Thursday, August 23, 2007

Animal Rights Violence

Gary Francione, well known Rutgers University law professor and animal rights philosopher, has written a piece on his blog explaining why violence should not be advocated nor employed in any attempt to advance animals' rights.

Before I criticise his position, let me make it clear: I'm not advocating violence. We have to think our way out of utilizing violence. My current best effort at doing just this is the National Primate Research Exhibition Hall [the link now goes to an archived copy of the project's website's front page.] But no matter how abhorent we might find violence to be, and no matter how kind and gentle we are and would like others to be, it isn't the same as saying that violence wouldn't work.

Franione has three parts to his argument:
1. The animal rights position is the modern expression of ahimsa.

2. There isn't a fair way to determine who violence should be directed against.

3. Violence is counterproductive.
Francione dosen't use the word ahimsa, but he describes it well enough. He writes, "the animal rights position is the ultimate rejection of violence. It is the ultimate affirmation of peace" and goes on to argue that
Anyone who has ever used violence claims to regret having to resort to it, but argues that some desirable goal supposedly justified its use. The problem is that this facilitates an endless cycle of violence where anyone who feels strongly about something can embrace violence toward others as a means to achieving the greater good and those who are the targets of that violence may find a justification for their violent response. So on and on it goes.
To a certain degree, he's right, but not to a sufficient degree. What should the United States do if some brand of Nazism returns with all its hideousness? Suppose that the evening news is filled with images of smoke billowing from modern crematoriums in some distant land. What then?

Do we negotiate? At what point, should negotiations continue to fail and the chimneys continue to belch smoke, should violence be considered?

If we rely on the philosophical position that violence is always wrong and will just make things worse, and is itself the cause of the "cycle of violence," we must apparently stand by and weep and beg that genocide end, but dare not raise a hand to stop it.

Although violence is repugnant, there do seem to be times -- primarily after all else has been tried -- that it might be immoral not to resort to its use. This is why I can't embrace ahimsa.

The full embrace of this attractive idea means that I wouldn't defend you from a mugger if significant force was needed. In regard to my person, I am willing to use nonviolence as a foil to violence. I have been hurt intensely and repeatedly by police officers who have physically forced me into custody during nonviolent protests. I have never resisted and have paid the consequences willingly. And, when others have borne the same abuse, willingly, I have not interfered. But if the same thing were being done to someone on the street by a mugger and I did nothing to intervene physically, even if it meant hitting them in the head with a brick (after yelling and calling for help failed), I would be acting immorally.

Francione's second argument is that because essentially everyone is complicit to a degree in our societal abuse of animals, that no one can be singled out fairly as a possible target of violence.

This seems to get everyone off the hook for everything, always. Personal responsibility is eliminated. You can't hold me personally responsible for slapping my children around and stealing my neighbor's barbeque grill because society is structured in such a way that I matured into a cruel and dishonest SOB. Everyone is responsible for the things I do, so, hey, you can't blame me.

This doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. There is compelling evidence that we are all personally responsible for our own actions and that even though the milieu in which we find ourselves can control us to a degree, it isn't an absolute. For more on this, I recommend a review of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning and Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram.

Francione's third argument seems incompatable with, or to undercut his first two claims (although, maybe he sees each of them as independently sufficient.) He argues that violence is or would be counterproductive. If he thought it could be productive would he then dismiss his first two claims, or is he arguing that even if violence worked, he'd still be against it and would, in effect, be content to weep and beg? It isn't clear to me.

So, would violence be counterproductive?

I confess to being completely baffled by this question, not on its face, but because of its hidden assumption, an assumption I find absurd.

As Francione accurately observes, we live "in a world in which eating animal products is considered by most people as 'natural' or 'normal' as drinking water or breathing air." So, how could things get any worse?

Would we go from killing 8.9 billion "broiler" chickens a year in the U.S. to 9 billion?

Would we dock puppies' tails a little shorter?

Would we start televising dog, cock, and bull fights? Could the animals suffer any more than they already are?

One possible result might be a loss of revenue for the large mainstream animal welfare organizations if the animal exploitation industry could successfully brand them as terrorists.

But other than that, how could it be any worse than it is now? The University of Wisconsin sanctioned a two-decades long series of experiments that kept monkeys strapped into chairs for four days at a time while any of fifty different chemicals were pumped into and sucked from deep in their brains.

