Reclaiming Abolitionism: It’s Time for Us to Take a Stand for Animals
Source Voices for Animals
Animal activists worldwide have their plates full with something other than yummy vegan food, and many may not even yet be aware that a serious issue is corrupting the animal rights movement. It has been building for quite some time, but activists have largely stayed quiet in the interest of working together in order to serve the greater cause of helping animals and out of fear of causing internal division within the movement. However, the issue has begun to reach a climactic state and the animals can no longer afford our peacekeeping silence. Activists must speak out and take a stand, or risk losing the very meaning of the movement and everything for which it stands.
This problem is the ever-increasing industry cooptation of the animal rights movement and one of its main tools of cooptation, animal welfare reformism. Like an insidious and disturbing contagion, nearly all of the big-name animal groups and the well-meaning activists who follow them have begun to take on reformist measures that focus on trying to reduce or eliminate some of the harsher cruelties of industrialized animal agriculture. For instance, groups have been working to pass a bill that will mandate that the egg industry use “enriched” cages for egg-laying chickens, protesting stores for their sale of pork that comes from pigs who are raised in gestation crates, and working to get fast food chains to develop more “humane” standards for raising and slaughtering animals. Some of the big-name groups are even going so far as to encourage and promote the use and consumption of animals and animal products, as long as they come from small or local “humane” farms, suggesting them as an ethical alternative to those that come from factory farms. For instance, they have undertaken campaigns to urge stores to sell cage-free eggs, created videos that promote small, “humane” farms, and partnered with “humane farming” groups to create an official stamp of approval on “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” meat. Yet worst of all, the industries profiting from exploiting animals have joined up with some of the very activists who speak out for animals themselves; in fact some of the animal advocacy organizations have become the industry.
Like Anti-Racism Activists Joining the KKK
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is a big-name animal advocacy group that is held in high regard and respect amongst many animal activists. What they may not realize however is that HSUS’s Vice President of Outreach and Engagement, Joe Maxwell, is a pig farmer who raises and kills 50,000 pigs a year. Furthermore, HSUS’s President and CEO, Wayne Pacelle, campaigned last year to join the board of Tyson Foods, one of the largest slaughterers of animals in the world. John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, one of the largest meat retailers, also sits on the Board of HSUS. Last year, HSUS partnered with the United Egg Producers to promote passage of the aforementioned egg bill that mandates using “enriched” cages. Bruce Friedrich, the Vice President of another well-respected animal organization, Farm Sanctuary, co-founded and sits on the board of the organization Farm Forward (created for the purpose of promoting “humane” farming) with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and turkey farmer Frank Reese. In November of last year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), with funding facilitated by Farm Forward, awarded a $151,000 grant to Frank Reese’s turkey farm for the purposes of expansion. Farm Sanctuary’s upcoming Country Hoe Down this year, incidentally, is sponsored by the ASPCA. Though it could be said that conflicts of interest here are glaring, due to the deeply ingrained speciesism in our society, it can be difficult to see the outrage in actions like these, so an analogous human situation might help to put it into perspective: It would be as if anti-racism activists decided to partner with and join up with the KKK to encourage them to partake in “more humane” forms of racist and bigoted behavior, while at the same time purporting to be working towards complete elimination of white supremacy. Or if feminist activists joined forces with rapists and abusers to promote more “humane” rape while assuring their supporters that they in fact take a strong stance for women’s rights. Sounds repugnant, offensive, and nonsensical, doesn’t it? That’s the appropriate reaction.
What is Going on Here?!
Why are activists and organizations that are supposed to be advocating for the lives of animals working hand-in-hand with industry to promote the use, exploitation, and killing of animals? One part of it is that the movement is being purposefully co-opted by the animal exploitation industries. To understand this, we highly encourage you to read the essay The Invasion of the Movement Snatchers. The other part rests on the fallacy of belief in the welfare reform approach as an effective way to achieve eventual animal liberation, using step-by-step incremental measures to reform and control the conditions of exploitation. There are some organizations, such as HSUS and the ASPCA, that don’t place abolition of all animal exploitation as their end goal, and are simply concerned with the treatment of animals being used-that is, they want to end the cruel treatment of animals, but see nothing ultimately wrong with using and exploiting them. In these cases, we can only wonder why these organizations are even considered or treated as part of the animal rights movement in the first place. Most of the groups that are deemed animal rights groups though do claim that ending animal exploitation is their end goal, but contend that reformist measures are an acceptable and effective way to get there.
In many of the articles and commentaries we’ve seen on welfarism vs. abolitionism, the abolitionist position is greatly misrepresented or presented with weak straw-man arguments, and we have no doubt that in some cases this is quite deliberate. Reformist proponents present the abolitionist argument to be one of simply a difference in approach, where reform measures and campaigns are seen as simply ineffective ways of working to bring people to veganism. In other words, they present it as if abolitionists are absolutists who insist on their approach towards animal liberation and who assert that people working on reform campaigns are just wasting their time and should instead dedicate their energy and resources to advocating solely for veganism. If this was truly the abolitionist position, then what we were arguing over would be primarily strategy, and there would be no real issue or cause for concern here. However, this is not the abolitionist argument. Abolitionists are not just saying that reformism is unproductive and ineffective, but much more importantly, that it is counterproductive and harmful to both the animal rights movement and the animals themselves. It has set the movement back by years, created new forms of exploitation, and has doubled the workload of grassroots animal activists, making genuine animal advocacy work about twice as hard as it ever was before this wave of reformism took hold. Here’s why:
1. When You Focus on Factory Farming, Don’t be Surprised When the Problem is Seen as Being Solely Factory Farming
It is no secret that the conditions for animals on industrialized factory farms are horrible, and just about any vegan can recite a list of the numerous cruelties and horrors animals on factory farms endure. In fact, most ethical vegans became vegan in the first place after learning about this suffering. It would be reasonable to assume then that other people would become vegan solely by being made aware of these atrocities. Thus, animal activism work became almost completely focused on exposing this cruelty and educating the public about the suffering of animals on factory farms. In fact, until recently Voices for Animals did this ourselves when promoting veganism to the public. About ten or fifteen years ago, this focus on factory farming worked in bringing people to veganism because almost all meat and animal products came from factory farms and it was nearly impossible to get them anywhere else. So faced with no alternative, people who didn’t want to support factory farm suffering had little choice but to avoid meat and animal products completely.
Enter the reformist measures and campaigns which created a whole new market of meat and animal products, supposedly produced with slightly less suffering. Now it is possible for the public to buy free-range chicken or turkey, go to Whole Foods or the local food co-op and buy cage-free eggs, or buy pork from stores that use suppliers that don’t use gestation crates. At the same time, with the mass increase in public consciousness of the cruelty and destructive nature of factory farming that animal advocacy work helped to generate, we witnessed the sudden mass success of books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which gave rise to the brand new trends of locavorism and the paleo diet, urban animal farming, and backyard butchering.
Now, when we go back to the animal advocacy groups who are still focusing on factory farming to move people towards veganism, guess what? Veganism is no longer the only option. People who want to keep consuming animals but don’t want to support the cruelty they endure now have an “alternative” choice. Yet, animal rights groups are using the same message to promote veganism, without realizing how the environment has changed. Activists should be aware that there are often hidden, implicit messages in the information we give to the public, which we may not even be consciously aware of, but they are still there. So if we are handing out pamphlets about veganism that focus on the conditions of factory farms, whether or not we intended it the message to the public is that factory farming is the problem, not exploiting and killing animals in itself. And remember there are now (non-coincidentally) alternatives to supporting factory farms if the public so chooses them.
