Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Interlude: Thoughtful Debate as “In-Fighting”?"

I am going to take some time out while on the topic of critical discourse to address an old concern among animal rightists. Some activists think that conflicting claims among animal rights theorists amount to “fighting” with each other rather than with those who hurt animals. One example that is commonly used is the animal “welfare” versus fundamentalist debate. Characterizing exchanges between thinkers in this manner is a false, destructive, and distorting view. Ironically, it is trying to fight off valuable thinkers who are helping to clarify what animal rights is and what it means, as well as its justification. The importance of academic writing and debate for animal rights includes:

  • Developing more convincing arguments to influence opponents of animal rights and win them over. People who go ahead with mere opinions may feel powerful, affirmed, etc., but it is only with one’s own people, or unproductively “preaching to the choir,” and resting smug with one’s own insufficiently examined ideas. Mere opinions do not convince others. Only good arguments do that—or at least that is what should happen. And we have important people to win over, including ordinary citizens, lawmakers, and policymakers. Educators need to focus not only on getting ideas out there, but on trying to learn what are the best ideas in the first place.
  • If we as the animal rights movement do not prepare by weeding out bad AR arguments ourselves, the enemies of animal rights will do it for us. And we would not want to actually be caught, as public activists, using bad arguments and thus giving anti-animal-rightists any more credit to their side than they are due.
  • Keeping intellectual humility and avoiding arrogance is only possible if one sincerely believes and practices that one needs to justify what one is asking others to adopt, be it animal rights, veganism, suffering-reduction laws, or whatever.
  • Helping to decide important strategy questions such as whether to advocate “welfarist” legislation. These are of enormous significance to animals even if some are willing to bury their heads in the sand and dismiss it as mere “fighting.” Sure, activists vitally need to cooperate on common ground, but they need to settle some issues too.
  • Some frame this as an issue of loyalty to the animals, or being treacherous with respect to each other. Yet it is truest to the animals to forge the most convincing possible arguments on their behalf. It is most faithful to furthering animals’ interests to decide what is in their best interests in terms of strategies. It is truest to each other to reflect the truth for everyone, and to seek that everyone exercise their own best judgment. It is not self-centred to debate, if one does this without ego. It is rather getting away from everyone being self-centredly complacent about whatever they happen to believe, and not having the humility to seek the truth beyond oneself no matter what. The truth is without ego.
  • We need to choose our battles wisely, but some foolishly avoid all intellectual conflict and thus frown on trying to ascend to greater wisdom. And then fools’ opinions are counted right alongside deeply reflective counsel. Or rather, it is only bare opinions that survive. Theory is cast overboard as an imagined “threat” to activist unity, a kind of paranoid anti-intellectualism.
  • Seeking stronger unity in the long-term. If we try to paper over intellectual conflicts now, they still persist at a deeper level, only we fail to acknowledge them. This results in stifling conformism, and deep-seated alienation or even resentment. However, if one side convinces others due to winning arguments—which are more than possible—then more true unity emerges. And it is stronger than ever because it is bigger and better than ever. Solid justifications for views allow everyone to have a firmer sense of identity, purpose, and means of resolving conflicts without them becoming mere vague impasses that impede full-powered progress. Feelings of positive association and genuine “friendliness” would also increase, since people would genuinely have more in common, rather than forcing or pretending to have unity. That is, there need be no fighting off dissension and pretending there is unity. People who try to force artificial unity as opposed to developing authentic solidarity sometimes deal with differences “underground” by gossiping about opponents secretly, or subtle back-stabbing rather than respectful dialogue.
  • Trying to find truth. That is the purpose of academic inquiry, even when the conclusion of some scholars such as postmodernists is that truly there is no truth. It is superficial and confusing matters to characterize debate as “fighting” just because claims are conflicting. Sometimes what should be debates are carried on as fights, with insults, giving way to impulsive anger, revenge, stubbornly defending prejudices and dismissing the views of others, lack of forgiveness or flexibility, etc. Even just ignoring views is fighting them off in a sense. At its best debate does not involve fighting but learning. Views are not discarded because of “battle” but because they are lacking in evidence, and so are not worthy of support. The winning views have not “slain their enemies” but have merely revealed reality and dispelled illusions. People who mistake their own opinions for facts have given up long ago on the quest for truth, but it matters. Opinions that are not properly justified pose as truth but without the substantiation that is necessary to certify truth.
  • Greater empathy for “opponents.” We need to overcome viewing other animal rightists as enemies (unless of course they make themselves into genuine enemies!), but rather simply ones with different views. Through thoughtful debate, we acquire more empathy for others by more fully understanding alternative positions and the reasons behind them. Here we try to avoid the pitfall of thinking one knows others more than one actually does, and one actually takes the risk of really listening. Many think they are respecting others by promoting a thin and superficial “unity,” but meanwhile, their understanding of other views is limited to little more than crude stereotypes rather than true depth of understanding.
  • Mediation. Academic writing, if it offers convincing arguments and thus fulfills its purpose, can mediate conflict by actually settling disputes, at least among people with open minds. I have witnessed this rewarding phenomenon many times by seeing reports from people who have, in all good faith, changed their minds. People who have trouble articulating the right position (and I aver that such positions exist) are grateful to others who can do a better job of it because it is, for one thing, a professional preoccupation. Moreover, this mediation would be rational and fair, by considering justifications, criticisms, objections, and so on. So it is not mere “arbitration” or playing eenee-meanie-miney-mo with regard to matters of importance. There is no single “Dean of Animal Rights Ethics,” so we need to listen to everybody all around in a full-fledged dialogue, whenever that is possible.
  • Democracy. This form of decision-making at its best is rational, not just a rabble throwing up hands without duly thinking through whatever decision is at hand. It is best, I believe, to seek consensus as much as possible not through sheer domineering, but rather informed debate.

