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On Militant Direct Action

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Economy (Chapter 1-E)First, do no harm.

~ Origin unknownDirect action is a catch-all term for any action taken on behalf of animals with the intention of rescuing, liberating, or saving them, individually or collectively, from exploitation, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, or intentionally inflicted harm or death.Direct action can be legal, as in the case of adopting a rescued dog from a local shelter or taking a stray goat or chicken to a sanctuary that will provide a permanent, loving home.

Direct action can also be illegal, and range from trespassing in open rescues (where the rescuers voluntarily publicize the rescue and turn themselves in to law enforcement) to arson, major property damage, death threats, non-lethal threats, and harassment. With the possible exception of open rescues and similar less serious violations of the law, illegal direct action is also known as “militant direct action” (“MDA”).

The Problem, In a Nutshell

We breed, confine, and slaughter 10 billion land animals for food annually (about 317 per second) in the United States alone (about 50 billion worldwide). The vast majority of these innocent beings endure pain, unbearable boredom, terror, and misery that easily qualify as a lifetime of torture. These animals are at least as sentient and perceptually intelligent as three year-old children, and often significantly more sentient and perceptually intelligent than any human. [1] Considering the severity of the cruelty and the sheer magnitude of torture and death inflicted on these beings, it is an atrocity and moral outrage that annually dwarfs any committed in human history, including the Nazi Holocaust. As Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, said: “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”

It is no wonder people who know the horrific details of animal agriculture and other forms of exploitation are outraged and desperately want to do something, almost anything, to stop this extreme violence and insanity. While overwhelming outrage is an entirely appropriate response, it needs to be channeled into effective action.

This perpetual holocaust did not arise suddenly out of nowhere, and it is likely not going to end suddenly either. It came about through a disastrous combination of 1) centuries of deep social and cultural prejudice against sentient nonhuman beings, and 2) continually increasing technological advancements, industrial capacity, human population growth, and economic demand during the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century. The environmental disaster of animal agriculture, including severe water and air pollution, greenhouse gases, deforestation, and clean water shortages will become ever more obvious as human population growth continues and the industrialization and technology of animal exploitation spread to Asia. Along with this spread into Asia, the numbers of innocent nonhuman victims of this worldwide perpetual holocaust will likely increase by the tens of billions over the coming decades, assuming no strong, popular, nonviolent vegan abolitionist movement develops soon.

The Solution, In a Nutshell

We will end this atrocity only by ending the cultural prejudice against sentient nonhumans over years or decades of vegan education [2] eventually leading to widespread veganism as a minimum standard of decency throughout industrialized societies.

We cannot regulate the perpetual holocaust of billions; the holocaust must be abolished. We cannot force abolition on a society that does not understand the underlying principles and rational and moral foundations of abolitionist animal rights and the prejudice of speciesism. Any attempt to force, threaten, vandalize, or terrorize our way toward abolition will only backfire, cause resistance, and shut down moral and rational dialogue. We cannot educate people about pro-social, healthy, and nonviolent veganism whom we are simultaneously threatening, vandalizing, terrorizing, or “at war” with. This would be true even when a relatively large percentage (say, 30%) of the population is vegan. This is especially true when only a very small percentage (about 1%) of society is vegan.

“One Plate at a Time”

Some well-known proponents of MDA (who are necessarily opponents of the abolitionist approach as set forth by Professor Gary Francione) pejoratively call the abolitionist approach of vegan education the “one-plate-at-a-time” approach and claim it will be centuries before such an approach can work, if ever. But the phrase “one-plate-at-a-time” wildly distorts vegan education as it is conceived by abolitionists.

“One-plate-at-a-time” implies a predictable and ridiculously slow linear growth pattern of vegan education and veganism. However, when we consider typical growth patterns of social change in history, it is chaos theory that best describes it. Like the weather, which is a classic example of how chaos theory can describe complex phenomena, social change has millions of small variables, both potential and actual. The interaction of these variables is unpredictable and can be significantly influenced over the long-term by relatively small changes at any given time. When significant change or a “tipping point” occurs, change can become exponential, not linear, in nature. Creative, nonviolent vegan education – similar to educational efforts over the past five decades in the United States to reduce or eliminate smoking, racism, sexism, and drunk driving – is the kind of social change that is unpredictable and non-linear. [3]

To get a general idea of non-linear growth, consider that ten thousand vegans will generate new vegans at ten times the rate that one thousand vegans will. A hundred thousand vegans will generate new vegans at one hundred times the rate that one thousand vegans will, and so on. So the more vegans there are in a society, the more rapid the pace at which non-vegans will go vegan. The pejorative “one-plate-at-a-time” description of vegan education fails to take into account both the unpredictable and exponential nature of social change in general and vegan education in particular. To think of nonviolent vegan education as a “one-plate-at-a-time” method is naïve at best and completely dishonest at worst.

