HSUS: Hero or Villian?

Nothing divides animal advocates more than the gradualist/abolitionist debate. My report on HSUS’s investigation into a Wyoming pig farm sparked a fierce but mostly civil deabte here at eatingplants.org. What follows are a few of the highlights (with light editing). Personally speaking, this HSUS story did not raise for me the perrennially explosive question about welfare strategies. I think I was too much overcome by the video, which, I think all would agree, could easily drive a behavioral omnivore (note the wording change!) to become a vegan on ethical grounds. In any case, the issue, as you will see below, isn’t easily resolved and, as with every genuine debate, there are serious points to consider on both sides of the divide.


-As despicable as this cruelty is, I don’t think these videos [of abused animals on factory farms] are the answer. HSUS knows full well that no matter what cruelty is exposed, no matter what reforms are in place — even if industrial farming is ended — it is impossible to monitor the breeding, raising, and killing of billions of farm animals. Still, it continues to promote reforms and so-called “humane farms” because truth be told, HSUS would collapse without animal exploitation. These videos embarrass specific farming operations that will probably wind up with no more than a fine, but by singling out one farm, it allows consumers to think other farms are ok, especially if they’re labeled “free-range” or “humane.” That’s good for HSUS since it benefits from animal use.

 -It is seriously misguided to shoot HSUS down, even weakly, for their strategy to effect animal welfare reforms rather than taking a stance to eradicate cages immediately and demand everyone go vegan today. I mean, how well are Francione’s dictates working? What measurable results has he or his followers gotten? Excuse me if my impatience with [abolitionsist Gary] Francione shows. In my opinion, he has done more harm to animals than good by leading well-intentioned animal activists astray . . . Despite the criticisms from a splintered little group of animal activists (abolitionists), HSUS battles on against big, mean, powerful, and moneyed opponents (factory farmers, puppy millers, canned hunters, seal clubbers, would-be horse slaughterers, dog fighters, cock fighters, CCF goons, and others) who hate them BECAUSE they are getting results.

-I think there’s a larger convo here– I don’t follow Francione (I like his ideas and have read his books but frankly I think he presents them in public as a total wing nut and I think his following, at least the hard-core part of it, borders on cultish…) and it’s a shame that he has co-opted and in effect put his peronal Brand on the word “abolition”, which really just means liberation. This is partly why I use the word liberation instead of abolition. I am frustrated about all that too, but just as much as I am frustrated about those who unblinkingly make apologies for reform  . . . Because I think there need to be reasonable discussions about strategy and what works and what doesn’t, I don’t think most AR activists (including Francionites) are well-versed in that, and I think there are good reasons to believe that we need to talk about liberation not reform, and fight for it. I wish there were a better way to talk about this, because I think we all want liberation, and I think there *are* reasonable ways to act on that.

 -It is HSUS, not Francione, who leads activists astray, including myself, until I woke up to the reality that when no one is standing over the animal producer’s shoulder, laws are meaningless! For just one example, some years ago they were amending the Humane Slaughter Act, and I worked with other activists to get this legislation passed. Victory, I thought …. until I learned that many farm animals are being dismembered while they’re still conscious.  . . I support honest advocacy that doesn’t feign victories for animals, that admits we are doing far more harm than good by promoting so-called compassionate farming, as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Legal Defense and other groups are doing.

-I’m a vegan and I understand [the] dismissal of “humane farming”. . .  I cannot wave my magic wand and make the whole world over into my image of an ideal world. I can’t make the world vegan, today. I must live in the real world. That means that I will work with the HSUS, PETA and humane farmers to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever I can. I believe that I am morally obligated to do so. If I can get a hen out of a battery cage, I will do so. It has been accomplished. If I can get pigs out of gestation crates, I will do so. It has been done. Thanks to groups like the HSUS, PETA, MFA and COK, their advocacy and their undercover videos.

