What is it about Animal Rights activism that seems to send civil society into a hissy fit, and right wing politicians reflexively running to the Aussie bush to link arms with farmers of flesh everywhere in lock step solidarity?
After the recent peaceful protests by Animal Rights activists around the country last week I even had close family telling me how annoyed they were. This was shocking and frustrating as I’ve been a vocal vegetarian and Animal Rights activist myself for the past 27 years and so assumed, wrongly, that they’d get it; that they’d understand the urgent need for civil protest of a kind that might shake society from its apathy and/or denial.
Yet there is something about Animal Rights activism that seems to warrant a peculiar reaction amongst normally empathetic and otherwise compassionate members of the Australian public.
But first; I do understand why there would be some level of frustration about a protest; any protest. When you’re busy and just trying to focus on making your own life work, feeling like you’re running to stand still and life is getting ever more hectic and filled with pressure, to have someone stop you on the street or halt traffic disrupting the flow you’re desperately trying to manage can be annoying. It’s inconvenient. To poach from the title of a well known documentary, it’s an inconvenient truth. And depending on the kind and style, such protests might disrupt traffic for a few hours and in a complex city that is only barely functional at the best of times, this can lead to gridlock and personal plans disrupted. But that is the same for any protest and that disruption is the point.
For there’s little point politely amassing on a street corner for an hour or two in the middle of the day, over and over again, to be seen by a handful of passing traffic on each occasion and easily dismissed. It achieves little to nothing. And of course those in power know this and it’s exactly what they want. Animal Activists – and many others – have spent years and countless hours attempting this polite tact first, playing within the rules set by the status quo, but to no end. It’s simply too easy to ignore such polite protests, for we are wired to want to ignore the hard stuff until it lands in our laps and effects us directly.
It absolutely must be recognised and acknowledged that our society and culture, which we now proudly cherish – mostly – has been built on, continues to be built on and moved forward by civil, disruptive protest.
The democracy we enjoy today was not freely given by the wealthy and powerful. Democracy undermined the status quo, overthrew the power elite and was fostered and established off the back of civil disobedience and protest. In its day it was inconvenient, disruptive, frustrating and bloody annoying to many, yet in time our democracy was won through the blood, sweat and tears of generations of passionate activists that envisioned a better, more just society.
Women’s Rights’s activists too fought and continue to fight for gender equality in the workplace, at home and to be free from domestic abuse and their ever dawning equality has not been without causing disruption.
LGBTQI activists fought; making arguments, marching and holding Mardi Gras parades that were once an illegal form of protest, forcing National plebiscites that many found annoying, frustrating and disruptive, but that finally led to equal rights for the LGBTQI community recognised and enshrined in law.
Human Rights activists have a long history and continue to protest for changes to improve the base level of how we interact, communicate and resolve conflicts with one another, protesting unjust wars, or unjust incarcerations regularly. In Australia their activism encapsulates such topics as Indigenous rights, asylum seeker rights, the rights of people of minority faiths, race discrimination, hate speech legislation, the Vietnam war and the Iraq war to name a few examples.
Climate Change and Environmental activists tie and chain themselves to logs and trees, march through our city streets in protest against dams, the ravages of pollution and the destruction of the biosphere, or they hound whaling ships in the middle of the world’s vast oceans to protest species and ecosystem destruction.
Worker and/or Union protests at various times have seen schools closed down as teachers walked out on strike, hospitals run on skeleton staff, trucks blockading our highways and city streets and wharfies refusing to unload container ships, again to name a few examples, all in their protest and fight for better wages and work conditions.
Protest, the disruption of our town squares, our cities and way of life and the odd trespass or bending of the law in order to bring from the murky shadows and into the light of day the plight, abuse and suffering of those with less power and influence, to bring to light those whose voices are drowned out by the powerful wielding the cultural megaphones and directing the cultural traffic, is how we’ve advanced and continue to advance our society, step by arduous step reorganising the status quo away from an imbalance and towards greater equity.
