Friday, January 9, 2015

On the Problems with Open Rescues: A Response to the DXE Position

Yes, images can elicit emotions which can, in turn, inspire action. No, they need not be graphic, and graphic images can backfire within a political environment that normalizes welfare reform as the appropriate response to animal exploitation. Image courtesy of The Abolitionist Vegan Society.

Following the new Direct Action Everywhere (DXE) campaign in open rescue which mirrors popular fundraising campaigns of larger non-profits, DXE issued a brief essay that outlines four reasons justifying the necessity of open rescues:
Providing a window into the world of animal abuse is Reason #1 for open investigation and rescue. [ . . . ]
Reason #2: Undercover investigations – in which an activist obtains employment and secretly takes footage of a facility – face serious obstacles. [ . . . ]
Reason #3: Open rescue is a powerful statement of our opposition to an oppressive system.  
Reason #4: Open rescue saves animals, and tells their individual stories.
As an feminist abolitionist, I have many issues with this position, a position that, granted, I do not find surprising given DXE's structure that closely mirrors that of professionalized organizations like PETA, Compassion over Killing, Mercy for Animals, and other co-opted organizations that prioritize attention at any cost ( cover costs).

As a scientific matter, the utility of morally shocking imagery is highly contested. This is something that I reviewed extensively in my 2013 publication with Society & Animals. Wayne Hsiung is correct to focus on "abuse" and not "use" in his first point: those viewing this imagery understand it within the mental schema of welfarism. Decades of powerful welfarist mobilization have conditioned the American public to react to graphic images of animal suffering with a desire to reform and donate, not with a commitment to go vegan or end humanity's use of Nonhuman Animals altogether. Open rescue has historically been a tactic of major welfarist organizations that have socialized viewers to respond with support for welfarism. There is no reason to believe that DXE's work will be interpreted any differently. Certainly, many abolitionists believe they can use the tools of welfarism towards an abolitionist goal, but this position can only be understood as new-welfarism, which is simply a reincarnation of old, ineffectual tactics working within the structure of reform, fundraising, and the non-profit industrial complex.

This argument also relates to Hsiung's second point: just how much more open-rescue footage do we need exactly? Many organizations have been obtaining similar footage since the 1970s, and, while DXE claims their undercover footage is "groundbreaking," many other large non-profits also target "humane" agricultural facilities. We have the information; we have the images. I suspect that the true reason for continuing these rescues is to maintain the treadmill of activity for grant proposals. That is, these kinds of activities have very low impact in regard to the number of animals saved (and the animals saved will be replaced immediately), however, they make for a good story on websites and grant proposals. Vegan education efforts don't make for glamorous or exciting photo opportunities, and vegan education is also aimed at seriously challenging systems of oppression. Both of these things are scary to funders and non-vegan audience members who would prefer to point the finger at the individual "bad apple" facility operators as the perpetrators of violence, not themselves as consumers or the system they benefit from.

Open rescues keep the system as it is and thus protect the interests of conservative foundations that maintain most grant monies. Open rescues also give non-profits something to write about and fund-raise behind. DXE may pride itself in resisting the heavy reliance on funding that characterize other non-profits, but the donation rhetoric that they do engage reads chillingly similar to that of the larger non-profits.1 For that matter, their logo is plastered on their outreach for a reason. This isn't 100% about Nonhuman Animal liberation, it is also, to some extent, about advertising their organization/brand. The social movement arena is a competitive world. To survive and thrive, a group needs to raise resources. To do so, it has to start prioritizing single-issue campaigns, shocking imagery, brand promotion, and yes, fundraising.

It also needs full-time employees to run the organization and more funding to pay them to do so. Like other professionalized organizations, DXE maintains the pro-capitalist position that some privileged individuals will be paid to advocate.2 Funding careerists is problematic because it supposes that we can "buy" the revolution. First, not everyone can access the privilege of non-profit employment; the non-profit system is known to reproduce social inequality by under-representing oppressed groups on the payroll.3 Secondly, it is capitalism that has created this oppression, capitalism is not going to end it. Dismantling oppression will require the efforts of millions of individuals, and it is not plausible for them to expect a paycheck or stipend. Oppressed groups have been doing this important work for hundreds of years without access to these resources--only the privileged non-profit sector would so arrogantly presume that anti-oppression work could also pay the bills. The notion that we can work against the forces of capitalism while simultaneously earning an income from it is nonsensical and it is also privileged. This is advocacy as industry.