I don’t give a damn about priniciples. My concern is what works for animals, not activists!  Pigs on “free-range” farms may not be housed in gestation crates, but do you really believe they don’t cry when their babies are taken, that “ceritified humane” producers are always nice to farm animals, or that male chicks will be spared on “cage-free” egg farms? While you gloat in your victories, I’ve talked with numerous consumers who are actually proud of eating “humane food.” Congratulations to HSUS and similar organizations for collaborating with animal producers to invent guilt-free animal products!  Further, there are other animals to consider, as well. The farms HSUS and other groups promote inevitably require more land that will rob the habitats of free-living animals who depend these areas for their own survival. For them, such farms are a death sentence. In good conscience, I am obliged do everything I can to work against HSUS and other groups that ultimately promote animal farming.


The Food Revolution: Vegans v. Locavores

I’m not much impressed with the local, sustainable food movement. When I’m cranky, it strikes me as insular, retrograde, solipsistic, libertarian, conspiracy-minded, and self-indulgent. When pressed, I’ll admit that the movement has a place in the overall effort to reform the food system, but it’s a small nook. Decentralizing the food system, fragmenting it into a billion little pieces, makes little sense to me with meat consumption skyrocketing and the world population about to hit 9 billion. Why not change the way we eat rather than fetishize where food comes from?

I’m perfectly fine with having my food produced for me. Fact is, I don’t want to grow my own food–there’s a million things I rather do besides farm. Moreover, I feel no need to have it grown near me. As I see it, an apple is an apple, whether it came from Washington State or my backyard.  And in this sentiment–one consistent with the historical continuum of change–I know I’m not alone. Plus, one thing I’m always noticing is that vocal locavores are always buying stuff that’s globally sourced–coffee, wine, bananas, mangoes, and such. So, in a sense, they would have to agree as well.

It’s not that I get excited about impersonal agricultural entities sending me food from all over the world. I’m aware as anyone about the dangers inherent in such dependency. It’s just that I think density of production and global transportation have to be critical factors in a future plant-based food system that’s diverse, accessible, responsible, and–here’s a key point–nutrient dense. It is on this last point where I think the sustainable food movement especially fails. For them it matters none whether you are producing goats or groats. As long as it was produced nearby and with a veneer of eco-correctness, then all is well. Call it the tyranny of greenwashed localism.

What I envision is far more radical than anything the food movement advocates. Forget animal products–because when it comes to nutrient density, they fail. And forget corn and soy for the same reasons. Processed foods–nope. Instead, envision a food system based totally on plant-based superfoods–whole foods such as avocados, gobi berries, anasazi beans, teff, amaranth, blueberries, sprouts sunflower seeds, barley, root vegetables, lentils, nuts, kale, squash, and sprouts. Eating these kinds of foods is the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable way to produce and consume food. However, there’s simply no way we can expand the range of available superfoods without some level of industrialization and large-scale distribution.

Locavores, who cringe at the mere mention of “industrial”– have a problem with this. They see revolution in downsizing. But perpetuating an animal-based diet on the local level is not revolutionary. It’s just scaling down the status quo. Real food revolutionaries–superfood eating vegans–are the ones who work to fundamentally alter the status quo. They seek a way of eating that’s unprecedented, disruptive, compassionate, and sustainable.  I’ve said it a hundred times, but here it is again: to eat animals is to implicitly endorse the heart of the food system as it now exists. Vegans get this. They are the ones who seek fundamental, rather than merely locational, change.

Mice: The Omnivores’ Newest Red Herring

The “mice argument” has been getting some traction lately, including here at eatingplants.org. By the “mice argument” I mean the claim that growing plants causes the death of untold millions of animals, such as mice.

There’s no denying that it’s true: rodents and other creatures are systematically exterminated–both actively and passively–to clear space for and protect monoculturally produced crops. It’s also true that many of these plants are eaten by unsuspecting vegans who skip through the daisies under the blissful impression that their diets are “cruelty free.”

