Shooting Straight In Animal Advocacy

» September 24th, 2014

I want to pick up an idea from my last post and make some critical distinctions. In the post I questioned the logic of fighting for animal welfare without explicitly opposing animal agriculture per se. When I put a variation of this concern to welfare-standards architect Andrew Gunther, he disingenuously responded that “death is not a welfare issue.” To which I wrote: that’s patently ludicrous. It is THE ultimate welfare issue.

Reflecting on the piece, I realized something beyond the simple illogic of Gunther’s response bothered me. Indeed, something about the complete phrase he used— “death is not a welfare issue; quality of life is a welfare issue”—elevated my annoyance to a new level. Why? I think it has something to do with my deeply held belief that any resort to simplistic sloganeering suggests, if not the cover up of an unpleasant reality, then at least intellectual laziness, or something like it. Yes, we seek slogans to simplify, and doing so is often necessary. But we also seek them to distort. And, in my gut, that’s what I think is happening in this case.  And it’s not excusable.

Two things to note here. First, I do not disagree per se with organized attempts to promote animal welfare standards. I endorse any move that will improve a farm animal’s full quality of life. But I also have to agree with the larger vision behind the articulation. I must, in other words, understand and support the purity and scope of the underlying motives. If the motive is to improve the lives of animals while doing nothing to promote the complete end of animal agriculture, and if the failure to confront animal agriculture as a whole is obscured in a pithy phrase, I’m hesitant to endorse the effort. In fact I’m prone to lash out. But if the motive is to simultaneously improve welfare standards while working transparently to end the system that makes those standards necessary in the first place, I’m on board. In short: proper framing, scope of vision, motivations—these factors matter.  But saying “death is not a welfare issue” denies their importance.

Now, if an individual or organization chooses to take the latter approach—trying to enhance animal welfare while also attempting to end animal agriculture as a whole—the question of logical consistency arguably persists. Readers of Gary Francione get this point about as well as you’d get a hammer to the head. Those who support welfare reforms can quickly end up stretched across his well-grooved chopping block for not conceding the point. And why not, you inconsistent nitwit? How, after all, can you advocate animal abolition and incremental welfare improvements at the same time?! Hard to square that circle. But here in Realityville, the fact remains: it needs to be attempted. So, rather than devise some bullshit slogan, or seek refuge in some la-la land of moral perfection, we’d be much better off declaring “I realize that this might seem contradictory,” owning that apparent inconsistency, and moving ahead as the inherently flawed but essentially good creatures that we are.  Again, no slogan required.

My second point is related (and shorter). No matter what role we play in the broad sweep of animal advocacy, we have to shoot straight. If an idea has a weak flank, acknowledge it. If a tactic has a downside, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. If your move backfires, admit it. If your vision is impossibly idealistic, defend it on those grounds. More to the point, I guess, is this: when you make qualified progress—say, by getting farmers to adopt some nominal improvements for animal welfare—don’t declare victory. Because it’s not a victory. It’s a noble and perhaps inevitable duty undertaken in the context of an agrarian mentality we’ve inherited and cannot easily expunge. In my mind there are no victories until we end animal agriculture once and for all–erase that mentality for good. But we’ll never get there if we don’t accept this challenge for what it is and stop using words to obscure inadequate tactics grounded in moral cowardice.



8 Responses to Shooting Straight In Animal Advocacy

  1. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    I (am hoping) may know a context for this, and I hope it steps on a minimal amount of toes, so here goes:
    I advocate primarily for wild horses and burros. Nearly every aspect of their management on the Federal level seems geared toward nothing more than their absence. That is the apparent End Game.
    So advocates ‘attack’ the issues on many different fronts, from de-bunking the science with science of our own to financing through donations legal actions against the offending agency, observation and articulation of roundups, drafting humane care standards, requests of FOIA documents regarding any aspect of wild horse and burro policy or dispersal…the lists go on, ad infinitum.
    There are areas where certain individuals or organizations possess an expertise, and they’ll focus on that aspect. Many advocate for ‘birth control’ for wild equines on the range; I do NOT.
    But I am certain the ultimate goal is the same for all these diverse participants: The end of roundups as a ‘management’ tool.
    While it may only be ‘fashionable’ to only advocate for animal welfare, it IS a small step toward the larger goal. It may piss us off, but it’s still a ‘positive’ – and certainly enough to continue to annoy the status quo that believes profiteering off the bodies of dead animals is a noble tradition.

  2. Layne says:

    “More to the point, I guess, is this: when you make qualified progress—say, by getting farmers to adopt some nominal improvements for animal welfare—don’t declare victory. Because it’s not a victory. It’s a noble and perhaps inevitable duty undertaken in the context of an agrarian mentality we’ve inherited and cannot easily expunge. In my mind there are no victories until we end animal agriculture once and for all–erase that mentality for good.”

    Thank you for this James. It helps to determine my responses to things.

