Floor Show: Looking Back on the Newkirk Biopic “I Am An Animal”

How time flies. I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA (Stick Figure Productions for HBO®, a division of Time Warner) is now eight years old. Its website labels it “unavailable” (though it can still be found).

Yet a biopic of Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) since its founding in 1980, remains significant in the story of animal advocacy. And this film speaks to an ever-relevant topic: the effects of emotionally charged rhetoric and images of animal abuse. As I’ve noted at the Species and Class blog, many animal charities employ graphic video footage of industrial animal handling. I’ve also briefly noted this in the newly published On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Centuryciting this biopic. Here, then, is a brief exploration of the biopic and what it might tell us about popular advocacy.

I Am an Animal begins by recounting Newkirk’s role in the documentation of animal handling in a Maryland primate laboratory, focusing on filth and untreated wounds, and the subsequent prosecution, which got attention “like no other anti-cruelty group had done.” Newkirk, who was a Maryland law enforcement officer and a director of animal cruelty investigations in Washington, D.C., had found a calling. PETA was born.

Early in the film Newkirk invokes the day when everyone will think animals are not ours to eat, wear or experiment on, borrowing a slogan then associated with the British Union of the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), whose simple magazines and straightforward messages PETA closely mimicked in the early eighties. By the nineties, PETA’s magazine had gone glossy, and high-profile media stunts became the group’s hallmark.

A well-known slogan usually associated with PETA originated with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Here it is on a post card sent to me by the first vegan I ever (knowingly) met, Robin Lane.

A well-known slogan usually associated with PETA originated with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

I PROVOKE, THEREFORE I AM

According to filmmaker Matthew Galkin’s Press Notes: “PETA is aggressive and its marketing tactics are obscene and offensive to a lot of people. Yet Ingrid has grown PETA into the largest animal rights group in the world.”

As for the “obscene and offensive” Newkirk explains: “Everybody is obsessed with sex and obsessed with violence”; so PETA’s choice “is no attention or some attention.” Galkin introduces the audience to PETA’s Milk Gone Wild, a rejected Super Bowl anti-milk video. Remember that one? PETA promoted it by exclaiming: You won’t BELIEVE what we’ve packed into this video! You’ll see the HOTTEST girls baring it all – AND MORE!!! No rules, no parents, no limits, and of course no cows. The sexism has continued for years in PETA’s public campaign designs: the need to be “edgy” supposedly dictates sexual objectification and even jokes about gendered violence.

Another of Galkin’s scenes has Newkirk reviewing a staffer’s proposal for PETA’s Animal Liberation (“Are Animals the New Slaves?”) display, juxtaposing pictures of a hoisted steer and a lynching. When a media-relations employee asks if the slavery exhibition should avoid the use of Holocaust images, Newkirk says it would be fine to use them as well, especially if they happened to find a “super-duper one.” In this film we learn a lot about how it became accepted, and then routine, for campaigners to replicate the traumas of subjects – human or not – who can’t consent to being displayed as victims. Today, this routine is confronted by writers such as Claire Heuchan at Media Diversifiedobserving that “Black experience is regularly placed on a par with animals as a provocation.”

JUST A THING

Newkirk’s home – perhaps to the surprise of viewers who associate advocacy with rescue – isn’t shared with any other animals. Newkirk says people “should work to help them” and not “accumulate them” – neglecting the reality of homeless domesticated animals as our refugees, our asylum seekers.

Newkirk’s “work to help them” includes killing, as the film then shows. In North Carolina, Newkirk approaches an underfed dog. “You look like like a sorry soul!” Newkirk quizzes the owner quickly, several times interrupting the answers, then sets down a bowl of food and tells the owner, a soft-spoken person with dreadlocks, that the dog has a serious case of worms. After offering the owner free veterinary care – “We have to sign him over for that. Let me get my clipboard” – Newkirk takes the dog.

In the van, Newkirk comments, “He’s just a thing. He’s one more thing that they have, I think. Sort of a passing nice idea, you’ve got yourself a pet. But the reality of care is – not understood.” Yet the ultimate proof that you’re a “thing” is that somebody can destroy you. And this is exactly what Newkirk proceeds to do. At PETA’s headquarters, where the dog is found to have an abnormal red blood cell count in addition to worms, Newkirk directs an employee to kill the dog. No one tries to communicate with the dog’s owner in more than the authoritative language of the expert assuming control. PETA’s dual message is clear: Some people shouldn’t have animals. Advocates perform a lethal kind of sanitation role.

THE KILLING FLOOR

Then we watch the filmmaker filming another filmmaker. Chris, a young PETA employee, is tapped to videotape a ConAgra site where turkeys are slaughtered for the Butterball brand. On the killing floor – where, from dawn to dusk, a four-person team works the shackles to process some 50,000 bird into bodies every day – Chris breaks down and can’t run the hidden camera. Galkin’s crew films the two-month period in which Chris descends into despair.

Though Chris’s constant technical failures suggest a gut resistance to an active role in violence, Newkirk is not impressed. “We can’t afford to just lollygag around with some young person who can’t get their act together .” By failing to produce what Newkirk wants, “he’s screwing the birds over.”

A more experienced infiltrator is deployed to catch the company’s violations of the Arkansas anti-cruelty statues and the Poultry Inspection Act. A press conference is planned. Whereas Newkirk says footage of abuse has the potential to change the world, the group doesn’t challenge the agricultural use of birds or animals generally; the articulated idea is to score a victory with a big company, and on the grounds that workers in the investigated plant have inflicted “gratuitous” harm. Butterball assures PETA that if there is any abuse found, they’ll fire the employees responsible.

PETA’s street campaigners then convey PETA’s mixed message: “Like a free DVD?” “Boycott Butterball; we found them molesting birds at a processing plant in Ozark.” “Go vegetarian this holiday, but at the least don’t support Butterball.” So, what does animal advocacy want?

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

When Newkirk hugs a designer who promises to use no wool in a coming season, fashion mogul Marc Bouwer qualifies the vow as meaning products of the Australian Wool Industry – a particular business group PETA has targeted. “We definitely won’t use wool from Australia, that’s for sure!”

Again, what does animal advocacy want?

Newkirk’s PETA, for all its brashness, can’t give a clear response. The PETA website suggests that a “perfect world” of freedom for horses isn’t possible, so just don’t use whips and spurs, for “gentle methods can be employed to teach a horse to allow a rider on his or her back.”

Newkirk states that PETA’s “main goal is to stop suffering, as much suffering as we possibly can” but isn’t too interested in animals living in their free, uncontrolled states. When a staffer shows Newkirk footage of a person hitting tigers, Newkirk first says, “Do we have more of this?” and then stops short. “I am deeply worried,” Newkirk says, “because we keep doing these investigations into exotics, and it’s all worthwhile…but the one thing that everybody needs to get involved in is empathy with the animals they eat and don’t think twice about”; and attention is redirected to assembly-line turkey processors. Then, evidently lumping all undomesticated animals into a cute class, Newkirk says, “All animals feel – not just the cute ones with the big eyes, not the fluffy bears, and the smiley dolphins, but all the animals.”

But animal liberation isn’t a movement to make conscious beings feel better in captivity. It involves opting out of animal agribusiness, not ensuring workers follow the Poultry Inspection Act; it means advocating for the interests of free-living animals and defending the habitat they require to experience their lives. And it means careful attention to root causes of social inequality, not generalizing about, and policing, the financially poor.

Amidst today’s social-movement dialogue, with its attention to intersectional critiques of objectification, and on today’s Earth, with human domination driving mass extinctions, nearly every aspect of Newkirk’s focus is gravely obsolete. Would someone like to explain, then, why its base of financial support is ever increasing?

Animal Liberation Follies

Professional advocacy now congratulates itself for its hands-on manipulation of animal fertility. It’s a false anti-cruelty position that strives to replace guns, arrows and traps with high-tech animal removal. What gives anyone the right to impose birth control on untamed animals? What gives career advocates that right?

Read more at Dissident Voice  today.

Animals 24-7: Humane Society CEO Woos Anti-Gay Evangelist

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, explained: “It’s part of my commitment, and that of The HSUS, to integrate – or to reintegrate – other voices and perspectives within the humane movement.”

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke

Humane movement?

This is the same Barrett Duke who warned Baptist Press readers:

“If the radical homosexual agenda is codified into law our own government will be arrayed against us and our struggle to protect our religious freedom. We can fight this battle now or we can fight it later, but we are going to fight this battle.”

The full article, including historical commentary by editor Merritt Clifton on notable animal-protection proponents whose social lives would not win Duke’s approval, appears here.


Banner image: detail from photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Fifteen Buzzwords Vegan Educators Can Stop Using Today

Semantics, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, is the science of meaning in language. To be understood, we need words to mean what the receiver thinks they mean. Semantics matter.

What about creating new phrases? When we choose coined terms, we’re usually communicating to insiders—others who’ve read the same literature. These terms often come from specific non-profit groups or individualsEureka - from espaciotiempo.org.ar claiming to advance a groundbreaking theory.

The use of a coined term even in a small group of insiders can cause misunderstandings, for it might suggest agreement with the whole kit and caboodle set out by the phrase’s inventor.

You might ask: Isn’t vegan a coined term? And so it is. But in its 70 years of use, it has become plain language. The word was offered by a community rather than an individual, and it functions as an essential signal to a unique and liberating pathway. It draws on a principle known and expressed for many generations, and channels it into a social movement’s terms.

Beyond that, the animal-rights idea takes no special jargon to explain. The idea that animal husbandry involves inflicting unnecessary harm is not a novel theory; it appears in Henry Salt’s 1892 book Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. International Vegetarian Union historian John Davis says that although Salt died five years before the founding of The Vegan Society, the last 55 years of Salt’s life were lived (as we now say) vegan.

Much term-coining and buzzword creation that’s come along since vegan has muddied clear waters, as our competitive culture promotes the act of personal marking—branding, to use today’s infelicitous term—on something that could just be straightforwardly recalled.

Here are 15 words and phrases we could drop and be better off for it:

1. Welfarist. For anyone who missed the “abolition-versus-welfare” back-and-forth, a quick synopsis. The animal-rights ideal would mean everyone opts out of using other animals. Instead of making that clear, charities continue to use heart-wrenching images and vow to fix the most “barbaric” abuses. Pity doesn’t challenge the status quo. A donation to reduce spectacular suffering can affirm the donor’s superior status in the system, changing nothing. PETA asks restaurant chains to prefer chicken suppliers that use gas slaughter technique. If any businesses enter into such preference agreements, PETA will publicize their promises to consider better animal welfare. Because it’s been connected to this kind of industrial whitewashing, welfare is used by some critics as a negative word; people who promote minor changes in animal enterprises are derided as welfarists. But does the word welfare have anything to do with the way businesses adjust their handling of the animals they own, use, and ultimately kill?

In contrast, an authentic caregiver promotes animal welfare. Trap-neuter-return work—catching abandoned domesticated cats and their offspring, neutering them, and supplying continued care—is praiseworthy welfare work. Welfare, to the ordinary ear, means well-being. So, right now, we should stop using welfarist as a negative code-word. (I should add that rescuing or “helping” animals does not, by itself, advance animal rights. But rescue and genuine caregiving are needed when we humans have caused an emergency in other animals’ lives, or imposed dependency upon them.)

2. “Stop factory farming!” Can we object to all animal farming at once? Even the small, family-run farm violates other beings’ most basic personal interests, beginning with the purpose-breeding of them because we can. And such farms still use resources that could feed hungry humans. Mathematician Adam Merberg published rough calculations suggesting a well-known free-range farm uses more calories in feed than it produces in food; and with the needless waste they generate, these property developments degrade water, soil and air. The very existence of any pastureland signifies predator removal. There is no benign animal agribusiness. Not for the planet, ourselves, the animals we’ve domesticated or those we haven’t.

3. Euthanasia. The term means a good death. It does not mean killing refugees to make space or save resources. Starting today, let’s all rule out the term euthanasia to mean the cold-blooded killing of a bear who chased a camper, or the death of a dog in a so-called shelter.

4. Companion animals. It’s not fair to selectively breed other animals to suit our desires, then call them companions as though they chose to hang out with us. I know: this is a tough one. Most people reading Vegan Place care for and love individual animals in our homes. So it can be hard for us to challenge the practice of keeping household animals. It might feel unloving. But step back and consider how they got here. These animals’ domestication is based on neoteny—the purposeful retention, in an adult cat or dog, of juvenile characteristics that prompt an animal to need and solicit care.

Most vegans already agree that nursing on another species is weird, and indeed that selectively breeding animals so we can take their milk is weird. Isn’t it also weird to want wolves and wildcats selectively bred so we can make them forever dependent?

And fashioning toys out of powerful wolves and wildcats—separating them from their families, buying and selling them, subjecting them to praise or punishment at whim, making ourselves their indispensable overseers—can hardly be justified on the grounds that pets benefit from the arrangement. Did it really benefit wolves to become Schnauzers? The land that is now the United States was once home to hundreds of thousands of wolves. Today, it has a few thousand wolves and 80 million domesticated dogs.

rackIf we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have, over time, forced free souls into submission. And when we think of it that way, companionship is an unfair term.

5. “Why love one but eat the other?” I’d think genuine advocacy seeks to cultivate an attitude of respect, not love in a system of inequality. If so, the best thing we can do as teachers is to inspire communities to respect other animals’ natural freedom and power—all that is taken away when we transform the Earth’s other conscious life into shapes that please us. The vegan issue isn’t about why we only eat one, but why we purpose-breed either.

6. Farm animal rights movement. There is no such thing. To animal agribusiness, the effective response is conscientious objection. Those who feel they are missing an ethical duty by not showing undercover videos or lobbying for animal-husbandry adjustments might consider farmer Harold Brown’s counsel: Let the animal farmers themselves improve conditions (they will, for PR reasons) as the vegan movement grows without them. Leave them without assistance, threats, cajoling or praise. It’s not the advocate’s role to police an abusive system.

7. Farmed animals. Why, instead of farm animals, has it become fashionable to say farmed animals? As in: animals who just happen to be farmed? It’s not as though we could just stop using them on farms, and the problem is solved. These animals have been selectively bred as farm animals: to be as easily confined and herded as we can make them. We need to do more than rescue them from farm use; we need to challenge the purpose-breeding at the root of the wrong.

8. Vegan cats. One of these words is not like the other… Veganism is an ethic that can be safely, harmlessly, naturally embraced by human primates. Forget about forcing cats to eat plants, and start getting vocal about the making of pets in the first place. See #4.

9. Single-issue campaigns. Should we dismiss the defending of any targeted group because it’s “single-issue”? What wrong done to a community or even to one person is beneath concern? All lives matter.

10. Wildlife. Aren’t we talking about animal communities? The word wildlife can mean plants as well as animals. Moreover, wild means uncultivated—a concept that falls short of representing the complexities of the non-human lives, systems, and interactions.

11. Humane, non-lethal alternatives.  Don’t do it. Don’t ask managers to put free-living animals on birth control rather than shoot them. Earlier on this blog I shared my column examining the way forcing contraception on animals became confused with advocacy; here is that link again. Read it and weep for the deer of Valley Forge National Historical Park and at several other National Parks in the eastern United States, where plans are being carried out to kill kill kill for as many years as park managers say so—until they get approval for some disappear-deer drug. The Natural Resources Director at Valley Forge claimed to have implemented this plan as a compromise with animal-rights activists.

12. Ethical vegan (also: abolitionist vegan). There is no unethical or pro-exploitation kind of veganism. Nor must we establish subcategories, subcultures, or exclusive clubs for only certain vegans. Vegan is vegan.

13. Meatless. Meat means an article of food or an essential part of something. It’s the term animal agribusiness which covers all the interconnected exploitation of an industry at once—and doesn’t suggest that vegans lack anything.

14. Veg. Nobody knows what that means. 

15. Vegan options. How about vegan offerings? In contrast to the if-we’re-lucky connotation of options, vegan offerings has a ring of confident generosity. Let’s imagine, discuss, and create a culture that makes animal farms history, one where vegan living is embraced as the way to sustain our world.


Thanks to Meg Graney and Kate Sparkman Sharadin for helpful online comments that got me in the mood to write this up. Source of banner detail: Shop With Meaning. Source of Eureka! drawing: EspacioTiempo (PDF). Source of St. Bernard breeding rack photo: Stornum Kennels.

Spying on Slaughter

Here’s a recent article headlined “Slaughterhouse Says Changes Made” by the Asbury Park Press, based in New Jersey, where the president of Catelli Brothers took “swift action” after an undercover video showed abuse of Holstein veal calves. Anthony Catelli is also quoted reassuring the public that the plant, in operation for 19 years so far, was designed to follow the humane slaughter methods developed by Professor Temple Grandin.
Asbury Park Press 1

Three workers were fired, and eleven new cameras will watch the rest of them. Essentially, all that has changed is who monitors the employees.

“Ag-gag” bills—laws forbidding outsiders from recording workers in animal agribusiness—are receiving some attention because of their serious civil-rights implications. (Harold Brown and I will speak about such bills with criminal justice students at an open event in West Chester, Pennsylvania next week.) Far less noted is how undercover investigations become exposés of grotesque scenes that are, at best, met with a tidying-up of the system at a particular business. That hardly challenges an industry. Deliberate nastiness on the part of employees, after all, does nothing to preserve or augment the owners’ profits.

Moreover, undercover actions to expose abuses in a slaughter plant send the message that there’s nothing inherently abusive in killing. If the law is followed, there’s nothing for activists to find.

Asbury Park Press 2

Another disturbing element involves the process by which the undercover videographer got this imagery. According to this story, the person filming on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States was more than a passive witness to the harrowing scenes recorded. HSUS spokesperson Mary Beth Sweetland says “our investigators do not participate in ill treatment of animals” and that the company, by stating otherwise, is throwing up smokescreens. In either case, HSUS sent an employee into a job at this animal processing plant to obtain images. Direct involvement in the handling and killing of animals can go on for weeks in some undercover projects.

Asbury Park Press 3

What about the people who gathered in a public demonstration outside the slaughter plant? As the photo shows, they’re with a group named NJ Farm Animals Safe.  At least one has a vegan placard. Good. A vegan shift is the only thing that’ll stop the production of Holstein veal calves. Of course, the protesters could be standing in front of countless places like this; a bust doesn’t need to happen for vegan outreach to be done. In any case, thanks to them for displaying the vegan message.

Last winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended operations at Catelli Brothers for five days after the Humane Society of the United States submitted evidence of violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, which, originally passed in 1958, was enacted to prevent needless suffering.

Even if it could be enforced throughout the country, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act would have limited scope. The U.S. government and many States regulate the transport and slaughter of mammals in agribusiness, but few if any jurisdictions address breeding and husbandry in all other phases of the animals’ lives.

If, and only if, we stop buying dairy milk and cheese, the suffering stops. Nowadays I can point to vegan cheeses offering any taste or texture people might want, but let’s grow up. Good vegan cheese is a bonus for us. Not a need. And we needn’t be a society of bullies. The death of newborn animals so their parents can keep lactating to fill our breakfast bowAsbury Park Press 4ls is needless suffering.

How does this story conclude? Catelli Brothers was back in business within the week; the USDA closed the file; and since then, Anthony Catelli said, “there have been no issues whatsoever.”

 


Available: An online copy of the newspaper article.

