Broken Movement, Continued

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By Ed Duvin

Republished from The Greanville Post

(Here is the link to Broken Movement Part 1)

Having penned an essay on the pending hen bill, I’m told that it went “viral,” but that’s not the criterion by which I assess my work. My two barometers of success are whether it furthers the cause and elevates the level of discourse to a higher plane. In that regard, I clearly failed.

Before moving to the body of this piece, allow me to clarify a few points that readers raised in support of the bill. When speaking of “furnished” cages failing to provide for “an acceptable level of welfare” after a 15-18 year implementation period, this wasn’t my judgment, but a direct quote from HSUS’ own study on its website…as well as several EU studies. This doesn’t mean “furnished” cages aren’t preferable to barren ones, but they remain irrefutably inhumane.

When writing of hens being condemned to these deplorable conditions, not only for 18 years, but forever, I realize that further progress toward a free-range environment is theoretically possible. It can also snow in July. If it takes 18 years for the United Egg Producers (UEP) to reach an industry level that still fails to provide acceptable humane standards, absent even a mention of a free-range end point, is the prospect likely for substantive progress in the future?

Others cited 10 movement groups that endorsed the bill, and no doubt there are additional supporters as well. I never stated HSUS lacked any support, only that they proceeded unilaterally during negotiations. UEP is a cooperative that answers to its member egg producers; HSUS is responsible only to its board of directors.

Another reader was distressed over my contention that HSUS confused “compromise” with “concessions,” stating the distinction between the two words eluded him. Language is often misapplied for embellishment, but the lexicon hardly requires clarification in this matter.

Yes, concessions are an inherent component of compromise, but such concessions are mutual. It takes creative license to interpret this agreement as one of mutual concessions. After endless debates over interpretation of various items, the bottom line is that after 18 years, many millions of hens will remain in a living hell. If that’s a compromise, what is a concession?

Having responded to a few queries, it is not my intention to dissect every detail of the pending bill. I will leave that to others infinitely more qualified who fervently oppose the bill, such as the eminent veterinarian, Dr. Ned Buyukmihci, Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine at University of California and founder of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.

Many habitually throw stones at the “big guy” on the block, and the motivations run the gamut from legitimate to petty. In my former publication, I often criticized HSUS–in the early days for institutional inertia, and more recently for an excess of hubris and deficit of humility. This criticism was conveyed and taken in the spirit it was intended, and I have enjoyed a special relationship for decades with HSUS’ former and present CEOs, John Hoyt and Wayne Pacelle.

This is simply to note that I’ve never harbored malice toward HSUS or other sister organizations. As foreign as it may seem in this movement, it’s possible to distinguish between principles and personalities without animus playing a role. In a 2008 piece entitled, “How Big is Bad,” I wrote the following based on HSUS’ oft-stated aspiration to establish “an NRA-type organization to get the job done”…and they have assiduously adhered to that blueprint:

“HSUS’ strategic vision is not without merit, but it reveals the myopia of a political organization thinking politically. No one deprecates the obvious value of acquiring strength, as it greatly facilitates being heard in the corridors of power. That said, the NRA is a single-issue lobbying group, whereas we are charged with the complex responsibility of protecting the rights of other species. History has taught us, at the cost of untold suffering, that traversing the minefields of injustice is not reducible to a linear formula. Were the path to social change that unencumbered, More’s Utopia would have arrived long ago. As HSUS trumpets its rebirth, I see scarce appreciation of the dialectical rhythms and countless nuances inherent in the struggle for systemic change. The silent screams of those we serve cry out for innovation, not imitation.”

This, I respectfully submit, is the subtext of the HSUS-UEP agreement. No one quarrels with HSUS’ modus operandi of seeking to instill fear in our adversaries through strength, speaking with a unified voice in contrast to our history of being plagued by a surfeit of diffusion. The salient issue, however, and one of immense strategic significance, is HSUS’ view of legislation as the preeminent pathway to achieving progress–often blinding them to a more sophisticated view that incorporates the multi-layered nature of social change dynamics.

No sane person disputes that legislation is a vital weapon in fighting exploitation. In disproportionately relying on legislation, however, it often leads to a formula-driven strategy–restricting the application of other fertile options. This limitation was never more evident than in their agreement with UEP, which is only comprehensible when viewed through the above-mentioned linear lens of HSUS’ tactical “fixation” with legislation.

If one reads UEP’s statements, it’s evident they were in a defensive (if not desperate) posture, having been dealt some crushing defeats. Indeed, UEP initially approached HSUS to engage in negotiations, and that in itself speaks volumes. Gene Gregory, CEO of UEP, posted the following on Feedstuffs Foodlink: “If our legislation fails, we fear the problem at many henhouses won’t be foxes, but rather an ‘out of business’ sign nailed to the door.” Why then would HSUS’ savvy leadership have negotiated an agreement that hardly represents their most distinguished moment?

No one can epistemologically speak with certainty to the motivations of others. My sense, however, is that HSUS signed a flawed agreement for two principal reasons: since several egg-producing states ban ballot initiatives, and given HSUS’ propensity to think legislation first and foremost, they perceived the myriad of other measures to apply intense pressure as outside their comfort zone–even though prior ballot initiatives indicated broad public support; secondly, this was an rare opportunity for them to seize an historic moment of industry-wide change, setting a precedent for going after other agribusiness industries.

