where did the movement’s morals go?
This past weekend I received an “urgent” call to action from Mercy For Animals. I am not typically a list-serve kind of girl, and I had never received an email from MFA before, so I was not sure why this was in my inbox. But MFA is an organization that I have respected for its undercover investigations and liberation-focused outreach and this email said: “Urgent Action Alert: Help Protect Egg-Laying Hens Nationwide.” So I opened it up, ready to act. I thought that maybe, amidst all of the bullshit with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) striking a deal with the United Egg Producers, MFA was actually doing something useful for hens with their donor dollars. I was sorely, sadly, heartbreakingly wrong.
MFA was urging me to write my congress members and encourage support of the Farm Bill amendment, No. 2252 co-sponsored by Senator Diane Feinstein. FYI, this bill is identical to the Senate bill S. 3239 and its House companion, H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. Luckily (though not for reasons having to do with animal rights I’m sure), the Senate struck down their version of the bill yesterday and for now it is off the table.
Even though the bill was struck down I am going to harp on it a bit because of what this whole saga means for the animal liberation movement. If you don’t want to read any further, I will give you the punch line now. What we learned from this is that as a movement there is serious moral slippage occurring. Professionalization of liberation activists has led to a leadership full of welfare advocates. To actually help animals we must, at every turn, refuse to use our resources for anything less than liberation. If the majority of us can agree to stick together by sticking to our principles, we will be able to make change.
what is Farm Bill Amendment No. 2252 (S. 3239/H.R. 3798) and why is it so bad?
S. 3239/H.R. 3798 would have established federal regulations for the US egg industry moving forward—defining what carton labels mean, specifying space requirements, and establishing time-frames within which to comply.
You can read the full text of the bill here if you are interested. However, without even taking a peek at the bill it is obvious that this is no good for hens. Senator Diane Feinstein was a leading sponsor on the bill. This is the same woman who sponsored the Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act (AETA). Her concern is obviously not with animals, but with doing what is best for animal exploitation industries. If a woman, who worked for years to pass repressive legislation that stifles First Amendment speech in order to protect animal exploiting industries, wants to pass this bill, you would be negligent to make any good-faith assumption this will do anything useful for hens.
Add to this that the United Egg Producers, an organization established to promote and advance the egg industry in the US, helped develop the bill. That is a telltale sign it is not designed with the safety or protection of hens in mind. HSUS, which worked on the bill alongside the United Egg Producers, has the following title on their webpage encouraging support of the bill: “Amendment to Improve Welfare of Egg-Laying Hens and Provide Stable Future for Egg Farmers.” That’s right, an ‘animal protection’ group states clearly that this bill will “provide [a] stable future for egg farmers.”
As for the actual substance of the bill, there are a lot of reasons the bill is problematic—this federal bill would essentially override state legislation banning batter cages (such as California’s Prop 2), it was written with the protection of egg farmers in mind, the gains for birds are so minimal that they do not even raise hens into a welfare standard that will allow them to live in conditions considered anything but torturous, the phase-in periods are exceptionally long, it will institutionalize a norm that our movement will make huge concessions for puny gains, and the list goes on.
I found this blog post on Animal Rights Ruminations to be particularly insightful and helpful in understanding the problems with this bill. Since this great summary already exists, I will only discuss in detail one of the substantive problems with the bill, which should have been enough to make any animal advocacy group refuse to spend money, time or energy promoting this measure.
One of the greatest “achievements” of the bill is that for farms that have more than 3,000 hens (smaller farms were totally exempt from anything in this bill), there would be a requirement of at least 124-144 square inches allotted per hen, depending on the breed. At its maximum, this requirement means that each hen gets the amount of space equivalent to a square that is one-foot in length on each side. That is shit considering the fact that the wingspan of an average egg-laying hen is 2 ½ feet.
To make it easy on you I drew you a picture of the largest required space, compared to a hen’s wingspan, to show you what it looks like:
And did I mention that farmers have FIFTEEN years to comply with this requirement? The average lifespan of a hen is 5 years. And that is only if they are not on a factory farm, in which case their lifespan will be significantly shorter. That means three entire generations of hens will die before they get this measly little “right” to more space, which is still far from enough space. I believe that in 15 years, if our movement stopped wasting resources on bullshit like this, we could accomplish a lot more.
compromising for concessions
MFA is not the only organization going down this morally abject road. Plenty of other organizations hopped on board. Why is it that so many animal organizations would funnel hard-to-get donation dollars toward such an impotent measure, which does no more than establish long wait periods for incremental gains that still amount to cruelty? Why is it that the movement leaders are partaking in such a moral slippage?
