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Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits

Photo Credit: Lynda Bell

Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits (University of Michigan Press 2019) is the culmination of ten years of research covering four decades of Nonhuman Animal rights claimsmaking produced by grassroots, transitioning, and professionalized organizations. In general, I was interested in unpacking the influence of nonprofitization on social movements. As organizations professionalize, their claimsmaking deradicalizes considerably (for instance, they will avoid using the words ‘vegan’ or ‘liberation’ and shift towards ‘veg’ language and welfare reforms). More than this, they begin to utilize the power coalesced from this compromise to stifle the voices of radicals on the margins. This is a significant power dynamic in the movement which should be fully appreciated for its impact on goals, tactics, and outcomes.

I actually began my interest in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as an activist. As I learned more about theory and began to move toward more radical activist strategies (such as feminism, abolitionism, and no kill), the level of resistance I experienced in the movement was quite striking. I was also taken aback by how uncritically most activists accepted the gospel of large nonprofits. I recognized that factionalism between different camps as well as the pressure enacted on all camps by the large nonprofits were two major influences on the movement’s trajectory, yet they have been largely understudied. For the most part, activists chalk this division up to interpersonal issues or individual organizations. As a sociologist, however, I recognized that there were structural issues at play that needed to be unpacked.

The bulk of my research was conducted in the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive in the North Carolina State University library. It was a purposive sampling in which I tracked organizations and collectives surviving from the 1980s or 1990s, looking specifically for clues as to how professionalization impacted claimsmaking. I spent hours sifting through hundreds of magazines, newsletters, correspondence, and the like, taking pictures with a digital camera to organize and analyse when I returned back to home. Since most communication now takes place on the internet, I also conducted a secondary content analysis of blogs and newsletters from the early 2000s onward. The most challenging aspect had to be the sheer volume of material and organizations from which to choose—it was an ambitious project to say the least. However, it is only with a longitudinal analysis of this kind that we can identify major trends in movement behaviors.

All social movements are factionalized, and this factionalism has been critiqued by some scholars as a drain on resources and solidarity, but, for the most part, this common variable is actually greatly overlooked in social movement theory. In this book, I argue that factionalism is not only normal for movements, but it can also be a healthy function. Factionalism can propel a movement forward in forcing dialogue related to tactics and goals. In the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, there are factional divides with regard to the appropriateness of direct action, reform and abolition, feminism, and the ethics of “euthanasia.” Unfortunately, those taking a radical position tend to be marginalized by larger nonprofits which form a hegemony in the movement and use that power and takent-for-granted authority to position radicals as unrealistic or dangerous. But, without factionalism (and without radicals), the RSPCA might still support hunting, we would not have the Humane Society of the United States (which is a splinter group which emerged over vivisection), and we would not have The Vegan Society (which is a splinter group from The Vegetarian Society). I would imagine, contemporary factionalism will, in the future, be credited for positioning veganism, adoption, nonviolence, and intersectionality/inclusivity as baselines for anti-speciesist activism.

It is highly unlikely that factionalism can ever be overcome, and, for that matter, I argue that it should be embraced. Activists often bemoan the infighting and plead for unity, but Piecemeal Protest demonstrates that unity is unrealistic and often code for obedience to hegemonic forces in the movement. For instance, who should be uniting with who? Should we unite with organizations that lethally inject or gas healthy dogs and cats? Should we unite with organizations, like the HSUS or Farm Sanctuary, which propose that it is acceptable to use and consume Nonhuman Animals (as long as this is done “humanely”)? Should we unite with organizations promoting reducitarianism over veganism and reform over abolition? I don’t think so. Rarely are the large nonprofits asked to unite with the radicals who are more likely to advocate for the real interests of Nonhuman Animals (which is the right to life and freedom from human oppression). Unity claimsmaking is usually engaged by the nonprofit hegemonic bloc to reign in deviant factions and shame them for engaging critique. When the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals are on the line, that critique is truly vital and should not be silenced.

I hope the book will remind activists that factionalism isn’t about interpersonal disagreement, but something structural. Factionalism has existed in the movement since its very inception—in fact, early meeting notes from the 1820s document disagreement over tactics and goals! However, with the professionalization of the movement in the 1980s-2000, factionalism really exploded as a result of the many compromises the nonprofits were undertaking in order to access more legitimacy with the state, funding, and power. It isn’t just that “we can’t all get along,” but instead, there are larger political and economic influences on social movements which leave them vulnerable to state and capitalist infiltration. Radical splinter groups predictably emerge to challenge this process, while radical groups themselves, are vulnerable to the temptation to professionalize in an effort to secure much needed funding, legitimacy, and stability.

