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A New Approach to Animal Liberation
When Peter Singer published
Animal Liberation in 1975, he fancied himself the first person ever to denounce injustice towards animals. By the time the New Revised Edition to
Animal Liberation appeared in 1990, however, Singer conceded his mistake, admitting that Henry Salt had beaten him to the punch by over 80 years.
Actually, animal liberation antedates Henry Salt as well by many centuries. Over two hundred years ago, for example, George Nicholson in Britain demanded justice for animals, as did Herman Daggett, a preacher here in the United States. And before these animal liberationists were many others, including the philosopher Porphyry of Tyre, who called for animal liberation during the 4th century.
The fact that animal liberation has been around for so long poses some unsettling questions for animal liberationists today. First, are we closer to achieving animal liberation now than Porphyry was 1700 years ago? Put another way, are the animals better off today than they were 1700 years ago? Second, how effective is our current strategy for achieving animal liberation? Finally, and most importantly, if there is a better approach, what is it, and where should the animal liberation movement go from here?
In what follows, I examine each of these questions. As will shortly become clear, while I personally support the cause of animal liberation, I am critical of the ineffective methods currently employed by animal liberationists. I end by offering new ways of thinking about how best to achieve animal liberation and some concrete suggestions for reform.
Animal Liberation Then and Now
Since Porphyry's day, animal liberationists have always pursued the same goal, namely, ending all forms of injustice to animals. Perhaps the most important item on the animal liberationists' agenda has also remained constant over time: promoting vegetarian diets over meat-centered ones. Finally, as is widely known, animal liberationists have also protested the use of animals in fashion, entertainment, transportation, religious rituals, and scientific experiments.
Less commonly realized is that animal liberationists have pursued their goals using the same basic methods from generation to generation. By far the most popular approach has been to focus on education and argument above all else. This centuries-old tradition continues today, through our proliferation of books, articles, web sites, and brochures that document injustice to animals and advance and defend the principles of animal liberation.
Fundamental to this approach has been animal liberationists' deep-seated conviction that injustice to animals is caused primarily by people's ignorance. By bringing an end to this ignorance, animal liberationists have always said, we can teach people to see the error of their ways, and motivate them to change their behavior. This principle underlies every argument raised in defense of animal liberation, whether found in Porphyry's ancient treatises, the books of Salt and Singer, or today's animal liberation web sites.
More than 1700 years have now passed since Porphyry first espoused and defended the principles of animal liberation. It is time that we ask how effective this strategy has been.
Battles Won, the War Lost: Animal Liberation Today
Whether we are closer to achieving animal liberation today than 1700 years ago is very difficult to determine. On one hand, more people understand and embrace animal liberation today than ever before. Much of this success, of course, is due to the educational efforts of animal liberationists. In addition, animal liberationists continue to wage successful campaigns on a variety of fronts. Together, these accomplishments have definitely brought animal liberation a little closer to realization, at least for some animals.
Focusing on the successes of the animal liberation movement, however, leads to an extremely distorted view of where we stand in the effort to achieve animal liberation. This is because despite all of our success, it remains true that more animals are being slaughtered, tortured, and abused today than ever before in history. Even more disturbing is the fact that the situation for the animals is getting worse, not better. For example, just last year, the McDonald's corporation alone opened 1600 new restaurants in 120 countries, thereby dramatically expanding the market for animal products around the world.
The McDonald's Threat to Animal Liberation
As the market for animal products expands globally, the need for animal liberation becomes more acute, while the likelihood of animal liberation succeeding goes way down. I call this relationship the McDonald's threat to animal liberation. What is widely understood is the first part of the equation, namely, that more hamburgers means more factory farms and hence, more injustice to animals. Less commonly scrutinized, yet ultimately far more important, is how McDonald's success around the world makes animal liberation increasingly less likely to succeed. This phenomenon is at the heart of why animal liberationists today are winning battles, yet losing the war for animal liberation.
The McDonald's threat to animal liberation begins with its customers. Every day, millions of them flock to McDonald's restaurants because of their familiarity, ubiquity, and convenience. Many have come to rely on McDonald's, as much for temporary day care as for its cheap, tasty finger food. The point is that people who depend on the services that McDonald's provides cannot take animal liberation seriously, much less embrace it themselves. And why should they, when they are perfectly happy with the way things are?
Customers are not the only people that have become dependent on McDonald's. Millions of McDonald's employees and contractees find themselves in a similar position, as do all the charitable organizations that McDonald's patronizes each year. What binds all of these people together, from Idaho potato farmers to corporate managers to non-profit administrators, is their dependence on the success of McDonald's. This dependence is the cause of their unwillingness to entertain the mere suggestion, let alone support the cause, of animal liberation. Moreover, people whose careers, livelihoods, and families are counting on the success of McDonald's have every reason to see animal liberation fail.
The problem with McDonald's, and companies like McDonald's, therefore, is not just that they perpetuate injustice to animals, or the fact that they are steadily increasing that injustice by driving up the demand for animal products. Rather, the problem is that as the market for animal products expands, the interests of millions of people become powerfully aligned against animal liberation.
More Education is Not the AnswerRemarkably, the animal liberation community has responded to the McDonald's threat to animal liberation by maintaining steadfastly that the road to victory is lined with educational campaigns. Even the flagship animal liberation organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), continues to make public education its number one priority, as it has done since its inception in 1980. Nor is PETA alone in its approach. With the unique exception of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Animal Rights Militia (ARM), two groups that infamously use illegal means to liberate animals, animal liberationists are still largely fighting what amounts to a propaganda war, pure and simple.
How effective is public education in achieving animal liberation? The answer is that it meets with some limited success, but totally misses the mark with the vast majority. True, many people are simply misinformed about the injustices that animals experience today at the hands of science, government, and industry. Others are just plain ignorant of the nature of the animals' plight today. Where such people are concerned, at least, successful education campaigns can and do help create new allies for the animals.
The point is that while we focus our educational efforts on this small group of people, we are completely failing to win the support of the "McDonald's majority." These are the people that simply don't see anything wrong with eating hamburgers and chicken nuggets, or going to rodeos and dog races, or buying a fur coat, or even supporting experiments on animals. Unfortunately, despite our best educational efforts, the McDonald's majority remains as indifferent and hostile to the cause of animal liberation as ever.
So far, the animal liberation movement has responded to such people in three main ways. One approach, already mentioned, has been to engage them with educational efforts. For example, we have spent enormous effort retooling and tightening our arguments in response to theirs. Just as often, we have resorted to character assassinations, usually by dismissing our opponents as cruel, hypocritical, or, more subtly, as "irrational." By far the most common reaction, however, is simply to ignore the impervious majority and concentrate instead on the people that are more amenable to embracing animal liberation through education.
Two Ways to Look at Our HistoryThe problem with all of these approaches is that they consistently fail to win over the McDonald's majority. It therefore stands to reason that if we are ever to make inroads with this group, we will need to try something new. We can do this easily as long as we remember to avoid Peter Singer's mistake of failing to look at our history. Only by engaging our history can we assure a bright future for animal liberation.
The history of animal liberation can guide us in two distinct ways. First, and most obviously, it can teach us about the successes and failures of our predecessors, which can help us better evaluate our current efforts and strategies. From this process, we may well discover that some things we are doing today work, while others never have, and probably never will.
Second, and more subtly, we can learn from our history by seeing past it. Just as history records everything that we have done, it also whispers to us about what has yet to be done. Looking at history in this way can help us devise effective new approaches to achieving animal liberation. And perhaps along the way, we will discover the road that ultimately leads to victory.
A New Approach to Animal Liberation
It is about time that I offer some concrete, constructive suggestions. First, I wish to clarify my position on our educational efforts. It is not that they should be abandoned. On the contrary, they remain extremely important in advancing our cause in several areas, particularly in the academy, the halls of legislature, and in the courts of law. Efforts to advance the legitimacy of our case for animal liberation therefore should be maintained and even strengthened.
One way this can be done is by networking the numerous student groups that exist in high schools, colleges, universities, and professional schools. Whenever possible, these groups should be united together and receive the animal liberation community's full support and attention.
