Should animal rights activists use violence?
- Published: 14 August 2010
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Although we need to think our way out of utilizing violence to advance animals’ rights, this does not mean that violence doesn’t work as a strategy, writes Rick Bogle.
In 2007 Gary Francione, well known Rutgers University law professor and animal rights philosopher, wrote 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.
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.
Francione 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 doesn’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, 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 50 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’ frustration 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 dialogue about human society’s relationship with animals.
Rick Bogle taught in a public elementary school for eight years after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. After learning details of experiments occurring in US laboratories, he gave up his teaching career in 1997 and began working full time to call attention to the government-sponsored abuse of animals.
Rick is knowledgeable on all issues surrounding the use of animals in science, but is particularly well-informed about the use of monkeys. Rick says, “Science has shown repeatedly and convincingly that other animals have minds and emotions so like our own that their joy and suffering is essentially indistinguishable from our own joy and suffering. People are waking up to the implications of this fact; a revolution has begun.”
This article was first published on Thomas Paine’s Corner.