Monday, March 17, 2014

How Animal Welfare Willfully Obscures Science

In her piece for The Huffington Post, "How Animal Welfare Advances Veganism and Animal Rights," Karen Dawn makes the strange argument that avoiding vegan advocacy will somehow promote veganism. Aside from the fact that this strategy has been in place for decades with the full support of multiple heavily funded organizations and has failed to work, I am especially concerned with the bad science that influential advocates are pulling on to substantiate their agendas.

Dawn presumes that an organization's tactics are devised by a skilled team of social psychologists, academics, and other researchers who are seeking the most effective method of persuasion. In actuality, decisions are made by a skilled team of well-paid grant-writers, accountants, and expert fundraisers. Organizations aren't hiring researchers, they're hiring people who know money. This is because animal rights, like any other corporatized social problem, is a business. If you want to be in the business of animal rights, you need to know how to be a skilled fundraiser...nobody is hiring social psychologists. This isn't about social change, this is about bureaucratic stability and growth.

Many advocates wrongly build their arguments on the faulty presumption that our large organizations have worked out the most persuasive and effective approach to challenging speciesism. The belief that big non-profits prioritize social change over fundraising leads many of us to uncritically accept some really strange positions. For instance, Dawn argues: "[ . . . ] softer campaigns get people to take that first step in the right direction." In other words, peddling happy meat (and, if we're lucky, vegetarianism) will lead people to become vegan.  Really? I'd like to see some evidence.

Research conducted by the meat industry itself has shown that increased concern about animal welfare has had no effect on consumption patterns. People are still eating animals because, 1) the animal rights movement isn't telling them there is any problem with doing so, and, 2) animal rights organizations put their stamp of approval on "happy" meat products.

Indeed, Tyson, Perdue, and other industries that profit from the exploitation of animals have been jumping on board.  Whole Foods, the epitomization of "soft campaigning,"  has been raking in millions of dollars thanks in no small part to animal welfare's sold out philosophy.

Dawn's argument is drawing on the social psychology of meeting people where they are: make people feel good about their present attitudes and behaviors and they will be more compliant. That's fair enough, but there is no evidence to support the censorship of veganism and the outright denigration of vegan principles by major organizations will do anything to move people towards veganism. Organizations aren't meeting people where they are in order to nudge them away from speciesism, they're meeting people where they are so as not to alienate potential check writers.

Reverse psychology only works on little children. "I bet you won't go vegan!" might get an obstinate five year old to trade in a McDonalds Happy Meal for soy nuggets and Silk milk, but censoring veganism from animal rights campaigning is not going to convince the public that veganism is achievable or ethically imperative. The animal rights industry's "soft stance" has nothing to do with effectiveness of persuasion and everything to do with insuring a constant donation flow from the conservative funders that keep them in business.

Misconstruing the science of social change with the science of exploiting people for money in the name of social change is really quite problematic. Animal welfare does little if anything to advance veganism. All it does is advance industry interests and make abolitionist advocacy that much more difficult for the rest of us. It is our job as a social movement to advocate for the society we want to see. If we want a vegan world, we have to advocate for veganism and nothing short of that. Some people will go vegan, others will not. Some will reduce their intake, some will start to think more critically. It is up to us to set the standards and start dismantling structures that impede behavior change. Meeting people where they are means taking seriously the barriers that prevent people from going vegan. This does not entail pretending veganism isn't important. Neither does it entail obscuring veganism with the hopes that some people will magically surmise how important veganism is.