Less clear, though, is how this unfortunate reality of agricultural life–the fact that animals routinely die when humans grow plants–provides a legitimate ethical justification for animal-based agriculture. In other words, how does the death of animals in plant-based agriculture make growing and harvesting plants ethically equivalent to raising and killing animals?

An effective response begins with the idea of intentionality. An animal-based agricultural system is explicitly designed to exploit, kill, and commodify obviously sentient animals. Harm to these animals is pervasive and–key point here–directly intentional. You cannot have animal agriculture without inflicting the unneeded suffering and intentional killing of animals whose lives have intrinsic value. No getting around that one.

A plant based system, by contrast, is designed to exploit soil, air, and water to grow and harvest plants. This is its raison d’etre. Tragically, most of the plant matter produced these days becomes stock for animal feed. However, with crops grown for people to eat (a sad rarity), the primary intention is decidedly not to exploit, kill, and commodify animals (even if that happens). It is, instead, to produce plants–forms of nutrient rich life that are not sentient, do not suffer, and have no conscious individual interest in staying alive.

When animal suffering happens in this latter system, it’s only indirectly intentional. It is not intrinsic to the act of growing plants for food. Moreover, killing animal in plant-based agriculture doesn’t require ongoing animal exploitation or commodification–only extermination, much of it inadvertent. If growers didn’t pragmatically have to kill animals when they grew plants, they wouldn’t. These deaths thus are, for all intents and purposes, casualties of agriculture, casualties of eating.

That said, these deaths must be taken very seriously. Because in doing so we get to draw another crucial distinction between plant and animal-based agriculture. Working assiduously to eliminate all animal suffering in plant-based agriculture–to whatever extent we succeed–affirms the noble goal of not only reducing animal suffering, but of highlighting the fact that this noble goal necessarily belongs to plant systems alone. Animal-based systems, after all, cannot by definition aim to eliminate the practice of killing animals.  That would be like a potato chip company working to abolish potatoes.

Put differently, plant-based agriculture would thrive if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. Animal based agriculture, by contrast, would disappear if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. To me, the argument ends here.

Please note that none of what I’m saying is pie-in-the-sky. From integrated pest management to growing more plants indoors to vertical farms to crop diversification to eco-farming, modern agriculture is pioneering numerous ways to diminish the killing of animals in plant-based systems. Methods of achieving this noble goal are readily available. But not, once again, in animal agriculture.

There’s more that could be said about this argument, but for now I think the bottom line is clear: killing animals is an unfortunate by-product of the necessary endeavor of growing plants for food–an endeavor in which killing can be dramatically reduced and someday even eliminated. But killing is an absolute requirement when it comes to growing animals for food, an endeavor that (with rare exceptions)happens to be unnecessary. To call these systems ethically equivalent makes no sense.

Thus I’m totally unpersuaded by “the mice argument.”






Real Liberals Don’t Eat Animals: The Political Connection between Animal and Human Rights

Compassion is an attribute that ultimately transcends political ideology. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that progressive liberalism embraces the tenets of compassion more actively and conspicuously than political conservatism. The liberal tradition, at least since the early twentieth-century, has built its identity on values that promote empathy, tolerance, an open mind, cooperation, and the celebration of diversity.  Conservatives, by contrast, have typically espoused the qualities of individualism, competition, and suspicion of social welfare programs.

Embroidered into liberalism’s set of attributes is a more specific combination of ideals. This would encompass, but not be limited to, a belief in the equality of opportunity, the rejection of arbitrary power relations, and disdain for inherited hierarchies. As a result of these qualities, the liberal tradition remains a noble one–and one that I embrace. Even if these values are rarely honored in the breach of daily political life, they at least pay rhetorical homage to the better angels of human nature. They at least speak to the more dignified aspirations of those bound into nations, precincts, and tribes.

But, for many liberals, these values don’t extend to humans alone. If the virtues of compassion, tolerance, open-mindedness, empathy, and an insistence on fairness sound familiar, they should. They’re precisely the characteristics that underscore and drive the animal rights agenda.  Not only do these attributes pervade the literature on animal rights, they also seem to pervade the character of the movement’s advocates. I’m not saying that all ethical vegans are adorned with permanent halos, I’m only noting that their ideology is synonymous with that of those who do wear permanent halos.

