13 min read

How Big Should The Animal Rights Tent Be?

I learned that Tyler Lang and Kevin Olliff had been indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act while I was on the train to the airport to fly out to the 2014 National Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles, and I immediately lost my composure.

I considered changing my talk to focus on the more traditional activist-repression narrative. But I decided against it, because one way that we're going to fight this repression is by building coalitions and fighting it head-on. The other is by ensuring that there are no more animal enterprises for unconstitutional laws to protect.

I still think we have come a long way since seven animal rights activists were arrested 10 years ago and charged with terrorism for campaigning to close Huntingdon Life Sciences.

As the last few days have shown, we are not out of the woods yet. Still, the fight over government repression of the animal rights movement now has two sides, and ours grows more formidable each day.

But another kind of repression is gaining power. And it is more pernicious than the heavy hand of the state, because it is internalized - invisible at best and, at its worst, deemed virtuous. Without legislation or arrests, prosecution or imprisonment, this self-repression stifles our speech and keeps us from saying what we mean - not that animals should be tortured less before they are killed, nor that every little bit helps and hopefully one day it will add up to enough, and not that people should lay off the meat on Mondays.

No one believes this.

We do not believe that refraining from eating animals is a dietary preference to dabble in, but a moral imperative. We know that bigger cages, Orwellian ideas like "humane slaughter," and singling out low-wage workers and convicting them of "animal cruelty" will never transmute an inherently violent system into something ethical. We don't believe that slitting the throats of animals raised on small-scale farms is any more acceptable than slitting the throats of those raised on "factory farms."

We believe that animals are individuals with lives worth living and that torturing and killing them needs to stop. We should say this, because some of the most prominent voices speaking on behalf of animals aren't. It is hard to understand this, fundamentally, as anything other than a crisis of faith.

Whatever the explanation – that small changes come faster and more easily, that we should not make enemies of animal agriculture, or that change happens slowly (each of which, I think, is a questionable claim) - it boils down to the same thing: a deep absence of faith.

At bottom, when we call for animals to be slaughtered more humanely, or to be afforded a few more inches of space before that certain death, we do not believe that we can say what we mean-we do not trust that our moral position may be a source of strength, not measurable like the number of vegan products on the shelf, and not as seductive as corporate influence, but richer and more powerful than anything we can ever expect from those who profit from killing animals.

I'm not going to argue that the movement should never have gone down this path.

First, because regardless of whether this was the correct turn, it is where we find ourselves. More importantly, I don't think anyone can answer the question of whether the current state of the movement makes our job easier or more difficult. I will simply say that it doesn't change what our job is, which is to say what animals would if they could.

Those nagging questions – if not you, who? if not now, when? – are growing more persistent. If animal rights activists are not going to say loudly, unequivocally, and over and over and over that animals are not food, or clothing, or test tubes, who will? And what are we waiting for?

We should remember that Civil Rights protesters made what were seen at the time as bold demands, that AIDS activists in the 1980s were hardly considered reasonable, and that the success of marriage equality advocates did not come from politely asking for civil unions.

I am not suggesting that these struggles are over-I am not claiming that gay marriage, for example, is the fulfillment of true LGBTQ equality.

My point is simply that polarizing the issue, appearing unreasonable, provoking fierce debate, and demanding things that at the outset seemed like pipe dreams do not seem to have pushed particular demands out of reach.

Instead, the turbulence helped.

I believe that a new kind of radicalism is key to moving animal rights forward - not broken windows and home demonstrations, but uncompromising calls for the rights of animals to not be dinner, or shoes, or circus performers.

Our incremental steps should be explicitly framed as steps on the path to a world in which every animal is safe, and happy, and free. In short, we should have faith in our moral position.

This, ultimately, is what the SHAC campaign was about, not any particular strategy or tactic, but a deep faith in our moral position and a deep faith that we could summon the fortitude and tenacity to take on something much bigger than we were. The SHAC campaign had both successes and shortcomings, but this faith and the confidence and commitment activists drew from it was an unalloyed triumph.

Faith can fulfill its own prophecy; it can give us the strength we need to do things we would otherwise shrink from.

Being an unwavering voice for animal rights will require a radicalism similar to the SHAC campaign, though it may not appear that way on the surface.

By way of example, I'll tell you a story.

In recent years, I have been trying more and more to shift my veganism from a personal choice and a passive boycott to a socially meaningful, active protest.

As part of this, I have been less and less willing to eat with people while they are eating animals.

I started with my family, asking them to please let me know if they plan to be eating meat at a meal, because I would prefer not to join.

But I am human, which is to say imperfect and complicated, as sensitive to social pressure and conflicting desires as anyone else.

And one night last summer, I agreed to join my family at a restaurant where I knew they would be ordering meat.

Some of the people I would be dining with live far away and I see them infrequently, and I wanted badly to see them as much as I could for the short time they were in town.

So I went.

But as the waiter took orders for veal and chicken and fish, I realized I could not stay there.

"I'm sorry," I told them. "I really can't do this," and I got up, walked to another table, and had my meal by myself.

Getting up from that table, walking the 30 or 40 steps across the restaurant, and turning my back on people I love was much harder than walking into prison.

It required more boldness than defending property destruction and more confidence than taking on evil corporations.

Similarly, shattering the veneer of consensus in order to make impertinent points about violence against animals will require much more bravery than marching in step with the drums of animal welfare.

But this is the kind of radicalism we need now.

And if we all have faith, in ourselves and in our moral position, if we refuse to repress our own voices and, instead, say what we mean, we will be able to accomplish things for animals that right now seem hopelessly out of reach.

Thank you.

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