Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Five Weaknesses of Contemporary Animal Activism January 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Royce @ 9:25 pm

Yesterday The Guardian published an opinion piece entitled “The Five Fatal Flaws of Animal Activism.” The author, Victor Schonfeld, details his own life of caring about animals and then how his Animals and Us two part series on the BBC to demonstrate how organized groups have not accomplished much for animals, and how fresh perspectives are necessary.

But I’ve been inspired to make my own list of five weaknesses of animal activism which, in my opinion hinders the liberation of nonhuman (and human) animals.

5. Established Groups. Animal activism has become dominated by only a handful of organizations. The agenda on a scale other than local has been set by groups like Humane Society and PETA. This is demonstrated by the fact that most of Schonfeld’s list is really the fatal flaws of PETA. These organizations have often proven themselves to be reinforcing of sexism, racism, colonial structures, classism, xenophobia, and a list that seems to continue ad infintum.

4. Masculinity. It seems like animal activist groups have been trying to pander to men. From the super stars of animal rights theorizing (Regan, Singer, Francione) to who those offensive PETA ads are trying to convince animal activism seems to be obsessed with men. We need to find out why this is happening, especially if we consider Breeze’s findings of the gender make up of vegans. Her numbers may not be exact, but they seem to fit my, and other folks’, anecdotal evidence. If women make up the majority of vegans why is it that campaigns enacted by groups are so often sexist? Have men become the leaders of animal activist groups.

3. Happy Meats. Animal rights organizations and individual activists often fall into the trap of reforms that are meant to reduce animal suffering, but that in reality legitimize animal usage. As Schonfeld points out in his list we have to get beyond making slaughter less painful, and end it. Otherwise we risk making it seem alright to consume animals.

4. Rights and Utilitarianism. I feel that there is a reliance on rights theory and utilitarianism within theorizing about animal liberation. I’m inclined to think this is very much connected to the over masculinity of animal activism. I’ve become a fan of care ethics, which comes from feminist theorizing. This approach both acknowledges that many people become animals not for the colder logic of utilitarianism or rights theory, but instead because of an empathy and caring for animals.

5. Liberalism. Animal activism sprang from periods of great liberal thinking, and this shows in the conceptions of animal rights. An acknowledgement of what liberalism has done to the world (colonialism, Euro-American hegemony, racism) leads often times to an understanding that a liberation for all may very well come from a break from liberalism. Animal liberationists/abolitionists/whatever-term-you-want-to-use should recognize that animal liberation is tied to other struggles, and should not depend so heavily on liberalism. Advocates of animal liberation should join the forefront of finding alternatives on this side of the end of history.


41 Responses to “Five Weaknesses of Contemporary Animal Activism”

  1. C Says:

    Royce, have you read Francione’s essay in Animals as Person critiquing the ecofeminist ethic of care?

    • Royce Says:

      I just checked it out. Though he had good points, I found his critique to be lacking in many areas. That said I read it in the Amazon look-in-side-the-book, and so missed five pages of the essay, but I’ll probably check it out of the library today to give a closer read.

  2. mel Says:

    What’s with the porn star jab in Schonfeld’s list? How dare PETA stoop so low as to work with porn stars?

    • Sexism disguised as feminism is common in the animal rights movement. They’re often more prudish than feminist. That is, they tend to get their concepts of anti-misogyny conflated with their classism.

      Instead of saying that women shouldn’t have to rely on their sexuality in order to get attention for themselves and the causes they believe in, they’ll say PETA is “tasteless” or “base.”

      And, of course, there is the problem that they often interpret “shouldn’t have to rely upon their sexuality” as meaning that women activists shouldn’t use their sexuality at all.

    • johanna Says:

      Mel: Can we quit w/the anti-sex worker comments, please?

      Elaine: I like this post about why PETA using women’s sexuality to sell AR is a bad idea. It’s not about being a prude.

      • mel Says:

        I apologize that my rhetorical question didn’t translate well. (Sometimes I hate the internet!)

        What I meant to express was why did Schonfeld add that line, as if he were implying PETA was somehow debasing themselves by doing so. And if so, he needs to go back to Social Justice 101.

  3. Humanimal Says:

    Barring a couple PETA campaigns, I haven’t noticed any obsession with male recruitment in the movement. I see far more hyper-cute baby animals than naked women on our billboards and book covers.

    And what’s wrong with recruiting men? Yes, we shouldn’t recruit men by appealing to sexism and patriarchy, but we also shouldn’t ignore 49% of the population.

    Most surprising is your suggestion that Singer, Regan, and Francione are all “pandering” to men? Please explain.

