Monthly Archives: January 2010

On Johnny Weir, Single-Issue Campaigns, Treatment, and Abolitionist Veganism

Dear Colleagues:

As I stated in my blog essay, I think that the Weir matter was ill advised. Given that all the skaters are wearing leather, wool, etc., the effort was akin to trying to get one person at a steak banquet not to consume one teaspoon of her portion of ice cream.

The Open Letter to Johnny Weir from Friends of Animals is a perfect example of what I regard as the central problem of the single-issue approach: the letter is addressed to Weir because he announced that he planned to wear fur. It was not an Open Letter written to the whole team concerning the use of animal skins, including their leather skates or any wool or silk garments. There is no coherent moral distinction between/among fur, leather, wool, or silk. Weir very effectively deflected the Open Letter by making that simple observation himself.

Moreover, the Open Letter focuses on treatment issues and not on use, which I regard as not consistent with an abolitionist approach. Frankly, whether the fox was killed on a fur farm or in an unpadded trap, padded trap, snare, etc., is irrelevant. If the fox were raised in pleasant surroundings and killed painlessly while sleeping, I would still regard it as objectionable. The Open Letter suggests to the public that the problem is how the fox was treated, not that the fox was used.

As I have written (numerous times), less suffering is always better than more suffering, and I agree with that passage in the Open Letter: “Either way [fur farm or trap], there is nothing glamorous or pretty about the cruelty they endured. And it can’t be morally justified either.” But that neglects that although cruelty is an important issue, the primary point is not that the cruelty cannot be morally justified; the primary point is that the use—however “humane”—cannot be morally justified. That is the idea that we must present clearly and unequivocally to the public if we are ever to shift away from the paradigm of “humane” use.

And what possible difference does it make that foxes are “beautiful”, something mentioned twice in the Open Letter? If they were ugly, would it make a difference? It is precisely this thinking that leads us to be concerned about the killing of baby seals but less concerned about the exploitation of animals less appealing to us. We should not reinforce the notion that it is the animals attractive to us who matter (or matter more) any more than we should promote the notion that a “lovely” model appears in some vegan ad.

I support the efforts of FoA or any other group or person who supports ethical veganism (although FoA appears to spend few resources on vegan education relative to their new welfarist single-issue campaigns). But, in any event, promoting veganism is not necessarily equivalent to promoting abolition, which, for the reasons that I have stated in my books, articles, and essays, excludes these sorts of single-issue campaigns and treatment approaches. That is one reason why I often use the expression abolitionist vegan. Not all vegans are necessarily abolitionists.

I certainly wish that HSUS would launch a “Go Vegan” campaign, but even if it did so, that would not make HSUS an abolitionist organization. The fact that a group promotes veganism does not mean that it is still not a new welfarist group if it continues to promote welfare reform and single-issue campaigns. In fact, if HSUS had a “Go Vegan” campaign, HSUS and FoA would look very similar! (FoA has a number of these single-issue campaigns.) Perhaps that explains why FoA was opposing the “Go Vegan” approach that I urged HSUS to adopt. FoA may have been trying to avoid becoming “HSUS lite” and to stay in the second faction that Vincent Guihan identified in his essay Of HSUS and Hegemony: Abolitionist Veganism as a Rising Force.

As I mentioned in the earlier essay, I have extended an open invitation to Priscilla Feral to discuss these issues with me on a podcast. I hope that she will accept my invitation.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

Gandhi: On the 62nd Anniversary of His Death

Dear Collegaues:

Sixty-two years ago today, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered.

Let us meditate for several minutes today on Gandhi’s fundamental teaching of Ahimsa, or nonviolence.

Gandhi said many things worth meditating upon. Two of my favorites are:

You must be the change you want to see in the world.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Remember that violence is the problem; it is not ever going to be the solution. If we want real change, we must change. We must experience a revolution of the heart in which we realize that peace is the only path to pursue. Every other path will lead us astray.

Practice peace and nonviolence in your everyday life; in every interaction that you have. That does not mean that you do not speak the truth. Gandhi was insistent on satyagraha, or holding firmly to truth. But he believed that we should always express that truth without violence in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

A “Victory”? For Whom?

Dear Colleagues:

It was reported yesterday that the American figure skater, Johnny Weir, has decided not to add white fox to the left shoulder of his free skate costume after he received “‘hate mail and death threats’ from animal rights activists.”

Some animal advocates are calling Weir’s decision a “victory.”

I find this puzzling.

First, like all single-issue campaigns promoted by new welfarists, this incident suggests that there is somehow a morally relevant distinction between fur and other animal products. As Weir himself pointed out:

“Every skater is wearing skates made out of cow,” Weir said.

“Maybe I’m wearing a cute little fox while everyone else is wearing cow, but we’re all still wearing animals.”

Weir’s observation is, of course, correct. And I suspect that there will be a great deal of wool worn as well. This is why single-issue campaigns like this have the effect of confusing, and not educating, the public.

