Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Using Violence to Stop the Violence?

"The essence of nonviolence is love. Out of love and the willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics, and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally. Nonviolence is not a dogma; it is a process." -- Thich Nhat Hanh
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about violence over the past week. I mean, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about human violence--over and above the violent acts humans already commit against nonhumans every single day for the sake of human pleasure. There are some in the animal advocacy movement who believe that the only way to bring about the end of the everyday violent acts humans commit against nonhumans is to, in turn, commit violent acts against those humans. Considering that (depending on whose survey you read) a mere 1.5-2.5% or so of the population of the United States, for instance, self-identifies as vegan and claims to abstain from consuming animals in any manner, this basically means that a few individuals making up an ever-so-tiny fragment of that less than 3% want to put the smack down on the other 97%+ of the population to get them to stop killing the over 10 billion animals in the United States alone who are killed each and every year. (Uh, yeah--good luck with that.)

I won't ramble on about why committing violence to end violence is wrongheaded. Abolitionists like Vincent J. Guihan (over at his blog We Other Animals) have already made clear cases for the common-sense, efficacy and logic in using nonviolence and vegan education to effect change for nonhumans. For instance:
As advocates, our work is not a matter of reaction; it is a matter of transformation. We have to struggle to avoid confusing the wallpaper for the walls. We have to struggle to avoid confusing our work pulling down the walls of the house of slavery and violence with building those walls back up again through violent and confrontational behaviour of our own. We can only “tear the house down” by convincing its other builders to join us, not with threats and idiocy, but creative and nonviolent education that calls them to join us in a life that respects the rights of other persons to be free from violence and slavery.
It baffles me, really, that anyone would truly think that using fear and intimidation will change people's hearts and heads to allow the major paradigm shift that is needed to stop the overwhelming majority of us from thinking of nonhuman animals as things that exist solely for our use and pleasure--as our property.

Prof. Gary L. Francione, who has consistently promoted nonviolent vegan education to abolish the exploitation of nonhumans (you can read a couple of his earlier essays here and here), has also re-emphasized the avoidance of violence by vegans and animal rights advocates in his recent responses and reactions to the more recent calls for violence by a very few in the animal advocacy movement. He's done so in his podcast commentary of a few days ago, as well as over on the Opposing Views website and on his Facebook page, where discussions pertaining to the subject have been ongoing for several days on his Facebook profile page. It's on this Facebook page that Prof. Francione recently revealed that he has invited Steve Best, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso and spokesperson for the Animal Liberation Press Office, to a formal (or even an informal) debate on the use of violent or nonviolent approaches in animal advocacy. Although the conditions surrounding it are still being ironed out (and you'll need to visit Prof. Francione's Facebook page to get the dish on those details), it appears that there is indeed a good chance it may happen sooner or later. Stay tuned for more information!

Update: Although Vegan Examiner Adam Kochanowicz reported earlier today
that a formal debate would be held on September 18 and would then appear on the Animal Voices talk show, Prof. Francione has since stated that he and Best will, in fact, be having the actual debate in a one-on-one Skype call with no moderation. There has been no information concerning a potential later broadcast as of this time.


B said...

Interesting post,

I'm curious though, what do you (or other abolitionist for that matter) think about illegal, yet non-violent actions such as open rescues - where in no humans are hurt physically only economically.

I listened to Gary L. Franciones podcast on violence, and I've read his previous posts on the issue - and he hasn't convinced me that the ALF is bad in and of itself. I certainly don't agree with physical violence inflicted on any animal - nonhuman or human. However I think one needs to define what they mean by "Violence" when discussing such things. Economic or psychological violence is the only kind of violence that occurs from illegal groups like the ALF. (I should also add that non-violent vegan education, may also cause economic and psychological violence to animal abusers).

Furthermore, I don't see the ALF as violent. I see what they do as tactically stupid, but morally permissible and not violent. Their mandate specifically states that they are not physically violent to people.

What I mean when I say "I don't see their actions as violent" is that their actions certainly don't change anyone's mind about the issue. It may even tarnish the public image of animal advocates - thus making it tactically stupid. But I feel that if animals are rescued from slavery, and only economic and psychological damage is inflicted upon the animal industry owners, than I think its a morally permissible act.

To be clear, I would never advocate for illegal actions such as open rescues or property damage. But I think its a step to label this actions as violent - for I believe that there is a very clear distinction between someone who steals an animal out of a cage and someone who assassinates a vivisector.

To me, both of them should focus on vegan education, but I think the former is a morally permissible act and the later is what this post should be focussed on.

I'm not trying to attack anyone, just better understand their position on violence - or more specifically illegal actions. I think people mean illegal actions when they say violence, however I feel that the two are not synonymous.


Unknown said...

The one time I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Prof. Francione, I learned that his idea of what qualifies as "violence" is quite broad although I could not really get a definition or a clear understanding of where lines were being drawn.

By Francione's lights, violence seems to include physical harm toward both people and property. But also goes much further. Even insults can count as instances of violence as I understood him. Pornography was also cited as violence (not merely depicting violence but violence itself).

As our conversation wore on...the examples of what qualifies as violence got more numerous and diverse. I think such an overly broad definition is not helpful.

I'd be quite interested if anyone had a more precise idea of what qualifies as violence according to Prof. Francione. Anyone with much knowledge of Jainism probably may be able to fill in some blanks.

B said...


Interesting account of your conversation with him.

I agree though, having such a broad definition of violence isn't helpful - it would be good to define what we see as violence when disscussing it.

For example, I see insults in the name of animal rights as tactically stupid, but I would not classify them as violent.

I would also categorize pornography in an entirely different category of "violence" then say someone who assasinates a vivisector.

Also, I don't now much about Ahisma except that it is the avoidance of harm. But again I think you have to define what you mean by "harm".

For example, a hotdog vendor could see me handing out anti-meat leaflets outside of her/his shop and be harmed economically because I am reducing her/his costumer base. She/he could also be psychologically harmed, because she/he could be scared that thier business will lose costumers.

Is my example violence? In the very last it is harm of some sort to the hotdog vendor.

But I consider that to be effective advocacy, not violence.

In the same instance, an ALF cell could the have the exact same outcome rescuing animals from cages as my leafletting example, which was true by the way.

And they will have executed thier actions in a way that doesn't physically harm anyone, much like my action.

The only difference I see is that leafletting is far more effective in changing minds, and overall tactically superior.

Also, I think to much time is spent talking about violence and things like this. More vegan education is needed!

M said...

Brendan, speaking for myself, I think that considering that there are 5 to 7 million companion animals killed in shelters every year in the US alone that there are simpler ways to engage in direct action. You want to rescue an animal? Go to your nearest kill shelter and adopt one.

The problem with groups who engage in violent action is that even though the intent may not be to harm sentient beings, there is always that risk that sentient beings will still be harmed.

Most importantly, though: You talk about inflicting what you call "economic or psychological violence" on certain exploiters. I don't see inflicting any harm on some as being justified when the truth is that well over 97% of the population around you is exploiting. Would you attempt to justify inflicting economic harm on your mother for eating dairy yogurt? What about an aunt who breeds and raises dogs to compete in dog shows? Would you want to inflict economic or psychological harm on her? What about all of your classmates who eat animals and who wear their skin? There's no morally relevant difference between your non-vegan friends and family and those other exploiters, so how can there be justification to harm one, but not the other?

gfrancione said...


For purposes of animal rights discussions, physical violence against persons/property is all that needs to be considered.

If you are the person at Yale that I met when I lectured there who asked me the question of how I personally understood violence, it was probably a mistake for me to have answered that question. Yes, I do see pornography as a form of violence. But we need not get into that for purposes of the AR discussion.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

Unknown said...

Brenden E., The ALF have advocated violence against individuals in the past — not to be critical of just pointing this out as we need to be consistent.

Members of the ALF, as well as many other activists/advocates have either (directly and indirectly) supported or not spoken out against the use of violence against individuals. Recent examples include the SHAC campaigns in the UK and USA.

To say some tactics are morally permissible can be a slippery slope — if we support certain tactics of ALF members or others taking actions for animals, we cannot be critical of others taking such actions (arson, property damage, etc). For example, some self-appointed spokespeople must support the murder of Dr Tiller as they have perviously public commented that murdering vivisectors is morally permissible.

There is a big difference between illegal and violent — be careful not to conflate to two. Open rescues (such as those common in Australia) are illegal though very far from violent. Charges are often dismissed which is indicative of public support.

As to the question of what constitutes violence, it is hard to quantify. Many actions can cause physiological harm (economic harm does not directly fall under violence), and this is one of the most significant challenges. A good place to start if you want a greater understanding are the writings of Gene Sharp — he has researched nonviolent tactics for 50-odd years.

Adam Kochanowicz said...

Thanks for posting that update. The article has been temporarily taken down until Best, Francione, and I can agree on a version everyone likes. Sorry for the confusion.

Bea Elliott said...

Mylène Ouellet said... "considering that there are 5 to 7 million companion animals killed in shelters every year in the US alone that there are simpler ways to engage in direct action. You want to rescue an animal? Go to your nearest kill shelter and adopt one."

Well, as for me - I've already got carrying capacity in my home for rescued domestic companions... But I had an empty yard, and a full heart to love a small flock of doomed egg factory hens.

No, they did not have any economic value as they were due to be gassed with 850,000 others... So the "harm" I did to the industry was like a grain of sand on an endless beach. Yet, these 12 ladies are now living a wonderful life because of my "direct action".

Make no mistake, I'm as peaceful as I know any person to be... Yet, there are instances - which aren't "violent" to others, but would be considered problematic within the definition of what I believe Mr. Francione's meaning to be.

Such as interfering with hunters by using buck scent in appropriate places, helping deer to avoid the predators. Having access to a boat and disrupting the water where fish-lines are cast... Indeed even doing what Capt. Paul Watson does would be considered "violent" in the narrow scope that GF limits it to.

I am a fence sitter, and have been in search of answers since my awareness of animal enslavement. Up to this point I've judged every action on a case-by-case basis, hoping to stay objective as to the merits or failures of each.

I agree that nothing will ever replace solidly grounded active vegan education... But there are times too, that I see direct action as having meaning and doing good. Specifically for me, every morning when I see the flock of beautiful refugees - I know, they exist and thrive not by vegan advocacy but by direct abolitionist actions.

And if such actions makes me an outcast within a "peaceful" animal rights movement... I have to ask - would any think the that of those who participated in the underground railroad? Or are things different for human lives?

Thank you for your thoughtful post and for considering my earnest questions.

M said...

Adam, no worries. Once Prof. Francione announces what's going on, I'll be writing it up in a new and separate blog post.

Bea, I'm hitting the sack since I've had four hours of sleep in the last 44 hours and am beat. I'll try to respond to some of what you've written tomorrow.

unpopular vegan essays said...


If you want to sabotage hunters' efforts by using buck scent in certain places and disrupt fishing, I don't think anybody here would object. The point is that if we don't change attitudes and underlying paradigms; if we don't provide adequate reasons for why we believe as we do, then all the buck scent and fishing distraction in the world will not stop hunting, fishing, or any other form of animal exploitation. Remember, Henry Thoreau had an excellent point when he said that for every thousand hacking at the leaves and branches, there is one striking at the root. The root is vegan education.

Bea Elliott said...

Of course Dan - I understand and did state: "I agree that nothing will ever replace solidly grounded active vegan education..."

My questions are with the blanket condemnation that "all" direct actions are ineffective. And I have heard many say that it is.

Yet without some direct actions there would be no undercover footage that has exposed egregious treatment to nonhumans. And consequently has encouraged people to reevaluate their preconceived ideas of animal use. Surely they haven't been a wasted swing of the axe?

Of course getting to the root of the problems is essential - but this opportunity is not always available. Using varied methods as they present themselves seems to be the most efficient and effective use of energy.

Some people work odd hours - or live in extreme rural areas... There are many different reasons why other actions are suitable under different circumstances.
As the reason for rescuing "farmed" animals if your home cannot manage domestic companions.

And having cleared land on acreage I know that even tree roots, (except palms) are "branched" within the earth... You have to chop and chip away at them to get to the tap.

So I just think a one way approach everytime can be restrictive as to what each individual situation permits...

Not to belabor the analogy - but even skilled woodsmen have different axes for different purposes. ;)

M said...

Not to belabor the analogy - but even skilled woodsmen have different axes for different purposes.

Yes, but it makes a difference whether you're wielding and aiming that axe carefully with both eyes open, or swinging it wildly about you while blindfolded. Just because there are different ways to do it doesn't mean that each way is as effective as the other. And it certainly doesn't follow that some of those ways won't cause more harm than good.

B said...

Thanks to everyone who responded to my comments.

After reading your comments and reading some other material I think I can safely say that I agree with your position, and refute my earlier position. Meaning I'm a pacisfist who rejects violence holistically.

Mylene's comment really stuck with me. I think Prof Francione used/came up with that argument as well and it proved to be quite effecitve for me.

The concept of who is the exploiter really struck a chord with me - mainly because my whole family (with whom I live) is lacto ovo vegetarian. The idea of inflicting economic harm to them is simply crazy.

Also, Mylenes comment about pets makes sense - I should probably think more about adoptiong...


Bea Elliott said...

Mylène I agree that doing anything "blindfolded" whether it's buying a pair of shoes or choosing to have a child is totally irresponsible.

You are right that everything must be weighed for it's good and bad. And you also said in your original post "There are some in the animal advocacy movement who believe that the only way to bring about the end of the everyday violent acts humans commit against nonhumans is to, in turn, commit violent acts against those humans." And I would never support such a group that believed in "only (one) way" to help animals... For they certainly would be missing the mark that - "nothing will ever replace solidly grounded active vegan education..."

I've re-read everyone's comments and I just now got your analogy in causing economic damage to others who are eating dairy or flesh... At a glance my reaction was "so what?; Yes I would like for their products to be made more expensive!" But as I thought about it... Even by causing financial loss to milk-drinking friend or neighbor - It would only be temporary - And as soon as an opportunity arose for them to source (cheap) dairy again they would. Nothing will have changed in a permanent way - So thanks for making that clear, (the second time around).

I'm still on the fence about this issue though- Namely actions by Sea Shepherd which does directly have the potential of physical harm to humans. Or in the case of interfering with a human beating a puppy... In reacting to protect that whale (or puppy) - doesn't the aggression become justifiable? Or is it only "justifiable" because 97% of the people don't beat puppies? Or because they are beating puppies for a particular "scientific" purpose?

In which case then - isn't morality subjective? And it just hinges on nebulous cultural norms and sanctions? And don't we shift those every time we challenge them?

I'm not trying to be argumentative, please don't misconstrue my motives in these questions. I sincerely don't know right from wrong on these issues - And would like to get off this very uncomfortable and precarious fence.

I appreciate Dan's direct answer about hindering hunters. It rings true. As does undercover videos and other "illegal" but not "harmful" acts. But the question in defending animals (whales or puppies) still remains a haze. Is it the amount of animals (or species) being abused? Or the amount of people - (social acceptance) which justify interference?

IOW - If there was a group of 10, witnessing a puppy being beaten - if 7 people approved, and the other 3 agressively intervened - Just because a "violent" act went against majority and accepted norms... Wouldn't it still be objectively moral???

That's where I'm hung up - Would appreciate clarification if you can. Thanks.

Bea Elliott said...

Never mind... I think I figured it out - We as a culture are absolutely schizoid and incredibly hypocritical. And that even if you are doing the right thing ethically, unless the group views it as such... Your efforts count as a sacrifice not a gain.

And until you can persuade society to have a consistent value system, things will remain unfair and unjust... So "deal with it".

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference."

I don't like it - no one does... But it's the way it is. Time to move on to make what meaning full changes we can.

Thanx for letting me hash out my confusions on your blog! :)