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A critical reflection on the abolitionist movement

The abolitionist movement has several shortcomings that are in need of serious reflection
The abolitionist movement has several shortcomings that are in need of serious reflectionCorey Wrenn

My readers should be well aware that I am a staunch promoter of abolitionist nonhuman animal rights. I am convinced that abolitionism is the best approach to fighting speciesism that we have available. Thus, since its inception, I have operated this Examiner page accordingly. However, this does not mean that I find abolitionism impervious. Like any social movement, criticism and reflection is absolutely essential to movement growth. Unfortunately, like many other approaches to nonhuman animal rights, abolitionism often becomes hung up in traditional methods of outreach and has been largely resistant to genuine challenges to its theory and practice. Below are some extensions on growing critiques as well as my personal observations that have been influenced by my research into social movement theory. It is my hope that abolitionist advocates take these criticisms seriously and do not write them off as part of some personal vendetta. My allegiance has always been to the advancement of nonhuman animal rights. As such, no theory, no approach, and no movement is outside criticism.

Single Issue Campaigns

Perhaps the most curious characteristic of some abolitionist advocacy is the lingering attachment to single issue campaigning. Some relentlessly advertise shelter kill lists. This emphasizes the needs of cats and dogs at the expense of rabbits, fish, pigs, cows, horses, and a number of other nonhuman animals who face death for want of adoption.* It also detracts from other systems of exploitation that are far more disastrous to nonhumans as a whole; shelter deaths make up only a tiny percentage of the injustices against nonhumans. Still others focus on minute single issues such as fireworks disturbing wildlife or the detrimental effects of litter. The hope is to use these single issues to draw attention to veganism and nonhuman animal liberation. Unfortunately, this tends to reinforce the negative identity applied to nonhuman animal advocates as unrealistic fanatics. Neither does it effectively outline the importance of veganism over refraining from litter or fireworks. I have also recently seen abolitionists calling for boycotts of companies (who are not even vegan to begin with) that have begun to allow for nonhuman animal testing. This is simply confusing and a waste of precious few resources.

In these examples it is clear that abolition often remains strikingly similar to new welfare ideals and organizations by favoring "low hanging fruit" at the expense of comprehensive, clear vegan education. Focusing on popular species and specific small-scale issues detracts from the root of the problem: our exploitation of nonhumans. All nonhumans and all nonhuman exploitation should be included in our scope.

Democratic Participation

An important characteristic of new social movements is democratic participation. This means that all who participate have a say in how the movement is structured and how it operates. This is in contrast to traditional movement structures that often relied quite heavily on one or few charismatic leaders who steered the movement. The strength of democratic participation lies in its ability to repel stagnation, invite reflexivity, and to avoid any personal agendas or belief systems held by leaders in the movement. Unfortunately, the abolitionist movement has become inextricably tied to Gary Francione’s writings and persona. This has reached a point where the movement not only appears cult-like, but contributions from other theorists and activists must be subject to leader approval else they are ignored and deemed unabolitionist. The abolitionist movement, then, does not appear to be a movement at all, but rather the promotion of one man’s theory. The movement becomes less about nonhuman animal equality and more about hero worship. It's absolutely unrealistic and dangerous to place the entire movement in the hands of one person.

Critical Thinking and Self Reflection

Because the abolitionist movement is so heavily associated with the promotion of one man’s theory rather than the promotion of a movement, the result has been an inability for many activists to engage in critical thinking or reflection. Any criticism of Francione’s theory, for example, no matter how important (or slight for that matter), results in the person delivering the critique being labeled “delusional,” “confused,” or even cognitively challenged. What’s more, the person is no longer considered an abolitionist and is often blacklisted. This is a strange reaction given that many of the persons delivering critiques are indeed abolitionist and are genuinely concerned in improving and strengthening the abolitionist movement. If a movement hopes to grow and avoid stagnation, it must be able to engage critique and self-reflection. Indeed, as the abolitionist movement refuses to participate in the discourse, it becomes increasingly similar to the mainstream animal welfare movement it so heavily opposes. Like the welfare movement, the abolitionist movement is often resentful of critique, becomes irrationally devoted to particular approaches and theory, and thus risks becoming outdated and left behind in the progression of nonhuman animal rights.


A popular critique from animal welfare organizations and activists is the extreme exclusivity of abolitionism. To some degree, I am forced to agree with them. In their fervor to differentiate themselves from welfare, many abolitionists are far too quick to exclude nonabolitionists or new vegans from discussions. On one hand, it is certainly not appropriate for abolitionists to promote or give platform to the counterproductive and destructive work of welfarist organizations and individuals. But, on the other hand, we should be able to engage them in debate and practice patience with newcomers in social networking forums. While we should be cautious of those who are influenced by their years of hard work and commitment to welfarist causes and really have more interest in protecting their investments than in realizing what actions are best for nonhuman liberation, we should be mindful of those who are genuinely interested in the discourse for the sake of the nonhumans we represent.


Alternatively, a new claim in the abolitionist movement that is promoted by Francione states that: “That moral concern/moral impulse can come from *any* source, spiritual or non-spiritual.” This inclusivity in outreach, as I have argued in a previous article, is hugely problematic for a movement based in challenging taken-for-granted belief systems using rational discourse. The “anything goes” approach leaves our movement open to further attacks to our identity in reinforcing the stereotype that we are irrational, crystal-gazing hippies. But, more importantly, allowing for faith-based outreach is hugely counterproductive to our rationality-based message. It is a weak foundation for promoting the rights of nonhumans, it often focuses on the benefits to the individual (at the expense of the benefits to nonhumans), and is generally an unethical way to promote morality.

Promotion of Violent Ideology

Finally, in response to these criticisms, many abolitionists have retorted with personal attacks and personal insults. This is not only counterintuitive to a non-violent movement, but it completely ignores perfectly valid criticisms. And, in response to the growing popularity of spirituality in some abolitionist factions, an anti-atheist prejudice has been encouraged. Abolitionist atheists are labeled “bigots” or “militant” and have been accused of threatening or insulting people of faith. Again, this is an attempt to skirt genuine criticism by feeding into preexisting and popular prejudices against those of no faith. Given the intense discrimination facing atheists in the United States, this is a particularly unfortunate trend in abolitionist circles.

Also of interest here is the overall lack of sensitivity to people of color, people of lower socioeconomic statuses, and people with disabilities. Much of the abolitionist literature fails to recognize literacy levels which are significantly lower for certain demographics. Outreach attempts also fail to acknowledge the limited access to nutritional information and nutritious foods facing much of the population. Finally, abolitionist critiques that refer to others as delusional or schizophrenic are ableist and absolutely unnecessary in discussing nonhuman animal exploitation. As abolitionists we value nonviolence: this goes beyond the rejection of physical violence and must also include violence in our words, writing, and outreach.

*Immediately following the publication of this article, I noticed that, commendably, Professor Francione had begun including other nonhumans in his adoption campaigning. However, his hyperfocus on cat and dog kill lists continues. Thus, many of the problems with single-issue campaigning remain.