As Martin Luther King Jr said, and which was famously riffed on more recently by President Obama;
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
So why the outrage? Why does THIS activism, Animal Rights activism appear to inflame the passions of the populace more than other protests and civil disobedience which have caused similar inconveniences and have done no more to bend the law than many others protests before them? Why is the issue of animal rights and welfare so hard to have a civil conversation about? Why is it so difficult to get people to want to look at the reality of animal agriculture and simply have an honest, transparent debate about how we use and potentially abuse other animals we share our planet with and ask whether it is moral to do so, and whether there are any aspects that we should consider changing? What is it about this topic that makes it unbearable and … off the table.
Could it be that most people, regardless of how active or inactive they consider themselves regards various socio-political issues, do silently applaud and feel a natural sympathy with those marching and protesting for the equality of women, children, other religions or races, feel empathy for those marching against environmental degradation, against slavery or for better working conditions. Their natural inclination towards our common humanity and want for greater equity kicks in and mollifies any frustration they might also feel for the disruptive nature of the politics. A kind of, well … it’s-annoying-but-I-can-see-that-it’s-important mentality takes precedence.
Or if that shared sense of humanity doesn’t kick in, it’s relatively easy to put most political topics to one side, play no part, have no opinion, be neutral or apathetic regards the outcome and let others deal with it while continuing on our merry ways.
Yet when the right to choose our food is questioned the hissy fit begins. And this is regardless of any rational and entirely reasonable arguments that might be posed as to the potential abuse and horrific impacts on the animals we enslave and commodify in order to enjoy their flesh; regardless of the potential devastating impacts on our environment and the long term sustainability of our home planet; regardless of the potential negative impacts on our own health and the long term health of our children’s future. Somehow this choice alone, more than all other choices, this audacity to question what we eat, is off limits and those Animal Rights “activists” who are simply trying to get a conversation stimulated because they’ve seen the horror that is happening and that urgently requires our civic attention, are now branded and become slyly synonymous with a kind of social or cultural terrorism. Yet they, like any of us, have a civic right to protest. So why do they become labelled by those in the highest office of the land as “green collared criminals” and “un-Australian”? Aren’t they politically engaged, passionate citizens? Isn’t that a good thing? And how can they be “un-Australian” for speaking up for justice and wanting to give voice for, in some cases literally those who are the underdog, or the under-sheep or under-cow? Isn’t this quintessentially Australian?
I suggest that, perhaps this topic is a little too close to the bone. That more than other topics it has a way of getting under our skin and feeling deeply personal, while other issues can be kept more safely at arms length. That these questions around our food choices are a little too close to the warm comfort of the Sunday BBQ, too close to our sense of family, that private space. That this topic gets inside the walls of our own personal castle where we want to believe we still reserve the right to decide how we will or won’t act.
And perhaps it’s because this argument and these questions land more heavily on the shoulders of every individual and their everyday choices. Those many individual acts of reaching into the fridge, leaning forward at the table and at the supermarket. This, in contrast to most other civic moral quandaries that tend to land as a choice more squarely at the feet of Government, at the feet of the powerful corporations and organisations, and which allows us to point with moral superiority and say, “This is terrible. Someone should fix this” and if it’s not fixed, or the repair stalls, at least it’s someone else’s fault.
But the “someone” at the heart of the issue of Animal Rights isn’t some evil corporation polluting Earths oceans for profit – though that happens – nor some corrupt Government in bed with big business – though they often are – nor a deeply conservative Government in bed with the religious right, or the Fortune 500 wanting to keep women from elite positions of power – though they have – or the archaic churches wanting to retain some moral high ground on gender roles. No, this decision lands on us. It’s our choice; each of us. We’re responsible and it is we who need to change our habits, our perceptions and we can’t point some place distant, to some nebulous villain elsewhere and pass the buck.
And sure, Governments could do more. They could certainly not politicise the issue for their own ends, flexing their farmer friendly rhetoric because an election is looming as a show of strength and solidarity with the perceived moral centre of Australia. And corporations could do more too. But both Government and corporations will ultimately blow and shift with the choices we, the citizens and consumers make on this issue at the supermarket. The power for change is with us.
Businesses will adapt and make money elsewhere and Governments aren’t necessarily locked into the meat industry as a high moral cause, particularly as we continue receiving ever more compelling evidence of the damage that an over consumption of meat has on human health and the planets health. If we change, so will they. This is a grass roots movement and that makes it very unpalatable to too many people and hence the rage.
