Was it infighting?

In an interview promoting her new film, “Kale vs. Cow,” dietitian and author Diana Rodgers frames disagreements between vegans and meat-eaters as infighting: “When vegans and ethical omnivores fight, big food wins.” The error vegans make, according to Rodgers, is that they are failing to work alongside their would-be allies in “the fight for better meat.”

One way of responding to Rodgers is to say that, while she is correct that infighting is a problem, she is mistaken in this case about what counts as infighting. Those who argue for the consumption of ‘humane’ animal flesh are promoting the myth that there is a morally acceptable way to raise and kill sentient individuals for human consumption. This myth, as Robert Grillo discusses at length in his book, Farm to Fable, is one of the main ideological structures that today’s vegan activists are trying to dismantle. According to this response, ‘ethical omnivores’ are not allies of the animal rights movement: they are its active opponents.

Although it may seem like Rodgers’s case of purportedly ethical omnivores can be dispatched with ease, activists should not be lulled into a false sense of security. As with all social movements, the boundaries of the animal rights movement are often contested for legitimate reasons, and the controversies surrounding these contestations are tortuous. In particular, activists who pursue moderate welfare reforms are seen as allies of the movement to some and opponents acting outside the boundaries of the movement to others.

The difficulty of where to place moderates with respect to the movement’s boundaries was thrown into sharp relief in a recent debate between Wayne Hsiung, C0-Founder of Direct Action Everywhere, and Gary Francione, Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School-Newark.

While both Hsiung and Francione advocate fiercely for the complete abolition of all animal exploitation, only Hsiung believes that groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and Mercy For Animals (MFA) are allies in this fight. Francione demurs, asserting, “I’ve got nothing in common with people who give awards to slaughterhouse designers [referring to PETA’s giving Temple Grandin the Proggy Award in 2004]. I’ve got nothing in common with people who have campaigns in which they promote animal exploiters.” Francione does not see such groups as allies within his movement — albeit ones with a tactical approach that differs from his own — but as supporters of the very structures that he is seeking to dismantle.

The question of how to identify all and only allies in a social movement is a difficult one, and my goal is not to adjudicate between Hsiung and Francione here. My aim instead is to stress the question’s urgency. If the boundaries of a movement are too expansive, then opponents will be able to co-opt it and level accusations of infighting when activists fight back. But if the boundaries are too strict, then the movement will miss out on the documented benefits of strategic and tactical diversity. The stakes are high.