A House Divided Part IV: The Politics of Public Perception
January 6, 2012 14 Comments
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.