I make this observation after attending and speaking at another remarkable “Veg Fest,” this one in Ottawa. Thousands of people attended; I was able to speak with dozens of them personally; and I was reminded yet again that individuals who advocate for animals–to whatever extent and in whatever form–generally exhibit a kind of humble empathy that, were it only manifested in the political sphere, would make the world a more harmonious and thoughtful place for all living beings.  Again, I’m not suggesting that conservatives aren’t compassionate. It’s just that their defining icons–Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck–aren’t exactly what I’d call paragons of that virtue. 

Sadly, though, despite the ideological compatability between progressive politics and animal right advocates, the former is about as interested in the latter as are Rush, Rick, and Glenn. Liberals’ unthinking–and sometimes thinking– decision to evade this potentially empowering relationship is especially unfortunate because the foundation of progressive liberalism has never been in more desperate need of repair. Fact is, it’s crumbling.

Cowed by the electorate’s alarming dodge toward some mythical notion of rugged individualism, small government, and Tea Party fanaticism, not to mention a range of other red state shibboleths, progressives in the United States are gradually shortchanging their liberal core to appease wavering centrists. An infusion of traditional liberalism is desperately needed. Conveniently, the animal rights version of these values is potent, alive, and undiluted by two decades of toxic political compromise. Our message has never been better honed and it’s ready to go primetime. It is certainly more attuned to liberalism’s ideals than the motivating mission of locavores, who strike me–with their exclusionary and libertarian-ish rhtetoric–as being far more at home on the political right than the left.

If the bricks of liberalism would benefit from the fresh mortar of animal rights, animal rights advocates would do well to bind themselves to those bricks with tenacity. People who fight for the rights of animals must also fight, in the spirit of progressive liberalism, for the human right to fair wages, universal health care, freedom from oppression, gender equality, gay marriage, racial equity, and a fair tax code, for starters. These concrete political goals are not only inseparable from the motivating values integral to animal rights, they’re the very goals liberals stand to relinquish if we fail to shore up the stressed foundation of progressive politics.

Merging animal rights with other justice-oriented causes, if only nominally at first, integrates the cause of animals into a much larger, much more public discussion. Whether liberals, who I imagine are just as addicted to animal products as conservatives, will accept this potential merging of interests is the key question. It’s for this reason that vegans–who I think it’s fair to say tend to be liberals– mustn’t fail to note that fighting animal injustice is a remarkably powerful qualification for fighting human injustice.

More to the point, as animal rights ideas inch closer and closer to the mainstream, liberals face the risk of being exposed for espousing a basic way of life–omnivorism–that reifies abuse, hierarchy, intolerance, and arbitrary dominion over those most in need of our cooperation and compassion. They risk, in other words, being exposed as violators not only of animal rights, but of their own deeply held values.  Vegans, in this sense, can save liberalism from consuming itself.

Relative Eating: The Pragmatics of Vegan Ethics

When confronting vegans, omnivores will frequently appeal to tolerance. Not tolerance for animals, but tolerance for personal dietary preference. In essence, the omnivore will say something to the effect of “I’ll eat what I want, you eat what you want; I’ll respect you, you respect me.” Every vegan has heard this line. And every vegan has likely been annoyed by it.

Although veiled in a spirit of compromise, this approach is rhetorically insidious. Intentionally or not, it places the ethical vegan on the defensive, casting her in the role of a stubborn dogmatist before the argument even starts. I want to explore (briefly) what this “personal preference” argument means, why it’s so often used, and how vegans should respond to it.

It’s important to understand that this tactic works especially well because the framework in which the herbivore-omnivore conversation occurs has been defined by omnivores. Eating animals is normative behavior. It’s as unquestioned as breathing and as automatic as scratching an itch. And, at this very moment, there’s nothing we can really do to alter this unfortunate reality.  An ethical vegan is, therefore, ipso facto an outsider. A radical one at that. We’d best get comfortable in this position.

