Animal Writes
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From 27 March 2005 Issue

“Get Political for Animals” - What Does That Mean?
By David Cantor - [email protected]

“Get political for animals” has become a common rallying cry. But all activity aimed at changing the human/nonhuman-animal relationship is political by definition. “Get political” fails to clarify what kinds of political activity activists should pursue if they seek to establish nonhuman animals’ basic rights in law and custom to ensure the wellbeing of the greatest number of animals over the most possible time and space. “Political” as used to rally activists usually refers only to official legislative and electoral politics, sometimes administrative – a deficient meaning of “political” popularized by the mass media.

“Political” activity under that definition usually does not advance animal rights but animal “welfare” through regulation of animal-exploiting activities. Regulating animal exploitation promotes exploitation and bolsters its age-old appearance of legitimacy. That makes establishing the basic right not to be exploited or harmed for human purposes much more difficult. Animal-exploiting industries and institutions that support them typically say they advocate or teach “animal welfare” and that “animals have no rights.” So it is crucial that people seeking to establish animals’ rights “get political” by working for incremental changes that eventually will establish rights and avoid wasting good intentions and available advocacy time on activities that cannot establish rights and therefore benefit animal-exploiting and abusing industries, not the animals.

The word “political” comes from the Greek politikos – of a citizen. When we exercise our citizenship rather than merely act on a personal level as “consumers,” audiences, or powerless subjects, we are acting politically. When we tell others why it is important to purchase only cruelty-free items or minimize resource use to help protect the animals’ ecosystems, we are getting political. When we inform officials and civic leaders of the need to establish the basic rights of nonhuman animals, we are getting political – regardless of any related legislation.

To succeed, activists aiming to establish nonhuman animals’ basic rights and end animal exploitation must (1) distinguish between political activities that can and cannot eventually lead to abolition of animal exploitation and abuse; (2) direct our political activities toward the eventual abolition of animal exploitation and abuse, not toward regulations that promote exploitation by falsely certifying them as “humane” or “healthy” or “non-polluting;” and (3) be informed, creative, aggressive, respectful educators.

I’ll briefly outline those three aspects of animal rights political activity – giving just a few of many possible examples – and then recommend a few of the many books that elaborate skillfully on these matters. I hope this will assist activists who wish to establish the rights of nonhuman animals.

Having advocated on behalf of animals full-time for more than 15 years, having learned about and worked to some extent to end just about every kind of animal abuse and exploitation, and having put countless hours into most available strategies and tactics, I find these distinctions more important now than ever before. I have put in far fewer years than some other dedicated people, but enough to gain a reliable perspective, particularly being willing to explore the relevant facts about my own acts and omissions. I can now see that some efforts in which I have been involved in the past, though undertaken out of concern for animals’ wellbeing, had no potential to advance animal rights, even though I think of my goal as being to establish those rights. Some of those activities might even have increased the obstacles to animal rights.

After much thought, research, and consulting, I designed Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc. (RPA), and its campaigns to advance rights and to avoid languishing and forcing the animal to languish longer than necessary in measures merely aimed at “helping” animals or “showing that we care” about animals. That is not to say RPA holds the answers and no one else is advancing animal rights. But recognizing and acting on important distinctions is crucial to animal rights as to any social movement. Most human beings care about nonhuman animals; helping them has been part of human society from time immemorial; and they have no rights. That tells us a lot.

Distinguish abolitionist political activities from merely regulatory political activities. Here are a few actual and hypothetical examples that illustrate this point. The reasoning summarized in the first example is similar for those that follow. Opportunities to take political action for animal rights are infinite. The basic principal is that prohibitions can lead to abolition and regulations cannot. Reasons for this are many, and some exceptions may be discovered, but remember: officials never risk their careers for nonhuman animals’ wellbeing; they swear to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and of individual states in which they serve, and those documents do not mention nonhuman animals or their ecosystems; and what I call the industry-government-media complex ensures that nonhuman animals exploited or abused for human purposes can never have protections that can only come with basic rights.