Let’s first examine the issue of several states banning ballot initiatives. Viewed from the historical perspective of social change struggles, HSUS citing the unavailability of ballot initiatives to justify a less than humane end point after 18 years is simply unsupportable. In states without ballot initiatives, wouldn’t a media blitz exposing the obscene conditions of caged hens, targeted boycotts, and peaceful demonstrations have pricked the public’s conscience as our campaigns did in ballot-initiative states? I’m not besmirching HSUS’ motives, but many millions of hens are residing in nightmarish conditions, and only HSUS can explain why every possible means of achieving greater gains wasn’t exhausted before they signed this agreement.

When examining contemporary social justice movements, from civil rights to gay rights, changes didn’t initially evolve from legislation, but unrelenting and intense pressure applied from multiple forms of protest. Social change isn’t an antiseptic process, and the availability of ballot initiatives cannot serve as a yardstick to predicate tactical decisions. Our responsibility is to employ every option at our disposal to effect humane change, not dilute our convictions because states banning ballot initiatives require us to get our fingernails dirty. Those in other causes didn’t pursue the course of least resistance, but endured great hardships in honoring their moral compass. Either a movement stands for certain inviolate principles, or it stands for nothing.

Some will recite HSUS’ accomplishments outside the legislative realm, taking issue with them portrayed as unduly one-dimensional. I well understand, having headed an HSUS division for five years–with unprecedented latitude to explore new models for assisting other beings. The intent isn’t to disparage HSUS, but now that they possess the stature and strength they sought, it must be used efficaciously in meeting the highest ethical precepts. An 18-year agreement, which falls short of an acceptable level of welfare, is hardly an indication of “muscle.” It’s a reflection of selective morality in not bringing a weakened UEP to their knees through utilizing the full range of options, even if surgical legislative strikes weren’t available. HSUS possesses both the resources and talent to do so, ballot initiatives or not. Sadly, the hens didn’t have a vote.

This brings us to the precedent-setting opportunity to negotiate industry-wide change in the future, rather than progressing at the proverbial snail’s pace. This is no small accomplishment, and it has agribusiness fighting back with gloves off. The problem here is no more or less than the cost being too high. We represent a constituency that has no voice, and thus we must meet a standard of ethical accountability that is beyond reproach. As crucial as this precedent-setting agreement could be down the road, if the price is mortgaging the future of millions of hens, then the moral imperatives of our mission preclude us from using the ends to justify inhumane means.

Does anyone believe HSUS would have accepted this agreement with an individual egg producer? Of course not, and I doubt HSUS would contest that conclusion based on their prior statements on “furnished” cages. The difference here was the allurement of the aforementioned historic precedent, and tempting though that sweet nectar may have been, those of us charged with safeguarding other beings can’t trade-off lives–just as we don’t justify vivisection on dogs that researchers claim could save untold numbers.

HSUS responds to such moral issues by stating the agreement doesn’t preclude others from doing precisely what I advocate, namely, utilizing a multi-pronged strategic approach until we achieve full justice for the hens. HSUS is factually correct, but absent their active participation and resources, efforts to improve conditions beyond the agreement would be merely symbolic. In effect, HSUS has become a movement into itself, as they have attained a level of dominance that marginalizes other movement voices. That’s their entitlement, but what isn’t their right is to expect others to lift water that they are uniquely able to carry.

That being said, it is long overdue for proponents and supporters alike to recognize that while intramural disputes of this nature are inevitable, the sheer ugliness of the diatribes exchanged does a grievous disservice to ourselves and our cause. Indeed, by definition, it is antithetical to a life-affirming movement.

Critics of HSUS have every right to be passionate and be heard, and what is often perceived as a dismissive attitude by HSUS doesn’t facilitate constructive dialogue. With power comes a concomitant responsibility to respect dissent and diversity, not merely through rhetoric, but in practice. Perhaps if HSUS tempered their power with genuine humility and a collaborative spirit, constructive discourse would over time supplant destructive rancor.

Conversely, HSUS should not be perceived as the devil incarnate because through mergers and other means, they’ve achieved unprecedented power within the movement. I personally have a bias against concentration of power, as power has a long and inglorious history of feeding itself. At the same time, no observer is gifted with a priori vision, and HSUS’ new era of leadership is still in its infancy. As I presently criticize them for what I perceive as a grievous misstep in the UEP agreement, I also acknowledge the potential they possess to be a potent force for compassionate change. If their power is used sagaciously, our cause will be well-served.

It’s not about forming a circle and holding hands, as we literally debate life-and-death matters which elicit profound emotions. What is needed, however, are civil boundaries that no longer allow insults to obscure critical issues. If we cannot muster the character required to act in consonance with our professed ideals, then we are little more than hypocrites. It’s inexorable that heated divisions will occur when heartfelt principles clash, but let us not dishonor ourselves and the beings we represent by taking our eyes off the prize.


Ed Duvin

Ed Duvin serves as Editor-at-Large for The Greanville Post and Cyrano’s Journal Today, and also as a member of their editorial boards. His writings and example–often controversial–on politics, philosophy, civil rights, and questions relating to the morality of human interactions with animals and nature have inspired generations of activists in the US and abroad. His characteristically low-key contributions to the humane movement, in particular, have been simply enormous. In 1989, he wrote a landmark article that ignited the “no-kill” movement among humane societies. Until then, most shelters just gave animals a brief reprieve for adoption prior to being euthanized. Today, most shelters–not just in the US and developed nations–have banned euthanasia from their normal practices. Many call him the “movement’s conscience. In my view, he has amply earned that title.–Patrice Greanville

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