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Rescue is the defining action of the animal rights movement
And that's now being tested in court
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not all of these posts will be sent out by email. So if you want to follow this journey, visit the blog every day. I’ll try to post by 10 am each day, but occasionally, I’m sure a post will be late.
When we started Direct Action Everywhere nearly 10 years ago, rescue was on our minds. The idea of direct action, after all, is to “be the change you want to see in the world.” And we wanted, more than anything, to see the animals protected from violence. Rescue brought that dream to life.
I’ve written in the last few days about the importance of open rescue, legally and politically, as I approach my first felony trial on November 29, relating to a baby goat rescued from a meat farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina. But I want to make an even stronger point today. Rescue, I believe, should not just be an effective tactic or strategy. It should be the defining action, image, and even word that the public thinks of, when they think of animal rights. I’ll explain why in this post. But let me first start by explaining what people do think of, when they think of animal rights.
When the movement was founded in 1975, with the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, and the Silver Springs monkey case in 1981, it was a movement of action. Singer’s rousing call for liberation was grounded in the sober recognition that we live in a “tyranny of human over non-human animals,” and accompanied by the rise of the Animal Liberation Front, a grassroots network of activists devoted to raiding fur farms and laboratories to liberate animals from abuse. Over time, however, the movement’s initial boldness was met with a sobering reality: the vast majority of people were apparently not willing to change. So the call to fight “tyranny” with direct action was replaced with something else: consumer activism.
A similar change in the environmental effectively took the wind out of these movements’ sails. The brave actions of the activists at Amchitka in 1971, who peacefully sailed to an island to occupy a site where a nuclear bomb test was about to occur, was replaced by 50 Ways Kids Can Save the Earth in the 1980s. Instead of challenging the most powerful and corrupt corporations and governments, activism was directed towards blaming… kids. The results were predictable. The iconic victories for the environmental movement in the era of direct action led to the period of ascendant “neoliberalism,” i.e., the belief that markets can solve all problems.
Associated with this shift in strategy was a shift in public perception. The Silver Springs case, and the ALF raids that occurred in the 1980s, jolted the nation with a sense of political urgency. Love them or hate them, you understood the animal rights movement to be a moral and political movement. With the shift towards consumer activism, something changed in public perceptions. This movement was not about the desperate cries of animals in labs. It was about a consumer lifestyle, whether vegetarianism, veganism, or some even-more-selective boycott of a particular product or supplier (fur, cosmetics, etc) that was the supposed root cause of the cruelty. And the enemies of that lifestyle were not the massive corporations and governments, whose corruption and profit-driven cruelty were notorious even 40 years ago, but the average person on the street.
I remember feeling terribly guilty when I failed to recycle, or could not find a place to compost, as a child. Because if kids were the solution to the problem, then surely I was responsible, too, for the problem?
It’s not surprising that, when our narrative shifted to attacking members of the public, rather than inspiring or outraging them, that our reputations took a dive. Many media outlets and studies have shown that vegans, for example, have a reputation worse than any group of people other than drug addicts! And this is where we stand today: a world where the perception of animal rights activist is not just negative. It’s one of real annoyance. The label reader. The picky eater. The preachy dieter. All are now more commonly associated with animal rights than the canonical images of rescue from the movement’s founding.
That, I assert, has to change.
The first reason is that rescue is an extraordinarily sympathetic act in the pubic at large. I’ve noted previously that 2 out of the 6 most popular pages on Facebook (Woof Woof and the Dodo) are animal pages, but specifically both pages focus on rescue. Take a moment at one of the pages and you can see why. It’s easy to get lost in the inspiring, hilarious, and tear-jerking videos of animals rescued from torment or abandonment. We need to get back to this framing. We need to stop using a narrative that antagonizes people, and start focusing on why that inspires.
The second reason is that rescue uses individual stories to challenge systems. The identifiable victim effect, in which people show more compassion to a single person than a mass of suffering beings, is one of the most ironclad rules of social justice work. And yet when we talk about veganism or factory farms in the abstract, we stay in the realm of the masses. Rescue harnesses the individual story to create powerful emotions in the people we’re trying to change. But just as importantly, it does so in a way that challenges systems of abuse: corporations, laws that protect animal abusers, laws that deny animals and their rescuers protection, and so on. While most activism is stuck at the level of, “Why aren’t you eating/buying/consuming what I want you to,” the act of rescue takes us to a totally different plane. One where the individuals in our stories are taking collective action to change something so much bigger. We save a life, in short, to save the world.
The last and most important reason, however, is that rescue is animal liberation brought to life. This helps people understand what it is we’re asking for, and emboldens them to fight with us for change. Scholars of movements have pointed out that movements without demands that are concrete — the people can see, hear, and even feel — tend to fail. When we get too lost in the minutiae of carbon footprints, or space requirements, or bizarre (and oft twisted) practices in the industry, we are speaking in a way that the average person can’t understand. But people understand rescue. We all do, because we’ve all had moments in our life where we wanted to be rescued. And that’s precisely why the narrative of rescue is crucial to creating change. Because people understand it, and can empathize with it, in a way that builds power for change.
For these reasons, and many more, I would like to see the animal rights movement elevate rescue much more. And the trial in a little over 2 weeks will be my first change to test this idea. But it will be the first of many. After all, a criminal trial in farm country is perhaps the hardest test case for the right to rescue. But as I’ve noted, if we can win even in Transylvania, then the world will be much closer to revolutionary change for animals than even I would have guessed.