That said, our educational efforts at the end of the day should represent only a small portion of our overall campaign for animal liberation. This is because our cause is doomed as long as we spend the bulk of our energies trying to win the hearts and minds of the McDonald's majority. This ever-expanding group of people simply cannot be persuaded on the basis of moral or ethical arguments. If anything, such a strategy tends to backfire, by driving such people to rationalize their behavior and become even more stubbornly set in their ways.
How, then, should animal liberationists deal with this group? First, and foremost, we must abandon our idealistic notion that people will modify their behavior on the basis of appeals to their self-interest, much less the interests of animals. If the vast majority of people will not heed exhortations to improve their own health, then we should not expect them to change their lifestyle for any other reason, either. The point is that after 1700 years of experience, we should just accept the fact that most people
-- animal liberationists notwithstanding -- cannot be argued or intimidated out of their habits.
If we cannot win based on the merits of the case for animal liberation, then how can we possibly achieve our objective? Unfortunately, the answer to this question cannot be fully determined a priori. It can, however, be reached through rigorous research and analysis. Particularly given our extremely limited financial resources, the need for professional statistical studies is paramount. Commissioning such studies will help us set our priorities and allocate our scarce resources more effectively. In this case, we need to be more like our opponents in industry, who appreciate and benefit from the value of sociological and analytical maturity.
On a more practical level, there are enormous gaping holes in what we currently offer the public. Consider vegetarianism, one of the most important issues on the animal liberation platform. Animal liberationists consistently fail to convince people to go vegetarian. Why? The tough truth, too often dismissed by animal liberationists, is that there are plenty of good reasons for people to reject vegetarianism. Recall why consumers have made McDonald's so popular: familiarity, ubiquity, convenience, taste, and price. Is it really any wonder that people who love McDonald's are reluctant to embrace vegetarianism? We are asking people to give up good things. This is an extremely hard sell no matter how good the alternative that is promised.
For proof, just consider your own brand loyalty when it comes to items like soap, shampoo, and razors, let alone shoes and clothes. If you are not willing to part with your own favorite brands of these products, how can you expect others to do the same?
Yet convincing people to go vegetarian requires that people do this and more. It requires people not only to renounce many delicious and familiar foods, but to adopt alien ones that often aren't nearly as good as the "originals."
Becoming vegetarian also makes life more complicated in a lot of ways, and it doesn't necessarily result in any financial savings. Frankly, it's amazing that anyone would choose to become vegetarian (much less a vegan) at all. Simply put, we cannot expect vegetarianism to thrive when there are virtually no vegetarian fast food restaurants, or even fine restaurants with vegetarian options on their menus.
A similar problem exists in supermarket aisles as well. True, the number and availability of vegetarian options is greater today than ever before. Even so, too many vegetarian products today are merely good considering. As long as vegetarianism necessitates eating foods that are good considering, vegetarianism will never become a mainstream phenomenon. Poor substitutes for animals' milk, meat, cheese, and eggs should be eliminated from the market, while new vegetarian foods that totally supersede animal-derived ones need to be researched, created, tested, and aggressively marketed. Only then can vegetarianism have a fighting chance.
Fortunately, we live in an age of food technology that can facilitate the creation of such products. Ideally, animal liberation organizations could share in the profits that such new products generate, thereby raising funds to further expand the market for vegetarian products. In theory, the animal liberation movement should be able in this way to realign the interests of the majority with the animals. This much is clear: if PETA possessed the power and resources of McDonald's, we would be a lot closer to animal liberation today than we currently are. Here again we need to be emulating our opponents like McDonald's, which alone earned nearly $2 billion in profits just last year.
Just because the struggle for animal liberation is ancient doesn't mean it has to last forever. There can be no victory, however
-- and no freedom for the animals -- unless and until we begin to wage a winning campaign. I have argued that a winning campaign will look very different from the one that is currently being conducted by the Animal Liberation Movement.
The new approach must complement current educational efforts with sociological maturity. Above all, it must engage in practical pursuits aimed at influencing the habits of the majority without directly provoking them. After 1700 years, it is about time the dream of animal liberation was realized.