We are on a voyage to an uncharted world, trying to develop a new world paradigm, while trying to challenge the old destructive ways of thinking at every turn. When people become aware of the status of animals in the world, of their complete subjugation by human beings, the first instinct is often to find a cause and work on it. While this is an understandable impulse, it usually does little to further the cause of animal rights. These impulses tend to keep people locked into the status quo, using all the existing structures created by animal exploiters, and then attempt to ameliorate the worst abuses within them. But the abolitionist approach suggests we need a larger ambition, a wider perspective. We need to reach beyond the stars in order to make a significant change in thinking towards nature and other forms of life. We need to fundamentally change how we see ourselves within the broader context of the earth and our part within it.
There seems to be much animosity and disrespect within the vegan community, sadly, towards animal rightists of the abolitionist persuasion. Why is this so? To better understand this, I began taking notes on some of the misunderstandings I came across on forums, Facebook, Twitter, and in chats. I am here to mince some of these myths about abolitionism.
Myth #1: Abolitionists don’t DO anything for the animals, they just talk. This is certainly not so! Most of us have occupations in addition to our advocacy, yet somehow find time to teach classes, write books, debate, publish journal articles, maintain forums, prepare podcasts, create and develop radio shows, create and maintain blogs and websites, create and develop multiple vegan businesses, offer commentary on misinformation in the media, rescue nonhuman animals from shelters, attend graduate school, take part in tabling or stalling, leafleting, and other forms of outreach, foster animals, rescue animals, directly care for animals, develop resources for other vegans, and generally work tirelessly for the animals. While this may be less tangible than pointing to a specific group or organization you are trying to help, it may also provide a much more significant impact for the animal rights movement in general by getting the word spread round the globe about veganism and what is happening to animals. One omnivore will consume about 20,000 animals in their life; what other form of advocacy has the potential to save so many animals?
Myth #2: Abolitionists expect people to go vegan overnight. Anyone who has done any outreach or online advocacy knows this is simply untrue; we realize people will or will not go vegan according to their own time frames. We believe, though, that it is important to advocate for veganism rather than half measures and let the individual decide how best to take positive steps in that direction. Diluting the message by including terms like veg*n or vegetarian may mislead the public. Anything short of veganism means exploitation of animals, something no animal rights activist would want to promote. By all means, meet people where they are; just don’t join them there. The idea is to get them to move, or consider moving, towards veganism.
Myth #3: Abolitionists expect everyone to go vegan. False. We would have to have our heads in the clouds to think so; it would deny our own experience with outreach and education. We are, in fact, aware of the work ahead. Since we do not receive the kind of gratification some of the animal organizations receive by claiming victory for individual campaigns while the big picture continues to get worse and worse, we have to be satisfied with education. We have no way to judge exactly how effective our methods are, but we all see more and more people contacting us, see more and more people calling themselves abolitionists, more folks unwilling to take anything but a stand for justice. And we share information where we can so that we will become as effective as possible. But the bottom line is this: we do not deviate from what we consider to be the moral baseline: veganism. We do not look at it as being the most someone can do, but the least.
Myth #4: Abolitionists don’t respect vegetarians. This is totally unfair. It is not about respecting or not respecting vegetarians; it is about not accepting vegetarianism a morally relevant stance for animals. Any stance, such as vegetarianism, that continues to exploit animals is not acceptable. If someone embraces vegetarianism for ethical reasons, then we would try to teach that person why that is not as ethical as they may think. But disrespect is not part of the equation at all. Our starting point is to respect other human beings. Most of us, by far, have not always been vegan. We understand change takes time and education.
Myth #5: Abolitionists are divisive. The perception is that abolitionists are splitting the movement in two, when in fact there are two very different movements. I think this is due in part to a complete misunderstanding of the basic principles of the abolitionist approach towards animal rights. People who are busy working on one campaign after another with so little meaningful success might understandably get peeved with people who appear to do nothing but teach and who won’t cooperate with individual campaigns. It is not because we do not care about the animals involved, we just are aware of the total failure of welfare reform as a whole. Expect abolitionists to challenge you if you are promoting activities that keep the focus off the Big Picture and onto Little Picture Issues. Abolitionists tend to focus on the need for a major shift in how human beings relate to other beings. We do not wish to be distracted with campaigns that will not take us there.
