May 24, 2007

Tackling Taking Action for Animals

Posted in abolition, Francione, rant, TAFA, vegan at 4:36 pm by nevavegan

Warning: Rant ahead, mind the curves

Something has been brewing in my mind for a while, and the main side effect of that is to make me horribly depressed… Sigh. Mainly this seemed to be something beyond even my ability to blog. That something is HSUS’s conference taking place in July in Washington, DC, called “Taking Action for Animals.”

As opposed to the “other conference,” Farm’s Animal Rights 2007, taking place this summer on the West Coast, in L.A., “Taking Action for Animals” tosses the concept of rights out the window, by eliminating it from the title. The new title implies participants should be active, and it’s somehow about animals, but the rest is left to our imagination.

HSUS decided to co-opt the annual conferences and start their own, claiming at the time the regular conference was giving a platform to speakers who promoted violence and illegal activity. Rather than continuing to participate in that conference, and therefore give a voice to their ideal of legal, non-violent activity, they pulled up stakes and started their own conference.

Unfortunately another side effect of shutting out those supposedly “violent” voices, was also shutting out voices of anyone who had a new or creative vision, anyone who had an issue with the status quo. HSUS had their own platform now and they could deny admission to anyone they chose. Make no mistake, there are many people in the movement who aren’t invited to TAFA, even though they have never promoted any kind of illegal activity. There are others who will be speaking there, who did promote illegal activity in the past, but are now employed by HSUS and who can be counted on to speak only on the HSUS agenda.

I’m not necessarily opposed to people creating their own conferences for their own specialized agendas, after all, everyone has a right. So the first few years of Taking Action for Animals I merely waited to see how it would go, asked my friends who attended for their opinions, and withheld judgment.

What brings this issue up for me now is that Whole Foods is co-sponsoring the conference this year, and a representative of Whole Foods will be speaking there. I don’t know if Whole Foods has any say in who speaks or what topics will be covered. I’d like to know that, but unfortunately I don’t know because HSUS won’t answer my questions in that regard.

Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing replied that essentially it’s a great conference, COK is co-sponsoring as well, and she hopes to see me there. That unfortunately didn’t answer my fundamental questions about the role of Whole Foods in shaping conference content.

Another group that I won’t name, which is also speaking at the conference indicated to me that they were not given any restrictions on content based on Whole Foods participation. Which is great, but the questions I have are still ones which really only can be answered by conference organizers, that is HSUS, not by groups that naturally want to attend and promote their ideas.

Why would it bother me that Whole Foods is participating in the conference? Well that really depends on the unanswered questions. Is Whole Foods going to be promoting the “humane meat” they reap insane profits from? Will they be touting organic cow’s milk, and “artisan cheeses?” Or are they simply going to be handing out vegan food samples and recipes? Because things like that actually matter. Because I feel veganism is the fundamental key to helping animals, and I honestly cannot name another person I know in the movement who doesn’t agree with that.

My husband Sean Day, who has spoken at numerous Animal Rights conferences asked TAFA if he could also speak there, to speak about the dangers of promoting humane meat and to emphasize that in his opinion, the movement toward veganism must be our primary focus. He also intended to criticize Whole Foods “compassion certified meat.” He was told that unfortunately all speakers were already set and it was too late for him to participate. After he was told this, more speakers were added to the conference, and one of those new speakers confirmed to me that he had been asked to speak after Sean had already been told there were no more openings for speakers. It doesn’t surprise me. I knew that HSUS wouldn’t let him speak, because to go in and say that veganism is within reach of everyone, and that it is fundamental to our cause is simply too threatening to HSUS. I just wish they could have been honest and come right out and said they didn’t want him there instead of telling an obvious and easily disproved lie.

So Sean will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Pattrice Jones, whose voice I’ve found so inspirational, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Gary Francione, who inspires some of us and alternately enrages others, but never fails to engage or get people talking, will not be speaking at Taking Action for Animals. Alex Herschaft of FARM won’t be speaking. Lee Hall, who actually wrote an entire book decrying illegal and/or violent/threatening tactics in animal rights, will not be speaking at the conference which claims it was specifically formed to fight those tendencies.