The Vegan Society is a great example of this—it began as a very radical, very resource-poor group in the 1940s after several decades of discord with The Vegetarian Society. It struggled to survive throughout the 20th century, but following gradual steps toward professionalization from 1980 onward (whereby organizers from other nonprofits took over leadership of the society and strategically worked to professionalize it), the hardcore anti-speciesist roots to the group gradually decayed. Today, the organization focuses on product consumption and environmentalism. I just received the newest issue of The Vegan, for instance, and there wasn’t a single Nonhuman Animal pictured! Nonhuman Animals, thanks to the pressures of professionalization, have now become absent referents in The Vegan Society. This I find to be truly remarkable. Yes, this professionalization has allowed it to grow and stabilize, but who can Nonhuman Animals rely upon if even The Vegan Society has abandoned them in its claimsmaking?

Activists are better served in recognizing factionalism as a vital and fundamental part of organizing. I also want them to recognize that radicals aren’t simply on the margins because their ideas are somehow less practical or realistic, but more accurately, they are marginalized because they are more threatening to the established social order. The state relies on nonprofits to actively squash out radicals; nonprofits do the policing of their own movement. Beyond this state influence, the nonprofit system itself (as evidenced in the story of The Vegan Society) is an extension of capitalism, such that activists and organizations are in real danger of being swept in and commodified. Indeed, the charity sector is one of the largest economic sectors in the world. Social movements are good for business, and this should be cause for concern given that capitalism is the root cause of the inequality we are battling.

What surprised me from this research was just how dramatic nonprofitization was for the claimsmaking of an organization; it was just night and day for some of them. Compassion Over Killing, for instance, a DC based group which started as from a student collective, went from being very radical with an explicit ethos of veganism, direct action, and abolition over reform. After professionalizing, COK replaced its vegan language with “veg” language, changed its newsletter title from The Abolitionist to Compassionate Action, and dropped its abolitionist mission statement which clearly rejected reform to one that clearly embraced it! COK, of course, grew considerably in size and wealth following this shift, but at what cost to the movement’s integrity and our obligation to Nonhuman Animals?

The other shocking bit was how silent most organizations were on this transition. It was as though the bid to get larger, glossier, wealthier, and more corporate was simply expected—and likely, this emerged from the economic logic of growth we’ve all been socialized by in a capitalist society. More sinister, however, was the quiet work behind the scenes to silence and marginalize radicals, such is the case with Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) which hosts the annual National Animal Rights Conference. FARM has, in its requirements for conference participation, a ban on criticizing other organizations (a means to maintain the nonprofit hegemony). But the criticism of organizational compromise is the modus operandi for radicals, such that the no-criticism rule effectively prohibits radical participation. In the past, FARM has also sought to invisibilize factionalism—claiming it doesn’t exist in newsletters when it clearly was reaching crisis levels (as was the case in 1996). More recently, it has co-opted feminist tactics for inclusion by using a so-called “safe space policy” to justify radical exclusion at the conference (claiming that, for instance, Nathan Winograd—leader of the National No Kill Center—would be in violation as his work is critical of PETA’s kill policy). I don’t think many activists recognize how very powerful these organizations have become by cooperating with the state and how the state’s interests infiltrate through non-profit channels. Conferences are important spaces for reaching the major decision-makers in the movement and giving platform to various ideas—radicals truly suffer from exclusion. Some have attempted to create their own conferences, but, obviously, the reach and impact of these splinter conferences are much less.

Are we closer to a vegan world today because of professionalization or in spite of it? I feel it is the latter. Radicals, although greatly burdened by two fronts of activism (the public and the big nonprofits) are able to influence movement dialogue, inspire the public, and create important shifts in cultural meaning. The internet has been one important means for levelling the playing field in discourse politics—official newsletters and conferences may silence radicals, but nonprofits are not able to prevent activist attraction to podcasts, websites, social media, and other digital channels where critical discourse thrives. This has forced some nonprofits to acknowledge factional critique and, in some cases, alter organizational practices. I find it frustrating that radicals are facing active marginalization from their own movement, but it is heartening that their efforts are having an impact on the nonprofits to some extent. Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), for instance, is now far more radical in its claimsmaking than it once was. Even the name indicates this, as it was once called Farm Animal Reform Movement!


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan economies and the politics of consumption in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter

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Project Intersect in Bluestockings

Bluestockings 01-16

While visiting New York City this weekend, I stopped into Bluestockings Bookstore and found Project Intersect for sale! I was beyond thrilled that my little essay on atheism in ecofeminist spaces was tucked away in this historic feminist landmark. I actually saw quite a few vegan feminist and critical race vegan books on offer.

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Adviser to the INSSVV, University of Vienna

I am pleased to announce that I have joined the Advisory Board for the FEWD Research Area Foodethics and International Network for Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism with the University of Vienna. I will also be serving as editor to the program’s upcoming Encyclopedia for Cultural and Social Studies on Vegetarianism and Veganism.

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Status Contamination in Animal Rights

tofu-08-cover-store

My article, “Status Contamination: Women, Nonhuman Animals, and Intersectional Liberation” was published today in issue #8 of T.O.F.U. Magazine on sexism in the animal rights movement. Copies of the magazine are available on a pay-as-you-can system.

 

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