What motivates moral protest? Why do some individuals rally to the defense of others? How can we explain why some people are willing to offer their time and give money to improve a lot of creatures who are forgotten, and “without a voice”? The study of animal rights activism, like the study of humanitarian activism, is a good way of examining what underlies all militant movements which claim to be based on altruism, solidarity, and other ethical principles. It should be noted from the outset that the animal protection movement is highly varied and complex. Indeed, any comprehensive survey of activists involves encounters with an amazing variety of individuals from all social backgrounds.
There are the volunteers, often women, who work in animal refuges, where they take care of abandoned cats or dogs. Then there are the campaigners who concern themselves with the plight of endangered wild animals – such as whales, gorillas, rhinoceroses, and polar bears – whose natural habitats maybe thousands of miles away. There are also philosophy students who, on graduation, decide to champion animal rights or anti-speciesism. There are also the vegans who, at Sunday markets, approach passers-by in order to draw their attention to the suffering inflicted on poultry by producers. In so-called alternative or autonomous punk circles, anarchists scream their disgust at the systematic exploitation of animals. So the range of militant activities engaged in by animal rights campaigners is enormous; feeding and taking care of animals; writing manifestos or works of moral philosophy; distributing tracts; producing documentaries – some intended to shock, others choosing to inform the viewer, using a more measured scientific tone, of the plight of certain wild species, as well as the fate of animals butchered for their meat, or used in laboratory experiments; organizing petitions; staging demonstrations outside bullrings, circuses, animal testing laboratories, as well as outside the premises of restaurant chains who source meat produced in factory farms; lobbying the authorities to make regulations to protect animals; organizing commando operations to liberate animals being used for testing purposes by the pharmaceutical industry, or, in the case of minks, being farmed for their fur.
Communicating a clear picture of the animal protection movement in all its complexity is further hindered by the fact that it is often associated with a number of stereotypes and sensational images. Indeed, this cause, which has a particularly long and complex history, seems destined to be reduced in the public mind media outbursts, and night raids on mink farms by animal liberationists.
Let’s together seek to replace this reductive image, using a number of tools that will enable us to negotiate the labyrinth of the animal rights movement. With this objective in mind, the issues being examined first need to be placed in their historical context. Like a geologist who seeks to uncover the mysteries of the ground beneath their feet, the sociologist of the animal rights movement has to trace the history of successive sedimentations which have modeled the forms which contemporary activists reuse and adapt. Historical sociology is a field that promises to enlighten us, and that is because it obliges the researcher to constantly historicize their reasoning, and take account of the ‘dead hand of the past. Certainly, this approach is not unproblematic. The historical records available to the researcher can be scarce and patchy. While there is quite a lot of material in English covering the developments of campaigns to protect animals over the course of the 19th century, few historians have chosen to work in this field. Furthermore, the analysis of the evolution of collective mobilizations for the protection of animals sheds light on a number of phenomena at the heart of some of the classic concerns of political science, namely: mechanisms for the control of violence; the work of sociologists; the role of moral entrepreneurs and judicial norms in the evolution of moral values; the development of philanthropy; the level of legitimacy of collective mobilizations; rivalries between groups whose status may be rising or declining; the way religious belief informs the views of political activists; the gendered nature of certain forms of activism; and the emergence of the ideologies of political ecology.
Equivocal, evolving, and cumulative engagements
A brief historical summary was intended to stress, as a preliminary point, that the cause of animal protection has always been a transnational movement. As a consequence of this, it is indispensable to clearly distinguish watchwords used internationally from forms of appropriation which vary considerably in different national contexts. To this first level of complexity, it should be added that campaigns claiming to be motivated by a desire to protect animals have always been deeply ambiguous. By that, we mean that analysis of the organization of campaigns reveals a host of reasons and motives. Under such conditions, historical sociology seems to us to provide the best theoretical tools for taking account of the interdependent evolutions, which involve multiple heterogeneous configurations. Throughout, endeavor to identify what it is about the treatment of animals which appears – in the eyes of a generation, or group of activists – to be sufficiently improper, scandalous, or disturbing to warrant the organization of collective action, with the aim of putting a stop to that particular practice.
The analysis will therefore attempt to identify the sociological conditions which lead to a situation where certain individuals feel that there is an intolerable discrepancy between what is and what ought to be. The fact that we accord attention to sociological factors in no way implies a conception of individuals as passive agents of superior and irresistible forces. Indeed, our guiding hypothesis, which in itself constitutes an implicit rejection of mechanical determinism, is that animal protection activists, through their engagements, actively endeavor to transform affective states which are unpleasant, even distressing, into opportunities for experiencing socially valued and gratifying emotions.
For this reason, we will explore at some length the sensitizing devices at various points in the history of the animal rights movement. By sensitizing devices, we mean to refer to “all the material support, the placement of objects, and the staging techniques that the militants exploit, in order to arouse the kind of affective reactions which predispose those who experience them to join or support the cause being defended”. This concept is useful in that it obliges us to make a clear distinction between, on the one hand, the emotions that moral entrepreneurs endeavor to generate in order to attract support for their cause, and, on the other hand, the affective reactions actually generated, which may be different from the reactions the activists themselves anticipated. In fact, the sensitizing devices generally provoke a range of equivocal and ambivalent emotions which escape the control of those who stirred them up. As a consequence, as we shall see, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations are interdependent, and militant engagements can have social effects which go far beyond their original strategic aims.