Single issues and me

sheep-1286877_960_720There is much written about single issues and petitions. The two go hand in hand. It’s a hot topic and I’m not going to wade into the debate. If you read this and feel moved to seek to justify your own support of these, then all I can say is that not only have I stood in your shoes, I have heard every single angle there is, from ‘every little helps’ through ‘we can do both’ and ‘we’re all really on the same side / promoting the same goal’ right through to ‘it’s raising awareness’ via every other justification there is. We are an inventive species and that goes as much for our ability to dream up excuses as it does for everything else. But I no longer support or promote single issues and I never shall again.

Just to be clear, my own definition of ‘single issues’ would be;

All campaigns that focus on either general behaviour towards, general treatment of, general practices and/or specific instances of behavior, specific treatments or specific practices perpetrated on:

  • one individual member of a nonhuman species
  • a number of such individuals
  • a single species
  • a finite number of species.

Single issue campaigns call for prevention, change, regulation, punishment, reform; the action demanded by the campaign depends on the specifics of the topic.

Ordinary everyday people

I used to support single issues and petitions in a huge way; I spent hours and hours signing petitions, writing emails, letters, planning objections, you name it  – so please hear me out. I’m not going to quote any learned treatises, studies or statistics although I have most assuredly read a great many of these as they persuasively weigh the pros and cons. However it wasn’t the intellectual articles or the ethical essays that convinced me to stop supporting single issues. The reason I stopped has to do with looking inwards, examining my own thoughts and remembering my own past behaviour and reasoning. The reason I stopped is about what I know about myself and through that knowledge, what I know about others; what I observe in the people I meet everywhere and in every walk of life. In this essay, I examine my own memories and my own observations and I’m going to ask you to look back at YOUR memories and be absolutely honest. Not honest with me – but honest with yourself.

First I have to say I’m an extremely ordinary person; the kind of person you would pass in the street without even noticing. I’m making the assumption that most of the people who read this will be similarly ordinary – at least in their own eyes; we’re just ordinary people going about our business, making a living, trying to do our best to care for those we love. We’re everyday people leading everyday lives.

The lost years

I have often mentioned what I think of as my ‘lost’ years. These were years that are now lost to me in terms of the advocacy opportunities I was unable to pursue, years during which I realise that I myself was lost. I wandered in a murky, confusing and inconsistent fog, brimming with direction-less concern for animals of the nonhuman variety, washed over and sometimes crushed by waves of despair for my inability to make a dent on what I saw as the impossible task of alleviating their suffering at the hands of animals of the human variety.

For me, petitions, emails and letters were like the flotsam on these waves of despair. I grasped them eagerly, writing, signing, sending, because they allowed me to feel I was doing something, and because they were something to cling to. On my PC I had links to many petition sites and the horrors that I saw there can never be erased from my mind’s eye. No two petitions were the same, whether they were canvassing for the full force of the law to be brought to bear on individuals for specific instances of sickening vileness, or whether they were protesting what I now realise are the inevitable ‘routine’ horrors that go hand in hand with our culturally accepted use of nonhumans for as many purposes as our creative depravity can devise. These campaigns were the only thing that stood between me and despair; the only thing that enabled me to feel that I was raising my voice in protest against what I saw as the ‘inhumane’ actions of … others.

The actions of others. It was always others. It was never me.  The alarm bell about that wouldn’t start to ring for many years.

Coming into focus

The first thing that must be said is that when we promote any measure that reduces or regulates harm, when we promote or protest against any single issue as I defined above, we’re missing a huge, glaring point with a flashing light and a siren on it. Yet most of us have missed it at some time. When we demand the regulation or the reduction of harm, we are promoting regulated harm or reduced harm. Whatever we are demanding as a solution to our complaint, we are continuing to promote harm. I’ll repeat that, because it’s worth repeating. We are continuing to promote harm.

The harm that we are promoting is, presumably, hopefully, something that we as individual humans think is a ‘more acceptable’ kind of harm. But this in itself immediately begs the question, ‘Who are we to say what kind of harm is acceptable to another individual?’ Many of us might roll our eyes at this and declare that it’s completely obvious. But is it? Is it really?

