Victor Schonfeld: “The Five Fatal Flaws of Animal Activism”

Dear Colleagues:

In 1981, Victor Schonfeld did the influential The Animals Film, narrated by Julie Christie. The Animals Film was the first film to document the ways in which humans treated nonhumans. For many of us who saw it back then (I being one), the film burned images deeply into our minds and helped to motivate the then-emerging animal rights movement.

Schonfeld recently returned to do a two-part BBC World Service program, One Planet: Animals and Us, in which he asked the question whether we have made any progress? Is our relationship with nonhumans still as exploitative as it was back in 1982? In the first segment, he explored our use of animals for food, focusing on factory farming. In the second segment, he focused on vivisection. At the conclusion of the second segment, he expressed concern that not a great deal of progress had been made and he included the call for veganism to become “the moral baseline” of the animal rights movement.

The BBC World Service is the most widely-listened to radio program in the world. It is exciting veganism was discussed on the program. If you have not listened to both portions of Animals and Us, please do so. I do not agree with everything that Schonfeld says, but he did a terrific job given the complexity of the issues and the short period of time that he had.

In today’s Guardian (U.K.), Schonfeld published an essay, Five fatal flaws of animal activism. The tagline:

From tacky nude posters to dubious concepts such as ‘happy meat’, animal rights groups are losing the fight for real change.

Schonfeld states that his examination of the contemporary scene in making Animals and Us

made vivid that the organised group efforts on behalf of animals have been largely fruitless to date, in terms of the end goals, and campaigns for small changes are quite possibly counterproductive. The organised activism is sorely in need of fresh perspectives.

He identified five particular problems: (1) the failure of the animal movement to reach out to become connected with other progressive social causes; (2) the use of sexism supposedly to promote animal rights; (3) the partnership that has, in effect, developed between the large animal organizations and institutional exploiters; (4) the promotion of “happy” meat and animal products; and (5) the general lack of strategy.

Schonfeld ends his essay:

Animal activists have not been asking themselves the difficult questions, and organisational self-promotion stunts substitute for the less glamorous work of figuring out how to help each of us change the way we live. Much noise, little change. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that.

I end this essay with three thoughts:

First, Schonfeld is probably already being bombarded by the large animal welfare organizations and their followers who are criticizing him for daring to criticize the tactics of the large groups. We all know that to express any disagreement with the tactics of the large groups, or even to request debate about those tactics, is to invite recrimination and accusations of being “divisive” and “not caring about the animals.” Drop Schonfeld a line at to tell him that you appreciate that he had the courage to raise these issues.

Also, leave an intelligent comment on the Guardian site. Many of the comments presently posted are doing nothing to provoke debate and discussion.

Second, today, the day that Schonfeld’s essay appeared in the U.K., is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of racism here and everywhere and today (and everyday), we should reflect on ways to better achieve equality in our world. To connect the ideas in Schonfeld’s essay with MLK day, ask yourself: would Martin Luther King have promoted a campaign, “I’d rather go naked than sit in the back of the bus?” No, of course not.

Third, remember: THE WORLD IS VEGAN! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
©2010 Gary L. Francione