Young and Impatient

“Although animal use, like war, comes packaged as an eternal violence, a natural, regulated, and therefore socially permissible violence, advocates are not obliged to consider the animal rights movement a war, with all the good-and-evil rhetoric that perspective absorbs. Copying the activity of warmakers or soldiers, forcing people to behave or not to behave in certain ways – this perpetuates the paradigm of daily social control by some authoritative force. Other people are not the enemy of animals rights; if there is an enemy at all, it is the tendency to depersonalize others. Using conscious animals as means to an end means depersonalizing them. It involves alienating some individuals, some population, from our moral community, so that we can pull from them what we want. Militancy reinforces precisely the same social habit.”

~ Lee Hall, from Capers in the Churchyard

When I first picked up Lee Hall’s Capers In the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror, I was puzzled by the title and the image of an ancient churchyard on the cover. Halfway into her work, it became evident that the churchyard was no metaphor. It is the actual gravesite of Gladys Hammond, the mother of a British couple that earned their living through breeding animals for biomedical experimentation. In 2004, as the pinnacle of a long-running campaign to close this farm (which notably sold animals to Huntington Life Sciences), Hammond’s coffin disappeared from her grave. Anonymous activists offered to return her bones in exchange for the closure of the farm. The farm stopped breeding lab animals. This gutsy action, which resulted in the imprisonment of four activists, is an isolated example of a creative tactic. Yet it is under the headline of this unique action that Hall proceeds to criticize the movement. The book is scathing evaluation of welfare reform, animal liberation activism, militant activists, and animal rescue. Though she has no other examples of grave excavation, Hall condemns other prevailing tactics for ceasing animal suffering as though they were all buttressing this one offense.

Hall’s indignation over Hammond’s remains has less to do with disrespecting a grave than with alienating the community from a compassionate cause.  She is deeply concerned with how the public perceives the movement. Considering her preoccupation with the opinions of meat-eating bystanders, Hall unwaveringly depicts direct action activists according to the mainstream stereotype.

Much of Hall’s scathing critique of liberationists is based on assumptions and misrepresentations. Hall insinuates that militant activists are too shortsighted and impatient to engage in worthwhile approaches. Young and tattooed, they are all idealists self-embedded in simplistic good-and-evil scenarios. They are in it for the thrill, the risk, the glory of self-sacrifice. Their actions on behalf of animals are nothing more than “indulgence in authoritarian tactics and in violence” (Hall, 75). And in this “community that’s thought to have a high female presence,” Hall alleges that “showy male leadership is common” (Hall, 65). “Thought” is the imperative word here, seeing as Hall has no statistics or demographics from which to legitimize her illustration.

From my vantage point, “militant” animal activists defy Hall’s stereotype in almost every way. Granted, many have tattoos and are under thirty, but that is irrelevant to the ideology. The ALF, Hall’s favorite example, is comprised of individuals who choose to risk their own freedom in order to spare the lives of animals. They are underground and receive no credit unless they are caught. Such direct action, stemming from compassion for all species, employs exclusively nonviolent tactics. The suggestion that these activists, who are fighting against systemized animal abuse, in fact revel in violence, intimidation, and “establishing hierarchy” is both offensive and inadequately defended (Hall, 29).

In contrast, Hall’s arguments against welfarism are eloquently on target. She writes that “professionalized welfare advocacy,” which “largely functions to ensure that activists conform to the received social and economic template” would be more accurately labeled as “husbandry” (Hall, 99). This revised label better describes an approach that fails to address the exploitable status of nonhuman animals. She explains that “true attention to an animal’s welfare would not permit the fashioning of that animal into a commodity, let alone advertising companies that base their success on that paradigm” (Hall, 99).

Yet Hall’s writing, by bouncing back and forth between criticisms in an organizational style that left me scatterbrained, does not bother to distinguish between the very distinct forms of activism. The radical tactics of SHAC are compared to passive welfare reforms such as pushing supermarket chains to stock cage-free eggs. It is almost as if Hall’s choice to simultaneously attack dissimilar poles of the movement were deliberate. Taken together, it makes it easier to depict different philosophical approaches as one hypocritical and irrational series of blunders.

After dismissing the prevailing tactics of animal activism as either ineffectual or counterproductive, Hall flounders in her own inability to offer a viable alternative. Her vision of “the most comprehensive peace movement ever known” is blurry. For a book brimming with the details of the movement’s flaws, there is a notable lack of details regarding her envisioned solution. From what I could piece together, Hall is proposing “an animal-rights advocacy that’s based on everyday living” (Hall, 126). Apparently this would consist of compassionate vegan outreach while “unraveling our hierarchies” and “giving up the human clubs of whiteness, of maleness, and even of humanness, kicking the habit of defining ourselves as possessors of dominion over all that fly, walk, swim, and crawl over the contours of a weary planet” (Hall, 132).

If the path to Hall’s utopia is patiently waiting for the world to embrace veganism and adopt non-speciesist egalitarianism, then she can count me out. In the meantime billions of animals are enslaved and exploited. Liberation, welfarism, and every other strategy to save animal lives may be riddled with imperfections, but at least they act. Crossing our fingers that animal exploiters can be gently convinced to change radically without confrontational tactics is not going to get any animals out of factory farms any time soon. Call me shortsighted and naive, but as Hall pointed out, “this impatience has a particular appeal to young people” (Hall, 67).


1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Chipster said,

    From your review, I can relate to Hall’s perspective, and can also understand your discomfort. I would guess that activism was in Hall’s past, and that she either chose to “retire” or maybe just lost energy in the face of constant and consistent frustration, not seeing any change or improvement, unhappy being labeled a radical or terrorist.

    Activism is always an uphill battle, always tiring, usually measured in only small successes that seem to always be misinterpreted or misconstrued by the general public and the media. The powers in charge enjoy the economic benefits of animal exploitation, and use their propaganda power to paint the activists as terrorists in order to preserve and protect the status quo. Confronting them is almost always a losing battle, made even worse by being ostracized by the ignorant and sheepish larger community.

    Hall’s deep concern over how the movement is perceived by the community hints of her passion for the movement itself. Perhaps her utopia isn’t a suggested solution to the problems, but simply the longings of a tired warrior who wishes for a world without such wars. Hall’s insight shouldn’t be discarded outright. I am just an old warrior myself, but I was once young and active and optimistic and impatient and….you get my point.

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