First and foremost let me stress here that I am not against CEVA workshops. CEVA is the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy and their workshops are held by Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert across the world. Our group VGT has organised such a workshop in Vienna as well. So, yes, please do participate in those workshops and take a number of relevant skills with you. But that should not stop me voicing some criticism.
Underlying the workshop as the ethical basis is – unspoken – utilitarianism. A very crude and naiv version even. While Peter Singer stops the worst aspects of utilitarianism by introducing basic rights for beings with a sense of self in time, CEVA doesn‘t seem to be doing even that. On the other hand, in contrast to usual versions of utilitarianism, CEVA counts killing as damage too, sometimes as the only measurable damage. The aim is to reduce as much suffering and as much killing as possible. CEVA seems to think that this is the usually accepted majority opinion of the animal advocacy movement, which is really surprising, because in my experience it is not at all. And with good reason.
I do not want to go into all the incredibly many shortcomings of this approach. One could ask the question why this is not at all our ethical approach to humans. When it comes to humans, we all believe in human rights, or do we not? Nobody is talking about reducing suffering as the guiding principle. The difference is obvious: if an elderly lady living somewhere alone without being friends to anyone and having no relatives, but a lot of money, is swiftly killed, her money could be used to save thousands of humans from suffering and death. If we want to reduce suffering, this is the way to go. But we consider that murder. It is contrary to human rights. This is why we are not utilitarians, when it comes to humans. Then why be utilitarian, when it comes to non-human animals?
This aspect is mirrored in the fact that all social liberation movements for humans do not mention at all the reduction of suffering as their primary cause. Its about liberation. The liberation of women, slaves, blacks and, generally, outgroups from oppression within society, that is the cause. And that is something very different to wanting to reduce suffering. It might well be – and indeed a lot of people within the movement of „effective altruism“ argue that as well as CEVA – that being in the power of a well meaning human is often better than being free. Thats why according to this view wild animals should ideally be in human care. Lennaert indeed showed a wild animal, being hungry or hunted by another animal, in his CEVA workshop part and suggested that this should be an issue for us as much as farmed animals. Without saying it aloud, CEVA suggests that liberation from supression is not the issue, is not a goal, but reducing suffering is. A benevolent dictator not withstanding.
An example by CEVA of good activities based on this view is a model doing an advert for a slaughterhouse and then spending the money she earned by that on vegan outreach. CEVA just calculates that overall there is less suffering if she does that, never mind if she personally becomes involved in the promotion of the senseless killing of non-human animals on the slaughter line. By that logic it might be worth running a slaughterhouse if all profits go into vegan outreach. Radical utilitarianism knows no ethical bounds as long as the consequences overall are less suffering. That reminds me of a person wanting to slaughter a real live cat in the city centre of Vienna, argueing that people seeing this would make them understand the brutality of slaughter and feel empathy with farmed animals in the same situation. We actively prevented this action from happening because it directly contravenes the basic rights of the cat. From the animal rights perspective, the consequences play no role at all.
Those and similar criticisms were not answered at the CEVA workshop. Those weird consequences of their underlying ethics were simply ignored. Such a discussion was not promoted. But CEVA stressed clearly that it is an advance in their view if a consumer changes from chicken meat to beef, because for the same amount of meat, fewer animals have to suffer. Strangely, though, at the same time if somebody switched from factory farmed to free range meat, that was not considered an advance. On enquiry, the lecturers said that they haven‘t thought about it yet, as veganism is their goal. Even from their utilitarian point of view: is it better to get a person eating one day per week vegan and 6 days factory farmed meat, or all 7 days meat, but only free range. Which would mean less suffering? This calculation was never done.
But my primary concern is the consequence that seems to be drawn by CEVA from their utilitarianism in their suggestions for activism. The approach seems to be that there is a world with a huge amount of suffering from different causes and a good person will try reducing this amount. CEVA does not seem to differentiate at all between the causes for suffering. If it is due to oppression in human society or an avalanche in the wild, it all counts the same. Interestingly, if a person turns vegan and thereby stops abusing animals, this is considered reducing suffering in the world. So if I stop abusing somebody than I act good by reducing suffering? A political view would be that I have to stop because my abusing the other is unjust and the other has the right not to be abused. Instead of saying somebody stopping abuse is good, I would rather say that they act justly and right.
