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War on Vegan Activism

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War on Vegan Activism

By Jamie Cohen, Baltimore animal activist
August 2012

Panel presentation on "War on Animal Activism" at the AR2012 conference

Let’s start off with a game. I’ll read some statements and you tell me if they were said by an animal activist or someone from the industry.

Farmers don’t intentionally want to cause harm to animals.

Working cooperatively with producers for the federal egg bill could alleviate some the misery animals endure and promote their dignity.

We take one of our pigs and every big holiday it's on a roaster and we're having a whole hog barbecue.

The first two statements sound like they were said by a farmer but they were actually said by two animal activists. The third statement is confusing because both answers would be correct. The person who said it is a hog farmer who kills over 50,000 hogs a year but gets a paycheck from an animal group. It's a perfect example of how the line has blurred between the animal groups and the animal industry.

Let’s back track a bit. When I started in the Animal Rights movement in the early 90’s, humane meat didn’t exist. The moral question was simply 'Is it right to eat animals and their products?’ and our mission was to convince others that it wasn’t.

I became involved with an animal rights group in 1994 and in 2011, I started noticing changes that in my gut were wrong. Money seemed to be more important than making vegans. I questioned it and was told nothing had changed but I knew it had. I made the painful decision to stop my support of this group and breaking away was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This group became a corporation and started acting like one. A friend sent me a link to an article called "Invasion of the Movement Snatchers" written by James LaVeck of Tribe of Heart, who produced the incredible films "The Witness" and "Peaceable Kingdom, The Journey Home" and that article changed my life.

Remember the movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers?  Aliens, to take over the world, were replacing people with pods that they had grown to look like the person but they didn’t act exactly like the person. The people in their lives were noticing that something was different, that something didn’t feel right and when they would point it out, the pod-person would say that they were wrong, that everything was the same. This is what I felt happened with the group I was involved with and what has happened to the animal movement. The leaders look the same but are not sounding the same. Something is just off.

The article, "Invasion of the Movement Snatchers" talks of the industry’s strategy to divide our movement and predicted everything that is happening now. The article tells of a speech made by a PR person to the Cattlemen’s Association in 1991, that outlines how they could derail the animal movement and the economic threat they posed. They recommended a three-step plan:

First, they must identify the radicals and just ignore them. They believe animals have rights and that exploiting them is wrong and you can’t manipulate them.
                       
Second, you take people who want to do the right thing for the animals—the idealists and make them realists- people who give up their dreams and settle for what is possible. You do this by:

Third, identifying the opportunists—the people who are leaders in the movement who like to be seen and have power. They like having followers and being in the spotlight. You reach out to the opportunists and get them to agree that it is in both of their interests to work together. The PR firm said the key to dealing with the opportunists is to give them the perception of a partial victory so they can feel like heroes to their followers for solving the problem.

The animal industry, like most businesses, looks at the changes in society and adapts to make money. We saw this happen with the environmental movement. Major companies developed products to meet the public’s new need to save the planet and now all you hear is green this and that. Buying these products makes people feel they are helping the environment.

They same thing is happening with the animal issue. People were becoming concerned for how animals were being treated and the animal producers solved that problem by created the so-called humane products. Words like ‘humane’, cage free, crate free, organic, free range—are all ways to make people feel good about eating meat. The humane products are a perfect antidote for the guilt people feel about eating animal products but humane labels make a mockery of an authentic movement of conscience.

The animal producers reached out to the animal industry leaders to collaborate on solving this problem together and turned the focus to how animals are treated and not on the ethical question of is it right to eat them. To me, this is like sitting down to Hitler trying to improve conditions for the concentration camp victims. It just isn’t done. It is like making a deal with the devil.

As the animal groups and animal industry have comingled, their language, values and goals has become virtually the same as we saw in my game at the beginning of my talk and the result is more money for both groups. There is no worry of offending people if you tell them what they want to hear and make it okay to eat meat, milk and eggs. The animal groups might still talk about wanting to convince people to not eat animal products, but it’s kind of like: It’s better to go vegan, unless you don’t want to. And if you don’t want to, eat the humane products. Everyone is happy.

But hear this: there is no such thing as humane meat. No such thing as humanely raised or killed animals. It's a myth perpetuated by the animal industries and some animal organizations that have embraced this for their own agendas which is hidden from their supporters. But the leaders don’t want you to look too hard.  They want you to just follow them and believe what they say.