How could things have gotten any worse for those animals?

It seems a matter of fact that violence and the fear it engenders is a productive method of control. This isn't to say that it should be used, or that it's a good thing, or that we shouldn't try as hard as we can to find alternatives; but denying that violence can be effective seems more an exercise in absolving people from even considering it than explaining why it shouldn't be used.

It's up to activists to think creatively, to invent new ways to get our message out, to inform people of the extent and details of the ubiquitous horror occuring to the animals, and to motivate them to change their behaviour and to get involved. If we can't come up with successful nonviolent means to significantly diminish the harm we do, we can't really fault those who decide to use other means, given the gravity of the situation. Our work is made all the harder because of the self interest of those with economic interests in maintaining and expanding animal exploitation. We do seem to be headed toward violence, and the industry seems intent on keeping us herded onto that path.

Unlike Francione, I understand why people might be attracted to violence and believe that it could have positive effect; to some degree, I think that the absence of violence acts as a subtle signal to the collective societal perception that the animal question isn't very serious; if it were really serious, like political or religious freedom, or national autonomy, wouldn't we be seeing the same sort of violence?

The animal rights movement attracts nonviolent people. It is this single fact, I think, that explains why the movement hasn't yet seen any significant amount of violence. I worry though that this reticence is unlikely to continue. Everything changes with time.

A note to my faithful pro-vivisection audience:
I'm not arguing for violence here. I am simply saying that violence can have a strong positive effect and that arguments to the contrary are inaccurate. One of two things are going to happen: Significant and meaningful change is going to occur in the short term (do you think that's likely?), or young activists' frustraton is going to boil over. As much as it is activists' responsibility to think our way out of this seeming impasse, so too is it the industry's. I recommend that you work diligently toward an increase in open and participatory public dialog about human society's relationship with animals.


Justin said...

Great post, Rick. I think it should also be noted that the very definition of violence within, and external to, our community is currently up for debate. This is something that is fundamental to the discussion and that Francione doesn't address. As we all know, the ALF and its sympathizers define violence as physical violence against animals (human and non-). This definition is not at odds with those offered by scholars of non-violent social movements and I am going to draw on the work of one political scientist specifically to illustrate this point. Gene Sharp, researcher and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization which studies and promotes the use of nonviolent action, also contends that “violence is…physical violence against persons to inflict injury or death…not as a term of moral or political opinion” (Sharp 2003:1).

"Violence," and "terrorism" for that matter, are all too commonly used as politically-charged terms to describe forms of activism that people think is untoward. Sharp goes on to accurately note that “some people regard nonviolent [action] anything they regard as good, and “violent” anything they dislike." I think that he hits the nail on the head. Defining violence using these more objective criteria, we find that no activities undertaken by American animal rights activists (and very few carried out by AR activists worldwide), would fall under the "violence" heading.

The activities of almost all AR activists should be classified as “non-violent resistance and direct action” (1959:44-45), a term which refers to protest tactics that do not entail physical violence, but in which members of the nonviolent group commit either acts of omission (refraining from participating in culturally expected activities or rituals, e.g., veganism) or acts of commission (participation in acts not expected by custom and that are forbidden by law, e.g., physical obstructions, forms of property destruction that do not risk injury (window smashing, gluing locks, graffiti)(Sharp 1959:44).

An overwhelming majority of the tactics employed by activists are actually included in Sharp’s list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action (1973). Those that aren't, rather than being classified as violence, can be defined as "sabotage" which refers to "acts of demolition and related destruction directed against machinery, transport, buildings…and the like. Because these are acts against property, there are not included in the definition of violence” (Sharp 1973:608). David Barbarash's philosophy on direct action is consistent with such a definition as he has stated that, “[W]hen certain buildings, tools and other property are being used to commit violence, the ALF believes that the destruction of property is justified.”

Many advocates and activists eschew the use of these confrontational, non-institutionalized, albeit nonviolent, tactics to promote the objectives of the AR movement and have often made the claim that these activities are alienating and counterproductive.

However, it is important to note that, historically, the looming presence of militant factions of activists within a movement has served to benefit the movement at large by generating visibility for movement concerns, swaying public opinion and by making the once extreme demands of the moderates appear more reasonable and thereby improving their bargaining position.

