Anti-Slavery, Abolition, and Analogies
In my analysis of four decades of Nonhuman Animal rights claimsmaking, I noticed that all variety of campaigners and charities draw on the language, tactics, and symbolism of anti-slavery efforts to legitimize that of anti-speciesism. Not all of these appropriations are particularly accurate.
Slavery films in a “post-racial” America, Colorlines, notes, are a culturally potent means of negotiating with current social justice politics:
In each instance, Hollywood alters the past to fit the present, feeding our myths and expectations back to us. Slavery becomes both tool and metaphor, revised and rewritten to fit contemporary perceptions of our national past. If “Birth of a Nation” tells us more about 1915 than Reconstruction, “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” are mirrors for our times, rather than reflections of the slave experience.
For the white-dominated Western Nonhuman Animal rights movement, anti-slavery is too easily appropriated to legitimize structural and tactical decisions. These decisions, I argue, often have more to do with nonprofit politics than actual liberatory efficacy.
For instance, having watched Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln, a film that has been criticized for distorting and whitewashing history, Vegan Outreach co-founder Matt Ball points to the efforts of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens as evidence of the importance in promoting the reform of speciesism over its outright abolition:
Instead of being “true to himself” – justified and righteous, and on the losing side – he chose possible progress over personal purity, incremental advance over impotent anger.
By “impotent anger,” Ball is referring to the “demand full abolition of any and all discrimination.” Vegan abolitionists, he suggests, wrongly “insist on nothing less than full and total rights immediately.”
There are two problems with this appropriative Hollywood analogy. First, the two movements are, in many ways, not contextually comparable. Second, the claim that vegan abolitionism expects “total rights immediately” is a strawperson argument.
Comparing Anti-Slavery and Anti-Speciesism
While there are certainly some tactical similarities between the two movements, it is a stretch to liken Thaddeus Stevens’ position to that of Vegan Outreach. Thaddeus Stevens did not argue for the reform of slavery, but Vegan Outreach has historically favored the reform of speciesism. Stevens did not suggest a reduced dependence on slavery, as Vegan Outreach suggests reduced flesh consumption.
Human and nonhuman abolitionist movements, despite their similarities, remain two distinct movements, each with unique social, political, economic, and historical circumstances.
First, Britain had already abolished slavery, meaning that abolition in the United States was understood as much more achievable. Second, the rise of wage-based labor in the capitalist system was demonstrating that the wage-based system was a more efficient and economical means of exploiting laborers and extracting profit. This economic shift was partially responsible for the elimination of slavery in the North prior to the Civil War. Finally, support for the abolition of slavery had grown considerably in the United States. All of these conditions meant that calls for immediate abolition made sense. The human abolitionist movement enjoyed political opportunities that the nonhuman abolitionist movement currently lacks.
Thanks in no small part to large organizations such as Vegan Outreach that collaborate with exploitative industries in pursuit of reforms, the anti-speciesist movement is not on the verge of abolishing nonhuman slavery and there is no large-scale public support to make demands for “immediate” abolition probable. Vegan Outreach repeatedly misrepresents nonhuman abolitionism by describing it as a futile expectation that speciesism could be ended “overnight.” No anti-speciesist campaigner that I am aware of believes in that possibility.
Rather, abolitionist anti-speciesists recognize that a vegan-positive culture must be nurtured and that the capitalist system with its exploitative tendencies must be challenged. These are long-term goals. Professionalized charities such as Vegan Outreach, however, impede this process by regularly disparaging veganism and collaborating with capitalist industries to improve their public image and the efficiency of their production. It is not the “fury” or “righteous anger” of anti-speciesists that is impeding abolition. Nay, it is the nonprofit industrial complex and its deradicalizing affect on the Nonhuman Animal rights movement.
A version of this essay was originally published on December 11, 2013.
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.
Readers can learn more about the racial politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.
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