Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Why You Cannot Abolish the Use of Animals While Encouraging the Use of Animals

I have been involved in more than a handful of discussions or exchanges over recent months where I have been informed of the "need" for animal activists to present a united front and that my promotion of the abolitionist approach with veganism as an absolute moral baseline is "counterproductive" and "off-putting" to new potential vegans--that the abolitionist approach to animal rights, in and of itself, is purportedly "off-putting". Is "off-putting" just a euphemism for "not easy", though? I agree that advocating for veganism as an absolute moral baseline isn't offering anyone whose second nature it is to view nonhuman animals as food (or more generally, as our property and ours to use) anything resembling instant gratification.

What it
does offer, however, is simplicity and consistency. What it does allow is an opportunity for a human individual to remove herself from a cycle that causes unnecessary suffering and ends in slaughter. What it does allow is for (depending on where you source your stats) anywhere from 20-30 animals a year to not be slaughtered for the most superficial of human whims. What it does allow is the sort of opportunity for the sort of clarity and critical thinking which will leave you understanding that "veganism doesn't require perfection, is simple and straightforward, and does not involve a cultish religiosity but simple reasoning based on evidence to make moral decisions".

It was suggested to me the other day that my having disagreed with a fellow vegan over whether we, as vegans, should be promoting vegetarianism had been "mean" and lacking in "compassion for other humans". The truth is, though, that this isn't some sort of childhood interaction where we are gingerly picking team members to play dodge ball. If I express disagreement with a certain approach, it is because based on what I have observed or learned, that approach has been ineffective (or worse, that it is logically flawed before even getting off the ground). Call me compulsive, but I would feel almost just as strongly about pointing out to someone that he cannot start his BMW with a Popsicle stick or a lit stick of dynamite. Add to this that we are talking about differences in approaches to animal advocacy that affect the lives of billions of individuals every single year, and how could I not voice my disagreement? Why would I not? Disagreeing with ideas is just that--disagreement. Discussion and debate need not be stifled by being dragged down to the personal and there's far too much at stake right now to get tripped up over personal niceties or posturing when the focus needs to be on the work at hand.

Being what some call more flexible by promoting vegetarianism may make me seem more amiable, but other than making me seem more warm and fuzzy, who does it really benefit in the end? We have already seen that, however emphatically some may choose to assert otherwise, vegetarianism is not some sort of gateway to veganism and that (as expressed in the following quote by Gary L. Francione) its promotion does nothing but spread confusion:

If we promote any variety of vegetarianism short of veganism, we reinforce the false belief that there is a distinction between meat and dairy or other animal products. So even if vegans usually start off as vegetarians, we ought still to be promoting veganism. I should add that it remains a question in my mind as to whether those taking vegetarian “first steps” do so precisely because that is what they are being advised to do by animal advocates who are confused on this issue.
I have an old university friend who claims to have been reading my blog for months because it "makes [him] think" (although Site Meter leads me to believe that his assertions have more to do with flattering me than reflecting any actual reading of anything in this blog). He's a vegetarian. He's been so for a good dozen years and if you ask him, he will insist to you that he's doing it to prevent animal suffering. While gobbling up his cheese omelet, he will insist to you that eating meat is wrong and when asked why he continues to consume animal products, will invariably answer that he's doing his "part" and doing "more than most" and that this is enough. The truth is that he's taken no meaningful steps whatsoever to alter his own role in the exploitation and slaughter of animals. Somewhere along the line, someone convinced him that vegetarianism was enough and there he sits. He hasn't gone vegan and has no intention of doing so, since his only goal is to minimize suffering, and he feels that in eschewing meat and opting for other animal products that he's somehow stacking points up in the plus column. These are the so-called small increments some would have me applaud for the sake of not being "off-putting"?

I'm no mover, I'm no shaker. I have never published a book on animal rights, nor have I penned a popular vegan cookbook. I hold no doctoral degree and am no expert in anything other than sorting out the muck in my own head (and even there, my expertise is tenuous at best and more of an ongoing learning experiment). My superpower, I guess, is that I have nothing to lose. I am just an ordinary Canadian vegan who has spent years reading and listening and ultimately realizing that some things just weren't working: I have friends who make annual donations to PeTA, but who continue to eat animals. I have friends involved in cat rescue, but who raise chickens for their eggs and flesh. I have friends who define themselves as "animal lovers" who were outraged over the recent Vick case, but who will verbalize--quite delightedly--their enjoyment of the taste of animal flesh within moments of calling Vick a monster for having gotten his own kicks by exploiting dogs. I have a friend who's able to articulate why it is that she believes that consuming cage-free eggs involves making an ethical choice that's supposedly superior to consuming eggs from chickens kept in battery cages, even though she's never purchased a so-called "humane" product in her entire life. Something's not working. It's just not. What's obvious is that there are overlapping layers of confusion about moral issues and about the status of nonhuman animals that need to be peeled back. Do we really want or need to add more?

For more information on why veganism is the only defensible moral position in terms of our consumption and use of nonhumans, read or listen to the following:


Vincent Guihan said...

Many of the best and the brightest of the abolitionist movement are ordinary Canadians. That wouldn't include me as a transplanted American, but it's an interesting coincidence.

Dan Cudahy said...

Thank you Mylène. That was brilliantly said.

I particularly agree that none of this is complex. We need to peel back layers of new welfarist nonsense and admit that all of the “complication” ultimately comes from prejudice and self-interested “rationalizations”, whether motivated by non-vegan donations to the large or financially-ambitious “animal protection” organizations or the non-vegan palate or a lack of “social courage” or unwillingness to change one’s old habits.

Practical Vegan said...

I'm struggling with something, that perhaps you can help me with...While I AM a vegan, and am disgusted at the exploitation of animals here and afar, I wonder how peoples in 'developing' countries would fare without the assistance of animals in their fields. I am not speaking of CAFOs in Somalia but more of oxen in the fields... Any thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Mylène Ouellet said...

Vincent, I certainly wasn't trying to indicate that ordinary Canadians couldn't be some of the "best and brightest" of the abolitionist movement. I was merely confirming my own ordinary Canadian-ness since I've had a couple of "Who the hell do you think you are?" comments thrown my way over recent months for having the audacity to express opinions that differ from some whose voices are deemed more authoritative (or better-credentialed, anyway).

Dan, thank you.

Practical Vegan, I'm not certain where your question fits with regards to this post, which is mostly about the wrongheadedness of encouraging vegetarianism as being any sort of more ethical choice. I am guessing from your question that what you are really asking is whether or not vegans should condone some forms of animal exploitation (e.g. to allow humans in developing countries to grow food to feed themselves)? If that's the question, then the answer is no. Would it be any more permissible for humans in developing countries to use teams of human slaves to plow crops?

Ivy said...

Mylene, this is a fantastic post. You *should* write a book.