Sunday, 19 September 2010

Animal Rights à la Lee Hall: Letting Manure Live on Its Own Terms

[I]t's hard for people to understand why one would avoid using manure, say, from an animal roaming about, apparently happy. But put the message as 'letting them live on their own terms' and the point becomes understandable. - Lee Hall

Lee Hall, the Vice President of Legal Affairs at Friend's of Animals (FoA), was recently a guest on ARZone, a website that resembles an abolitionist website to a hair, except that it features an incessant procession of new welfarists.

I wrote On Their Own Terms as an effort to promote, with clarity, the essence and the point of the vegan commitment.

With these bold words Lee announced the aim of her self-published book, On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down To Earth[1]. And let us just say that the author of this book is eminently qualified for the task of "bringing animal rights philosophy down to earth," given that she has even published a cookbook. More precisely, to the question, has Lee managed to express, "with clarity, the essence and the point of the vegan commitment," we want to answer Yes and Now. Yes, because her writing imparts to something the poignancy of a new clarity. But it does so not so much to "the essence and the point of the vegan commitment," as to the meaning and the direction of FoA's organizational policy. In the following, we explore the issue with reference to her ARZone chat transcript.

To begin, from reading her ARZone chat transcript one does not in fact get the impression that everything that is not "down to earth" she inexorably opposes. Indeed, Lee tries to assert her radicalism ("transcending differing ideologies,"), but unfortunately ends up do doing so by eccentricity of ideas. She opines breezily on a profusion of phenomena, from "[P]rimates scanning each others' irises..." to "the concept of nations" to "domination," but is unsure how to proceed when asked a simple question about moral rights. She claims to be bringing "clarity" to veganism and animal rights, but ironically as her interview progresses she ranges ever more freely over content, sometimes in a strangely anachronistic manner ("...from whence they spawn social injustice..."), and rounds off with a diffuse reply containing references to just about everything save "the essence and the point of the vegan commitment."

An example, as instructive as it is illustrative, of Lee's "bringing animal rights philosophy down to earth" is her slogan "Letting them live on their own terms." Perhaps the general problem here is that her ideas lack - how can we put it? - inwardness, so as to naturally lend themselves to sloganeering. Whatever the truth of this matter, it is nonetheless clear that she sees great possibilities of special usefulness in framing animal rights advocacy in terms of the aforementioned slogan. More precisely, she thinks this slogan is perfectly fitted to penetrate into areas that other, shallower, perhaps less holistic, slogans simply cannot reach, and one such area which yields to its advances is "manure." She said:
[I]t's hard for people to understand why one would avoid using manure, say, from an animal roaming about, apparently happy. But put the message as 'letting them live on their own terms' and the point becomes understandable.

Could a more effortless vindication of the significance of this slogan to animal rights be imagined? Shouldn't vegans abandon their confidence in abolitionist theory with immediate effect and instead give their ardent fidelity to this idea for the above reason alone? Also, and connectedly, is it to be inferred that, on Lee's reading, animal rights is renderable, at "the deep level," as whether or to what extent "using manure...from an animal roaming, apparently happy" is consistent with the slogan "letting them live on their own terms"? In any event, with her holistic talk of letting manure live on its own terms it is clear at least that she has gone to the last extremity of animal rights radicalism. To see this quite clearly one need only ask oneself the question: How could one have ever missed this aspect of animal rights in the face of the slaughterhouse?

So, what does animal rights actually mean for Lee? She said:
Animal rights doesn't only involve the absence of property; it's about human beings human beings gaining the integrity, stamina, and creativity to envision a world beyond human supremacy [as if the former were not an instance of the latter – Clowns' Corner]

Though there is not exactly a perfection of detail here, this does not matter, since we would not be so inexpressibly dreary as to importune her to provide it, and, in any event, we are impressed by the sterling quality of her rhetoric. For does her vegan vision not sound inspiring - at least to people who only ever skim read things - with its talk of "integrity, stamina, and creativity?" On the other hand, if we really wished to be exacting, we would say that this way of speaking could be excusable if it were merely a preliminary oversimplification, but it really seems that this characteristically vague and undefined talk is all Lee has to offer. In fact, in her writing there is a loquacity of rambling which in its noncommittal vagueness resembles the speech of a politician, for just as the latter tries to maximize his voter base by making empty statements with which no member of the public could disagree ("I support a better society!"), so Lee tries to maximize FoA's donor base by making superficially edifying yet ultimately vacuous and vapid statements with which no animal advocate could disagree (I support a "culture transformed"!). After all, who could possibly disagree that we need "integrity, stamina, and creativity"? Indeed, such talk is not so much a theory of "a culture transformed" from an animal rights perspective as a theory of anything (or of nothing).

