Friday, December 07, 2012

So What's the Matter with Mercy for Animals?

I often get into conversations or exchanges with advocates who'll bring up this or that group or organization to mention that they like one of its posters or pamphlets, or that they heard a quote from one of its heads and that this quote really got their attention. Often, I'll find myself nodding and then shrugging, remembering this or that bit of information I'd filed away at some point which had left me dismissing the group in question, whether for its being speciesist and regulationist and as promoting ineffective campaigns, or for its endorsing and condoning (whether explicitly or implicitly) what are portrayed and presented as lesser degrees of animal use. Sometimes the group in question will have  used things like sexism or the threat of violence to promote whichever message it claims as its own. More often than not, the group will have seemed more concerned with fundraising for all of its wrongheaded campaigns than in earnestly effecting serious and permanent change in the public's continued use and exploitation of other animals.

Whatever the reason, there invariably seems to be something that leaves the group either falling short -- often far, far short -- of championing the rights of others or failing altogether to present any sort of clear message to the public about animals not being ours to use. Sadly, there also seems to be a growing tendency for animal groups to publicly distance themselves from the concept of veganism, from the word "vegan" itself and even expressing hostility towards those who refuse to equivocate when it comes to what we owe other animals. Sometimes these animal groups will perpetuate stereotypes and even ridicule those who are unequivocal in asking the public to consider that these sentient beings over 98% of us view as things existing for human use should be left alone. "Every little step counts," they'll assure non-vegans as they cash they donation cheques. "Not everybody will go vegan, so we have to applaud and encourage whatever they're willing to do," they'll argue. "Mentioning veganism is pushy and pushing them is judgmental," they'll insist. It should come as no surprise that validating (again, whether explicitly or implicitly) others' continued use of animals can be profitable.

Over the next while in a regular series of bi-monthly blog posts, I hope to examine some of the better known animal groups whose names get tossed around in activist circles. I'll try to highlight examples of where their advocacy doesn't jive with abolitionist animal rights advocacy and evaluate what they have to say about veganism, whose promotion is the starting point for any earnest and meaningful animal advocacy geared towards combating speciesism.

Mercy for Animals and its SICs

Mercy for Animals has certainly been in the news these last few years, earning itself a fair bit of mainstream media coverage thanks to its taking undercover footage of the abuse of animals at specific factory farms or slaughterhouses. Recently and just in time for the US Thanksgiving holiday, its cameras focused on one of Butterball's turkey facilities to offer up an expose of the horrible treatment endured by the turkeys at the hands of that facility's workers. Mercy for Animals even set up a website called Butterball Abuse on which you can find disturbing portions of the video footage, photos, expert testimony that the footage shows bona fide abuse and then a call to take action by going "vegetarian" (which for Mercy for Animals means adopting a plant-based diet), spreading the word about the Butterball Abuse site and.... making a donation to Mercy for Animals.

So? So the public was horrified. Calls to boycott Butterball popped up all over the internet, whether singling the company out for the obviously (not) out of the ordinary and extreme cruelty caught on film by Mercy for Animals, or for its being involved in factory farming in general. Non-vegans across the interwebs were outraged. How dare Butterball leave them potentially feasting on the carcass of some poor bird who was somehow mistreated? The idea of it was just repugnant. Thanks to Mercy for Animals, participating in animal cruelty could be avoided. Armed with knowledge of Butterball's facilities' workers obviously extraordinarily heinous treatment of the turkeys in its possession, members of the general public were left able to source a turkey from some other company (i.e. in whose facilities no such awful footage had been taken). I've no doubt that it was a relief for those who may actually believe -- or want to believe -- on some level that the majority of turkeys lead perfectly wonderful lives and die quick painless deaths to end up a carved carcass on a holiday table.

When the Exceptional is no Exception

The truth that gets overlooked is that there's no such thing as the humane enslavement and slaughter of any sentient being. From birth to death, other animals raised for human consumption are confined, mutilated, deprived of the chance to form relationships with others (whether kin or not). They're often deprived of even basic things like clean food or water and are just ordinarily treated like things with no interests of their own. Their lives alternate between being filled with terror and boredom. Butterball? Butterball was just an extension of the same old, same old. The company is just particularly well-known and thus made an effective target to single out to be able to grab the most media attention. It worked, but what did it really accomplish? So some Thanksgiving turkey consumers bought their turkeys elsewhere. Maybe a few even skipped over the turkey altogether and opted for a meat-free Thanksgiving, inspired by Mercy for Animals' site -- its "guide to vegetarian and vegan living", which although it offers up a lot of animal-free recipes uses the terms "vegetarian" and "vegan"  interchangeably and thus confusingly.

