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When Compassion is an Act of Violence

"In a time not so long from now, practicing compassion will for many come to mean buying and eating happy meat, a purported win-win-win for the animals, the industry and its customers."
—-James LaVeck (September 2006)

That time has come. And the worst part about it for me, is that I was partially responsible, back when I thought that if someone was never going to stop eating meat, I should at least direct them toward a product that was (allegedly) free-range, grass-fed, and antibiotic and steroid-free.

The above quote was taken from "Compassion for Sale? Doublethink Meets Doublefeel as Happy Meat Comes of Age," which was written by LaVeck a year ago. With the help of environmentalist Mark Dowie, he tells the story of how a movement could (as the environmental movement did), move away from its grass roots.

A grassroots movement morphs into something more businesslike and professionalized, and what were once vibrant gatherings characterized by diversity and passionate dialogue come to resemble the meetings of a trade association or cartel.

(Sound like any recent gatherings? I’m just asking. I wasn’t at either one.)

As far as the animal rights movement goes, the problem has become one of framing, as I frequently write about. When you make the primary issue suffering and cruelty, you open the door to a negotiation with the party causing the suffering. You negotiate, and the pain of the nonhuman animal is the chip. And you actually convince yourself (and once you’ve done that it’s easy to convince others), that you’ve created a solution to all of the suffering (read: some kind of qualitative or quantitative difference or decrease in suffering). Back to LaVeck:

[t]he only real problem with eating animals, we will tell the public, is the abuse inherent in factory farming. Therefore, the argument runs, the solution is production, distribution and consumption of “happy  meat.” In this brave new world, a mechanized system designed to move animals  quickly and efficiently, to take their lives, to drain their blood, and to cut  them into pieces on a scale never before imagined, is proudly described as a “stairway  to heaven” by a slaughterhouse designer well on the way to attaining celebrity status. And no one blinks, not even those who hold in their hearts a dream of a world without violence. Such is the hypnotic effect of distorted language  and PR razzle dazzle.

And of course, the labels follow ("cruelty-free," "animal friendly," "certified humane," "animal compassionate," etc.), at a premium, and the exploiters are actually in a better position than before the uproar: activists are on their side, they get to charge more for their products, and more people are consuming them. LaVeck described what, in a way was his fear for the future:

But by standing by and remaining silent as those who have a financial  interest in the exploitation of animals first appropriate and then redefine the very language that expresses the deepest principles that inspire and guide our  work, we are surely giving away our power and identity in a way that is going to be very hard to regain.

And, as our language loses its integrity, our ability to think critically and to engage in meaningful dialogue is going to decline as well, as will our cohesiveness as a community, our love of the work, and the joy we take from the process of supporting peaceful change.

Sound familiar? It does seem that we reached that point since this article, but that at the same time there is a small group of individuals who realized (like yours truly) the harm they were causing. And there, of course, are people who never went that route.

Let us not be seduced into believing that the power to mangle language and manipulate perception has anything at all to do with serving the common good. It never has, and it never will.

Compassion is the highest expression of human potential. As such, it can never be bought or sold, only freely given and received. Using this word as a label for the products of suffering and exploitation is nothing short of an act of violence.

It’s time to take compassion back, and take every opportunity to kindly, tactfully, remind people of what it really means.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary,
    I'm not your mother, yet I iterate what she recently wrote; that this article is brilliant, thought provoking and yes, you are achieving for animals what few of us are capable of doing by your voice for them. I too am guilty of suggesting to friends and family who I know will never be veg, to purchase cage-free eggs. I have also suggested that if people insist on wearing fur to purchase faux fur.
    Recently I saw a picture of a movie star who I know is an animal rights activist wearing a fur coat.
    I wrote the gala she was speaking at asking them if she was wearing real fur. They said of course she was wearing faux fur, but in an instant I realized that even wearing faux is promoting the use of animals for fur. I no longer ask people to buy cage-free eggs or to buy faux fur. When people tell me that they are eating meat with the humane label, I simply say there is nothing humane about the murder of innocent aniamls period. Thank you for all you are doing for those who so desperately need your voice.

    August 4, 2007
  2. Thanks again, Tricia.

    I wrote Why Wear Fake Fur? last year (, and I agree. I have no idea why you'd WANT people to think you'd wear fur. It baffles me.

    I like your response to the humane label. People toss that around as if it means the animals aren't getting killed. It's absurd.

    August 4, 2007
  3. hmm..i don't think that the issue is the animal rights movement framing things incorrectly…i think it's that there aren't many groups that are actually advocating animal rights. I really hate to see PETA mentioned in the same sentence as animal rights (unless it's highlighting how PETA absolutely *isn't* about animal rights.)

    Sure, many claim they do animal rights, but that doesn't mean they do. They like the way the term sounds (certainly sounds better/cooler than 'animal welfare'), and of course there's a certain tone and baggage that's attached to animal rights (many of which i don't like, and are also inaccurate, like the ALF).

    And, of course, many have also convinced themselves that what they're doing is actually AR. I'm sure BF can rationalize to you how bigger cages and both spending money at BK and buying non-vegan BK Veggie burgers is also 'AR'.

    And it becomes even more interesting (and at the same time depressing) what occurs when you start to challenge them…you've highlighted some of what we can expect already..

    Intellectual dishonesty. Pretty sad.

    It's incredible how common this is, in supposed ethical movements. People clearly haven't watched enough episodes of Star Trek 'The Next Generation' to know that the end almost never justifies then means… (That is my way of making a light-hearted remark about something that's truly awful..)

    August 6, 2007
  4. Dave wrote: "hmm..i don't think that the issue is the animal rights movement framing things incorrectly…i think it's that there aren't many groups that are actually advocating animal rights. I really hate to see PETA mentioned in the same sentence as animal rights (unless it's highlighting how PETA absolutely *isn't* about animal rights.)

    Sure, many claim they do animal rights, but that doesn't mean they do."

    Two things" 1) No one owns the term, and each group that uses it to describe itself does something different or "means" something different, and it's no wonder that the mainstream media is confused (though they don't appear to be aware of that). I have no solution for this, by the way, other than to be clear about what I mean when I discuss animal rights. I feel like a broken record, but if someone has just jumped into the conversation, that person should have the same benefit of clarity as someone who's been around it for years.

    2) Once you make your core issue suffering and cruelty, and the regulation of institutional (or other) use rather than the legitimacy of the use itself, you're inviting a welfare conversation of some sort. You've framed yourself into a corner. Where there's cruelty, there can be less cruelty. Soon, you're praising sheds rather than cages. (And you must know I'm not talking about you, Dave).

    August 6, 2007

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