By Zach Groff
Animal activists often think of activism as something that involves two parties: the activists and our audience. We do the outreach, and the audience, ideally, receives and internalizes our message. A better model for activism, though, is one that involves a limitless number of people, in which the activists generate controversy and discussion among the audience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of this than compelling conversations between parents and children.
During Connecticut's first day of action in September, we entered a T.G.I. Friday's, chosen specifically because, as a family restaurant, it sells an image of violence as wholesome and kid-friendly. As I delivered the "Disrupt Speciesism" speak out, one that intentionally avoids gore and makes clear that we are targeting the system people have bought into rather than shaming customers, a mother stood up with her daughter in her arms and said to us, "You should be respectful of children."
This is a criticism I've heard repeatedly since then, one I hear from people I know as well. If we care about children, then animals on farms, who are often killed as babies, need us to speak out for them more than anything, but there's more to respecting children than that. As our movement grows, I suggest there is a way to take this message to heart, though in a very different way from what the mother in the restaurant envisioned. We need to demonstrate our respect for children by recognizing their vital importance in the future of our society and the future of our relationship with animals.
A favorite attack on the gay rights movement for several decades has been the accusation that activists were feeding children homosexual propaganda. In 1977, Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign targeted teachers in the fear that gay teachers would recruit children. Gay rights advocates, in turn, vigorously denied the claim that gay teachers would recruit children. The ironic truth, though, is that children did, in some sense, receive homosexual propaganda. Millennials grew up seeing openly gay figures on TV, and progressive schools organized programming around the notion that "Love Makes a Family." This, in turn, led to a generation that is overwhelmingly supportive of rights that had previously been denied to gay men and lesbians.
Perhaps more importantly, this generation generated debate around dinner tables across the country. As a result, support for gay rights is increasing even among members of older generations. Reaching children with a liberationist message does not only change the minds of those children, but also forces their families to reconcile themselves with the views encountered by their children.
We in the animal rights movement have to mimic this strategy. Paolo Freire, a pioneering theorist of critical pedagogy, showed that not just the content but also the form of education is deeply connected with systems of oppression. The traditional view of education is a "banking model" in which children are passive recipients of knowledge. As the mother who confronted us in TGIF would have it, the traditional model of education avoids provocation and simply gives children the knowledge they need to uphold the status quo. A liberationist model of education instead works to develop critical consciousness, avoiding the "culture of silence" in which students passively listen to instructors and replacing it with one in which students are a part of their education, just as the oppressed must be a part of their own liberation.
Creating questions and upending preconceived notions is not disrespectful of children - instead, it is a key part of an education and a campaign that empowers children. As Steven Pinker documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature, for most of their history, the animal rights movement and the children's rights movements have been deeply interconnected. This interconnectedness was no coincidence - those who have historically recognized animals' independence and personhood have naturally recognized those of children as well. It has often been noted that children enter this world with a natural sympathy for animals that their grown guardians choose to silence.
Many of the boldest leaders in the DxE network are under 18 - from Zoe in San Luis Obispo to Sophia in the Bay Area - going into places of horrific violence and exposing the truth that their elders seek to ignore. In my local chapter, Julia Carpenter has started organizing a network of teen animal rights advocates, creating an empowered community at local schools of activists who are willing to take nonviolent direct action for social change.
Animal liberationists must empower children to ask these questions. We must generate controversy by enabling nonhuman animals to tell their stories and have their stories heard. Respecting children is not indoctrinating them in the ways of a violent society; it is enabling them to think critically and ask why the world denies animals the lives they deserve. To respect children is to make them vital participants in a public debate that will lead to the day when every animal is free.