1 What is the Mission of the Animal Rights Movement?

June 25th, 2010
The moral shock opens our eyes to animal cruelty. Photo credit: Animal Liberation Victoria

The moral shock opens our eyes to animal cruelty. Photo credit: Animal Liberation Victoria

Is it to intervene in abusive situations to save animals from suffering? Is it to bring public attention to the most egregious examples of animal cruelty? Is it to act provocatively to attract the media’s attention? Is it to create a more humane world? Is it to challenge the institutional exploitation of animals? Is it to convince consumers to boycott animal-based products and adopt a cruelty-free vegetarian or vegan lifestyle?

The movement’s activities – past and present – demonstrate that all of the above – and more – are among its objectives. The movement’s principal focus is getting the individual to act. As the Australian Animal Liberation Victoria group puts it: “Think. Care. Act.”

Notwithstanding important philosophical differences, I use animal rights in this paper to mean all pro-animal advocacy ideological positions. I define the animal rights movement as a social movement whose constituent organizations range in their ideological perspectives.

At the heart of the movement’s public education strategy of “Think. Care. Act.” is the “moral shock.” The personal transformative moment when outrage is experienced at the injustice perpetrated toward animals. The impact of the moral shock may be immediate or it may require some time before it makes its effect fully known.

The moral shock may be prompted directly or indirectly by the movement. Or, as in my case, when I worked in a chicken slaughterhouse 35 years ago, it may occur without any influence of the movement.

Regardless, the moral shock of the personal transformative movement is so powerful that it overwhelmingly forms the rationale behind the movement’s repertoire of protest. Just consider for a moment the images and rhetoric used by the movement throughout the world and in every chapter of its history.

The moral shock opens our eyes to animal cruelty. We see what has been previously hidden from view. We discover animal exploitation is present throughout our world, in the lives we live, the products we buy and where we work and play. We seek out animal suffering. We prevent its occurrence. We want others to see what we now see. We want them to experience their personal transformative moment. We become “Caring Sleuths,” as described by my Animals and Society Institute colleague, Ken Shapiro. We believe society will change if enough people experience enough moral shocks. This is why the movement and its repertoire of protest rely upon fomenting public outrage. The emphasis is on the individual to think, care and act. Go vegan! Go cruelty-free! Don’t buy fur! Boycott zoos. If I can change, you can, too.

The movement’s emphasis on personal lifestyle choice to achieving institutional change is inadequate. It may help some individual animals and inspire some people to make compassionate lifestyle choices. But it is not for everyone. Lifestyle choices can be a fickle friend as trends and fashions change. Not everyone is the same. Not everyone does change. Not everyone is willing to forgo what are commonly perceived as rights (e.g., human rights trumping animal rights), entitlements (e.g., animal tested medications) and pleasures (e.g., fox hunting and eating meat). They don’t want us to tell them. They don’t want to see the photos and DVDs. We can’t tell them what they can and cannot do. They’re only animals. People are more important.

This is the frame around the animal rights movement’s mission and its repertoire of protest. Caring Sleuths live inside the frame with our alleged self-righteous attitudes, seemingly smug vegan/vegetarian cruelty-free lifestyles, perceived radical boycotts and protests, and superior rescued cats and dogs. Everyone else lives outside the frame. They look in. They ask “Am I one of them?” “Do I want to be like them?” “Do I even like them?”

The movement’s obsession with personal lifestyle choice stops us from understanding the immensity of the animal rights challenge.

Clearly, some will change and others will go where a significant minority takes them. This is how social change is achieved and how social movements achieve change. A critical mass reaches a tipping point when what was once fringe goes mainstream. Smoking tobacco in public places and civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples moved in recent times from the side to the centre of the political arena, notwithstanding a minority who resolutely oppose both.

Animal rights, too, has the potential to move to the mainstream from society’s margins. But this can be only achieved if the animal rights movement responds to two important points.

  1. To understand how social movements advance their mission from obscurity to acceptance.
  2. To learn how to implement a strategy that balances the utopian vision of vegan idealism with the pragmatic politics of achieving the possible.

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