What’s acceptable?

Let’s leave aside our consideration of other species for a moment and think this through. Given that by definition we are not demanding the cessation of harm, let’s consider familiar ground and wonder whether any of us could determine what level of harm would be acceptable for another human? For instance, if we were forced to decide which of our senses, which of our limbs, what aspect of our freedom and wellbeing we would be least distressed to lose, which would it be?

Let’s carry on with this line of thought. If we were asked to make a similar judgement on behalf of our children or a partner, would that change our perspective? It certainly would change mine. I would honestly rather die than face such a choice. If we had to decide what form of confinement and use, what type of deprivation, mutilation, the lifespan and the nature of the premature death that should be inflicted on each member of our family, could we make these decisions?

And here’s another one. Would we be prepared to allow a child to be taken from us in order to spare our own life or in order to save one or more of our children? Could we choose which one should live? That scene from the film ‘Sophie’s Choice’ springs into my mind here. My throat constricts with grief as the officer tells Meryl Streep in the title role, ‘You may keep one of your children. The other must go away.’ It is hard to imagine how anyone could fail to be moved by the agony in her eyes, the tremulous horror in her voice as she says, ‘You mean I have to choose?’  The following scene where her screaming and terrified child is torn from her arms, a scene re-enacted on millions of dairy cows and their infants every single year, is heartbreaking almost beyond bearing.

Would we be content to let another make such choices on our behalf? I know I wouldn’t. And unless you and I are very different from each other after all, I’m guessing you wouldn’t either. My point is that we fully recognise that these are decisions that no human would ever feel comfortable about making for themselves, let alone make them on behalf of another human no matter how close they are.

Speciesism lurking in the wings

So let’s go back to individuals of other species. Having acknowledged the complete enormity of even considering making life and death decisions on behalf of other humans, why do we feel qualified to make them on behalf of individuals of different species? How do we know what matters most to another individual? How do we know what or whom they value, what they fear most, what their priorities are? One thing is absolutely certain; certain because it is a defining characteristic of being sentient. Their lives matter to them; they value their lives and their relationships with their family and friends. They do not want to die.

But when we promote harm regulation or harm reduction, fulfilling their desperate desire to live is not an option on  the table. We’re ignoring that one. When we are promoting what we perceive as harm reduction or harm regulation, as I said earlier we are still promoting harm; the harm that is an inherent part of a lifetime of use. We are still promoting the harm of being a commodity and a resource; the harm of enduring an existence – because it’s not really a life, is it? – an existence that for most land based individuals will end in terror, whimpering and screaming in the blood drenched violence of a slaughterhouse.

So let’s just be completely honest here, with ourselves if with no one else. Harm reduction and harm regulation decisions such as these form the backbone of single issue campaigning – bigger cages, shorter travelling times, use for flesh and eggs but not foie gras, anti fur, pro ‘free range farming’, the ‘don’t build it here, build it somewhere else’. ‘chill’em and kill’em here not there’ nonsense of our opposition to facilities that overtly commodify nonhumans, etc. And the main reasons we would presume to make these decisions on behalf of another individual?

  1. they are not human and
  2. we think we know best because
  3. we assume that we are ‘superior’ and thus qualified to decide.

In other words, we are being completely and utterly speciesist.

Now at this point, I’m sure that the ‘less harm is better than more harm’ argument is being dusted down and readied for use. It is true, less harm is indeed better than more harm. But even if what I have just written does not convince the reader that perceptions of harm and our priorities in the face of it, are so profound that no sentient individual can make them for another, we need to refocus on what we are actually seeking to achieve here.

What do we want?

Is our goal to achieve ‘less harm’?

Some would tell you that it is; that it’s a ‘step in the right direction’ and ‘raising awareness’. And some would doubtless be large organisations that claim to promote animal interests. However, don’t be fooled. The official line trumpets lofty aspirations to ‘reduce harm’, ‘improve welfare’, bring about ‘better’, ‘more humane’ ‘treatment’. Note the number of subjective words there – subjective = meaning different things to different people. But it’s really not about these aspirations at all. So what IS it about?

