The Infighting Between Hardcore Vegans and the Humane Society Needs To Stop

What to eat. What not to eat.
Sept. 7 2012 7:07 AM

Vegan Feud

Animal rights activists would accomplish a lot more if they stopped attacking the Humane Society.

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Nick Cooney, the author of Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Social Change, agrees. Noting that 80 percent of vegans became vegan gradually, he believes that seemingly minor improvements—say, larger cages—ultimately create pivotal “shifts in self-identity” for both producers and consumers. Individuals who start seeking products from more “humane” producers or participating in “meatless Mondays” are consumers who are on the path toward veganism. Similarly, institutions that embrace (however reluctantly at first) improvements for animals are institutions that, in eventually owning that improvement, come to identify with and become open to even more productive changes for animals. This process, according to Cooney’s research, is exactly how reform plays out on the ground, in the real world.

Abolitionists don’t buy a word of what Joy and Cooney are saying. For them, tolerance for incremental change from the status quo empowers the meat industry, and any empowerment of industry is, ipso facto, counterproductive to the spirit of animal advocacy. Consider what Ellie Maldonado, an animal rights activist and former employee of animal advocacy group Friends of Animals, has to say about approaches that tolerate even a modicum of animal exploitation:

Advocacy that supports “improvements” in animal exploitation is neither “gradualist” nor a “vegan” approach—it is a dead end that will never lead to the end of animal exploitation. ... At best and in the unlikely case they are adhered to, so-called “gradualist improvements” only address a fraction of the animals' experience but do nothing to abate the heinous cruelty they are still subjected to.

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Hence the strife continues: An organization such as HSUS lobbies, the meat industry kvetches, and the abolitionists howl at them all for unconscionable ethical waffling.  

Meanwhile, billions of animals continue to suffer the indignities of industrial animal agriculture. As has so often been the case with reform movements in the United States, infighting between those who seek evolution and those who seek revolution fosters more stagnation than progress. Take, for instance, this year’s annual Animal Rights National Conference, which was held in Alexandria, Va., last month. After an abolitionist petition to ban HSUS from the conference failed, abolitionists tried sponsoring an independent seminar in protest of HSUS’s involvement. The hotel where the conference took place then attempted to shut down the abolitionists’ competing seminar (apparently at the main conference organizers’ behest). It’s this dust-up—not any of the myriad practical strategies of reform discussed during the four-day conference—that has earned the bulk of the attention in animal rights circles.

The motivation for animal advocates to compromise should be strong. And compromise is quite possible: There’s no doubt that HSUS reforms have improved the lives of farm animals, but there’s also no reason why the organization couldn’t bolster its small victories with more aggressive campaigns involving the v-word. Similarly, the abolitionists certainly make a compelling case for ending all animal exploitation, but there’s also no reason why they couldn’t tolerate a more personalized approach to change, one premised on the idea that we all come to Jesus in our own unique little ways. “It is better,” Joy often says, “to be effective than to be right.”

In any case, if the movement figures out how to meld these competing approaches to animal advocacy, the meat industry would really have something to complain about. For now, though, as I read the trade literature, it’s hard not to see the industrial producers of animal products as little more than petulant whiners who have no inkling of the real pressure they would face if animal advocates in the United States managed to pull themselves together. 

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Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.