch with anger but I feel the issue shouldn’t be ignored.
The concern goes something like this: how can one simultaneously write about the many flaws of non-industrial agriculture (which I do) and insist that change, if it happens, must be allowed to happen gradually, in phases (which I do). In other words, how can one condemn non-industrial animal farms while acknowledging that they are, for all their flaws, better than industrial options and thus, for many consumers, a necessary step in the right direction? Deep breath.
Before I address this quandary (if we must see it as that), allow me to make a critical admission. I don’t ever consciously position myself. I’m not a politician. Nor am I an oracle or a guru. Or a pawn. I’m a person who thinks a lot about animals and the way we treat them and I’ve chosen to do virtually all that thinking in print, off the cuff, out load. Sometimes with a bullhorn. Anyone seeking The Truth should probably unsubscribe. There are plenty of others hawking that.
Some of my ideas are decent; others flop. Welcome to the workings of the human mind. If you’re seeking consistency, make a smoothie. Perhaps it’s immature and unprofessional of me, but I love this space here (and could not, despite huge effort, let it go) because it allows me to write what I am, at the moment, thinking. There’s sanity in that. At least for me. If you find logical inconsistencies, don’t congratulate yourself. It’s sort of like finding carnivores in a steakhouse.
That said, I don’t see the problem with bashing small farms while, at the same time, accepting the fact that people will frequent them as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Choosing non-industrial options is a reality that we might not like, but it’s one we have no choice but to confront in a way that reduces animal suffering.
Consider Green Mountain College. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy highlighting the endless hypocrisies inherent in it’s treatment of Bill and Lou. Anyone looking for information on what’s the matter with small scale farming could certainly learn something from my work on Bill and Lou. But I’ll also concede that if all farms treated cattle the way Green Mountain College has, cattle would be better off.
And thus, when pressed, I’ll say “yeah, it’s better” and even, “yeah, your choice is more responsible.” And then I’ll keep exposing its flaws, adding to the counter-narrative of its supposed virtue. In other words, I can encourage consumers to step onto the next rock and then give that rock a good shake. Some call this moral compromise, but I call it honest recognition that the world is defined by gradations of good and evil. For now, I’ve chosen to leave the good and bad, the black and white, for the gurus.
So: how will my “position” pan out? How the hell should I know? Anyone who thinks that he or she can project the efficacy of advocacy is delusional. We are, as a community of animal advocates, virtual non-entities in the grand scheme of human behavior at this moment in time. We forget this, I’m afraid, because we often tend toward insularity. Our best bet at this point is thus to get over the narcissism of small differences and agree that, in trying to convince the world to stop exploiting animals, we are—again, at this point in history—firing at moving targets in the dark. Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep firing away.
It means we should cease questioning each other’s weaponry. Whether I stand on the street corner and hand out vegan literature, bash GMC, have casual conversations about plant-based diets in the hallway with colleagues, write for magazines, teach my kids about factory farming, bad mouth local animal farms, I am raising awareness. When I admit that one form of animal agriculture is better than another I am not undermining the noise I make. By virtue of the fact that we are even addressing the issue, and creating public discussion on it, we are making progress toward a world that’s better for animals. Take solace in this low bar of immediate effectiveness. It’s one the few things we can take solace in.