One problem or many?
It is not surprising that there is so much confusion in the ‘animal rights’ movement. It is all too easy to be misled into thinking that there are lots of different problems, and a range of different courses of action that an individual can take. It is also all too easy to consider that these different actions are optional and vary in how ‘extreme’ they are.
Well surely there are lots of different problems…? After all, there’s anti fur campaigns, anti down-and-feather campaigns, anti hunting protests, a wide range of ‘welfare’ campaigns against factory farming practices, campaigns in favour of organic, free range animal farming, campaigns promoting CCTV in slaughterhouses, saving dolphins, anti bullfighting, anti eating dogs and cats, anti circus, anti zoo, anti poaching campaigns in support of elephants, rhinos, snow leopards… You name it – there’s a campaign and / or a protest. So it’s obvious there are lots of problems – no?
Well, no. There is only one problem and all the practices I listed and many more besides are simply the myriad manifestations of that one problem.
And the problem is….
That problem is speciesism, which is the granting, acknowledging or withholding of rights and privileges on the basis of species. Every single one of the practices mentioned above stems directly from that one issue. It is because of our speciesism that humans treat all species differently. Human speciesism fosters a morally unjustifiable belief that every nonhuman on this planet may be treated as a commodity or a resource for humans simply because we can and in the complete absence of need or necessity.
The only way that our nonhuman kin will ever be accorded their inherent rights as sentient beings not to be enslaved, harmed and killed is by tackling speciesism head-on and working to change that perception. Once we reject our own speciesism, we must work to encourage others to do likewise. Speciesism pervades human society. We have all been guilty of it at some time or another, of treating a sentient being differently (and particularly as either less important than we are, or as completely unimportant) because of species.
Fight to end harm or seek to regulate it?
Likewise, when we allow ourselves to fall for campaigns that focus on how nonhumans are treated within the animal consumption, entertainment and use industries/ businesses/ organisations, we are tacitly approving and supporting the whole concept of using them as human resources. We are, in effect, seeking to regulate torture, to arbitrarily reduce the harm that is being caused by our use of sentient beings – for purposes that are totally unjustifiable in the first place.
This of course is highly speciesist – we would never consider issues of ‘treatment’ in the context of humans. For humans, we would have no difficulty whatsoever in condemning the whole concept of torture regulation and the causing of unspeakable suffering for the obscenity it is. All campaigns that focus on one individual, a group, a finite number of species or practice(s), further reinforce the notion that ‘animal rights’ is something that can be tackled piecemeal.
We need not feel overwhelmed
The seemingly endless number of issues can have a further effect: that of demoralising people. So many kind, decent, caring people are swamped and overwhelmed by the seeming number and scope of the problems that need to be addressed and have no idea where to start. I’ve seen many pages where the catalogue of horrors has shocked, distressed and sickened me, but so often there is only an invitation to view the nightmare and no solution offered.
Let’s face it, all advocates for the end of speciesism experience times when they feel dispirited. I think that’s normal, it goes with the territory. We can never forget we’re in the fight of our lives here, and the lives of billions of innocent, vulnerable creatures hang in the balance, utterly dependent on us to plead their cause. There’s a huge amount at stake, but we needn’t be swamped.
Where do we start?
We need to focus on the ending of speciesism, often referred to as ‘shifting the paradigm’. We must try not to be deflected by the side issues that may (and often do) offer short term gains for individual nonhumans, for groups or for one or more species. Our eyes are on a much bigger prize; the only prize that will actually end all exploitation of all sentient beings of every species. Our goal is the end of speciesism.
I know that many will say that we can do both the horror show and the vegan advocacy because the former may lead to the latter, and I know many advocates who try. Speaking for myself, I have seen the horror and now I choose to promote the solution, and all I hope to convey in this article is that in trying to cast too wide a net, I believe we can sometimes work against the very principles we believe in so sincerely. I believe we can actually inadvertently promote the idea of a sliding scale of actions and the existence of a pick list for those seeking to minimise inconvenience to themselves, while wishing to continue to participate in causing harm.