Of course, being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Democratic society not only tends to accommodate outsiders, but at times to root for them.  Our culture warms to David and Goliath narratives. However, underdog sympathy wanes when the outsider refuses to endorse the status quo or, even worse, deems it inherently flawed. It’s then that the tyranny of the majority hovers like a guillotine. An ethical vegan is transformed from an outsider into a threat.

Uncomfortable as this stance may be, it’s part of a necessary evolution. Become enough of a threat, get enough people on edge, and soon they’ll roll away the guillotine and start taking your claim seriously, discussing your views in books, forums, documentaries, blogs, and opinion pages. Make some headway in these venues, get some big shot sponsors on board, and in no time you’ll have omnivores engaged, appealing to enlightened open-mindedness, and wondering why we can’t all just get along. Compare the frequency of the word “vegan” today compared to ten years ago.

In this sense, for a vegan to be hit with the omnivore’s claim that “I respect your choice if you respect mine” is something of a victory. It’s an implicit legitimization, an acknowledgement that the vegan stance is a little less peripheral than it once was, a sign of movement in the right direction. Call it progress. (But don’t get too excited about it.)

In the end, though, if vegans wish to honor the ethical foundation of veganism, our ultimate position must be to reject any appeal to dietary relativism. The “you go your way I’ll go mine” plea for tolerance is fine if we’re talking about morally neutral preferences, but when it comes to food, nothing is morally neutral.  We’re talking, after all, about the perpetuation of unfathomable and totally unnecessary suffering. In any context that involves the question of eating animals, so-called tolerance is nothing more than a proxy for unspeakable cruelty. Cruelty that no civilized culture should ever allow.  On this point there’s no budging. Absolutely none.

Still, vegans must be willing to flex in other ways. The fact that vegans must make an ethical  case is undeniable, but how we make it is just as important. There’s no need to be brash or arrogant or self-righteous about our advocacy. It’s important, as we attempt to brawl (metaphorically speaking) our way out of the corner that our inherited culture has packed us into, that we avoid all claims to utopianism, moral perfection, or the elimination of animal suffering altogether (producing food will always cause suffering for animals). Such assertions can undermine the virtue of our cause, alienate potential omnivore converts and, at times, make us look, well, sort of goofy.

By rejecting the neutrality of culinary relativism, vegans need only embrace the common-sensical mantra that we’re doing what we can–realistically speaking–to reduce unnecessary animal suffering. To overstate matters, or to appeal to some unattainable goal, sets a standard against which our own behavior will inevitably fall short.  When vegans fail to live up to their own standards, they become less persuasive to potential omnivore converts.

Like it or not, pragmatism and a willingness to see matters from the omnivore’s perspective are thus critical in the collective effort to promote mass veganism. I’m aware that many ethical vegans don’t like these concepts, but two concluding points illustrate (I think) why they matter.

First, in an effort to reduce animal suffering as much as I’m reasonably able to do so, I tell omnivores that I actively avoid eating and wearing animal products, as well as buying goods tested on animals. These choices seem both ethical and pragmatic. However, as I will fully admit, I won’t completely stop driving my car, even though driving will kill animals. As a result, I have no choice but to be pragmatic on the issue of reducing suffering. My sense is that omnivores are more appreciative of this stance (and thus possibly more receptive to veganism) than any trumped-up claim to unachievable ethical purity.

Second, when I discuss veganism with omnivores, I try to start the discussion on a different common ground than the “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” position.  One area where a vegan and an omnivore can always agree (unless the omnivore is a psychopath), is that it would be wrong for me to walk outside and kick a dog in the head because, for whatever reason, it gives me a thrill to do so. Get an omnivore to agree on this point and you’ve set the stage not only for rejecting the relativist-tolerance ploy he once used against you, but you’ve taken a critical step in helping that omnivore recognize–both emotionally and intellectually–that if it’s morally abhorrent to kick a dog it’s also morally abhorrent, alas, to eat an animal.

