Is Every Campaign a Single-Issue Campaign?

Dear Colleagues:

In response to my comments (1,2) about the Johnny Weir matter and to my general comment on single-issue campaigns, some have suggested that if the Johnny Weir matter is a single-issue campaign, then all campaigns, including efforts to promote adoption/rescue, sanctuaries, and even veganism are single issue-campaigns.

This suggestion reveals a profound lack of understanding of the nature of a single-issue campaign.

A single-issue campaign involves identifying some particular use of animals or some form of treatment and making that the object of a campaign to end the use or modify the treatment. The problem of a single-issue campaign is that it presents some particular use or treatment as morally distinguishable from other forms of use or treatment and by doing so explicitly or implicitly suggests that other forms of exploitation are morally less problematic.

The Weir matter presents a classic example of the problem. An Open Letter was written to Weir complaining about his use of fur on the shoulder of his costume. 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. The Open Letter focused on a single animal product being used by a single person in a single instance.

The main problem with this sort of campaign is that 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:

“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.”

In addition, the Open Letter not only promoted a single-issue campaign, but did so in the context of traditional animal welfare reform because it talks about treatment and not about use. The Open Letter focused on the fur “industry,” and the treatment and killing of animals on fur farms or in the wild. To talk about fur farms and traps is to invite the response: “okay, then we ought to figure out a way to make fur production more ‘humane.’”

As far as domesticated animals, farm animals, and wild animals who need homes in sanctuaries are concerned, attempts or efforts to provide those homes do not constitute single-issue campaigns, or, at least, are not so in the manner that portends the problems that I have identified. By domesticating nonhumans, we have gotten them into an awful mess and if we can remove them from a kill shelter or from the street, we should do so. To the extent that we have the opportunity to provide a home to a domesticated or wild animal, that is a good thing. These are efforts that involve assisting individual animals; they are not campaigns that target uses or practices that we identify as worse than other uses or practices of which we necessarily implicitly approve for the reasons discussed in my earlier essay. They are qualitatively different activities.

And I always talk about animal adoption/rescue within a specific framework that rejects use and emphasizes ethical veganism as the central issue. I never speak about adoption/rescue as some isolated activity but only as one obligation among many that comprise the overall abolitionist approach. Although I support the adoption of homeless nonhumans because those individuals need homes, I am always very clear that we should stop producing or facilitating the production of domesticated nonhumans altogether.

The “Open Letter” to Johnny Weir does none of these things. It would have been possible to write a letter to Weir that mentioned fur as one aspect of an overall abolitionist message that also explicitly discussed the wearing of all animal skins and that mentioned veganism. Such a letter would have presented a powerful message rather than a weak one that makes fur appear to be morally distinguishable from leather (or the other animal products not even mentioned) and that Weir effectively dismissed in two sentences.

I also support sanctuaries but again, I talk about sanctuaries as one part of an overall abolitionist approach and I promote those sanctuaries that carry an explicitly abolitionist message. To the extent that a sanctuary provides a home for animals, that’s a good thing but to the extent that the sanctuary also supports a welfare reform message or promotes single-issue campaigns, they undo at least part of the good that they do.

I also think that sanctuaries can be used by wealthy groups to do fundraising. If you want to contribute to a sanctuary, you should explore their finances and inquire about the salaries paid to the people who are involved in the organization that runs the sanctuary.

Also, several people have suggested that we should not criticize the welfarist or single-issue campaigns of a group that also runs a sanctuary because it might affect donations to the group and that would harm the animals. This is a variant of the general argument that we hear all the time: “Group X does good things for animals so do not criticize what Group X does because it will harm their efforts to help animals.” That is a certain prescription for disaster and for the death of a social movement. It is precisely that thinking that had led the mainstream movement to stay silent in the face of the obscenity of PETA’s killing 85% of the animals it “rescues” and its relentless use of misogyny as a marketing tactic.

As for veganism being a single-issue campaign, I am not sure what to say because the suggestion reveals such profound confusion that it may not be possible to dispel. Anyway, when I talk about veganism, I talk about not eating, wearing, or using any animal or animal-derived product for any human purpose. But even if you restrict your understanding of veganism to “a vegan diet,” you are still advocating the elimination of a practice that involves more animals than all of the other animal uses combined because everyone who is not a vegan consumes animals and animal products.

Moreover, all animal use is derivative of the fact that we eat animals and animal products. If that changed, everything would follow. For example, someone who accepts that they have a moral obligation not to eat animals and animal products would necessarily also accept that they should not wear fur or attend circuses. Therefore, veganism is qualitatively different from a fur campaign that targets a relatively small section of people or a vegetarian campaign that explicitly or implicitly distinguishes meat from other animal products and sends the message that it is okay to consume non-flesh products.

I hope that helps to clarify the issue of single-issue campaigns. They really do not work and they only create confusion by reinforcing the false idea that certain forms of animal exploitation are less objectionable than others.

THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione