We might sum up all of that with the phrase, “what goes around comes around.” The recent relatively intense mass media coverage of veganism of late made me think about this, especially in the light of historical events in the 1980s and 1990s.
As a long term vegan interested in social movement theory, I’m interested when I see patterns repeating themselves. It is quite possible that, currently, we are seeing the beginnings of a repeat cycle. If we are, then we need to learn how to improve our claims-making in the light of negative characterisations of vegan animal advocacy.
The 1980s saw a huge peak in animal advocacy and interest in the “animal issue.” British groups like Animal Aid, founded in 1977, were young and energetic and, in North America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) emerged in 1980 as a brash, fresh, champion of other animals. This was a time when the whole notion of animal rights – meaning the moral rights of other sentient beings – was taken more seriously than it is today and often articulated as rights-based animal rights. PeTA was a radical grassroots group in the early years before it became the toxic racist, sexist, and ableist welfare corporation that it is now. Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights was fresh off the presses and things were really buzzing. At one point in England, a journalist (who was ideologically opposed to animal advocacy) estimated that the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) were carrying out around six actions per night. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection had been recently radicalised and that meant that lots of grassroots campaigners throughout Britain could get access to campaigning funds and materials.
Every new generation of social movement participants is tempted to try to reinvent the wheel and, as Jake Conroy notes in the recent video about activism in the 1990s, recent 21st century claims about the “first ever open rescue” in the USA, and the “largest animal rights march ever,” ignore the history of the animal movement. In the latter case of claims about a march in Israel, a 1990 “March for Animals” in Washington attracted a crowd estimated to be between 25,000 (lowest estimate) and 70,000 people. The organisers claimed 55,000, many more than the recent Israeli march.
I was a press officer at the time when mass media coverage of animal advocacy changed in the 1980s. It became darker! Just as we were getting used to being called things like “animal freedom fighters,” and “rescuers,” we probably weren’t quite prepared for the “terrorist turn” in mass media claims-making about animal activists. The increase in negative press wasn’t helped by the fact that the Animal Liberation Front literally ran out of safe homes for liberated other animals. This led to an increase in the incidence of what in those days was called “economic sabotage.” Other factors, such as a Mars Bar poisoning hoax, and the development of incendiary devices based on firelighters, which the press invariably called “fire bombs,” added to the burden of those doing media interviews.
Given this history, then, it seems to me to be a smart move by embattled 21st century animal farmers, and the animal user industries in general, to attempt to re-establish a link between animal advocacy and terrorism. I want modern-day advocates to be better prepared for a backlash than we were.
The animal user industries surely wish to ride on the wave of the current moral panic about terrorism. For example, some farmers have recently claimed to have received “death threats” from “militant vegans.” I notice reports on social media that farmers have been asked to verify these threats and have failed to do so. There will be dirty tricks, to be sure, if this is the beginning of something of a user industry backlash.
After all, as an example, Mr. Alan Newberry-Street, the Director of the “British Hunting Exhibition” – a mobile bloodsports display supported by the British Field Sports Society and the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, was jailed in the past for planting a nail bomb under his own vehicle in a bid to discredit the animal movement. At his trial he asked for other similar offences to be taken into consideration (TIC’d, a legal device to clear police books).
If this move to re-establish a link between vegans and violence is smart, then our reaction to it has to be equally smart, and preferably smarter. For example, we’ve recently witnessed on national radio the hyping up of the “angry vegan” stereotype. Playing up to that stereotype, as happened sadly, is naïve and counterproductive. Any explanation as to why vegans may be angry would be best done in a calm manner! Also, be warned - just as in the 1980s, when some British national animal groups joined in with calling activists “terrorists,” 21st century advocates need to seriously guard against this happening again. Indeed, there is some evidence that this has already begun. Grassroots campaigners need to know that the paid staff in the movement will, generally speaking, not defend them if it appears that negative labels have been successfully attached to their activities by the mass media in particular, however justified and merited such activities appear to be in the activists’ eyes.
For my own part, and returning to Tom Regan and, of course, rights-based animal rights, I appeal to the crop of new vegan spokespersons to 1). diversify – there are too many male voices and 2). read some rights-based philosophy in order to better tackle the characterisation of the vegan cause as welfare based, and better able to deal with appeals to “we have the best welfare standards in world,” which all representatives of users industries say, wherever in the world they happen to be located. Welfare standards are not relevant to the rights-based case for animal rights. Rights violations are not cleaned up by the regulation of atrocities.
A good place to start familiarising oneself with rights based animal rights would be this short video by Tom Regan.