Happy consumers spend lots of cash

It’s about consumer perception, because consumer perception  soothes consumer consciences. Soothed consumer conscience maintains or increases consumer demand for the body parts, secretions and services of sentient individuals whose interests are completely disregarded. Consumer demand leads to a cacophony of bells from the cash registers of the industries that use defenceless nonhuman individuals as resources, as well as the jingle of donations landing in the coffers of the career ‘advocates’ and their organisations who partner with, and periodically dole out rewards to, the said exploitation industries in an unholy partnership.  The cash jingle and the till bells quite manage to drown out the whimpers of terror and agony from humanity’s victims as they are once again sold up the river.

The end result of all this elaborate charade is to create an atmosphere of consumer confidence; a perception that someone, some expert organisation, is looking out for animal interests so we can all shop in confidence, comforted that we are doing all we can to ensure that everyone is happy with the deal and no unnecessary harm is being caused.

My memory clears its throat and asks to share something. In the days when I was a ‘single issue activist’ signing petitions and protesting against what the animal organisations informed me were horrific practices that took place in ‘other’ countries, as I wrote my emails and submitted Not In My Back Yard planning objections against beagle-breeding farms, research laboratories and CAFOs, I ranted passionately about ‘cruelty’ and ‘welfare’ to family, friends and colleagues as I wrote my donation cheques and sought out the confidence-inspiring high-welfare labels. I fell for all the hype and thought that I was doing the absolute best that anyone could do by buying ‘humane products’ and protesting about what everyone else was doing. In my own view I was so very ethical and my purchases of meat, dairy, eggs, toiletries, domestic chemicals, leather, wool, feathers, silk all reflected my sincere concern. Of course I would never have been seen dead wearing fur and would never have bought substances like veal or foie gras because ‘obviously’ they were ‘cruel’. I thought the goal was to get everyone to do what I was doing while simultaneously striving to make the ‘necessary evil’ of industry practices as humane as they possibly could be. Have you spotted the glaring mistakes yet?

There are two words that I have not used in this essay so far and I have to apologise because it’s turning out to be a long one. The two words are RIGHTS and VEGANISM. Why do you think that is? The reason is actually quite simple. No one had ever mentioned them to me up to this point in my life.


I’d like to just clarify that animal welfare is NOT the same as animal rights despite what many would have you believe.  In fact, in the context of this essay, even welfare is not the dictionary definition of the word.  The dictionary definition of ‘welfare’ is ‘the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group’ (and that very plainly does not apply to any of of the victims of humanity’s obsession with harming and killing the vulnerable for our most trivial whims) whereas the dictionary definition of ‘animal welfare’ I tracked through many dictionaries without finding an objective definition. Definitions duck and weave, telling us what it’s not, and what it may sometimes be thought to be, and what it can be in certain contexts, but that these can vary, and standards are under constant review, and so on. In other words, there’s not a straight answer and once we delve into the facts of the matter, it’s hardly surprising.

The truth as I have come to understand it, is so unsavoury that I doubt that even the most uncritical eyes would slide over it without pause. However it is touted, in reality ‘animal welfare’ has to do with seeking to be seen to promote minimum standards of health, wellbeing and treatment of nonhumans. Welfare regulations seek to ensure that whilst their rights as sentient individuals are being completely disregarded, nonhumans are treated in a manner that is seen to be lacking in gratuitous and overt cruelty and violence providing this can be achieved in a financially advantageous and profitable manner. Any morally questionable practice such as the routine mutilations and surgery without pain relief, gross violation of reproductive processes, bodily integrity and infanticide that are part and parcel of commodifying sentient individuals as resources and that would make most decent people shudder, may be justified under a guise of paternalistic concern lest they ‘hurt themselves or each other’. Anything that can’t be glibly explained away is hidden, with legal action being sanctioned to prevent exposure.

And however we spin the tale, the only way out of a lifetime of servitude for our helpless victims, is death, more often than not in a slaughterhouse. We can get ourselves tied in knots with campaigns about treatment for the condemned but the bottom line is that they are going to be killed, they don’t want to die and their death will be violent in the way that death always is when the victim wants to hold on to life.

Starkly contrasted with this is the concept of animal rights. Animal rights advocates hold the position that no sentient individual should be regarded as the property of humans and any use of nonhuman animals by human animals is unacceptable.  And as there is absolutely no need for us to use the bodies, lives and services of nonhuman individuals, there is no reason for us not to recognise these rights. Veganism is simply what happens when this ethic is incorporated into our daily lives. Veganism and the recognition of nonhuman rights are synonymous.

So to answer a question I asked earlier, is our goal to promote less harm? No. Our goal must be to end all harm. And as all the use we make of others causes them harm, and as it is all unnecessary, our goal must be to end all use.

Can we do advocacy and single issues?

So coming back round to the start, what about this one then? This is a very common theme amongst vegans, with many choosing to hedge their bets and claiming that it’s possible to do both; namely promoting single issue campaigns in what many reassure themselves is an interim measure while ‘raising awareness’ that will ultimately end all use of our earthling kin.

Some advocates will advise that they oppose the promotion of single issues on efficiency grounds, suggesting that promoting veganism and nonviolent vegan education is making better use of limited advocacy time. Other advocates who see no inherent conflict between speciesist campaigns and creative nonviolent education about veganism frequently retort that they have plenty time to spend and are happy to divide their time thus.

Neither of these is the reason that I consider it inappropriate to promote single issues. As I’ve explained earlier in this essay, single issues are invariably speciesist and they do not, by definition, promote an end to use but rather focus on treatment. This implicitly suggests that if there’s a wrong way to treat the nonhumans we’re using, there must be a right way to treat the nonhumans that we’re using. The problem is that we are still using them unnecessarily, and still promoting harm. No vegan should EVER promote or endorse harm in any context. No vegan. Ever.

The comforting reassurance of nonvegan activism

I remember the days before I had heard of veganism or rights. I remember how I was and I am sure I’m not unique. I had skimmed the surface and cherry picked my way through the concept of ethical consumption by following large groups that claim to protect animal interests and I thought I was doing the right thing. Thus, to a very large extent, I felt I had no need to update or expand my knowledge about animal rights and guess what? I didn’t. It’s an upsetting subject and no one wants to upset themselves continually with information about what we have been taught to consider a ‘necessary evil’ when we have been reassured that we’re already doing the best we can. I was soothed, comforted, reassured and easily parted from my cash, buying substances derived from the misery of others with a clear conscience.

Add to this that the groups I followed applauded the stance that people like me were taking. It is, after all, what they promote. Every campaign they came up with generated a new wave of signing and emails; a new wave of mail drops, and sometimes even ‘gifts’ (I remember getting a branded manicure set once), a new round of donations. Sometimes I despaired. The more campaigns I knew about, the more it seemed that there were, the higher the mountain I needed to climb. So many cruelties, so many heartbreaks, so much vileness.  It was always other people of course, and very often in other countries. It’s hard not to become xenophobic when we’re continually reminded of how barbaric people are in other countries. I knew many people who shared my outrage, many people I could and did encourage to sign and share petitions, YET I DID NOT KNOW ONE SINGLE VEGAN.

What’s that got to do with anything? It’s actually a critical point. My ‘awareness’ wasn’t being ‘raised’ and anyone who suggests it was is just wishful thinking. I was being misinformed, manipulated and used. My concern was being focussed outward, encouraging xenophobia while reinforcing the speciesist mind-set of my upbringing. I was being encouraged to rail against things that I now realise are standard industry practice; things that will NEVER change because the primary objective of organised campaigns and the outrage they generate is to reassure people by making them feel that they’re doing something, so that they will continue to miss the point that every single bit of it is unnecessary and keep on pouring their cash into the industries that form the harm system. No one had pointed out to me that every single petition and campaign that I supported were the myriad symptoms of ONE fundamental flaw in my thinking: the notion that all other species existed to be used by humans as resources and commodities. Speciesism.

