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!

May 5, 2007

When Boxers Take Their Balls and Go Home

Posted in Francione, marcus, vegan at 7:58 pm by nevavegan

That sounds more obscene than I really meant. It’s just mixing metaphors.

I’m referring of course to Erik Marcus’s latest podcast, where apropos of nothing he rants at the end about Gary Francione’s abandonment of a kind of pointless debate on the Satya boards. In this he compares this to a boxer forfeiting a match and complaining of stomach cramps, which he feels was a silly excuse (he actually says lame, but we all realize that we shouldn’t use that word). He implies that Francione walked away from the Satya board because he realized he was outmatched and gave up.

The debate on the Satya board was a sort of back and forth, informal thing between Hoss Firooznia and Gary Francione. I read the whole thing but didn’t post there, as I didn’t seem much value I could add and preferred not to get pulled in. Often such exchanges become a tad repetitive and falling yet again into those stereotypes we always see tossed around. Professor Francione supposedly left because he didn’t appreciate seeing another message board debater labeled a “Francione sock puppet.” But I’m not sure I would describe this as running scared from an outmatched fight.

Marcus employs a lot of loaded words to describe leaving: “cowardly,” “shameful,” and “laughing stock.”

So those are the words that Marcus associates with giving up the good fight, with bowing out. This strikes me as odd because those that Francione calls “the new welfarists” tend to be the same people that 10 years ago were protesting right at my side and were fervent about the idea of abolition. And now 10 years on, many of those same people seem to be spending a great deal of time and energy on initiatives like “humane slaughter” and bigger cages. When I ask these people what happened, why the change, the answer I get is that they “realize most people will never be vegan” and that there effort is now toward alleviating what suffering they can affect.

I understand the sentiment. We all want to help in any method we can. We all want to do something. If you look at all the horror all around us, doing nothing seems downright criminal. But is that not giving up in a manner? Isn’t that saying “I’ve seen the people and they are too unreachable, too selfish, too self-involved to ever really care”? Is this giving up the fight?

The difficulty is that I’ve seen the people too. It is intensely frustrating to get so much negative feedback from people who say “I just like meat too much” or “vegan? What are you, crazy?” The trouble is that the people who respond worst to the free samples of veggie burgers or the brochures you’re handing out actually represent the people most emotionally affected by the issue. Their denial may be deep; maybe so deep you’ll never get through it. But you just hope that you’re make the slightest dent in that denial, and you hope that guy has a vegan cousin who will make another dent, and then a news show on pollution from animal agriculture will make another dent. Just because someone doesn’t immediately respond well doesn’t mean they’re unreachable. I’d rather have someone get mad or get sad, or get defensive, than just shrug it off and say “so what.”

But there are actually a lot of people out there who do care about animals and do care about the environment and are caring, kind people. We can reach them, but they need good information and a consistent message. No, it won’t happen overnight. I couldn’t even venture an estimate. But I know I didn’t want to become vegan and it was a consistent message that it was the only way to solve the environmental and cruelty issues that convinced me I had to at least give it my best. I do know a lot of people for whom veganism really was a sudden overnight revelation and each person who realizes that adds to our weight, our seriousness, the growing volume of our message.

So many people have said to me “Neva, you’re living in some utopian, dream world. People are selfish, mean, and cruel. They will never listen to us.” I actually think I know as well as anyone the depths of which people are capable of sinking to. I also know that for many people when the chips are down, they come through more than we ever would have dreamed. But ok, bad people, that’s a problem. I’d be more discouraged by it if I didn’t see all around me vegans that do all the same things anyone else does. They gossip, they fight with each other, there are a few that just aren’t good people. Because guess what? You don’t have to be a saint to be vegan, you just have to change your grocery list, get in the habit of cooking a few different dishes, and then keep doing that. Worry about angel status later, worry about what you’re putting on your plate today.

Anyway, with the looming environmental crisis, nobody even has to be altruistic to give veganism a try. They can do it purely for selfish reasons, or because they care about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit.

Naturally since this is my blog and I’m hopeless self absorbed I have to put in some kind of personal anecdote. I’ll call this one “Why boxers quit.” See, my dad used to be a boxer. He was quite good in his time, though not professional. Then one day he just stopped. When I was little he still had two punching bags, the speed ball and the great big one, that he’d work out with. He seemed to me to really punish those punching bags, so I asked “Daddy, why don’t you box anymore?” He replied “I used to get into the ring knowing I’d annihilate my opponent. I had so much rage, and I knew that if that rage lessened I could just picture my stepfather’s face and I’d have a whole new supply. I wanted to put the other guy down and I knew I could do it. Then one day I got in the ring and I just didn’t want to kill the other guy. I searched for that bottomless supply of hate and anger and it just wasn’t there. And once I no longer wanted to kill another person I knew I wasn’t going anywhere as a fighter.”