Yet Lee presents her writing as if it were a concrete advance on the genuine radicalism of the abolitionist critique of the property status of animals, which she feels "oversimplifies the matter," albeit only from the perspective of her impertinent enthusiasm for conflating animal rights with all manner of irrelevances such as the issue of whether it is acceptable for "[P]rimates [to be] scanning each others' irises..." There is nothing whatever "holistic" about encumbering animal rights with irrelevancy; and nothing radical about distracting attention from the real issue.

Responding to the question, "Why are vegans opposed to relationships between human & animals?" Lee, full of deep purpose, said:
There is hardly an experience more joyful than lying down on a grassy hill in a park at dusk in summer, waiting for the bats to emerge and swoop and flutter overhead. There is hardly a more exhilarating feeling than camping quietly watching a group of deer walk past - the feeling of letting other animals pass through our lives in peace. The more we think about it, the more exciting the plan to respect animals' freedom becomes. I think, yes! This is what animal right looks like.

We wonder whether Lee takes the above to be an example of "integrity, stamina, and creativity"? We thought that "creativity" in the context of the animal rights struggle meant - not poeticizing about wild animals - but rather convincing people to stop consuming cows and pigs and chickens. This does not mean, however, that we are not struck by this poeticizing by Lee; for it does after all have an unequalled force of expression, so moving in its prosy effusiveness; and her poeticizing in conjunction with her claim that a vegan world "hinges on our motivation to visit the deep level" makes us think that the Vice President of Legal Affairs at FoA is not any ordinary activist but is, rather, a poet - or perhaps even a sage - by an irresistible vocation.

On the other hand, in the interests of impartiality and objectivity, we would like to pose the following question: would it be an instance of unfounded suspiciousness to entertain the thought that Lee uses such rhetoric, so strange and unexpected in its floweriness ("...from whence they spawn social injustice..."), in order to exploit people's vulnerability to pathos by offering them the false semblance of it, namely bathos, and also to try to impart a hypocritical depth to the otherwise hopeless vacancy of her formulations? We shall leave it up to our readers to decide this question.

Responding to a question about moral rights, Lee said:
People sometimes bring up moral rights to claim domesticated animals, such as animals bred as pets, "are not our property; we are not their owners." That leads to problematic views: for example, notions that domesticated animals have acquired or will be gaining rights through laws or simply through enough love and caring on the part of their caregivers. We can keep things simple through language on which most all of us would agree: Conscious animals have interests. Rather than speaking of something we might or might not believe in, I feel confident speaking of rights as socially created, enforceable protections for the interests we know animals have.

We must admit somewhat shamefully that we are not sure what Lee means here – perhaps because it is an artless kind of half-mysticism accessible in its esotericism only to those who, like her, have "visit[ed] the deep level..."?

Lee continued to bring clarity to animal rights by saying:

And the book points out that these free-living beings, ignored in the sprawl of agribusiness and often missed in the animal-advocacy pamphlets, are the ones for whom the idea of "rights" actually applies.

The book also explains that expanded cages and pastures take habitat from free-living animals. Cara says this "sparks a light-bulb moment for non-vegan environmentalists who are opposed to factory farms and still considering larger cages and open ranges.

First, a confession: when we first read these statements, bafflement hung on our lips, which remained open for a few minutes. Which ideologies is Lee's view suited to transcend, we said at once slowly and in unison, as Gary Francione has been claiming for a long while now that we ought not to be breeding domesticated animals; but let that pass.

Second, Lee has clarified for us that "expanded cages and pastures" are wrong - for animal rights "actually applies" only to "free-living beings" - not because they mean regulating the exploitation of the animals inside of them, but instead because they mean encroaching on the habitats of the animals outside of them. How convenient for FoA's nonvegan donors who eat the animals imprisoned inside the "cages and pastures."

And there is something else, too, besides Lee's clarification. She plays a trick, which she shouldn't be allowed to play. It consists in trading on a certain ambiguity. She says that animals rights "actually applies" to wild animals. There is a sense in which this claim is obviously true: in a post-abolition world there will be only wild animals (for the simple reason that we will no longer breed domesticated animals), and as such one could say that in an ultimate sense animal rights "actually appl[y]" for wild animals. But from this truism of animal rights - which in the delirium of her desire to be seen as radical and innovative she presents as an original insight - Lee pulls out a hodgepodge of ideas that congeal into a false conclusion irrationally held from an animal rights perspective. It is, namely, that in a pre-abolition world animal rights campaigning should be focused on defending the autonomy of wild animals using paradigmatic instances of single issue campaigning.

