Animal Rights 2012 National Conference: Part 1, Healthy Debates

animal rights“Although there is diversity in unity there must also be unity in diversity.” – Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth [Steven Best, Anthony J. Nocella II]

If you were to look back upon my recent posts over the summer, many of them were a means to preview the Animal Rights 2012 National Conference which took place  August 2-6 in Washington, D.C. (Well, actually, in a fancy Hilton in Alexandria, Virginia.)

It was an event full of question-free food (as in, not having to ask “Is this vegan?”), stellar speakers (from Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals to Peter Hammarstedt of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society), and even a little shopping (Microcosm Publishing, Sticky Fingers bakery!).

As a newcomer to any official animal rights conference/event, but not particularly new to the issues within the movement (or so I thought),  it was initially exciting to see vegans and animal activists from so many ends of the spectrum, from the buttoned-up corporate outreach organizations, to direct action advocates freeing animals in vivisection labs. There were Orange County yoga gurus, 19-year-old college kids, and veteren movement founders. I, being a lowly vegan blogger, was somewhere in between.

I soon learned by the 2nd or 3rd day that there was some underlying tension between the “suits” and the “patched jackets,” which spewed over into the otherwise informative and interesting panels and workshops. The age-old (at least for the movement) feud between abolitionist approaches and animal welfare initiatives had apparently been brewing for years; is it selling out to fight for incremental changes to legislation or is there only one way to promote animal rights (go vegan or go home)?

In a lot of ways, the arguments presented at the conference boiled down to nothing more than rhetoric. Everyone was essentially championing the same cause, just using different tactics.

However, the internal battles of movement participants began to overshadow other aspects of the conference, much to the confusion of newbie participants, like myself, and those not operating daily from the D.C. or NYC areas. Daily morning and evening sessions (plenaries) which were once devoted to new breakthroughs in the movement (freed animals, new legislation, etc.) began instead with assurances that the conference and its founding members “had not changed [their] stance” on animal issues.

While debate is healthy, perhaps it is best kept to inter-personal conversations, rather than pulpit monologues and at the expense of attendees hoping to learn ways to make veganism more available in their own communities.

In workshop sessions about conflict resolution and developing leadership qualities, it was at times hard to distinguish whether speakers were telling new activists how to engage with the public, or if they were talking about how to get the present animal rights groups to stop in-fighting.

All the rhetoric surrounding animal groups “going over to the dark side” honed in on particular issues this time: humane meat and cage-free egg advances. If people really stopped to think about it, they would remember that we are all on the same side, though the side is nuanced. Some are simply working within the system, one step at a time, while others remain outside of it. After all, aren’t the real enemies the proponents of factory farms, the fur trade, puppy mills and the like?

In the South, protesting the Humane Society or the local Whole Foods can’t help but feel counterproductive, because animal welfare groups are the biggest advances to animal rights we have — we need to seek ways to move forward, not (in some cases quite literally) bite the hands that are feeding us.

The answer to the welfare versus abolition debate, I eventually discovered, is both. We can fight for small advances in a horribly cruel industry while simultaneously promoting a “Go Vegan” message. All parts work together as a whole. Reform is not mutually exclusive to abolition. For those who do still operate on a binary track (one versus the other), I urge you to reconsider your stance. There is room for everyone in the grey area, some black and some white, each acknowledging her own strengths and know-how, and her own privilege and situation within the movement, and working with each other, as well as with other movements (eco, feminist, civil rights, etc.) for the animals, the environment, and humanity.

As I think about next year’s conference, I look forward to seeing the standout speakers who found their place in this grey area, and with that in mind, I can’t wait to attend next year.

Click here to read Animal Rights 2012 National Conference: Part 2, Speaker Highlights

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons,

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