Movement InFighting: Can it serve a purpose?

The Animal Rights National Conference 2014 (ARNC) will be held in Los Angeles on July 10th-13th. An organization called the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) organizes the conference. As the organization says on its website, the conference is “the world’s largest & longest-running event dedicated to the liberation of animals from all forms of human exploitation and use.” Even with this clear declaration of “liberation,” and FARM’s history of not participating in politically reformist tactics, FARM’s conference is attacked virtually every year for not being abolitionist, or radical, enough. Prominent figures in the movement, such as Gary L. Francione, accuse the organizers of not adhering to strictly to all-or-nothing vegan advocacy on behalf of animals. Francione is a law professor, author, and a major figurehead in the movement. Most of his current work contains little outside of bashing activists who use anything except educational outreach about veganism.

The animal justice movement contains a contentious divide between activists who seek the end of animal use and tactics that are strictly abolitionist, and those who pursue reformist goals. Some groups that use reformist goals want to end animal use all together, like the Farm Sanctuary or FARM, and some use reformist goals to improve the welfare of animals, but not necessarily to end their use all together. Those who want to end the use of animals often call themselves “abolitionists” or “liberationists.” Simply put, the movement embodies the contentious divide between the “radical” and the “reformist.”

Most social movements contain a similar divide, and other forms of internal conflict. Some conflicts are about tactical decisions, about organizational processes, about pursuing specific goals, or broader ideological conflicts. Do these conflicts weaken movements? Scholars examine both “conflict” and “competition” within movements. Some look at the effects of competition on radicalization of movements (Koopmans 1993), on the founding and disbanding rates of organizations (Minikoff 1999), on membership growth (Stepan-Norris and Southworth 2010), or on how tactical and goal specialization interact with interorganizational competition (Soule and King 2008). This is only a small snippet of the rich literature in this area. These studies provide valuable birds-eye views of what is happening in the field, which is often a mess of interpersonal conflict that can be emotionally draining for activists.

The literature on intramovement conflict emphasizes the larger movement processes that burgeon out of conflict. But the emotional lives of activists, and the emotional repercussions of conflict, are important to the collective identities that emerge through activism. Identities like the “Marxist” labor organizer versus the “liberal” labor organizer, or the “radical feminist” versus the “liberal feminist” are not only important for the organizations that proliferate out of tactical and ideological disputes, but also to the individuals who take on these tactical and ideological beliefs as part of their identity. People identify with particular organizations, and their participation in the movement can be conditioned by their membership in these organizations. This notion of how conflict conditions activists’ identity is important for looking at the conditions under which people participate in movements for longer periods of time. Identity is an element of what McAdam (1986) called “biographical availability.” Scholars could emphasize how intramovement conflict reinforces how activists identify with an ideological framework, and then participate in movements through organizations that align with that framework.

Last year at the Animal Rights National Conference, Gary L. Francione debated Bruce Friedrich, the Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives for the Farm Sanctuary. Friedrich is just as prominent as Francione in the movement, but is an advocate of using small policy gains towards abolitionist goals. The room was packed and the debate became pretty heated. Some became so agitated that they yelled from the audience and had to be calmed by people around them. But both Francione and Friedrich agree emphatically on one thing: militant direct action and the use of property damage in the movement is morally wrong.

As with many movements, there is a spectrum between purism and reformism. Those who use militant direct action are at one end, and those who work within the system for the smallest of gains are at the other. Francione and Friedrich fall in the happy middle, where they enjoy much of the support from a bulk of the movement. But unlike Friedrich, Francione attacks even activists who are closest to him ideologically, like FARM.

Recently, on May 29th, 2014, Gary Francione posted this on his Facebook timeline:

“A question I received: ‘Do you think it is morally wrong to attend the AR 2014 National Conference in LA this June?’ My reply: ‘I can only tell you my position. That event is, in my view, *nothing* more than a “happy exploitation” trade show. If you pay to attend it, you are paying to support the whole “happy exploitation” scene. You’re actively supporting the idea that there is a “compassionate” way to exploit. It’s really that simple as far as I am concerned.’ The short version: I believe that the event should be boycotted for the obscenity it is.