The really is no good answer, but I think there is an answer. These organizations and their employees are being swayed by the institutionalization of their organizations and the professionalization of their activism. Having so many long-term, salary-providing, professional organizations in the field is a curious thing given the movement’s goals. The point of a social movement is to stop a social injustice, right a wrong. A social movement is successful when it can end. When career trajectories and individual salaries come into play, an organization’s longevity is what is valued. In this context, making small nudges in the right direction makes more sense. Some of these small “gains” may even preclude actually ending the problem in the lifetimes of ourselves and the next many generations of people (and even more generations of chickens), but if you already decided animal rights could be a long-term career you probably don’t imagine an end point.
Further, for organizational longevity, money needs to flow. The more supporters an organization has the more money they can bring in. Moving closer to the center will increase the cash flow. Sociologists, Dennis Downey and Deana Rohlinger, have described organizations’ position within a social movement in terms of the depth of challenge sought and their breadth of appeal. Basically, with more shallow challenges will come a wider breadth of appeal, meaning a wider base of support (i.e. more $$). Along these lines, if animal liberation groups shift their orientation to welfare they become more palatable to a new and broader class of donors. If they go a step further and accept menial concessions (even when they are nothing more than symbolic gestures), they look like they are “winning” campaigns, thereby keeping morale up and showing themselves to be a good investment.
What is telling is that grassroots groups and activists did not support S. 3239/H.R. 3798. Look at this list of groups that, along with United Poultry Concerns, opposed the bill:
“…Humane Farming Association…Friends of Animals, United Poultry Concerns, Last Chance for Animals, Action for Animals, Northwest Animal Rights Network, Defend Animals Coalition, Political Animals, Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals, Sunnyskies Bird and Animal Sanctuary, SAFE, Humane Farming Action Fund, Animals Unlimited, Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition, Chicken Run Rescue, Associated Humane Societies, and the vast majority of rank-and-file animal advocates.” –PR Newswire
The above are all smaller grassroots groups; the membership is more invested and hands-on and the leadership is not driven by organizational security. It seems to be when people are asked to be a “professional” about their activism that they begin to conform and become more tolerant of animal abuse and animal abusers. The animal rights movement is, unfortunately, not unique in this respect. Social movement scholars studying various movements have noted a similar trend—as social movement participants become institutional actors they are more likely to shorten their goals, lessen their challenges, and accept incremental and/or symbolic gains.
The professional shift in our movement could be good, as it can help consolidate resources and streamline efforts. However, it can only be good if individuals and organizations avoid selling out and stopping short. We are trying to change the status quo nature of animal cruelty, abuse, torture and murder. Conforming to typical institutional structures and playing nice with the very government and industries that allow the mistreatment of animals will not lead to change.
a widespread problem
This downward spiral into conformity for the sake of symbolic concessions is not contained with the failure of the Farm Bill Amendment No. 2252. For the most part, large animal rights organizations are not taking a stand against those who were in support of this bill. This year, for the first time in years, HSUS has decided to make an appearance at the largest national animal rights conference in the US, AR 2012. HSUS will be represented by the Senior Director of Factory Farming Campaigns, Paul Shapiro, who will be given (perhaps, rewarded with?) four separate speaking slots at a four-day conference. AR 2012 is organized by Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM). It seems a once liberation-focused organization that had nothing but hatred for bigger-cages campaigns is giving a big fat thank-you, instead of a much-deserved fuck-you, to HSUS for this bill.
Examples of moral slippage move beyond this Farm Bill ordeal as well. For example, Compassion Over Killing (COK), once known for hard core activism like open rescues, actually started a website called WeLoveSubway.com to encourage the fast food giant to serve vegan options. An animal ‘protection’ group actually promoted a fast food restaurant. The fast food industry is one of the greatest drivers for factory farmed meat in this country, and COK promoted them. They diverted donor dollars to supporting them, encouraged us to “love” them, and pushed ethical vegans to spend money at them. They did all of that for a little convenience, which almost certainly has no potential to shift the market in any meaningful way. Put more simply: vegan options at Subway have no realistic hope of saving animals’ lives and by vegans eating there they are now supporting a business responsible for millions of deaths a year; nonetheless, an animal rights group diverted its efforts to the cause.
We need to ask ourselves when this will stop. Something has allowed this trend toward protection over liberation to take hold. Maybe our fear of intra-movement drama or our undeserved trust in large animal rights organizations has led to our acceptance of what is happening. While it is important to support all available tactics for liberation, we need to remember to reject that which is a barrier to liberation.
Setting a precedent that it should take 15 years to allow enough space for birds to remain horribly and inexplicably tortured does not advance liberation; rather, it reasserts the already-present notion that animals are objects to be used by humans. Setting a precedent that we will use our money for convenience foods that bring monetary gain and strengthen animal exploitation industries will not promote liberation; rather, it establishes our movement as lifestyle-centered and concerned with reducing animal exploitation, rather than ending it.
If our movement wastes energy and resources on anything short of liberation, animals will still be objectified, tortured, and murdered, and that is simply not acceptable. In order to support all of the tools available for liberation, we must reject all of the paths that lead away from it. Those paths may lead to a prettier version of exploitation, but it is still exploitation.