action and guilt

The welfare v abolition debate, an often heated debate that continues to encompass discussion of both strategy and tactics, is one that will likely continue for as long as speciesism dominates. Whereas some welfarists are speciesists, some are opposed to speciesism. Conversely, there is a debate, also controversial, within abolitionist circles regarding the place of welfarist reforms. Gary Francione and many others provide valid criticisms of welfarist approaches, highlighting how they can act to reinforce speciesism as opposed to challenging the anthropocentric exploitation of animals. One criticism of abolitionist positions, perhaps even a shortcoming, is the focus on a bigger picture at the expense of the individual — or to use terminology I have mused about previously, losing sight of the trees for the forest.

How do we ensure in working for long term change, directly challenging speciesism, whilst still not losing sight of the suffering of very much untold numbers of animals every day. How do we actively redress everyday suffering? For me, this is an issue of constant reflection — and one I do not know if I am any closer to having anywhere near an answer. It is too simple, and unfathomable, to accept that animals will suffer everyday — even if this is only a means to make me feel better. Perhaps this is the basis of welfarism: guilt.

Whiteness scholars, specifically those seeking to challenge colonial whiteness, have exposed a number of issues with guilt as a motivator for action. Concern for conditions, whether intentional or not, are rooted in how we feel about the exploitation of non-human animals, how this reflects on us. This contrasts with an interests-based (strictly) abolitionist concern.* The implications of guilt identified by whiteness scholars are directly applicable to welfarism — and likely to many abolitionists as well (to varying degrees). Guilt shifts the debate about the treatment of animals to being one based on our (species) terms, much as guilt about racism often restricts concern to white terms — it is about getting comfortable with the status quo (or a marginally improved one). Good intentions can act to mask the basis of exploitation, becoming self reinforcing.

I may have gone some way here in (partially) answering my own question. What stirred me to pen some thoughts was a sentence in Pattrice Jones Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist imperatives and the ALF in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters:

‘Debates about animal liberation tactics quickly become sterile in the absence of viewpoints of actual animals’

What often seems lacking in abolitionist discussion (which are far too often overly masculine) is a consideration of the everyday suffering of animals. This seems to get lost in the abstract philosophical issues that seemingly predominate in abolitionist discussions — perhaps this is not surprising given the (seemingly at least) male dominated debates. Look at the self appointed (Best, Vlasak) or looked to (Francione) spokespeople. Irrespective of their politics (Fancione has good feminist politics) they are all men…

* Bob Torres’ Making a Killing: the political economy of animal rights (page 12) provides a an indication of why I use interests (in contrast with rights). I have problem with the notion of ‘rights’ in any sense, being a social construction.

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