The excellent Satya magazine recently published two issues about “violence and activism,” after having solicited articles from readers, activists, and others involved in the animal/environmental/human rights movements. I read the March issue cover-to-cover in one sitting, waffling back and forth on the issue based on whatever article I was currently reading, and have read a number of articles in the new issue as well. Below is the piece that I submitted to Satya . It wasn’t printed, but I figured I’d share it here, since I figure other ethical vegetarians struggle with this issue themselves at some point.
During the first break of my freshman year at college, I went out to lunch with a high school friend who had started her senior year and was looking forward to going off to college herself. We chatted about the normal stuff, like what a big change college was and how the last year of high school seemed to drag on forever, but at some point, the topic of conversation drifted to civil rights. We discussed how so-called “radicals” or “extremists” that were part of the civil rights movement played a role and were even essential to its survival. My friend said to me, “You know, sometimes it takes extreme positions to really cause the status quo to change.” It’s this part of our conversation that I remember most vividly ten years later.
The more I thought about what she said, and I thought about it a number of times over the years, the more I realize she was right. If there were no Black Panthers or Nation of Islam speaking as loudly as they did, would the more moderate civil rights movement still have made the same impact as quickly? Probably not.
Does this same thought apply to the animal rights movement? As much as some outsiders consider PETA “extremists” for their various publicity stunts that draw attention to their cause, it’s groups like the Animal Liberation Front and SHAC-USA that proudly wear the label of “radical extremist” on their sleeves. When the fight for animal rights goes beyond civil disobedience or other lawful ways of bucking the system, does the argument still stand that change is brought about faster by the most extreme factions of our movement?
My wishy-washy answer is: I’m still not sure, but I think so.
On one hand, I consider myself peaceful and can’t find myself supporting physical harm to any person, no matter how many awful things the person has done. After all, aren’t they just “less enlightened” or something? My mind changed as I read about the wrongs of the meat, dairy, and egg industries, why couldn’t they be the same?
On the other hand, I can’t help but cheer a little bit when I hear that SHAC’s tactics have managed to convince another financial backer to sever their business relationship with Huntingdon Labs. Though the animals that are subject to the most unnecessary, horrible tortures in the name of cosmetics and cleaning products won’t feel the immediate victory, I feel like a step has been made in the right direction.
Really, there’s no easy answer and no one right answer. There are many ways to approach the issue of animal rights and each of us has our own calling to a particular form of activism. While some are disturbed most by the property damage and violence caused by some activists, I’m more concerned by the reason that sort of response isn’t so uncommon. The cause bothers me even more than the response.
For instance, if factory farms didn’t exist, would groups be defacing family farms and damaging property of people who bought eggs from them? Would the Earth Liberation Front be damaging fleets of SUVs if the vehicles were more fuel efficient and manufacturers didn’t so blatantly snub environmental groups by actively marketing vehicles like the Hummer to the general public? If HLS weren’t testing sweeteners on rabbits, would groups like SHAC even exist?
I will always fall on the side of a peaceful solution, when given a choice. I think most people do. But as in the civil rights movement, perhaps the more extreme factions are needed to help change the status quo, as much as the thought saddens me. My hope is that through all of our efforts, in the future, property damage and violence won’t even be a thought. Perhaps we’ll get to the point where our efforts can be focused on education and legislative changes. However, with systems as dirty as the ones we’re dealing with, it’s clear that groups that practice extreme types of activism are far from disappearing.