I have seen things that I never thought would happen in our movement.

Animal leaders are now on the Boards of organizations that promote the raising and killing of animals for food.

Leaders in our movement are telling people to eat ‘humane’ meat if they don’t want to go vegan.

Non-vegan celebrities are being heralded as champions for our cause, like chef Wolfgang Puck.

Non-vegan companies are sponsoring animal groups events.

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, was a keynote speaker at an animal conference last October.  This is a man who sells a ton of meat at his stores, sponsors an annual butcher contest as well as a meat promoting event called Meatopia.  Is a person who is responsible for killing millions of animals a year really a person who should be made into a hero at an animal conference?

Animal farmers are being hired by animal organizations. A hog farmer, Joe Maxwell is now works for a major animal group. He gave a speech to other hog farmers that you can pull up on YouTube, He said he was excited to work there and that the group has helped his family continue to raise (kill) hogs.”  Is this where we want the animal movement heading?

The vegan activists today have a lot of opposition to overcome when talking to people about not eating animals products---the tradition of eating meat, that people like the taste of it, deal with the pressures of their family and not always fitting into society but now they must also debunk the myth of humane animal products. If abolition is the ultimate goal, and veganism is the single most effective thing we can do, why are animal organizations making the job of vegan activists so much harder?

There’s a lot of debate in our movement right now over the current proposed egg bill. If you haven’t read the egg bill, just google HR3798 so you’ll know what it says. The question I had was why the CEO of United Egg Producers, Gene Gregory, reached out to an animal group leader to propose collaborating on this bill. Why would an industry leader agree to spend money on changes that laws weren’t demanding? The answers are right our of Mr. Gregory’s mouth in a speech to egg farmers that you can also view on YouTube.

He made the following two statements:

We are concerned about how animal activists and their social agenda may limit our ability to produce eggs in the future.

We are concerned about state ballot initiatives and their impact on the free flow of eggs and need to end the conflict.

Animal activism is no longer about ethics and social justice. It is now about how to raise and kill animals. Veganism is no longer a moral issue—it is now a charmingly eccentric lifestyle choice.

I never thought I would see the line between the animal groups and the animal industry become so blurred.

It is said that there are four distinct stages that a social justice movement must go through before gaining widespread acceptance: First, they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they will fight you, and then you will win. Some animal groups have forgotten that nowhere does it say that you sit down and work out a compromise with your enemy.

Should animal groups be giving legitimacy to messages that it’s okay to raise and eat animal products? I think for a vegan to advocate for humane products is like trying to clean up trash on the side of the road while throwing trash out the car window when you drive. It accomplishes nothing. It has led to animal activists becoming disillusioned with the movement and leaving it with feelings of confusion, despair and helplessness. We need to get back to what the animal rights movement was and NOT allow people in the positions of power of big animal corporations call the shots for all of us. No social justice movement has ever succeeded like this. And animal rights is a social justice movement like civil rights or women getting the right to vote.

You need to determine which groups have your goals and support them with your time and money. I realized how naive I had been to think that organizations and the leaders would not change to support their own agenda.

You cannot direct people to eat animals as you are trying to save them. You cannot use 'humane' meat to transition people to veganism. It makes more sense and is more ethical to suggest to not eat meat a day or two a week or directing people to faux meat substitutes. If people gave up meat one day a week, we could save 1.4 billion animals.  With directing them to humane products, we save no one.

I encourage all of you to continue your efforts to gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes in the movement, and to keep working on developing your own personal vision for what authentic animal rights actually is. Go to humanemyth.org to read more about it. Putting your faith in principles, and not individual people or organizations, can give you a long lasting foundation for your work.

I'm afraid we're at a point at which a lot of people and organizations are in the habit of not being honest with themselves, or the public. It's become normal to collaborate with the industry even to the point of promoting animal products and "new and improved" methods of using and killing animals. We must put the cause and the movement ahead of personal and organizational agendas.

Dividing animal activists into categories and working with the most receptive groups is a strategy that is working for the animal industry and it must be stopped. The public relations industry has stolen our dreams, and returned them to us packaged as illusions with help from many in the animal movement. It’s our duty to go back to our dreams, and start transforming those dreams into reality.