Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Meaninglessness of "Welfare" and Uselessness of Single-Issue Campaigns

A reader sent me a link yesterday morning to an article from The Vancouver Sun ("Animal rights group targets humane society's meaty menu") about the Ottawa Animal Rights Defence League and their protest of the Ottawa Humane Society's upcoming $300-a-plate FurBall fundraiser. It seems that the fundraiser, being held at the National Gallery of Canada on March 26, will feature a menu which will include meat (albeit with a token "vegetarian" option). Arguing that the Ottawa Humane Society is an animal welfare group and not an animal rights group, the Society issued a statement adding the following:

"Like most humane societies, the OHS does not have a position against the raising of animals for food, so long as the animals are raised and slaughtered in a humane manner. We are confident that . . . (the menu) has not compromised our position."

While the society offers a vegetarian option at all its events, "fewer than five per cent of our guests have opted for this menu."

"Fewer than five percent" of the well-heeled guests who will be attending this high-priced affair have opted for the token gesture offered up by the society. Given its endorsement of animal use, however, it's not a surprise that it would shrug off having a menu devoid of animal products. Also, given that it holds this position, it's easy to understand why its eager donors might also very well be laissez-faire about what's served at this event. I mean, why would you not want to eat animals when forking over money to a group that condones the exploitation of animals?

According to the article, the Animal Rights Defence League staged "a small protest" outside last year's FurBall event and although on one level, I can understand why the Animal Rights Defence League would view the feeding of animal products at any self-proclaimed animal advocacy event sort of wrongheaded, I'm not certain that I see the relevance of their protesting the Ottawa Humane Society's doing so at this event any more than they would protest any non-vegan group's serving animal products -- or any ordinary store or restaurant's doing so, for that matter unless it was to address the more basic fact that the Society condones the use of non-human animals in general.

I guess that one could say that the League's members' hearts are in the right place, but the larger issue of the Ottawa Humane Society's overall endorsement of the raising of animals for human use and slaughter would seem to me to be the more logical and appropriate focus, particularly since this very policy is why they deem it fit to serve animal flesh and secretions at their fundraiser in the first place. As long as the Ottawa Humane Society limits its scope of concern and chooses to nurture the illusion of there being such a thing as "humane" treatment when non-human animals are raised for food, why would it hold a vegan fundraiser? And how does protesting this fundraiser affect in any way how the Society will go on to condone the exploitation of non-human animals? The answer is that it won't: They're not an animal rights group.

Reading the article led me to an earlier article concerning the Animal Rights Defence League's supposed recent victory in convincing the organizers of Ottawa's annual Winterlude to ask a famous chef, someone who has "built up an exalted reputation in part for his celebration of engorged duck liver -- foie gras" from including foie gras on the menu of Winterlude's opening gala. The article soon reveals, however, what a victory this wasn't: "Several Ottawa restaurants have decided to add foie gras to their festival menus in support of Mr. Picard." Never mind the fact that animal ingredients of all sorts will still be part of the Winterlude menu. Where's the victory here?

As someone who champions vegan education, I sometimes hear animal advocates who don't view veganism as a moral baseline say that I (and others who also champion vegan education and who support an abolitionist approach to animal rights advocacy) am not seeing the "big picture", and that I need to step back and weigh the good that comes from a wide variety of types of animal advocacy, ranging from causes like "Meatless Monday" (i.e. shuffling animal products around on one day of the week) to HSUS' ongoing tweaking of the regulations concerning how we raise this or that animal for our consumption (i.e. rather than their educating the public that we do not need to -- and should not -- treat them as things in the first place). I often get told by welfarists or by those who engage in protesting the more easily marketable and higher profile animal issues (e.g. the use of fur, the seal hunt, et al.) and who sometimes choose to pay lip service to educating the public about going vegan that pitching going vegan as the least we can do for non-human animals is futile and/or extremist. I get told that I have tunnel vision for focusing on educating others about about veganism and that my focus is both too narrow and asking too much.

But in talking to others about going vegan, I am talking to them about not using or exploiting non-human animals and of not providing a demand for their exploitation. As an abolitionist vegan, I am asking them to examine their own speciesism.
And is not speciesism which underlies what most of society views as the perfectly normal practice of treating non-human animals as things existing for human use? So how is getting to the very root of the problem rather than picking at this or that easy-sell single-issue campaign focusing too narrowly? How can we, when purporting to fight for what's best for animals, write off asking others to stop using them as asking "too much"?

Now, as for the animal rights group I referenced above whose two stories got me thinking about the ineffectiveness of cherry-picking compartmentalized issues regarding animal use or treatment, they may very well engage in educating the public about veganism on some level at other times. Unfortunately, the aforementioned stories are the ones which received press attention and the ones which will leave the public continuing to conflate animal welfare groups with animals rights groups, and which will leave them thinking that eating one type of animal product is significantly ethically worse than eating a different body part or secretion of the same (or of a different) non-human animal.

Are these really the kinds of messages that we want the public to keep receiving? Rather than suggest to me, an animal rights advocate, that I should somehow embrace a wide variety of goals, methods, isolated causes and single-issue campaigns to be a better advocate, wouldn't it make more sense to look at what lies behind each and every problem inherent in the use of non-human animals and for us to focus our time and energy on fighting speciesism and on educating the public to go vegan? Wouldn't it make more sense that instead of sending out so many mixed messages to the public, we would instead come together and focus on one clear message and ask them consider the rights and interests of all sentient non-human animals and to stop treating them as things?

I have good friends -- loved ones -- who think absolutely nothing of chewing into a piece of some cow's body because they "love" the taste, and who garb themselves in the skin that would have covered that cow's body because they "love" the look. Some of them express their outrage to me, perhaps trying to bond over what they view as what must surely be some sort of shared emotion or common point in our respective ethical frameworks. But to them, giving up their ordinary day-to-day consumption and use of animals would seem absurd and unreasonable. To them, it would be taking things too far.

If single-issue campaigns were effective in making people go vegan, these people I know who would never be caught wearing fur or eating foie gras would be vegan. But as long as they're led to feel that they're doing enough in signing a petition to end the seal hunt or in sending money to help a welfarist group lobby the government to make the size of a cage a few inches larger, why would they take things further? And as long as they don't take things further, nothing will ever really change.

Please talk to someone today about going vegan.


The Compassionate Hedonist said...

I just want to mention that rescue work should not be confused as a SIC. We save those who we have the legal right to, such as dogs and cats in high kill shelters. Sure we would love to rescue other animals, but we can't do so through legal measures. I push for legislation to make all "shelter" no-kill. Of course will use their work as a platform for veganism, but we realize that adoption as rescue is an important part of animal advocacy.

M said...

I agree. Adoption and fostering are indeed crucial parts of animal advocacy!

(BTW, for anyone interested, someone else wrote a piece about this Ottawa group yesterday that's worth reading:

Niilo John Van Steinburg said...

Great post, Mylène! It amazes me how people can seriously look at 3 decades of new welfarism and say that it's actually done anything positive for the animal rights movement. But part of the problem is that advocates aren't scrutinizing their own tactics - they are jumping on the biggest bandwagons they can find.