Overall, then, academic dispute should be viewed as something that can be overwhelmingly positive, and the perception that it is just idle “fighting” is ironically just a way of fighting off expending effort to be accountable for one’s views by taking justification seriously. Reasons for fighting off serious thinking include:

  • not wishing to have one’s prejudices challenged
  • laziness or not wanting to go to the bother of thinking very much
  • lack of developing studious habits, and not being comfortable with staying put and learning
  • fear of conflict, perhaps because of unfortunate experiences growing up in which conflicting views typically lead to vicious “battles”
  • self-servingly avoiding conflict just because being at odds makes one personally uncomfortable; opposition is not always easy but that does not mean it should always be avoided, for all that
  • short-sightedness about the importance for developing winning arguments
  • mistaking bad examples of debate with debate in general, thus negatively stereotyping
  • tar-and-feathering of academic debaters as “elitists,” even though they are, at their best, just trying to find the truth and what is best for animals. It is rather elitist to dismiss informed debate from the movement, assuming that it is only appropriate for certain university folk rather than the right of all activists
  • being influenced by certain academics who provide a distorted model of scholarly conduct by exhibiting no scruples about indulging in insulting as a substitute for dialogue, conveniently ignoring criticisms deemed fatal by a wide swath of others, and pandering to many peoples’ temptations by providing oversimplified conceptions
  • wanting to focus on “practical” aspects of activism (this is actually quite a legitimate position for an activist to take, but it does not justify expressing negativity towards those who do wish to debate intelligently or trying to fight off such people, ironically enough); we must not ignore that debate itself is a form of intellectual activism, and a practice all in itself on behalf of animals.

We can look at this issue in terms of crude, but still valuable, personality theory: True Colors. According to this widely disseminated and trademarked view, there are four basic personality types:

  1. Green (thinkers and intellectuals);
  2. Gold (methodical, by-the-book, rule-based people who run institutions with fiscally responsible, standard procedures);
  3. Blue (emotionally sensitive, caring about relationships, friendly, loving, keeping the peace, etc.);
  4. Orange (fun-loving, thrill-seeking, creative, sporting, helping to cultivate interest, entertainment and amusement).

People who are “Blue” might be disturbed seeing conflicts among the “Greens.” Why can’t we all just get along? Cooperation feels so much better than the conflict! Or Golds want to institute their goals and see debate as an “unproductive” impediment to simply implementing whatever happens to be on their minds, which they then take for granted and go forward with. Or Oranges find that intellectual debating is just not enough fun. Really, though, this is a case of certain personality types giving into potential weaknesses and thus, ironically, trying to fight off the Greens.

The Blues have a valuable peace-keeping role, but they should be focused on avoiding needless conflict, and ensuring solidarity on points on which we all (should) agree. Golds should implement policies that are rationally determined to be best for animals, and Oranges obviously need to hunker down and respect the value of work, including intellectual tasks, although ways of making debates interesting are to be encouraged. A fully integrated person will make some room for all of the “True Colors,” and also leave enough breathing room for others with different predominant colours (if that is the case) such as the Greens. We need our true colours to shine through with a full-spectrum approach. So yes, let us challenge the speciesists, but with better and better strategies, and arguments for overcoming oppression, that are—let’s face it—formulated chiefly by the Greens. This is not just a matter of: Go, Greens, go! Let all go forth, with animal rightists seeking and finding the most satisfying and effective forms of unity that are conceivable! “For the animals” means, in part, being for good and for truth, and also against “garbage” reasoning about animals that can and should be avoided!


A Selection of Related Articles

Sztybel, David. "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism". Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5 (1) (2007): 1-37.

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Short version of "Animal Rights Law".

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Sztybel, David. "Incrementalist Animal Law: Welcome to the Real World".

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Sztybel, David. "Sztybelian Pragmatism versus Francionist Pseudo-Pragmatism".

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