    Lisa, I would like to learn more about the use of birth control in wild populations. I have heard of it’s being used, but know nothing about it. Why do you oppose it?


    • Lisa LeBlanc says:

      I apologize that this diverts from the subject of the article, so I’ll try to be brief:
      First and foremost, there is a lack of empirical evidence that wild equine populations are as vast as proclaimed; populations are tallied not by field observation, but by estimate (20% per annum), with astonishingly few variables. The first experiments with birth control in mares and jennies have been a derivative chemical akin to that used to control deer populations (PZP). When used properly, it can work for a few years.
      But now there is Federal funding for a drive toward zero population growth through permanent chemical and in-the-field surgical sterilization of males and females – castrations and ovarectomies – and still without verifiable evidence of overpopulation.

  3. Karen Harris says:

    The issues raised here are the ones that I spend a lot of time trying to personally resolve. Who doesn’t want to see less suffering? For example, it is hard to deny that recent promises made by Nestle -prompted by an undercover investigation by Mercy for Animals at a Wisconsin dairy supplier showing workers abusing dairy cows. – will result in less suffering. The new policies supposedly will end the use of veal crates, gestation crates, battery cages, castration of piglets without painkillers, and tail docking and dehorning of dairy cattle. According to Nestle, this policy will be “implemented” in all 90 countries where Nestle has suppliers.
    I learned of this when I got an email from Mercy for Animals with the headline A GREAT DAY FOR THE ANIMALS, going on to describe Nestle as an industry leader whose policies would reduce the suffering of millions of animals each year, and an inspiration to other food providers.
    I wrote Mercy for Animals saying the I did not think Nestle should praised for the miniscule reforms that they instituted only because they know that the reforms will, in fact, increase their bottom line, when many of these practices are already outlawed in other countries where they do business. After all, it is hard to believe that Nestle did not have a clue that abuses were taking place, they just did not care.
    This is part of the reply I got:
    “If I were Nestle and started receiving feedback like yours, that what I was doing was “miniscule” … I would say fine then, screw these reforms. I’ll just keep doing things like I’m doing and save myself a lot of time, money and hassle.
    So it seems we need to thank and praise corporations like Nestle, Whole Foods, McDonalds etc., to say nothing of people like Temple Grandin?
    Yes, less suffering is good. But obviously the danger of incremental improvements is that they give people permission to continue to consume animals and feel good about it. In the long run, will that cause more or less suffering?
    Finally, I don’t think abolitionists live in a la-la land of moral perfection. To the contrary. Gary Francione, is a total realist who knows that if you give people a guilt free option they will take it, and who understands how corporations think and operate. If he is an idealist at all, it is perhaps because he believes that logical arguments can be persuasive.
    Anyway, sorry so long winded – as I said, I grapple with this issue!

  4. Norm Phelps says:

    The animal liberation struggle will go on for decades, probably generations, before it is finally won. Maintaining morale and momentum over this long a time will be difficult at best. To expect activists to campaign for years and years without ever having a sense that they have won a victory is to invite discouragement, despair, and massive attrition from the movement. If I may be forgiven for using a military analogy, a war is made up of many battles. And most battles end in a victory for one side or the other, even though the war continues. (Some battles have no clear winner.) Whenever we win a battle, it is important to declare a victory, in order to: 1) boost the morale of animal activists; 2) maintain the momentum of the movement and generate a sense of progress in the media and the public; and 3) impress upon everyone, activists and public alike, that contrary to the “abolitionists’” claim, intermediate steps, such as the abolition of gestation crates or the growing popularity campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” do, in fact, constitute progress toward the final goal. In WWII, the press was full of stories about “Victory at Midway!”, “Victory at Anzio!”, or “Victory at Guadalcanal!” while the war raged on. These stories kept up morale by demonstrating progress.

    To use a different (and admittedly clichéd) analogy, every journey consists of many steps. But in a journey as long and hard as animal liberation, it is important to celebrate every forward step successfully taken. Final VICTORY is fashioned from many smaller victories. There is no VICTORY until we end all animal agriculture (and all use of animals in laboratories and zoos and theme parks, etc.). But there are many victories along the way. And I believe that acknowledging this is essential to sustaining the struggle.

    • Karen Harris says:

      I understand your point of view.
      I wonder, however, if these reforms, in truth, make advocates feel good while actually maintaining the status quo. Why are conditions worse than ever for increasing numbers of animals raised for food, if these kinds of reforms really had any teeth? My concern is that these small concessions masquerade as victories, while actually reinforcing the status of animals as commodities and our right to use them as such.
      Finally, I think that both long standing and new activists might find it demoralizing and even outright confusing when all of the major animal rights/welfare organizations hand out awards to fast food hamburger chains and someone who devises “humane” ramps, chutes and stunning boxes.

  5. unethical_vegan says:

    Most animal welfare reform makes eating animals more expensive (ergo. fewer animals killed). You’d have to be naive to not realize that this is the hidden agenda of new-welfarism.

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