Animal Rights Leading Where?
Just recently Alex Felsinger published an article critiquing the use of disruptions in the animal rights movement. While there are certainly points that we can agree on, there are also points we decided to break down and discuss.
To start off, we would like thank Alex for writing this article. We appreciate the time and research that went into it. We agree with a lot of what Alex has said, for instance about the “Berkeley Bubble” and the co-opting of other movements’ stats into ours without context.
We have in the past publicly expressed issues with DxE, but they mostly come down to internal practices (some of which the author addresses as well), such as how they deal with racism, how they tokenize minorities, and how they cannot ever admit fault or hold themselves accountable for their mistakes.
Additionally, we absolutely agree that protests alone are not enough (at CF United earlier this year, Lili gave a talk about how to move beyond protests and shift advocacy, so we push for not only personal change but social change as well, which we’ll be re-releasing as an article some time in the near future) and that we need to engage in other things like community building and building bridges with other movements.
That said, we do have some critiques, which we’ve addressed below one at a time by referencing snippets from the article.
So here goes:
“By appealing to the inherent (and warranted) frustration of being a vegan in a non-vegan world, these tactics mobilize activists who are happy to have an outlet for their frustration.”
-> Activism isn’t an “outlet”. Disruptions aren’t just spontaneous verbal vomit. They are carefully planned and strategized, for weeks and sometimes months. Just like any other campaign or action by any other group.
“Other activists feel uncomfortable with the tactics, but push themselves to participate anyway because they believe it is effective.”
-> Or could it be because they believe that they should do something other than leaflet and hold signs, because they wish to use their creativity and push the envelope? Have leafleting and “traditional” protests alone ever led to social change or a revolution? How can we expect to build bridges with other movements if all we have to show them is flyers and banners, if we can’t prove we’d put our bodies on the line for our cause?
“Direct Action Everywhere, along with other groups such as 269Life and Collectively Free, use tactics that match the negative stereotype set by PETA.”
-> It’s not just the tactics but also the message that defines organizations. It’s not just how we say something, it’s also what we say, This statement completely ignores the message. CF’s message is completely different than that of PETA for instance. In fact CF is one of PETA’s biggest critics. So lumping groups in the same pool just because they use “daring” tactics is flawed and, well, uneducated.
“For direct action to be effective, we need increased participation. For increased participation, we need to improve society’s understanding of animal rights. We need every activist’s brother or sister or partner to be supportive — we need them to be vegan.”
-> But we are literally running out of time. Animal agriculture, along with other dirty extractive and exploitative industries, is destroying the planet. And animal consumption is on the rise worldwide, as if it weren’t bad enough already. There’s a much, much larger urgency now than say 30 years ago. With that, we must accept that we need ALL types of activism. Just because someone participates in direct action doesn’t mean they don’t believe other tactics shouldn’t be practiced. Why this either/or approach? Why can’t it be both/and? When those of us who do disruptions do indeed create a media buzz, isn’t that a perfect opportunity for those of us who do education to come in and engage with the public? Let’s work together. Disruptive tactics in fact very much rely on education. There are always leaflets passed out, and there’s always dialogue with people present. Just because we choose to disrupt an event that glorifies the consumption of animal bodies doesn’t mean we won’t take the time to explain why consuming them is wrong. It is very much possible – and necessary! – to practice multiple tactics at once. Takes practice, but it’s possible. And again, we don’t have time to play it “safe”. We need new ways, new methods, new strategies.
“Tarrow and Chenoweth are in agreement that, based on historical evidence, the early stages of a movement are better spent on growth than action. They also agree that some movements take longer to grow than others.”
-> It’s an urgent matter. The earth is dying, people are dying, animals are dying. We are not implying we should just try whatever and do whatever we think can work without critically analyzing our actions. But we CAN try things that haven’t yet been proven and analyzed and written about by scientists and theorists specifically about animal rights. We don’t need to wait for the textbook to come out in order to try new things.
“While I admit that our movement’s progress has been frustratingly slow, it’s illogical to conclude that now is the time to mobilize. Our numbers haven’t grown large enough yet and we won’t grow larger during a mobilization to direct action.”
-> Again, time is running out. Other movements don’t have an end in sight. There’s no doomsday, race-against-the-clock deadline for women’s rights for instance, after which there’s no more chance of smashing patriarchy. For the planet, and for the lives of each and every nonhuman who gets killed every second, there is. So yes, every day is a day to mobilize. Every day is a day to grow. Every day is a day to try new things. It’s not about desperation (yet). It’s about urgency, something every boots-on-the-ground activist is painfully familiar with.