Why Don’t Campaigns Against Horse Slaughter Work?

Much U.S. activism focuses on the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Year after year. If slaughter administration by the U.S. agriculture department stops, then the focus shifts to the live export of horses to slaughterers in Mexico or Canada. It always seems to be one or the other, and although charities suggest that enough donations and clicks and letters could end it, it never ends.

How much of the dialogue delves into the breeding and breaking of horses? Practically none. In fact, most advocacy groups frame the argument against horse slaughter as an affront to our equine companions, or the idea that we owe them better treatment for their history of service to humankind. bridle

Their service to humankind isn’t open for debate. We’re so used to being served that the matter of whether horses originally wanted us on their backs never even comes up.

Full disclosure, lest I sound preachy about this: I have ridden horses. For the most part, I enjoyed the activity; and for the most part, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I am deeply sorry. From the week I became vegan, I resolved to never, ever do it again. The transformation of horses—who arrived on this planet long before we didinto our recreational vehicles, into items we exchange (our use of horses) also makes them available for slaughter (the decried abuse); I now understand how I participated in the injustice.

Our acceptance of the riding in the first place causes hundreds of horses to die every year on racetracks worldwide, and that prompts the racing industry to invest in research on horses in order to investigate speed potential and injury treatments. The plight of ex-racing horses, and any owned horses who pass their primes (or the primes of their owners’ attention spans), may be a chain of sale, resale or donation to charity, neglect, and the ultimate handover to the killer buyer.

What finally happened to those horses I rode? I doubt any died of old age under the gentle care of a sanctuary. Out of the 9-million-plus horses in the United States, how many do, and who is supposed to ensure that happens?

The broader message of horse-slaughter opposition

What is the message of a campaign to ban the human consumption or the live transport of equine bodies? Having entered the chain of resale, horses who are not slaughtered for human consumption, one might assume, are likely to be turned into some other product, such as food for zoo animals. Their bodies are going somewhere. We don’t see horse cemeteries in suburban pastures or at riding schools.

And if we say horses shouldn’t be slaughtered and shipped to restaurants in Italy or Belgium, then some other animal will appear on the same Belgian or Italian menu that would have featured the horseflesh—a selection that should arouse no more ethical outrage, if our morals are consistent, than the average North American pizza. Issues involving the human consumption of animals always press us to reaffirm the vitality in supporting restaurants offered by vegans. This makes much more sense than backing a campaign that scolds people for eating this and not that animal, or one that pushes the slaughter of certain animals over administrative borders.

And by framing the eating of horses as a “barbaric” foreign habit, the humane community routinely enables donors to miss the meaning of what they do at home, and the advantages people derive in our own regions from the pervasive commodification of animals.  To put it bluntly: No humane-charity CEO wants to trouble the conscience of the donor on horseback.

The underlying trouble: domestication

Our form of dominion over cats and dogs and horses—a dominion that we accept and even celebrate—certainly connects with humanity’s domination of these same animals in other ways. Our habit of making toys or companions out of dogs and ponies who have no say in the matter sets the stage, for example, for training animals to go into wars and exploding buildings, or for their millions of deaths in shelters, through auctions, and in laboratories each year.

Despite charity groups who refer to owners as “guardians” and despite animal law writers’ insistence that their household animals are more than “mere” property, the human who lives with a domesticated animal is in charge of every major situation in that being’s life. It makes no more sense to refer to our control over other animals as guardianship than it does to claim that slaveowners would have been guardians of human slaves simply by uttering the term.

Farrier at work - Wikimedia CommonsRecall Charles Darwin’s words: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equals.”[1] We rationalize and perpetuate our dominion over other animals in part by making ourselves their benefactors and pointing out that we do love specific animals; but do deep feelings of love for these animals justify domestication generally—or does that deep love lead us to challenge it?

I support rescue groups. I appreciate anyone who helps animals with nowhere else to turn. At the same time, I hope the rescue community will agree to question the root cause of the animals’ vulnerable condition. To admit that rescue keeps us in control, to acknowledge the sad aspect of the dependent state that we put them in, forcing their reliance on the sheer luck of being scooped up by a decent, sympathetic human who has the means and will to look after them. The point of advocacy can’t be to slather euphemistic language over human dominance. Nor is it about exclaiming how much we love our individual animals at home and yet refusing to acknowledge the overall unfairness in training animals to live in our homes and paddocks—for just as long as we say they may.

All of these beings have been selectively bred from ancestors who lived on their terms in their spaces. Autonomous communities of free-living animals. Why do we always have to mess with that state? I’ll sign off by linking a video of the free-living horses known in Mongolia as the Takh (Equus ferus przewalskii). Once these communities were wiped out by human hunting, military activities, and farming. But about 250 of these horses are now re-established in Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, an area where they had co-evolved with wolves of the steppe ecosystem. The Takh have developed complex patterns of social conduct to defend themselves from natural predators. But when they die, as they all do, the horses go back into the stream of universal energy in the ways they have done since the dawn of their being, and long before the dawn of ours.

[1] CHARLES DARWIN, METAPHYSICS, MATERIALISM, AND THE EVOLUTION OF MIND: EARLY WRITINGS OF CHARLES DARWIN 187 (1974; transcribed and annotated by Paul H. Barrett; with a commentary by Howard E. Gruber).

 

A Dozen Objections to Authentic Vegan Advocacy—Heard Out

Image“Our members are pronounced individualists, not easily scared by criticism, and filled with the spirit of pioneers.” – Donald Watson.

Suddenly this pioneer thing is catching on. Whether for health, for climate justice, or for animals, we’re hearing a lot about famous people going vegan. But do they know what they’re really getting into? Will they be able to face the criticism? Let’s see how scary their mission will be, should they choose to accept it.

Every vegan’s heard this criticism, so it’s first on the list:

1. “You’re a vegan? Fine; just don’t push your views on others.”

Yes, we know. People have the legal right to exploit other animals. Humans have spent centuries writing that into laws, regulations, constitutions, and judicial opinions. And most people, for much of our lives, can and do look away from the hurtful traps our laws create. Our capacity for wishing each other “peace on Earth” while allowing ourselves to be treated as consumers of institutionalized violence is remarkable.

But until vegans press the point, are people ever challenged to acknowledge that the hierarchy is a human creation—that we made it up? Anybody involved in any facet of social progress or justice, would, logically, do well to grapple with the question. (We vegans also make great cupcakes.)

2. “Traditional societies hunt; only modern privileges allow for vegan living.”

I’m for hearing people out. After all, none of us, except perhaps a few vegan-organic growers, can claim to essentially do no harm.

I’d also observe that animal use has been important to just about everyone’s culture and family history.

And some people in indigenous communities (homeless people as well) are vegan.

The significance of an elk’s death to an indigenous community is similar, at essence, to the importance of the body of a turkey (complete with its age- and gender-specific stuffing and carving customs, prayers and toasts) in an affluent suburb. Every one of us has a history flowing back through ancestors who, at some critical time, decided that their safety depended on subduing other animals, and our forebears killed off large carnivores en masse. Natural resources managers are still doing it.

We are all in this ethical question together: Is the group of primates known as Homo sapiens entitled to keep killing, or else dominating, selectively breeding, using and consuming the rest of the planet’s inhabitants?

3.  “People aren’t all going to go vegan, so why not get them to make some changes?”

What changes are they making? Do their baby steps allow companies to sustain animal agribusinesses through greenwash (or hogwash)? Cartons of organic milk are now adorned with pictures of farmers embracing their cows. And shoppers think they’re doing a good deed, given that these cartons look nothing like the latest undercover video at this or that horrible supplier, and they buy into the humane myth. 

The current issue of Rolling Stone reveals “the price we pay for cheap meat.” A professional advocacy spokesperson quoted in the article says investigators of factory handling and slaughter aren’t “trying to end meat or start a panic. But there’s a decent way to raise animals for food, and this is the farthest thing from it.”

Although advocates might hope some readers will consider going vegan because of the hideous corporate animal abuse they saw in the Rolling Stone, here’s what will most likely occur:

  • Some readers will donate to the advocacy group they noticed in Rolling Stone.
  • Husbandry standards may ultimately change because of the outcry. With dubious effect. After all, regulation has been going on since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.
  • Those “decent” sources of animal products will advertise themselves and profit accordingly.
  • Husbandry adjustments will, problematically, be equated with animal advocacy the world over.

Admittedly, the vast scale of animal use can be overwhelming. Anxiety might lead us to ask whether pressing for industry reforms is the best we can do. But whether reforms are granted or not, suffering isn’t reduced when animals are unnecessarily bred or brought into an exploitive system.

Let’s be clear: Vegans wouldn’t disapprove of true husbandry improvements, if and where they might be possible. And in the human-rights sphere, it’s acceptable for serious activists to pursue reforms. For instance, prison abolitionist Angela Davis has stated that reforms are also necessary.

But in the case of animal agribusiness, ordinary food shoppers hold the prison keys. By divesting our kitchens from the system that commodifies other animals, and encouraging others to do so, we exercise direct power to spare animals from being brought into that commodified existence.

4.  “Won’t supporting both veganism and industrial concessions help us go further than we would if we said only one is worthwhile?”

The wealthy animal-protection charities will keep working with corporations for concessions no matter what we do. The big charities support the use of animals in human society, as long as some minimum standards of treatment are established. The people who are expected to propose these standards will get hired, and will produce them.

Jobs abound for those who promote state-of-the-art slaughter techniques or roomier sheds, but this will not raise the status of animals. It won’t enable us or free-living animals to survive on this precious planet.

The lure of compromise can be turned around—to start a conversation about why it takes so long for us Homo sapiens to give up our privileges, even the ones that are bad for us and that we could stop indulging in today.

5.  “Aren’t vegans anti-social scolds?”

