A House Divided Part IV: The Politics of Public Perception

As I’ve been suggesting in previous posts, social movements–or any sort of coordinated reform effort–thrive when they clearly state the ultimate goal. This is what makes the work of Gary Francione (see last post), and all vegan abolitionists, so integral to the cause of animal liberation. The abolitionist approach declares with forthright candor that humans have no right to own and exploit animals. We should stop now. This message is absolute and inspiring, not to mention central to what ethical vegans hope to accomplish.  We’re useless without it.

But, as I’ve also been suggesting, the drumbeat of principle, noble as it may be, is not enough. A process of reform–one that’s pragmatic and accessible to everyday consumers–must accompany and interact with the stated ideal. With billions upon billions of animals unnecessarily exploited every year, and with most consumers rarely giving the matter a moment’s consideration, calling for the immediate abolition of animal exploitation strikes me as unrealistic as an exclusive process of change. Instead, it must be enjoined with a gradualist approach, one that seeks to improve the welfare of animals within preexisting systems while, at the same time, articulating the ultimate goal–the principle–toward which gradual improvements are working.  As I’ve noted, this will require compromise.

There are several issues that need to be clarified in order for my call for compromise to convince anyone of anything. What I want to address now is something that’s also critical for a movement to succeed: a tangible sense of progress. It’s human nature, when working toward a goal, to fuel our fires with concrete accomplishments. We need momentum to keep going. One step builds upon another.  These steps help us avoid despair.

Both welfarism and abolitionism provide such fuel. There’s no doubt that when the conditions of farm animals are improved, no matter how seemingly minor that change may be, the lives of animals are made more comfortable. No one can claim to care about animals and dismiss this fact. Such increased comfort, of course, should never suggest that the battle is over. But I see no reason why, say, the elimination of gestation crates shouldn’t be celebrated as a small step on the road to ultimate abolition. By the same token, every time a vegan abolitionist convinces someone to go vegan, we have rightful cause for a pat on the back. Both examples, as I see it, effectively push us to work harder in seeking the ultimate abolition of animal exploitation.

But–and this is the controversial part–I think welfare improvements might–at least at this point in time– be more effective than vegan education at promoting more people to start thinking seriously about animals as sentient creatures capable of suffering. I will openly admit to being only moderately confident in this assertion. (Which is to say, I very well could be wrong.) Still, here’s my reasoning: with so many omnivores deeply skeptical about any sort of animal rights message–especially, in this country, when one leaves the coasts–the call for personal abolition of all animal exploitation is more vulnerable to the boos and hisses of public opinion than that of welfare reforms.

Here’s why: it’s impossible not to live in the world as a human being and avoid some level of animal exploitation. We exploit them when we drive, when we ride a bike, when we walk down the street, even when we eat plants. For many of us, this reality in no way undermines the powerful message at the core of abolitionism. But for most people it does. For your average omnivore currently hostile to any notion of abandoning animal products (again, come to Texas, and you’ll see how pervasive this attitude is), it’s a way of labeling us (however falsely) hypocrites. In essence, the call for immediate abolition of animal exploitation heightens our vulnerability to being ridiculed in a public sphere that knows no nuance.  A welfare improvement on a factory farm, by contrast, not only avoids bogus charges of hypocrisy, but it reminds omnivores what they too often forget–an animal suffers. Who’s to say the next step won’t be veganism?

I make this point–or, really, explore this idea–with an unwavering focus on the abolition of animal ownership and the mass adaptation of ethical veganism.  Again, the principle stays pure. But getting average, everyday omnivores to even begin considering something as foreign to their normative experience as veganism will, for better or worse, require that we celebrate small welfare victories while never allowing the big abolitionist vision to fade.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

14 Responses to A House Divided Part IV: The Politics of Public Perception

  1. BlessUsAll says:


    I think you’re letting the false charge of hypocrisy influence you too much, James.