This isn’t to say that the omnivore will connect the dots, but at least the dots will be in place. Call it progress. (But don’t get too excited about it . . . .)

Letter to the New York Times: The Ethics of the Ethicist

What follows is a letter signed by 59 scholars, artists, writers, and physicians (including me) who disagree with the motivation and spirit of the New York Times Magazine’s “Defending Your Dinner” contest. Please spread this letter far and wide. We very much hope it will be published. 

Editor, The New York Times Magazine

Dear Editor,

We are a diverse group of scholars, researchers, and artists from such disciplines as philosophy, women’s studies, sociology, law, political theory, psychology, and literary studies, writing to take sharp issue with the Magazine’s decision to run a “Defending Your Dinner” contest.

Do ethical vegetarians, a growing but still quite small percentage of the population, pose such a “threat” to the meat and dairy industries that the Times Magazine must now invite its millions of readers to shout them down?  Is the point of this contest really to open up honest debate about the meat industry, or is the point, rather, to close it down?

We find it disturbing that the Magazine would organize such a one-sided contest, and moreover that Ariel Kaminer should introduce it with such frivolity. “Ethically speaking, vegetables get all the glory,” Kaminer writes, caricaturing vegans as members of a “hard-core inner circle” who have “dominated the discussion.”  With her very breeziness (“Bon appetit!”), Kaminer seems intent on trivializing the warrant for ethical veganism.  A more serious-minded critic would have given at least cursory attention to the empirical basis of the position, namely, the known facts about animal cognition and the unspeakable suffering that farmed animals endure so that they can end up as meat on our plates.

First, there has been an explosion of scientific research in recent decades showing beyond any doubt that many other species besides our own are emotionally and cognitively complex.  Farmed animals are capable of a wide range of feelings and experiences, including empathy and the ability to intuit the interior states of others.  The evidence suggests that they experience violence and trauma to their bodies as agonizingly as we do.

Second, most people are now aware of the horrific cruelty and violence that goes on behind the locked doors of the meat industry.  Billions of cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, geese, ducks, and aquaculture fish suffer each year in abominable conditions, then are brutally slaughtered, many of them while they are still fully or partially conscious.  Such so-called factory farming accounts for 99% of the meat consumed in our society.  The mass slaughter of oceanic fish, meanwhile, is so catastrophic to marine life that even the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia (the academic arm of the Canadian fishing industry) has frankly compared today’s commercial fishing campaigns to “wars of extermination.”

These and other facts have led a majority of contemporary moral philosophers who have studied the question to conclude that killing animals in order to eat them is not a morally defensible human interest, certainly not in a society such as ours, where vegan alternatives are widely available.

Even on purely prudential grounds, i.e. human self-interest, meat finds no rational justification.  Numerous studies have shown meat-based diets to be associated with myriad negative health outcomes, including higher risks of cardiovascular disease and cancer (to name but two).  Meanwhile, animal agriculture has proven to be an ecological and public health catastrophe, poisoning human water supplies, destroying vast tracts of the rainforests of Latin America, causing soil erosion, and creating dangerous new pathogens like Avian Flu and Mad Cow Disease.  Animal agriculture is also one of the leading sources of global warming gas emissions.

Given these and many other facts demonstrating the nightmarish consequences of the meat industry for humans and nonhumans alike, why has the Magazine invited its readers to defend that industry, their essays to be judged chiefly by proponents of “humane” meat eating?

Kaminer implies that she has assembled the most judicious and meat-averse line-up of judges, a “murderer’s row” that will be hard to persuade of the case for eating meat.  But is that true?  Michael Pollan promotes Joel Salatin and other organic meat producers.  Mark Bittman publishes meat recipes. Peter Singer has consistently defended, in principle, the killing of nonhuman beings for human purposes (provided that it be done “painlessly”).  Jonathan Safran Foer, in his otherwise admirable book “Eating Animals,” defends small animal farms and backs away from open advocacy of vegetarianism.  Only Andrew Light seems to hold a position that finds no ethical justification for meat eating as such.

