A long-standing aversion to Sentimentality in the Animal Rights Movement and its Historical Roots
Updated: Mar 22
My leap into the world of animal rights advocacy began in November 2017, after attending a screening of Land of Hope and Glory and a speech by Ed Winters (more widely known online as Earthling Ed). Although already a vegan of 7 months, I had largely managed to avoid the graphic reality of animal agriculture. Feeling sickened and shaken by the footage, but also galvanised by Ed's speech, I was the first to raise my hand in the Q&A and asked quite forwardly “how can I become involved in activism?” - probably not the first question the speaker was expecting to hear in a room full of people whose consciences he was trying to stir.
The following year was a steep learning curve, throwing myself into various forms of activism in my local area at a time when street activism was at peak popularity. Events such as 'cubes of truth' have since been shunned by many activists due to the problematic views of the organisation Anonymous for the Voiceless. There was definitely a sense of naivety to my approach; unaware of the history of the social justice movement I was now a part of and a feeling of having to do “enough” for the animals' plights I was now so painfully aware of - a common cause of burnout in activists. It was at an event in 2018 that our demonstration in the town square was counteracted by a group of farmers promoting Red Tractor and “Meaty March” (a bizarre campaign encouraging the public to celebrate eating animals during the month of March, no doubt in retaliation to the successful Veganuary campaigns). The farmers were hostile and provoking us, tensions were running high and before I knew it I was part of a line of activists who were blocking the Meaty March campaigners. One member of our group stood in front of us with a megaphone, spouting a heated monologue against livestock farmers. I left the event that day feeling incredibly drained and unsettled. The feelings of tension and anger that we generated during our demonstration felt totally counterintuitive to what we were trying to achieve. How did we ever stand a chance of encouraging others to act more compassionately and peacefully when we ourselves were examples of the polar opposite?
What was perhaps even more worrying was how this hadn't occurred to me while I was there. It was the wakeup call I didn't know I needed to be more selective and considerate when choosing what forms of activism deserved my energy, the people I wanted to rub shoulders with and above all the tone of the message I felt the public should hear.
Through attending slaughterhouse vigils – events where activists bear witness to animals arriving in trucks – I began to reflect on the role of emotion in activism, particularly grief. Feelings and emotions are not squashed in place of rage at these events, in fact the role of grief is itself a powerful and subversive as we demonstrate that the animals condemned to be nothing more than commodities can in fact be recognised as individuals whose lives – and unnecessary deaths - are worth mourning. Although often traumatic and deeply saddening, it was at these events that I began to consider how vulnerable emotion in its most raw state - not blind anger - could be a fundamental tool in animal advocacy and its absence in environments outside of the slaughterhouse vigil. What is stopping us from embracing a vulnerable and sensitive approach to our public facing activism?
Looking for answers in the history of the movement, I have come to believe our aversion to openly expressing vulnerable emotion is a consequence of public feelings towards early forms of animal rights activism in the late 19th century and early 20th century. More accurately the issue may lie in who was the driving force for furthering the cause during this period. Many are surprised to learn of the significant crossover of the women's suffrage movement in Britain and animal rights. There are innumerable accounts of vegetarianism amongst the members of both militant and non-militant wings of the women's movement in Britain. Activists such as Lady Constance Lytton, Edith Rigby and Margaret C. Clayton, who wrote about their imprisonment due to their activities, gave details of the food they were given and often the prison authorities’ total ignorance of a vegetarian diet. Victoria Lidiard, who spent two months in Holloway after taking part in the WSPU’s window smashing exercise in March 1912, described being given the absurd quantity of “almost half a pound of butter beans” as a meal. During the war years many vegetarian restaurants sprang up across the United Kingdom through the initiative of the Women’s Freedom League.
While these accounts of vegetarianism in the movement are intriguing and occasionally amusing, the suffragettes' adopted this diet not for any trivial motive but instead as an extension of their humanitarian values and efforts. The links between the exploitation of non human animals and women were self-evident to many suffragettes. This type of identification between women as victims and animals as victims was later developed by vegetarian feminists in the 1970's. More broadly, however, the aspirations of both movements to create a kinder, more just world meant that they functioned in tandem with one another. Throughout the Edwardian suffrage period concern was also raised on issues such as the wearing of fur, the cruelty of hunting, and vivisection . The latter became an issue that developed into a very strong movement in late Victorian Britain.
Photo by Cruelty-Free International
The anti-vivisection movement was pioneered largely by feminists but also by fellow humanists and some religious groups such as the Quakers. The National Anti-Vivisection Society, the world’s first organisation of such kind, was founded in 1875 by Frances Power Cobbe, whose efforts helped bring about the world’s first animal protection law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.
In 1907 feminists, trade unionists, and socialists rallied together for what would go down in history as one of the most public condemnations of vivisection, known today as the Brown Dog Riots. The catalyst for these events was the work of two women, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Leisa Katherine Schartau. The women enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in order to infiltrate lectures and demonstrations at King's and University College. Although immensely challenging, the women were able to strengthen their anti-vivisection campaigning through first hand testimonies of events. It is estimated they attended over 50 experiments on live animals, recording events in their diary. After witnessing the death of a dog they claimed had been experimented on multiple times, the women brought the matter to public awareness causing widespread outrage and controversy. A memorial to the dog was installed in a park in Battersea, and became the centre of a battle between provivisectionists—mostly medical students—and anti-vivisectionists.
The abuse the female activists received wasn't just aimed at their efforts to raise awareness of animal cruelty, but rather a reflection of deep rooted misogyny. The pro-vivisectionists claimed that the women's arguments and accounts of events were irrationally sentimental and therefore illogical. It was suggested that female resistance to animal experimentation was stirred by emotion, hysteria, sentimentalism or ignorance, all of which contradicted rational science.
Unsurprisingly the general attitude adopted by animal rights activists later in the 20th century was one which sought to distance itself from these accusations. Any association with being an “animal lover” laid oneself open to criticism of being overly sentimental and the risk of one's arguments being rejected more easily. In Animal Liberation, a hugely influential book written in 1975, Peter Singer argues that “The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion”.
Examples of the reluctance to portray tenderness and emotion in forms of animal rights activism for fear of not being taken seriously are still evident in today's world. During my early experiences of activism, which I described briefly in the opening paragraphs, I felt that I was entering a world that was hardened and desensitized. Although it wasn't explicitly mentioned, or even apparent enough for me to have been able to articulate it well enough at the time, it was as if the quest to be heard and taken seriously was synonymous with putting on a suit of emotionally distant armour. During conversations with members of the public at demonstrations the advice from fellow activists was always to have the facts memorised in preparation to reel them off. While statistics on animal agriculture aren't at all redundant in these conversations, I believe the expectation placed on this rational, non-disputable, facts-based approach to convince others of veganism is too great.
Through learning of the construction of sentimentality and emotion in binary opposition to a rational discourse on animal ethics in the 19th century, it is my understanding that it might be time to consider advocating once again from a place of honest emotion in the hope that public attitudes have progressed enough to listen. For almost everyone who has embraced veganism it was empathy that guided us to our ethical conviction. To reject empathy in favour of a cold approach in our advocacy is to give in to a history which attempted to silence our message and those who sought to share it.
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Margo DeMello, Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies (2012, Columbia University Press), p. 183-185
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Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. London: Pimlico, 1995 (1975).