The Death Of Animal Rights
With nearly 40 years of history, the modern animal rights movement has grown increasingly visible and has started to build a solid resource base. But are animals any better off? Society’s use and abuse of animals continue almost unabated, from the factory farm to the research lab to the puppy mill. With four decades of work and arguably little to show for it, we need to think hard about developing new models of advocacy to stay relevant and achieve tangible results for animals.
As an amateur social scientist, I’m often in the position of providing fellow animal advocates with what I call a “reality check.” An objective description of public opinion can seem harsh, because public opinion itself can be harsh. The same is true of the current state of animal use and abuse, both institutional (e.g., factory farming) and episodic (e.g., an individual cruel act). But I think we can all agree that to get where you want to go, you must first know where you’re starting from. Unfortunately, in the case of animal advocacy – the impulsive teenager of social justice movements – where we’re at is not far from where we began.
Consider these reality checks:
- Companion Animals: Despite significant declines in U.S. shelter euthanasia from 1970 to the mid 1990s, progress over the past decade appears to have slowed. In 2005, on average more than eight shelter animals were euthanized every minute.
- Farmed Animals: In 1970, an estimated 3.2 billion animals were raised for food in the U.S. In 2007 that number was 9.5 billion. Additionally, a much larger proportion of farmed animals today are raised in closely confined environments.
- Research Animals: Since the law was created in 1966, the Animal Welfare Act has excluded rats, mice, and birds, thus leaving out about 95% of the animals currently used in research. Not even basic legal protections are mandated for these animals.
- Furbearing Animals: Fur is back in fashion thanks to the admittedly brilliant work of the industry to convince consumers that fur trim is less audacious and more ethical. A majority of U.S. adults still believes that buying clothes made of animal fur is “morally acceptable.”
- Vegetarianism: Actual vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. are a roughly 2-3% minority among adults, and this percentage has remained essentially unchanged for 20 or more years despite an active vegetarian advocacy community.
So isn’t it time for animal advocates to think beyond the same old tactics and the tired messages that we’ve been using for the past 30 years? Isn’t it time to be more thoughtful in our approach and more demanding of ourselves to achieve tangible results? Of course, there is some excellent work happening right now that’s producing solid results for animals. But much of what I see in the animal protection movement involves rehashing old campaigns and relying on the same core messages of opposing cruelty and appealing to compassion. Sadly, it isn’t working, and animal advocates must break out of their existing paradigms if they intend to achieve significant results.
A Lesson from Environmentalists
Recently a couple of prominent activists came to a similar conclusion about the current state of environmental advocacy. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” argue that the environmental movement is rapidly becoming obsolete because it focuses on narrow policies that are easily ignored or overturned depending on the politics of the current administration in Washington, DC. Shellenberger and Nordhaus are also dismayed by the apparent lack of concern that environmentalists have for their slow progress.
The environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power… it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus make an interesting point about the self-defeatism inherent in limiting concern for the environment to a “special interest.” Animal advocacy, on the other hand, has only a fraction of the public attention and policy interest that environmentalism has. It would be a pleasant surprise just to see animal protection on the same list as other “special interests!” But lessons from “The Death of Environmentalism” also apply to animal advocacy, including a need to closely examine the entrenched attitudes and approaches that we use to help animals.
One of the areas that I think should be examined is how we as animal advocates position our goals. Very few people support the idea of a “vegan world,” but nearly everyone agrees with a goal of eventually eliminating animal cruelty and suffering. Resolving that disconnect goes beyond explaining to people that “animal rights” does not mean we’re planning to issue drivers’ licenses to family pets. Frankly, animal advocates also need to soften their tone and limit their expectations. Except in very rare situations, people don’t make abrupt changes (and one could argue that most of the few who do make abrupt changes are already advocates), and effective persuasion requires being able to offer incremental steps.
The Not-So-Great Divide – Reform vs. Abolition
Given the reality of their situation, animals would probably scoff at the increasingly heated debate among some advocates regarding “welfare reforms” vs. “animal liberation.” A discussion of where to focus one’s limited resources is rarely a bad idea, but to suggest that any single approach to animal advocacy is right – or that others are wrong – is just naïve. The argument is moot, not least because advocating for animals will always be a diverse effort. But making gains for animals today is perfectly valid, even if those gains are minimal. And ensuring that we stay focused on the ultimate goal of abolishing animal cruelty (at least to the extent possible) is also a valid role for some advocates to play.
