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Radical Activism and the Future of Animal Rights

• July 03, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: ZAPATISTHACK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The most extreme activists have set aside the goal of helping animals to live better lives in order to attack those who do not join them in dreaming an impossible dream.

Last week, thousands of animal rights activists converged on Arlington, Virginia, for the 33rd annual Animal Rights National Conference. Over 90 presenters from 60 organizations discussed strategies central to the goal of reducing animal exploitation. The event garnered scant coverage from the mainstream press—always does—but it nonetheless brimmed with a rare kind of selfless ambition coming from very decent people who want animals to be treated with a modicum of dignity.

While the media paid little attention, there’s no doubt that meat industry moles were trolling the halls of the Hilton with their ears pricked for the merest mention of an idea that might pierce the brainbox of a public so culinarily apathetic that, to date, it has voluntarily consumed seven billion cans of Spam. Mass consumption of a gelatinous rectangle of a ham-like product reflects a collective unthinking decision that the industry wants to protect with every cynically contrived resource at its disposal.

Although the meat industry has no clue otherwise, it has virtually nothing to fear. Its paranoia is misplaced. The “animal rights movement”—a motley coalition that incorporates a multitude of approaches to helping animals—is currently a Babel of dysfunction. Not unlike the Greek hero Achilles, it is at once colossally powerful but ultimately hobbled by a weak spot both miniscule and fatal.

If attractive women and men want to use their good looks to make the world a better place for animals, I’m willing to step aside and let them pose with seduction until their hearts are content.

That colossal power emanates from hundreds of thousands of everyday activists who justifiably believe that conscientious consumers can, through a wide variety of measures, take gradual steps toward removing animal products from their diet. These true believers do the grunt work of activism: they hand out pamphlets, write books, blog, make documentaries, start campus veg societies, publish vegan recipes, open vegan food carts, work for animal sanctuaries, run veganic farms, and do basically anything they can to encourage consumers to contemplate the face on their plate.

I consider myself a member of this noble tribe. The heel of the movement, by contrast, consists of a handful of radicals, mostly academics, who do little more than set an unrealistic benchmark of success and effectively crucify activists who do not join them in dreaming the impossible dream. It’s a mess of an arrangement; the tyranny of the minority at its very worst.

The fundamentally unachievable position that the radical fringe adopts as the one-and-only approach to ending animal exploitation has two components. First, it seeks to eliminate all animal exploitation, in every realm of life, immediately, and without compromise or strategic capitulation; and second, it aims to eliminate all forms of oppression because, it argues, we cannot have animal liberation while the merest residue of racism, sexism, and other discriminatory “isms” continue to muck up the project of helping animals. The heel does not want the good, or even the better. It wants perfection. And that’s a problem because, as much as I hate to admit it, perfection is not possible.

Of course, it’s hard to deny the utopian optimism of such a vision—who on Earth, after all, would oppose a world free of oppression? But it’s also childishly naïve to think that these principles could even remotely serve as an exclusive guide for reform here in the orbit of the real world.

Ours is a reality in which billions of animals are slaughtered every year to feed us food that the entire apparatus of modern culture (and agriculture) tells us it’s perfectly fine to eat. It’s a reality that aggressively rejects the dictatorial presentation of moral imperatives while allowing social change to happen in fits and starts, driven by a sputtering and necessarily imperfect engine of reform, powered by both intentional and unintentional consequences. It’s a reality in which people respond not to a decree for moral purity but to incessant and concrete little reminders about the dreadful lives led by the vast majority of the animals we eat for pleasure and what we can do to change that awful situation.

The tension between rank-and-file and the radical-fringe approaches routinely negates pragmatic efforts to help animals live better lives. Take the Humane Society of the United States. Among other goals, HSUS works diligently to improve conditions for animals raised in factory farms. They do this largely through political channels, working actively with corporations and legislative bodies to eliminate battery cages, create “enriched environments,” and reduce the horrors of slaughter.