And yet, it is changing and will continue to do so. It’s changing because the world really is full of intelligently compassionate, empathetic people who see beyond their own lives and their own lifetimes to a bigger world that is both more complex and more full of wonder. In my lifetime there’s been a significant and ever growing shift that I’m now convinced is inevitable. And the rage we hear, those stomping feet and tantrums, that political rhetoric that tries to reduce the efforts of passionate, courageous activists to simple slurs, taints and slogans … those are merely the sounds of the ever creaking arc of the moral universe slowly, but inevitably bending toward justice.
For more quotes, articles and posts that I’ve found inspiring in recent days read on:
Quote from an article in the Age:
Many of our greatest heroes are lawbreakers: Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi. Illegal activism is in fact a time-honoured tradition. Some philosophers, such as Candice Delmas, have argued that it is not only acceptable but even obligatory in some cases to violate the law in order to resist injustice. If animal agriculture is indeed a massive systemic injustice as many have argued, then I submit vegan activists can reasonably claim to be part of a long tradition of morally justifiable civil disobedience.
And for a wonderful article on whether this civil disobedience is a positive or a negative for society please read the following:
And this Facebook post that resonated:
“I disapprove of what you do, but I will defend to the death your right to do it”. (Apologies to Voltaire’s friend Hall)
I disagree with their particular cause, and they could be regarded by Melbourne commuters as a total pain in the arse, but civil disobedience is not criminal, and criminalising effective disruption is the mark of totalitarianism.
If I disrupt something to make an effective moral protest, then I accept that there will be consequences, but I am not acting with criminal intent. I accept that I may be fined or spend a few days in pokey for my troubles, but making only token protests that don’t cause trouble will not change anything. How many more years until women would have waited to have the vote if the Suffragettes had played by the rules? Would the Franklin Wild River have been saved without the illegal blockaders? Did Rosa Parks obey the rules? How much longer would the Vietnam war have dragged on without illegal sit-ins and disruptive marches?
I totally support their campaign against the cruelty of industrialised meat production. Social media and the efforts of animal activists has made me aware of the cruelty of dairy and I no longer have any dairy. The same with pig production and no longer touch any pig product.
Another powerful quote:
From the moment they are born to the moment their necks are slit, the vast majority of animals raised and killed for food will experience lives of unremitting torment. They will not know contentment, respite, safety, happiness, or kindness. Instead, they will live a short life characterized by inescapable discomfort, social deprivation, the thwarting of every natural instinct and constant stress, all punctuated by moments of agonizing pain, terror, and the deliberate infliction upon them of harm and eventually, a brutal and untimely death.
And this from one of my favouite authors, Yuval Noah Harari;
Go vote – it’s good for the heart.
The biggest crimes in history were caused not by hate, but by apathy. By people who could do something, but they didn’t even bother to lift a finger. Apathy kills. Maybe she won’t kill you, but she definitely might kill someone else.
There are people who don’t bother to go vote in the elections, because they think that one voice won’t change anything. That’s not true. Maybe your vote won’t change the knesset, but it will definitely change you. It is very important to train the muscles of the heart and take a moral position. Otherwise the heart is an appetizer, and the next time you have to fight for something – not actually the ballot – it will be harder
Others justify their indifference claiming that “all sides are just as bad”. so that’s it not. Not in the same way. Many times in history, the struggle is not between evil and good, but between bad and evil. It is possible to write a whole encyclopedia about the crime of the allies in World War II, about the horrors of the Soviet regime, about the murder of the British Empire, and the racism And it was still better to support the allies than to sit back and say “what do I care what happens, they are all the same”. in recent years there were many Turks who didn’t bother to vote ” what is the difference between erdogan and the other corrupt?”, they said to themselves, ” all politicians are the same “. so that’s it not. There are politicians worse than others.
We are now facing the most important moral evils, and those who think that there is no difference between less bad and more bad are people who have lost their moral compass Whoever is waiting for him to appear what a perfect good, and only for him will be worth leaving the house, keep waiting until the end of
So don’t wait. Get out of the house! Vote.