The starting point. Le point de départ.

Veganism is the moral baseline, the starting point, of the abolitionist animal rights movement. The main purpose of this blog is to explore animal issues from the perspective of the emerging abolitionist movement.


How PETA is damaging to the animal rights cause

Please note: the general arguments against new welfarist tactics among the following apply to all new welfarist groups of course, however the focus of this post is on PETA, due to several recent comments brought up by PETA supporters in the blog comments as well as elsewhere.

PETA is not an animal rights organization, yet they have managed to use their large influence to create and foster a false impression of themselves with the public as "the" animal rights group. This is extremely harmful to the cause of animal rights since they engage in campaigns, and have organizational policies, that are incompatible with animal rights. So, not only are they engaging in campaigns that are inconsistent with animal rights, but they are promoting these campaigns as what animal rights is all about. No wonder much of the public, and some activists as well, do not know the difference between animal welfare reform and animal rights and that the two are fundamentally incompatible. At this point in time, this confusion about what animal rights means is one of the most important hurdles we must overcome on the road to the eventual end of animal exploitation - we must explicitly make the distinction between welfare and rights and explicitly show that it is the property status of animals that is the root of all atrocities committed against them. In short, we must first get people used to hearing a true animal rights position that explains the property paradigm while denouncing suffering and cruelty, instead of only focusing on cruel treatment, and that points out how the fundamental differences between our position and one that accepts animal use under certain circumstances guides our efforts away from welfare reform. PETA and other new welfarist groups actually perpetuate the confusion and misrepresent the concept of animal rights, and are thus not only doing nothing to overcome this important hurdle, but they are continually raising the hurdle.

As far as just a few specific examples from among many of PETA's problematic campaigns and policies:

-they do not advocate right-to-life for nonhumans (search this page for "we do not advocate 'right to life' for animals"), and accordingly, they kill healthy nonhuman animals, and are opposed to no-kill shelters as well as to trap-neuter-return, taking the position that the better way to help feral cats is to kill them (also summarized in same link as above).

Formerly a last-chance shelter rescue and a feral cat respectively, PETA would have killed S.P. and Oliver

-they give awards to slaughterhouse designers and vendors of "humanely raised" animal products, and promote non-vegan fast food products such as the Burger King veggie burger.

-they employ sexist ad campaigns that objectify women. Their reasoning seems to be that "sex sells", but how does portraying scantily clad women (and men, sometimes), who unfailingly fit the traditional-western-beauty-ideal and are presented as cheap entertainment, actually encourage anyone to reflect seriously on a social justice issue? One social justice issue (animal rights) cannot be furthered at the expense of another (feminism), as all forms of oppression are related. Their supporters may balk at accusations of sexism, with the excuse that the women have willingly participated in the campaigns. They may participate willingly, but in a society built on patriarchy that is so ingrained that many people cannot recognize it and some even think sexism has been resolved and is no longer a problem, this does not mean that the campaigns are not sexist. One discussion of PETA's commodification of women can be read here.

-They use non-vegan celebrity spokespeople in many campaigns - this encourages mixed messages that it is enough to be against fur even though you wear leather, or to be against meat even though you eat dairy. This only reinforces the impression that veganism is "extreme", and it furthers the compartmentalization of animal issues when what should be done Is to make the needed links between all exploitation of sentient beings even while focusing on one aspect or another of animal exploitation.

What about the "good" things that Peta does, in getting some people to go veg? Even if we disagree with welfarism and some of their other tactics, should we support at least that part of the organization? No, we should not. For example, I am sure that any given medical charity does some good things, but as vegans we do not support them if they fund any animal experiments at all, because to support them would be to give approbation to their policies and to encourage all aspects of their organization, some of which we are vehemently opposed to. Similarly we should not support PETA if we do not approve of their policies and tactics. People such as Gary Francione have already urged them at length to change their problematic positions, and they have completely refused.

For every one person who goes vegan because of them, how many do they alienate to the idea of animal rights (that is mistakenly associated with them), because of their sexism, because of their attention-seeking stunts that trivialize the issue? How many do they influence to instead embrace "humanely raised" animal products or to feel better about eating at fast-food places such as Burger King that have made some small change in husbandry standards which then gets promoted as a victory for animals, the new welfarist groups becoming nothing more than part of the animal exploiting industries' marketing team when they praise companies' new "humane standards" - and how many, of even those that are influenced to go vegan by PETA, continue indefinitely to believe that welfare reform tactics further the goal of animal rights rather than undermine it? The fact that some people do become vegan through them does not mean we must retain some sort of loyalty to them once we understand that their policies and campaigns are inconsistent with animal rights. They may get some people to go vegan, but if any of these people do undergo the full paradigm shift towards abolition that is needed for eventual social change, it is not because of PETA’s influence on them.

We don't need these groups and their campaigns; there is more than enough work to do without using new welfarist tactics, more than enough to do that is consistent with animal rights and does not force us to compromise our position by trying to work with exploiters or new welfarist groups. We don't need their resources such as pamphlets and posters to further our own vegan education campaigns; we can use those of the abolitionist sanctuary Peaceful Prairie or simply make our own for the time being. The abolitionist movement is in its infancy, and as it grows a greater variety of resources that promote a message consistent with abolitionism will become available for those who cannot create their own. In the meantime we do not need to compromise ourselves by distributing new welfarist groups' materials, for to do so is to imply approval of the policies of the group whose name appears.

Rejecting new welfarism is not a question of whether or not to speak out against animal exploiting companies perpetrating horrible abuses of animals such as those seen in undercover slaughterhouse videos, the implication of this claim being that if we do not participate in welfare reform campaigns then we do not care about these abuses or that we somehow want to allow them to continue. We can still speak out against cruelty and continue to expose the conditions of the animals' suffering, but in a way that recognizes that the underlying problem that allows this cruelty to occur is the property status of animals which permits their exploitation as resources. We still speak out against the cruelty, but not in a way that makes us compromise with the exploiters, that compels us to thank them when they make some small reform we have asked them for, that forces us to implicitly accept the legitimacy of animal exploitation by using the system of welfare reform, an institutionalized system that is based upon animals’ property status and the legitimacy of animal exploitation.

We cannot be effective in denouncing the property status of animals when we are working within this system. The system has a built in limit: it necessarily assumes, as its fundamental basis, the legitimacy of the property status of animals, and so there is no way to transcend that limit from within it. Welfare campaigns may seem on the surface to be all about reducing the suffering of the individuals being exploited, but they are in fact nothing more than a property rights issue. Animals are currently the legal property of their exploiters, and welfare reformists are trying to tell those exploiters how to use their property. The exploiters will fight the reforms, even the ones presented to them as economically advantageous, as no one likes to be told how to use their own property. To engage in these property rights campaigns with exploiters and legislators is to implicitly accept that it is a property rights issue, and using this institutionalized system of welfare reform only serves to further legitimize the system and thus reinforce the property status of animals. If we want rights for animals we must completely reject these counterproductive tactics and the groups like PETA who employ them and perpetuate the confusion about what "animal rights" means, essentially marginalizing animal rights and veganism all the while reinforcing the status of animals that allows them to be exploited in the first place.

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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.

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