I was recently asked the following very well articulated question by a friend who is a committed activist and vegan advocate;
I understand why we don’t want to put effort into single-issue causes, especially those that are so blatantly speciesist (such as anti-fur campaigns that imply leather is ok). But why is it so awful to sign the occasional petition about a one-off local concern (for example, the petition to spare the dogs who bit the child’s hand off from euthanasia). I don’t sign a lot of petitions for the former reason, but I genuinely don’t see the harm in signing one like the latter while including an anti-speciesist message that points out dogs aren’t the only persecuted species and they wouldn’t be at risk for euthanasia if we weren’t speciesist (or something along those lines). How is my NOT signing the petition going to: 1) Help these dogs, 2) Spread the message of speciesism, and 3) Help any other animals now or in the future?
At one time I wondered the very same thing myself. And yet now I would no longer consider signing any petition unless the top line is a call for the end of speciesism and a demand for veganism – which is the natural consequence of that – and I can’t recall ever seeing one of these. This essay stems from my own experience and the learning curve resulting from examining my feelings, thoughts and the actions leading from my nonvegan past to my vegan present.
The first point I think I need to stress at the outset is that ‘campaign’ and ‘petition’ are interchangeable words. A ‘petition’ is how people enlist as supporters of a ‘campaign’. So where I talk about ‘single issue campaign’, or ‘campaign’, the word ‘petition’ may easily be substituted because they are as closely related as the terms ‘animal rights’ and ‘veganism’.
My own definition of single issues, taken from my blog ‘Single issues and me’ is:
All campaigns that focus on either general behaviour towards, general treatment of, general practices and/or specific instances of behaviour, 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.
I have previously written at length about how large campaigns like anti-fur, anti-foie gras, anti-dog and cat consumption etc are by their very nature, speciesist and focused on single-issues. Which brings me to my second point; just as all species deserve the same consideration that can only be achieved through veganism, every type of single issue campaign and the petitions that spring from them – whether about fur (many species), veal (one species), a wolf pack (group of individuals) or a cruelly treated dog (individual) – are speciesist by their very nature.
In considering these campaigns, a vegan activist must confront the same moral dilemma that exists when we are encouraged to support regulatory reform. Obviously instinct suggests that it is preferable to subject our victims to a lesser degree of torture if possible, but the automatic flip side of that coin is that by endorsing what we think of as a ‘reduced level of harm’, we are actually promoting and supporting harm. Intentionally or not, we are agreeing in principle to other individuals being used as our resources, albeit under the slightly different conditions that our campaign defines. That is a fundamental betrayal of their right not to be in the situation in the first place.
For example, if you or I were imprisoned as innocent individuals awaiting the carrying out of the death penalty and our lawyer started to campaign for a ‘bigger cell’, improved transport to our place of execution, or a different means of inflicting our death, we’d know our cause had been completely lost. Our innocence would no longer be the focus and our captors would consider that compromises on treatment were ‘at least doing something’.
It’s not about spending time productively
I’ve seen many excellent vegan advocates go down the route of claiming that promoting single issues is wasting time that could be more productively used for advocacy. I don’t hold with that idea at all. It’s easily shot down by the many who can truthfully say that they have plenty of time to sign petitions and do other forms of advocacy too.
In my view, the problem does not lie in the taking of time to sign petitions; it lies much deeper than that. The problem springs from the very existence of petitions, where they originate, and the mindset that they foster and endorse in those who participate, through these, in speciesist campaigns.
The questions we need to ask
So I suppose this must bring me to the third thing that really must be examined. Have you ever wondered:
- Who sets up these petitions?
- Who signs them?
- How do single issues / petitions affect the participants?
- Is signing petitions effective as an advocacy method?
A bit about me
For years, I personally used to spend hours every week signing petitions about every sickening, stomach churning, gut wrenching topic that we all know is out there. The infinite ways that human animals harm members of other animal species is overwhelming and I doubt if there’s anyone reading this who has not felt themselves start to buckle under the weight of the horror.
And this is where my memories kick in with merciless clarity. While I was doing all that signing, was I vegan? Hell, no. I’d never heard of veganism, had no idea about speciesism but you know what?
I thought of myself as an ‘animal activist’, a campaigner against ‘cruelty to animals’.
Read that sentence again – please. There I was, a nonvegan, wearing, consuming, using members of other species for every purpose under the sun, and I seriously thought I was an activist; genuinely believed I was ‘at least doing something’. I was signing petitions set up by other nonvegans (who by definition were as speciesist as I was because they were not calling for veganism) while I was guilty of horrors equivalent to, or exceeding, the things I was so sanctimoniously complaining about.
