The Politics of Animal Liberation: I Can’t Quit You Gary Francione

I want to be like most others in the animal rights and liberation communities and ignore Professor Gary Francione. But I simply can’t. His case for the abolitionist approach to animal rights is too strong. So despite what comes across as a divisive delivery, and despite my belief that a “creative non-violent vegan education approach” (his words), by itself, is too narrow to bring about a revolution for animals, I still find his ability to issue-spot and his analyses of the problems more compelling than anyone else’s in the “movement.” In quotes, because, as Francione says, “movement” implies progress, and since the animal liberation movement began we’ve seen animal exploitation rise exponentially. If that fact isn’t enough to cause animal activists to step back and reassess, I don’t know what is.

We are still in the infancy stage of the vegan revolution wherein identifying the issues surrounding the human view and treatment of animals is of primary importance. Not until the issues are plain for all to comprehend can we move forward to meaningfully debate tactics.

I watched an old Vegetarian Summerfest talk by Francione last night and was reminded how important it is to hold large, mainstream animal advocacy orgs to account. How important calling out the welfarist approach is. And how damaging single-issue campaigns have the potential to be if not presented properly. It may seem like Francione is debating tactics when he talks about these things – but that’s not his focus. I believe he’s doing something far more important, something that, again, must precede a tactical debate.

I think Francione is trying to correct the counterproductive mindset that still exists in too many animal advocates. It’s a mindset that encourages animal exploitation however unintentional. Despite their good faith attempts to help presently suffering animals, too many activists sacrifice the long-term message of complete and total animal liberation by giving the impression that “humane exploitation” or other “less bad” exploitation is acceptable.

Francione’s biting critique of single-issue campaigns like anti-fur and fois gras was a particular turn-off for me until I really listened closely to him. His point is not that these movements are detrimental, per se. It is that when they are undertaken without clear and consistent messaging that all exploitation is wrong, they indirectly give a pass to other forms of exploitation. So when an anti-fur protest doesn’t make clear that fur is wrong because it assumes animals exist for human use, it leaves those who still wear wool, leather and down feeling comfortable and cozy, likely unaware of their role as animal exploiters.

Everyone can watch a video of a fox stuck in a leghold trap or being anally electrocuted and admit that wearing fur is repugnant. But they must also understand  why. And they have to be compelled to look inward at their own relationships with other animals for such a campaign to be worthwhile. Otherwise, the single-issue campaign perpetuates animal exploitation by omitting the central theme of abolitionism. If a non-vegan passerby can walk away from a Canada Goose protest thinking differently about fur but not about his leather shoes, the point has not been made.

This problem is even more stark in the Yulin dog-meat campaign. How many dog-lovers opposed to what happens in Yulin are simultaneously eating cows, fish and chickens for dinner? It’s moral schizophrenia, as Francione says. Unless single-issue campaigns are crystal clear about the why, they’re at risk of making their audience more comfortable with the other 99.999% of animal exploitation.

In his talk, Francione gives other examples where groups, like PETA, are not just giving the tacit impression that animal exploitation is okay, they’re outwardly praising exploiters for “advances” in animal agriculture. Yes, I get it: sometimes this partnership-with-the-devil-approach is necessary to achieve gains in the short term. But I’m back to the overarching fact that animal exploitation is on the rise. At what point do we acknowledge that partnerships with animal exploiters, while perhaps making animal lives marginally less horrible now, are at least a waste of time, and worse, probably leading to more animal exploitation overall?

The vegan paradigm is first and foremost centered on a steadfast recognition that animal lives have instrinsic value. That is, their value doesn’t derive from the economic worth humans assign to them. Sentient beings have an interest in living, and thus, they have the right not to be treated as human property. If this basic point is lost in any animal advocacy, then the advocate must retool or else risk contributing to continuing animal exploitation.

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Chad Nelson is senior editor at the Center for a Stateless Society. He’s an attorney based out of Providence, Rhode Island and a Fellow at C4SS. He considers himself one of the world’s biggest Pearl Jam fans despite their blind obedience to the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter @cnels43.

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