Some might be born contrarians, but most vegans are socially engaged and learning from others every day. We tend to notice the red lights more than the green.

Some of the most helpful people I’ve met out hiking, for example, are vegans. They will speak their minds when necessary; yet they are, I’m glad to report, invariably quick to show to kindness to others of various experiences and opinions. To be vegan is to experience the pleasure of looking after our health, the planet, and every conscious being alive. Sure, there will always be a few people who mischaracterize social haters gonna hatemovements. Expect resistance, and stay kind.

6. “Your impossible standards are making it worse for animals.”

Ouch. Here’s the heavy artillery that comes out when we ask for accountability from a group that’s bargaining away other animals’ most basic interests. No: vegans make nothing worse for animals. Vegans live as though animal rights were a reality right now, and thereby bring animal rights into existence (enacting the central point of Gandhi’s famous recommendation that we ourselves be the change we wish to see in society).

In fact, just being vegan (not counting the talks, writing, rescuing, and public demonstrations or performances many vegans additionally carry out) makes a significant difference.

In a somewhat less accusatory appeal, some will insist, “If I were one of the animals involved, I would want this [bigger stall, better slaughter method, etc.].”  Now, surely it’s fair and logical to say the animals would not want to be slaughtered at all. We know they’d try to avoid being harmed; it’s manifestly obvious. By extension, it seems logical and fair to say on behalf of other animals that they would appreciate vegan campaigning—that is, they’d appreciate our not consuming them. Not agreeing to victimize them in any way. But to suggest that we are speaking for other animals when we compromise their interests (and in reality animals cannot come to the meetings to represent themselves) is troubling.

And as we know, wolves, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and others get killed to protect live animals in sprawling commerce—so we can’t limit the argument to what the given cow or chicken would say. What about the other animals who are pushed out of the way for the less concentrated, more  “humane” farming businesses? What would they want?

7. “Our event should be vegan? Oh, right. If you want to be some kind of ivory-tower idealist who makes the movement as small as possible.”

This one might be based on an intuition that excluding people is unwise. Yet insofar as it suggests that vegans aren’t offering a viable movement (or even helpful event planning), it frames vegan values as outlandish—and that’s a kind of exclusion too.

Granted, the advocate usually needs to cultivate allies in advance of suggesting vegan events. But even if you’re on your own, or one of a small group, preparing and passing out delicious desserts goes a long way. Good cooks are rarely mistaken for killjoys. (I’m serious about the cupcakes.)

8. “Vegans harm animals too.”  

Right. The gentlest gardener will likely displace some animals. When our homes were constructed, many mice and other small animals lost their spaces. Bike components and book glues are not always vegan; the list is long. It’s sensible to acknowledge this, but it doesn’t mean we all need to continue allowing the selective breeding and training and breaking and buying and selling and eating of animals.

Being vegan means we strive as diligently as possible to avoid harming and manipulating conscious life, and we do the best we can to ensure other living beings are enabled to thrive in their ways.

9. “You just don’t understand business.”  

Good try. No one understands business better than those who’ve soberly assessed corporate conduct and figured out that compromises will be rejected or co-opted according to how the shareholders’ return can be maximized.

Nor is it true that higher prices for animal products leads in the direction of animal rights. It leads to people seeing animal products as desirable items, even if fewer animals are sold.

We can’t know how many people are steered away from vegan living if they can obtain “humane” or “local” products (here we might recall our own journeys and the questions we asked: Do fish who swim freely suffer so badly? Is eating eggs better if I look for the free-range brand?).

When we resolve to simply opt out, we help liberate our culture from its psychological ties to animal use. This is entirely practical. On a planet of limited land and water, humanity breeds so many animals into existence as food and usurps so much arable land for animal feed that the free-living animals are pushed to the margins of the land and biodiversity is ruined. But through vegan movements, such as vegan-organic farming, we’re proposing a simpler, more sustainable, decentralized and life-affirming future for human and non-human beings alike.

10. “How popular will your materials be if you insist on promoting them as vegan?”

Just as some people avoid creating a vegan event because they genuinely think people won’t come, some vegan starter guides don’t use the word “vegan” and some people say “veg” or write veg*n—inching the word “vegan” back to a less specific vegetarian idea. Here’s a badge using the globally known vegan sunflower trademark—and imposing an asterisk on it. v[asterisk]ganism

It’s an understandable attempt at all-inclusive friendliness for an environmental cause. But applying the term vegan with the “a” blotted out, so that it becomes merely a short form of vegetarian, blurs some key points.

Figures applicable to the United States show that each vegan spares the atmosphere an equivalent of greenhouse gas emitted from 8,100 miles driven annually. Yes, go vegan and it’s like not driving your car more than 8,000 miles each year. Simply changing from some animal products to others won’t do this. Fish production goes right up with the flesh of cows to top the list of highest possible all-around energy uses. And milk products are derived from ruminant animals, who emit high amounts of methane—an especially potent greenhouse gas.

It’s important to prevent veganism from appearing as an optional variation within some apparently more popular position. Respecting the environment—just like respecting ethical principles—means more than cutting out steak and hamburgers. So the simple, powerful word vegan is more important than it’s ever been. It already respects vegetarian ideals: Taken from the first and last letters of the word, it brings vegetarian to its logical conclusion.

Grocers, restaurateurs, and ranchers claiming to sell humane animal products frequently attempt to sponsor rescue-related, vegetarian, and green events. Whole Foods Market has honed this into a major marketing technique. Animal-rights ideas get pushed aside as advocates sit down to business and give concession agreements their full and immediate attention. Then they call attention to their influence, and call the conscientious objector’s holdout stance divisive because, in effect, it’s not the view of the majority of society. Well, let’s face it: People who renounce dominion over other animals are outside the majority.  We regard a viable movement for a new ethic as having to resist the majority’s hydraulic pull. We can expect part of our work to involve persuading potential compromisers to commit instead to conscientious objection.

If we are not living according to the vegan principle and imparting to others this same principle, veganism doesn’t exist.  Objections will be many, and people will try to dilute the vegan principle and blur the word. Yet our example is generally accepted by the animal-advocacy community as positive, without drawbacks of any sort, except that it’s thought by some to be a slow approach. Although it might be slow, a lot of things are; and respect for animals clearly advances when people “renounce absolutely their traditional and conceited attitude that they had the right to use them to serve their needs.”

11. “It’s just too hard to be vegan.”

Given all that’s going on in climate science and ethics studies, I think we’re swimming with the tide—but yes, we’re swimming faster, and that takes stamina.

Yet I find it is easier for me to be vegan than not. My mind can rest easy at night. I used to be one of the humans who exerted dominion over other animals, but I no longer have to maintain that worldview. I can walk along the streams and through the woods knowing a real peace with other beings. I find it a wonderful relief to understand myself as a simple co-worker in this planet’s life and story.

12. “Come on, how can we possibly get up in the morning, with the human population growing daily by more than 211,000 people, drones flying, governments spying, polar bears drowning, 100 million people people living in the streets, and think this vegan stuff is going to work?”

Good question. The symbolic Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 through the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to represent minutes to the midnight of our destruction, weighs threats posed by nuclear weapons, new developments in life sciences, and climate change. It was first set at seven minutes before midnight, and as of this writing is set at five minutes to midnight. The clock can be, and has been, set back in time, too—in response to political decisions humans have made. The message? Human-induced global warming and war are no accidents. Nor are they foisted upon us by nature, fate, or God. They are the results of human decisions. As long as we’re here, we can decide in new ways, and help offer that power to others—balancing our sober discussions with good news, enjoyable walks and teas and great recipes, a sense of generosity and joy in being alive.

Cormac Cullinan, author of the book Wild Law, offers a sound reason to be optimistic about the future of human law and culture. Proposing it’s entirely possible to have ecologically respectful law, Cullinan reminds us of the paradigm shift; the term, as Thomas Kuhn introduced it in the 1960s, means a transformation in the scientific worldview. Consider the Copernican revolution: When it became clear that our planet revolves around the sun, we ceased to be the focal point of creation. What had once seemed obvious and eternal was something else entirely: an error of the past. Humanity’s perspective changed.

Likewise, the vegan principle challenges an old view that we’re central and that everyone and everything revolves, eternally, around us. Environmentalists have discovered how incorrect the all-for-us view is, from a biological perspective. Earthworms and bees and other supposedly insignificant beings are now understood as enormously influential in the bio-community.

Meanwhile, vegan advocates assert that all are entitled to live on their own terms, bees and earthworms included.

Note that the Copernican revolution wasn’t the result of change in increments to the old system. No one was asked to accept that the sun was a little closer to the central point over time. Astronomy charts didn’t show Earth moving gradually outward as new editions were printed. So let’s not say, “Well, OK, start with eggs from hens who were given more room.” No quest for a “decent way to raise animals for food” is necessary when each of us, and everyone we meet, has the power to commit to vegan principles right now. There is a bright-line psychological difference, and not a continuum, between accepting human dominion and rejecting it.

Vegans reject human dominion. It’s a radical idea; a paradigm shift is radical by definition. It will not happen overnight, and it will be met with resistance (Galileo’s books were banned, and the great scientist was placed under house arrest for having accepted the position of Copernicus, which was deemed contrary to biblical authority). But the cultural shift, once the new paradigm is presented and acknowledged, is unstoppable.

We don’t know the tipping point; it could be a small number of people who are working on a problem now, and the next generation could be the one for which everything falls into place. And that’s good. By most indications, we have little time to spare.

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Question marks: Oberazzi, on Flickr. Bee photographed by Steb1, published on Flickr. The source of information on food miles and emissions for this article is the study of greenhouse gas emissions by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews,“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” – 42 Environmental Science Technology, at 3508-13 (2008). High impacts of fish commerce was noted by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin (2006). Thanks to Victoria Hart for the term authentic vegan