In any event, Weir announcing that he is not going to wear the fur trim is like one person at a steak dinner announcing that s/he is not going to eat the egg custard served for desert. So what?

Second, and more important, Weir’s decision had nothing to do with his rejecting fur on moral grounds.

Weir claims to have received “‘hate mail and death threats’ from animal rights activists”:

“I hope these activists can understand that my decision to change my costume is in no way a victory for them, but a draw,” Weir said in his statement. “I am not changing in order to appease them, but to protect my integrity and the integrity of the Olympic Games as well as my fellow competitors.

“Just weeks away from hitting my starting position on the ice in Vancouver, I have technique and training to worry about and that trumps any costume and any threat I may receive.”

This is not any sort of victory for animals. In fact, it is a defeat. We never succeed when any “victory” is based on violence or threats of violence. Violence is inherently wrong and it is strategically foolish as it reinforces the characterization of “animal people” as crazies who threaten people into submission. That understandably fuels public resentment and frustrates serious discussion about animal exploitation.

Perhaps Weir was concerned he’d get a pie thrown at him while he was skating. Weir’s concern was not baseless. This past week, PETA threw a pie at Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Minister Gail Shea. In any event, Weir made a simple, calculated practical decision, not an ethical one and he let the world know that.

If the paradigm is ever going to shift, we need to effect a revolution of the heart. In my view, the central focus should be creative, nonviolent vegan education. Single-issue campaigns just reinforce the public perception that the animal rights position is incoherent: what is the difference between fur trim and leather skates or wool clothing? And we will never get anywhere with violence or threats of violence. The problem is violence; violence will be no part of the solution.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

P.S. I cordially extend an open invitation to Priscilla Feral, who is President of Friends of Animals, which is the group that issued the open letter to Weir, to discuss the Weir matter and the wisdom of single-issue campaigns generally with me on a podcast. And, of course, I also remain open to discuss cordially matters of new welfarism with Wayne Pacelle, Ingrid Newkirk, or the heads of other large groups, as well as Peter Singer and Bernie Rollins.

I want to emphasize that I in no way question the sincerity of any of these people. Indeed, I am sure that they are sincere in their beliefs. I just sincerely believe that the new welfarist/single-issue approach is mistaken and I think that discussion can help to sharpen issues.

Commentary #15: The Tide Is Turning

Dear Colleagues:

Victor Schonfeld, director of the influential 1982 film, The Animals Film, followed up his two-part BBC World Service program, One Planet: Animals and Us, with an editorial, The Five Fatal Flaws of Animal Activism, in the Guardian, one of the leading U.K. newspapers.

Schonfeld once again made clear that the mainstream movement had lost its way. He criticized welfare campaigns, the promotion of “happy” meat and animal products, giving awards to slaughterhouse designers, and PETA’s relentless sexism. He once again endorsed the idea that veganism should be the moral baseline.

Schonfeld was quite remarkably criticized by Vegan Outreach, which is now transparently part of the animal welfare/”happy” meat initiative. But even more remarkable was that three days after Scholfeld’s editorial appeared, PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk replied in the Guardian, defending PETA’s status as an animal welfare organization and calling its sexist campaigns “harmless antics.”

I did a blog entry on Newkirk’s editorial.

In this Commentary, I discuss whether the tide is turning in favor of creative, nonviolent abolitionist-vegan advocacy. My guests are Roger Yates, who is an adjunct lecturer in sociology at University College, Dublin and Vincent J. Guihan, a doctoral student at Canada’s Carleton University and a person who has a finely-tuned sense of the politics of the animal movement.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione


The Answers Should Be Clear

Dear Colleagues:

In Ingrid Newkirk’s attempt to deal with Victor Schonfeld’s powerful essay, Five Fatal Flaws of Animal Activism, Newkirk tried to defend welfare reform in the following way:

For those who decry gradualism, the practical philosopher Peter Singer would ask, “Would you prefer to live in the horror you’re in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner?” The answers should be clear.

Let’s ask similar questions in the context of human exploitation:

Would you prefer to get an ice cream cone before you were molested? Would you prefer not to be tortured before you were murdered? Would you prefer to be tortured for 15 minutes rather than 20 minutes before you were murdered? Would you prefer not to be beaten before you were raped? Would you prefer to be water boarded on a padded board rather than an unpadded board?

The answers should be clear.

Of course it is better to do less harm than more harm. But that begs the fundamental question as to whether we can justify imposing the harm in the first place. If rape is wrong, we should not have campaigns for “humane” rape. The same analysis applies to pedophilia, torture, murder, etc.

Moreover, Newkirk fails to acknowledge a simple economic reality: because animals are chattel property and have no inherent value, the only welfare reforms that are accepted are those that provide an economic benefit for us. PETA acknowledges this explicitly in its campaign for gassing poultry—that method of slaughter is much better economically for producers. That is precisely why chicken processing plants are increasingly adopting this method of killing. It makes economic sense. But the economic reality of animals as property means that the level of animal welfare protection will always be very low and linked to the economically efficient exploitation of animals. So PETA has, in effect, become a partner with industry to make animal exploitation more efficient. Great.

