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Winning Requires Losing
The Utah legislature passed an anti-rescue bill this week. Here's why that's good for animal rights.
One of the most bizarre aspects of social change work is that victory is often snatched from the jaws of defeat. The gay rights movement was supercharged in part by a historic failure in California in 2008, when voters passed a ban on gay marriage. The Civil Rights Movement was launched in part because Rosa Parks was charged for sitting in a seat that a bus driver asked her to relinquish for a white person; the fact that she lost in court, and was convicted, has been mostly forgotten by history. And the anti-slavery movement was empowered by one of history’s greatest legislative catastrophes, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime to give aid to escapes slaves.
I’ve had these historic “defeats” in mind as the movement responds to the likely passage of HB114 in Utah, an anti-rescue bill that will make it a crime to give aid to “sick” and “injured” animals. This week, the animal rights movement’s best opportunity to defeat the bill evaporated, as a no-show on a key legislative committee led to a 3-2 vote (with one vote missing), which allowed the bill to pass on to the full Senate. Mary Corporon, a renowned defense attorney who represented us at trial, and Lynn Carlson, one of the jurors at the Smithfield trial, both testified against HB114 at the hearing. But despite their best efforts, and pressure from animal advocates across the state and nation, the bill will likely become law in the next few days and weeks.
So why am I not particularly concerned? Partly because Utah’s history of overreacting to animal rights activists has backfired for the industry. The state’s passage of an ag-gag law, which criminalized the act of taking a photograph inside a factory farm or slaughterhouse, ended up bringing enormous attention to abuses that the industry was trying, with that law, to hide! But there is a more general set of characteristics of a so-called “defeat” that are characteristic of a “defeat that will turn into victory.” And the passage of HB114 meets virtually all of these criteria. Consider:
Moral asymmetry. I’ve written about this before, but when a social movement “loses” — but hears scant moral argument on the other side — that is a sign that change is on the horizon. That’s most true of the long term. But even in the short term, when one side loses but still finds itself in a morally strong position, it’s very often the case that the defeat will fuel progress. That’s partly because of the next point.
The rage/fear ratio. When a defeat causes significantly more outrage than fear, there is a good chance that it will fuel progress. HB114 targets a relatively tiny number of activists — relatively few people attempt to openly rescue animals from farms in Utah — but will infuriate many more people and inspire them to get involved. This is a good trade for animal rights.
The bully story. Defeats in which the “winning” side is easily portrayed as a bully often end up being harnessed by those fighting for social change. This was true of Rosa Parks, and gay rights, for sure. And it is also true of animal rights in the context of the anti-rescue bill. Old, powerful men, influenced by a large corporation (and donor to political campaigns) literally decide they want to target sick and injured animals — and stand behind a company causing those sicknesses and injuries. This is a story that will tend to self-propagate — and create change.
There are, of course, many risks as well. Perhaps the biggest is that the bill works at its intended purpose: scaring animal rights advocates away from rescue work. That makes it all the more important, then, for us to spread as much knowledge around the country as to what can be done in response! Advocates armed with accurate information about the bill, and ways we can fight it, are much more likely to stay involved.
I’ll have much more to say about that, as I go on the run to push for the right to rescue.
But what are your thoughts on the above? Will the Utah anti-rescue bill, like the ag-gag laws, go down in history as a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat?