“Direct Action” Activism
violence should never be an option
Bruce Friedrich and Peter Singer
are often asked about the best way for animal advocates to spend their
energy, and some of the most committed activists will sometimes ask us
some version of this question: “Shouldn’t activists be devoting their entire
being to the cause? Shouldn’t we be taking down the animal exploitation
industries ‘by any means necessary’” – including breaking the law?
we understand the sentiment, we believe that much direct action is problematic
for two principal reasons: first, because it violates our central ethic
of compassion; and second, because it’s counter-productive to our animal
is certainly true that nonviolent civil disobedience can be done in a manner
that is consistent with the principles of the animal rights movement: Think
about the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement and the suffragettes
showing up to vote. But in these instances, as well as in the oft-cited
examples of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Dr. King and so many others,
these protests happened in broad daylight, and the protestors took responsibility
for their actions.
action that takes place as dark-of-night vandalism is quite different though.
The fundamental precept of the animal rights movement is to apply the golden
rule across the species barrier, yet vandalism and similar direct actions
fail to take this principle seriously: They attempt to appropriate the
method of the oppressors, and the accompanying rhetoric is not of mercy,
but of vengeance. As Dr. King rightly noted, “An eye for an eye will make
the whole world blind.” We, as champions of nonviolence toward animals,
must use nonviolent tactics as our method.
direct Action is Counter-Productive
addition to being ethically wrong, we believe that vandalism (and similar
forms of direct action) is counter-productive.
people who advocate direct action are deeply distressed at the horrors
suffered by animals on factory farms, in animal experimentation laboratories,
and so on. Out of frustration—and the accompanying anger and hopelessness—some
people resort to violent direct action. But anger is not the best foundation
on which to build a movement.
foundations are science and ethics. It's a scientific fact that other animals
are made of flesh, blood and bone, just like human beings. They have the
same five physiological senses that we do, and they value their lives.
They are, as Darwin taught us, more like us than unlike us. They are so
similar to us that Richard Dawkins calls them our evolutionary cousins.
about ethics? According to Gallup, 96 percent of Americans believe that
animals should be legally protected from cruelty. And according to an American
Farm Bureau-funded study, 95 percent of Americans believe farmed
animals should be well-cared for. Is there any other issue on which we
have such consensus? We are a nation of animal lovers. People may have
not yet made the connection between companion animals and other animals—and
they might not yet know the horrors of the factory farm and slaughterhouse—but
that’s simply a matter of education and leading by example.
the same reason we love our dogs and cats—we know that they are someone,
not something—we should have similar compassion for all animals. The argument
is strong enough that intellectuals from Noam Chomsky to Richard Dawkins
have suggested that the animal rights movement is our generation’s abolition
are convinced that those of us in the animal rights movement should be
optimistic about the future of our movement; as Dr. King taught us, although
“the arc of the moral universe is long… it bends toward justice.” Because
we have science and ethics on our side, it is only a matter of time before
society aligns our ethics with our understanding: Just as abolition and
votes for women were inevitable, so too is a growing understanding that
animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, and use for our own amusement.
And it’s simply impossible to reconcile the optimism that we feel about
our place in history and our path forward with the extraordinary pessimism
represented by vandalism or intimidation. For why would we do such things
if we believe that the public will come over to our side, once they really
understand what we are doing to animals? When we resort to tactics
that the general public finds repugnant—and with good reason—then we lose
the debate; we defeat ourselves.
best form of activism is influence-focused
someone has the energy and passion that it would take to risk life and
limb through violent direct action, surely they have the energy and passion
required to devise a campaign to educate their community in a positive
way—to influence people to become vegan and understand that what happens
to animals is wrong and unnecessary. It is certainly simpler to rant about
the suffering of animals, and it is also easier to throw bricks through
windows than it is to build a movement. But animals are suffering, and
we owe it to them to choose the forms of activism that will be most successful.
believe that the best forms of activism—the forms that will transform our
country and world—involve leafleting, tabling, showing videos taken inside
factory farms, teaching cooking or community college classes, writing letters,
convincing restaurants and caterers to have more and better vegan options,
pressuring supermarkets to stop selling products involving the worst forms
of animal cruelty, using social networking tools to educate vast numbers
of people online, organizing politically, passing local, state or federal
legislation to protect animals, getting pro-animal letters and articles
published in local newspapers, garnering support from people of influence
in your community, and so on. These are the things that have pushed animal
protection to the forefront—that have resulted in a greatly-raised consciousness
about animal issues over the last decade. And these are the things that
will continue turning the tide for animals.
goal as a movement is not to change what people believe—nearly all Americans
already agree with our sentiments about animals. So our goal should be
to show them how they can align their actions with their ethics. We can
win the public to our side if we stay true to the values that brought us
to the animal protection movement in the first place. Animal liberation
requires that we harness our energies in the most consistent and effective
ways possible, and that means that we should eschew violence and property
destruction, focusing our energies on actions that are consistent with
our compassionate goals, and on areas of maximum impact. Violent direct
action fails in both categories.
Singer is the author of Animal Liberation and professor of bioethics
at Princeton University. Bruce Friedrich is vice president for policy at