The thing that Newkirk does not bother to mention about Singer is that he does not think that eating animals or animal products is inherently problematic. Indeed, Singer has said repeatedly that because most animals do not have an interest in their lives, the problem is not that we use but how we use them. Singer thinks that being an omnivore is morally acceptable if you take care to eat animal flesh and products from animals who have been “humanely” raised and slaughtered. I have discussed this issue at length in my books (particularly Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation and my forthcoming book, The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation?, to be published by Columbia University Press in April 2010) but you can read some essays on this subject here (See 1, 2, 3, 4).

Newkirk, whose organization, according to Newsweek Magazine, kills approximately 85% of the animals it rescues, appears to agree that death is not per se a harm for animals. So for Singer and Newkirk, the issue is treatment, not use. But that is a fundamentally different way of analyzing the problem than what we would do were humans involved. And I would maintain that what accounts for the difference is nothing more than speciesism.

Most of us claim to believe that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals. Whatever else “necessity” means, it must mean that we cannot justify inflicting suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. That we believe this was demonstrated in a compelling way in the outcry over Michael Vick’s dogfighting situation.

But, as I noted in my essay, We’re All Michael Vick, there is no difference between sitting around the pit watching dogs fight and sitting around a barbecue pit roasting the corpses of animals who have been tortured every bit as much as Vick’s dogs. We do not need to eat animal products. Indeed, more and more mainstream health care professionals are acknowledging that animal products are detrimental to human health. And animal agriculture is unquestionably an environmental disaster. Sure, we pay someone else to do the killing, but that’s a difference without a moral distinction.

So our continued consumption of animal products runs afoul of a moral principle that most of us (Singer and Newkirk, the father and mother of the “happy meat” movement ironically excluded) accept: all other things being equal, the fact that an action causes suffering and death to a sentient being places a burden on us to provide a justification; we should never hurt any sentient creature certainly without some very good reason. And our palate pleasure is no better a reason than Vick’s amusement watching dogs fight.

So why don’t we re-conceptualize the question and ask: is it better to torture sentient beings a tiny bit less or to eat foods that do not involve any suffering or death and that are better for our bodies and the planet?

The answer should be clear.

As a final point, I note that Newkirk says in response to Schonfeld’s criticism of PETA’s sexism:

As for the sexy women in our ads, the silly costumes, the street tableaux and the tofu sandwich give-aways, in a world where people want to smile, can’t resist looking at an attractive image and are up for a free meal, if such harmless antics will allow one individual to reconsider their own role in exploiting animals, how can it be faulted?

Does Newkirk really think that sexism and the continued commodification of women in a world in which rape and sexual harassment happens every second of every day constitute “harmless antics”?

Does Newkirk really think that it’s a good idea to put a “smile” on people’s faces concerning the issue of sexism?

Does Newkirk really think that the slaughter of 56 billion animals per year (not counting fish) is an occasion for evoking a “smile”?

Should we have naked women raising money for Haiti so that people “smile”?

Would Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked in PETA’s latest ad that involves a woman of color stripping “for the animals,” ever have endorsed putting a “smile” on people’s faces by going naked rather than sitting in the back of the bus?

Again, Ingrid, the answers should be clear.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

Exploiting Exploitation

Dear Colleagues:

In 2007, I wrote an essay in response to PETA’s State of the Union Undress for 2008.

PETA has now done a State of the Union Undress for 2010, this time featuring the full frontal nudity of a woman of color—all “for the animals,” of course.

PETA ends this video with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Does anyone really think that this is doing anything “for the animals”?

No movement for social change that wants intelligent and progressive supporters would ever do something like this.

I am not going to comment further because if you do not see the PETA State of the Union Undress (and its sexism generally) as terribly wrong on multiple levels, than there really isn’t anything I could say that would convince you.

Let us hope that in 2010, we can make some progress toward convincing the public that animal rights raises serious questions and is not just an excuse for the juvenile antics of those who profit by exploiting the exploitation of humans and nonhumans.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione

Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Dream and Our Reality

Dear Colleagues:

Today is the day that we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King stood for two important and fundamental values: nonviolence and equality.

Forty-two years after Dr. King was murdered, we are still a nation of inequality. People of color, women, gays, lesbians, and others are still treated as second-class citizens. Yes, things have changed but we have still not achieved equality among all humans. And nonhuman animals continue to be chattel property without any inherent value.

Forty-two years after Dr. King was murdered, we still see violence as the solution for every problem. We have still not yet learned that violence is the problem; it is not the solution to the problem.

We should take a few minutes to meditate today on the notions of equality and nonviolence. We should resolve to make Dr. King’s dream a reality. In the end, his dream is the only thing that will redeem our reality.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione