A few years ago I made a vehement stance on the validity of nonviolent direct action in the form of street protest. The example in that instance was an annual event called Fur-Free Friday. Local vegans were tone policing the protest over their disapproval of direct action. Last year took the gluten-free cupcake when they went so far as to try and co-opt the event with their own1. I still do disagree with these vegan interlopers but my position on Fur-Free Friday has flipped. I no longer support it and I feel such targeted campaigns are unethical.
To be clear though, I do not think fur activists involved are intentionally malicious. I believe their hearts are in the right place. I’m using the fur campaign here as an example to illuminate a fundamental issue I feel mires the movement. A movement obscured through the distorted lens of veganism.
Activists as Saviors
For the past 15 years I was doing it wrong. Of all my years as a vegan activist though, the past year with my has been the most constructive. This is primarily due to my involvement with Direct Action Everywhere2. Their adherence to a social justice stance has focused the issue for me. They strive to build a diverse movement which takes into consideration all injustices while fighting speciesism. Thinking more about injustices towards human animals has informed my thinking on the non-human ones.
Animals have no voice. They cannot speak up for themselves and demand justice3. So we are left with the quandary of speaking up for them. But often it seems we speak up for us, about them.
Starting off as “a vegan”, the issue of animal rights was already framed for me. It was a movement about me opting out of hurting animals. Even when actually doing something for animals I wasn’t truly considering them as a person. They were always an object that I was there to rescue. It was about me even if it felt like it was about them. I failed to consider them as the persons they are and respect that accordingly.
The Betrayal of Imagery
One of the most memorable moments that helped shift my view was this post on communicating the message of animals’ personhood. I read that right before last year’s Fur-Free Friday for which I helped organize. Everybody knows the gruesome imagery fur campaigns are known for. I did insist on imagery that didn’t reinforce animals as victims. There was only so much I could do though, as a co-organizer. The posters are recycled year to year in the same tired routine.
If these were humans we would balk at using such imagery. The graphic nature violates the dignity of the victim and reinforces that role. So why then, if we are communicating animals as persons, do we act differently? It’s because, even as animal rights activists, we can be speciesist ourselves even when it’s at the root of animal oppression we’re fighting.
It’s hard to be an ally. To fully empathize when you never were and never can be a certain kind of victim is practically impossible. But compassion can motivate us to consider the benefit of that doubt. We can buffer in some leeway in our advocacy to account for inevitable ignorance. It helps assure the most constructive move forward. Sometimes when we are trying to the right thing we may be making the problem worse. The science denialists have taught me that well.
Focusing on an issue tied to a particular oppressed group that one is not a member can get problematic. We see this with campaigns that focus on animal use in other cultures and stoke racist attitudes. Leveraging the thread of underlying prejudice in our culture to fast-track gains for a convenient agenda isn’t justifiable. Those unfortunate embedded notes resonate and it’s an attempt to appropriate that dissonant chord. It’s the wrong tune to play though. In this day after all the struggles we’ve seen, lessons learned, we should know better.
Fur Campaigns are Sexist
Fur-Free Friday is twenty years old now. The perennial march is resurrected each year on tradition alone. Obviously that’s weak justification. The sexism behind the campaign may not be intentional, but it’s there. If you find yourself denying it, take a second look4. Women are being harassed, bullied and shamed (while men in animal skins are let off scot-free). It took me ten years to realize this5. It’s time for Fur-Free Friday to retire or reform. We cannot justify oppressing others while fighting oppression.
To sum up:
- Be an ally in fighting for justice.
- Actually consider the animal, not just your emotional response to the injustice. Animals are more than victims.
- Please be sensitive in the imagery you use when advocating for other animals. Consider their dignity, express it6.
- Recognize and respect other social justice movements. Do not appropriate. Work together even7!
- Do not cater to dysfunctional underpinnings of the dominant culture as a short cut. If the cause is worth it, honor it with the hard work.
- Called it a “Compassionate Holidays Parade” but changed the time to start early ↩
- Vegan Chicago Podcast Episode #004 – Activism with Wayne Hsiung & Brian Burns, DxE ↩
- not that it would matter anyway ahem…#BlackLivesMatter :p ↩
- FUR HAGS and SELFISH BITCHES | Why anti-fur campaigns are sexist and ineffective – a privileged vegan
PETA Commercial where a woman is beaten for fur. | Youtube
Video upon video of bullying women on the streets. | Youtube ↩
- Ten years ago I read Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement by Gary Francione. ↩
- Allies and Images: The Importance of Communicating the Victim’s Personhood — Kelly Atlas, Direct Action Everywhere ↩
- Appropriation and Animal Rights: The Intersectional Activist — Christopher-Sebastian McJetters, Direct Action Everywhere ↩