Politics & Policy

The Animal-Protection Movement Is Everything That ‘Woke’ Activism Isn’t

Demonstrators march to the U.S. Capitol as part of the Youth Climate Strike in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2019. (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
While young social-justice warriors playact at making a difference, those concerned for the welfare of animals do the unglamorous work of making real change.

Forbearing readers of National Review might recall that, going back to the early 1990s, I have often advocated for reforms in law to assure animal protection, a cause I consider underrated by both major political parties and deserving of more serious attention than it receives. We humans tolerate or overlook some extremely harsh practices that just don’t stand up to reason or conscience. Sparing animals from such abuse is a cause I will gladly compare with most of the things we demand and argue about in politics, in any fair test of moral importance.

Today’s harangue, however, is directed not at fellow conservatives but at the progressive left, with special attention to “woke” twentysomething activists lately emerging from college to instruct us all in social justice. For reasons mostly unwarranted, young progressives as a group are assumed to have a concern for mistreated animals. It’s an impression that the bad actors in animal-use industries are happy to promote, so that we think of animal protection as some strange outgrowth of leftist ideology — something normal people don’t have to worry about.

In reality, of course, men and women of every political stripe care about animal cruelty, whenever the issue comes up in controversies at the state or federal level. You’re about as likely to find conservatives (such as Senators John Kennedy of Louisiana and Martha McSally of Arizona) alert to the matter as you are progressives, though it’s true that exploitative industries have more connections to and a generally more pernicious influence on Republicans. With the admirable exception of Senator Cory Booker, the Democrat from New Jersey, it’s hard to name any prominent figure on the left who has had much to say on the subject, or who has challenged such large-scale cruelties as factory farming. And in any case, whatever good instincts woke progressives have aren’t worth a lot in practice, given the manias of ideology that dominate their agenda.

This explains why, for instance, when China’s “wet markets” were in the news as a suspected source of the coronavirus — complete with details of tortured wildlife and slaughtered dogs — we heard rebukes from commentators on the left over the “racism” and “xenophobia” of those criticizing the markets. They know that certain culinary habits tolerated in Asia are vicious and barbaric, and a pathogenic nightmare besides. But in progressive circles you’re not allowed to talk that way anymore, least of all from the shameful position of some white Westerner daring to judge another culture.

There was a time when college-aged activists used to champion such noble and still-urgent causes as saving elephants, whales, Newfoundland’s baby seals, and other creatures from the depredations of their human enemies. These days, cruelty to wildlife is a peripheral concern and the great foe is carbon. In environmental matters, China is again by far the world’s worst influence, whether the problem is CO2 emissions, wildlife destruction, plastic waste in the oceans, or most anything else. But that country gets a pass, and as rule you’re never in big trouble with the environmental lobby unless you’re American and in the business of fossil fuels.

To take just one example of a neglected global concern, elephants remain as persecuted as ever by poachers serving the Asian ivory market and by what President Trump memorably called the “horror show” of Western trophy hunters. These creatures are not only among the most wonderful and intelligent on earth; they’re also a keystone species whose travails have grievous ecological costs. Yet from our progressive environmentalists, for years we have heard practically nothing about the problem, because they’re too busy redirecting economies, transforming global paradigms, calling out “climate deniers,” and all the rest.

When environmental groups do focus on animals, often it would be better if they hadn’t. Consider the fact that, as a matter of course, industry and government scientists still poison millions of creatures in the testing of pesticides and other chemicals, because the environmental lobby demands that toxicity tests on animals be mandated in federal regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency itself is trying to end such testing as needless, redundant, and inferior to modern alternatives. But a cruel and archaic practice continues thanks to the same people who are forever faulting the “anti-science” views of others.

It’s an environmental agenda today marked by cold abstraction, sterile, “save-the-planet” platitude, eco-apocalyptic hysteria, statist solutions, and constant virtue-signaling about our downsized “footprints,” with animal protection a detail purely incidental to other, less benevolent objectives. Even giving up animal products, which come from an industrial sector that accounts for as much carbon emissions as any other, has never really caught on among progressives. Going vegan would require personal effort, and it’s still not quite fashionable enough.

Searching for some hopeful sign in the agitation of the woke left, we can allow at least that those of the new generation are filled with zeal, only they have no clue how to channel it to constructive purpose. At just the time in life when means and ability can catch up with moral energy, millions of young men and women have been so steeped in pretentious theories of race, class, and gender, so carefully tutored in self-pity, outrage, and social-justice posturing, as to be rendered useless in any actual cause of charity or justice.

The extent of this loss began to sink in recently as I read the elaborate guidance of one self-described woke college student, offered to help fellow students “do the work,” in the phrase of the day, on their own woke journeys. It’s a convoluted discourse explaining why “being woke is no longer enough,” why the very claim of wokeness “could, in fact, be considered appropriation,” and how, at every turn, “privilege plays a role in our own awareness and what we can do to make sure that our ‘wokeness’ isn’t coming across some kind of way.” And on and on, deeper and deeper into absurdity and self-involvement. Has “activism” ever been so idle?

Even to serious social-justice efforts, “wokeness” contributes nothing but preening and sanctimony. The civil-rights cause in America was the work of mostly Christian men and women holding their country to its own standards and to its founding promise. But you don’t get their kind of fervor from readings of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History, or from whatever the definitive telling of far-left fairy tales might be on campus nowadays. Nor does it even occur to the woke young how their indignant talk of ever-present “structural racism” diminishes the heroic sacrifices and achievements of previous generations. All that remains, in their own ranks, is a cultish muddle of moral relativism, “white guilt,” conformity parading as “diversity,” and a resentment toward ideas or institutions of Western, and especially Anglo-American, origin. They don’t even know that the very ideas of inherent human rights and equality that they echo in their silly chants are themselves products of Western civilization, accounting for pretty much all of the moral progress of humanity for hundreds of years. Talk about cultural “appropriation”!

A mark of the best causes is that they ask something of us — more virtue and less signaling. There are all kinds of such campaigns today, aimed at real wrongs and needs, that could have used these young men and women — including, of course, efforts to assure equal treatment and opportunity for all. And among humanity’s more altruistic endeavors, we should always include efforts to spare animals from affliction at human hands. Indeed, the humane movement reflects an ethic and spirit that might be exactly what are missing most in our woke progressives, or that at least might help to shake them of their narcissism and self-pity. Just for starters, “do the work” of studying animal cruelty — witness the things that some people and industries do to animals — and you’ll think twice before ever again calling yourself a helpless victim.

What better therapy to clear the mind of ideological fixations, and to let in the fresh breeze of real life, than contemplating animals and their humble lot? Defending them from gratuitous harm needn’t be everyone’s top moral priority for us to appreciate the effort as, at least, an outward-looking cause, with the chance to do good things for their own sake, never mind what’s in it for us, and to extend human compassion as far as it can reach.

The cause invites attention away from conflicts, resentments, and trivial differences of race and background that can so consume us, affording a vantage point that all of us can share. Think of humanity from the perspective of other creatures — all of us as a whole, one vast interest group that always gets its way — and then consider some of the demands we make on them. Animals are without appeal against our every decree and whim. We all bear responsibility not to abuse or tyrannize them. We’re all potential oppressors with “privilege” to check. The choices we make are a measure of character, a test of our capacity for unselfish purpose, and reveal more about who we are than anything in all of the left’s catalogue of “identity.”

There is surely something to the idea that tranquil societies cannot be predicated on the systematic abuse of animals; that so long as we permit a ruthless exploitation of them, we cannot truly learn to be lenient and peaceful toward one another. And it is not by chance that people who have experienced oppression and injustice, who know what it’s like to be treated as nothing, tend to have the deepest empathy for animals. The feeling was captured long ago by the late Dick Gregory, when he explained why he was a vegetarian: “Because I’m a civil-rights activist, I am also an animal-rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and vicious taking of life. We shouldn’t be a part of it.”

There are no subtle or imagined “micro-aggressions” on the list of our offenses against animals; just blunt, relentless, at-times-horrific abuse. And it’s true that surveying, for instance, the miseries of modern farm-animal production, we see an underside of capitalism that civilized societies could do without, and that progressives should be the first to point out (as Senator Booker has done). Take the elementary fact that pigs, cows, fowl, and other farm animals suffer when abused, then combine this with the fact that at any given moment tens of billions of these creatures must endure the punishments of factory farming, and no matter how well it might work out economically, or how easily we might change the subject and forget about it, we still have got a big moral problem to deal with. A “dominant paradigm,” to borrow a phrase of the woke, that needs questioning.

Even so, in the face of such obstacles, the humane cause stands in stark and instructive contrast to the interminable grievance-collecting of the left. It’s a cause that doesn’t try to shut down debates — with mobs, preemptive “cancellations,” the rage of challenged groupthink — but, on the contrary, views a chance at open debate as half the battle, and always fares better when all the facts are known and all sides are heard. And to advance their case, animal-protection advocates need no invented vocabulary of right and wrong — no PC litany of “intersectional” offenses, “patriarchal” affronts, crimes of “disempowerment,” “othering,” or “erasure.” Instead they rely on simple and tangible terms like cruelty, maliciousness, and hardness of heart, and they answer these evils with universal ideas like fellow-feeling, mercy, and the moral restraint of the strong toward the weak.

This has made it as well an inclusive cause, to which people of all backgrounds are drawn: men and women alike; Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, along with those of other faiths and those of no faith; and African Americans and as well as whites. If you doubt this consider that according to a Pew survey some 8 percent of adult black citizens are vegan — about twice the percentage of whites. A few of them have followings on YouTube, and their commentaries on the ethical and health reasons for going meatless are among the most compelling you’ll find. No need for inclusion seminars or inspections by the diversity police in the animal-protection movement. Its starting point has always been a willingness to think for oneself, a feeling of respect and concern for our fellow creatures and a refusal to be complicit in abuse, and people of such conviction come from everywhere.

Animal protection is also a straightforward cause, modest in its way and not a pretext for any larger agenda or reordering of society, though modesty of this kind can make for intensity and focus unlike anything among the woke with their diffuse and endless complaints. There’s no wallowing in discontent among animal advocates, no wasting fervor on ideological dead-ends, not counting a few theoretical types with their notion of “speciesism.” In this cause, any form of wrongdoing that we can name has resourceful activists dedicated to its abolition; people doing the actual work of applying their talents to real-world concerns, with no time for self-enamored inventories of personal awareness, fragility, entitlement, privilege, appropriated identity, or other states of mind.

I have a friend named Josh Balk, who, for example, while still in his early 30s helped devise and market a now-popular plant-based alternative to a common factory-farm product, and has set up a charitable trust into which his share of profits will go. As his company scales up, the stuff is going to make billions of dollars, and all he’s thinking about is the suffering that will never happen because of his and his colleagues’ innovation. Now that’s altruism — allied with entrepreneurialism in a combination hard to beat.

What’s even more remarkable is that there are many other enterprises like his, offering plant-based goods that one after another will challenge the products and methods of modern animal agriculture — a trend so obvious that the meat, dairy, and egg industries are rushing to sell plant-based options of their own. Activists on the left think they’re striking blows for justice when they pressure corporations to adopt progressive symbols and pieties, in the meaningless gestures of what Ross Douthat calls “woke capitalism.” Here, meanwhile, are serious people who step by step are effecting fundamental change in industries as brutal and backward as any.

My friend the entrepreneur could be expressing his grievances in less quiet ways — denouncing capitalism for its sins, demanding “safe spaces” for vegans, or as a last resort maybe heading for Corbin, Ky., to topple its statue of Colonel Sanders. But if you were running a big livestock conglomerate, and if you had to choose whether to face a mob of angry protestors or else to confront free-market competitors selling successful products with all the protein and flavor but none of the cruelty, which group would you fear as the true revolutionaries?

Or I think of a woman I have long admired, an activist and brilliant photojournalist named Jo-Anne MacArthur. For years she has devoted herself to traveling the world and exploring laboratories where primates, dogs, rabbits, and other creatures are experimented on, factory farms and slaughterhouses where mainstream reporters almost never venture, and all of the other unlighted places where the spirit of mercy is nowhere to be found. Her mission is to make animal-use industries “visible and accountable,” and no one perusing her work will doubt the need for that effort. “Find your own Calcutta” was Mother Teresa’s advice when asked how to discern a charitable calling. Ms. MacArthur found hers, not in hopeless places where humans have no power, but in hopeless places where they have far too much of it. Her pictures, in books like Hidden and Captive, show battered, frightened, and lonely creatures who never before encountered a human who wasn’t trying to hurt them, each the representative of uncounted others.

The effect is more subversive than any uprising of ideology from the left or the right, as you begin to ask yourself how any of this could possibly square with simple standards of humanity that all of us profess. Indeed, how irrelevant and self-indulgent so many of our displays of public outrage can seem, when you remember that all the while we permit abuses so outrageous they have to be concealed from public view.

A final example of everything that the woke left is not, of what well-directed protest looks like, comes from the acclaimed documentary The Cove. A brief part of the film features the actress Hayden Panettiere, who was 18 at the time. There she is in a cove on the coast of Taiji, Japan, having just tried, with five or six others, to intervene as local fishermen were trapping and slaughtering a school of dolphins, including the babies — this mayhem a cherished annual custom in that area. We see her pleading with the men to stop, crying at her helplessness to save the dolphins, while they go on clubbing and stabbing and turning the waters red.

In a rational world, such savage people would have to face much more formidable opposition than a brave and kind-hearted young woman and her friends. But the moment certainly did Ms. Panettiere credit, and she has kept returning to that same cove to try again and again. That’s what I call “doing the work” — to stop real malefactors from doing theirs.

Easier causes were available to her, struggles less fraught with disappointment, more inner-directed, more in vogue or “on brand,” more attuned to “national conversations” and media-manufactured “moments of reckoning.” What does she get, if she ever manages to end that one town’s miserable tradition? Just the knowledge that beautiful, intelligent, and innocent creatures will be left alone in peace. Not much in the grand order of things, maybe. And yet it’s a hell of a lot more than all of our woke social-justice warriors will ever accomplish, unless they can just get over themselves and start doing something real.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication.

Matthew Scully is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

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