Animal Rights Enters The Mainstream


The title of this article may confuse some people. You may be thinking “but animal rights is an issue that is in the mainstream all the time. When I walk through the city I see billboards campaigning for an end to live animal export to the Middle East. Same thing when I turn on my television. I see Jamie Oliver exposing the treatment of chickens in factory farms, or when I walk through the supermarket there are RSPCA ads telling me to choose cage-free eggs.” These, however, are not about animal rights at all. They are about promoting animal welfare which certainly is a mainstream issue.

The distinction between the two approaches is critical to understanding why the rights focus is finally gaining traction. Animal welfare involves promoting better treatment of animals by humans, whereas an animal rights ideology means striving for the abolition of humans’ use of animals, regardless of their treatment. While animal welfare campaigns try to improve the treatment of animals raised for food, clothing and so on, animal rights campaigns push to abolish the use of animals for all of these purposes.

The inescapable objective of this animal rights ideology therefore is the adoption and promotion of a lifestyle that avoids the use of animal-derived products — in a word, veganism.

Veganism is certainly not a term that enters the mainstream media or consciousness regularly but it seems that this is changing. A recent BBC radio documentary by Victor Schonfeld, the director of the influential 1981 documentary film The Animals, has given the issue new prominence, investigating how the way we treat animals has changed in the 30 years since he made that film.

The reality Schonfeld found was that the treatment of animals has not significantly improved in that time, if at all. This is despite all the money, time and energy spent by animal advocates on welfarism rather than promoting veganism. In fact, as leading animal rights lawyer and thinker Professor Gary L Francione explains, despite many decades of welfare campaigns, “we are using more nonhuman animals in more horrific ways than ever before in human history.” The promotion of welfarism has meant that people feel better about unnecessarily consuming “humane” animal products while animals still suffer in horrible “free-range” farms.

The BBC Radio piece drew quite a bit of attention, and about a week after it aired, the Guardian ran an opinion piece by Schonfeld titled “Five fatal flaws of animal activism“. That piece took a particularly strong animal rights approach, calling for animal advocacy groups to promote veganism as the “moral baseline” on the issue. He also criticised organisations which call themselves “animal rights organisations” while promoting an animal welfare approach rather than veganism.

At the same time, growing public unease over the treatment of animals has seen calls for the adoption of veganism make it into the opinion pages of the New York Times.

This recent mainstreaming of the animal rights approach to the issue of animal suffering goes hand-in-hand with the mainstreaming of the views of Francione, who was featured in Schonfeld’s doco. The call for veganism to be seen as the moral baseline on the issue is one Francione also makes regularly.

In 1996, Francione wrote the book Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, criticising the welfarism of large animal advocacy organisations which “still leave the systems of exploitation intact”, and called for the animal advocacy movement to promote veganism instead. Not surprisingly, those large organisations have not popularised or adopted Francione’s arguments, instead promoting books by philosophers such as Peter Singer who defends welfarism.

Indeed, in her response to Schonfeld’s critique of the welfarist tactics of organisations like hers, Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), relied on Singer’s philosophy. From the perspective of the animal rights movement however, the fact that she even had to defend PETA’s welfarism (and chronic sexism) showed the growing strength of their influence.

Like so many other social movements, the animal rights cause has been greatly assisted by the opportunities presented by online dissemination of its argument. Irish sociologist Roger Yates has labelled the establishment of Francione’s blog “Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach” in 2006 as the beginning of the animal rights movement (as opposed to the welfarist approach).

Interestingly, apart from challenging the welfarism of the large animal advocacy organisations, the animal rights movement is questioning the need for organisations at all. Animal rights activists are using the internet to cheaply distribute their own leaflets, videos, blogs, articles, podcasts and much more, without needing help from organisational structures.

An example of this is a global online campaign called “The World is Vegan, If You Want It” (referencing John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s anti-Vietnam War billboard campaign “War Is Over … if you want it”). This campaign has been launched by Francione with zero funding or organisational support but rather with the creativity and dedication of people from all around the world who are producing banners and displaying them online to promote veganism.

While ideas about animal rights are nothing new, the forums in which they are beginning to appear are. It’s often observed that there’s a big gap between niche interests which thrive online and mainstream issues which gain attention in the mass media. With the recent visibility of the animal rights issue it looks like this is a gap that the movement has just crossed.

Nick Pendergrast teaches Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Melbourne and his research is in the areas of social movements, social change and Critical Animal Studies. He is also a host of the political podcast Progressive Podcast Australia.