The Yin and Yang of Animal Rights Activism

Thought I might get into the fray about the incremental approach to animal exploitation, versus the abolitional/direct action approach. I know there’s a high chance that nothing good will come of this, but it’s a bit like how we compulsively push at a sore tooth with our tongues. Storm and swarm, and bomb and blast my position on this if you like, but don’t be surprised if it’s like trying to brawl with air. I choose the battles I engage in much more wisely these days. Plus, this is just an opinion, not the freakin’ magna carta. It doesn’t really warrant a seek and destroy missile attack. Save that for bigger and badder targets.

So, there’s been a bit of argy-bargy going on between those who support the incrementalists’ non-disruptive peaceful approach to ending animal exploitation, and the abolitionists’ in-yer-face disruptive approach. Nothing new to see here. Everyone in the world has different opinions. As long as human bums point to the ground, we will have different opinions. If you think that everyone should just get along and love each other, especially Vegans, get over it. Not going to happen – unless we all get frontal lobotomies.

No social justice movement has ever been without controversy within its own ranks. Nothing anywhere is ever without its share of push and shove, even amongst those on the same side. No amount of giving the ‘other’ faction a right old telling off is going to stop what they do, because each faction believes they are right. It would be nice if we all agreed on everything, but spit in one hand and wish in the other, and see which one fills up fastest. (Note: I’m not equating disruption to inflicting physical harm.)

The disruptive actions of Suffragettes had plenty of women against them, some of whom were also Suffragettes, and considered that those actions didn’t help their cause. It ticked off both women and men enough for a National Association Against Women’s Suffrage to be formed. Black men in the USA, had ketchup poured over their heads as they sat at diner counters reserved for Whites. This also ticked off plenty of Black people who felt it put a target on their own backs, which wouldn’t help them to go about in the world without harassment. Who knows for certain if rattling cages makes change happen more quickly, or not. We all know, though, that the squeaky wheel gets the oil.

Those who oppose the shock tactics that animal exploitation abolitionists sometimes employ, often do so because they hate the backlash it causes. They feel that it creates more hatred of Vegans and our philosophy than benefits it. Enough vitriol gets spewed far and wide to give credence to this opinion. Polls show that people become determined to eat more animals than ever; radio and TV shock jocks have a go at Vegans; and Vegans have a go at each other. The opposers of abolitionist tactics believe that just because animal suffering and veganism is suddenly in everyone’s conversation after disruptive action, doesn’t make the tactics used worth it, because the negative publicity overwhelms the real message.

But what about those who aren’t blustering, spewing hatred, and throwing their toys all over the place? Those who quietly decide to find out what this vegan thing is all about, that so many are going ballistic over? They find that out from the supportive info which incrementalists have painstakingly put together to help information seekers. Would they have sought out that information, though, if there had been no disruption in their worlds? ‘Plant-based diet’ is currently first on the list of the top ten diet-related searches on the internet, with ‘vegan diet’ sitting at around number eight or nine, so what has instigated that?

The thing about being non-disruptive, is that we’re easy to ignore. The thing about being disruptive is we need to have something to support the new vegan travellers after the disruption, while they negotiate this new world. To me, it’s like we need both forms of activism as a compliment to each other. Yin and Yang.

I know that for some, the fear of the backlash they’ll get from confrontational activism is very real. Being isolated and experiencing hostility undermines our well-being, productivity, and creativity, so I would never dismiss that as not being a valid concern. It is something we need to address more widely, as activism steps up. I wrote a little bit about that here, but more genuinely helpful conversations are needed about how we stay safe mentally, emotionally, and physically.

We can’t deny that the animals need us to stop exploiting them RIGHT NOW – but the sad reality is that change doesn’t happen overnight. Both forcefulness and softness each have their limitations to making change, unless they work together. I maintain that every social justice movement needs a variety of approaches to reach different people in different ways at different times. Although a bit of bickering is normal amongst those with the same broad values, let’s not go to war with each other. We have much bigger fights to fight than that.

Header pic by hauteteaze designs

NB: Since I wrote this, Carl Scott ( who is my friend, fellow blogger, and animal rights activist, has offered these helpful points about incrementalism and abolitionism –

“This is a great article Katrina. But there is something which you appear to have misunderstood.  You are not the only person to make this mistake though. A lot of people seem to be confused about this.  Abolitionist vs. Incrementalist is not about the tactics. It is about the message.

An Incrementalist can do direct action lock-ons in a factory farm, for example, and an Abolitionist can do cupcake stalls, for example, and other types of low key public-friendly activism. The Incrementalist approach asks for small steps in the right direction. This often means welfare reforms, such as banning farrowing crates for sows, or politely asking people to cut down their consumption of ‘animal products’. An Abolitionist approach demands an *end* to all forms of animal exploitation, and openly states that the vegan paradigm is the ‘moral baseline’ for the relationship between humans and non-human animals. You see the difference? It’s about the message, not the methods…

I totally agree with you that we need all forms of activism, from the very low key, public friendly forms, right through to the more confrontational (and sometimes controversial) forms, and everything in between. As a strong proponent of the Abolitionist approach, I want to see a paradigm shift in the message our movement is delivering to the public. I want us to be using 4 key messages.

1. That animals truly matter and that their lives and interests should be taken really seriously.

2. Presenting veganism, not as ‘a personal lifestyle choice’, but as a moral obligation: as individuals, as a nation, and indeed, in the long term, as a species. (I also think we need to be discussing veganism as ‘anti-speciesism’ to make it clear that it’s about animals, not food or other products. That it is not about telling people what they can and can’t eat or wear, etc., but who they should not kill.)

3. The focus of our message should be on *rapid and urgent* transition from exploiting animals to meet our needs, to non-animal alternatives. As individuals, this means transitioning to being vegan. As a nation, this means transitioning our primary industries from animal agriculture and commercial fishing, to cropping, horticulture, forestry, and rewilding. (There are other transitions too, such as moving away from using animals in science, to using technological, human-relevant alternatives.)

4. That we make it crystal clear and unambiguous to the public and politicians that what we are demanding is an end to animal exploitation. I.e. the total abolition, under NZ law, of all forms of animal ‘use’. Not pointless, welfare reforms, etc.”

Thanks for this, Carl 🙂




2 thoughts on “The Yin and Yang of Animal Rights Activism

  1. I agree we need both incrementalist and disruptive activism. Along with rescue. And, have we reached the point where militant action is needed? The destruction and sabotage of property, the oppressive systems: fur farms, cattle ranges, pig farms, hunting stands, etc.

    I don’t mean to encourage aggressive behavior, but I ask the question. Is this a developing necessity?

    Dr. Steve Best describes it as extensional self-defense. A worthy concept to consider.

    Animal agriculture and “sport” hunting and fishing are actively and remorselessly destroying the planet and eliminated species at an accelerated pace. If they are not the number one cause for climate change, certainly, they’re in the top three. And the further we enter into environmental crisis, perhaps the more severe the action needed to ensure the future.


  2. I agree that the action against the atrocities of animal farming is going to get more militant. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with it either, but it’s a natural progression if nothing changes.

    That’s an interesting concept from Dr Steve Best, and I think he’s right. The more threatened we feel, the more aggressive we’ll get about protecting ourselves from those things (and people) who appear to be threatening us.

    Liked by 1 person

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