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On Fighting for “Animal Rights”

Being featured on ARZone's worldwide Live Guest Chat has reinvigorated my thinking about a couple of topics (here's the transcript). And then I read the "OMG!!!!!OED!!!!!LOL!!!!!" in today's New York Times, and I couldn't resist posting.

A couple of years ago I wrote about whether it's a good use of my time to be a purist about the term "animal rights" when most of the world doesn't have the same understanding of the term as I do. (I'll look for the post and link to it later, but while Baby Sky's not up yet I want to at least post something.) Likewise for "abolitionist."

Regarding the additions of OMG and LOL, the editorial says that they:

bring to mind the words of William Safire, The Times’s former master wordsmith, who climbed down from the conservative ramparts in the culture wars 25 years ago to accept that “words come to mean what most people think they mean, not what we say they ought to mean.”

I spent several years writing, daily, and often with shock, about how, for instance, the NYT--the New York Times (OMG!!!!!)–would call HSUS an animal rights group (after all, HSUS doesn't even do that). Or how a paragraph would refer to animal rights and animal welfare as if they're interchangeable.

Of course, I say to myself, language is worth fighting for. But is it? Won't the battle always be won by common usage/the majority? Isn't my time better spent fighting for actual animal rights than the term "animal rights?"

I think of the time I spent writing about or talking about "Francione-style abolition," and "abolition." Francione has defined abolition in a certain way and if you don't adhere strictly to his definition, you are not a Francione-style abolitionist. The rest of the animal advocacy community, which is the vast majority, who call themselves abolitionists, are abolitionists. They don't satisfy all of the requirements of Francione, but their goal is the abolition of the use of sentient nonhumans by humans. They are abolitionists, just not Francione-style abolitionists.

It would be wonderfully dramatic to be able to say: I'm going to fight for animals rather than for language, but it's not that clear cut. Fighting to maintain the integrity of the words humane, love, euthanasia or compassion, is also fighting for animals. And it usually involves exchanges with non-vegans. It helps them focus on what's really being done to animals. But fighting for the term animal rights or about the term abolition ends up, in the real world, being about fighting with other vegans (and I don't know if fighting is the proper term–it very likely isn't–but I'm out of time to get into that).

I could debate about language all day, with vegans and non-vegans. But I have to think about which words I focus on, and whether they're going to help me in my quest to get more people to stop killing nonhuman animals/having them killed when they don't need to.

Finally, I think that there are a variety of reasons you might want to talk about language or use language that the average person isn't accustomed to. But for the average discussion with the average dog and cat person, I say stick with the language they use ("I love animals," "I only buy meat that was humanely raised"), and use those opportunities to educate them and point out the inconsistency in their claims. I say don't start talking about terms that mean nothing to them or using language that might alienate them.

But that's me . . .

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post, Mary!

    I find it so refreshing to hear you speak about the realities of vegan education. As you mentioned in your ARZone chat, people on the street, the people who we need to focus on, don't care who is fighting over the term "abolitionist" or who is a "new welfarist" or many other terms. You're so right, people respond much better when they're spoken to respectfully and on their own terms.

    Thanks for this great post!

    April 5, 2011
  2. It can be enlightening both for oneself and for others to try to articulate what one usually says or want to say minus the words one usually use to give those statments. It stimulates the imagination and thinking. The result will sound both a bit similar and different, you see it from different angles and can learn more about what you actually think and want to communicate and the best way to do it. I read something like that in a guide to how to get better at writing poems.

    April 6, 2011
  3. Thanks Carolyn!

    Arild, I don't disagree that there's a time for that. I was going to write a follow-up today about messaging, but the day sort of ran away from me. Perhaps I can do it this evening. I want to emphasize audience and intent and the need to customize language accordingly. Thanks for commenting.

    April 6, 2011
  4. I agree with your main points/perspectives.

    I see that the welfarist advocates in Norway have began to use the retoric of or concept "animal rights" to advocate for welfare laws. The idea is that when the laws give some nonhuman prisoners cages of a bigger size, then that can be said to be one of their "rights". Especially when there's talk about stronger penalties for "animal abuse".

    Then I prefer to insist on sharper terminology. Or at least make clear the difference between the concepts of "animal rights" and "animal welfare" as different ethical positions, as opposed to the more loosly use of "rights" and "welfare" which can mean many different things to different persons. We don't need to be hang-up on "rights" as oppossed to "welfare", because there's not contradiction there, the difference is only that "animal rights" and "animal welfare" are TWO DIFFERENT NAMES for two different moral positions.

    A reason why I prefer defending "animal rights" in a narrow sense – that is non-utilitaristic and abolitionist – is because the term has a history which make that definition plausible, because I want to advocate for that idea because I think it gives the strongest defense for animals, and because I try to articulating myself in descriptive – as opposed to personal and moralistic – terms.

    what I mean with the latter is that when I share my ideas about the treatment of animals with other people I'm not good at being personal. I'm affraid to sound preachy and get emotionally involved, because that make me angry and sad. So instead I give lexical correct definitions of the terms "animal rights", "speciesism", "antispeciesism", and so on. I try to descripe my ideas from a detached perspective. I'm not a very empatic person (asperger syndrom).

    April 6, 2011
  5. Frank Noce #

    If we want to believe in a creator,we must come to the realization that what ever we believe created us is not a human being. Just as no other human type was never superior to any other human type ,as so the human is in any way superior to any other form of life. Until we can get this across nothing will happen good for any species ,including our own. As long as we look down as anything as inferior , usable, belittled & disposable we will treat each other the same way.

    April 11, 2011
  6. I've been experimenting with a new word and a new approach… It's not quite what I want, but it seem far less hostile or "extremist" than "animal rights" does. I use the word fairness.

    Most people (especially when they're young) understand what's "fair" treatment. It's the simple Golden Rule standard. I'm happy with it, because it allows a civil conversation… I just want people to be able to listen and see things in the "fairness" point of view of nonhumans. Of course I could never call it "justice" – but that's exactly what I'm after.

    "I say don't start talking about terms that mean nothing to them or using language that might alienate them.

    But that's me . . ."

    But as usual coming from you, it's also good advice!

    April 27, 2011

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