Backfire: the movement’s mistakes have failed nonhuman animals
A recent poll has shown that the public is much more supportive of the use of nonhuman animals now than it used to be in the past (the survey was carried out by YouGov for the Daily Telegraph). Around 70% of those questioned claimed that testing new medical treatments on nonhumans before they were tested on humans is acceptable. This shows a shift on the view that the public used to have on this issue, since past polls had shown much closer to 50-50 results on the issue.
In light of these results, Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, has claimed that this was clearly showing what he called “a radical shift” in the British public opinion, and that, accordingly, “the tide has turned". The media have reported this with headings such as “Animal activist campaign backfires”, “Animal rights: backlash”, “Are animal rights activists terrorists?” and other similar ones.
What we are witnessing now, for the first time since the movement started in the sixties and seventies, is that the movement isn't advancing but going backwards.
This is the most worrying news that the movement could have received. But the saddest part of the story is that this poll’s results are not due to the movement being vigorously attacked from outside. Rather, the upsetting true is that it is due to ourselves, to animal rights activists, that we have ended up reaching a situation such as this. It is because of the strategies and campaigns that the animal rights movement has followed that we have got to this ruinous point.
How can this be so? We can point at two important reasons for it:
1) The animal rights movement has been trying to further its case by means that society strongly rejects.
2) The animal rights movement has not taken efforts in trying to explain to the public the arguments that ground its position.
The reason has not been, then, that animal right activists have not been properly devoted to their cause. Animal rights campaigners have worked hard and full heartedly, giving the best of themselves to the cause. In order to succeed we must nevertheless analyse the results of our actions.
Why violent actions have put the public against the movement
The poll results have been also conclusive in another point. 77% of the interviewed defended that it is correct to term animal right activists ‘terrorists’, and only 15% said it was not. This is not strange, according to the kind of activities that have been carried out in the name of the movement.
Most of the public condemn the use of violence, even when it’s carried out in support of causes that they will otherwise support. And, by violence, the public do not only understand the infliction of physical harm to individuals, but also things such as threatening attitudes or destruction of property. Maybe we can question such a view, perhaps we can certainly engage on philosophical discussions about what is or is not violence, but that isn’t the question at all. The problem is that, regardless of whether we consider that such attitudes are violent or not, the public do consider them violent, and do oppose it. It’s not that they have a certain dislike for them: rather they very firmly oppose them and consider them absolutely unacceptable. The poll has also shown this. Most of the people (93%) defended the right to hold peaceful demonstrations, but also the overwhelming majority opposed damaging property (95%) and harassing those who work in labs by calling them abusers (81%).
So we can understand how is it that by carrying out activities that are considered violent we are generating a profound opposition against the movement among the public. The numbers are clear as they could be: the majority see animal rights activists as terrorists. This is an extremely serious problem, since in today's climate being considered a terrorist is one of the worst things one can be if one would wish to have the slightest influence on society.
It could be claimed that this is due to a campaign aimed at criminalising animal rights activism. We can maybe try to blame “the media” or some other forces that support the use of animals for having spread such a view of animal rights activists. But it’s quite obvious that it hasn’t been difficult for them to do so. The kind of activism that has been carried out (involving threats, aggressions, destruction of facilities and the lot) is the kind of activism that many among the public would label as vandalism to say the least and terrorism if continued in an organised manner. So no wonder the media has depicted this kind of activism with such terms.
There has been no explanation to the public of the arguments against speciesism
Britain along with Sweden and maybe some other country, is possibly the place where activism for nonhumans is more developed. In spite of that, most of the public ignore the very reasons why we should reject discrimination against those who are not member of the human species. The very word speciesism is unknown to most of the public. This is startling, to say the least. How can it be that a movement that is so well known in the UK has not been able to explain its case?
Animal rights propaganda very seldom includes any explanation of why all those who are able to feel suffering and joy should have their interest equally considered. No reason is given as to why discrimination against someone based on mere group membership is wrong. The result of this is that the public don’t know these arguments. They often think that we defend nonhumans because we find them cute or because we are sentimental. So whenever animal rights claims mean that any human interest is set back (as it happens with the interest in wearing certain kind of clothes, tasting certain “foods”, and the like) this is seen as outlandish. It wouldn’t be so if they understood the basis for equality among all sentient beings.
Why we should focus on convincing the public
Sometimes public opinion is dismissed by some activists. The argument for doing so is that we should focus on winning a ‘war’ against ‘animal abusers’. This entails a deep confusion. Such assumption is based on the idea that there’s a small group of people (those who breed, experiment on or kill nonhumans themselves) who are abusing them because the rest of the society let them do so. And this is the most mistaken view of the problem that could be imagined. The actual truth is completely different from this.