2. Reformist Measures Make People More Secure with Animal Exploitation
Reformist measures and campaigns that focus on controlling or regulating conditions of animal exploitation while keeping animals firmly in place within that system of exploitation itself do absolutely nothing to fundamentally challenge the property status of animals in our society; in fact, it just further reinforces and strengthens that status. As long as animals are regarded and treated as property and objects to be owned, used, and discarded – instead of as unique individual sentient beings with their own thoughts, feelings, interests, needs, and experiences – animals will always be imprisoned, mistreated, and readily sacrificed in the name of profit and human desire. The property status of non-human animals in itself needs to be abolished in order to permanently end the systemic abuses of animals in our society. All that reformist measures do, in contrast, is ease the consciences of people who consume animals and animal products, allowing them to feel reassured that the animals being used are not being outright abused, instead of questioning why it is morally justifiable to deny animals their freedoms and lives in the first place.
Humans, by their very nature, tend to always follow the path of least resistance. When faced with the possibility of having to completely change their behavior and worldview, most people will try to find every excuse they can think of not to have to change. If there are options available to them that are presented (or can be construed) as acceptable alternatives to having to change, it’s easy to guess which option they are more likely to choose. A common example would be choosing to simply take a pill everyday or even have invasive surgery to treat disease rather than making healthy lifestyle changes. Similarly, when activists campaign for things like cage-free eggs, crate-free veal, gestation crate-free pork, or suggest in any way that one animal product is morally desirable over another animal product, this is exactly what they are doing -presenting to the public a seemingly acceptable moral alternative to veganism. The take-home message the public is receiving is that humane and ethical animal exploitation exists or is possible. Consequently, consumers are driven not only away from veganism, but back towards the very animal products that activists have spent years successfully decrying. A striking example is how for decades, animal activists’ hard-won taboo against buying and eating veal drove down and kept sales low, only to have sales suddenly shoot up 35% when supermarket chains began offering “certified humane”, “crate free” options.
Many activists argue that welfare measures are important because they draw attention to the issue and help raise public awareness about animals’ suffering, which in turn results in concerned individuals, upset and disturbed by the cruelty taking place, deciding to avoid the particularly cruel farms and companies that engage in excessively abusive practices. But think about it: these are people who already have a natural empathy for animals. Instead of stunting this empathy by encouraging others to take minimal actions in reducing harm like boycotting extremely abusive farms and companies (and by default buying from their competitors instead), we should instead direct all of our efforts towards fostering their empathy by urging these individuals to critically examine their own thinking and by helping them understand that if they genuinely care about animals and respect them as sentient beings capable of suffering, the only moral choice they can make is to not participate in their murder and exploitation.
As advocates for animals, we should always send the clear, undiluted, uncompromised message that veganism is an ethical imperative. Beware the soft bigotry of low expectations. By telling people the whole truth of the message, we show that we believe that they are capable of changing their thinking and behavior, instead of assuming that some people will never be motivated enough to change or will always eat meat and so the idea of veganism is just too extreme for them. Change can be frightening for most people however, and therefore it’s natural for people to look for any excuse not to change their behavior when experiencing a moral conflict between what they believe and how they act. At this point it is our role to be offering them the support and guidance needed to follow their heart and live their life in accordance with their values. Animal rights advocates should never, in any way, offer people an excuse not to change or give them an easy way out of meeting their ethical responsibility to animals by promoting or even suggesting a perceived moral alternative to veganism. If people are presented with the entire non-watered-down message of veganism but decide on their own to eat animals or animal products from “humane” farms, then that is their choice, but as animal activists we should never do or say anything to point them in that direction or even imply the idea that this is morally acceptable. As animal advocates, it is our role and position to hold the highest moral ground on behalf of the animals. We should be open and honest about the integrity of our message, speak it loud and clear, show that we have no hidden agenda, and refuse to compromise on these principles. After all, as animal activists, if we don’t hold to the resolute position that humans do not have the right to strip animals of their lives and freedoms, who will?
