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On “Compassion,” “Nonviolence” and “Justice”

Why all the quotation marks? Because I've been thinking about the evolution of my own thinking–and languaging–regarding animal rights.

Both animal rights groups and animal welfare groups use "compassion" frequently. Then again, so do people who kill animals for a living. "Compassion" has been so diluted that most people don't bat an eyelash at the idea of "compassionate carnivores." After all, they "love" the animals they kill.

"Nonviolence" is much more difficult to finesse if you're killing animals for a living. "The Nonviolent Carnivore"? I don't think so. Being vegan because you want to live as nonviolently as possible and you don't want to contribute to violence and you don't want to respond to violence with violence is admirable to some, though refusing to support the defense of sentient nonhumans when you probably would if they were humans bothers me.

When you refer to your own beliefs with "nonviolence" you rightfully invite questions about what nonviolence means and it behooves you to work that all out beforehand. Not that I'm giving you a deadline. I still haven't figured it all out. What I do know is that I feel an urgency for the causes I care about that blogging, baking, giving money and doing TNR work simply doesn't satisfy. It's a minuscule drop in an ever-overflowing bucket.

My definition of violence would begin with the physical harm of living beings. I think most would agree with that one, although there is the question of psychological harm, and activists are all over the map with that. First there's "What constitutes psychological harm?" and then there's "Is that okay with you?"

Then there's the most controversial question: "Is property damage violence, and is there a spectrum where some types of property damage aren't considered violence (as in open rescues) or are considered violence but are also considered acceptable?" That's the bit that trips up many of us.

Furthermore, there's the notion that though you're not for violence, you recognize that the most significant vehicle for the liberation of nonhuman animals, just like the liberation of human animals, probably isn't going to be a petition. Or vegan pumpkin pie.

These days, I don't use nonviolence rhetoric because there's so much to explain. And I don't think that most people understand that supporting a variety of tactics doesn't necessarily equal support of violence.

Finally, there's "justice." Now there's a word I can get behind. I was thinking of naming my son Justice but that might be a bit burdensome for him.

I especially like "justice" because it forces you to ask: "Is it morally right to enslave sentient nonhumans, rape them, take their babies and their lives on your own time and profit from them?" No matter how they are treated, is it right to use them? Is it fair? Is it just?


But enough from me. What do you think?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I'm not sure that it's fair to discount culinary activism or petitions. I think those are worthwhile.

    I think it's more important for people to find methods of activism that suit their personalities and skills and try to be as effective as possible in those arenas than to choose activism solely based on its efficacy. Some people simply aren't suited for some kinds of activism and that's OK.

    November 18, 2009
  2. Mary #

    I'm not discounting them, Elaine. I wrote that my feeling is that "the most significant vehicle for the liberation of animals" isn't likely to be them.

    I think many types of activism are necessary and if we are to make a dent it will be *because* of a multi-pronged approach, with people participating on levels and in ways that they believe are appropriate. And by that I mean factoring in any potential consequences, whether they are personal or political or social or legal. Culinary activism, petition-signing and donation-giving has recently been termed "slacktivism," according to a retweet by someone in the Francione camp, and I disagree with that but had no interest in debating on Twitter. I think we agree on this one.

    November 18, 2009
  3. I listened to an old episode of Animal Voices the other day on which they interviewed former ALF activist Peter Young, and they kept reiterating that he "freed" thousands of mink (though they did at one point admit that many were recaptured). I wanted to support the idea – I certainly don't actively free animals in that sort of way, and in its own way, that seems noble.

    But I kept circling back to the idea of recapture, which the hosts and Young were all hesitant to even mention. It was never discussed in depth. How traumatic must that be for animals? Is it better to be free for several hours or day only be to dragged back to a factory farm or laboratory? I'm not sure that temporary freedom is a trade-off, and I wonder why certain types of direct action activists feel that the few freed are better off for their efforts and that other animals are essentially psychologically sacrificed before their physical lives are taken. It seems fair to say that people who engage in certain types of direct action are comfortable with violent tactics, but something that does more overall harm than good… well, that's "justice" or "activism," whatever you want to call it, that I can not get behind.

    November 18, 2009
  4. I am surprised to read in this article that someone in "The Francione Camp" indicated that culinary activism was slack. Very surprised at that. I know most of the members of the Francione Camp being one of them myself, and I do not know any one of them who does not fully support and engage in culinary activism as part of vegan education. As for petition signing and donation giving; I definitely think the latter is one of the things people object to, because the donation giving by and large supports welfare campaigns that are detrimental to activism for animal rights. (However donating to a sanctuary such as Peaceful Prairie is a different matter, as you are helping to feed and shelter rescued animals and I doubt that would have been included in the objection, at least I wouldn't think so.) I believe someone has objected to petition signing because they are single issue generally, are generally run by welfare groups and also many times do not confront speciesism or the property paradigm either, although there may also be exceptions to that, there are always exceptions. But culinary activism? I find it very hard to believe that anyone in our camp has objected to that. Well, I hope I am right at any case. As a fully functioning "Francionista" I can assure you that we, as far as I know, think culinary activism is an extremely important part of vegan education.
    I agree that justice is a very effective and powerful word to use when talking to people about animal rights, way more than compassion and all that. I don't even go there anymore, otherwise they may think I was trying to promote happy meat to them. But justice gets people thinking for sure.

    November 18, 2009
  5. Mary #

    I could be wrong about the culinary part, but the reason I recall the tweet so clearly was that petitions were included (and I'm sure donations were also) and soon thereafter a Twitition appeared by I believe Gary himself, to get HSUS to start a go vegan campaign. That's odd on several levels, including that HSUS isn't an animal rights organization so why would they bother.

    I agree about compassion and happy meat. Poor compassion, it was such a great word once and it has become so bastardized.

    On a completely unrelated note, why is it that Peaceful Prairie is the only sanctuary mentioned by "Francionistas?"

    November 18, 2009
  6. John #

    How can freeing a captive nonhuman animal be perceived as a violent act?? So I cut a lock on a door, cut the locks on the cages…sorry where's the violence?? Is it the "traumatic" experience that the the captor felt upon seeing all his mink missing? Breaking and entering…the only "crime" on my part. I don't even want to get into legalities here because just because a bunch of humans proclaimed something legal like fur farming that doesn't mean that it's morally right just as me setting them free would be seen as an illegal act. If 1000 mink escaped, 900 were recaptured, 50 were killed by cars and 50 went on to thrive in the wild was it worth it? Yes it was. ANY life spared is worth it as they are surely doomed if kept in the cages.

    "The Francione Camp", "Francionista"…wow sounds like some cult! Yeah Gary doesn't believe in the single campaign issues. It's just "go vegan" or nothing at all. So I guess if your focus happens to be just rescuing pigs or just rescuing greyhounds yet your group still adheres to veganism then that's not acceptable in the "F Camp" or is it?? I look at myself in that respect. I'm a vegan and agree with the abolition of all animal use yet I have a strong passion for greyhounds and their plight. It doesn't mean I see a greyhounds welfare as any more a higher issue than that of a chicken, cow, rabbit, pig, etc.

    Mary, Peaceful Prairie endorses Francione or at least his way of thinking, thus the mention of them. Where as Farm Sanctuary spoke out against his philosophy so they got on his sh** list.

    November 18, 2009
  7. Patty #

    I am not sure about what constitutes violence and if property damage can be considered "violence." But, when it comes to freeing animals, in some cases (the case of the mink mentioned above in particular), it is somewhat pointless. Yes, the animals that are freed might not agree with me. However, freeing animals into an environment that is not their natural habitat, an envrionment to which they may or may not be able to adapt to is questionable. How many of those minks, for example, suffered starvation or other predators?