Cannot advance rights: promoting legislation to cover chickens, turkeys, and other “poultry” under the Humane Slaughter Act or a similar law. Millions of the mammals already covered by the Act have been dismembered and skinned while fully conscious. The Act promotes meat eating by promoting the false beliefs that such a thing as humane slaughter can occur and that the government is ensuring that animals killed to be eaten by humans do not suffer. Even strict enforcement – impossible, since industry wields the bulk of control – would establish no rights: The non-basic “right” to be rendered unconscious before one’s throat is slashed is meaningless without the basic right not to be bred and raised to be eaten by humans in the first place.

Can advance rights: working to end publicly funded support of the flesh, milk, and egg industries. Those industries would not, or would barely, survive without subsidies – school lunches and breakfasts loaded with animal products, school and other “educational” programs training and indoctrinating for the industries, and more. Ideologies and food choices are in significant part economically determined, so skyrocketing “hamburger” prices and plummeting “dairy” profits will bring significant advances. Incremental change will occur as one by one the thousands of institutions benefiting the industries with public funds stop doing so. Educating about animal rights (not merely about animal suffering) also brings incremental change in the process of achieving the objectives as informed citizens, officials, and others are crucial to establishing rights or allowing them to be established.

Cannot advance rights: regulations requiring “adequate food, water, and shelter” for “gamecocks” in the few states that still allow cockfighting, with special officers appointed to enforce them.

Can advance rights: banning cockfighting in the few states that still allow it, banning all breeding, transport, and sale of “gamecocks,” and making violations of these laws felonies allowing for severe penalties so prosecutors will take a serious interest in prosecuting these crimes.

Cannot advance rights: raising a state’s minimum hunting age.

Can advance rights: informing officials, conservationists, and others about the need for ecosystem-based land-use policies and an end to hunting and trapping as “wildlife management.”

Direct political activities toward abolition. As animal rights activists, whether we initiate campaigns ourselves, organize our own educational activities, or agree to take part in campaigns or educational activities initiated by others, we can usually assess fairly easily whether we are advancing animal rights or promoting regulation and further legitimizing animal exploitation and abuse. We needn’t feel compelled to heed the urgent demands of every action alert we receive or to leap into action every time we learn of yet more horrible abuses of nonhuman animals. (Of course, that in no way condones turning our backs on animals whose plight we can alleviate personally.)

If achieving a political activity’s stated objective would not prohibit any animal exploitation or abuse, it is probably not an animal rights political activity. If a proposed change has the support of the abusing industry, challenge any claim that it is an animal rights demand – industries or businesses do not lobby to shut themselves down.

Sometimes companies give the appearance of fighting proposed changes that would not even hurt their bottom lines and definitely do not advance animal rights – so shareholders and other constituents or allies won’t think they “caved in to animal rights activists” and so the public will believe the new practices, once implemented, really make a difference for the animals they freely continue to abuse because the change is not a meaningful one. That impression is bolstered by activists’ exuberant “victory” announcements that function as free advertising for abusing businesses. Such efforts are not abolitionist; they do not advance animal rights.

To realize how long it will take to achieve the very big victories that will truly indicate humanity acknowledges and is establishing the animals’ rights, it helps to understand how enormously powerful are large industries and companies under the capitalist system, industry’s grip on government authority, industry’s and government’s grip on the mass media from which most people get most of what they suppose is information, the power and insidiousness of entrenched speciesist ideology and arrogant forms of humanist ideology, and most human beings’ drives to get through another day alive, maintain possession of what they have, obtain more of something whether it is of real or illusory value, avoid ridicule or rejection, and maintain a sense of belonging.

Comprehending those facts does not excuse animal abuse or exploitation and can help us appreciate the nature of the struggle for animal rights, its likely duration, and why it is crucial to adhere to an undisguised, uncompromising animal rights agenda, whatever the short-term odds. For those same facts indicate that – with 6.4 billion people on Earth and counting – if we do not secure rights for nonhuman animals, absolute boundaries beyond which human beings may not tread with respect to the animals regardless of how much anyone does or doesn’t “care” about them, virtually all animals’ chances for decent lives eventually will be nil.

Be informed, creative, aggressive, respectful educators. “To educate,” from the Latin ex ducere, means to lead forth. Education is distinct from training, indoctrination, and other activities often confused with education. Years of animal advocacy and day-to-day experience tell me very few people yet know what animal rights means. True, human rights are widely established even though they’re poorly understood too. But even many officials, reporters, and other people involved in public affairs know none of the most basic facts of animal rights, typically confusing rights with animal “welfare” activities or any protest at all against animal abuse.

