Thursday, September 04, 2008

Confined to the "Animal Welfare" Label

Debate over proposition 2 in California is waging on. The newest opposition, however, is not the owner of a large industrial slaughterhouse, but a member of the animal rights movement. Gary Francione’s recent blog post urging animal advocates to vote against proposition 2 (or not vote at all) has once again opened up the welfare versus rights discussion brewing in the movement. Francione argues that by working to reform the conditions of slaughterhouse animals, we leave open the unquestioned assumption that it is right to have animals in those slaughterhouses at all. The only thing we should do, he argues, is work for total abolition of the commodification of animals through vegan promotion.

While I think there is value in the way Francione has forced a lot of activists to think about the efficacy of their methods, I disagree with Francione’s analysis of proposition 2.

Francione and his cohorts suggests that meat producers support proposition 2 because it will help their bottom line as people feel more comfortable consuming meat they think has been “humanely” slaughtered. However, his list of small farmers who endorse the move is not representative of the stance of large scale industrial slaughterhouses. In fact, the USDA and the America Egg Board have allocated over $3 million to fight against the enactment of this measure. The misleadingly named “Californians for Safe Food” has been established by the industry to purport lies about the dangers of proposition 2. There is no way around it: the welfare standards outlined in proposition 2 are going to put a dent in the industry, costing them millions and decreasing their ability to raise and slaughter as many animals as they currently do. Large scale agribusiness is investing money to nip this measure in the bud, because they know its passage will be a huge economic blow.

Change through legal mechanisms will work for animals. The mainstream media does not pick up on cases of animal cruelty unless the practices are illegal. The recent exposure of footage relating to the abuse of downer cows did not come into the public sphere because the abuse was uniquely horrific, but because it broke the law. Had downer abuse measures not been in place to protect the welfare of those dairy mothers, the images would have been cast aside in the same way footage of debeaking, castration, and confinement are written off as “standard industry practice.”

Francione seems to miss the historical precedents showing us that legal shifts occur before widespread ideological ones. Equal protection laws for women came into place before universal recognition of the equal interests of women. Liberation of slaves came at a time before their oppressors had overthrown racist ideology. If we had waited for slave owners to decide to boycott the slave industry, liberation may never have occurred. Changing the laws that institutionalize oppression give oppressed groups a mechanism to change mindsets. Paul Shapiro of H.S.U.S. asks:

“Could you imagine environmentalists opposing stricter emissions standards for vehicles, saying that they just make people feel better about driving even though they’re still polluting (although less)? Of course not. They recognize that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should applaud steps in the right direction while continuing to move the ball even further down the field.”

While we can appreciate Francione’s Sisyphean attempt to throw the ball permanently down the hill, we should be wary of his calls to do nothing unless you can everything. Francione is setting up a false dichotomy and forcing many advocates into either a "welfarist" or a "rights" label. These two mechanisms of change can coexist. Abolition happens incrementally and proposition 2 is a step towards turning these tiny cages into bigger cages into empty cages.

1 comment:

  1. In Peter Singer's book, _In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave_, Martin Balluch, the leading animal activist in Austria, says that his great success in Austria wouldn't have been possible without a united animal advocacy front. According to Singer, Austria has "the most advanced animal protection legislation" in the world (see "Un-American about animals," by Peter Singer, Boston Globe, August 20, 2005). Here is a summary of those laws, including a constitutional amendment, and here is Balluck refuting Francione's tired argument.