Friday, January 15, 2010

Reform versus Liberation - scratch that; make it: Reform AND Liberation

When I finally embraced the concept of animal liberation last year, I did so after years of supporting and promoting various forms of human liberation (e.g., women's liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, etc. etc.).

As I grew older and perhaps somewhat more complacent in my cushy academic position, I still supported the concept of sweeping and humane revolutionary change in principle, yet I found myself becoming more of a liberal in my thinking and approach. In other words, I remained doubtful about the prospects of a successful revolution occurring anytime soon, so I supported reforms and social welfare and the like - policies designed to help ordinary people and ameliorate their condition.

That doesn't mean I abandoned my old vision of human liberation. It simply means I became more pragmatic.

As a believer in animal liberation, I understand that animal libbers face a dilemma. Like the abolitionists of the antebellum era who supported the immediate end of slavery and liberation of enslaved people, the new abolitionists of the animal rights movement support an immediate end to the mass destruction of animal life and the enslavement of animals for human use. This is our position. And we have to say it over and over and over again, loud and clear, until we're blue in the face.

But that doesn't mean we can't support policies that also gradually improve conditions for animals. We're not going to accomplish our vision of animal liberation overnight. Some of the more radical animal liberationists have attacked what they call "welfarism." They are understandably frustrated by the way that gradual improvements give the public a warm and fuzzy feeling and help promote the illusion that animals are finally being treated with the respect they deserve.

The dilemma is that the more you support reform, the more you seem to be legitimizing a system that ought to be dismantled and replaced by a more humane way of doing things.

My position on the matter is not to take an either/or approach to animal liberation and animal welfare. Every little improvement counts. Every law that helps better conditions for animals is a step - however gradual - in the right direction. If a cow is going to be slaughtered, better that it be slaughtered in a slightly less barbaric way due to a law or regulation that improved conditions in slaughterhouses. But slaughter is slaughter, and there is no such thing as "humane" killing, no matter how you look at it.

The job of an abolitionist - whether she/he opposed human chattel slavery in the nineteenth century or animal enslavement in the twenty-first - is to make sure that the voice of abolition is always heard, no matter what. If you take this position, the powers that be will call you every name in the book: radical, extremist, terrorist, you name it. Defend yourself against such name-calling if you must, but don't retreat an inch.

Remember that when 25-year-old journalist and printer William Lloyd Garrison started his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1831, he was a lone voice in the wilderness. He had no way of knowing that his actions would change history. Similarly, when Frederick Douglass (left) escaped slavery in 1838, he, too, had no reason to believe that he would eventually alter the course of human events in profound ways. Neither retreated from abolitionism. But both would have preferred the kind slave owner to the cruel one, even as they worked tirelessly for an end to the institution.

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