“While ethical vegans are convinced that animal sentience is enough to warrant increased social standing, the fact remains that animals are unable to specifically request such rights since they cannot communicate with us. Unlike every other social justice movement in history, the animal rights movement is unique in that the oppressed class cannot speak in a language humans understand.”
-> This is very much an ableist statement (and yes, we know it’s not at all intended to be so). Plenty of humans aren’t able to speak or otherwise communicate too, and while certainly discriminated against, they still do not fall into the same category as nonhuman animals. It’s not only language that prevents people from empathizing with nonhumans. It’s much more complex than we can go into here, so we recommend Aph Ko’s and Syl Ko’s writing for a more developed framework analysis.
“Since oppressed humans can tell their own stories, their struggle comes with some level of inherent credibility — only the most steadfast opponents thoroughly discount the spoken experiences of the oppressed. Animal rights activists have no such inherent credibility; we are intermediaries, speaking on the animals’ behalf in the way we believe they’d want us to.”
-> And this is why we tell the animals’ stories. Playing recordings of their voices. Showing their videos. At CF for instance, our speakouts are typically about showcasing animals’ individuality and personhood, because yes, we’ve all been conditioned to think of them as objects or machines. In actions where we also bring up humans rights, we also tell the stories of human victims (such as child workers in cocoa plantations).
“I am asking Direct Action Everywhere to stop encouraging vegans to be more aggressive.”
-> The goal is to make people more active, not more aggressive. We are not speaking for Direct Action Everywhere. In the CF community no one has ever encouraged aggression.
“Antagonizing the public with disruptive demonstrations comes at the expense of our credibility, which comes at the expense of our effectiveness.”
-> Antagonizing is calling women “fur hags” at fur demos or using ad hominems at individual people (e.g. demonizing celebrity X for glorifying animal oppression Y). Disrupting is not antagonizing. It inconveniences people, sure, it annoys the hell out of them sometimes yes, but it does not antagonize because speakouts at disruptions are never aimed at individual people in a negative way but at the larger public in a positive way. Speakouts should either share animals’ stories or appeal to people’s humanity in relatable ways, such as, “I too thought animals were inferior”, or “it’s not our fault for not knowing, but we can do better”, etc.
“Our goal is to do what’s best for animals, not to do what feels best to us and not to defend our right to behave how we choose.”
-> Alex himself said that there’s no way of us to know 100% what animals would communicate to us. So why is his definition of “what’s best for animals” any more valid than ours if ultimately neither is grounded on actual knowledge of what animals want?
“If so many people harbored strong beliefs for animal rights, the vegan population surely would have increased since 2003 — but instead, it’s stayed about the same at 1 to 2 percent.”
-> And up until that poll, and even until very recently, public-facing animal rights activism was either loud chanting protests for single-issue campaigns or leafleting/vegan education. Of course nothing will change if activists’ tactics don’t change either. In order to actually grow in numbers, we need to be creative and not be afraid of trying out new things. We can’t just keep doing what we’re comfortable doing. And we don’t need to be social scientists to understand this.
“While it’s true that opponents to homosexuality far outnumbered supporters, Stonewall sparked a national discussion because it humanized a population of which many people (36 percent) had no positive or negative judgement. We can’t compare this political environment to present day where 99 percent of people are invested in animal oppression through their daily consumption habits.”
-> 99% of people are conditioned to participate in the oppression of animals. Those who are “invested” in it are farm owners, big ag corporations, etc. industry people, people who directly profit from animal exploitation. Let’s not confuse being invested in with being conditioned to partake in. We need to tackle both obviously, and disruptions act towards both: calling out and undermining those who profit from exploitation, and engaging, educating those who are participants and who for various reasons choose to participate.
“Direct Action Everywhere encourages disruptive activists to ignore negative reactions from friends and family — even fellow vegans — but instead such reactions should be treated like a red flag.”
-> Not sure where Alex has seen anyone encourage someone to ignore their loved ones’ reactions. It’s the opposite of ignoring that happens. A loved one has a reaction, we address it, and we have a conversation. Isn’t that what we all want? To have serious conversations with nonvegans and convince them? Negative reactions are not red flags but rather indicators that we’ve stirred up something (and often times people can’t even point to what exactly was stirred) and we can now address it. It’s about standing up to what we believe in, unapologetically, yet taking the time to communicate with those closest to us. Since obviously as activists, this is something super important to us.
