31 October 2011

Activists must remain united under the banner of ending animal suffering

On March 1, 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery", which prohibited the import of slaves into the state, mandated a slave registry, and granted children born to slaves in Pennsylvania freedom after the age of 28. While this act didn't allow for the immediate abolition of all slaves in the United States, it was one of many small steps which eventually led to it.

The importance of incremental progress should not be underestimated. Many social movements, from women's rights to civil rights, have unfortunately taken time before noticeable progress was finally achieved. When one is raised from birth to believe that people from Africa are inferior, or women exist to satisfy the needs of men, reversing such indoctrination can be a difficult, lengthy process. Apply the necessity of these philosophical changes in thought to a wider spectrum -- an entire population -- and it becomes somewhat more clear as to why the advancement of rights often takes generations.

Comparisons between these causes and that of animal abolition can be made in the dozens, but one major similarity is their largely shared reliance on gradual change. During the last fifty years, activists in the U.S. have successfully campaigned for more humane methods of treating and killing animals, such as pushing for the piggery industry to end the use of "gestation crates."

Still, these changes have yet to completely free animals from enslavement and inevitable demise. This is indeed something that many animal welfare activists likely cope with on a daily basis. Most of us are aware that as we go about the comforts of daily life, the non-humans we strive to protect are still suffering. This can be understandably frustrating and enraging. So enraging that, for many activists, advocating incremental changes is simply not enough. These types often advocate direct action approaches (and there is nothing wrong with that so long as it's done non-violently). Direct action also has parallels with historic social movements; for example, the Underground Railroad sought to immediately end the confinement of slaves instead of waiting for philosophical shifts in thought or legislation. Today, we see direct-action among animal welfare advocates in the form of groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, and others like it, which work diligently to remove animals from factory farms and laboratories in an effort to bring them to safety.

Animal welfare activists Bruce Friedrich and Peter Singer published an article discussing varying approaches, stressing the importance of gradual changes:

"Put yourself in a chicken’s place today: Would you prefer to live in the horror you’re in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner? If, as we all believe, each individual animal deserves to have her interests considered as an individual, then welfare improvements are good. We can’t ignore the vast suffering of these billions of animals for some hypothetical future goal."

They conclude by writing:

"We understand the appeal of battle cries such as “not bigger cages, but empty cages.” But a bit of comfort and stimulation for an animal who will be in that cage her whole life is something worth fighting for, even as we demand empty cages. Not only is it the best thing for the animals in the cages, it’s also the best thing for animal liberation. It’s another stepping stone on the march."

Small steps like the ones mentioned above are largely supported by public opinion, a point worth briefly considering. If animal activists seek to spread awareness, starting with what is known to be accepted by the majority of people is likely a great place to start. For example, instead of saying "all animals must be freed from confinement," we might say "animals deserve better treatment." Once individuals begin truly considering the conditions endured by pigs, chickens, and cows, they are much more likely to change all on their own, without anyone ever demanding them to do so (which rarely works anyway).

Similar to movements of the past, some of us may choose to work within the system, while others will inevitably choose to work outside of it. Regardless, all activists should remain united under the banner of ending animal suffering. Focusing on this common goal, and allowing individuals to experiment with approaches that work best for them, will inevitably lead to the animal abolition we all desire.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/superfantastic