Two Barriers to Vegan Education: Militant Direct Action and Welfarism

As I have written extensively elsewhere on this blog, welfarism is a serious barrier to nonviolent vegan education and abolition because it sees treatment instead of use, and suffering instead of exploitation and slaughter, as the problems to be overcome. In accepting the use and exploitation of animals as a ‘given’, welfarism has no use for veganism or abolition. In this way, welfarism will always reinforce the exploitation paradigm and be a long-term asset to industry’s survival.

MDA is also a serious obstacle to creative, nonviolent vegan education and abolition. As Professor Gary Francione has said, we live in a society where consuming animal products is still considered to be as normal and natural as drinking water and breathing air. In such an extremely speciesist society, law-breaking, property damage, or violence against animal exploiters can only be seen as bizarre and anti-social. Again, we cannot educate or have a reasonable dialogue with people who are afraid of us, see us as anti-social, or don’t want to be associated with a small movement that threatens or attacks other law-abiding citizens. Further, creative, nonviolent vegan education has the unchallengeable high moral ground. Animal exploiters may ignore us; but if we are nonviolent and law-abiding, they have absolutely no moral claims against us whatsoever. MDA undermines that moral authority and leverage by providing animal exploiters with a moral objection against ‘animal rights’ people. In a strongly speciesist society, MDA undermines moral authority far more than it otherwise would.

The Similarities Between Militant Direct Action and New Welfarism

MDA and welfarism have a lot in common:

1) The motivation for both MDA and welfarism is rooted in a strong sense of urgency and desire to see immediate results, or a “quick fix”, but both ignore the fact that the problem – which is the cultural prejudice of speciesism held by 99% of society – is not only immune to such quick fix solutions, but is aided by such attempts acting as a barrier to nonviolent vegan education.

Welfarism hacks at the branches of treatment through reform, declaring ‘victories’ and superficial ‘results’ in an industry-dominated legislative world where such laws are passed and repealed like the change of seasons. Further, welfarism reinforces the legal structure and regulated property rights paradigm that animal exploitation is founded upon.

MDA hacks at the branches of individual exploiters and exploitive companies. On rare occasions, MDA proponents are able to declare a so-called ‘success’ as their targets either move to another location or are replaced by the competition. However, even in these odd instances where individual companies are driven out of business, the competition unfailingly moves in to satisfy the demand. Further, MDA alienates many people who would otherwise be open to creative, nonviolent vegan education.

2) They both play to industry’s strength. (By “industry” in this essay, I mean all animal exploiting industries taken as a whole.)

Industry is strong in politics, legislation, and deal-making. Industry also has the complete cooperation and dedication of law enforcement at every level of government, from local police up to federal agencies and the National Guard.

Welfarism takes on industry in politics, legislation and deal-making, wasting millions of dollars and thousands of hours in ridiculously futile efforts to regulate a holocaust of billions of innocent victims annually, reinforcing the system it attempts to regulate.

MDA generally recruits very small groups of untrained and inexperienced youth to take on industry against some of the most highly trained and experienced law enforcement organizations and agencies in the world. This mismatch in knowledge, skill, and experience routinely results in young people spending years in prison while industry grows and thrives annually, almost always unfazed by even the most serious MDA attacks.

3) They both ignore industry’s weakness. Industry’s weakness is that it is morally deplorable and environmentally disastrous (again, the eco-disaster will become ever more obvious as huge Asian markets increase demand for animal products).

Welfarism diverts resources away from widespread vegan education efforts. It is widespread, nonviolent vegan education which is capable of effectively attacking industry’s weakness and bringing the giant to its knees over time. And again, welfarism also reinforces the legal structure and regulated property rights paradigm that animal exploitation is founded upon.

MDA also diverts resources away from vegan education efforts by 1) diverting public attention away from vegan animal advocates as pro-social role models to be emulated toward vegan animal advocates as anti-social vandals and criminals to be ostracized, and 2) causing young vegan advocates to spend months or years in prison. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, MDA erodes the obvious moral authority and high ground by lowering the public opinion of animal advocates to just another violent political faction to “control”, “manage”, and crack down on. In a speciesist society, this acts as a significant barrier to nonviolent vegan education.