Limiting the Focus

On its "About" page, the group describes itself as follows: "Mercy for Animals is dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies." Right there, we have it stated outright that Mercy for Animals concerns itself with those animals we call "food". Furthermore, this concern zooms in on not whether there should be animals farmed for human consumption, but on how these animals are treated as they're farmed for human consumption. Once upon a time, as evidenced by all of the now-dead links on its "Site Map" page, it engaged in plenty of other single-issue campaigns that are ordinarily very popular and fast-cash-grab types of campaigns -- anti-fur, anti-circus, anti-vivisection, et al. These days, though, the group has limited its scope to highlighting worst-case scenarios when animals are raised to end up on supermarket shelves.

Why "Veg" and not "Vegan"?

In what is perhaps its most bewildering article on its site, one called "The 'V' Word: A Note about Terminology", Mercy for Animals explains why it has chosen to sometimes deliberately avoid using the word "vegan". The group states that it 
always has, and always will, unapologetically encourage people to adopt a lifestyle free of meat, dairy and eggs, based on cruelty-free, plant-based alternatives.
This description, of course, focuses on that part of one's "lifestyle" which concerns itself with eating. When it then addresses how people often ask why it sometimes uses the words "vegetarian" instead of "vegan", it responds by implying that the term "vegan" is off-putting to some segments of the public and that shuffling it out is part of what it calls a "carefully considered strategy" to appeal to those members of the public who are apparently a little skittish. It lists off a bunch of vague or misused  terms -- "pure vegetarian, plant-based, plant-strong, herbivore, or just plain ethical" -- it says are all used to describe "a cruelty-free lifestyle" and explains that it is reclaiming the word "vegetarian" in the sense in which it was initially meant to be used -- to describe a diet free of animal products.

So what's wrong with that? Nothing, I guess, if you're merely advocating an animal-free diet. However, Mercy for Animals lumps the word "vegan" in with the rest of those (apparently interchangeable) terms when what it's really talking about is limited to diet. Veganism isn't a diet... yet the group describes quite plainly that it limits its focus to diet and nonetheless insists that it is in fact advocating "veganism". It makes perfect sense to me, given that the group doesn't promote veganism, that it doesn't employ the word "veganism" to describe any aspect of its advocacy, but hey -- what do I know?

The piece goes on and on about how the word "vegetarian" facilitates more discussions with people and how it's a lure that can be used to grab peoples' attention so that discussions can eventually be had about (whatever it is that it thinks is) veganism. It also goes to great lengths to drive home that using the word "vegan" is alienating and leads to
conversations generally focused on the seemingly endless list of obscure ingredients that are nearly impossible to avoid or how hard it seems to give up cheese or ice cream.
One can't help but wonder how on earth members of the general public could possibly view the word "vegan" in any sort of possible light, given Mercy for Animals' obvious conviction that even just talking about veganism is harmful to advocating veganism -- which Mercy for Animals isn't even advocating in the first place.  And not only does Mercy for Animals try to make a case for its not advocating for whatever it thinks veganism is, but it goes on make a final assumption that "humans" are just incapable of hearing a vegan message at all -- from anyone, and that somehow promoting vegetarianism and with it the idea that there's something ethically significant about just avoiding meat is the only really effective way to fast-track someone to not eating any animal products at all.
As a species, humans tend to have very "all or nothing" mindsets. Because they view veganism as impossibly difficult, they will often write off making any lifestyle changes at all. But when presented with the prospect of going vegetarian, people tend to be much more open-minded and will often take that initial step toward cruelty-free living. Once they’ve taken that first step, the next step is that much easier.

What Mercy for Animals misses, though, is that to "get" veganism, once must accept that it's unethical to use other animals. It in no way follows that condoning different degrees of animal use will somehow facilitate someone's connecting the dots that animals aren't ours to use at all. 


