Activism Is Our Ethics and Our Medium Is Our Message
By Michael Markarian and Norm Phelps
One of our guiding tenets in the animal rights movement
is that the ends do not justify the means. We argue, for example, that
research on animals would be ethically unacceptable even if it produced
long-term health benefits for people. We need to take a long, hard look
at our own tactics, and apply this same principle. Arson, bombings,
property destruction, and intimidation—whether or not you call
them ‘violence’—are intrinsically wrong whether or
not they result in benefits to animals, because they violate the core
ethics of a movement based on kindness and compassion.
Advocates of property destruction often hang their hats on the claim
that no person has ever been harmed in an arson or bombing on behalf
of animals or the environment. But the results of explosion and fire
can never be predicted with certainty. So far we have all been lucky.
But how much longer will the perpetrators of these attacks continue
to play Russian roulette with lives, before a person or animal is killed?
Besides being ethically inconsistent, these actions are also strategically
flawed. Freeing animals through open rescues and other liberations,
however, not only saves lives, but also effectively educates the media
and public about the cruel conditions from which the animals were saved—winning
sympathy for them as victims who got a second chance. Property destruction
and intimidation, however, turns the targets into victims whom the public
will support and defend. Do we want people sympathizing with tortured
animals, or with harassed vivisectors?
Proponents of these actions also claim that other methods of reform
take too long. Smashing a computer or making a threatening phone call
may be psychologically soothing for activists who want to feel that
they are “doing something,” but if it costs us public support,
it harms animals. And the first time a firefighter is killed fighting
a blaze started by activists, the public support that we have worked
for a generation to build will be lost altogether. We have to be honest
with ourselves in asking the question: Which is more important, instant
gratification or long-term change?
In a post-September 11th world, firefighters are the greatest heroes
and terrorists the greatest enemies. However we may define our terms,
the majority of Americans view property destruction, arson, threatening
phone calls and letters, and harassing people and their families at
home as acts of violence. Reading about things like this being done
in the name of animal rights makes average Americans far more likely
to believe the propaganda that lumps us with real terrorists.
It is not as if these actions deal a crippling blow to animal abuse.
Property destruction does not even make a dent in the level of exploitation.
The exploiters are mostly multinational companies who write the damage
off on their taxes and keep on exploiting without missing a beat. The
same is true for any increased cost of security and insurance.
What these tactics do accomplish is the alienation of the winnable public—your
everyday meat-eaters and cosmetics users; they are not vivisectors,
they are not slaughterhouse operators, and they have basic feelings
of compassion. But they are accustomed to eating, wearing, and using
animal products, and they need to be convinced to give them up. They
can be won over—slowly but surely they are being won over—and
alienating them would be a disaster for animals because they are the
ones who will ultimately decide the animals’ fate. We need to
bring people into our movement, not drive them away. All of our actions
should be conducted with this in the forefront of our minds.
True change takes time—and hard work. The Fund for Animals and
many other organizations, supported by thousands of activists, in 1999
put a halt to the Hegins, PA, pigeon shoot. It took more than ten years
of protests, civil disobedience, litigation, lobbying, advertising,
and so on. No one tactic by itself worked. But because everyone was
willing to settle in for the long haul and do the hard, tedious work,
the campaign succeeded. No more pigeons die at Hegins.
On the other hand, in 2002 activists launched a ballot initiative in
Arkansas to make extreme animal cruelty a felony—a very public-friendly
issue. After starting with more than 80 percent voter support, the initiative
went down in flames at the polls because the medical research industry
linked it in the minds of voters to “animal rights violence.”
The animals have plenty of obstacles against them already, we don’t
need to provide our opponents with more ammunition.
There is no question that change in Washington and state capitals around
the country is too slow. Animals are suffering and dying every day.
But the only way to change laws is for more people to become engaged
in the political process. We need to start with public education and
sympathy and then translate those into laws that make lasting change
for animals. Because activists passed a law, no pregnant sow in Florida
will be forced to live in a gestation crate in which they don’t
have room to turn around. Seal fur coats are common in Europe and Asia,
but because activists passed a law, they are forbidden in the U.S.
Too many of us have been ambivalent on the issue of violence for too
long, trying to have it both ways by saying that we “neither condone
nor condemn” the tactics of other activists, no matter how far
they cross the line. We need to demonstrate the courage of our convictions
by speaking out against unethical and counterproductive tactics, leaving
no doubt that we are a movement of nonviolence and compassion. Walt
Kelly, creator of the comic strip “Pogo” once said, “We
have met the enemy, and he is us.” If backlash against the misguided
actions of a small minority cripples the animal rights movement, the
animals will find no comfort in being the victims of “friendly
Michael Markarian (email@example.com) is president
of The Fund for Animals, a national animal rights group founded by Cleveland
Amory. Norm Phelps (firstname.lastname@example.org) is spiritual
outreach coordinator at The Fund and author of The Dominion of
Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (Lantern Books, 2002).
His new book on Buddhism and animal rights is due out from Lantern Books
in June. Visit www.fund.org
to learn what you can do to help animals.