    Making a decision to walk or bike or even drive an electric or hybrid car is not being hypocritical in my book. That reasoning is, I believe, as way-out as the lame logic that some omnivores throw out about plants having feelings so we shouldn’t eat their fruits.

    We cannot help being born and having streets and sidewalks already paved. But we CAN help whether or not we purchase and eat the flesh of an animal who was killed for our eating pleasure or our habit or our convenience or our tradition.

    If I lived in an area that had a veganic garden whose owners sold their produce, I would walk (down a paved road or an unpaved path) miles to get to that market. Someday it will be the norm to have these “stockfree” (as they’re called in the U.K.) organic farms in the States and in other countries. I can’t wait!

    Until then, I’m not going to apologize for walking to the grocery store or occasionally taking the city bus to the farmer’s market to buy veggies, fruits, nuts, grains, non-dairy milk, margarine, buttery spreads and the like.

    Modeling what’s possible for the average American to do without jumping through hoops is NOT being a purist. Today, and more and more every year, it’s possible for most of us to eat a diet free of direct consumption of animals.

    As Marla Rose says in the December 2011 issue of VegNews, it’s all a matter of how you approach the subject that determines whether you’re called an arrogant, self-righteous hypocrite — or a helpful, supportive, encouraging, rational, sensible vegan.

    I am convinced that veganism (ceasing one’s direct exploitation of animals) is NOT beyond people’s comprehension or ability to practice. And while I won’t criticize or antagonize those who applaud welfare steps, I can’t be dishonest and untrue to myself by celebrating those steps.

  2. I have to disagree with you, and agree with the commenter above. The elimination of gestation crates, or shorter transport times to slaughter, or bigger cages, etc, etc, etc, is no cause for celebration in my opinion. The animals are still slaughtered.

    We wouldn’t applaud these “victories” if we applied them to humans. For example, although we would like to see an end to child pornography let’s celebrate the fact that child exploiters are now buying their victims the best toys and taking them out for ice-cream once a week.

    Most people would say we shouldn’t exploit children for sex AT ALL and would laugh at the idea of celebrating the welfarist example above. So why not take the same approach in regards to other animals?

    There’s no evidence, as Francione has stated, that welfare leads to veganism (and as one who claims to have read Gary’s works, you should know this). Your essay also seems to focus on public perception of abolitionists/vegans. This isn’t about us, it’s about the animals and trying to save their lives. Our main focus should be spreading veganism!

    Can you imagine a world where all the so-called “animal rights” organizations actually promoted veganism full-time? Then we would see results. Then we would have something to celebrate!

    I don’t know why you think Americans are more skeptical towards animal rights than any other country – but if more work went into vegan education, promoting delicious and nutritious vegan foods, and encouraging people to extend their circle of compassion to include ALL animals – we might actually get somewhere.

    For all the welfare initiatives and money flowing to fund them, the bottom line is this: the cow, chicken, pig, fish, lamb, etc, etc, etc, doesn’t want to die. We owe it to them to end their slaughter, not make it more comfortable.

    • Melody M. says:

      Very well said, Daniel. I agree. I also agree with the first commenter. It seems like McWilliams is putting a lot of emphasis on how others may perceive abolitionism and particularly abolitionist vegans who have no recourse but to live in a world where we are guilty of harming animals–without intent–simply by taking a ride in a bus that very possibly has animal products in it. His argument very much sounds like one of the many excuses non-vegans use to excuse themselves from ever considering veganism.

      Abolitionism is not a theory of perfectionism or purity–these are words and ideas people often use to dismiss abolitionism rather than to understand what it is, which is first a belief that animals have rights and are not human property and secondly an approach that, among other things, gives us guidelines for how to appropriately avoid taking part in animal use *as much as each of us is able to* (which for many is very easy to do).