Researchers have suggested that this phenomenon, aptly termed the "positive radical flank effect," has operated in such a way within the struggles for women’s and civil rights, and, most recently, within the modern AR and environmental movements.

AR/AW activists who denounce groups like the ALF are then, in some ways, biting the hand that feeds them.

(The intention of this elucidation is not to completely sidestep the fact that the use of certain forms of sabotage can potentially cause unintentional harm to human and non-human animals, nor to trivialize the grave repercussions that an event like that could have for the progress the AR movement has made in general. It is simply to clarify the terms that are commonly used to describe certain forms of activism and explain the virtues of nonviolent direct action in the broader context of social justice movements.)

Derek V. Oatis said...

There are few times I disagree with Francione. While I cannot say that I disagree completely with his conclusions, I think his reasoning does not rise above platitudes. There are narrow lines and subtle differences ignored here. Justin, in his comment, raises the important distinction of defining violence in a way that does not brand direct action, both by direct conduct and by symbolic speech, “terrorism”.

I think Francione is correct in his first point; that the adoption of non-violence is our goal. However, none of us seems comfortable relying upon non-violence’ to protect the rights and safety of persons. For example, only within the past century has this nation moved from viewing women as chattel to providing them with the legal status of person and full citizen. We have gone from protecting a man’s interest in his property, his wife, to criminalizing the violation of a woman’s body and safety, by stranger or spouse.

If, as I often hear, we seek to emulate this progression towards the recognition of the personhood and rights of animals, then our goal is not truly non-violence. In the case of recognizing and protecting the rights of women, the majority of our society determined that violence against women was unacceptable. Laws followed social norm and the means were created which enforced these laws. Now, none of us ever believes that we will ever eradicate all violence against women. Therefore, in order to protect women, we empower certain institutions to engage in violence against the perpetrators. Theses institutions are police, courts, prison systems, and even executioners.

By the use of ‘legitimate’ violence, arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and even death, we use violence to both punish the violators of rights, to serve the outrage of society, and to act as a deterrent to potential future rights violators. We generally refer to this system of legitimate violence as “justice”. Our debates tend to limited to various degrees of different elements within the system (i.e. incarceration v. rehabilitation or the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent). We cannot, if we are honest, pretend that it is not the severe application of violence. To deny the inherent violence of our justice system is to be able to claim that the United States never engages in terrorism; it is political sophistry unrelated to reality.

If, as non-speciesists, our goal to goal to bring nonhumans into our moral community and into our system of justice, then we must concede that our goal is to one day legitimize violence against the violators of the rights of animals. Our goal is to no longer need the ALF because we will have public servants who can perform this same function of punishment and deterrence (hopefully while applying due process to protect all rights).

The problem, in the here and now, is that the use of violence to protect animals is considered ‘wrong’ because society does not recognize the rights of animals. It is no more ‘wrong’ (in the ethical sense) than stopping a 17th century husband from beating his wife. While it sounds terribly un-peaceful; I hope that one day we can create institutions of violence to punish offenders of the rights of animals and to deter violation of those rights. Until then, I must agree that the movement’s use of violence (subject to Justin Goodman’s caveats) is counterproductive.

It is not “counterproductive” not because it makes the lives of animals worse (as Rick Bogle pointed out, that’s impossible). It is counterproductive since it is not ‘legitimate’ it serves to (and is exploited in a way to) delegitimize the animal rights movement and slow our progress.

Derek V. Oatis

Rick Bogle said...


Your comments:

"I think Francione is correct in his first point; that the adoption of non-violence is our goal."


"If, as non-speciesists, our goal to goal to bring nonhumans into our moral community and into our system of justice, then we must concede that our goal is to one day legitimize violence against the violators of the rights of animals,"

seem contradictory to me.

skepticalvegan said...

great post, I highly agree that when sentient beings are suffering and we have the means to end that suffering, that it would be immoral to not do so or at the very least to not sanction such action.

In debates with so-called-abolitionists I generally run into an impasse where they are defining violence as including breaking inanimate objects. I cant fathom equating violence done to humans or animals with property destruction, its irrational, speciesist, and disrespectful to the victims of the very real violence folks like the ALF and ARM fight to stop.

If he wants a world without any force or violence at all, he is gonna have to wait forever. Gary is way out of touch with evolutionary psychology and biology.

I may quote you post fora a piece on tactics I was working on.