In so concluding, Lee commits two hair-raising howlers considered from an animal rights, though nonetheless not from FoA's organizational/economic, perspective. First, while, as we said, there is a sense in which animal rights "actually applies" to autonomous animals, it by no means follows that non-autonomous, domesticated animals (cows, pigs, chickens, and so on, in short, all the animals that people eat) do not have anything to do with animal rights campaigning. Quite the contrary, for these animals are the victims of what is quantitatively and qualitatively the most significant practice of animal exploitation, namely the consumption of animals/animal products. Second, abolitionist campaigning cannot be conducted through the medium of single issue campaigns, since these campaigns send a confused and confusing message (that some forms of animal use are different [i.e., more or less objectionable] than others), and are a waste of time and resources which could be better spent campaigning against the primary practice. These two reasons compel the conclusion that in its essence and in its point animal rights activism is about abolishing the consumption of animals using the tactic of clear and unequivocal vegan education.

After further "transcending differing ideologies" by elaborating on the issue of breeding small people in the Italian renaissance, Lee said:
You know, there are a whole lot of well-meaning people who are going to accuse us of "racism" if we agree with breeding bans. Europe seems to be ahead of the curve on this issue.

Here we can't help but wonder what Lee is getting at. We can't help having the impression that Lee is suggesting that a ban on breeding people as a mere means to others' ends and breeding animals are similar issues, as though both bans would deny the respective beings the right to live on their own terms: people who can live on their own terms and domestic animals who can't. To put it otherwise, Lee seems to be suggesting that a ban on breeding animals who by definition cannot live on their own terms is at risk of being deemed similar to racism in the sense of preventing a certain class of people from reproducing who can live on their own terms, i.e., in human society. We must admit that we have never looked at it like that.

Lee also said, "Communities of animals [will be] living right now just as they would and will if and when our culture really becomes a culture, and accepts their rights." Now, at this point, we are confused. Which animals is Lee talking about? As for the 50-60 billion animals raised for food annually, they would not be living in "habitat": they would simply not exist. And if we stopped breeding cows and pigs and chickens, there would be no problem of farms encroaching on habitat. As for those animals living in habitat, this issue cannot be meaningfully addressed in a world in which animals are property (which Lee herself implicitly concedes when she refers to the problem of "expanded cages and pastures" encroaching on habitat); in which animals are bred continually solely for the purposes of being consumed; and in which 99% of people take consuming animal products to be as normal and natural as breathing air and drinking water. Moreover, what Lee is talking about is not even a question of veganism, for veganism is about not using animals as resources and not about the distribution of habitats among humans and animals.

Up to this point she has tried to point out in what way her vision is suited to "[transcend] differing ideologies," and now she points out the differences by criticizing as an instance of "lesser-evil thinking" the option of giving birth control to wild animals, as proposed by "wealthy humane bureaucracies and even abolitionist writers." She argues that in doing so "abolitionist writers" reinforce the idea that "the animals are a problem." She must mean that "abolitionist writers" reinforce the problem of "domination." Having delivered herself of this rebuke Lee continued by saying:

Animal-rights advocacy needs a way to resist such assumptions [about the acceptability of giving wild animals birth control], and there is no time to waste. Hence a book about how we can resist them. Hence my work to defend local deer, local coyotes. We need to ensure our theory can be applied on behalf of animals under attack...This points to the importance of starting out by distinguishing ~selectively bred~ animals from communities of animals who could actually experience autonomy, and shouldn't be denied that opportunity...What does it mean to relinquish human supremacy? Are we really prepared for that? That's what's behind a lot of these coyote- and wolf- killing schemes. We resent their power.

To repeat, while from a certain perspective animal rights can be said to "actually appl[y]" to animals who can experience autonomy, it does not follow that animal rights campaigning in a pre-abolition world should be focused on defending wild animals. Nor does it follow that in "letting wild animals live on their own terms," that is, by generally rejecting contraception for them, Lee is respecting their autonomy and even showing that she does not "resent their power." For when wild animals are brought into the world as property, as utterly rightless beings, they are subject or at least exposed to people's power - to their domination, to use Lee's buzz word - in the most extreme way. Thereupon they are killed or injured by being shot, poisoned, or trapped. On the other hand, looked at in a certain light, there is a sort of - how can we put it? - internal consistency to Lee's position. If animals could not be brought into the world to be shot, poisoned, trapped, maimed, then FoA could not run single campaigns defending animals from being shot, poisoned, trapped, maimed: lucrative campaigns from which FoA earns millions of dollars allowing President Priscilla Feral to richly reward herself with the annual sum of $100,000.