So there you have it. Mercy for Animals' campaigns emphasize the treatment of only certain species of animals -- those we raise for human consumption -- rather than educating the public about whether all animals are ours to use. It profits off confusing people into thinking that some forms of animal use are worse than others and (whether inadvertently or not) by misleading people into thinking that all animal food production isn't always inherently torturous for the animals involved. Furthermore, it misrepresents veganism as a diet and then criticizes using the word "vegan" (whatever it is that it understands this word to mean) as too extremist and as ineffectual and potentially detrimental. How on earth could anyone who takes the rights and interests of other animals seriously support or condone an organization like Mercy for Animals? I certainly couldn't.

Further Listening/Reading:

For information on why vegetarianism isn't a gateway to veganism, listen to Gary Francione's podcast on the topic and then read his follow-up post about it.

For more on the wrongheadedness of SICs, see last month's MFIoF blog post on the topic.

Check back over the next week or so for a feature I hope to do on successful grassroots advocacy in New Zealand, Australia and North America with stories from folks who've taken an abolitionist vegan message to the public.


Nadine said...

Thanks for this series. You really got to the heart of the problem with many of these organizations. Single issue campaigns always seem to fall short. Exposing animal cruelty should always be followed by "the only way you can stop animal cruelty is by choosing to be vegan", but instead they just focus on one company or one product without any hard hitting follow-up. I also get incredibly frustrated when these organizations go after KFC, McDonalds etc. lobbying them to have vegetarian menu items. Why would you even want to give money or support such heinous corporations? Makes no sense.

Daniel Wilson said...

Great article Mylene. Apparently W5 is airing the MFA episode "Food for Thought" tomorrow night. Promos for it are buzzing around Facebook right now. It's interesting what Nadine wrote about groups focusing on one company at a time. From a marketing standpoint, it's a clever strategy. Because there are so many animal exploiters, they can target one company, solicit the public for donations to wage their campaign against it, and when they're finished, move onto the next exploiter, soliciting the public for more money. The campaigns will go on forever, and so will the calls for funding. Talk about your perpetual motion machine!

Susan C. said...

What really bothers me about this sliding into the "veg*n" trap is that it perpetuates the problem to which it is responding. I agree that the word "vegan" leads to questions about off-limits ingredients, and why sugar might be bad, etc. The word "vegetarian" is more likely to lead to personal opinions about animal use & treatment.

That will always be the case, for as long as veganism is relegated to the realm of the extreme and the esoteric. I truly like many MFA staffers & supporters. There are a lot of things they do right, such as VeganMania.

But they have been increasingly using the term "vegetarian" in their public advocacy. In fact, they had a representative on a short news segment about vegan food. The news person repeatedly used the term "vegan." Yet when it came time for the MFA rep to say a line or two, he talked about vegetarianism. !!!! I'm fond of this individual, but I found that inexcusable.

Until animal advocacy stops talking about vegetarianism as if it matters at all, the public will not connect animal concerns directly with veganism. They will connect animals with vegetarianism, which it views as being about "the big picture," rather than some sort of dietary OCD. (In fact, this situation leads to the identification of veganism with dietary concerns only!)

Marty said...

Very well laid out argument against the watered down points of view these major organizations take. Ask anyone in these organizations though, and what they'll say is something along the lines of, "Oh no, we DO advocate veganism." OK, but they really don't and I won't belive they do until that is their primary, undilute, message.

Personally, when talking to people, (and I talk to A LOT of people), I start with the premise that veganism is the "goal." (You can say moral baseline but then *that* needs explaining). I suggest that there are many ways to get there and yes, every little bit does help. (I spent years as a vegetarian of many ilks before all the thoughts aligned and the light bulb went off).

People can adopt a vegan philosophy and a vegan lifestyle but for most it's not an overnight, throwing of a switch kind of change. There are many day to day issues that people need to be educated about, (old leather and wool clothing for instance), and just making a conscious food choice, whether before 5 or on Mondays, or just plant based lunches, means they are STARTING to think about the animals.

As an abolitionist advocate making people think is my immediate goal. If I can make someone vegan on the spot, great, but it usually doesn't happen that way