Justice, liberation and suppression are all terms that never surfaced at the CEVA workshop. There was no comparison to other liberation movements, no analysis of oppression in human society, no mentioning of capitalism. In fact, the CEVA view seems to be to totally ignore the political side of the animal issue and reduce it to a personal lifestyle or consumer choice, or simply to being a good private person reducing suffering by helping others.
Activism, as CEVA uses the phrase, seems to be only to talk others into changing their habits and living a life of a good vegan example. Activism was mentioned in the workshop as talking with somebody about veganism while they sit beside you on the aeroplane. This is why there was a lot of emphasis in the workshop to make you able to communicate effectively, meaning friendly, supportive, positive. You should talk in a way that others love you and like you and want to be like you. That way you get them to become vegan. CEVA also stressed that we should not show cruel pictures, at least not before asking the other person if they agree seeing it. Cruel pictures were explicitly banned from the workshop and the talks. All this underlines the underlying approach: being animal friendly is a personal and private decision and not a political issue of liberation. Lennaert even made a joke about using the term „liberation“ in the context of animals.
Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Frederik Douglass and other shining lights of liberation movements all stressed the fact that there is no (political) change without a conflict. They would say stop the friendly chit chat, demand justice, and demand it with vigour, showing the cruelty as it is. Yes, pictures of animal abuse are unsettling. And that is good, because as a political movement we want to unsettle society. No, I do not need effective communication if I do an action that is intended to disrupt consumerist business as usual, as Martin Luther King explicitly demanded. If we want a political, a structural change to society, we need to fight. That is the clear message from the old guard of the liberation movements. Is that outdated? Were they wrong? Do we know better today?
I have a real worry. You know, in the 1990ies we did everything possible to make animals a political issue. We tried to force all parliamentary parties to include animal issues into their agenda and into their election program. We tried to get them to have spokespeople for animals. We tried to establish a ministry of animal welfare. And now I hear CEVA to essentially say that this does not matter at all. Animals are not a political but a private issue. Just be nice to them and spread the word. Even: a good activist is one where the opposition does not even realise their activism, i.e. if you persuade someone to go vegan without them realising that this was your purpose. There was another CEVA mantra: the form of communication is much more important than the content. The old guard above would have disagreed. The content must be clear, never mind if it bores people. With radical actions you will get them to listen. If your activism is not perceived as activism, you have failed.
Now, my worry is that in animal advocacy we are moving away from politics back into the private sphere. Maybe repression is felt so strongly that people consciously or subconsciously want to avoid conflict. So they rather want to hear that advocacy is best done privately, without anyone realising. The safe movement is also a case at hand. They arrange good terms with the slaughter house owners and then stand in front of the slaugther house not to protest, but to stroke and touch the animals when they arrive. Yes, activist life without confrontations is much easier, cosier, safer. But is it effective? Can we ever achieve any advance in the liberation of animals without a conflict?
CEVA counts the number of vegan options and the number vegan products available as their marker for success. Even if that happens for other reasons than animal ethics. We want to reduce suffering by any means necessary, remember? But these markers do not say much about the value of animals in society or their political stance or the degree of their liberation. If a country has a high percentage of vegans for merely historical or cultural reasons, or for health reasons maybe, without respect for animals and no any animal welfare law, does that mean this country is closer to animal liberation than one which is more meat based but respect for animals is a highly valued norm and there are stricter animal welfare laws? I guess CEVA would say the only thing that counts is the amount of animal suffering, full stop. Small wonder that animal welfare legislation is nothing they care about.
If we allow activism to become a private affair again, as it was before the advance of the animal rights movement, that would be a tragedy. I call that the new Biedermeier. The Biedermeier age in the early 19th century was a reaction to increasing repression, censorship and police powers against the democratic movement after the French Revolution. It meant withdrawing into private life. Everything neat and tidy, no awful pictures, no political talk. That was left to the authorities.
I sincerely hope that there is no new Biedermeier looming, not the least for the sake of an effective animal movement.