3. Instead of Turning People Towards Veganism, Reformist Measures Turn Vegans Away from Veganism
Quick question: Do you know any former vegans? Chance are, if you are an animal activist or vegan, you are now likely to know at least one person who was vegan but then one day suddenly decided to start buying milk and eggs from local, organic farms or that grass-fed beef was the way to go. In fact, there are some people who used to be vegan who are now raising and butchering animals themselves in their own backyards or on community farms. It leaves the rest of us scratching our heads, baffled at how it’s possible for someone to go from being a passionate, outspoken vegan activist who cares about animals to being someone who eats or even kills animals themselves.
It appears this unfortunate growth of ex-vegans is in no small part a direct consequence of the mistake of focusing our advocacy efforts almost exclusively on the treatment of animals in factory farms. Animal agriculture welfare measures and campaigns concentrate entirely on reforming factory farming and regulating the standards, practices, and conditions on factory farms. They do not address at all the underlying ethic of using, breeding, and killing animals for food. Therefore, once again the message that is coming through the loudest is “factory farming is the problem, not animal agriculture itself” (let alone any other forms of animal exploitation, such as animal experimentation and testing, forced use of animals in “entertainment”, and other such atrocities). Therefore, concerned individuals, including many vegans who misunderstand the real meaning of veganism, identify factory farming as being the sole ethical issue, and as a result, turn to alternatives to factory farming, finding the aforementioned perceived moral alternatives to veganism, which are oftentimes being presented to them by the animal activists and organizations that are supposed to be advocating for the abolition of animal exploitation. This is the hidden harm of reformist campaigns that center on factory farming: They give the impression, even to vegans themselves, that the moral issue is not one of using, exploiting, and killing animals, but with only the cruel treatment of animals, and by working on reformist measures and campaigns that make the treatment of animals within the industry less cruel and by supporting farms that treat animals more humanely, the problem is effectively solved. This is why welfare reformism is ultimately damaging to the animals in the long run and why it’s important to advocate solely for abolitionism. The message needs to be clear: Veganism is not just about the humane treatment of animals, but rather the just and non-exploitive treatment of animals.
4. Reformism Creates New Industries and Forms of Animal Exploitation
Probably the most important reason of all why reformist campaigns and measures are counterproductive and harmful to the animals is that as a result of animal organizations and activists working to reform the animal agriculture industry, indeed sometimes working hand-in-hand with the industry itself, entirely new animal agriculture industries and forms of exploitation have been created. Over the last decade or so, we have seen the explosion of what can be called the “humane animal products” industry, which includes everything from cage-free eggs to meat marked with the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System at Whole Foods. This has become a highly lucrative industry, made more profitable with the help of many of the big-name animal groups and their campaigns that promote these products and offer the industry free PR and advertising– even giving them awards and endorsements for these products – which in turn makes them look really attractive to the public.
The other major new form of animal exploitation that has been created within recent years (for which we have animal welfare reformism in part to thank) can be found in the form of urban animal farming and backyard butchering. Urban animal farming has burst out in all the major cities across the country, including here in Pittsburgh, where community farms that raise chickens and slaughter rabbits are popping up like wildflowers. Again, it’s important to point out that these operations were virtually nonexistent as little as 10 years ago, but started appearing and growing exponentially with the birth of the “compassionate omnivore” movement that was fueled in large part by the big-name animal groups. And as we’ve seen, this sent the message to the public that it is possible to consume animals humanely which the public in turn ate right up.
This is why the work of grassroots animal rights activists is harder today than ever before, because now we not only have to work to abolish factory farming but also this new “humane farming” industry. Welfare reform advocates might have a legitimate argument if these new “humane farms” were replacing factory farms. However, that is not even the case. The factory farms are all still here and thriving just as much as they were before, and in some cases, running even MORE “efficiently” and profitably (a selling point used by PETA in advocating for more “humane” methods of chicken slaughter). Add to that the whole new animal agriculture industry that has joined them and is growing at an alarming rate, making the entire animal agriculture industry bigger and more powerful than ever. This is what the welfare reform advocates call “helping animals in the here and now”? Make no mistake: Thanks to animal welfare reformism, there are now more animals being bred into existence solely to be exploited and killed for food today, who wouldn’t have even existed as little as 10 years ago.
