Thursday, March 5, 2015

Reining in the Elephants: Thinking Critically about Single-Issue Campaigns

Before I begin this article, I want to start out by saying that I am happy for the handful of elephants who will never again step foot in a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. But for the remaining elephants who will continue to be exploited in the circus's "conservation" facility, the camels that are being added to the show to take their placeand the billions of animals who have been snubbed by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as activists rally around charismatic species like circus elephants while ignoring the importance of veganism, I continue to mourn. Not to rain on the parade, but it is at this time we should give pause and think critically about our tactics and goals.

The first thing that strikes me about this "victory" is how it is being handled by the circus itself as a means to improve their image and improve sales. The circus corporation writes:
This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephants for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild. ...This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers.
Gosh, if I didn't know any better, I'd say this circus is the elephants' best friend! This process is known as "humane-washing." It happens when a company uses the rhetoric of "humane" to increase sales and public comfort with their inherently problematic product. This is not unique to the circus. Consider the following excerpt from Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability (2013) by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister. Walmart and other large companies that profit from suffering are:
[ . . . ] taking over the idea of sustainability and turning it into a tool of business control and growth that projects an image of corporate social responsibility [ . . . ] 
[It is] proving to be a powerful strategy for corporations in a rapidly globalizing economy marked by financial turmoil and a need for continued strategic repositioning. It is also enhancing the credibility and influence of these companies in states, in civil society, in supply chains, and in retail markets. And it is shifting the power balance within the global political arena from states as the central rule makers and enforcers of environmental goals toward big-brand retailers and manufacturers acting to use "sustainability" to protect their private interests." (p. 2)
We must be suspicious when a company appears to be appealing to customer demands for a "humane" or "sustainable" product when the business itself continues to profit from the exploitation of the vulnerable. By taking the initiative, the corporation retains the power to define both the problems and the solutions. It is infinitely wiser for the corporation to act first to superficially address ethical concerns before the state steps in to create those definitions for it. What does it mean when corporations like Barnum & Bailey are in charge of "liberation" and "conservation"? Customer concerns are placated, future restrictions from the state are avoided, and the strategy actually becomes marketable.

Customers and activists alike can feel good about the circus now. However, as with many corporate-driven attempts to improve ethical problems, the improvements tend to be relatively meaningless and hide continued issues. Abolitionist project "My Face is On Fire" (MFIOF) reports on the new home for the "liberated" elephants:
This center is basically a breeding and training center. They loan out elephants and/or provide sperm to zoos so that they can stay well-stocked with elephants for their own customers. The Center has been criticized repeatedly for being a dreary place for the elephants. It's sometimes been called the elephant equivalent of a puppy mill. So how is this a victory for the elephants?
Even PETA calls bullshit. The "conservation center," Newkirk insists, is a for-profit enterprise that continues to hurt elephants under the guise of charity and with all of the benefits that a true charity might receive in the form of government and public support.

Ultimately, this is the corporation taking matters into its own hands to capitalize on the public's concern for animals in order to rebrand itself as "humane" and "sustainable." Make no mistake, this circus continues to enslave and exploit many other species. But as non-animal acts like Cirque du Soleil seem increasingly modern and fresh, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey seem more like archaic and outdated relics of the past, the organization knows that riding the wave of the "humane" movement will be good for business. Of course, dumping animal acts altogether is likely not an option, as the corporation is well aware that the public still sees Nonhuman Animals as objects of resource, and animals sell. Elephants bad. Camels good. This moral inconsistency is thanks in part to the Nonhuman Animal rights movement that has always prioritized "special" species and ignored vegan education efforts. MFIOF continues:
Members of the general public will probably fall all over themselves to rush to the circus over the next three years to get "one last chance" to see the elephants go through the motions they've had hammered into them by their "trainers". When they're gone, they'll no doubt breathe a collective sigh of relief (after all, elephants are like land dolphins or giant baby seals) and then feel "better" about continuing to support the circus once they're gone. After all, animal advocates are cheering, aren't they?
Retiring elephants is a corporate strategy to dilute activist pressure and improve customer confidence in their brand
So what sort of victory are we celebrating here?  Instead of embracing a consistent, holistic vegan-centric message of liberation, the movement has irrationally focused on a few popular species, succeeded in moving elephants from one prison to another, and made a wide open space for the new camel act. For that matter, activists may have had little to do with the so-called "victory" at all. Barnum & Bailey is on elephant conservation like Walmart is on organic veggies.

If single-issue campaigns are so limited in their impact, so dependent upon unethical corporate interests to succeed, and so expensive in the resources they require, why engage them at all? In response to the "victory," T.O.F.U. Magazine writes:
Yes, there's more to be done, but everyone needs to know that progress is possible. 
That, I believe, is one of the main reasons that single-issue campaigns are engaged: for activist morale, not for effectiveness in the grand scheme. Activist morale is, of course, important to sustain a movement, but when the psychological needs of human activists surpasses effective strategy, it is time to get critical about what tactics we are choosing and why.

The Abolitionist Vegan Society writes:
Brace yourselves, abolitionists. Here come the "Victory!" (fundraising) emails from the nonabolitionist orgs because of the Ringling Bros. news.
Indeed. Perhaps even more important than upholding morale, single-issue campaigns are tools for fundraising. This is a point I explore in an article published in the academic journal, Food, Culture & Society (please email me for a full text copy if you are interested).  Again, this is less a matter of effective liberation strategy, and more of a matter of financial sustainability. Campaigning to reform or abolish "low hanging branches"--those social problems 99% of the public already agrees with, problems that generally pertain to "popular," "cute," or "majestic" animals--means that a social movement organization can count on easier access to resources. Again, it is important to take a serious look at our priorities. Are we a movement that seeks to capitalize on the public's preexisting pro-animal attitudes? Or are we a movement that seeks to challenge society's entrenched speciesism?

Decades of protesting, millions of dollars spent, and we've "succeeded" in shuffling elephants out of the circus ring and into a for-profit "breeding" center to the effect of improving the Ringling Bros. brand name. What if we'd put those resources into vegan education?

To summarize:

  1. Single-issue campaigns are generally a failure in disguise as they appear to abolish one form of oppression, but ultimately only make room for the increased oppression of others, or the oppression is simply transformed (in this case, elephants go from one jail to another, and tigers, dogs, camels, etc. will fill their space on the circus floor)
  2. Single-issue campaigns aggravate the irrational and speciesist compartmentalization of certain acts of animal oppression as especially "bad," while making invisible the higher-impact forms of animal oppression (like animal food consumption, the institution of domestication, etc.)
  3. To remain competitive, corporations will adopt superficial "humane" or "sustainable" measures to improve their brand image and increase sales
  4. Single-issue campaigns are low-impact for liberation, but beneficial for sustaining activist morale
  5. Single-issue campaigns are low-impact for liberation, but high impact for mobilizing resources
  6. Activists should consider whether or not capitalist growth is either necessary or congruent with a goal for achieving social justice (in other words, can capitalism solve our problems? Can we buy the revolution?)
  7. Activists should consider if their need to feel effectual is more important than actually being effectual 
  8. Vegan education may be less "exciting," but it is a higher impact form of low-cost activism that addresses all forms of oppression and avoids the problematic task of ranking which species and which forms of oppression are more important (decisions that ultimately lie on speciesist human preferences)
UPDATE 03/07/2015:  It appears that the circus's decision to cut elephants from the show also had a lot to do with the high levels of tuberculosis that are difficult to control among exploited elephants. Again, this is not a victory, this is a business move.