DXE's point number three ("Open rescue is a powerful statement of our opposition to an oppressive system") I believe also runs into conflict with the actual impact of graphic imagery on an audience. I have thus far argued that graphic imagery can trigger a welfarist response, but, relatedly, it may also reinforce distancing and domination.This consequence is something that DXE has considered as well. Earlier publications by DXE report (as a result of their very own research) that the use of graphic images of Nonhuman Animals suffering is easily counterproductive. Kelly Atlas writes:
Horrific, graphic images can trigger defense mechanisms that make people shy away from the scene, thereby discouraging engagement with the liberationist message and political activity. [ . . . ] 
I am also concerned that repeatedly seeing images of people of a given group (nonhumans) being objectified by one's own group (humans) may normalize their objectification in the viewer's mind.
Indeed, in an essay for Vegan Feminist Network, I have likened this use of imagery to the mechanisms of pornography. It seeks to elicit a physiological reaction by presenting images of degraded and objectified bodies to the privileged human gaze:
The entire point of pornography is to titillate via the sexual degradation and humiliation of an oppressed body.  Those who consume pornography are consuming it specifically to “get off,” so to speak, on the demonstrated powerlessness of otherized bodies.  The relationship between the viewer and the viewee is one that reproduces and reinforces a hierarchy of domination.  Pornography users also report experiencing a “tolerance,” meaning increasingly degrading and shocking imagery is needed for them to feel something.  The pornography industry is happy to serve that need by producing increasingly disturbing media. [ . . . ] 
So what makes it any different for vegan advocates who share these images with the intention of shocking people with images of violated and degraded animal bodies?  And for that matter, what gives them the right?  
Atlas goes on to suggest that images that recognize the personhood of survivors may be more useful, but I see no difference from open-rescue imagery and, say, that of Hurricane Katrina rescues or Ebola interventions. People of privilege produce and share these images to create a shocking response, but in a way that reinforces the privilege of the viewer and the objectification of the persons in the image. Farm victim/Katrina victim/Ebola victim=object; Humans/whites/westerners=subject. These images are common: bodies degraded by a society that does not value them, put on display for persons of privilege who will, as a social psychological matter, interpret them in ways that protect the system of oppression that produced them. Has imagery incited collective action and individual transformation? Absolutely. But positive outcomes are only one of many consequences of this tactic.

I also believe that DXE also makes a critical mistake in conflating open rescue with emotionally-charged imagery. They are separate issues. We don't need open rescue to create imagery that inspires social change. However, DXE makes it appear that, without open rescue, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement lacks arsenal. In doing so, Hsiung pulls out the tired accusation that the vegan abolitionist approach consists only of "dry information." He is also drawing on the popular direct action ideology that is critical and suspicious of non-violent, education-based advocacy (see Elizabeth DeCoux's publication in Animal Law for a more detailed reflection of the position shared by DXE). In my piece with Society & Animals, I counter this position with a brief content analysis of abolitionist websites and publications. Despite claims made by Hsiung and other direct action advocates and welfarists, abolitionists actually draw on emotionally-charged imagery quite heavily. Narratives are being told in countless ways that do not rely on the limited (and sometimes counterproductive) nature of open rescues. I think the prevailing difference is that abolitionists work to ground their imagery within clear abolitionist claimsmaking.

I believe there is a major difference between audience interpretation of images produced by DXE or Animal Equality and images produced by The Abolitionist Vegan Society or Vegan Information Project. The former relies on traditional welfarist structures to elicit a physiological response that will encourage the "Do something, anything! Less talk, more action! Take my money! Reform it!" type of mentality. The latter is more likely to encourage viewers to consider an anti-speciesist perspective and a vegan lifestyle. The vegan education approach is also likely to be much more resource efficient. Education works, it is cheap, and it is accessible. The impacts of veganism are also farther reaching than single-issue campaigns that open rescues tend to prioritize.

1. From the DXE donation page: "Yes, we could use funding. Materials, cameras, and technology aren't cheap. Our groundbreaking investigations of 'certified humane'  farms cost a tiny fraction of what is spent in comparable investigations by large non-profits, but expenses still often run into the thousands of dollars."
2. From the DXE donation page: "And a small number of DxE Fellows and Investigators have given up their careers to work for animals; we hope to support them with activist stipends."
3. I do not know the data for DXE, which is actively more racially inclusive, but the Nonhuman Animal rights industry as a whole tends to reserve paid positions for white men of means.