One group of people Responsible Policies for Animals chooses to educate are land-grant university (LGU) presidents and others associated with LGUs – RPA’s 10,000 Years Is Enough campaign aims to end our LGUs’ support of the flesh, milk and egg industries. Another group is officials of the National Association of Realtors and other representatives of industries responsible for wildlife destruction from suburban sprawl – RPA’s This Land Is Their Land campaign aims to reduce the impact of poor land use and automobile dependency on wildlife since they kill and harm far more animals than hunting and trapping do.

Recently, I met with and gave educational presentations to my state representative, a conservation class at the University of Delaware, and the Greater Glenside Chamber of Commerce, RPA’s local chamber, with a high-school business class attending the Chamber’s monthly meeting and a local television station taping the proceedings. To the representative and the groups, I gave and explained, among other things, the 1990 Declaration of the Rights of Animals – a political document if ever there was one! – endorsed by 42 organizations on the occasion of the June 10, 1990, March for the Animals in Washington, D.C. – definitely a political event!

It was absolutely clear that those I spoke to lacked any understanding of animal rights. One obvious clue: questions such as, “Would you accept changes in the LGUs so that they only taught sustainable animal agriculture?” Answering “yes” would mean I am not advocating for animal rights or am confused about what animal rights is. We must answer “no” and explain that such changes would not give the animals any rights and would perpetuate their exploitation and abuse.

RPA specifically works to educate those we call influential people, thinking them more likely than others to spread the word even if they initially oppose animal rights and that the better they understand animal rights and experience respect from animal rights activists, the more likely they and others in their milieus will allow animal rights to become established. Some people’s not rigidly opposing animal rights will help more than some other people’s actively advocating for animal rights. But educational opportunities abound. Everyone we know is associated with groups of people who lack understanding of animal rights, who think animal rights is all about taking away favorite foods, undermining biomedical research, and the like. Our government officials must become educated about animal rights regardless of their interest or lack of interest. Educating is getting political for the animals and bringing incremental change.

Divisive? Unfortunately, some animal advocates describe as “divisive” the discussion of which this article is a part. The incorrect assumption seems to be that activists who believe in and want to be sure to advance animal rights and avoid putting their energy into activities that don’t do that are threatening the supposed unity of a vaguely defined “animal movement” or “animal protection movement.” The animal rights movement arose because the animal welfare movement cannot provide true welfare – wellbeing. The animals’ wellbeing has continued to diminish while many people who believe in animal rights as an ideal nevertheless pursue activities that cannot possibly lead to the establishment of animal rights in law and custom akin to human rights. It makes no sense to speak of unity or division between movements that do not share the same goal.

Little can be more divisive than separating our actions from our beliefs and goals or words from their true meanings. If an organization urges us to “get political for the animals” and does not make a convincing case that the proposed activity will advance rights and not just more regulation, we must assume it is not an animal rights activity and act accordingly. Though I think it is a mistake to form a narrowly consistent “unified front,” we can keep the animal rights movement unified in pursuing with expertise and conviction countless political activities that can advance animal rights. It is truly divisive to tell people animal rights is “utopian” or “impractical” or that there is no “realistic” way to pursue the goal other than more animal “welfare.”

Unite knowledge, theory, and action. These are a few of many fine books that explain animal rights, rights generally, speciesism, dynamics of oppression, key differences between animal rights and animal “welfare,” how to identify true animal rights activities, workings of the industry-government-media complex, and related matters:

* Carol J. Adams – The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory
* Sharon Beder – Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism
* Alan Dershowitz – Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights
* Joan Dunayer – Speciesism
* Lawrence Finsen and Susan Finsen – The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect
* Gary L. Francione – Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement.
* William Greider – The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
* Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
* Joel Kovel – The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?
* Marion Nestle – Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
* David Nibert – Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation
* Michael Parenti – Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment
* Michael Parenti – Democracy for the Few
* Tom Regan – The Case for Animal Rights
* Henry S. Salt – Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress
* Paul H. Weaver – News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works

** David Cantor is executive director of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc. --

Go on to An El Paso MeatOut with Dreams of Austin by Greg Lawson
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