Responding to the question, would you disagree with giving possums - who are "highly persecuted by everyone and their grandmother!" (i.e., poisoned to death) - birth control, Lee said:
The pills might involve less physical pain than another form of animal control, but does involvement in the manipulation and control of animals mean unintentionally accepting the human agreement that animals simply must be kept in check if not used as food, clothing, entertainment, or objects of curiosity?

It requires a lot of distance from the actual conditions of the animal rights struggle to suggest the choice which we, as animal rights advocates, are faced with is between "unintentionally accepting the human agreement that animals simply must be kept in check" (whatever that is supposed to mean) on the one hand and refusing to give them birth control on the other, as if by plumping for the latter option one could rid the human-animal relationship of domination and thereby alter animals' fate. The real choice in this world is between sometimes giving wild animals birth control and letting them be born into the world as property, whereupon they will be shot, poisoned, trapped, or maimed. This implies that it is pointless for Lee to require us to qualify our sense of the general acceptability of giving wild animals birth control with an empty "from a dominationist perspective," as if her vantage point from which she proffers her anti-birth control rhetoric[2] in and of itself were "non-dominationist." For this vantage point is itself a pious fiction which can be sustained only by ignoring the fact that animals are born into the world as property. Accordingly, with her anti-birth control rhetoric, proffered from a fictitious perspective, Lee is actually potentiating and aggravating the very enabling-condition that gives rise to the absolute domination of animals in the first place - that enabling-condition being to bring animals into existence as property.

Lee seemed to be anticipating this objection when she said, "Were the conflict between human groups, one forcing contraceptives on the other would raise alarm bells over human rights and reproductive autonomy." There is a difference here, however, the obvious relevance of which Lee is obstinately ignoring. It is, namely, that humans are rightholders whereas animals are property. Among other things, this difference implies that the risk to which wild animals are subject is categorically, qualitatively different from risk to which we are subject in the sense in which we mean it when we speak (albeit sentimentally and banally) of "the roller coster ride of life," and to which Lee refers when she says, "I want to live in a world in which I am at risk." For Lee, when sitting on a grassy hill watching bats swooping overhead, is in no way at risk from being shot, poisoned, or trapped by hunters, and even if she were at such risk she would have recourse to justice; whereas the animals, on the other hand, are at risk of being shot, poisoned, or trapped by hunters, and they, the animals, have no recourse to justice.

Lee went on to claim, in effect, that it is better for animals to be subject to risk than not to be born at all, and also that being subject to risk is an essential part of living an autonomous life. Ignoring the pretense and nonsense involved in claiming to be concerned about animals who do not exist, we wonder if Lee could give an edifying elaboration, in her sentimental style, on what it would be for humans to experience the sort of "autonomy" that wild animals experience. It would perhaps go something like this:
There is hardly an experience more joyful than lying down on a grassy hill in a park at dusk in summer, waiting for the hunters to creep up behind me and kill me. There is hardly a more exhilarating feeling than camping quietly watching for a group of hunters to walk past - the feeling of letting their bullets and bows pass through my body - which I do not own because I am property - in peace. I think, yes! This is what human rights looks like.

What this parody involving humans brings out with stark clarity is that although risk is inseparable from autonomy, autonomy, in its genuine form, is inseperable from the right not to be property. The risk of being shot, poisoned, trapped, or maimed (while also, by definition, having no recourse to justice) is not exactly the sort of "autonomy" we want animals to experience. Indeed, when, like animals, certain beings are bereft of even so much as the right not to be property - when they can be shot, poisoned, trapped, and maimed at will - then one can speak only cynically or with bitter irony of their "autonomy." Accordingly, what Lee advocates, in opposing giving wild animals birth control, is a false or corrupt semblance – a counterfeit – of genuine autonomy.

