Friday, March 21, 2014

How Abolitionists Expect Speciesism to End Overnight

Just kidding, nobody thinks that.

No, really, nobody thinks that speciesism will end overnight. And yet, I keep coming across this same straw (hu)man argument over and over and over. Surely, reformers and welfarists can't honestly believe that abolitionist advocates expect that, given the perfect theory or strategy, factory farm doors would burst open tomorrow morning, dogs and cats could burn their leashes and establish liberated colonies, and researchers would put their lab animals on the first bus to the nearest sanctuary. Surely, they don't really think that's what goes through our minds.

Abolitionism: Overnight Liberation!

Is Abolitionism All-Or-Nothing?

Reformists keep insisting this notion exemplifies the abolitionist position, but I don't think this is exactly what they think (or at least I hope so).  More likely, what they really think is that this misconstruction is a great way to demonize abolitionism so that no one will pay any attention to it.  Because if advocates were to pay attention to it, their business is in trouble.

In actuality, the abolitionist approach is incremental. It is based on the notion that anti-speciesism relies on vegan education, and education work is inherently incremental. With more people sensitized to interests of other animals, there will be more demand for vegan products and services and there will be more pressure on social institutions to recognize the interests of other animals. Welfarists will be doing welfare reform anyway, including Tyson, Perdue, Whole Foods, and other industries of animal violence.  They are, and will continue to be, on board with welfare reforms because it is good for business. As advocates we should not be in the business of improving their business. Leave the "welfare reform" to the welfarists.

The point of this essay is not to belabor the abolitionist position, but rather to challenge this intentionally misrepresentative claim-making. We know that no one fully expects that liberation will happen overnight, but welfarists keep carting out that ridiculous accusation. Perhaps at one point advocates did believe this. Norm Phelps suggests that one of the major differences between activists of his generation (the 1970s-1990s) and activists of today (1990s-present) is that advocates in earlier years truly expected that they could make large scale institutionalized change as quickly and as dramatically as comparable civil rights movements. Today's activists, he explains, are more "pragmatic." They understand that animal liberation will not be easily or quickly achieved.

Fair enough, but this observation loses resonance when Phelps conflates this pragmatism with welfarism. In his 2007 publication, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, Phelps painstakingly chronicles the long history of activism on behalf of other animals, taking care to emphasize the terrible shortcomings of the various large organizations that sold out to compromise. Strangely, by the time he reaches the modern era of animal rights, compromise becomes less detested and more admirable.

The excuses given are often infuriating, specifically, the ridiculous assumption that abolitionists expect all-or-nothing, overnight animal liberation. More telling, he frowns on abolitionism because it doesn't garner immediate impact, not just for nonhuman animals, but for activists.  Phelps emphasizes that welfare reform is necessary because it is an important motivator: "Insisting on all or nothing--and, naturally enough, getting nothing--generates a feeling of frustration and failure" (309).

Yesterday, I sent an email to Smithfield meatpacking demanding they cease operations. They didn't respond, and today, the killing continues! I demanded all and got nothing! Well I quit!  This analysis, as you can see, is quite patronizing and simplistic.

Actually, I spent a good deal of yesterday researching veganism, teaching anti-speciesism, and writing about animal rights. I demand increased awareness of animal exploitation, and lo and behold, I get just that. It isn't all or nothing; it is an incremental approach that I can easily participate in and be rewarded for.

Motivating a Social Movement

Reward here is key--this is the motivation that Phelps and other social movement theorists rightly emphasize. Social movement work is costly, risky, and stressful. One of the greatest problems a social movement faces is motivating people to participate when it is infinitely easier to sit back and let someone else do the dirty work.  Reward counters this and encourages people to participate.  Reward can come in many forms: Money, recognition, networking, community, excitement, fulfillment, purpose, etc.

The difference between welfarist advocacy and abolitionist advocacy is quite clear in this department. Because welfarists dominate the social change space, they are rewarded with money, power, and public recognition. Marginalized abolitionists are rewarded by promoting uncompromised messages that keep the interests of those we represent first priority. We get a good feeling when we speak out against violence and people listen and people care. We are rewarded when we are validated. We get a rush of good feelings when we behave altruistically. This is solidly supported by social psychological research.

Phelps sullies this basic reward system by calling it "fundamentalism": "[ . . . ] a holier-than-thou mindset that pursues strategies that are designed to preserve our own moral purity and intellectual rigor rather than relieve the suffering of animals" (309). Of course, the other problem with this argument is that he is suggesting that a morally and intellectually sound approach that elicits a good feeling is necessarily an approach that doesn't work. Yes, I feel good when I advocate for the abolition of speciesism--but that doesn't mean that the abolitionist approach doesn't work.