I don’t necessarily agree with every speaker listed above, but I absolutely feel that the way we form thoughtful and considered views is by hearing many opinions and weighing them against our own ethics and experience. In this manner we come to posses the tools (not final answers, not absolute truths) but the tools, intellectual and persuasive, to help us go back out into that wild world and spread veganism. I absolutely believe I got involved in veganism and animal rights, despite my farming roots and hunting family, because I had the ability to step back from things and ask tough questions and listen to all viewpoints. I was able to hear views contrary to my own and not dismiss them out of hand. Back in the beginning I listened to the anti-animal camp as well, you know. I weighed what I heard against my own heart, read a lot of voices, and found the solutions that worked for me, which made sense here and now. I believe our movement will lose something so vital when we shut out the voices of the thinkers and theorists, just because they might go outside the HSUS box.

And lest HSUS claims that the exclusion of these speakers is to avoid controversy, may I point to one of their keynote speakers last year: Rory Freedman, co-author of the book Skinny Bitch. Now, I’m not going to make this long entry longer by doing a book review of Skinny Bitch, but lets just say it’s certainly not uncontroversial. I participate in the Vegan People forum and I can’t tell you how many times eating disordered young women have joined the forum saying that Skinny Bitch has inspired them to use veganism to lose even more weight. Some feminists I know lament the degrading language the book uses to cajole women into veganism out of shame over their bodies. I believe the authors defend the book saying the foul and degrading language is a “joke” and that the severely calorie restricted diets presented there are meant to help the obese lose weight. Personal mileage may vary, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes veganism should be a celebration of life, health for ourselves and all creatures, and a bastion of safety, not another way to kill or sicken young women in the pursuit of an unrealistic body ideal.

So, um, calling women names if they happen to get chubby, that’s fine, no problem there. Letting Gary Francione say that vegans should not advocate minor animal agriculture reform, but should spend their time promoting veganism, hey, watch out, that’s crazy talk!



  1. bazu said,

    Wow- I wasn’t even aware of this conference taking place. As much as I want there to be room in the world for both animal rights and animal welfare to co-exist (I know that some say such a thing is impossible) I can’t shake the nagging feeling that there is something so illogical and inauthentic about animal welfare sometimes. I don’t just want the pig out of the gestation crate, I want her to not be exploited and killed, dammit! Boooo.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thank for your comment. I feel like I’m going out on a limb here with being kind of negative, but it’s also been on my mind a lot.

    I don’t want to try to limit anyone’s ability to act and speak their conscience naturally. So if someone really wanted to push for bigger cages and that’s what their conscience dictated, that’s one thing.

    Most of the people I know who are involved with this conference are actually ethical vegans, and hold veganism as an ideal. However, they are pushing for welfare reforms because they seem to feel that they’ve “tried everything” to promote veganism and it isn’t working. In my view we haven’t tried everything to promote veganism, we haven’t even begun to try yet!

    But more troubling than their own decision to promote welfare reforms is the concentrated effort to shut out and marginalize any voices that object or express dismay. So not only will the audience hear welfare reforms promoted, they’ll be prevented from hearing any analysis of why those welfare reforms might not be the most effective tactic.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that there’s something illogical and inauthentic about welfare reform efforts. In a basic sense I really feel that this is because the people pushing for it don’t honestly believe in it and this shows on many levels. It divides the movement and creates enemies out of former allies, as the promoters of the welfare reforms appear to speak out of both sides of their mouths. At the same time our opposition plays this up with the public, pointing out that those pushing welfare reforms are often vegan themselves; this makes it possible for them to claim that we’re deceptive and have “a hidden agenda.”

    But like I said, I’m most upset about the effort to shut out and silence opposing views.

  3. pattrice jones said,

    Neva, thanks again for mentioning me. I wish that TAFA would invite me to speak and I have absolutely no idea why they don’t. I am very friendly with many of the folks at HSUS and none of them have ever expressed to me directly any problems with my words or my work.

    Here’s an interesting story: At the first TAFA, the freegans rented a conference room in the same hotel and put on some parallel presentations, polited scheduled so as to augment but not in any way conflict with the TAFA schedule. The idea was to give conference-goers the chance to hear some of the ideas that they wouldn’t be hearing at the main event.