    • Royce Says:

      Didn’t say that Singer, Francione, and Regan pander to men (though they do pander to a sort of logic usually seen as masculine), but rather that their superstar status amongst activists is telling of a cult of man-centrism within animal liberation.

      • C Says:

        I feel that this notion of calling rights-based philosophy a patriarchal or masculine thing is rather odd and is simply a way to discount that approach in favor of another approach like, say, the ethic of care. Considering that well informed and educated folks other than men recognize the importance of, and call for, a deontological or rights-based approach shows how baseless such a claim is.
        Again, this is something Francione touches upon in Animals as Persons.
        One may not like using the term “rights” for whatever reason, but pretty much everyone agrees, at least in the human context, that individuals have certain basic interests that cannot be violated no matter what. A right is a simply a way of protecting those interests. Not even ecofeminists argue that a woman’s interest in not being physically violated is subject to an ethic of care. No, a woman should never be physically violated no matter what. That is the same as saying a woman has the right not to be physically violated. Of course, in the context of other animals, an ethic of care should be applied to each situation simply because of speciesism, the notion that the lives and interests of other animals are worth less than that of humans.

      • C Says:

        I meant to have replied to the original post and not your 1:08pm comment.

      • Royce Says:

        C, In my post I did not call rights or utilitarianism patriarchal or masculine. I merely said I found them to be inadequate. That said I also feel that one must recognize that rights theory is a concept that is tied to a specific historical and cultural period, and that many people all over the planet developed ethics that aren’t rights based.

      • Jason Says:

        Hi Royce,

        What did you mean by this “That said I also feel that one must recognize that rights theory is a concept that is tied to a specific historical and cultural period, and that many people all over the planet developed ethics that aren’t rights based.”?

        Why should it matter when and where rights theory was first conceptualized? And why should it matter that other systems of ethics exist? Are you suggesting that they’re all equally valid? If not, could you explain your point?

      • Royce Says:

        I’m saying rights are very much tied to liberalism and liberal conceptions of democracy. I’m not much a fan of either of those things. And yes, I think other formations of ethics work less well, as well, or better than rights.

      • Jason Says:

        So maybe you could explain why they work “better”?

        Also, there’s no necessary connection between rights and liberalism. You’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

      • Royce Says:

        Because other forms of ethics haven’t been as individualistic or state based as rights.

        And I’d argue it’s more like throwing the diaper out with the shit.

      • Jason Says:

        What form of ethics makes sense that doesn’t respect the interests of _individuals_?

        You’ve been conjecturing up and down this thread but haven’t been making substantiated points!

      • Royce Says:

        There is a difference between individualism and recognizing individuals.

        I feel I’ve made just as many points as you have, if it seems I haven’t it might be the limits of comment sections for discussion, because believe me it seems to me like you haven’t either.

      • Jason Says:

        Could you explain the relevant difference then?

        FYI. I’ve mostly just been asking you to explain your points. Where I have made claims (e.g., about rights not being so limited as you suggest) I have provided substantiation (e.g., links to substantiating evidence).

      • C Says:

        “In my post I did not call rights or utilitarianism patriarchal or masculine.”

        Royce, you did say;
        “I feel that there is a reliance on rights theory and utilitarianism within theorizing about animal liberation. I’m inclined to think this is very much connected to the over masculinity of animal activism.”
        did you not?

        Seems as if your are associating rights theory or rights-based philosophy with masculinity (and therefore patriarchy) to me.

        Regardless, I still feel that the ethic of care position is steeped in speciesism.

      • Royce Says:


        A link between rights/utilitarianism and masculinity is not the same as saying rights/utilitarianism are patriarchal.

        I fail to see how an ethic of care is steeped in speciesism.

  4. Jason Says:

    I’ve never understood what’s supposed to make the “ethic of care” so appealing. I think Francione articulates these well. I’d be interested to know hear what it is that his view lacks.

    • Royce Says:

      For me, because rights have always been conceptualized as a protection (from the state) from aggression and an ethics of care is an increase in compassion.

      • Jason Says:

        That’s not always how rights have _always_ been conceptualized. But I’m not sure where “compassion” is supposed to get us anyway. It doesn’t give us any guidance and what we ought to do or what we owe others.

      • Royce Says:

        When are rights not about a “protection from” as opposed as to a “helping to” or “caring for”?

      • Jason Says:

        Certainly a person can have a “right to” X. These are much more controversial than “rights from” though. That is, we may have a moral duty to aid in certain cases just as we have a moral duty not to harm in others.

        This isn’t a point in favor of “care ethics.” It’s still unclear what that even means.

      • Royce Says:

        I ask if you have read anything written by care theorists?

        A right to X is a protection from Y infringing on X.

      • Jason Says:


        I think you’re trying to give a definition of a right, but I would wager that nobody holds such a limited view of what rights are.

