What the abolitionist movement is not
Abolitionist theory, with its rejection of animal welfare campaigns, is sometimes a shock to animal advocates encountering it for the first time. This is understandable since it asks us to question many of the assumptions about animal advocacy we have been conditioned to believe by the corporate animal welfare and "new welfare" organizations, through whom many of us became interested in animal issues in the first place. The abolitionist movement makes no apologies in criticizing these organizations' methods, and because of this, certain misconceptions about the abolitionist position seem to recur among skeptics' reactions. This post will discuss just a few of these reactions.
Abolitionism is not about "divisiveness", about creating ill-will and strife amongst a group otherwise committed to the same cause in order to deter their energies from the common cause. Rather, it is about pointing out the fundamental differences in two positions - the position that it is permissible to use nonhuman animals as resources as long as we follow certain husbandry standards in order to prevent gratuitous or "unnecessary" suffering, and the position that it is not morally permissible to use sentient nonhumans instrumentally, no matter how well they are treated in the process - and presents a case for why those of us who adhere to the second position should only participate in and support actions consistent with this goal. The first position, that of the animal welfare groups (and the animal exploiting industries as well!), has nothing to do with animal rights and so does not provide us any guidance if rights for animals is indeed our goal.
Abolitionism is not about attacking people's character. It is true that corporate organizations' collective motivations are put into question, as large bureaucracies tend to take on a life of their own to ensure financial survival. This is no less true when they are charities relying on mass public appeal for donations. A critique of the corporate organizational model itself, and of the welfarist tactics that must be pursued to retain the donations of the masses, however, does not equate to an insult to the character of individual activists who are involved with or support these organizations. There is no question that animal advocates work tirelessly for nonhuman animals and have the best of motivations. What the abolitionist movement aims to point out are the inherent flaws of welfare reform campaigns in order to convince these activists of the need to reject such campaigns and the organizations and organizational structures that cling to them, of the need to reject using ineffective means whose underlying premises actually contradict our goals. That the abolitionist position is often argued emphatically, confidently, passionately, and illustrated with specific examples from within the welfarist movements, should not be taken as a "personal attack" and should certainly not be seen as a reason to defensively dismiss the abolitionist theory. The arguments should be considered rationally on their own merits, regardless of one's personal opinion on the discourse style of Gary Francione or any other abolitionist advocate.
The abolitionist argument is not about elitism or achieving some sort of personal purity. It is impossible to be 100% vegan in our society, and postulating that veganism must be the moral baseline of a movement for animal rights does not mean getting bogged down with questions like animal products having been used during the production of tires and the like. It means recognizing that we cannot respect someone's rights while we are separating her from her child and taking her milk, while we are wearing pieces of his skin on our feet, while we pay someone who keeps her in captivity for the opportunity to go take a look at her, while we are using them instrumentally in any way. It means recognizing that financially and culturally supporting exploitation is unjustifiable from a rights perspective, and committing to changing our behaviour accordingly. Veganism can seem daunting at first, but when we are motivated to truly respect the rights of nonhumans, it becomes second nature after the initial phase of adjustment. Those who claim that veganism is elitist tend to subscribe to the mentality that it is something dificult that is "just not for everyone". On the contrary, the abolitionist movement aims to show that yes, veganism is for everyone, that one does not have to be "special" in some way to become vegan, and that any situation that may present a true barrier to veganism for some people in our society (such as the problem of inner-city-US "food deserts" in some poor areas, where the only food accessible to those without vehicles is highly processed junk food) is just a symptom of other forms of oppression such as classism and racism. The abolitionist position opposes all forms of oppression.
Abolitionism is not an all-or-nothing proposition that is doomed to achieve "nothing" by only asking for "all" at once. Abolitionist theory is consistent with incremental change and provides ample guidance for activism (for example Gary Francione discusses this topic in this blog entry and this post). The most important incremental steps we need to take at this point in time are those such as vegan education and activist education that increase the number of ethical vegan abolitionists. This may seem to some to be a slow approach with few tangible rewards, but its importance cannot be overstated. Before we can effect other changes that reflect our own paradigm shift, we need to help more people make that same shift. We cannot achieve rights for nonhuman animals while 99.9% of humanity sees them as commodities and natural resources.
This does not mean that we are ignoring the suffering of animals who are being exploited right now. Convincing other humans of the moral necessity of veganism reduces immediate demand for animal "products" as well as setting the stage for a societal attitude shift. We cannot allow the belief that it's okay to use animals instrumentally as long as we do it "humanely" to go unchallenged, which is what happens when we implicitly accept it in campaigns for welfare/husbandry reform. We need to actively speak out against this belief by drawing attention to the root of the human-nonhuman problem. To do otherwise is to engage in campaigns that disregard the inherent worth and right not to be considered resources of those very animals suffering right now.
Some of us who promote abolitionism once supported or even initiated new-welfarist campaigns ourselves, just as most vegans were not vegan at some point in the past. In becoming vegan we had to question our assumptions and conditioning before we rejected animal use in our own lives. The process of transition from a new-welfarist view of activism to an abolitionist view is similar - it requires an openness to consider a different viewpoint and to allow the possibility of admitting to ourselves that our own previous way of doing things was not consistent with our values and goals. This can be difficult when we are actively involved in the types of campaigns and advocacy being criticized - but having a consistent approach that respects animal rights and having solid theoretical reasoning behind the efforts we undertake, and thus engaging in more effective activism, is worth this period of questioning and personal discomfort. Let's not be afraid to question our assumptions and conditioning, reflect deeply, and grow and change as activists in order to bring our activism in line with our goals.