|Enewsletter • November 16, 2002|
The Vegan Outreach office will be closed from November 23 to November 30.
Sidebar – Ratings: Veggie burgers
Food for Thought
A new documentary on food issues is coming out. You can watch
a 3-minute promo.
In his keynote address at the Animal Rights 2002 Conference, Professor Peter Singer commented that the distinction between "animal rights" and "animal liberation" was, for the most part, irrelevant. However, in the mindset of advocates, I think that there is an important distinction that can have an effect on our dealings with the public and their possible reception of our message.
"Animal rights" is often offered in a simplistic manner that is given to internal contradictions. This can lead to distortions and parodies which distract from the animals' actual suffering. The lack of both subtlety and focus in the general presentation of animal rights can be seen in many aspects of advocacy, from the almost inevitable degradation of most conversations to "your baby or your dog," to the claim that any animal's death at the hands of humans is immoral.
This latter focus on intentional death, while providing a single simple concept, greatly detracts from our ability to convey a powerful and compelling message of change. Do we really believe – and think the public will agree – that any animal who dies at the hands of a human should not have existed, no matter how pleasant their life or how painless their death? Do we really believe that every animal who dies of "natural" causes lived a desirable life, regardless of how much they suffer from cold, starvation, disease, and/or predation?
Is the world really this black-and-white?
The idea that it is wrong to kill animals for food may be very obvious to animal rights activists. But to most of society, it is a foreign idea. Most people currently see these issues in shades of gray. One such person is Michael Pollan, who recently wrote a powerful article regarding animal interests and rights. Although the cover's title – "The Unnatural Idea of Animal Rights" – implies a critique of the animal rights philosophy, Pollan's article actually serves as one of the most devastating critiques of factory farms ever to appear in the mainstream media:
He has obvious sympathy with the reaction of most activists:
However, having rejected a simplistic parody of the animal rights view that could justify continued complicity in the cruelty of modern agriculture – indeed, he does a commendable job of refuting many common anti-animal arguments – Pollan also doesn't accept the world-view offered by many animal rights advocates. Rather, he offers a thorough presentation of utilitarian animal liberation philosophy – one that doesn't see the world in black-and-white. His personal conclusion is that while factory farms should be boycotted, humane farms are okay, possibly even preferable to a vegetarian society because of the good lives the animals on the farms are able to live before they are killed.
His conclusion against the importance of vegetarianism is debatable. It depends on a number of factors that we can't know for sure, including what makes a life worth living, how much pleasure farmed animals can experience compared to their suffering on farms such as those endorsed by Pollan, and how "humane" these farms actually are. (See also "Vegetarianism vs. Mindful Meat Eating," in AlterNet.)
However, reaction among animal advocates to the publication of this cover story for the New York Times Magazine has not been totally positive. Rather than advance this mainstream condemnation of factory farms and call to avoid complicity, some have spent their time condemning Pollan for not advocating strict vegetarianism.
Compare this to the almost universally positive response that greeted Time Magazine's cover story on vegetarianism. Even though Time completely ignored the vast cruelty of factory farms, and implied grave nutritional difficulties in being vegetarian, it was widely cited by "the movement."
These differing responses indicate that some ethical vegans may be so caught up in their ideal of a vegan world that they cannot see when we have been presented with a tremendous tool to help us work against cruelty to animals. But we need to ask ourselves: Do we want purity, or progress? Do we want to spend our limited time and resources trying to "set straight" someone like Pollan because he doesn't toe the animal rights party line? Shouldn't we focus on reducing as much suffering as we can, rather than upholding a rigid dogma?
As pointed out in the AlterNet article: "The large majority of the population are not going to turn vegetarian tomorrow...even vegetarians must be concerned for how the animals that are still kept in agriculture are treated. They can't say, 'because I'm vegetarian this is no longer an issue for me, this is someone else's worry. Because, of course, the animals are still being kept by society.'" And from the online discussion of Pollan's article: "A conversation about the pros and cons of various diets should be open-minded.... Does characterizing meat-eaters as 'barbarians' really advance the debate?"
In the New York Times, Michael Pollan has exposed the ''stupefying crime'' of factory farms, calling for a boycott to avoid complicity in the animals' agony. He contends that, if not vegetarian, we should personally witness exactly how the animals we eat live and die.
What more can we honestly expect from society today? Rather than argue details – distracting from the main point of cruelty and complicity – we should promote this view to a public that, while not generally opposed to killing animals for food, might act to oppose the cruelty of factory farming, if they would merely recognize its nightmarish existence.