In the ensuing comments Francione went on to bash other organizations such as the Vegan Society for not being abolitionist enough. He said that, “the new ‘Vegan’ Society is about as vegan as the National Socialist Party was socialist.” I wonder if the attention he receives for these kinds of inflammatory statements serves a purpose for his career? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the master of this tactic: stoking controversy to get attention.

The Executive Director of FARM, Michael Webermann, wrote to me in response to Francione’s attack.

“I find it most humorous that he considers the event that 1) he was the headline speaker of last year, 2) he was invited to speak at this year, 3) allows no animal products to be served or promoted in any way what so ever, and 4) has the public mission of ending the use of all animals by humans for any reason, to be ‘nothing more than a happy exploitation trade show’. He can say we’re not abolitionist enough all he wants (I’d disagree, but it’s an argument one could rationally make), but saying we’re nothing but ‘happy exploitation’ is literally the exact opposite of reality.”

Considering the intense emotional investment it takes to run an organization like FARM, I thought this response was more than diplomatic.

The youtube video of last year’s debate continues to climb in views, and activists continue to debate about whether or not incrementalism leads to an ideal end result. This is not unique to the animal justice movement. The anger from conflict is an important form of energy that may be very similar to the energy that leads activists to get involved in a movement in the first place. Perhaps this intramovement conflict is fuel for the activist fire?


Filed under Daily Disruption

7 responses to “Movement InFighting: Can it serve a purpose?

  1. jacyanthis

    You mention some academic literature on whether in-fighting helped/hurt social movements. What conclusions did that literature reach?


  2. Erin Evans

    Thanks for your question. The literature has differing conclusions, but as with most areas of research it depends on which characteristic of the movement the scholar is looking at. (I’ll ignore the research on interpersonal conflict in organizations. I appreciated Goodwin’s (1997) article on the effects of romantic relationships in high risk activist groups.) Reformist measures cause much internal strife within movements. Most, if not all, movements have an ideational and tactical divide between purists and reformists. When reforms are passed, and especially when they are ill-enforced, they can cause increased conflict within movement and factionalization (Robnett 2002). There are contradictions in the literature on whether this kind of conflict is good or not. Organizational literature is critical of intra-movement conflict (Hannan and Freeman 1977), mostly because of the resulting factionalization and breaking up of resources. Other scholars have found that the breaking up of resources between organizations helps refine tactical specialization, although it may quicken the demise of less established organizations (Soule and King 2008). My current work looks at how conflict may be beneficial to movements in several ways. Conflict induces the proliferation of movement organizations, which offers multiple alternatives to participation (Shneiberg, King, and Smith 2008), and induces competition which helps make organizations more efficient (Stepan-Norris and Southworth 2010). This proliferation gives more ideational options to potential members who have divergent opinions. I’m also looking at how in-fighting may provoke passionate responses, and sustain movement participation.


    • coreywrenn

      This is actually the topic of my dissertation (factionalism in the AR movt in lieu of the trend towards professionalization). I also believe factionalism has its benefits.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin and commented:
    I’m re blogging this because it answers several questions on differences that take place within cause such as the wolf advocacy movement. Several points in this blog remind us that it’s the cause not the individuals that are considered. Within the movement many groups work to make a difference for wolves. It’s important to stay focussed on the work not individuals. The wolf advocacy movement is young, at least the ones coming forward since wolves were delisted: and it’s all a work in progress.


  4. coreywrenn

    Framing Francione’s position as an “attack’ or “bashing” speaks to a bias towards the ideological beliefs of mainstream animal rights. “In-fighting”/”divisiveness” rhetoric is often used to silence radical factions and protect the status quo as “normal,” “sensible,” and “rational.” If this was really about exploring the role of factionalism and not marginalizing radical positions, that polemic language would not be used.


    • coreywrenn

      Vegan Outreach regularly calls abolitionist vegans mentally ill, puritanical, selfish, etc. while PETA refers to them as mentally ill as well….but I don’t see them framed as “bashing” or “attacking” because they wield all the power in the social movement arena, their position is taken for granted as reasonable.


    • Erin Evans

      Do you not think that Francione attacks activists who pursue welfarist gains?


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