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)

Defending Non-Abolitionism Bingo Card

From my good friends at The Abolitionist Vegan Society . . .

There is a social psychological tendency for us to assume that because something exists or predominates, it must be good and most appropriate. Challenge yourselves and others to think critically and to value evidence before supporting a position. Remember, ad-hominems are not valid arguments; neither is it valid to accuse vegans of hurting the animals for daring to disagree

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mobilizing Anti-Muslim Sentiment "For the Animals"

Trigger Warning: Post contains discussions of racism against Muslims and the Nonhuman Animal rights movement's role in promoting it.

Anti-Muslim protests in the U.K.
The hatred of and discrimination against all things Muslim is a social justice issue that especially poignant in today's post-911 world where many live in fear of the latest reports on ISIS and few understand the complexities of Middle Eastern current events. In the West, the ubiquitousness of hate crimes against Muslims or anyone who "looks" Muslim makes life unsafe and unfair for many. Even the KKK is on board. The Huffington Post reported earlier this week that Ku Klux Klan literature has been promoting increased discrimination against Muslims.

Unfortunately, it doesn't end with hate groups. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement itself has a long history of mobilizing racist sentiment in order to garner support for Nonhuman Animal protection. True, many of the early activists were active in the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, but  it is also true that many early rights and welfare laws specifically targeted communities of color at home and abroad in the colonies. In some ways, this was an act of deliberate racism, but movements also make "compromises" by pulling on racism to increase resonance.

Muslims in particular have routinely been the target of Nonhuman Animal rights activism, specifically in regard to slaughter practices. "Live export" campaigns go back at least as far as the 1980's, with organizations demonizing Muslim regions for their "barbaric" treatment of livestock sourced from Western countries.  In my research, for instance, I have uncovered reports produced by direct action advocates in the U.K. who had been protesting live export, only to have Compassion in World Farming take credit for their activism without even being present at the protests.

Compassion in World Farming, "the world's leading farm animal welfare organization," continues to benefit from racist campaigning today. In a newsletter released today in promotion of their "The Secret it Out" campaign against Muslim slaughter, CIWF invites us to "Expose the Truth" by supporting their campaign, specifically, by donating and signing a petition.

From the CIWF newsletter: EXPOSE THE TRUTH I've got a secret to tell you. And I need your help to expose it. When we received a tip-off about a hidden trade in European farm animals we knew we had to find out more. But to do that our Investigation Unit had to visit one of the world’s most volatile border crossings, the Israeli‑controlled Kerem Shalom border, where the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt converge. They brought back some shocking evidence, which I’m sharing with you today. What they found was a trade in cattle, transported from the EU, being sent alive into war-torn Gaza to be slaughtered. They tracked down animals who had travelled thousands of miles by land and sea from Romania and Hungary – via Israel – to Gazan slaughterhouses where, frankly, it just isn’t possible to slaughter an animal without causing immense suffering.

Please note the following statement from the above excerpt which I have found to be especially problematic (emphasis mine):
They tracked down animals who had travelled thousands of miles by land and sea from Romania and Hungary - via Israel - to Gazan slaughterhouses where, frankly, it just isn't possible to slaughter an animal without causing immense suffering
This language implies that Muslims living in Gaza are inherently incapable of anything but cruelty. This statement also wrongly implies that killing Nonhuman Animals can be done without suffering. By contrast, readers are left to assume that 1. killing can be done "humanely," as long as it is 2. done by the "right" people in the "right" places. The language of "exposing the truth" and the "secret is out" also, I believe, pulls on Western conceptualizations of Islamic terrorism. CIWF frames their campaign as though the underground, clandestine evil of Muslims in slaughterhouses is being "leaked" to the public, who can now use that knowledge to intervene in the name of justice.

And what of the immense human suffering taking place in Gaza? Suffering brown bodies don't sell. CIWF relies on graphic images of animals being murdered and the societal hatred of Muslims in the West in order to promote their campaign. I charge that such an approach is morally problematic in that it diminishes the integrity of Nonhuman Animals whose suffering becomes a selling point, and it diminishes the immense human rights violations taking place against Palestinians living in Gaza. Indeed, the violence against humans taking place in Gaza is made invisible.

Nonhuman Animal rights campaigners should not be in the same business as the KKK. There is no justifiable reason to target vulnerable groups for their seemingly more horrific use of Nonhuman Animals, especially when the West engages in a number of equally horrific acts of violence (including the failure to protect Palestinians). This is not done by accident: Nonhuman Animal rights organizations know that by targeting the activities of wealthy whites in the West, they are not likely to garner as much support as they might by targeting poor brown people in a war-torn region. It is easy to demonize them, because the rest of the world is already doing the same.

Compartmentalizing violence against other animals is morally problematic for a number of reasons. The tendency to vilify the practices of vulnerable human groups while ignoring the practices of those in power is one of those reasons. To avoid fanning discrimination, it is best that we promote a holistic vegan position. Cows in slaughterhouses are no more deserving of protection than any other species oppressed by humans, and slaughterhouses in Gaza are not measurably worse than many in the United States. Creating a hierarchy of concern only replicates systems of inequality and systems of privilege. Until we situate our vegan message within an intersectional framework of social justice, we will remain a marginalized movement that few take seriously.

Thank you to Sarah Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society for bringing this campaign to my attention.

On Vegan Arguments from the White Mindset

I just received an interesting email in response to one of my more widely read posts that addresses getting "called out" on an admittedly insensitive piece I wrote back in 2013. In short, I had complained about how, after explaining that I was vegan, many people would respond by claiming they are lactose intolerant, and therefore, we were on the same level. In a nutshell, I had been pulling on the "moral superiority" assumption of going vegan for the "right" reasons, reasons that inevitably reflect my white privilege and my privilege as someone living in the West.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that Nonhuman Animal rights and welfare are ideas that were originally fostered in order to separate whites and Westerners from the supposedly immoral, inferior, and brutish people of color living at home or abroad in the colonies. So, it is essential that we remain critical of using arguments of moral superiority given this context, especially because social inequality is still impacting the life chances of communities of color and colonized regions today. Racial oppression is not a thing of the past--it is still just as present and insidious today. We should be wary of maintaining the ideologies of moral superiority given this reality.

Here is what my reader offered:
Being lactose intolerant isn't the same as being vegan period. I know two (white) people who are lactose intolerant. One flat out said "I think animals are meant to be used" and the other, for about a year, regularly tried to goad me into annoying speciesist arguments. 
Even if somebody were to go vegan for their own health, and every heath vegan I've ever come across, is not a strict vegan, even just diet-wise, this still would not imply they didn't buy non-vegan shoes, used other non-vegan products, supported animal use for other people, etc, etc, etc. So on the basis of morality, even IF somebody is a strict health vegan and never cheats, they'd still be using animals in other ways and promoting animal use outside of their diet. 
If you were a slavery Abolitionist fighting against human slavery in the North and some white guy said "Hey, I don't have any slaves, I don't wear cotton and none of the products I use have any connection to the South or the slave trade," but he saw nothing wrong with slavery per se, didn't object to slavery, would go out of his way to say he doesn't have any moral problem with it, etc" would you, as a slavery Abolitionist, be like, "Well okay, I guess we're on equal footing, I'll move along..." 
NO! It's the same thing with health vegans or people who are lactose intolerant. Just because they can't consume dairy, doesn't mean they don't condone dairy consumption or animal use in general, if they aren't active participants in it. Having people actively support animal use, or at the least, be indifferent to animal use, isn'texactly where I think we want to be. 
With that in mind, I think it's justified to be annoyed by people who chime in that they're "lactose intolerant" when veganism comes up. At the same time, I would not feel comfortable arguing with the ostensibly health oriented vegan from South African from Harper's piece, and I could see vegans po-pooing and tut-tutting because she's not specifically animal rights oriented. I think more tact and reflection would be useful when engaging vulnerable populations. 
In summation, I want to be able to be annoyed with dietary people chiming in when veganism is brought up, but I don't want to disparage against them. Tough balance.

This was my response:

I think my piece needs to be understood within the context of power and privilege in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. So often we make our arguments without recognizing how disadvantaged groups are ignored in our theoretical musings (this is what I did). We speak in generalities, and those generalities are meant to relate to "people like us." The result is that white privilege is protected, and vulnerable groups are further marginalized. For instance, your example of an anti-slavery abolitionist meeting someone who claims to be abolitionist just because they are not a slave owner presumes that the other person is white, but what if that person were African American? You are creating the rules for a white world with white participants, ignoring how people of color experience the situation and how they are ignored in the dialogue.

If someone says they are lactose intolerant as a white person and I am interpreting that statement as a white person and I am thinking in my white mindset, I might understandably have a problem with the false equivalency of lactose intolerance and animal activism. However, this is not a white world--other people live here too. When I am a white person thinking in this white mindset, I'm ignoring people of color who do not have the same privileges as me. They may not have the privilege to go vegan (perhaps they live in a food desert), and they likely already feel marginalized and alienated from the movement given its long history of engaging racism and ignoring the interests of communities of color. This means that my comments will be interpreted within that context of a seriously racist and exclusionary movement.

My point is, this issue is more than making an argument for argument's sake; we have to be cognizant of wider movement trends and how non-white people are experiencing veganism. As a person who writes for a blog with a diverse audience, it is a shame that I made that argument without considering how people living under structural oppression may be hurt my presumptions.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Is DXE a Vegan Abolitionist Group?