      Just because we are forced to live in a world where the results of animal exploitation are already established (for example, many of our modern technological advancements would not have happened without animal exploitation), it does not mean we should support measures that ensure that animals continue to be exploited and those in which they continue to be *viewed* as property. Similarly, just because abolitionists cannot avoid every single resulting product of animal exploitation (but do avoid exploiting animals as much as they possibly can), it doesn’t mean that abolitionism is hypocritical or null. And it certainly does not mean that one cannot identify with abolitionism while still living in the existing world. Should abolitionists give up on a principle of absolute justice for animals simply because it isn’t popular or because justice will not be achieved overnight and is not, in its purist form, feasible for all of us existing within the framework and laws of our established universe? Absolutely not.

      To suggest that we should is akin to suggesting that animal use will never be abolished–that one cannot truly ever be vegan–and so we shouldn’t even try. It appears that although McWilliams says he has read abolitionist literature, he grossly misunderstands it and thus has misrepresented it.

      It’s also worth noting that these small “victories” he says we should applaud are often the kind that suggest that there’s a “right way” or “better way” to exploit animals. These so-called victories are the same ones that fuel the humane slaughter movement, the same ones that make people “conscientious” animal consumers, and the VERY same ones whose results McWilliams spends so much time disemboweling in this blog and in his published articles. For McWilliams to call abolitionism hypocritical, is for the pot to call the kettle black.

      Unfortunately, the goal of abolition that new welfarists supposedly claim to have is nothing but a very small ball of lint at the very bottom of the steep, donation-money lined pockets of the CEOs and employees of large animal welfare organizations. It is nothing more than a side-note, a faded hope for the far future that they see no point in addressing now. And by way of pushing reforms that will A) never happen, B) won’t happen for 20 years, and C) often make animal exploitation more economically efficient for the exploiters, they compromise not only their own beliefs, but the lives of animals now and in the future while simultaneously confusing the public about “the message.”

      I understand the need to feel accomplished and to declare victory when we are fighting a battle that seems hopeless, endless, and one that will not be realized in our lifetime. But this isn’t about our achievements our about *us* winning. New welfarists will continue to waste creative, human, and monetary resources on reforms that will get direct results so that they can have the momentary pleasure of publicly declaring victory and obtaining more donations for their organizations. They will then spend the next few years claiming that those reforms which they celebrated only a year before were not enough and thus, the cycle continues and the money and fame keeps rolling in. The animals don’t care about the money and fame. We are here to speak on behalf of them and their inherent rights, not to give one another accolades and celebrate reforms that are ultimately meaningless. It is one thing to ask for abolition by way of global veganism–the “ultimate goal”–and get nothing more than baby steps towards the goal. It is entirely something else to ask for baby steps–regulated exploitation–and never get to the goal because everyone’s comfortable “ethically exploiting” animals in the interim.

      Francione and the abolitionist approach simply ask: What if, instead, we spent all of those creative, human, and monetary resources educating people about veganism as the only morally relevant way to respect nonhuman animals, to live conscientiously, and to achieve justice for them?

      We have not tried this approach. As much as McWilliams thinks the two approaches can be married, they cannot. When abolitionism is watered down or compromised, it instantly becomes new welfarism and loses all of its definition. It stops existing. The house is not divided. The movement isn’t split. There are two houses. Two movements. It doesn’t take an abolitionist minded advocate to see that.

  3. Provoked says:

    I certainly don’t “celebrate” bigger cages… Or “better” methods of confining/killing anyone! But I do accept that this is part of the process of change.

    I can’t count the times a nay-sayer has discredited animal liberation with the question/concern of what will happen to the animals, to the economy, and so on. But the answer always is that it will never happen over night. These changes will always be gradual. There are too many systems in place that would ever make it otherwise. Welfarist measures are certainly part of that process…

    It doesn’t mean we all put on party hats at each new piece of legislation… It doesn’t mean we stop advocating that nothing short of liberation is enough – It just means we accept that these are incremental changes that hopefully lead to an end goal. No one has to support welfarist measures – And I don’t know that fighting against them will do any good. Compromise and moderates will always exist. Meanwhile, it’s the job of abolitionists to keep getting a positive message out of what the ends truly should be.