While HSUS says far too little about the benefits of a vegan diet, there’s no disputing the fact that its successful record of improving housing conditions has, however nominally, improved lives for billions of animals. There’s also no disputing the fact that the organization’s emphasis on animal welfare has inspired conscientious consumers to rethink their personal choice to eat animals from factory farms and, in some cases, to question whether or not to eat them at all. By no means does HSUS seek to eliminate all animal exploitation and all forms of oppression. However, it lays down important stepping stones for those who want to start hiking in that direction. In essence, they do a lot of good without bowing to the enemy of perfection.

Although the meat industry remains oblivious to this fact, HSUS is often vilified within the animal rights community. This vilification persistently comes from the radical heel, which roundly condemns HSUS and its supporters as “welfarists.” The implication behind this slingshot of verbal mud—one that leads to huge fights in Internet-land—is that advocates of measures improving the living conditions of factory-farmed animals are implicitly aiding and abetting factory farming.

It may be true in a theoretical sense that by working to reform agribusiness rather than explicitly seeking to shut it down altogether, HSUS is indirectly complicit in the exploitation of animals. But with the United States alone killing 10 billion animals a year in one of the nation’s oldest and most entrenched industries—that is, with the reality of animal exploitation being as endemic to life as hot dogs on July 4—there’s simply no possible way, at this point in time, to end animal agriculture as we know it. You can declare it wrong to own and exploit animals until the cows come home. You can scream out justice from the mountaintops. But it won’t make a lick of difference in the daily consumption habits of the general public.

Recognizing this reality, HSUS has chosen to fight battles it can win. And they have won many of them. And, as a result, animals that continue to be slaughtered to feed us food we don’t need have led somewhat better lives before dying. For this compromised accomplishment, HSUS is viciously deemed by the radicals to be a gang of “opportunists” making a killing by promoting “happy meat.”

Combining steadfast denial of carnivorous reality with slavish dedication to an idealized cause, radical animal rights activists have been even more dismissive of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization that’s far more assertive in promoting veganism and the inherent rights of animals. Nothing they do passes muster. PETA’s problem, as the radicals see it, is less “welfarism” than sexism.

Routinely, as you likely know, PETA enacts sex-infused stunts that practically beg—and receive—a deluge of media attention. The tactic, I suppose, thrives on a savvy combination of the slogans “sex sells” and “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I agree that deploying crass sexual imagery as a tool to reduce animal exploitation is problematic and offensive, and I generally appreciate the eagerness of the radicals to critique such a method of raising awareness. However, in its extreme form, the radical critique ends up once again allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good and, in so doing, harming the long-term prospects of animal advocacy.

For example, when PETA recently sponsored a relatively harmless “sexiest vegan” contest—one that included men and women—I blogged a phrase that quickly got me dragged to the woodshed of moral perfection. I wrote, “Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t.” Fact is, I still don’t. But I do know that if attractive women and men want to use their good looks to make the world a better place for animals, I’m willing to step aside and let them pose with seduction until their hearts are content. According to the movement’s backlash meter, however, this was clearly the wrong position to take. The response from those who adhere to the sacred premise that activism must be uncompromising and morally impeccable was so deafening in its condemnation of my genuine doubt (“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t”) that I chose to shutter the blog after two years of daily posting rather than endure the tidal wave of verbal invective that was starting to crash with tremendous distraction.

As cheap accusations of sexism and welfarism continue to careen across the blogosphere and, I’m sure, creep into the conferences where pragmatic activists try to pull it all together, billions upon billions of animals continue to suffer immensely and unnecessarily in order to feed consumers products that are unethical, unhealthy, ecologically disastrous, and often disgusting. The fact that the movement best poised to drive a wedge between the producers and consumers of animals spends more time fighting over the moral superiority of tactics rather than bucking up and using every single strategy without discrimination is the best insurance of future success that Spam could ever hope to have.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications.

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