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3 June 2001 Issue
Common Misconceptions About Animal Rights Activists

Copyright 1999 by Michael Cerkowski

INTRODUCTION:

Just as some ethical vegetarians have misconceptions about people who farm, hunt, slaughter and use animals in research, some of the opponents (often known as "Antis") of the animal rights movement also have mistaken ideas about AR activists (ARAs) and their goals and organizations. This document is intended to address those misapprehensions as fairly as possible.

THE "CULT" OF ANIMAL RIGHTS:

Many Antis view ARAs as near-mindless followers of a few charismatic leaders and/or texts. They believe that AR dogma is delivered to activists who then accept and follow it blindly. While there may be a grain of truth behind this idea, it is on the whole mistaken for two reasons. First, the AR movement has *no* leaders who command the obedience, or even the complete agreement, of most ARAs. Even small AR groups are rife with conflicting opinions and dissent; ask a group of twenty ARAs a question about a basic tenet of their beliefs and you will get at least five (and sometimes twenty) different answers.

The same kinds of factionalism and disagreement on theory and policy that plague grassroots movements in general can be found throughout the animal rights community. Every movement has people who lead, people who follow, and people who prefer to think and act as individuals. ARAs are no
exception.

ANIMAL RIGHTS AS IRRATIONAL RELIGION:

It is tempting to believe that people who think differently are irrational; that they blindly follow dogma without a moment's thought to the logical issues raised by their beliefs and actions. The philosophy of animal rights is based on rational consideration of the world as humans perceive it, just like many other schools of thought. While there are some ARAs who prefer to think in slogans and who never doubt themselves, many of us spend vast amounts of time considering and reconsidering our positions and the
reasons that underlie them. While some sleep the Sleep Of The Just, many others lie awake, thinking and worrying. From Peter Singer and Tom Regan to anonymous student activists, the animal rights movement is as much a rational undertaking as most other human endeavors. Our conclusions may be different from the mainstream, but our basic perceptions and analytical processes are essentially the same.

THE ARA AS LUDDITE:

The opposition of ARAs to the use of animals in medical and other research is often taken by Antis to be symptomatic of a general "science phobia." This, along with the frequently expressed desire for a simpler, more natural lifestyle, leads many Antis to believe that the animal rights movement rejects science and technology, and if allowed to implement its goals, will plunge the world back into disease-ridden squalor. This is not the case. While some ARAs may be Luddites to some degree, most aren't.
It must also be noted that many true Luddites fully support the exploitation of animals, albeit in a more traditional manner. There is no direct link between the two philosophies, any more than there is a direct link between political Conservatism and anti-government militias.

THE ARA AS CLUELESS URBANITE:

Another common myth about animal rights activists (that conflicts somewhat with the previously mentioned one) is that we are all city dwellers, with no real experience of the natural world, and possessing opinions that are shaped more by the movie "Bambi" than by reality. Every person, and every movement, has a unique mythology. For every ARA who believes that hunters are all cruel, mindless brutes, there is probably a hunter who thinks that (s)he is a carnivore, complete with fangs for killing. Both groups need to examine our mythologies.

Many ARAs live in rural areas, and many have direct experience with wildlife and with nature. Some of us have formal training in fields like biology and wildlife rehabilitation, and some of us are even former hunters. The 'city dweller' tag is a double-edged weapon, as many hunters also live in urban and suburban areas. If a hunter who drives to a wild area to hunt can be considered a repository of knowledge about nature, then an ARA who drives to wild areas to hike and camp deserves the same consideration.

ANIMAL RIGHTS ADVOCACY AS A LUCRATIVE BUSINESS:

Most of the larger AR organizations use direct mailings, both to raise funds and to get their message out to the largest possible number of people. Antis often look at the gross income generated by these mailings and proclaim that organizations like PETA and HSUS are 'in it for the money.' This view ignores the fact that most of the gross income from bulk mailings goes to pay for *more* bulk mailings, and that the actual funds raised are fairly modest. A few million dollars may seem like a lot, but it is a pittance when compared with the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars available to groups that are funded by industries that use animals or manufacture the tools and weapons used in animal research and hunting. Salaries in AR organizations are typically quite modest, and most activists are either
completely unpaid, or make poverty-level wages. This is definitely not a wealthy movement.

A related criticism is that groups that advocate animal rights spend only a small portion of their available funds to help animals in shelters or on the streets. This tactic is effective -- until one realizes that if money is spent on 'band-aid' approaches that don't attempt to change the status quo, then the status quo will continue, and more animals will suffer in the long run. Animal welfare groups do a good job of trying to help animals that are currently suffering. The mission of animal rights groups is to change society's attitudes about using animals, in the hope that future suffering will be greatly reduced. The two approaches are complementary, and AW and AR groups and activists each benefit from the presence of the other, despite our disagreements.

THE ARA AS TERRORIST:

Everyone involved in the debate about animal rights is aware of the existence of the Animal Liberation Front, and of similar organizations that use destruction of property, and sometimes threats of violence against people who exploit animals, to achieve their ends. The media has also widely publicized the tactic, sometimes used by anti-fur activists, of splashing red paint on fur coats while people are wearing them. This has led to a general perception of the animal rights activist as someone who practices, or at
least supports, violence. In fact, the typical ARA does nothing more menacing than write letters, debate online, or stand in a picket line holding a placard. Many animal rights activists are also *human* rights activists who abhor violence against any conscious being. The typical ARA is more likely to financially support human charities than the ALF. Even the Animal Liberation Front, while using extreme and controversial tactics, has expressed a commitment to avoid direct harm to human beings. ARAs as
a group do not hate children, or people in general, and do not wish to grant animals more (or even comparable) rights than humans. We simply believe that animals have the right to be considered as more than a means to human ends.

ARAs AS ELITISTS:

Animal rights activists are sometimes portrayed as well-off Weekend Warriors, with no concern for humanity's economic well-being, and no willingness to endure bodily discomfort or financial hardship for their cause. There are also regular accusations of intellectual elitism and disconnection from everyday concerns. Actually, the typical ARA works full time at a low or mid-level job, is involved with hands-on animal rescue work or care, and, as previously mentioned, is deeply concerned with matters of human rights and economic justice in addition to the issue of animal rights. ARAs are much more likely to be found in college towns and low-rent districts than in Hollywood or in expensive suburbs. AR activism as a career does not pay well for the vast majority of those who work at it professionally, and people who are activists in addition to holding "real" jobs are the rule, not the exception.

CONCLUSION:

One of the basic tenets of conflict is "Know thy opponent." While it may be in the short-term interests of "Antis" to misrepresent animal rights activists, in the long term they would do well to learn more about how we really are, as opposed to how we are sometimes portrayed. Both sides in this debate need to engage in more genuine dialog, and less demonization.

*** Reproduce freely, but do not modify

 

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