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NYT Thoroughly Confused About Animal Rights

Eric Prescott sent me the link to "Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate," which by the way is in the "Dining & Wine" section, and my response was that:

  1. It gave me a headache, and I don’t get headaches.
  2. Every current animal rights issues is balled up in the article and I didn’t know where to begin.

Not all issues are spelled out the way I might or connected to others the way I might, but they’re all in there, and the article’s author, Kim Severson, is clearly confused, as are the editors for not clearing up the verbiage.

Let’s deconstruct, from the top:

  • Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York has grown from one lamb named Hilda in 1986, to a $5.7 million operation, in NY and California.
  • Due to the influence of Farm Sanctuary, we now have a handful of welfare measures in place (cage-free, gestation crates, foie gras bans, although I’d consider that one an animal rights measure).
  • The 80s, for AR, was about grass-roots, the 90s featured legislative matters, and "This decade is about building budgets, influencing policy and cultivating elected officials, all with a deliberate focus on livestock."
  • Farm Sanctuary and PETA, "ultimately want people to stop using even wool and honey because they believe the products exploit living creatures." Even wool and honey, because they believe. . . Rather than making us sound like we have unreasonable ethics, why not explain that wool and honey are in the most important ways just like leather and eggs?
  • "But all of these believers have learned that with less stridency comes more respect and influence in food politics." What’s with the religious verbiage? Believers?
    • "So they no longer concentrate their energy on burning effigies of Colonel Sanders and stealing chickens. They don’t demonize meat — with the exception of foie gras and veal — or the people who produce it. Instead, they use softer rhetoric, focusing on a campaign even committed carnivores can get behind: better conditions for farm animals. In some ways, it’s simply a matter of style." BINGO!
  • “Instead of telling it like it is, we’re learning to present things in a more moderate way,” Mr. Baur [of Farm Sanctuary] said. “When it comes to this vegan ideal, that’s an aspiration. Would I love everyone to be vegan? Yes. But we want to be respectful and not judgmental.” Here’s my question: Rather than telling people that there is such a thing as humane slaughter, why not concentrate on teaching them how to make one meal per day, animal free? And then two meals? Then one whole day? And educate them about sentience. Far too many people remain ignorant of its importance. Why not go with your truth, that killing without necessity is morally unjustifiable? Refusing to make your real beliefs clear, and changing them to make them more palatable (literally), only makes them appear that much more "radical"–because you’re not giving the world a chance to warm up to them. And you’re not giving people credit for being able to do the right thing once they have the right information.
  • PETA is the most popular nonprofit with people ages 13-24. I think that age range is telling. When I was 18, I was all about pissing people off. It was my sole strategy.
  • Some very interesting word usage regarding PETA comes a bit later. Its "over-the-top protests are considered divisive by some animal rights groups." First, there’s "divisive." I’m used to seeing that in reference to abolitionists, and I don’t think it’s the right word here. I think "misguided" (and perhaps that’s a euphemism) is the kindest term I’d use. And I won’t belabor this one, but the author of this article doesn’t seem to be aware of the difference between welfare and rights. The downside of not clarifying welfare, new welfare, protection, rights, is that the mainstream public lumps them all together, and separates PETA out only because they make the most noise, therefore they must be the most "radical" in their beliefs.
  • Just when I thought I could get away with not addressing this further, I get hit with: "As factions in the animal rights movement continue to grow and splinter, sometimes using violence to make their point, the Humane Society, which is 30 years older than PETA, has emerged as the reasonable, wise big brother of the farm animal protection movement." It has? Says who? Where was I? And this further confuses the average Joe, who now thinks HSUS is an animal rights organization. The HSUS doesn’t even consider itself an animal rights organization.
  • "Like Mr. Baur, Mr. Pacelle understands that not everyone is going to stop eating animals, so he focuses on what he calls the three R’s: refinement of farming techniques, reducing meat consumption and replacement of animal products. That way, he hopes, the Humane Society tent is big enough to include both ardent meat eaters and hard-core vegans." Again, why not educate about sentience and steer people toward animal-free meals and days. If you give them the right message, they won’t think the first two Rs are acceptable. As for the "hard-core vegan" phrase, what’s a soft-core vegan? What does hard-core vegan mean? That you align your actions with your beliefs? Why isn’t that called "consistent" or "lacking in hypocrisy"?
  • "The broader-umbrella approach is working. Take the case of Wolfgang Puck. In March, he announced that he would stop serving foie gras and buy eggs only from chickens not confined to small cages. Veal, pork and poultry suppliers will have to abide by stricter standards, too." This broader umbrella approach that’s working: what is it working to do? Create ways for people to keep eating meat and feel good about it? Mission accomplished.
  • A shred of honesty comes from cattle ranchers who say they "handle animals with more care" because "people are willing to pay more for meat from animals that are better cared." Shouldn’t that be enough to convince animal welfare activists that they’re going in the wrong direction? They’ve just created a situation where not only do people feel better about eating meat, but they’re willing to pay more for it. Their campaign has just created a win-win for ranchers.
  • Scott Sell, the owner of a Georgia cattle company wins the award for most ignorant statement, but should perhaps share it with the article’s author for including it as if it’s a reasonable statement. "The groups that don’t want us to eat any animals at all are so radical and off-the-wall that we don’t even worry about them." Why, exactly, is it off-the-wall? Why is attention to ethics so radical? He then tops his original statement with: “In our industry we are the original animal welfarists. We take care of the animals because they take care of us.” Nonhuman animals don’t take care of humans at all. That’s simply a lie. We use them, when we don’t need to, to feed and clothe ourselves. Caregiving implies intention and willingness. There’s no willingness on the part of nonhuman animals. They have no choice.
  • After some Temple Grandin quotes and some stuff about how happy meat isn’t just for "card-carrying PETA members," we get an inkling that someone involved in this article understands what this is all really about–a beef broker, of all people. Adam Perry Lang "produces humanely raised meat that is pampered from the farm to the slaughterhouse." Meat is pampered? Isn’t that supposed to say cows? But I digress. Lang said: “From the chef’s perspective it comes down to, ‘Yeah, the steak looks good but why is it not performing?’ It’s because of how the animal was raised and handled. That’s not animal rights, but it is animal welfare.” Thank heavens, somebody gets it! But not the article’s author, who then writes: "Although animal rights groups and chefs might agree that farm animals need to be treated with more care, one side wants to put those animals on the grill and the other wants to simply hang out with them." Wrong, Ms. Severson. As you just explained: both sides (and you meant welfarists) want to put them on the grill. That last sentence demonstrates the author’s level of confusion about this issue.

Here’s what the NYT desperately needs, despite the fact that we’re all fed up with labels and fighting about them: An Op-ed piece that makes helpful distinctions for the average person. Joe on the street thinks PETA=animal rights=crazy people. And that bigger cages or no gestation crates=animal rights. And that it’s all about the cruelty. And that the goal of animal rights people is for animals who are treated heinously to be treated less heinously before we eat or wear them. Also, animal rights=animal welfare (though Mr. Lang did attempt to differentiate). Oh, and that there’s something inherently bananas about not wanting to kill someone if you don’t have to. And it would be really helpful if the idea of nonhuman animals as property could be explained, seeing as that’s the core of the problem.

Any takers? Those with publishing credits in this area are most likely to be published, as I’m sure you know. And remember, the crazier you sound, the crazier the average person is going to thing we all are.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary,

    Excellent entry. You hit every nail on the proverbial head.

    July 26, 2007
  2. Ah, I just live for the days when people like me.


    Wanna write that op-ed? Might Lee want to? I'm going to write a letter, but who cares about me.

    July 26, 2007
  3. Well, I care about you, but I see your point. I'd love to write this thing, but not enough juice here, either… Yet.

    July 26, 2007
  4. We did send a letter-to-the-editor.

    July 26, 2007
  5. Fabulous, Dustin! I'm sure it kicks my letter's ass.
    And thanks, Eric.


    July 26, 2007
  6. Cool beans, glad some people are paying attention, tho i would want to highlight:

    "The HSUS doesn't even consider itself an animal rights organization."

    As an 'organization', no. However, if you ask their staff individually, many or most will assert that what they're doing is 'animal rights'…and they (the group) typically doesn't mind being described as AR. Has anyone seen HSUS clarify this, ie "Sorry, we're not an animal rights organization, we're actually an animal husbandry organization."?

    The same is here in Canada, the Vancouver Humane Society, one of the biggist and more active 'animal advocacy' groups here, happily describes themselves as AR when asked, when they are so clearly not. Their big campaign:

    Simply awful stuff. But they *insist* this is AR and abolition. And sadly, most other advocacy groups here will agree. Myself, i'm viewed as a 'divisionist' for questioning any of this. So unfortunate.

    July 31, 2007
  7. Dave,

    I don't understand why they (HSUS) fail to correct the media when they are called animal rights? The individuals, regardless of personal belief, when speaking for the organization, are supposed to be on message with the mission (welfare). They're being part of the problem that I blame on the media, unfairly. How's some reporter who eats the Standard American Diet and isn't involved in this personally supposed to know that there's a major difference between welfare and rights if the national organizations don't tell him/her?

    Divisionist. I like it.

    July 31, 2007
  8. That chickenout site certainly isn't going to make any distinctions anytime soon.

    July 31, 2007
  9. Pei-Cen #

    Just wanted to say thank you for writing this and taking action!

    August 18, 2007
  10. I'm with you on being fed up with "they believe that…," as if rejecting torture of animals was merely an opinion equivalent to accepting it. Like you say, give people the facts about what goes on in slaughterhouses and most farms – and during transport – and stop the marginalizing, belittling "believers" language.

    If people pay more for meat when they believe the animals are better cared for, it's not all bleak. For one, it indicates that people take animals' interests into consideration. Not enough, to be sure. But in a way that was almost non-existent as little as ten years ago. Secondly, higher prices tend to result in fewer purchases. Especially as alternatives to meat become more widely available and higher in quality – so let's take advantage of this situation. (I believe HSUS is going to step up their efforts in this area.) Third and perhaps most important, now that people are showing some concern for animals' interests, and we have their ear, so to speak, we can show them that they're being duped by "humane ranches."

    True, people outside AR may describe HSUS as an AR organization. That's not entirely a bad thing. First, it mainstreams the phrase. Secondly, the public may sense that HSUS is not going to stop at cage-free.

    To respond to Dave's comment… I can underdstand the point of view that HSUS is not an AR organization. No problem there. But I don't think it's fair to call them an "animal husbandry organization," as though they were just another animal agriculture concern trying to, say, increase yield. Though many activists don't think HSUS goes far enough, which I understand, clearly where they're coming from is concern for animals and rejection of cruelty, even if one may disagree with their tactics. The people running the farm animal portion of HSUS are long-time vegans who would like to see animal agriculture end. The "divisionist" charge comes from slurs like "animal husbandry organization," not from questioning strategy or championing alternative ways to go about things. Debate is healthy but let us make some efforts not to negatively mischaracterize those with with whom we disagree.

    August 19, 2007

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