The concept of petitions and the harm they do
I was like that for years. Cocooned in my self-satisfied perception of myself as a ‘campaigner’, believing I was doing all I could, and frankly, with a mind closed to discovering the reality of speciesism and the veganism that is the consequence of its rejection. My mind was closed because I already believed I was doing all I could do.
In fact – and this is the crux of why I no longer support petitions and the single issues that spawn them – participation in this form of self-righteous complaining actually worked against my seeking the information and the consistency of thought that led me inevitably to the realisation that I had to be vegan. It was completely counter-productive.
I was firmly in the ‘at least I’m doing something’ camp and what’s even worse – I found myself adopting a xenophobic outlook and was influenced by the general atmosphere of ‘otherisation’ that is also part and parcel of the concept of petitions for other animals. Countries where they consume dogs, countries where they hunt dolphins and whales, countries where elephants are exploited as tourist attractions – we can all add to the list if we think for a moment. So in addition to ‘doing something’, I thought that my actions and the myriad causes I supported were ‘better than what was being done in other countries’, a skewed and mistaken view that was reinforced every day.
And while I’m proclaiming my personal failings to the world, here’s another one. Almost every petition emphasised the concept that some species are more important, more worthy of our concern than others. Elephants, tigers, dogs, cats, whales, dolphins, monkeys, lions. Yup, how often did the tales pull at my heart strings? I wept over them all and I know now that I’m not alone in this.
On reflection, to be honest, the ‘petition’ scene of my experience was a toxic mix of speciesist xenophobia, peopled mainly by nonvegans complaining about other nonvegans, all whipped into a righteous fervour of indignation about single issues that did not touch them personally, or about which their own actions were not on the table for examination regardless of how incongruous they were.
I’m vegan now – so what harm would signing a petition do?
There is a view that is bandied around by those individuals and organisations whose focus is fundraising, and others, many of whom claim to be vegan, that ‘reducing suffering’ is a worthy goal. This view promotes the idea that needlessly harming other creatures is a numbers game; that to harm fewer of them or harm each one of them less is a worthy and ‘pragmatic’ aspiration. Oh how I hate that word ‘pragmatic’ – it always precedes and seeks to excuse a betrayal of our victims.
In the question, my friend mentioned that they always include an anti-speciesist message with a signature. Again, I can only relay my own experience. I’m told by some that they do, but I have never once signed a petition and read all the comments by others. Not once. After reading a few, I quickly realised there was only so much vitriol I could take. So what if I had read a vegan message? Would I have been influenced? In a word, no. I honestly thought I had all the answers and I wasn’t looking for any more.
To participate in any speciesist campaign/ petition, we are endorsing the fundamental principle of speciesist campaigns, just as signing a petition about how animals are transported to slaughterhouses is supporting the principle of their being used as resources, signing an anti-fur petition is endorsing the principle of singling out fur as worthy of particular condemnation, or signing a petition about eating dogs in other countries is encouraging cultural contempt and otherisation while reinforcing the idea that what happens ‘here’ to other species (wherever ‘here’ is) is okay.
We can’t save them all
What can we do to help the individuals who are the subject of the particular petition that sparked the question? This is where it gets really hard and it comes down to our own values and how we square our actions with these.
This point may sound harsh but it is the truth. While the world is not vegan, at this very moment, there are more individuals hurting and dying in circumstances that would make any decent person want to vomit, than we can ever know about, address or save. As long as speciesism prevails, there will be dogs like the individuals mentioned, and when they are slaughtered (or ‘euthanised’ as the euphemism goes), there will be uncounted others we’ll probably never hear about, who will take their place in the firing line. As well as these dogs, there are millions of sentient individuals of every conceivable species dying today alone, defenceless, unknown, and un-cared-for individuals who are every bit as deserving of their lives.
We can’t save them all. It simply can’t happen. Saving one or two individuals is all most of us can do; and that’s the principle behind adopting or providing them with sanctuary. It changes the world for the individuals concerned and it is a tangible activity that many of us choose to undertake in recognition of the huge injustice that our species is perpetrating without need or justification upon all their kin.
I think the question we need to ask ourselves is whether signing a petition, thereby endorsing what I firmly consider to be a flawed and counter-productive concept, is an appropriate form of advocacy, or whether the existence of that petition is throwing the overarching cause of anti-speciesism under the bus in the hope of making us feel better as individuals?
I made my choice several years ago. Be vegan.