    I know who the enemy is. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    • I guess this is where you and I disagree. I’m not convinced that bigger cages or better killing methods IS part of the process of change. I believe it’s a way of perpetuating the continued exploitation and slaughter of animals while making people feel better about using/eating them.

      And I know animal liberation will not happen overnight- what social justice movement ever does? But you are hopeful that incremental welfare changes will lead to liberation. I’m a bit more cynical. I believe it’s a waste of time.

      You also write that no one has to support welfarist measures… yet how many millions of people, including animal rights advocates and vegans, do? And the result? More animals being used and slaughtered than ever before.

      Francione points out that we’ve had welfarist measures for 200 years and with the exception of pets, and some primates in Europe, animals are still considered property, and many of the big animal “rights” organizations around the world are applauding and promoting animal exploitation industries for “reducing suffering” of their animal slaves.

      Clearly, welfarist measures aren’t working. It’s time to try something different.

  4. Keith Akers says:

    James McWilliams is consistently one of the most intelligent and provocative vegan writers around. The thing I like about this particular piece is that he distinguishes between means and ends. Social movements which are successful typically appeal to a variety of different people on a variety of different levels. This movement has that diverse appeal. I’d be looking at ways to expand that diversity.

  5. Provoked says:

    Hi Daniel – This is fine to disagree. There’s not much set in stone for me, as I’m learning and re-processing information all the time. So goes the journey…

    I understand what you’re saying… But I don’t know what liberation for nonhumans would look like without gradual shifts in not only human attitudes but also the way the industry inevitably will respond to them. If someone could give me a picute of that… Or a clue as to how the world will unanomously care – it would help.

    The animal profiteers will adjust to provide “acceptable” processing – with or without laws requiring them to do so. And those who put money and energy into advocating for bigger cages will do so with or without us (abolitionists) as well. So really, arguing with them, or about them also becomes a waste of time too.

    As far as more animals being killed in the meat industry than ever before – Yes, but not for US consumption… And these numbers don’t factor increased populations either. Nothing is stagnant and it’s difficult to measure reductions seen in first world countries. NAFTA and the expansion of world markets has taken up whatever modifications have been made.

    My belief (based on these industry reports) is that animal consumption *is* decreasing in the U.S. And if it weren’t for world trade agreements this would have serious consequences to U.S. “producers”.

    “While the meat industry can celebrate the increasing success of exports, it cannot rest in its efforts to address the disturbing trend here at home.”

    “USDA is forecasting a continued decrease of 1 percent in per capita meat and
    poultry consumption in 2010. Nevertheless, with U.S. meat and poultry production in 2010 expected to be 9 billion pounds more than consumed, the U.S. must look to foreign markets if it hopes to continue to increase its size. The continued growth of the industry is therefore dependent upon expansion of international markets.”

    “USDA’s December forecasts indicate another sharp drop in U.S. domestic meat and poultry consumption is coming in 2012. That should come as no surprise to industry observers but the cumulative reductions of the past few years are rather shocking in historical context.”

    So really, if it’s time to do “something different” it would be to aggressively campaign against animal use in China, Japan, South Korea, India and Mexico. Research stats at the U.S. Meat Export Federation will show these are the countries that are taking up the slack in American flesh consumption: http://www.usmef.org/

    Finally, even in regards to abolishing the property status of nonhumans – That too will be incremental, affording certain species “rights” while personhood will be denied to other species. I think Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project is pushing that envelop as well: http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/ So even if legislation will only be for the well being of some species ie: dolphins and primates… It will still be a stepping stone of incremental change for others. I wish it was an all-at-once (r)evolution – I honestly do… But wishing doesn’t make it so.

