Wayne Hsiung
Published on
February 7, 2014

How a Debate Between Two Friends Reshaped a Movement

In a recent online discussion, a former high level staff member at a prominent national animal rights organization suggested that "Chipotle going out of business= bad for animals. We should be supporting and encouraging them, not protesting them. I want to meet the CEO so I can give him a hug." This is a common view in the modern animal rights movement. If we don't praise people for tiny baby steps, even when they're still engaging in horrifically bad behavior, then how do we make progress? (In this case, the sentiment apparently extends even to massive multinational corporations. Corporations, by some accounts, are people too.) But while this debate ties our movement into intellectual knots -- liberationists v. welfarists, radicals v. conservatives -- it shouldn't. Because it's not a new debate. Indeed, it's a debate that has been held in every liberation movement. And in every past movement, the radicals have won. 

Consider, for example, the movement most similar to our own: antislavery. In the early stages of the antislavery movement, around the year 1830, there was a debate between two friends: Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison. Lundy, a gentle and compassionate man, believed that one ought to educate slaveholders to free their slaves, one by one, and provide positive encouragement every step of the way. The dominant “antislavery” organization of the day – the now-infamous ACS – agreed with this approach. The problem of slavery, they thought, was the lack of realistic options. Options for products. (“We have to move our economy away from production that relies on slavery!”) Options for labor. (“Let’s expand the pool of free labor!”) And options for placing the slaves once they were freed. (“We need somewhere to send all these colored people; let’s make a colony in Africa!”)  Give slaveholders options, Lundy and the ACS believed, and slowly, the system will disappear.   

Garrison, a fiery activist and orator, fundamentally disagreed. He believed that slavery was a basic injustice, regardless of what supposed "efforts" slaveholders made to improve their victims’ lives. He believed that the public could be won over with an honest message of liberation and equality. He believed that the question of slavery was not one of “options” for the oppressor but of “justice” for the oppressed. The goal of the liberationist, in Garrison's mind, was not to appease slaveholders with more and better options (and by doing so, reinforce the notion that the life of the slave was subject to the whims of his master) but to re-frame the debate on behalf of the oppressed... to protest slavery and slaveholders regardless of what "options" were offered. Ironically, taking such a strong and honest position, Garrison believed, was the only way to ensure that even incremental reforms could be sustained. 

There are two important points we should make about the Garrison-Lundy debate. 

1. Psychological research shows that tradition and conformity push people in the direction of greater accommodation of brutal institutions, even when such accommodation is unjustified. Those who have studied violent systems of discrimination are struck by how even good people can shrug their shoulders in the face of the worst atrocities in history. The leading scholar of prejudice – John Jost at NYU – has shown that the dampening of moral outrage is key to maintaining systems of injustice.  When we think about how we respond to atrocities against animals, we should always ask ourselves, am I really looking at this in an unbiased way, focused on effecting change for the victims? Or are my message and tactics and even my most basic emotional responses biased by the corrupt institutions that surround me (including marketing by corporations such as Chipotle)? We are, in so many ways, naturally inclined to be Benjamin Lundy. 

2. The data is out on the Garrison/Lundy debate, and Garrison was right. Garrison’s confident and inspirational message led to an exponential surge in the antislavery movement – a 45000% increase (yes, 45000%) in the number of antislavery societies in less than 10 years, according to numbers tabulated by historian Paul Goodman. Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel notes, moreover, that this incredible growth occurred despite the fact that slavery was becoming even more indispensable to the economic structure of antebellum America. Slavery, Fogel shows, was upended not by economic options but by moral and political pressure: "There is such a thing as morality, and morality is higher than economics." In short, though we are naturally inclined to be Benjamin Lundy, what social movements need, more than anything else, is people like William Lloyd Garrison. 

That's not an easy thing to do. The human mind usually thinks incrementally. It is limited by habit and tradition. And revolutionary leaps in our basic understanding of the world are few and far between. That is precisely why the Garrisonian perspective -- revolutionary and radical though it may have seemed -- was so vital. It set out a new framing, a new anchoring point, a new vision of the way the world ought to be. But its importance was matched by its difficulty. Garrison was attacked, ostracized, and even imprisoned for his uncompromising views. 

The Chipotle campaign, similarly, was never intended to be an easy one. Neither was it intended to be noncontroversial. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that direct action forces out the prejudices in a community. He believed that it polarizes the debate, and forces the public to take a stand. And, in an important sense, that is the ultimate goal of our campaign: to push our society to take a stand. To push our movement to take a stand. Because if even the animal rights movement can't muster up the confidence to stand against the largest animal killers in the world, who can? 

So ask yourself, where will you stand? When we look back on these days, will we say that we stood with one of the largest and fastest growing animal killers in the world... a $16 billion corporation that enslaves millions every year; that is being called the "New Model" for fast food; and that, in an unending parade of violence that is hard to even imagine, slits the throat of frightened and shrieking child, after frightened and shrieking child, over and over again, all while portraying these brutal acts of violence as integrity, love, and kindness? Or will we stand with a grassroots movement --- simple, honest, and confident --  that seeks to stop the violence, that portrays corporations such as Chipotle for what they actually are -- engines of brutality -- and that protects that desperate child from a horrific and bloody fate? 

We must choose wisely. Because the allies we choose will determine the fate of billions. 

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