So, what’s the point? Sometimes the people you think are fundamentally unreachable are in fact reachable. Sometimes the people you think represent the more negative qualities in humanity change and become something more. The first step is compassion. Let’s go spread some.

March 11, 2007

More about the rape analogy and more on Professor Francione

Posted in analogy, Francione, rape at 7:44 pm by nevavegan

It struck me sometime after my last post on the topic that there are a couple other problems with the rape analogy in the debate on welfare vs. rights (re: veganism).

It completely makes me feel like I’m diverting the discussion and I feel some guilt over that. At the same time I feel like the very use of the analogy diverts the discussion. Uggghhh, I can’t win.

The first and most obvious problem is appropriation of experience. This is a tricky one, because it would put the hypothetical objector, in this case me, in the position of sitting in judgment on the person using the analogy. Because I really can’t know if someone is speaking from personal experience or not.

But the appropriation argument goes roughly: It’s fine if I want to draw analogies between rape and the treatment of animals, but it’s not ok for you to do it (you meaning someone who has presumably not been a victim of rape). Of course I can’t know that unless the person reveals that information. This sounds awfully petty and picky, but on a deeper level it isn’t, because I’m deeply suspicious of anyone appropriating another’s suffering for political ends. I hate it when Republicans using the stories of crime victims to push for more punitive sentencing, even in the face of evidence that this does not reduce violence and may actually increase it.

Also I kind of want the discussion to be about what it’s about rather than bringing in other highly emotional issues to stir things up.

My next objection really only applies to the person using the rape analogy toward an audience that might include people who have been raped. But considering the epidemic of violence, sexual violence, and child abuse in this country, any speaker might just assume that a decent percentage of their audience has been the victim of some kind of sexual assault at some point.

The issue is this, and it’s subtle, so I’ll do my best to explain what I mean. There is a kind of assumption that someone who has been through something terrible has an obligation to turn that experience into something positive. Therefore, a woman who has survived a sexual assault is often expected to go volunteer for the hotline, help out with support groups, donate to women’s groups, and so on. And many obviously do. But what if a woman who has gone through this decides she doesn’t want to buy into that? Instead she just wants to forget about it all, go to parties, and buy shoes. And I’ve seen this happen: other people say “But you’re turning your back on your sisters.” I understand that, but the judgment can be harsher on a woman who has just been through something terrible than on another woman who hasn’t ever been attacked and spends all her time on shoes and parties. The latter woman is just a normal person blending into a crowd, but the former is a woman betraying all she is supposed to believe in.

The problem with this is that sexual assault victims are already shoved into so many boxes, the appropriation as I mentioned above, being objectified by their attackers, if they go to court they deal with all the ramifications of that often humiliating and disempowering experience. And then to be told that because something terrible happened to us, we’re expected to do more than other people do? Appeal to our compassion and our empathy, but don’t try to manipulate us based on our experience!

Of course I feel kind of the same way about people using the slavery analogy on animal agriculture too. Unequivocally animals are enslaved in our culture, but too often this comparison is made to an African American audience. Within that audience emotions and opinions on human slavery and its legacy run deep. Then to have that expectation thrown in: If you care about human slavery, then you should care about animal slavery. Of course everyone should care about how animals are treated, because it’s the right thing to do. But African Americans are no more obligated to care than anyone else, just because their families were so mistreated and commoditized.

I guess another problem with talking to an African American audience about animal issues via a slavery analogy is a kind of underlying racist assumption. It’s sort of like, “ok, these people aren’t going to be able to understand this from just being given the facts and looking at pictures like everyone else, I better talk about slavery, since that’s something they do understand.” But as African Americans are human beings, don’t they have as much ability as anyone else to understand ethics or to look at the photo of an abused animal and know in their hearts that this is wrong.

Ok, more on the rape analogy below.

Here is a quote from Gary Francione, as he wrote on the Satya boards:

“Here is an analogy: X really enjoys engaging in rape. He does not feel too terribly badly about that because there are millions of women all over the world who get raped every day. It is a ubiquitous event. Sure, people recognize that women are sentient and suffer, but lots of men rape lots of women “for various reasons.” So X justifies his raping Y because to conclude that rape is wrong would mean that all those millions of men who will commit rape today are immoral. And besides, X is concerned about prison reform so it’s OK for him to commit a rape.

If anyone made that argument to you, you would regard it as a very bad argument.

And that is exactly what you arguing here to defend eating animal products.”

And here is where I quibble.

Most people never ever look at the living animal they later eat, and fewer even than that engage in actually killing the animal. The majority of people who eat the flesh of animals create a huge distance between themselves and the violence and suffering that puts a nice cutlet on their plate. True there are some hunters and slaughter house workers out there, but that’s not the majority of the population.