    I don’t know that arguing amongst our selves is going to make things progress any faster… I believe multi-faceted efforts are inevitable. And even if I didn’t… Do I want to invest my time in convincing “welfare” supporters they are missing the mark? Or do I want to inform those who have no clue what-so-ever that there IS a mark of ethics that they are missing altogether? I think only time will tell what was the right thing to do – And I have a hunch it will be “all of it”.

  6. You too Melody, you’re bang on. I wrote something similar in my blog a few years ago:


    James, I understand you’re frustration, but it all comes down to supply and demand. Animal exploitation will end as soon as consumers stop supporting it. If the people demand non-animal products, the industries will shift to meet that demand.

    That’s why, in my opinion, it’s more important to spread the vegan message to friends, family, co-workers, and the public, any and every way we can, but in terms of going vegan, not through welfare reforms and NOT through targeting animal exploitation industries. Why waste what little time and money we have on something (continued animal exploitation) none of us want?

    Education is the key my friend. Not through health arguments or environmental arguments or whether or not we have teeth for tearing flesh, but through compassion and respect for sentient life. The golden rule: if you wouldn’t want someone to do that to you, don’t do it to someone else.

    So in closing, I’d like to say that I don’t see it as “arguing amongst our selves”. I see it as trying to “correct” and “educate” those who are on the right path, but have lost their “map”. As long as animal advocates continue to promote humane slaughter and other welfare reforms, the rest of society will remain confused as to what we’re about and how they can help the animals.

    Better to get all animal advocates on the same page first. Only then will we be a significant force to inspire and educate everyone else. 🙂

  7. Pingback: A Call for Compromise

  8. Britgan says:

    Daniel has written – “We wouldn’t applaud these “victories” if we applied them to humans. For example, although we would like to see an end to child pornography let’s celebrate the fact that child exploiters are now buying their victims the best toys and taking them out for ice-cream once a week.

    Most people would say we shouldn’t exploit children for sex AT ALL and would laugh at the idea of celebrating the welfarist example above. So why not take the same approach in regards to other animals?”

    That rather neatly encapsulates the problem. It is because there is almost universal consensus on sex with children being wrong that people would not accept any kind of mitigation. It is because there is NOT an universal consensus on how to treat or think about animals, that there is a need for welfare measures.

    How do we get to an almost universal consensus about animals? Daniel puts forward education. I think education works as far as people want it to work. It will only work to a limited degree against people’s culture and traditions. While education it chipping away, haphazardly, at culture and tradition, what happens to the animals?

    Welfare also chips away. It does so by moving the goalposts – everything that makes people have to consider animals as having needs and having needs that are similar to those to humans, sets benchmarks. The more you take science and then say animals have these needs, capacities, and the only humane thing is to satisfy them because otherwise you are causing distress and suffering, the more you are changing, little by little, how animals are perceived.

    Looking for a vegan world is unrealistic. One day, in the future, as history unfolds, perhaps it will be a credible next step – it isn’t now.

    I think James McWilliams argument is very good.

  9. @ Britgan,

    And therein lies the problem. If animal activists continue to believe a vegan world is unrealistic, and that the time is never right, the animals are doomed. If we don’t start promoting veganism now as the only way to save the animals, when do we do it? In ten years? Twenty years? A hundred?

    You write that education only works for some people, and is limited in its effectiveness, yet welfarists rely solely on education (leafletings, billboards, demonstrations, videos, undercover investigations, etc.) to promote welfarist measures and affect legislation. What’s up with that? Why not take all that energy and promote what we really want, for people to stop eating and using animals?

    “The more you take science and then say animals have these needs, capacities, and the only humane thing is to satisfy them because otherwise you are causing distress and suffering, the more you are changing, little by little, how animals are perceived.”

    This sounds an awful lot like education, which you dismiss earlier as ineffective.

