The Animal Rights Challenge, By Kim Stallwood (Part 1)
A colleague and friend of mine, Kim Stallwood (aka the Grumpy Vegan) recently gave a presentation at the Minding Animals Conference in London. His presentation was about “The Animal Rights Challenge,” which Stallwood says “is to establish the moral and legal status of animals as a public policy issue.” He provides a critique of traditional protest tactics and offers suggestions for organizations and individuals seeking to help the animal rights movement “advance its mission from obscurity to acceptance.”
Stallwood has segmented his presentation and made it available on his website (grumpyvegan.com) in five parts. I’ll take each section in turn here and pull out some particularly insightful passages, but the entire series is certainly worth the read. He begins by discussing the concept of moral shock, the “personal transformative moment when outrage is experienced at the injustice perpetrated toward animals.” Stallwood argues that these transformative moments are so powerful that they are the basis in which most animal activism is rooted, which helps explain why animal rights is largely a movement based on protest.
|The moral shock opens our eyes to animal cruelty. We see what has been previously hidden from view. We discover animal exploitation is present throughout our world, in the lives we live, the products we buy and where we work and play. We seek out animal suffering. We prevent its occurrence. We want others to see what we now see. We want them to experience their personal transformative moment… We believe society will change if enough people experience enough moral shocks. This is why the movement and its repertoire of protest rely upon fomenting public outrage. The emphasis is on the individual to think, care and act. Go vegan! Go cruelty-free! Don’t buy fur! Boycott zoos. If I can change, you can, too.
The movement’s emphasis on personal lifestyle choice to achieving institutional change is inadequate. It may help some individual animals and inspire some people to make compassionate lifestyle choices. But it is not for everyone. Lifestyle choices can be a fickle friend as trends and fashions change. Not everyone is the same. Not everyone does change. Not everyone is willing to forgo what are commonly perceived as rights (e.g., human rights trumping animal rights), entitlements (e.g., animal tested medications) and pleasures (e.g., fox hunting and eating meat). They don’t want us to tell them. They don’t want to see the photos and DVDs. We can’t tell them what they can and cannot do.
The animal protection movement must move beyond protest as its primary tactic. Certainly, protests are useful in some circumstances, to create social pressure on a specific company or animal abuser, for instance, or as an opportunity for new activists to participate. But protest is only one tool in the arsenal available to animal activists, and arguably a tool that has been overused in the past 20-30 years. Protest and public outreach are important, of course, but the focus on changing people’s “lifestyles” is inherently limited. As Stallwood describes, we can’t expect to change everyone based solely on appeals to changes in lifestyle.
|The movement’s obsession with personal lifestyle choice stops us from understanding the immensity of the animal rights challenge. Clearly, some will change and others will go where a significant minority takes them. This is how social change is achieved and how social movements achieve change. A critical mass reaches a tipping point when what was once fringe goes mainstream. Smoking tobacco in public places and civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples moved in recent times from the side to the centre of the political arena, notwithstanding a minority who resolutely oppose both.
Animal rights, too, has the potential to move to the mainstream from society’s margins. But this can be only achieved if the animal rights movement responds to two important points. First, to understand how social movements advance their mission from obscurity to acceptance. Second, to learn how to implement a strategy that balances the utopian vision of vegan idealism with the pragmatic politics of achieving the possible.
The goal (and the challenge, according to Stallwood) is to move animal rights from the margins of social consciousness to the mainstream, which is a difficult and long-term task. Animal advocates need to build the critical mass of people who support animal causes and recognize their importance relative to other causes, many of which are also very important. To do so, advocates must balance idealism and pragmatism. That is the sad truth for every social cause, finding the right balance of achieving one’s end goals while also working in a practical manner to incrementally progress the issue.