This is the first of a two-part response to the essay, Vegan Feud, by James McWilliams. The second part will consist of a re-posting of a comment made by me on the Columbia University Press Blog.

These essays are informed by the work of Professor Gary L. Francione. I encourage readers to visit his website, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach. If you are interested in understanding the fundamentals of the Abolitionist Approach please watch these short videos, in particular the one that most pertains to this discussion, Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare.

In an article entitled Vegan Feudpublished on 7 September, 2012 in Slate, Professor James McWilliams discusses the criticism that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) faces from the “abolitionist wing of the animal rights movement, which views HSUS welfare reforms as craven capitulation to industrial agriculture.” The article is subtitled ‘Animal rights activists would accomplish a lot more if they stopped attacking the Humane Society’. In what amounts to an attack on abolitionism, he resurrects the well-worn accusation of “divisiveness” by accusing the abolitionist movement of creating a “rift” that “threatens to weaken the cause from within”. In this essay McWilliams completely misses the fundamental point that there is no one “cause” or “movement” comprising abolitionists and welfarists. These two are totally separate movements, having quite different philosophical and strategic positions. 

It’s not possible to create a “rift” unless you have something that’s unified to begin with. This is not the case and has never been the case in the arena of animal advocacy. Abolitionism and welfarism are totally incompatible approaches. Trying to combine them would be like trying to mix water and oil. It’s simply not possible. So by calling for advocates of “competing approaches” to “compromise” and to “meld” as he does here, what McWilliams is really calling for is for abolitionists to jump on the welfarist bandwagon and throw their support behind HSUS. He’s calling for no less than that abolitionists abandon abolitionism! And that means abandoning our commitment to veganism as the moral baseline and creative vegan advocacy as our strategy. It means embracing incremental regulationist welfare reforms and promoting consumption of so-called “humane” or “happy” flesh and secretions of tortured and murdered animals. 

One might think calling for something as improbable as committed abolitionists abandoning abolitionism and embracing welfarism, as well the obvious hope of discouraging potential adherents, would be backed up by a substantive and persuasive argument. At the least, we would expect McWilliams to be able to demonstrate that he’s informed regarding abolitionism, that he understands it and that he is able to skilfully critique it. But nothing of the kind is delivered. In fact, his essay is so surprisingly shallow, flabby and confused, that I was left wondering why he bothered to write it at all and what he thought could possibly be achieved by it. It certainly has not done anything to establish him as a serious thinker in the area of animal ethics.

McWilliams claims that “There is little doubt that HSUS is doing something right”, citing as an example of their “accomplishments” their recent success in persuading a company to eliminate the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs. He acknowledges that: 

HSUS works closely with Big Agriculture, never calls for animal liberation, and never explicitly endorses the habit that most efficiently prevents animals from being killed: veganism.

Yet he clearly thinks this should be no bar to supporting the organisation. While acknowledging the “eloquence” and “hard hitting” logic of abolitionist animal rights theorist, Professor Gary Francione, he fails to demonstrate any grasp of that logic by omitting to address Francione’s extensive criticism of the failure of welfarism, including the argument that, far from “doing something right”, welfare reforms as pursued by HSUS are the biggest obstacle we face in ending animal exploitation. 

With no rebuttal offered by McWilliams of the abolitionist approach we are left completely in the dark as to why Francione’s critique of welfarism as merely modified torture, morally indefensible and ineffectual is, in his opinion, such an “extreme message”. It seems that we are expected to accept that it’s extreme just because McWilliams says it is. It’s as if he believes that blandishing an emotive label like “extreme” is sufficient to silence all opposition. He attempts to bolster his attack on abolitionism by calling upon vegan social psychologist, Melanie Joy, in what is an egregious misrepresentation of the abolitionist approach. He cites Joy as believing that: 

The abolitionist approach could attract a lot more supporters if it acknowledged, as HSUS does, that most people are going to embrace veganism on their own—you can’t strong-arm them into it. 

and that  going vegan represents:

a profound shift in consciousness that people make only when they’re personally ready to do so.

implying that abolitionists employ force or coercion in getting people to go vegan against their will. This is an unconscionable slur on abolitionists, which is not substantiated by any evidence that abolitionists behave in this way. Just how do they suppose it would even be possible to attempt to do such a thing as “strong-arm” people into veganism? By verbally haranguing them until they capitulate to our demands? Hardly likely to be a successful form of advocacy. By tying them to a chair, emptying their refrigerators of all animal products and force-feeding them kale? The whole idea that we would try to “strong-arm” people into veganism is so utterly absurd as to be preposterous. Does McWilliams really imagine that this kind of desperate caricature of abolitionism is going to persuade abolitionists, or any discerning person, to give abolitionism a wide berth in favour of supporting HSUS? If so, it only underscores his own lack of understanding of the abolitionist argument and the moral force it carries.

McWilliams also cites author on social change, Nick Cooneywho “notes that 80 percent of vegans became vegan gradually”, to promote the spurious notion that support of incremental welfare reforms and consumption of “happy” animal products puts people on the “path towards veganism”. Again, no evidence is provided to support this idea, and no attempt is made to address Francione’s persuasive argument that the promotion of “happy” meat and other animal products by welfarist groups is having the reverse effect of what Cooney claims. That is, that endorsement of these products has the effect of reassuring people that by consuming them they are fulfilling their moral obligations to animals and consequently there is no necessity to go vegan, leading to an increase in consumption of animal products. It seems utterly logical that if people think they can discharge their moral obligations by doing less instead of more, they will do less, especially considering the resistance most people have to changing lifelong habits. 

If it’s true that 80 percent of vegans become vegan gradually, that’s no great surprise considering that none of the mainstream animal organisations promote veganism as the moral baseline. If they mention it at all it’s in the context of being merely one way of reducing suffering, along with “happy” animal products and/or making donations to single issue campaigns. In addition, they set up psychological barriers by characterising veganism as “difficult”, “daunting”, “purist” and “extreme”. Is it any wonder that the route to becoming vegan is a “gradual”, i.e. long and circuitous one for most people? The wonder is that anyone becomes vegan at all. To suggest that the current status quo, as perpetuated by these groups, is an argument for maintaining that status quo is a circular argument guaranteed only to reinforce the status quo of the property status of animals and their use. This is a tragic betrayal of the animals by the very people who present themselves as their advocates. 

McWilliams’s expectation that the HSUS contribution to the “meld” would be that it could “bolster its small victories with more aggressive campaigns involving the v-word” is pure fantasy considering that corporatised animal charities cannot afford to alienate their funding base, the vast majority of whom are not vegan. Only a grassroots effort such as the one abolitionists are engaged in has any hope of effectively promoting veganism as the moral baseline, thereby succeeding in ending animal exploitation.

Finally, McWilliams says that abolitionists should be aware that “we all come to Jesus in our own little ways”. One thing is certain: If we follow McWilliams’s advice and throw our lot in with HSUS and welfarism in general most people will never make it to “Jesus” and there will be no paradigm shift away from animal use in the foreseeable future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s