    “While education it (sic) chipping away, haphazardly, at culture and tradition, what happens to the animals?”

    I find this a particularly strange statement. What exactly do you think happens to the animals by promoting welfare? Are the animals freed, or are they still exploited and killed? Bigger cages still means slaughter. The removal of gestation crates still means slaughter. Shorter transport times for animals on their way to slaughter still means slaughter!

    You seem to think that only welfare makes people think about the animals’ interests and needs. That’s not true. We can still make people think about the animals’ interests and needs by promoting veganism.

    Animal welfare is 200 years old. What exactly has it chipped away at? There won’t be any significant changes, or a universal consensus on how we treat and think about animals, as long as they are viewed as expendable, disposable merchandise, production units and food – the welfarist view.

    If we believe in veganism, let’s start promoting it! 🙂

  10. Provoked says:

    Hi… I’ve been mulling this issue over intensely for a few days – And then this pops in my email: http://www.cattlenetwork.com/cattle-news/latest/As-American-appetite-for-beef-falls-ranchers-look-abroad-137183528.html and this: 25 (extra) tons of “beef” being exported:

    And when I see stories like this… http://www.meattradenewsdaily.co.uk/news/301211/ireland____tons_of_extra_us_beef_imports_.aspx
    When I look at the reality of what we are facing to end this carnage I just don’t know how influencing person by person makes a dent in any of it.

    That’s all I do – I promote veganism. I don’t rally for bigger cages. I don’t donate time or money to organizations that promote “humane slaughter”. The whole thrust of my advocacy online and off is to stop treating others as things. To stop wearing, eating, or “using” nonhumans in any way. All who do the same know it’s a fight… People have a thousand unjustifiable reasons for denying compassion… It’s frustrating and difficult. But that is my message and I continue on advocating for veganism.

    Now… Am I to understand that along with this – I should also be taking the time, energy and what resources I have to fight welfarists too? In what way should this be done? I only ask – Because honestly… I do want to be a good advocate. I sincerely want to do the best I can to speak for justice. But how does arguing with those who want incremental law help me in doing that? What will I gain telling them they are wrong – When I could be attempting to influence someone still in total denial that nonhumans have any “value” at all?

    I heard Gary Francione many years ago say “Forget about peta” (or other welfare groups) – I took this advice literally – And have ignored those groups ever since… Did I miss something?

    • James, you see it as fighting. Why can’t you see it as putting advocates on the right path? As I wrote before, incremental welfare reforms do not change how society views animals. It will always be THEY (the animals) are here to serve US (humans).

      Welfarists, which include those who exploit and kill animals, will never change their views (and which is their livelihoods), until society, one person at a time, changes. And remember that one person plus one person plus one person adds up after a while.

      It’s time vegans and abolitionists stop promoting and working towards humane slaughter. It’s such a waste of everything and everyone! That includes the animals. And it’s a pipe dream to believe that welfare reforms will one day, and to quote someone I know, “in the DISTANT tomorrow” will ever lead to animal liberation.

      I understand you want to see results (and that’s a YOU thing, right?) but do you really consider bigger (or no) cages, shorter transport times to slaughter and CAK results? Well, that’s what welfarists – goodhearted, compassionate people who care about animals – are working on.

      All these reforms reduce suffering (welfare), they do not eliminate death and exploitation (abolition). Ask yourself: is that what the animals really want? Is that what they want us fighting for year after year, decade after decade? Do you not think it important to challenge those who promote welfare reforms and try to steer them in the right direction? Lives are at stake!

      Justice is no killing. Compromise, and so-called victories for the animals, is less painful deaths for the animals, and result in groups like PETA applauding KFC Canada for gassing chickens to death and Temple Grandin for designing nicer slaughterhouses.

      It’s too bad we have to divert our energy to “correct” animal rights people who mistakenly promote animal welfare. But until we all have the same message, we won’t be making any progress and we won’t be helping the animals.

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