By contrast a rapist tends to seek out that violence and suffering and enjoys it. This isn’t really a case where someone enjoys rape and rationalizes the suffering he causes away. He enjoys causing suffering and rape is his chosen method to inflict both physical and emotional pain. This is typically true regardless of the circumstances of the rape. Serial rapists tend to act out of extreme anger and hatred of women, but even a date rapist, who may claim that he misunderstood or have some kind of excuse, will often turn out to have hostile views toward women and a pretty deep mean streak. Then there is marital and relationship rape where men use rape to punish their partners either for supposed flaws in those partners or to punish them for things that happen in the outside world.

There’s a huge difference there. As I said, becoming vegan is relatively easy if you compare it to trying to stop rape. There is no evidence that counseling is helpful in reforming serial rapists. However there is a lot of evidence that a visit to a factory farm at least temporarily puts most people off of eating meat.

Additionally, Professor Francione is somewhat wrong to say that people recognize that women are sentient and suffer. If only. I mean sure, you ask someone and they’ll say of course they recognize that women suffer. But if people really understood this on a deeper level, that women have rights and their own interests, then how could we live in a world with female circumcision? There was a serial killer rapist who was shocked when the police actually arrested him, and he defended himself saying he was only killing prostitutes, he wasn’t killing soccer moms or accountants, just prostitutes. And you’ll find this across the board with rapists, abusers, and even people who aren’t violent but merely sexist: they do on a very deep level feel that women are less than men, they objectify women, they aren’t able to have empathy for them or feel that their suffering matters.

Of course all this is very discouraging to me. If we live in a world where a good chunk of the population can’t recognize that their mothers, sisters, or wives deserve to not be tortured or exploited, then how do we expect to reach people on animal issues at all. Still I have hope. I think the majority of people do recognize that animals have feelings, thoughts, and even souls. Their treatment of them represents more of a cultural schizophrenia (I don’t see it, so I’m able to pretend it doesn’t happen), than it represents a hatred of non-humans.

March 7, 2007

Why I kind of hate the rape analogy when we’re talking about Veganism

Posted in Francione, rape, vegan at 2:51 pm by nevavegan

So I’m listening to the Erik Marcus podcast with Gary Francione.

I have to say that I have no factual issue with Francione, but in the debate he more than once uses that tired old analogy I’ve heard so many times about how we wouldn’t work to make rape more humane, so we shouldn’t work to make animal exploitation more humane. Specifically he says, as many people have said to me before, that rape is better when the victim isn’t also beaten but we don’t lobby to ask rapists not to beat their victims.

While the analogy is accurate on the surface of it, I find it incredibly distracting. In fact as I listened I started thinking “well what does Gary Francione know about rape?” And then my mind drifted into all the ways that the analogy doesn’t work, and then I realized about four minutes had gone by and I hadn’t really been paying attention to the debate because I was so distracted by this analogy.

I realize that for me this is a particularly emotional issue and that maybe the majority of the audience is going to be open to the analogy, so I don’t want to say that people shouldn’t use it. But as always I see this as far more complex.

When we talk about animal based agriculture we are talking about animals that are conceived in misery, born in misery, live their entire lives start to finish in such horrible conditions that most of us can’t even imagine. They die in fear and agony and over the whole course of existence there is no hope and no relief. Let’s not fool ourselves on that point.

Now I agree with Francione that while more space or fewer cages is preferable, it really does nothing to change this basic situation. The animals are still born into and live their entire lives in misery and never know anything different. Getting rid of battery cages doesn’t take us back to some idyllic family farm with blue skies and free-running animals; it merely transports us to a dark, dank, filthy warehouse where every inch of floor is taken up with over crowded animals.

But what trips my mind up is that just the word rape sends me back into memories of support groups and the knowledge that not everything is clear cut or straightforward. One woman who was both raped and beaten might suffer extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to a woman who was raped but not beaten who might have a smoother recovery. But as people are all individuals and all respond differently, for some people the opposite might be true. It’s not unusual to find a woman who was not beaten but is suffering extreme psychological trauma, while another might find some kind of peace despite being beaten, for example saying “I think it’s a blessing, because I know there’s nothing more that I could have done about it, I don’t have to second guess my actions.” I’ve also had women tell me that their bruises and black eyes helped them tremendously when their cases went to court, since juries were able to understand the photographic evidence in a way that they don’t always understand things like date rape. Such physical evidence legitimized their stories and allowed them to feel less ashamed when telling the court what was done to them (though this clearly is not true for everyone, with shame being one of the worst aspects of surviving any rape). This isn’t to say that I’m in favor of beatings–just that nothing is ever so simple.

And you see how the very introduction of the topic has taken me on a far tangent from the issue of animal welfare vs. animal rights. This is purely an emotional response on my part, I don’t know…

In ways it seems to me it’s a very simple thing for a person to become vegan, although everyone has their personal hang ups. Though good luck stopping rape. Sadly I think we will never be able to completely eliminate rape from our society and yet we still treat it as aberrant and demand nothing less than the end of rape.