On Calling Not Changing the Subject "Changing the Subject"
In his post offering up the reasons he had changed his mind about participating in a podcast discussion with Gary Francione, James McWilliams had stated that "it [would] accomplish nothing except intensify the polarization that [McWilliams was] trying to minimize". Rather than take the opportunity to substantiate claims made during his recent public criticism of abolitionist advocates, he'd written that his intention was to instead continue developing his own arguments on his blog. The message received, based on his followers' reactions in the comments (reactions to which he did not respond and which he did not correct) was that debating the differences between abolitionist animal rights and welfarism is a waste of time and that he was no longer going to waste his own time doing it. I figured he'd meant that. So I was disappointed to amble over to his site the other day to find that he'd chosen to re-post an article by Melanie Joy in which she dredges up the welfare-abolition debate and takes a few passive-aggressive swipes at abolitionists.
A Reluctant Finger-Wagger
Joy starts off echoing McWilliams' message about how debating the fundamental differences between welfarism and abolitionist animal rights is a waste of time that she's always avoided, but that the apparently horribly traumatic and negative effects of those differences' having recently been aired forced her make an exception and to give up some of her time to weigh in. She starts off assuring us that there's nothing left to be said in the welfare vs. abolition debate -- she says it's "gridlocked". She implies that focusing on it at all is a soul-sucking time-sink. So? She offers up a fix -- a "reframe", she calls it, to make all of our lives "more peaceful" and our activism "more effective".
Critical Discourse and Debate Are "Non-Vegan"?
Joy suggests that we step away from what she calls the "content" of the issue (i.e. the facts and ethical arguments) and focus instead on "the way we communicate" -- the "process". She sets up a false dichotomy, suggesting that advocates can do one of two things. We can be "argumentative" so that
[o]ur consciousness and process can mirror the speciesist [...] culture we are working to transform, thus reinforcing, for instance, ideological rigidity, black-and-white thinking, defensiveness, bullying, self-righteousness, and hostility.Otherwise, we can be "cooperative" and let our, um, consciousness
reflect the core principles of veganism – principles such as compassion, reciprocity, justice, and humility – the essence of a “liberatory” consciousness (and process), a way of being (and relating) that is fundamentally liberating and that I believe can significantly empower the important strategic conversations we need to continue to engage in.She goes on to use the term "non-liberatory" to describe the former, which is also what she writes she's observed is brought to the table when differences in goals, strategy and tactics are discussed.
Conflating Diversity Within One with the Differences Between Two
Joy brings up that old familiar notion of the strengthening effect of diversity and extrapolates from it that we should somehow recognize that there is similar strength in our "differences" as advocates. She suggests that we should see the fundamental differences between what I've already mentioned in my previous post have realistically become two altogether different animal advocacy movements -- one welfarist focusing on how other animals are used and the other abolitionist and focusing on whether other animals are ours to use at all -- and that we should see liken these differences to mere diversity within one movement and as "opportunities" to strengthen what Joy calls "our movement". The thing is that likening diversity to those differences goes beyond comparing apples to oranges and makes as much sense as comparing a bowl of nooch gravy to a piece of granite. To insist otherwise merely undermines the seriousness of those differences.
Things get a whole lot more skewed in the article as Joy continues to weave into her text as a given that we're all apparently focused on the same goal -- i.e. that we're one movement with our collective eye on the same prize. She mentions "differences in terms of how effective various strategies are for ending animal exploitation" and that although some of those strategies may be "counterproductive" that "we" (i.e. members of an apparently comprehensive movement bent on ending animal use) need to discuss our different strategies "openly" and without "argu[ing] with each other"... but what exactly does she mean by "arguing"?
Debating = Evil
Surely, you would think that she's dismissing "arguing" in its common sense, when emotions are heated, tables are flipped and fists are shaken in the air? But no, according to Joy, merely having a rational critical discussion where you're expected to defend claims you make is tantamount to falling into this supposed non-vegan and "non-liberatory" mindset. Joy, in effect, decides to attack the entire idea and usefulness of debating, in and of itself. This form of critical engagement -- this rational exchange of information and arguments to clarify and substantiate claims and positions -- is purportedly rigid and extremist, according to Joy. It's just a contest and is all about winning. In fact, not only is it all about winning, but it's about labeling the person with whom you're engaging in critical dialogue a "loser". It apparently leaves the observer or listener to said debate limited to accepting one of two positions (obviously not the so-called loser's) and leaves the observer or listener completely in the dark about possible nuances to whatever topic is being debated. Presumably, this is because Joy thinks that people are incapable of listening and then reflecting upon and processing what they hear?