The short answer is no.

The following meme is being shared on social media networks by a DXE leader:

Meme of Batman smacking Robin. Robin asks, "But you'll never get people to go vegan if you go into restaurants and yell at them." Batman says: "We're not a vegan outreach group."

In my opinion, DXE is not a vegan abolitionist group because they utilize welfarist tactics (open rescues, single-issue campaigning, branded campaigning, and a general mirroring of large non-profits like Mercy for Animals, Animal Equality, and Compassion Over Killing, etc.). Of course, all of these characteristics are up for debate. I suppose it may be possible to make a good argument for the utility in open rescues as an abolitionist endeavor (not that I would agree with such an argument, but I concede that there is room for debate).  However, when a Nonhuman Animal rights organization explicitly rejects veganism, this is a clear indication that this is not an abolitionist organization. I suspect that, based on my earlier observations, DXE is on the path to professionalization. The utilization of tactics intended to grab media attention and the rejection of veganism are two unspoken requirements to achieve bureaucratic growth and access to grants and donations.

Vegan Outreach and other large non-profits also make the convoluted claim that abolition is possible without advocating veganism. DXE is unique in this respect only because they choose to yell at people instead of hand out leaflets or hire Playboy models to strip for billboard ads. If yelling at people won't get them to go vegan, then what exactly is the point of yelling at people at all?  What's liberation without veganism? My guess is that yelling at people gets media attention, and media attention increases access to resources. Unfortunately, non-profit growth and Nonhuman Animal liberation are mutually exclusive. Institutionalization and capitalist success is the cause of speciesist oppression, not the solution.

You can read DXE's statement on direct action here.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

If You Believe it is Wrong to Force Your Beliefs...

Image from Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary

If you are a person who believes it wrong to force your beliefs on others, then you are obligated to go vegan.

- John Tallent

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Join the Vegan Club for the Low, Low Price

Vegan Outreach has repeatedly explained in a number of essays, position statements, and interviews that they do not want a "vegan club."  A consistent vegan position, they explain, is sanctimonious and off-putting. Vegans are angry, loud, and too concerned with morality. "Meeting people where they are," they insist, is a more "practical" approach. What this means is that promoting reductionism (eating less "meat" or "humanely-raised" "meat," vegetarianism, flexitarianism, etc.) is most appropriate. In order to protect this compromised position, they spend a great deal of effort "bashing" veganism. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email invitation from Vegan Outreach this morning asking me to join their vegan club.

That's correct, Vegan Outreach has launched their own vegan club and you don't even need to be vegan to join. True to Vegan Outreach practicality, one only needs to fork over $120.  In other words, their club membership is a monthly $10 donation. It is membership by proxy.

When Vegan Outreach says they don't want a "vegan club," what they mean is that they are opposed to holding veganism as the baseline, a basic requirement for taking the interests of Nonhuman Animals seriously.  A vegan club to them is a nonpolitical, non-active, non-involved donor. Vegan or not vegan, it doesn't matter as long as you pay up and buy stuff.

The following is pulled directly from today's Vegan Outreach newsletter (I've included the sexist "Chicks Dig Vegans" logo for context. It appears sexism is becoming as standard in animal advocacy as donating as activism).

Making a Difference without Breaking the Bank!

A $120 donation may sound like a lot, but what about $10 a month? That’s less than four cents a day, but it makes a big impact for animals! You can sign up now for an automatic monthly donation to Vegan Outreach, and make a huge difference by giving a little at a time throughout the year! And you’ll become a member of the “Vegan Club” through VO’s membership program, making you eligible for awesome gifts like our Chicks Dig Vegans bumper sticker, a copy of Betty Goes Vegan, and so many others!
Check out our membership levels, thank you gifts, and ways to give at

The first course of action for anyone who wants justice for Nonhuman Animals is to go vegan. The second course of action is to educate others about veganism. Donating is not activism (and "activism" of this sort is reserved only for the privileged few who can afford it). We cannot buy the revolution. When non-profits convince a generation of would-be activists that we can change the world if we just pull out our credit card, we've already lost the battle.  When non-profits that claim to represent the interests of vulnerable Nonhuman Animals convince a concerned public that reduction and donation will satisfy their obligations to Nonhuman Animals, this movement is a movement no longer. Rather, it is simply another moneymaking capitalist venture.

NOTE: Vegan Outreach issued a correction: 
In encouraging you to consider a monthly donation to VO, we said that $10 a month breaks down to four cents per day, when actually, it's forty cents per day. [ . . . ] PS. Coincidentally, four cents a day does add up to $36 a year, which, as a one-time donation, would make you an official Member of The Vegan Club and get you some pretty neat membership gifts as well.