|Gary L. Francione (to the right) addresses the crowd during his debate with Bruce Friedrich.(Photo sourced from FARM's Facebook page.)|
When it came time for audience members to ask questions and/or comments, better than twenty individuals made their way to the microphone positioned near the front of the room. Of the questions I remember, one was from a woman employed by The Humane League and who has a relevant interest in the outcome of the debate. She asked both debaters to talk about what type of vegan outreach they’ve done, but specifically asked Francione, “What do you do besides Facebook?” Clearly intended to imply that all Francione does is use Facebook, it was obviously a “planted” question. After all, Francione has written numerous books, he teaches and lectures internationally, he blogs, he podcasts, and let’s face it, he doesn’t subscribe to the model that one needs to work within a organizational structure to be effective. Yet, here he was having to defend his use of Facebook, which he did commendably enough in outlining how without much in the way or resources he was reaching thousands and getting 400 emails a day concerning the abolitionist approach. But the question was clearly designed to set up Friedrich to rattle off a list of welfare campaigns and claim that it was abolitionist vegan education.
For anyone astute enough to notice, it was a contrived question with the intention of supporting Friedrich’s position. Another audience member commented that he felt the debate seemed to center around either promoting welfare reforms and/or promoting veganism. He added that there should be another position presented, and if I understood him correctly, he was interested in seeing bans on different forms of exploitation rather than simply regulating conditions within that exploitation. Friedrich responded by thanking him for his question and different point of view and added that Francione and he admittedly did not go over every position during the debate.
Towards the end of the question and answer portion of the debate, Nick Cooney, Founder of The Humane league and now Compassionate Communities Manager at Farm Sanctuary was either given or somehow commandeered a wireless microphone to ask a question from the back of the room. It was not only rude (at least 15 audience members were waiting patiently in line for their turn to ask a question,) but it was also very much another “planted” question.
Unknowing attendees may not have realized who was asking the question or that Cooney, who remember works for the same organization as Friedrich, was asking the question of his colleague, but it seemed clear to me that it was an attempt to bring the conversation back to the Kansas State Study. I don’t remember his exact phrasing, but his “question” went something like, “Bruce, can you elaborate further on the study you referenced earlier about how welfare reforms save millions of animals?”
As an aside, and for those who may not know, Cooney has a history of this sort of disingenuous behavior. In August of 2012, Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States wrote an article for the online blog, Food Day in which Shapiro encouraged readers to eat more vegetables. Among the “planted” comments by many of Shapiro’s colleagues and friends (all of which are still there to be read,) Cooney, using his own name, posted a comment that said something to the effect of, “Thank you Mr. Shapiro, I’m glad you brought this issue to my attention. I’ve been eyeing all those yummy looking meat alternatives in my grocery store and you’ve encouraged me to try them.” After being summarily criticized by others in the animal rights community as dishonest and disingenuous to have pretended to be an omnivore (Cooney is vegan) who just happened upon the article and was influenced by it, the comments were taken down.
Friedrich used this “question” to again make the case for the validity of the Kansas State Study, which Francione quickly challenged. Saying, that the study does not say that welfare campaigns have resulted in any actual decrease in consumption. Rather, he explained, “it says that demand, measured over an approximately ten-year period, did not increase as much as the authors would have thought if media attention on welfare issues had not increased.” He added that animal consumption is increasing but it did not increase as much with respect to pigs and chickens and that may or may not have had anything to do with animal welfare measures, and any decrease in demand may very well reflect a shift to fish, eggs, dairy products since the authors defined those as non-meat
Friedrich kept insisting that the study indicated both an overall reduction in animal consumption and that it was the result of welfare reform. Francione again challenged that this was theorized, and with zero evidence to back it up it was merely correlation not causation. Francione went on to encourage the audience to read the entire study for themselves and not take any one’s word for it.
More than a handful of attendees were left without time in the schedule to ask questions and they were asked to return to their seats.
Friedrich received the most raucous applause from the assembled crowd, which was again filled with a veritable who’s who of animal welfare leaders and their supporters. I wouldn't base it all on cheering, however. Francione, to my knowledge, did not even announce publicly that he would be speaking at the conference. And remember, this conference has long been dominated by welfarist organizations. All of which employ colleagues, friends, and peers of Friedrich, and all of whom knew to show up in opposition. Some of them were visibly not very happy to be hearing disagreement with their work, especially in front of a crowd that normally fawns all over them. Their cheers were the only way to voice their dissatisfaction. It was expected.
After the debate, Francione made his way to the spacious foyer outside the Plaza room where conference sponsor tables were set up. Francione was provided with his own table to promote his new eBook. Once there, a seemingly endless stream of conference attendees had gathered in a line to seek him out to talk to him, to discuss points he made, or to meet him for themselves. In some cases it was an orderly line where people waited their turn, in others instances attendees had gathered around the table informally for a group conversation. This scene literally went on for hours, five straight hours to be exact. Person after person after person wanted to engage him in conversation. It wasn’t until the foyer began to fill up with those attending the conference banquet and awards ceremony that Francione and his assistant could think about making an exit. That however, was short-lived as they could not walk more than a few steps before being stopped again.
The distance from Francione’s table to the escalator leading to the main lobby and hotel exit was no more than a hundred and fifty feet. But it took them another hour to walk that distance as more and more people wanted to ask questions and interact with Francione. Finally at the foot of the escalator and the group gathered at just about five or six individuals, Eddie Lama of The Witness recognized Francione. The two made eye contact, but the old friends couldn’t believe whom they were seeing. They embraced and someone snapped a picture. Shortly thereafter-another old friend walked by. This time it was Shirley McGreal, founder of International Primate Protection League, who recognized both Francione and Lama and the three had their picture taken together. After all was said and done, Francione left the Hilton Mark Center nearly 12 hours after he arrived.
My take on the debate: At a conference that has traditionally been dominated by regulationst ideologies, Gary Francione had everything to gain, while Bruce Friedrich had much to lose. Regardless of how any of us might have called it (I personally happen to think Francione's arguments were and are more effective) the winner was Francione. Exposing 800 people to the abolitionist approach, many of who are brand new to the movement, there were bound to be people who were moved to consider his point of view, and for him to win over new supporters (I spoke to a number of them). That's a win in my book. In Friedrich's case, attendees learned nothing new and I spoke to no one who was moved to reconsider their position and support his. His supporters remained his supporters. Having witnessed the events of the morning, afternoon and into the early evening of Saturday June 29th, I can honestly say it was a thing of beauty to behold.
In the hours after the debate, while many of us conference goers were discussing the day’s events and our thoughts on who had won, I heard something interesting from a friend. He happened to overhear a conference sponsor tell a colleague that if Francione were invited again, he and others would pull out of next year's conference. It seems evident that some felt threatened by Francione’s presence and did not take kindly to being challenged on the merits or their work.
Of course being challenged isn't about posturing and nitpicking so much as it is a very much warranted criticism of how many organizations are going about setting things back for the very animals they claim to be "helping". Frankly, when welfare reform is criticized, the response is too often to ignore the substance of the argument and claim that the critic is being “divisive” or “too idealistic”. This is not helpful to a useful discussion and seems only designed to prevent people from considering the message. Abolitionists like Francione have for far too long been painted with that broad brush. It’s insidious and it needs to stop.
For those of you who weren't present at AR2013 to hear the Francione/Friedrich debate, here's an unofficial video taken of it by an audience member. Enjoy!