She contrasts debate with "dialogue" as if they're two completely altogether different things. Dialogue alone, it seems, allows for the sharing and exchange of information. Dialogue alone fosters an awareness of "multiple perspectives". Dialogue alone leads us to contemplations and thoughtfulness upon hearing different perspectives. Debate? It just leaves us pumping the air all "non-liberatory"-like, itching to see a victor and a vanquished. She writes:
Achieving our objective of animal liberation depends on developing a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and flexible strategic approach to targeting a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing form of institutionalized oppression. It is unlikely that the reductive, black-and-white rhetoric of debate can ever produce such nuance and analytical richness.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I smell straw. It's possible that she comes by it honestly and that Joy's own experience with debates has left her unnerved -- that a bad experience has left her with a limited and one-sided idea of their purpose or process. There's a certain irony in that something that's such an ordinary part of what I should hope most thinkers or academics view as critical dialogue ends up made a straw man by Joy and that her contrast between this straw man and her notion of "dialogue" is in and of itself as narrow and "black and white" as the outcome she purports results from engaging in debate. Debate, she claims, is "problematic" and is in fact "an obstacle". It's "non-liberatory" and thus (gasp!) non-vegan.
I'm a Pepper, He's a Pepper
She's a Pepper, We're a Pepper
Having established that debates are a Big Bad, Joy branches off from this to get to what I think is the true purpose of her essay, which is explain why it's just plain silly that some who call themselves abolitionists would want to engage in debate with others they call welfarists. According to Joy, advocates are just plain old confused. They've mistaken strategy for ideology (with the latter presented as "morally loaded", as if it's somehow horrible to attribute rightness or wrongness to something and to take a stance accordingly). Her concern, it seems, is that self-described abolitionists who busy themselves educating others about not using animals and who see other advocates focusing on how animals are used (and not engaging in vegan education) are making a big mistake in assessing those actions as reflecting the other advocates' ideology. According to Joy, those differences are just strategic and we're apparently all, in fact, seeking the abolition of animal use. She writes that it's only "when we untangle ideology from strategy [that] we can redirect the conversation to how best to bring about this end without getting sidetracked by moral argumentation. (Because who on earth would want to lose their way advocating for the rights of others by getting distracted actually discussing silly things like "rights" or other "morally loaded" junk?)
I won't go into detail about how Joy rambles on about how there is absolutely no evidence that promoting welfare reform will or won't bring about the abolition of animal use, except to suggest to she should put down her Cooney and pick up a copy of Gary L. Francione's Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement or (better yet) The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? and that she perhaps consider taking a quick look at some of the (dare I say it?) nuanced writings on his website about why one should opt to focus on educating others to go vegan rather than waste time on attempts at welfare reform (attempts which often end up reinforcing the idea to non-vegans that other animals are indeed ours to use). Joy writes that "our investment in being right can prevent us from being effective" which misses the point altogether that for abolitionists, our investment is not in being "right", but in convincing others to go vegan. For me, hearing that someone's connected the dots and has rejected animal use is what's effective. Joy's investment in thinking that I'm participating in a contest or sporting event is preventing her from seeing that I'm fighting a holocaust.
To Joy, though, we're all on the same side, albeit some of us are trying to play soccer and to force other advocates into forming an opposing team so that we can just whup their arses for the sake of whupping arses. Debating, according to Joy, is just the "othering" of fellow advocates for the sake of arse-whupping. In fact, she points out, the whole "welfare-abolition debate" is a perfect example of this. It's a "myth", she tells us. It's just a construct slapped together by those who call themselves abolitionists. Why? Supposedly to force into a make-believe opposing camp other vegans who don't self-identify as having any sort of specific political or ethical stance when it comes to the question of the morality of animal use per se. If their actions reflect a political or ethical stance (e.g. through participating in or promoting regulationist campaigns)? Joy says that using a descriptor to identify them is antagonistic and irrelevant if they, themselves, don't self-identify with that same descriptor. (An aside: I wonder if Joy would take this one step further, then, and assert that if someone doesn't self-identify as, say, a sexist, that this person cannot rightfully be called a sexist?) Plus, throwing that descriptor out there is tantamount to actively foiling the hard work that other advocate is doing, whatever that "work" may be.
Identification with a position has largely been the province of a small group of vegans who have constructed an identity around their strategic-ideological approach and who have constructed labels for both themselves and the other “side.” In our soccer analogy, it’s as if there is only one team trying to win the game; the rest of the individuals don’t even think of themselves as a team and are simply moving across the field, only kicking the ball when it gets in their way.Even when she admits for a second that maybe there is indeed something to abolitionists contrasting themselves with advocates whose focus is not on use, but on treatment, Joy insists that the difference between welfarists and abolitionists is still somehow make-believe -- a "myth":
To be fair, just because only a minority of vegans have a “team” identity, this does not mean that the majority play no role in constructing the debate. It is entirely possible that the small, vocal minority have developed a cohesive group identity because they have felt that their valid and pressing concerns have not been taken seriously by the broader vegan culture. Both “sides” must work to defuse the Myth of the Great Debate.So in the end, there is no such thing as a welfarist or an abolitionist according to Melanie Joy -- all vegans are ultimately abolitionists (Joy's obviously never heard of Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro or of Erik Marcus). Oh, and for heaven's sake -- don't try to debate her on this, because you'll just be kicking a soccer ball in her path and blocking the effective advocacy in which she is currently engaged by trying to blur distinctions between two altogether different movements. Joy's intention seems to be to shame and to silence the one movement that is unequivocal about its focus on animal rights while fighting to end animal exploitation. She seems to want to co-opt the descriptor "abolitionist" as it is understood now in animal advocacy circles, and to stretch it out to include anyone and everyone who wants to self-identify with it, regardless of their ethical stances or of their actions and complicity in the reinforcement of speciesist attitudes. I'm guessing that explaining to her that terms come with context and with definitions would just lead to an accusation that I was being confrontational and "non-liberatory".
Descriptors Aren't Merit Badges
Isn't it funny? This whole business of calling those who are actually abolitionists and who reject animal use things like "extremist", "divisive", "bullies", et al. while wanting to co-opt the term for people who aren't actually abolitionist but who still involve themselves in perpetuating animal use by focusing on treatment, it's really no different than animal-using vegetarians calling vegans extremist, divisive, bullies, et al. and then vegetarians wanting to co-opt the term "vegan" to self-identify as some "degree" of vegan as they continue to deliberately engage in avoidable animal use. Vegans get scolded and shamed into accepting vegetarianism (i.e. animal use) as somehow being no more than a wee moral sidestep (lest they be deemed holier-than-thou, judgmental, the vegan police, elitist, et al.). Now abolitionists are being scolded and shamed into embracing welfarism and into allowing those who focus on animal treatment to co-opt the term "abolitionist" for themselves -- regardless of their political or ethical stances or of the nature of their hands-on advocacy. If you try to point out that they're different, according to Joy, you're obviously a bitter trouble-makers who's gobbling up the time of those who could otherwise be doing their tabling or starting Care2 petitions to stop Safeway from selling brown ducks on Tuesday mornings. I mean, how dare you?
Welfarists and abolitionists aren't just grumpy siblings sniping at each other in the back seat of a car while on summer vacation. There is no rift in one unified movement; we are two separate movements. Our differences goes far beyond being mere "diversity", but it seems that hammering that out by engaging in critical debates that would make this evident is "non-liberatory" and not in keeping with vegan principles. Joy claims that we need to be truth-seekers, but seems to want us to do so blindfolded. And if in their own truth-seeking, advocates around us do more harm than good to other animals, we should nonetheless "value" them for their truth-seeking-ness; instead of tapping them on the shoulder and suggesting that they're doing it wrong, we should give up on our own fixation on doing it "right".
According to Joy, judging another's actions is always "shaming" and shaming is non-liberatory (and thus goes against vegan principles). According to Joy, judging always involves bullying. (Critical thinking means less time for hugs?) Joy's investment in keeping us from stepping on each other's toes is preventing her from acknowledging that for each misstep one of my fellow advocates takes, there may be additional lives lost. It's not about us; it's about them. If I point out to you that spending all of your time trying to get non-vegans to sign a petition to convince a fast-food burger chain to only use eggs from chickens who have an extra three inches of room in the cages in which they spend their entire miserable short lives, I'm not doing it to hurt your feelings: I'm doing it because I'm thinking about those chickens and that the chickens in those cages would rather not be in those cages at all. It's not about us; it's about them.
She's right that we have "much work to do". Some animal advocates educate the general public about veganism; other advocates choose to educate the public about not not buying shoes made of kangaroo leather from one specific company while not addressing that no leather from any animal should be purchased and that all animal exploitation is problematic. As an abolitionist and an ethical vegan who truly wants to see an end to speciesism and to the horrific cycle into which billions of other sentient beings are enslaved and slaughtered every single year, part of my work involves sometimes tapping the kangaroo shoe petitioner on the shoulder and suggesting that more could and should be done. If someone like Joy wants to insist that that my doing so somehow goes against vegan principles -- that it's "divisive", so be it. At the end of the day I'd still offer Joy a big ol' hug. Then I'd ask her to substantiate her claims and to give me an opportunity to refute them, because this is where real learning and understanding come from -- not from smiling and nodding and turning a blind eye to others' fumbling around us.