And to be clear, this good feeling isn't a "holier-than-thou mindset," it's the good feeling of engaging in uncompromised, unequivocal advocacy. I don't have that nagging guilt in the back of my mind that welfarists must have when they spend months campaigning for the public to eat eggs from slightly less horrific death factories. I campaign for people to quit eating eggs period, and that's something I can feel good about. This is about knowing I am not selling out the animals; it is not about making myself feel superior in comparison to other advocates. This is between me and the animals, not between me and Norm Phelps & Co.

Welfarist Hegemony in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

Welfarists seek to tarnish abolitionism by portraying us as irrational and self-important with the intention of obscuring their own self-centeredness and their own problematic reward system. Welfare reform does not work and the 300 pages of Phelps' own book lends evidence to that. The same problems that plagued animal groups of the 19th and early 20th centuries continue to plague our movement today. Reformers get tied up in needing to feel (or appear) effective without alienating the speciesist social institutions that support them.

Abolitionist work is not glamorous. Researching and teaching veganism is relatively ho hum in comparison to sailing across oceans throwing bombs on whaling ships, breaking into laboratories under cover of darkness vandalizing equipment, or getting naked (or, as these activists call it, getting "liberated" and "empowered") in the street. These tactics have not been shown to work, but these are the approaches that motivate welfare reformers nonetheless. It's about what suits them and not about what has been shown to be effective. This is a reward system that ultimately undermines social movement success.

Scientific research has shown that using naked women for animal rights campaigning does not work; however, advocates continue to support the practice because it is "empowering" and gets media attention. 

Welfare reformers get tied up in fundraising as well. Because vegan education is a slow-but-steady approach, it is not very glitzy and subsequently not as easy to publicize. A feature story on activists who spent the afternoon leafleting about veganism isn't going to "sell" like naked activists protesting against circus abuses. At the end of the day, it is all about the money. I have written on the consequences of animal rights' incorporation into the non-profit industrial complex at length in other essays, but I wanted to reiterate that social change is not the main interest of large welfare organizations--rather, it is financial stability and bureaucratic growth. Because animal oppression is rooted in the capitalist system, adopting the capitalist bureaucratized model of social change is not likely to be successful. Non-profitization transforms a threatening radical collective into a lucrative enterprise that benefits the state, elites, and social movement careerists . . . at the expense of the animals.

Framing abolitionism as self-important magical thinking is not merely a reflection of strategic disagreement. This is intentional character assassination on committed radical activism. The intention is to deflect criticism from a wholly immoral and counterproductive capitalist/non-profit system that large animal rights organizations benefit from.  Ineffectual reforms and motivating but impotent tactics are needed to keep their coffers full. Likewise, abolitionists need to be framed as self-congratulatory and hopelessly ineffectual so that others will not think to look behind the curtain and see that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

An Effective Motivational Reward System

Welfarists should just tell it like it is: they are in an entirely different business than abolitionists are. Welfarists push for incremental reform with the trade off of making animal industries more lucrative and efficient. Abolitionists push for incremental reform by increasing awareness of animal oppression and spreading veganism. Welfarists prioritize motivation by normalizing activism that makes participants feel good, even though these tactics do not work. Abolitionists, however, prioritize motivation by normalizing activism that makes participants feel good by aligning our ethical goals with our outreach strategy. Lobbying congress for slightly bigger cages (welfarism) and educating the public about veganism (abolitionism) are both tactics that make advocates feel good. When it comes down to it, all animal advocates are relying on this motivational reward.  Welfarists and abolitionists alike are personally gratified by their social change work; the difference is only in the degree of effectiveness.

On the one hand, welfarists shame abolitionists for expecting "all-or-nothing" "immediate abolition," on the other hand, welfarists also shame abolitionism because it doesn't earn the immediate results needed to sustain motivation and solicit donations. Apparently, immediacy is only a good thing when it has a financial return. Otherwise, it's a utopian fantasy. Of course, increasing awareness and turning people towards veganism equates to immediate results, but this doesn't necessarily translate to financial gain for an organization. Therefore, it is usually devalued or ignored by welfare groups.

Jon Camp of Vegan Outreach has distributed about one million pamphlets to college students

Motivation and reward are important to sustain a movement, but we should be careful to frame reward in a way that is productive to animal liberation. Getting anybody on board by any means possible might keep our numbers up, but it won't necessarily get us any closer to a species-egalitarian society. At the end of the day, activists can pull off their black ski masks, lettuce bikinis, or whatever, and feel like they've "done something" for the animals. They can feel good, and that's great, but we need to start supporting the notion that effective activism is rewarding. I have a lot of problems with Vegan Outreach (for one, they aren't a vegan organization), but I do appreciate that they celebrate the hard work of leafleting. They make education seem worthwhile and commendable. Of course, Vegan Outreach has conservative donors to answer to, so they tend to steer clear of a consistent animal rights message. However, I think the reward model they've established is a worthy one.