        See for a brief overview.

        Also, I have read books by Karen Warren, Marti Kheel, each of Carol Adams’ collections, etc.

      • C Says:

        “because rights have always been conceptualized as a protection (from the state) from aggression.”

        I did say the a right was a way of protecting an interest. Still not sure how that is *inherently* masculine or patriarchal, but even if rights “have always been conceptualized” in such a way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way rights can be conceptualized or that that is the way someone like Francione is conceptualizing rights.
        A right can just as easily be conceptualized as a way of recognizing and respecting basic interests of individuals and the acknowledgment that those interests cannot be violated no matter what… As in, I have an interest in not being exploited and murdered for my flesh and/or bodily secretions and that interest cannot be sacrificed because someone else gets a benefit or gain from sacrificing it. Therefore I have a “right” to not be exploited and killed for the benefit or gain of someone else.

      • C Says:

        “because someone else gets a benefit or gain from sacrificing it.”

        Meant to say “because someone else gets a benefit or gain from *violating* it.

      • Royce Says:

        A recognition of interests does not a right make. A right is one mode of recognizing interest, but hardly the only one.

        I see care as an avenue for not protecting those interests, but actively promoting the well being and interests of other beings.

  5. Other animals should have legal rights because without freedom from property status and the recognition of basic rights (life and liberty), they will continue to be exploited as resources and have their interests subjugated without recourse.

    The “ethic of care” is inadequate. Women have a right to not be raped (right to liberty includes bodily integrity). Unless one would argue for an “ethic of care” and reject rights for human animals, it is blantantly speciesist to withold rights from nonhuman animals.

  6. Tom Regan’s comments under the subheading “Patriarchy and Animal Rights” in the preface to the 2004 edition of The Case for Animal Rights is worth reading:

  7. I want to add that we definitely need to appeal to emotions as well. I highly recommend Joan Dunayer’s two books – Speciesism and Animal Equality. She advocates an egalitarian rights theory while using emotive language that moves the reader to empathize with the victims of speciesism and support emancipation. See my reviews of each here:

  8. robyn Says:

    I would argue that rights are inadequate. To use your example, women have a right not to be raped — and yet they are raped, constantly. Clearly having legal rights is not enough to protect people, so why would it be enough to protect animals? Maybe teaching people to care about others would be more effective than telling them something is illegal.

    • Jason Says:

      Hi Robin,

      I think Brandon is talking about moral rights, not legal rights. The idea that we should “care” about others doesn’t say much about what our duties toward them are. The idea that others have a moral right not to be treated in a certain way does. It’s this moral right that people need to be educated about.

    • Could you imagine how many more women would be raped without such a legal right? Enforcement will always be an issue, but rights offers a level of protection necessary to prevent harm. We should work to build a culture where everyone is valued equally, but we need a guarantee of justice.

  9. johanna Says:

    I see the privileging of a certain type of masculinity in what kinds of tactics tend to be valorized in a lot of AR circles: aggressive, in-your-face tactics that are hypermasculine AND are often not viable for people who have less privilege when dealing w/police (women, POCs, immigrants, etc.).

    Also the tiresome arguing in this post about logic vs. caring/emotions put me in mind of this post.

  10. adam Says:

    First, I think that as long as animal advocates use the discourse and rhetoric of “rights” they will fail to capture the most hearts and minds.

    The idea of rights comes out of the development of capitalism and the emphasis on individuality and autonomy, specifically as it relates to property or the State and now the corporation and arguably relies upon such social institutions. Second, it develops out of a philosophy that privileges either a priori/objective truths or some social contract in which others’ *claims* to rights are recognised (thus, the necessity of language and collective organizing which only a few–if any–species other than humans possess). Third, it treats morality as a product of reason (contra emotion); however, as Johanna notes, most social science points to the reliance of morality on affection and social intuitions. Treating morality otherwise is tactically foolish, which is why more people have gone vegetarian from a *sense* of revulsion to violence than those who have been persuaded by Francione’s arguments. (I mean does any one really read Francione who doesn’t already agree with his basic premise)? Finally, rights are assigned to those already calculated to be morally considerable, thereby creating an excluded group dispossesed of any *possibility* of considerability (an exclusion care ethics does not innitiate).

  11. A.R.Karthick Says:

    It’s true that from tacky nude posters to dubious concepts such as ‘happy meat’, animal rights groups are losing the fight for real change. Animal activists have not been asking themselves the difficult questions, & organisational self-promotion stunts substitute for the less glamorous work of figuring out how to help each of us change the way we live. Much noise, little change. Perhaps it’s time to reverse that. As Harriet Beecher Stowe once said: “It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done.”

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