A Comment on Violence

I am asked frequently about my views on those who advocate violence against animal exploiters.

My response is simple: I am violently opposed to violence.

I have three reasons for my position.

First, in my view, the animal rights position is the ultimate rejection of violence. It is the ultimate affirmation of peace. I see the animal rights movement as the logical progression of the peace movement, which seeks to end conflict between humans. The animal rights movement ideally seeks to take that a step further and to end conflict between humans and nonhumans.

The reason that we are in the global mess that we are in now is that throughout history, we have engaged and continue to engage in violent actions that we have sought to justify as an undesirable means to a desirable end. Anyone who has ever used violence claims to regret having to resort to it, but argues that some desirable goal supposedly justified its use. The problem is that this facilitates an endless cycle of violence where anyone who feels strongly about something can embrace violence toward others as a means to achieving the greater good and those who are the targets of that violence may find a justification for their violent response. So on and on it goes.

This is consequentialist moral thinking and it is destroying the world as well as leading to some very peculiar contradictions. Much of the west claims to embrace Christianity. However unclear on some issues the New Testament may be, it is certainly clear that violence is to be rejected. Nevertheless, supposedly Christian leaders and their supposedly Christian electorates justify the most violent of actions with professed great reluctance in order to achieve a supposedly greater good, whatever it may be. Those against whom these violent actions are directed also claim to adhere to religions that reject violence, but feel justified in using violence in response. So we have people, all of who claim to reject violence as a fundamental religious matter, engaging in violence. And we say that humans are rational and nonhumans are not!

Violence treats others as means to ends rather than as ends in themselves. When we engage in violence against others—whether they are human or nonhuman—we ignore their inherent value. We treat them only as things that have no value except that which we decide to give them. This is what leads people to engage in crimes of violence against people of color, women, and gays and lesbians. It is what leads us to commodify nonhumans and treat them as resources that exist solely for our use. All of it is wrong and should be rejected.

Second, for those who advocate violence, exactly against whom is this violence to be directed? The farmer raises animals because the overwhelming number of humans demand to eat meat and animal products. The farmer raises those animals in intensive conditions because consumers want meat and animal products to be as inexpensive as possible. But is the farmer the only culprit here? Or is the responsibility shared by the rest of us who eat animal products, including all of those conscientious omnivores, the non-vegan “animal people” who consume “cage-free eggs” and “happy” meat, who create the demand but for which the farmer would be doing something else with her life? I suppose that it is easier to characterize farmers as the “enemy,” but that ignores the reality of the situation.

What about the vivisector, a common target of those who advocate violence? Putting aside the debate about whether vivisection actually produces data useful to address problems of human health, most of the illnesses for which vivisectors are using animals are conditions that could be avoided entirely or drastically reduced if humans would stop eating animal foods, and engaging in such destructive behaviors as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, and a failure to exercise. Again, who is the real culprit? I certainly do not think that vivisection is justifiable for any reason, but I find it curious that those who advocate violence can see vivisectors as detached from the social conditions that give rise to vivisection—and in these conditions we are all complicit.

Moreover, we must not forget that there are always multiple ways of addressing health problems. Vivisection is one way, and, in the view of many (including myself), is not a particularly effective choice. The decision to invest social resources into vivisection rather than in other, arguably for more effective ways, reflects a political decision as much as, and probably more than, a scientific one.

For example, the considerable expenditure on AIDS research using animals has produced little of use to humans suffering from AIDS and most of what has resulted in longer and better lives for those suffering from HIV and AIDS has come from clinical trials with humans who have consented to those trials. It is certainly plausible to claim that if the money spent on animal research were instead spent on public safe-sex education campaigns, needle exchanges, and condom distribution, the rate of new HIV cases would drop dramatically. The choice to use animal experiments to address the problem is, in many ways, as much a political and social decision. Animal experiments are considered an acceptable way of solving the AIDS problem whereas needle exchanges, condom distribution, and safe-sex education are politically controversial.

So again, the vivisector is not the only culprit here. Indeed, it may well be argued that those primarily responsible for the use of animals in AIDS research are the reactionary politicians who respond to a reactionary political base that rejects more effective ways of dealing with AIDS.

Third, it is not clear to me what those who support violence hope to achieve as a practical matter. They certainly are not causing the public to become more sympathetic to the plight of nonhuman animals. If anything, the contrary is true and these actions have a most negative effect in terms of public perception. We live in a world where virtually anyone who can afford to eat animal products does so. In such a world, there is no context in which violence can be interpreted in any way other than as negative.

In other words, in a world in which eating animal products is considered by most people as “natural” or “normal” as drinking water or breathing air, violence is quite likely to be seen as nothing more than an act of lunacy and will do nothing to further progressive thinking about the issue of animal exploitation.

Animal exploitation is pervasive in our society. This is the case because we think that the ends (the supposed benefits we derive from animal use) justifies the means (imposing suffering and death on billions of nonhumans every year), and because we treat animals exclusively as commodities and ignore their inherent value. This situation cannot be meaningfully addressed by applying these notions to justify violence toward humans.

The fact that at least some “animal advocates” who endorse violence are not even vegan is truly bewildering. These people care so much about animals that they advocate inflicting harm on other humans who exploit nonhumans but cannot seem to stop exploiting nonhumans themselves.

The bottom line is clear. The only way that we are ever going to have a significant impact on the problem is through nonviolent education. That starts with our becoming vegans and rejecting violence against animals in our own lives, and spreads through creative, nonviolent vegan education.

I am planning on addressing this issue at greater length in forthcoming writing, but I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts with you.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione