First There Was the Finger Pointing About Finger Pointing
Several weeks ago, James McWilliams wrote an article ("Vegan Feud") for the mainstream news and pop culture site Slate that created a slight bit of a stir in online animal advocacy social networking circles. In it, McWilliams criticizes the abolitionist animal rights dismissal of animal welfare regulationism as ineffective, and he uses this to frame what was essentially a high-fiving defense of the past and current work of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Rather than recognize the intrinsic and considerable differences between abolitionist animal rights and welfarism as reflecting two altogether different movements, McWilliams appears to make the same error that all too many welfarists make when responding to abolitionist criticism by lumping both in together under one heading, deeming them two "in-fighting" factions of "the [same] cause". In the face of their quite fundamentally different philosophical stances and advocacy practices, he chooses to finger abolitionists for refusing to compromise on their own most basic underlying rejection of animal use and of their promotion of veganism as the moral baseline -- as the starting point for any serious animal advocacy.
Abolitionists Are Right?
It's not that McWilliams doesn't get that the process involved by groups like HSUS to regulate animal use does in fact differ from what abolitionist animal rights activists endorse and promote. He even seems to acknowledge that it falls short. He writes in his piece:
Nevertheless, as the abolitionists correctly point out, there’s nothing especially revolutionary about HSUS’s approach to improving the lives of farm animals. HSUS works closely with Big Agriculture, never calls for animal liberation, and never explicitly endorses the habit that most efficiently prevents animals from being killed: veganism.Confusingly, even while lumping a group like HSUS in with abolitionists as somehow being a part of the same "cause", McWilliams does acknowledge that what abolitionists point out in their critique of HSUS isn't incorrect. The facts are what they are and HSUS has made it clear again and again that it's not in the business of seeking to bring about an end to animal use. So what's the problem?
Abolitionists Are Wrong?
McWilliams at one point sums up what are fundamental differences in advocacy as a mere "rift" that needs to be healed -- notwithstanding that HSUS rejects each of the six principles of the abolitionist approach to animal rights -- by having abolitionists 'fess up that HSUS "is doing something right" and to also admit that focusing on educating people about going vegan and about why it is that they shouldn't treat other animals as things just isn't going to work. He writes:
Francione’s logic is hard-hitting, but his extreme message is unlikely to resonate widely in a population that’s only 1.4 percent vegan. According to social psychologist and longtime vegan Melanie Joy, the abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own—you can’t strong-arm them into it.McWilliams continues by paraphrasing Joy's assertion that going vegan requires a "profound shift in consciousness" and that people are just going to do it when they're ready to do it. As for me, I smell straw.
On How Not Talking to People About Veganism Is the Best Way to Promote Veganism
There are two essentially wrongheaded things to address in the previous quote. The first is that loose thing called an argument that animal advocates (too often ones like Jonathan Safran Foer who are themselves non-vegan) use to defend promoting vegetarianism -- i.e. the consumption of some, but not all types, of animal products -- as somehow being ethically meaningful. They insist that veganism is extreme -- a final step in a long journey where every little bit counts and should be applauded. They insist that the general public isn't ready to hear about why it is that it's wrong to torture and slaughter other sentient beings. They insist that "only 1.4% of Americans are vegan" and that this is somehow indicative of how few people could possibly "get it". Not only does this downplay that (if one trusts Google's citing US population as being 311, 591, 917 as of July 2011) over 4 million Americans are vegan, but it's also insulting to those who aren't, simply infantilizing them and suggesting that they're either too stupid or rigid to be offered -- and to understand -- a clear unequivocal message.
Furthermore, according to Joy (or McWilliams' take on Joy), it seems that merely offering up to anyone that clear and unequivocal message that other animals aren't ours to use is tantamount to "strong-arm[ing]" them. McWilliams writes that abolitionists should just follow Joy's lead -- and apparently HSUS' -- and accept and endorse the notion that people are just going to "embrace veganism on their own". Considering Joy's focus in her work on meat-eating's being more morally problematic than other animal use, and given the lengths to which HSUS has gone to assert that it is not a vegan organization and has no wish to bring an end to animal use, doesn't it sound -- if you'll pardon the academic vernacular -- downright kooky to suggest that abolitionists should adopt Joy and HSUS' attitudes towards the (non) promotion of veganism? And that this will be more effective in bringing people 'round to veganism?
As someone who was an on-again, off-again vegetarian of different stripes for years before hearing my first Vegan Freak Radio podcast in which Gary L. Francione's abolitionist approach theory was explained, all I can say is that I'm grateful that someone didn't balk at expressing quite clearly that not using them is the very least we owe other animals. I only wish that someone had talked to me about it sooner. It surely wasn't going to be Melanie Joy or HSUS, since ever after years of my not going vegan, they would likely have thought that I'd somehow maybe figure it out on my own -- possibly after enjoying warm fuzzies following the purchase of one of Joy's books and mailing off a quick donation to HSUS. The truth is that it took that plain old honest and earnest message for me to "get it". I'm still grateful to the Torres' for the advocacy work they once-upon-a-time did -- their voices are missed in more ways than one -- and for their promotion of Francione's abolitionist approach to animal rights.
If the message wasn't too overwhelming for me, someone who'd been raised in a small town and in a working class "meat and potatoes" home, surrounded by animal agriculture and hunters, why should it be for someone else? And if Melanie Joy and HSUS (and James McWilliams) won't talk to others about going vegan, then who will? And why on earth would anyone purporting to take the rights of other animals seriously suggest to abolitionists that we shouldn't? There are billions of other animals killed for human consumption each and every year. Are we really expected to sit around and hope that someone decides to go vegan without ever having had someone tell them why they should go vegan, y'know, lest they be overwhelmed by it or feel "strong-armed" into it?
Podcast, Yes? Podcast, No.
As a follow-up to this article, Francione extended an invitation to McWilliams -- in good faith -- to participate in a podcast discussion with him to go over issues raised by McWilliams in the Slate article. Presumably, the invitation was also extended to clarify some of the misrepresentations of abolitionist approach advocacy the article contained. McWilliams first accepted and then declined, more or less stating that he didn't want to participate because debating the issues — i.e. defending his public promotion of welfarism and critique (and seeming dismissal) of abolitionism — would purportedly be destructive to “the cause of animal advocacy”. It seems that McWilliams himself must have felt, in choosing to write his original article in Slate, that this discussion is indeed an important one to be had. Otherwise, why would he have brought it up publicly on such a widely-read and mainstream site (whose readers, incidentally, mostly don’t give a bean about the difference between either the regulation or the abolition of animal use)?
In his blog piece explaining his choosing to decline to do the podcast, McWilliams insisted that his arguments’ substance wasn't a concern, but that he saw participating in the podcast as nothing but engaging in a sparring contest where sparring skills might trump substance. He went on to more or less compare an intellectual debate in which he would be given the opportunity to elucidate and to substantiate his attack on the abolitionist approach (and where Francione would be given an equal opportunity to correct and clarify and to defend his work and that of those who subscribe to the abolitionist approach) as ending up as nothing more than the bumping together of two egos.
Good Faith/Bad Faith
McWilliams seemed to present himself as wanting to do the humble and noble thing and to focus on advancing “the cause” without taking this opportunity to provide those (who may or may not read Slate) who are actually interested in animal advocacy a well-thought out rational explanation for how it is that he thinks wefarism is in any way benefiting other animals and that the abolitionist approach fails to do so. That seemed like such a passive-aggressive dodge to me and it left me more disappointed in McWilliams as an advocate than I was when he wrote that wrongheaded Slate article in the first place. His refusal seemed quite disingenuous and sympathy-seeking and I would have expected more from a passionate and earnest advocate, and most certainly from a tenured academic. One would think that, having deemed discussing his critique of abolitionist advocacy with Francione as potentially harmful to the movement and with his concern over supposed "in-fighting" that McWilliams might have chosen to indeed step away from the issue to focus on other things. Part II of this lengthy blog commentary will examine how, sadly but unsurprisingly, this wasn't the case.
Stay tuned for more!