There we were, myself and my nonvegan contemporaries, signing and sharing and being sickened and outraged about what others were doing. While we were responsible for the stuff of nightmares being inflicted on innocent creatures for our self-indulgent toiletries, cosmetics, clothing, entertainment and diet. Through these cynical and speciesist campaigns, I – and many others – was encouraged to believe I was ‘fighting for the animals’, ‘doing what I could’, blah blah blah.  And I did as much as I could, like so many others do. Maybe some other people had ‘be vegan’ at the end of the very long list but if they did, they kept it very quiet.

And then came veganism

Suffice to say, veganism changed every single thing in my world as previous essays describe. For a long time, I admit I couldn’t see the harm in single issues and petitions, but then, when I looked back and saw how I had acted and thought while these were a key part of my life, I realised that they did far more harm than good as far as my ‘awareness’ was concerned. They certainly did nothing for the animals save possibly a few short-term gains that were no doubt touted as ‘victories’ that soothed consciences all the way to the checkouts.

So where do I stand now? It all boils down to three things.

  1. There is no point in complaining about what others are doing when we ourselves are responsible for something just as bad, if not worse. The only way to opt out of the system of harm, is to be vegan.
  2. No vegan should ever promote harm, not the regulation of harm, not a reformed harm. No harm.
  3. When caring, conscientious people don’t know about veganism, these campaigns and petitions serve only to ease their conscience about continuing participation in the system of harm. Eased conscience = more spending. We need look no further than our own memories for the truth of this.

You see, it wasn’t about what others were doing after all. It was about what I was doing. Being vegan is not an ‘optional extra’. It’s the main event. All I ever needed to know was ‘be vegan’ and ‘tell others about why they need to be vegan too’.

And now I am and I do. Be vegan.

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9 Responses to Single issues and me

  1. Pingback: Petitions and single issues – where’s the harm? – FAQ | There's an Elephant in the Room blog

  2. Catherine Amie Besch says:

    When are we going to see these in a book? I’ll admit that the posts make sharing on my organization’s pages a bit easier and more digestible, but I can’t wait to hold a hardback in my hand one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. cushpigsmum says:

    Excellent writing, and I agree with all your points. You could have been writing about me – I knew no vegans until I came to Facebook, and then my eyes were well and truly opened, and very glad I am about that too. I wish it had happened a long time ago.

    I still sign some petitions, but now I use the ‘optional comment’ box to state, briefly, what you have said in this blog.

    I went on the demo in London to protest at the possible abolition of the Hunting Act, and I wore my vegan tee and carried my ‘pigs are friends, not food’ bag. I was amazed at how many people there were not vegan, despite being so-called ‘animal lovers’ and I realise that this was me, too, once upon a time- clueless and doing so much that was quite pointless whilst thinking I was helping. If I attend SICs now, I do so with the express purpose of advocating for veganism to a crowd that should, hopefully, be open to it ( even though I realise that is probably naive of me – they will resist, just like everyone else does, I expect). But, I will be there with my vegan flag ‘labels’ all over me and my truth to offer them. And this is the difference – in the days when I was not vegan, and went on these protest marches, I met no vegans at all.

    The next march for some environmental cause that I attend, will find me out loud and proud telling everyone that what they are doing is almost useless, unless they are vegan.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cindy Koczy says:

    Thanks James!

    Always thought provoking! I consider you best at that!I am on the side of NO HARM!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Allison Farr says:

    Great post! Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Murray Noseworthy says:

    I’m not going to argue with anyone here, except to say, I disagree with many of your rationalizations for sticking to the unrealistic, pie-in-the -sky, do nothing approach….one form of advocacy does not x clued the other. It’s only your opinion that one form is less effective than the other too. Yes, if given the unavoidable option to save some of my own loved ones from suffering and death, or lose them all, I
    would, hard as that would be….I would try to minimize the suffering of some until emancipation can be achieved for all….the ultimate goal for ALL of us.


    • Thank you for your thoughts on this. I do, however, consider that a false dichotomy is being suggested here. The alternative to supporting single issues and petitions is not ‘sticking to the unrealistic, pie-in-the -sky, do nothing approach’. If you are indicating that such is your view of the work that I and many other vegan activists do, then I am honestly unable to understand why you would take the time to consider my writing.


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