Take a Stand for Animals: Stand for Abolitionism
It is time to for all genuine animal rights activists to take a stand against the industry cooptation and corruption occurring within the animal rights movement. It is time to speak out against the big-name groups that are making an unholy alliance with the industries that exploit animals, and call them out for the ultimate betrayal of the animals they are committing. It is time to point out, as we have here, the destructive and harmful consequences of welfare reform campaigns and insist that abolitionism be the qualifying factor for animal rights activism. It is time to remember what this movement is and what it stands for.
The earlier activists who started this movement in the 80s and 90s wouldn’t recognize the animal rights movement as it exists today. Back then the activists knew what they were fighting for and stuck by their principles. They made it known that they were a whole different animal movement from those advocating for animal welfare and drew a line in the sand to set themselves apart from them. They proclaimed loud and clear that animals have rights and not just the right to be treated humanely but the right not to be used by humans at all. In other words, they advocated for the abolition of all animal exploitation and nothing less. The idea of compromising on this defining principle of the movement would be out of the question. The idea of joining up with the industries that exploit animals, making concessions with them to pass minor welfare reforms that ultimately hurt the movement, and promoting other forms of animal exploitation as “more humane” would be considered traitorous. These earlier activists now point to the sad state of the animal rights movement as it exists today and call it a travesty.
We need to get back to the roots of this movement. We need to return to the founding principles of animal rights activism, to the basic tenet that animals are not the property of humans and humans do not have the right to exploit and kill them for their own uses. Holding steadfast to that position is in essence what it means to be an animal rights advocate. If we are willing to compromise on this fundamental precept, what is even left of our position? If we don’t value this principle enough to stand by it and refuse to make any exceptions or concessions to it, than how can we expect anybody else to value it? Why should anybody even listen to us at all?
It’s time to reclaim the animal rights movement by taking it back to its abolitionist origins. Being a genuine animal rights advocate means being loyal to the defining principle of abolitionism, and realizing that advocating anything less than that sends a mixed message to the public and further ingrains animal exploitation into our society. Advocating anything less than abolitionism sets the movement back and hurts the animals; a firm commitment to abolitionism and abolitionist work needs to be the foundation of animal rights advocacy.
This is not about moral purity; it’s about being the best advocates for animals we can be and refusing to give up on them by advocating for anything less than their inherent right to live wholly unexploited. It’s about having the courage to stand up for the animals and to speak out when the animals are being betrayed. So let’s start by recommitting ourselves to the animals by being abolitionist activists. Let’s speak out and sound the alarm about the corruption and industry cooptation taking place within our movement, threatening to destroy it, and identify it as a disgraceful betrayal of the animals that we will not accept. Speak out and refuse to believe the admonishment of the leaders of the big-name animal groups of “causing internal division within the movement,” recognizing it as a shameless excuse to shut down debate about this issue and to silence the needed questioning of their truly destructive actions. Let’s refuse to work with any of the corrupted groups that have partnered with the animal exploitation industries, and instead only choose to support those organizations whose work is in line with our values. By refusing to participate in the actions, fundraisers, or campaigns of corrupted groups, we send a message that they must change and return to the mission and principles on which they were founded. When an organization asks for your help in advocating for cage-free eggs or crate-free pork, don’t be afraid to tell them “no”, and more importantly tell them why. When advocating for veganism, make sure to tell people that it’s about more than ending factory farming, that it’s not just about the treatment of animals – it’s about their use. And when they bring up “humane” animal products, let them know that this is not an acceptable moral alternative. Let’s find ways to communicate the abolitionist message and work on abolitionist campaigns, together, without selling out on our principles and on the animals.
It’s very possible we can take back this movement to what it really stands for and achieve genuine change and justice for animals, but it will have to begin with animal rights advocates everywhere recognizing the problem and taking a stand.
For more information about Voices For Animals visit www.VFAonline.org or email us at VoicesForAnimals@gmail.com
as we see it,
rights for all
in the eyes
of our creator.
all are the same,
Karen Lyons Kalmenson