    They asked me to give a lunchtime talk on feministm, direct action, and animal liberation. The room was packed — literally standing room only — even though people had to give up free time to attend. Luckily for me, this was one of those times when exhaustion leads to inspiration. (I had been invited only the day before and had to take an overnight bus to get there.) I used stories from the sanctuary to illustrate my ideas about things like how we use (and abuse) animals to construct our ideas about gender. Because I was so sleepy, my feelings were right there on the surface as I talked. The audience was right there with me, emotionally as well as intellectually. We had a blast! The conversation afterwards was so lively that I had to cut it off in order to make sure that they all got to their next official TAFA talk on time.

    I’ve since learned that quite a few people didn’t even realize that my talk wasn’t part of the conference. It would be funny to me if their positive response to my talk influenced the feedback they gave the conference organizers!

    In any event, that day certainly told me (although not, evidently, the organizers of TAFA) that their attendees do want to hear the kinds of things that I and other excluded speakers can offer.

    My next TAFA story is not so happy. Last year, the folks who work on the Global Justice for Animals campaign against the “free trade” agreements that facilitate things like the international expansion of factory farming and the international trade in fighting roosters showed up at TAFA to pass out some literature. They have been working hard to try to get HSUS to stop colluding with the Bush regime by testifying in favor of “free trade” agreements. They came to TAFA not to disrupt but simply to politely pass out literature explaining how these agreements hurt animals and inviting HSUS supporters to join them in asking HSUS to change its stance. [And they did so only after fruitlessly trying, with my help, to get HSUS to dialogue directly with them.] HSUS had hotel security physicaly remove someone who was politely passing out that literature to attendees. Really, that’s not okay.

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Pattrice, I’m not even sure what to say. There’s a lot more to this story than I ever knew. While you say that you are friendly with everyone at HSUS and have no idea why you’re excluded, I’m tempted to view this in less happy terms. The groups that do have speakers coming have mostly had to pay for the privilege of sharing their ideas, but they also have to pass the test I guess, that nothing they say will run counter to HSUS in any way. For you to go there and tell individual people that they have the power to enact change by living their consciences and spreading their message takes power away from the money-making machine that is HSUS. HSUS will tell people to be active, but only on their terms, and most of the “action alerts” I get from HSUS tell me to send them money–that’s the way I’m supposed to be active, with my checkbook. I’ve never gotten an action alert from HSUS telling me to become vegan, incidentally…But I guess I should be careful what I type. I’m a little upset by your story of security taking people out of the conference, and also by the fact that nobody at HSUS will respond to my queries or to my friend Jessica’s queries either.

    I really don’t think that HSUS did not get the message that attendees are hungry for varying viewpoints. They know people are open to many messages and want information, so the intent is to limit the flow of information, so the only message that can get through is theirs.

    I’m getting so tied in knots over this that I haven’t been blogging other topics. I just need to get past it. I just hate to see the animal rights movement taken over by people employing similar tactics to, say, the Republican party, and thus gaining the financial power, and the message-control power brought by those tactics, while meanwhile the whole question of why we’re bothering with animal rights in the first place is entirely forgotten.

  5. jain said,

    How sad this is. I recently went to AR 2007 and never got the full story about what had happened with HSUS. This only fragments and dilutes the movement. Instead of moving the mainstream toward more humane living, the HSUS has moved with the mainstream thinking, or rather non-thinking.

    I wondered if I was missing anything at Tafa. Now I know I would have been disappointed had I gone.

  6. Always Vegan said,

    Hello Neva, I just returned from the conference and had a few things to say about what you mentioned.

    There were in fact many people at the conference who spoke about veganism being an attainable goal for everyone. Erik from being one of them.

    There were, ofcourse, a few exceptions. The Whole Foods presentation came off as more of a sales pitch than anyting. I felt like I was at a corporate job training, like I’d just been hired to work at Whole Foods and was going to be tested on the material later. The supposed reason they were given a platform was because of their movement toward more “humane methods” of farming. (Though humane farming might be considered an oximoron.)

    I’d venture to say the real reason was because they were a sponsor, and they paid for a platform.

    The general consensus of the conference was, even though the ultimate goal is world veganism, sometimes we must accept a lesser evil for the time being. I’m not saying that “humane farming” is the solution to the problem of animal cruelty or factory farming, but it could be a step in the right direction, and if anything it is the beginning of a transition to full veganism.

  7. jain said,

    always vegan,
    You said this is a step in the right direction but I don’t agree. Although it matters to the animals, I think if people feel better about how animals are raised, it makes it easier for them to eat them. Logically, the world cannot raise enough “humane” meat and so it is an impossible goal.

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