We know Lee is an adherent of the theory of intersectionality in the sense of thinking there to be a "deep level where all oppressions connect," which she thinks we have to "visit." Similarly with her comments: there is a deep level where they all connect, from whence single issue campaigns spawn. Only when we can find the motivation to visit this deep level will we manage to describe an animal rights movement transformed – transformed from a corporate welfarist movement into a grass roots abolitionist movement. We must now ask our readers to follow a discussion that might at first seem like a digression. In fact, we shall put it in the form of a story:

Once upon a time there was a corporate new welfarist organization. Like all such organizations, it had a bloated bureaucracy and its executives and functionaries could be thought of as a cross between politicians and businesspeople who never exercised their intelligence, except in the service of selling the group's brand to the public. In order to maintain its activities, the group was dependent on membership fees and donations. Most of its donors were members of the group which participated in animal exploitation, i.e., they were not vegan. Nonvegans don't support the abolition of animal exploitation. They support single issue campaigns precisely because these campaigns don't challenge animal exploitation and make people who use animals feel better about doing so. The group needed to launch campaigns which were suited to elicit financial support, and these were campaigns that didn't challenge, and were not aimed at abolishing, animal exploitation. So the group focused on more "exotic" animals who had a strong emotional appeal to people, like seals, dolphins, whales, elephants. These single issue campaigns served as fundraising vehicles. The group had considerable capital assets.

Now imagine a functionary from this group said that rejecting single issue campaigns in the animal context was analogous to rejecting single issue campaigns in the human context – a campaign against female genital mutilation, e.g. This would be a crass misrepresentation of the abolitionist position, which, of course, applies only to animal rights advocacy, not to human rights advocacy, and therefore in no way implies that it is wrong to support a campaign against female genital mutilation. What is important to see here, though, is that this crass misrepresentation would be in total compliance and conformity with the group's economic self-interest (for the group was utterly dependent on single issue campaigns as a economic matter).

Imagine also this functionary said that it was speciesist to reject single issue campaigns in the animal context because we support them in the human one. Again, this would be a crass misrepresentation of the abolitionist position which rightly identifies a qualitative, categorical difference between animal rights advocacy and human rights advocacy, a difference that justifies treating these two contexts differentially, which entails that it is anything but "speciesist" to reject single issue campaigns in the animal context. And again what is important to see here is that this crass misrepresentation would be in total compliance and conformity with the group's economic self-interest.

To paraphrase Gary Francione's concise formulation of the point about single issue campaigns:
The fact that we choose to work politically on the issue of genital mutilation does not mean that we think trafficking and domestic abuse are acceptable or morally less objectionable. This is because all of these practices are widely rejected in society.

If X, Y, and Z are all viewed as morally unacceptable, focusing on X does not convey the message that Y and Z are morally acceptable.

In animal advocacy, the situation is different. Most people think that eating meat, dairy, and eggs, or wearing wool or leather is as normal and natural as drinking water or breathing air. So when we single out one form of animal exploitation, we necessarily distinguish it for moral purposes. That is, if most people think that consuming animal products raises no moral problem, focusing on meat necessarily conveys the idea that dairy and eggs are different and that their use is morally acceptable or, at least, morally distinguishable.

In sum, if X, Y, and Z are all viewed as morally acceptable and you single out X as morally problematic, you implicitly say to the public that Y and Z are different from X and that they are not morally unacceptable, or are at least morally distinguishable from X.

The upshot of all this is that the group was dependent on single issue campaigns as a economic matter. It made money from them. And lots of it. Indeed, the socio-economic existence of its President and other functionaries - whose salaries were around $100,000 each - was dependent on donations elicited from the public by the group's single issue campaigns. In short: there was a conflict of interest which was manifest. This conflict of interest deprived the group's defence of single issue campaigns of the authority needed for it to be deemed worthy of serious consideration, just as when a politician is involved in a conflict of interest it deprives his defence of it (assuming he does defend it) of the authority needed for it to be deemed worthy of serious consideration. Indeed, it would be self-delusion to credit a politician with having something serious to say about a political issue from which he benefits economically. We shall leave it up to our readers to join up the necessary dots.

To conclude by stating the general upshot of this post: "the essence and the point of the vegan commitment" really acquired the poignancy of a new "clarity" in Lee's chat on ARZone; in fact, she did nothing less than to bring animal rights philosophy "down to earth." If we can find the "motivation to visit the deep level," then we can teach people why "one would avoid using manure...from an roaming animal, apparently happy" and perhaps even why it's acceptable for President Priscilla to earn the sum of $100,000 – amid the din and tumult, from which an abolitionist message cannot even emerge fragmentarily, of FoA's cynical efforts to defend wild animals from being attacked by birth control using an endless supply of economically lucrative single issue campaigns.


[1] Lee's claim that animal rights philosophy needs to be brought "down to earth" is just another corporate welfarist attempt to malign animal rights as "utopian," for just as other welfarists claim that we must support welfarist reform in order to make animal rights "pragmatic," so Lee claims that we must support single issue campaigns in order to bring animal rights "down to earth."

[2] We feel that such anti-birth control rhetoric would appeal to right-wing anti-abortionists.