    I say pointless because, although the exploiters may have suffered a temporary economic blip, that "hardship" will be picked up by the consumer. They may even increase "production" (breed more mink to make up for the temporary shortfall). So even more animals will suffer. Even if that particular exploiter were put out of business, another supplier would pick up the slack. If there is money in it, someone will fill the void.

    As long as animals are considered economic commodities, their lives will not be respected.

    What to do about it? That's the question! I think we all agree that change can't happen fast enough. Although I think the the "animal liberators" may be putting their energies in an area that does little good in the long run, I truly admire their commitment and the courage to risk their personal safety. I certainly feel like I don't do enough. I save greyhounds, cook for colleagues, write letter to the editor, donate to a few organizations. Certainly not enough to do serious damage to the animal exploitation machine.

    Regarding Peaceful Prairie…they support abolition as opposed to welfare. Money goes to vegan education as well as caring for the animals at the sanctuary. Some of the other sanctuaries are welfarist. That doesn't make their need to feed the animals they care for any less urgent, but is the money going toward food and care or welfare reform? Something for the donor to consider.

    November 19, 2009
  8. Nick #

    In general, property destruction is not violence, as it is not an assault on a sentient being. I agree with John that there is nothing violent about cutting a lock on a door.

    I can, however, think of instances of property destruction (completely unrelated to the sort of destruction the ALF engages in) that would count as violence: burning a villages' crops, stealing someone's medicine, poisoning a water supply, etc. Even though this is irrelevant for this discussion, I think it's worth mentioning.

    I agree that culinary activism and petitions are not the most effective vehicle of animal liberation, but I definitely disagree with whoever called them "slacktivism." That seems a bit harsh, and those methods do work, albeit on a small scale.

    November 19, 2009
  9. Patty, minks freed in North America are in their natural habitat.

    Captive-bred minks have not been enslaved over enough generations to destroy their genetic makeup, so they can easily survive and thrive when freed. Further, as territorial animals, they quickly spread out over a large area, thus not stressing the local ecosystem.

    Considering that (1) most "fur farms" are located in rural and remote areas; and (2) most illegal liberations happen in early A.M hours in the dark; it is simply pelt-industry propaganda to claim that most minks are run over by cars up liberation. Every life saved is a victory.

    November 19, 2009
  10. John #

    Thanks Brandon for clarifying that point!

    Patty, I see how you can look at it in the manner in which you do but it's almost like saying why try and convince someone to go vegan when the mass majority of humans being born in this world everyday are going to be raised as omnivores by their parents thus increasing the demand for more animal slaughter. In other words, why bother? We'll always be outnumbered. Obviously we do it because we know if by changing one person's mind on how animals are looked upon as a commodity in our society we may be able to convince them to live a vegan life creating a little less demand for slaughter and perhaps motivated them to educate other people. Oh and I want to stress…I've educated a lot of people and it's made zero bit of difference in their minds. Some(most) people you just can't crack. Just don't have that "give up" attitude because it seems pointless. If they rebuild the institutions we'll tear them down again. The demand may be there but let's make it an inconvenience for that consumer.

    Just to throw this in regarding the ALF. Everyone knows any act committed for animal rights can be made in the name of the ALF since their is no membership or real leadership guiding activists, though there are guidelines that are stated as to how one should conduct their business and it's clearly stated that causing harm to another sentient being(humans) is not the goal. I mean look at police forces, militaries all of which are controlled under a certain leadership and you'll still have your bad apples in the mix.

    November 19, 2009
  11. I'm not quite ready to give up on the word "compassion"… I know what I mean when I use it, so for me – the word still works. But if I wish to be even more accurate in what I mean, I would encourage people to be "thoughtful" in their deeds.

    "Violence" and "nonviolence" are tough ones for me to define. Maybe it's like "art"… I know it when I see it. But a broken padlock and a small flock of rescued chickens (or minks) won't make the grade of "violence" in my book… ever.

    And justice? I can only imagine the celebration the world will have when it finally evolves enough to embrace the good in being "fair".

    November 21, 2009

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