4) Welfarism and MDA both focus on supply rather than demand. One of the most important things to remember is this: As long as people want to consume animal products, there will be suppliers to satisfy demand. Yes, suppliers can manufacture some additional demand through advertising, lower prices, and quality products, but ultimately, the moral atrocity is fundamentally demand-driven. It is our non-vegan family, friends, and acquaintances who are the cause of the atrocity; the suppliers are merely the middle agent hired to do the dirty work.

Welfarism focuses on reforming the methods suppliers use to produce their products. Usually, the welfare reforms suggested by welfare organizations like PETA, Farm Sanctuary, and HSUS are reforms that are in the best long-term interests of the suppliers to implement anyway. But even in the very unusual cases where industry is uniformly opposed to reforms or the reforms are not in industry’s best interest (and the even more unusual cases where such reforms are actually implemented and enforced), industry is very resilient and can move to an easier jurisdiction or find other ways of getting around such reforms. Focusing on suppliers, as welfarism does, is hacking at the branches. Focusing on demand, as nonviolent vegan education does, is striking at the root.

MDA focuses on deterring or shutting down suppliers. But again, as long as demand exists, suppliers will just move or be replaced with new suppliers and law enforcement will crack down harder. MDA acts as a barrier to nonviolent vegan education because, if the MDA action gets press coverage, it is almost always speciesist press coverage, which focuses on the “misfortune of the hard-working suppliers who are just trying to make a living providing what the public wants”. (The “public”, of course, is our non-vegan family, friends, and acquaintances.) Who looks bad in the press? Animal advocates. Who looks good? The exploiters receive the public sympathy. Again, focusing on suppliers, like MDA does, is hacking at the branches. Focusing on demand, as nonviolent vegan education does, is striking at the root.

Abolitionists Are Opposed to Violence

Welfarists, new or traditional, both accept and promote violence toward innocent nonhuman beings by promoting, rather than entirely rejecting, the regulation and reform of animal exploitation and slaughter, either as a (false and confused) ‘step’ toward the elimination of animal use, or as a permanent method of exploitation. Abolitionists entirely reject the violence of all welfare reform, regardless of whether welfare reform is (falsely) perceived as ‘step’ toward something else or as a permanent method of exploitation.

MDA proponents both accept and promote illegal activities, including property damage, threats, harassment, or psychological harm, that either are violent or are potentially violent toward people. Abolitionists entirely reject the violence and anti-social, alienating behavior, threats, and rhetoric of all MDA.

Abolitionists promote veganism and only creative, nonviolent vegan education as a means to achieve widespread veganism. Abolitionism is the logical extension of the civil rights and peace movements. Nonviolence is an indispensable core principle of abolitionism. Creative, nonviolent vegan education is pro-social.

Veganism is pro-social, moderate, and peaceful. First, do no harm: Go vegan, and encourage others to go vegan. Welfarism and MDA are both harmful and counterproductive; avoid them.


[1] Species appear to vary widely in their relative sensitivity to physical and psychological pain, with some species far more sensitive than others. Also, some areas of the body are far more sensitive than other areas, depending on the species. Conveniently, most of us probably consider ourselves the most sensitive, but there is every reason to think that humans fall somewhere in the range other than the “most sensitive”, in both physical and psychological pain, including terror.

Perceptual intelligence is to be contrasted with conceptual intelligence (or abstract/symbolic/linguistic intelligence). Although the metaphor is far from perfect, one might consider conceptual intelligence to be like having “book knowledge” on how to play golf or baseball, including conceptual knowledge on how to swing a club or a bat. In contrast, perceptual intelligence is like having the hand-eye coordination to play golf or baseball well. In this way, nonhumans are often more perceptually intelligent than humans. Obviously not in golf or baseball, but in environmental awareness and in perceptual and athletic skill in predation or hazard evaluation and avoidance, animals thrive.

[2] Creative, nonviolent vegan education is teaching and informing people about what veganism is, why one would want to go vegan, why veganism is a moral baseline or minimum standard of decency, and how to go vegan in a way that is easy, nutritious, delicious, and fulfilling, including vegan cooking, vegan recipes, vegan products, animal product replacements, and nutritional information. Going vegan is easy and very rewarding. All it takes is knowledge of some basics starting out, and the rest is all refinement.

[3] Smoking, racism, sexism, and drunk driving, while still very much with us in 2009, have been drastically curtailed over the past 40 or 50 years through social education efforts. Those who have been around long enough probably remember the mainstream attitudes toward these beliefs and activities in the 1960s and will acknowledge a significant contrast with today’s mainstream attitudes. We still have plenty of progress to be made regarding smoking, racism, sexism, and drunk driving, but it cannot be denied that significant progress has been made when contrasted with the attitudes of 1960 in these areas.

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