August 14, 2007

More on Peta, Welfare, NeoCarns, Oh my!

Posted in abolition, animal advocacy, animal rights at 12:22 am by nevavegan

Today Bruce Friedrich posted a response to the inspiring essay by Jenny Stein and James LaVeck. Bruce’s response is here on Animalblawg.

Having discussed this issue many times I’m disappointed to see the repetition of the idea that those who advocate for abolition OPPOSE welfare reforms. I know of nobody who opposes larger cages or more humane slaughter methods, quite the contrary.

What is at issue is whether or not the largest and best known animal advocacy groups are in essence putting a seal of approval on certain “humane animal products” by declaring minor (though certainly positive) reforms as major victories. Or to put this another way, as I’ve said many times before: if PeTA gives an award to the designer of a slaughterhouse does that give the general public the impression that what goes on at that slaughterhouse is morally acceptable?

I know that Bruce has previously answered this question as no, he does not believe that the word “award” conveys approval or endorsement. He and I just see this differently as I do feel that the words “award” and “victory” imply that the fruits of those victories, ie the animal products coming from those award winning slaughterhouses have the PeTA seal of approval on them.

I admire Bruce’s work greatly and am thrilled that he saw fit to reiterate his position that there is no such thing as a humane animal product in his recent article. My admiration doesn’t change the fact that I’m troubled by some of the wording in some recent campaigns, some from PeTA, more from HSUS and other groups.

This might be a simple difference in personal philosophy. I think that we can set the bar high and keep telling people that veganism is the only choice for people who love animals. The industry can then respond to that as they see fit, which would hopefully be to push through humane reforms on their own. In addition there are groups, like AWI or the farmers on the panel at TAFA who have no other goal than these welfare reforms and can continue to push for them. I would see this as “both ends against the center” with animal rights groups and activists pressuring the consumers with a message that veganism is the only humane choice, and then with the animal welfare side pressuring the industry to reform. But we all need to determine our own role in this and try to act in accord with our own integrity. Feeling that it’s a positive thing that others are pushing for welfare reforms isn’t necessarily an indication that we need to put the majority of our energy or financial resources into pushing for those reforms ourselves.

To imply that people who do not work toward welfare reforms are not acting in accord with the golden rule is somewhat insulting. As is the comparison of our view to the current regime in Iran. We all interpret this differently, often in keeping with our own experiences. But my views do stem from caring and I do often try to put myself in the position of the animal, as imperfect as that approach may be. I also recognize that how I’ve felt in certain situations, or my projection in trying to imagine how I would feel may not determine the best long term strategies for the movement as a whole.

But it is valuable to the welfare side to continue to paint abolitionists as bumbling morons who lack empathy. Because it is easy to dismiss our views if you feel we are stupid, immoral, or misinformed. What I see going on in the movement though is a deliberate effort to marginalize activists who do advocate for abolition. TAFA saw fit to include “humane” farmers who presented saccharine accounts of killing animals. We were assured that these animal exploiters were included because we’re all on the same side. However, those promoting abolition or with doubts about the Whole Foods, Humane Certified, small family farmers theme were excluded from the conference. So there was a range of views presented, but heavily skewed in one direction, with one whole end of the spectrum chopped off as if it didn’t exist.

I do wish we had decent studies on the topic of how people interpret and respond to animal welfare reforms, because I would be swayed by hard data. However there is a tendency within the movement to confuse correlation and causation. For example I often hear people repeat that humane reforms lead to more vegetarians because the countries with the most vegetarians have the most humane laws. This is correlation, not causation. It’s equally likely that vegetarians push for humane reforms, or that some other third factor in the population leads to increases in both.

For me personally I don’t feel it’s my role to make people feel better about continuing to eat animals. As with any of us as activists, my thought stem from my own experiences. I came from an agricultural background and never even remotely thought there was anything wrong with killing animals, so long as it was done “humanely.” I became a vegetarian in my teens reluctantly because I was upset about the practices of large scale animal agriculture. Once I stopped eating animals I was able to take a step back from a belief system I’d been steeped in and realize the problems with the entire practice of breeding, raising, and slaughtering animals for food. Had anyone told me during this time that I could happily eat free range chicken, I’m sure I would have done so.

This is not to say that the animals need to suffer the worst abuses so people like me can wake up and see the light. Instead I’m saying that I really feel I’m vegan today because I wasn’t told that free range chicken, grass fed beef, or cage free eggs were huge victories. Worse, when we declare reforms by fast food chains as victories, when those animals are still treated in a way that just defies the imagination of most average consumers, are we putting a stamp of approval on fast food products? Keep in mind that the declaration of victory with Burger King went out on every major newswire and even made the TV news and got commentary on talk shows. Bruce’s essay stating that he is for welfare reforms but still feels there is no humane meat, that went out on two major blogs. That’s a large audience, but clearly not as large as the audience that heard that Burger King is now humane.

I value the honesty of the PeTA pamphlets and mailings I got when I was younger that kept telling me over and over that veganism was the only option to end the suffering of non-human animals. I took a half-way step and became vegetarian before becoming vegan, but I was never told that this was ok, that this was the end of my journey. PeTA set the bar incredibly high–a life where compassion had to touch every aspect from my plate to my shoes to my shampoo. PeTA also never wavered from the idea that every single person who got a pamphlet from them was capable of achieving this.

I try to approach others as I would want to be approached, with complete honesty and openness on the issues. I don’t chase people down and call them names, or act unkindly toward them, because I’ve been there and then some, but I do let them know how I see the situation. In keeping with that I would not feel I was treating another human being the way I myself would want to be treated if I pre-judged them as too unkind, too lacking in compassion, or too ignorant to understand the basic concept that animals are not ours to use. It is a radical concept, it takes some getting used to, but if I can get it I really believe that almost anyone can.

I know Bruce employs the same respect and honesty with other people when he gives presentations or talks to people one on one, of course. But I return to my earlier point that the campaigns for welfare reforms and the subsequent declarations of victory may send a different message to the average consumer. Particularly as PeTA has the reputation of being the hard line on opposing animal cruelty, so if even PeTA thinks Burger King is awesome, then shouldn’t we all eat there?



  1. jen said,

    my views on this subject most closely align with those expressed by josh hooten in his “herbivore” essay on TAFA: although i wouldn’t choose to expend much of my personal resources on seeking welfare reforms, i think there is a lot of room for differing approaches, and i don’t even really have a problem with different approaches coming from the same organization. i don’t contribute to HSUS or PeTA anymore; if they think pursuing welfare reforms is worthwhile, who am i to tell them what they should do with their money?

    i don’t understand the vehemence of some people’s insistence that HSUS stop trying to pursue welfare reforms, why is worse for a vegan to advocate welfare reforms than it is for a non-vegan to advocate those same reforms? we might not wish to expend our resources on this effort, but why get so upset because they do? why is it so much worse than al gore failing to emphasize the environmental impact of meat, or the WWF focusing on cuddly animals? yes, HSUS is big and powerful, but they are that way for a reason. if we think we can do a better job, we should start our own animal rights organization solely devoted to vegan advocacy, that doesn’t put any resources to welfare reforms.

    i really think if we cut through all the bitterness and hyperbole that’s built up on both sides of this debate, the two sides are really not very far apart. there is a world of difference between:

    A. “cage-free eggs are humane.”
    – and –
    B. “cage-free eggs are bettter than regular eggs, but the only truly humane choice is to go vegan.”

    everyone on both sides of this debate agrees that A is false and B is true. i do think that the materials HSUS and PeTA put out sometimes cross the line and give the impression that they are saying A is true. (admittedly, allowing the AWI session at TAFA, from what i’ve heard, was a serious trangression over that line.)

    so yes, there is an issue here worth discussing (that is, how do we say “B” in a way that won’t be misinterpreted as “A,” or perhaps, is it impossible to say “B” without being misinterpreted as saying “A”?) — but how do we get from this to the war we are now having in the animal rights community? how has it come to this when it’s really just an issue of interpretation, as you point out, in which the two sides disagree how the “welfarist” statements are being interpreted?

    i think a lot of the problem is the internet. seriously. 99% of this debate is being carried out on the internet. from what i’ve seen, most of the “welfarists” are NOT painting most “abolitionists” as bumbling morons who lack empathy. a few “welfarists” are, because of the weaknesses of internet communication, framing their views in ways that come off as attacks, and in part they are doing that in response to what they reasonably perceive as attacks from a few “abolitionists” who likewise have a hard time being civil to the “welfarists” via the internet (and who sometimes almost seem to be on a witchhunt against HSUS and PeTA). if people would just have an actual face-to-face conversation, maybe they could talk civilly and “agree to disagree.”

    personally, although i rarely advocate the “agreeing to disagree”, i think that is the best thing for the animals at this point.

    sorry for the long post!

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks for your thoughts Jen. Yes, Bruce did follow up to say that he certainly didn’t mean to insult anyone. I guess we get passionate about these things and as you say, the internet lets things get more conflict-filled. It’s not that I’m insistent that HSUS pursue abolition, but since HSUS did absorb the Fund and former leadership of COK, who used to promote abolition, I might have expected more from them. Also the wording of some campaigns and press releases have disturbed me greatly (the dove hunting one comes to mind). I don’t think there’s much to be gained by pursuing a welfare reform without even mentioning ethical issues, and even in some cases selling out other animals (the dove hunting one said that it’s better to hunt other birds anyway). I also do feel that the welfare contingent, demonstrated at TAFA, is worsening divides within the animal community.

  3. jen said,

    i agree about being disappointed about the “evolution” that a lot of animal rights activists have made away from a clear abolitionist message and towards embracing welfare reforms. (although i still consider them abolitionists.) to the extent that i ever had heroes in my life, it was some of these people. it’s heartbreaking in a way to have to part ways ideologically with your heroes, and there have been moments where i’ve even had some anger over it. but i realized that’s all my personal “issues.” there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by someone, but getting upset and angry just because my heroes don’t act how i expected them to act, there’s nothing positive about that. so i’ve come to judge their actions not through the lens of “these are my former heroes,” but by looking at what they are doing objectively as if they were strangers to me.

    once i look objectively i see that this is an area that reasonable people can differ on, and all that other stuff i said in my first comment. and if nothing else, i’ve learned that life is too complicated for hero worship.

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