“Direct action is a powerful tool that should be used at the appropriate time. The less public support an issue has, the less powerful a mobilization to direct action will be, especially if it plays into activist stereotypes and ostracizes the public.”
-> Again, there’s no time to wait. Urgent situations require urgent ways of thinking and acting.
“We face another challenge that human rights movements do not: not only do we need to change public opinion, but we also need to change individual habitual behaviors before substantial institutional change can follow.”
-> Human rights progress require behavioral change too. Example: we can’t have progress in LGBTQ+ rights if people still use phrases like, “That’s so gay”, or are never called out by friends for dressing up as Caitlyn Jenner for Halloween. We can’t have progress for disability rights if we don’t call out one another for using oppressive terms like “lame” or “turn a blind eye”. There’s so much deep individual behavioral conditioning that needs to be unpacked and unlearned in order to advance public progress IN PARALLEL with legislation and other institutional changes. Public/institutional and individual/behavioral change need to happen in parallel, or else we get what we currently have, which Alex correctly points out: laws that prohibit discrimination legally but not socially, which is why sexism, racism, etc. are still rampant. So both us and human rights activists need to work on both changes.
“Humans consume animals on a daily basis, often multiple times per day; this will need to change for animals to obtain rights. This is a significant difference from human rights movements, where the dominant class merely accepted a new belief or law in order for the oppressed class to attain their goals.”
-> Again, it’s not that simple with human rights. Human oppression is far from being over, even with laws passed, and as more and more studies reveal, it is very deeply tied in with animal oppression. There have been, and still are, human people who are being “consumed” or killed because of characteristic X (e.g. sex traffic victims, LGBTQ+ people in countries where being queer is punishable by death, women’s portrayal in advertising, etc.) Legislation can only bring partial goals, but it can never be, and will never be, enough.
“Behavior Change Starts with Education“
-> Behavior change starts with being challenged. Education comes second. It’s crucial, absolutely, but it does come second. Think about it. When do we feel compelled to educate ourselves on subject X? When we realize that we either don’t know enough about X or that what we’ve been taught about subject X may be wrong. So first we challenge (ourselves and others) and then we educate (ourselves and others). The two go hand-in-hand, but in consecutive order. So it’s simple: disrupt and challenge the norm, then offer a knowledge and solution. As a friend of ours says, we can cut two carrots with the same knife.
“Our movement is behavior change first, social change second. We must achieve social status for animals through behavior change before that status can be improved through a mobilization similar to what we’ve seen in past social movements.”
-> Again, not enough time to think this way. It can all happen together. It’s ok to not have social science evidence. This is new territory, and we’re writing our own science and history as we do the work. And that’s ok! It’s ok to not always have evidence. It’s ok to not be able to rationalize everything. It’s ok to not know. And it’s also ok to challenge ourselves and try new things. If they work, great. If not, it’s not like it’s gonna set us back – animal ag is growing just fine whether or not we make mistakes, unfortunately.
“The most effective animal rights activists have an open mind. They are able to tame their frustration and dampen their egos, channeling that same energy into effective progress. They work to normalize our cause rather than radicalize it prematurely. They observe that social change is cyclical and takes time, especially when behavior change is involved. And most importantly, they acknowledge that strategy doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all, ready-to-use packages that we can borrow from other movements.”
-> The most effective activists indeed have an open mind. And that includes accepting that other groups and people will engage in tactics that one may not be personally comfortable with. And that’s ok. An open mind will support any tactic, as long as it isn’t oppressive (example of oppressive tactic: objectifying women’s bodies “for the animals”). The question is, are we all equally open-minded? Disruptions can be beautiful too.
We have never claimed, nor will ever claim to hold the absolute truth – in fact we have several times changed our materials, posts and tactics after either public demand or in regards to internal structures – yes, we sometimes choose non-confrontational methods over disruptions on a case by case basis. We are also not scientists and we cannot predict with certainty what the results will be. We are most definitely willing to evolve, grow and change our entire platform if and when more studies come out – right now, the combination of a holistic form of activism, which includes disruptions, community building, events, street theater, projections, artivism, talks, educational materials etc., with a focus on a pro-intersectional approach seems to be bringing the issues of both nonhuman and human liberation to the table (for the most part, positively).