So the contest’s overt bias (“Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat”) is compounded by its pretense with respect to the judging.  Kaminer might instead have tapped any of dozens if not hundreds of prominent scholars, writers, critics, and well-informed activists who unequivocally oppose meat production for ethical reasons.  The fact that she did not tells us everything we need to know about how seriously Kaminer takes the “ethical” issues at stake in this debate.

Kaminer’s lack of balance reveals itself further in her having stocked her bench solely with men, when there are so many prominent feminist theorists and writers available to provide a critique of our society’s masculine penchant for organized violence against vulnerable populations, whether against women and girls, foreign peoples, or other species.

There is an important debate to be had about the ethics of killing and eating animals.  But this is not the way to have it.  Honest ethical inquiry begins with the question, “How should we live?” or “What should I or we do about ‘X’?”  It does not begin with a predetermined conclusion, then work backwards for justification.  To throw down a rhetorical gauntlet–“Defend X as a practice”– is not to open up an ethical conversation; it is to build closure into the inquiry, and to stack the deck from the outset.


Karla Armbruster, Ph.D., Professor of English, Webster University

Anurima Banerji, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of World Arts and Cultures, UCLA

George Bates, DVM, Associate Professor of Veterinary Medical Technology at Wilson College

Kimberly Benston, Ph.D., Francis B. Gummere Professor of English, Haverford College

Susan Benston, M.D., Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing, Haverford College

Chris Bobel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Women’s Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Carl Boggs, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, National University

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Director of the Kerulos Center & President of the Trans-Species Institute

Thomas Brody, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland

Matthew Calarco, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, California State University, Fullerton

Jodey Castricano, Ph.D., Associate Professor Critical Studies, University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus)

Elizabeth Cherry, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, Manhattanville College

Sue Coe, Artist (represented by Galerie St. Etienne, New York City)

Susana Cook, Playwright (New York City)

Ellen F. Crain, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

William Crain,  Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, The City College of New York

Karen Davis, Ph.D., President of United Poultry Concerns

Maneesha Deckha, LL.M., Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Victoria (Canada)

Margo De Mello, Ph.D., Lecturer, Central New Mexico Community College

Josephine Donovan, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English, University of Maine

George Eastman, Ed.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Berklee College of Music

Stephen F. Eisenman, Ph.D., Professor of Art History, Northwestern University

Barbara Epstein, Ph.D., Professor, History of Consciousness Department, University of California at Santa Cruz

Amy Fitzgerald, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, University of Windsor (UK)

Gary L. Francione, J.D., Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University Law School-Newark

Carol Gigliotti, Ph.D., Faculty, Emily Carr University, Vancouver, BC (Canada)

Elizabeth A. Gordon, M.F.A., Instructor of English, Fitchburg State University

Roger Gottlieb, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Michelle Graham, M.A., Lecturer, Department of Writing, Literature & Publishing, Emerson College

Kathy Hessler, J.D., LL.M., Clinical Professor & Director, Animal Law Clinic, Center for Animal Law Studies, Lewis & Clark Law School

Laura Janara, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia (Canada)

Victoria Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Missouri

Melanie Joy, Ph.D., Professor, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Joseph J. Lynch, Ph.D., Professor, Philosophy Department, California Polytechnic State University

John T. Maher, Adjunct Professor of Animal Law, Touro Law Center

Bill Martin, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Atsuko Matsuoka, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Social Work, York University (Canada)

Timothy M. McDonald, M.F.A., Assistant Professor of Art, Framingham State University

Jennifer McWeeny, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, John Carroll University

James McWilliams, Ph.D., Associate Professor, History, Texas State University

Helena Pedersen, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Faculty of Education and Society, Malmö University (Sweden)

Steven Rayshick, Ph.D., Professor of English and Humanities, Quinsigamond Community College