Myth #6: Abolitionists could save more animals by urging things like Meatless Mondays and vegetarianism (the “big tent” approach). On the surface, programs like Meatless Mondays sound good – they may encourage some folks to decrease their use of meat once a week, right? The problem here is that there is no consistent moral position within this program and it may, in fact, move people away from veganism, thereby confusing the public. We do not want meat-free Mondays, we want to support veganism – no exploitation, seven days a week. Measures that assure people they are doing something morally coherent when they are exploiting other beings is not moving them to the correct end point. While individuals may chose to go vegan in stages, if they clearly understand the moral stand for animals means veganism, then they will make those decisions with a clarity of purpose and will be less likely to stop before they reach the goal. Imagine if all these types of programs would pool their resources and speak out loudly for veganism – how much different the public’s perception would become!
Myth #7: Abolitionists are too extreme. This seems particularly speciesist, because no one would accept advocating for more half measures when it comes to issues with humans beings, such as rape or pedophilia, yet these moral issues continue on and on despite being illegal for thousands of years. Standing up for animals means advocating for an end to all exploitation, not just some. It only seems extreme to people who are deeply entrenched in the status quo. Abolitionists are working towards a new paradigm entirely. We do not believe that animals are ours to commodify. We believe they have intrinsic value that has nothing to do with us.
Myth #8: Since the world is not going vegan overnight, we need to concentrate on welfare reform to bring relief to the animals right here, right now. This is another intriguing charge, because welfare reforms rarely bring any relief to animals and may in fact increase the number of animals that suffer. Consider Mercy for Animals giving kudos to Costco for carrying so-called humane veal – if an animal rights group thinks there is anything humane about removing a calf from its mother to be slaughtered, I would like to know what it is. So-called humane farming methods may allow humans who are concerned about animal treatment to believe that a certification means they are not buying into suffering; in fact, meat eating and dairy consumption appear to be increasing and every animal that carries those stickers has been slaughtered, most while babies. So-called free range eggs are not free at all, leaving chickens in an ammonia-soaked hell inside an enclosed warehouse, where some chickens die because they are unable to walk to the feeding area, so overgrown and untenable are their young bodies, bred for food alone. Even if the conditions, however, were pristine, the bottom line is this: the animals would be used and manipulated for another being’s desires; they would never be allowed to exist as free living animals. We believe we must keep the focus on USE, not TREATMENT. Outreach advocates have been reporting more people telling them they buy only “humane-raised” beef or veal or chicken, believing the animals live in bliss. This is a myth and should not be perpetuated.
Myth #9: Abolitionists act like the purity police. This one may be valid at times, for everyone has a different idea where the lines should be drawn. Some people, in their zeal to give a voice for the animals who are unable to do so, are not always as nuanced as they might be in spreading the word. The attacks some people rightly bristle against may need to change in tone, rather than in content. Sadly, sometimes a tone is misinterpreted within media such as Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. In any case, vegans of whatever persuasion should be respected for taking that step, at least, in an effort to change the world. None of us gets to make decisions for other people and none of us may determine another person’s timeframe. Attack ideas, not people! Remember to keep your passion for the animals, not for proving a point. The work is about education, not assault.
Myth #10: Abolitionists are a cult. A cult requires a charismatic figure that manipulates people to follow their will, often against the followers’ best interest. Abolitionism fails on all counts – there is no “leader,” but rather several renowned advocates for Animal Rights, with most people working independently and reaching out to one another for further education and support. The large animal organizations are much more cult-like in that they do have a designated leader and many adherents that support them – yet to call them a cult would be ludicrous. So it is to call abolitionists cult members, too. They are, for the most part, independent, non-mainstream, people with a strong devotion towards righting a horrible injustice in the world that is at the heart of so many other injustices for many, many billions of beings. There are few followers and many independent spirits in the Animal Rights movement.
I hear mainstream vegans say, “We need to all work together,” but maybe not. Maybe we just need to learn to respect one another and give each other space. I do not see myself working on any individual issues in the near future, for the abolitionist view would suggest that the more vegans who work on educating the public about how animal use is unjust, the quicker that there will be a large enough mass of vegans to in fact change how the world operates and bring true liberation to animals. I have to do what we all have to do, that which we believe we can be the most effective.
We are on a voyage to an unknown destination, based on our vision of possibilities. If you are vegan or interested in veganism, then I hope you will join our spaceship to tomorrow. The only limitation is in our ability to envision the world we want.
Clips from this episode:
- Theme from Star Trek
- Jive Talking by the Bee Gees
- What Can I Say by Boz Scaggs
- What Do You Want From Me by Adam Lambert
- Misunderstanding by Genesis
- People Get Ready by Aaron Neville