Those who directly, physically harm the animals (those who work or own a farm, slaughterhouse, circus or animal experimentation lab) do so simple because the public demands that this is done. People eat the flesh of nonhuman animals, wear their skins, like watching shows in which they perform, and so on. The wants of the public means that some people are required to exploit nonhumans so that these wants can be met. If all the companies that use nonhuman animals were closed down by activists then new ones would be set up because the public want them to exist. Moreover, when we write “the public” we can read the overwhelming majority of humanity. So it’s most of humanity that, whether directly or indirectly, is to blame for the use of nonhumans. Those who buy meat or leather are those responsible for the exploitation of nonhuman animals. If no one bought these products then no animals would be killed for such purposes. So what trying to run a ‘war’ against ‘animal abusers’ would really imply is nothing short than running a war against the overwhelming majority of humanity. Such a war is obviously impossible to win. If we want to help nonhuman animals we need to convince people not to use them. Most of those who use nonhumans have never really reflected on whether they have a justification to discriminate against nonhumans. –one example of this can be found in the case of philosopher Tom Regan, a man well known for defending the recognition of rights for nonhumans, who previously and unquestioningly ate meat, went fishing and worked as a butcher–.
According to this, we can easily infer what goes on in the specific case of so-called “animal experimentation” (i.e., experimentation on nonhuman animals but not on human animals). Those who perform experiments on nonhumans do so because we live in a society in which there is a demand for such experimentation. The paradigm in current biomedicine research is based on such experiments and there are laws requiring it. The underlying idea is, as it has been said before by those who oppose speciesism, that we live in a society that discriminates against nonhumans simply because they aren’t members of the same species we are. This is why the claim that those who perform experiments on nonhuman animals are evil, sadistic people can’t be taken seriously by the public. The reason is simple: it’s not just a simplistic vision, it’s plain wrong. Those who perform ‘animal experimentation’ don’t do so because they are ‘sadistic animal abusers’: they do it because the public want them to do it. So if we want to bring an end to experiments of this sort we need, therefore, to convince people to oppose them. Unfortunately, there’s no other way. There are no shortcuts. The survey results have been crystal clear: violent tactics not only don’t further the cause: they make it much more difficult to defend. An example of all this can be found in another news item that has appeared in the media recently:
Blair’s support of experimentation on nonhumans
In a move without precedence, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has signed a manifesto in favour of animal experimentation. Nothing of the like had taken place before. It could be said that this means that a public representative, who is meant to stand on behalf of all the citizens of his nation, instead of being impartial gives his support to a particular position (the one defending animal experimentation). We must in any case reflect on what this is showing to us. Mr. Blair wouldn’t have given his support to animal experimentation if he wasn’t confident that this was a political stance worth taking. If animal experimentation was publicly questioned in a significant way, or if those who denounce it had the sympathies of the public, Blair would never have supported it. If he has done so, it’s because he has considered that the political costs that he would get from it are certainly less that the advantages he would get (especially in a situation such as the present one, in which his popularity has dropped to the minimum). As the poll we already commented on shows, this is the case, whether we like it or not. Certainly many of us will strongly reject a position such as Blair’s. But many among the public will not. The sad thing with this is that it could have been otherwise if they hadn’t been driven to see those opposing animal experiments as violent fanatics and instead they had been informed about the arguments opposing speciesism.
An antispeciesist, vegan movement is needed
The defence of nonhumans could have been carried out in a very different way. There are two areas in which there is a lot still to be done. One has been already commented upon: the arguments against speciesism should be communicated to the public, it’s necessary to create a public debate about them. The other has to do with what the public can more directly do against the use of nonhumans: veganism. Although the way in which people can more directly oppose the use of nonhumans is by stopping taking part in it, campaigns aimed at changing public minds regarding this have been substituted by those trying to introduce new ‘animal welfare’ laws or closing down certain companies. These do not mean a reduction in the number of nonhumans that are being used, but only some small changes concerning how they are treated or where they are exploited –if a lab is closed down, then the experiments that it performed will be done elsewhere–.
Veganism should occupy a central place in our agenda. And veganism can be promoted by many means which don’t imply putting the public against us.
This should affect in particular the practice that, by far kills more animals, which is, without any doubt, fishing. Not so-called “sport fishing”, or angling, but commercial fishing. The number of nonhumans that are used for ‘animal experimentation’ is certainly huge, but it’s rendered little if compared with the number of animals that are killed in slaughterhouses. But even the number of animals who die in slaughterhouses is also rendered little if compared with the number of those who die because they are fished for being eaten –we must remember that the number of, say, sardines or cods that are needed for getting the same amount of flesh to be eaten that can be obtained by killing, say, a cow, is certainly significant–. In contrast with this, very little has been done to convince the public to give up fish-eating, especially if compared with the efforts that have been spent to oppose other areas of animal slavery, such as, for instance, animal experimentation. All this, in spite of the clear figures brought by a comparison of the number of the animals that die due to both practices.
As we have commented, the movement is now in a very worrying situation not because we have been unlucky or because we have been strongly countered, but rather because of the kind of actions we’ve been doing ourselves. According to this, the good news is that we can change this situation by making a shift on the kind of activism that is carried out. An antispeciesist and strongly pro-veganism movement is necessary. We can make a change. And we need to do it. To be more exact: nonhuman animals need that we do it.