Veganism – the logical consequence of rejecting speciesism
Firstly, it needs to be stated that veganism is a natural consequence of rejecting speciesism. Once we eliminate from our lives, acceptance of any practice that we would not happily accept for humans, we have no alternative but to become vegan. Think about it. We would not consume, force breed or manipulate the reproductive systems of humans. We would not kill human infants so we could milk their mothers for ourselves. We would not flay or shave humans to turn their body coverings into garments or decoration. Once speciesism is eradicated and we acknowledge the moral worth of all sentient individuals, our only logical course of action is veganism.
Can we approach veganism in stages?
No, we can’t, but this requires clarification. Veganism focuses on respect for the beings who share this planet with us, sentient individuals whose lives matter to them, who are not objects to be owned and destroyed as we see fit. They are not ours to use and enslave. To become vegan is to understand and accept this. It’s absolute. However, having reached this conclusion, there are practical and logistical issues that we each face as we transition towards incorporating this realisation into our lives. That, for some, may take place over a period of time, while for others it happens overnight. So in summary, the realisation of veganism as a moral imperative can’t happen in stages whereas for some, the transition may.
Frequently however, the phrase ‘every little helps’ is bandied about by both nonvegans and vegans who promote the idea of an incremental approach to harm reduction (or ‘baby steps’) rather than the ending of exploitation. It is amongst those who ascribe to these notions that there is the greatest potential for the uninformed to find what may at first sight seem like many courses of action.
There are protests and petitions, exhortations to send emails, to boycott businesses or whole countries, there are suggestions about diets that may be adopted, encouragement to be ‘compassionate’, to make ‘humane’ choices, horrific videos and images to be sickened and outraged about AND of course there are the ever present ‘donate’ buttons. The list goes on.
Very often, the word veganism is never even mentioned. Or if it is, it is mentioned at the end of a long list of ‘other things you can do’.
It’s not extreme – it’s the only real solution
By relegating veganism to the final possibility in a long list of actions, there is a not-at-all subtle implication being made that veganism is simply one option and an extreme one at that. And that, as has been said before by many more eloquent than I am, is the problem. Setting aside any defensive feelings this may cause the reader to feel, there IS only one logical consequence of ending speciesism, and that consequence is veganism.
Everything else is an attempt to cure the endemic sickness of speciesism piecemeal and will not ever shift the paradigm. By implying or (as some do quite blatantly) stating that there are ‘other things’ that can be done to help other than becoming vegan, we are betraying our nonhuman kin by perpetuating speciesism as well as participating in a fundamental dishonesty towards our fellow humans.
As a human and a former nonvegan myself, I know how minimalist we all can be. I am all too familiar with the train of thought that goes, ‘Well, that sounds really extreme, don’t want to do that, it would possibly be really inconvenient. I’ll sign this petition and send a couple of emails then at least I’m doing something. After all – the ‘animal organisations’ I support have never suggested veganism so it can’t be that important.’ In my case this was followed by some self congratulatory back-patting and a trip to the supermarket to seek out the dismembered corpses and secretions of sentient beings who fought with every last breath to go on living; feeling really pleased with myself for my choices of ‘free range’, ‘welfare approved’, ‘humanely raised’ parcels of tragedy.
When we, as advocates, promote an incremental approach, we are encouraging and reinforcing the train of thought that we can all do something without going to ‘extremes’. In fact the truth is that veganism is simply the start of what we need to do.
We are our own harshest critics
I choose to hope that deep down, most people do care and would not deliberately cause suffering. Almost every single person will go through a period of denial, defensiveness and self-justification when the vegan message starts to filter into their awareness; the message that every single way in which we use other sentient beings is not only unnecessary but does indeed cause suffering beyond our ability to express.
Contrary to what is frequently flung at vegans about ‘judging people’ I think we are all our own harshest critics. What others said to me as my eyes opened to the horror has left very little (if any) impact on me. What remains to this day is what I found out about myself, how I judged myself and what I resolved to do about the unpleasantness I uncovered. This means that when we encounter this same reaction in others we should always be mindful that most of us have been there and felt that way. It does not mean we have to change the message, because this is one instance when the truth definitely hurts, as everyone who has crossed the border into veganism will confirm.
The truth is the truth however, and when advocating veganism, our honesty and our sincerity are our most compelling attributes. There is but one underlying problem: speciesism, and for that problem, there is one lasting solution: veganism.