Carrie Rohman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English, Lafayette College

John Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Kira Sanbonmatsu, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Mathematics, College of Staten Island

Michael Selig, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Emerson College

Jonathan Singer, Doctoral Student, DePaul University

John Sorenson, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Brock University (Canada)

H. Peter Steeves, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, DePaul University

Gary Steiner, Ph.D., John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy, Bucknell University

Marcus Stern, M.F.A., Lecturer in Dramatic Arts, Harvard University

Deborah Tanzer, Ph.D., Psychologist and Author

Susan Thomas, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Political Science, Hollins University

Gray Tuttle, Ph.D., Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University

Richard Twine, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Lancaster University (UK)

Zipporah Weisberg, Doctoral Candidate, Programme in Social and Political Thought, York University (Canada)

Tony Weis, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Geography, The University of Western Ontario (Canada)

Richard York, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, Director of Graduate Studies for Sociology, University of Oregon

“Vapid”: Animal Ethics and the Mainstream Media

This morning I was running with a friend—and an accomplished scientist—who declared my ethical justification for not eating animals to be “vapid.” Pressed to explain this response, he refused to discuss the matter in any further depth. It should be said that my friend has worked impressively over the past year—largely as a result of my own influence– to cook vegan for himself and his family. However, he only wants to hear about the health justifications for his choice. The ethics remain irrelevant to him.

My skin is thick. Thus, the vapidity comment didn’t leave a mark (well, maybe a little one). What’s lingered all day, though, is the depressing reminder that virtually every aspect of society is structured to prevent rational discussions about animal ethics. I’m reminded of Bob Torres’ book Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. In it, he argues persuasively that “Most of us give the consumption of animals and their products as much thought as we do the oxygen we breathe.” The reason, Torres adds, is that “speciesism is woven into our mental, social, and economic machinery.”

It’s also, I would add, an integral part of something much less mechanistic: our culture.  As with any problem, what we don’t see is just as important as what we do.  What’s conspicuously amiss in our contemporary media-saturated environment is an accessible discussion of speciesism and animal rights. These discourses are certainly thriving, but they’re doing so in the more distant corners of cyberspace and, to a lesser extent, in some academic journals.  These venues reliably serve the interests of those who have already lent their minds to the matter. They generally do not, however, reach into the intelligent mainstream of modern culture and shake up pre-existing conceptions.  This, as I see it, is a huge problem, one that vegan writers, artists, filmmakers, and social media experts must collectively address.

Oh, and what a barrier we face. Big media generally relish stories that challenge the status quo, but here’s the rub:  only so long as advertisers aren’t threatened. I’ve heard from several reliable sources—one of them an editor at a major magazine—that advertisers have become so dominant in print media that they’re now insisting their ads run next to “upbeat” stories. Ever wonder why foodie magazines dedicated to the world of cuisine won’t go near an article questioning the ethics of eating animals? Advertising would vanish. One editor who’s published some of my writing on-line has claimed that my articles would “sink” a mainstream print magazine.  I realize this may be old news for an adbuster generation, but it bears repeating.

Plus, it explains so much about my friend’s “vapid” comment. He’s hardly alone in being a highly intelligent, Ivy League educated, professionally successful individual who won’t go near the issue of animal rights. But he’s also hardly alone in that, should the issue eventually escape into the mainstream, and stay there long enough, he’d be the first to spar with it. I’m no media theorist, but here’s the critical thing about how culture structures knowledge: when the “legitimate” media ushers a topic into the limelight, that topic is not only legitimated, but it’s knocked around enough to the point that it becomes part of an educated public discussion.  This is a necessary step in the long journey to end the exploitation of animals for human wants.

As a writer, I believe deeply in the power of words to shape ideas in the public sphere. This is why I’m always trying to put stuff “out there.” It’s a struggle. But here’s what I know:  it must be done with tact as well as conviction, passion as well as reason, and patience as well as raging desire to elevate, rather than evade, our discussions about animals, sentience, speciesism, and ethics.