However, parsing advocates into “welfarist” and “abolitionist” camps is not just divisive; it’s also a waste of everyone’s limited time and, more importantly, a disservice to animals. The only advocates who have it “wrong” are the ones who believe that their approach is the only one that’s “right.” On the other hand, those who respect the broad range of tactics that comprises the animal protection movement also recognize that small changes can lead to big long-term results. If I were to guess, I’d say that animals appreciate both the incremental changes as well as the long-term focus on liberation. So a good first step for advocates would be to end the debates and start focusing on effective advocacy.
But what is effective? There have certainly been some successful campaigns for animals over the past few decades — how did those successes happen? Why are other approaches not getting enough traction to change hearts and minds or pass more animal-friendly policies? Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these questions, just some personal observations based on the research that Faunalytics has conducted. First and foremost, animal protection is just not relevant for many people, except perhaps when it comes to the care and wellbeing of their companion animals. But animal abuse is something that usually happens behind closed doors; so when people see it, they think it’s an exception.
Partly as a result of this phenomenon, some animal advocates have fallen for the belief that they just have to scream louder to be heard. They denounce animal cruelty with vehement rhetoric and graphic images plastered on billboards and then they wonder why people aren’t changing en masse in response to the truth. But sometimes the louder you are the less people hear you; it’s kind of like when people mute the TV as soon as the obnoxiously loud commercials come on. Similarly, most people tune out “angry” rhetoric and “extreme” tactics. They might provide a momentary distraction or a media spectacle, but the extra attention is quickly lost.
Contrast this with the other end of the spectrum, which might be considered the local nonprofit shelter community, which in most areas has very high favorability among the public. This is testament to the hard work of companion animal advocates, but it also reflects a polarization of public perception regarding animal people: the benevolent shelter volunteer vs. the angry vegan protester, if you will. As a result, there is a rather large void in public opinion where moderate, but resolute animal advocates could claim space and provide more access to the movement’s ideas. People really do love animals, this we know to be true, but advocates need to give these people a community and a set of ideas with which they can more easily identify.
How to Avoid Premature Demise
Borrowing again from Shellenberger and Nordhaus:
If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values. We must start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics.
During the past 40 years, animal advocates have mostly emphasized our reasons when trying to persuade people, governments, and corporations to eliminate (or at least mitigate) animal cruelty. Appeals to personal compassion and “doing the right thing” can certainly work for some people and institutions, but don’t think that compassion is a panacea. It is just one of the many core values held by people in the U.S., as well as other countries throughout the world. Per the quote above, animal advocates (like environmentalists) would be well-served to meet people halfway, by framing our messages and policy goals around these shared values.
For a fascinating treatise on core values in the U.S. as they relate to perceptions of ecology, see “Road Map for an Ecological Majority” (PDF), by American Environics (a company started by Shellenberger and Nordhaus). In that report, the following are identified as “core values” of the ecological base, a constituency that I believe would overlap significantly with the animal protection base.
• Ecological Concern
• Personal Control
• Civic Engagement
• Religion à la Carte
• Introspection & Empathy
• Flexible Families
• Skepticism Towards Advertising
• Culture Sampling
• Global Consciousness
• Brand Apathy
• Ethical Consumerism
• Rejection of Authority
• More Power for Media
• Importance of Spontaneity
• Personal Creativity
• Everyday Ethics
• Discriminating Consumerism
• Meaningful Moments
• Flexible Gender Identity
• Rejection of Order
• Strategic Consumption
• Racial Fusion
• Largesse Oblige
• Social Responsibility
Each of these values has a specific meaning according to the American Environics taxonomy, but one thing that is immediately evident from the list above is that modern value systems are complex. People hold very diverse worldviews and they arrive at those beliefs in various ways, which makes understanding human nature a difficult task. But understand it we must, if we intend to effect real change for non-human animals. Moreover, advocates should realize that it’s neither wise nor tenable to try to change human nature. Rather, our goal should be to create messages and policies that appeal to the values most deeply held by our target audiences.
“Target audience” is a phrase that comes up frequently in these posts. Depending on what animal issues you work on, your target audience might be very narrow, but more likely it’s fairly broad (e.g., pet owners, meat consumers, etc.). Whichever the case, advocates must work hard to understand their audience and tailor their appeals based on the audience’s current values and behavior. If the audience is very large, segment it into smaller groups based on shared values, current behavior, and/or the means by which you plan to reach them. Remember: it’s not a “one size fits all” kind of world and your messages don’t have the same appeal for everyone.
One final thought: The animal advocacy community will always have its pragmatists, purists, and pundits (myself included, most likely), and in general the diversity is probably a good thing. But let’s try to limit the internal dialogue to what’s most effective and, more importantly, stay focused on our target audiences. I’m sure we can all agree that our foremost obligation is to animals, which means our energy is better spent understanding and persuading the population at large (our “target audience”) rather than debating each other.
Thanks for reading and listening to my opinion.