The Importance of Reading

The IVA periodically hosts animal ethics reading groups, both locally and online. Our current online reading group is coming to a close later this month, and it is being capped off by a discussion led by Professor Gary Francione.

Our reading groups work through many of the classic writings in animal rights theory and methodology, as well as some of the older philosophical writings that inform those works. Our aim is to help advocates familiarize themselves with the different competing views in animal ethics, to explore the foundations of abolitionist theory, and to work through some ongoing debates about how best to pursue abolitionist goals.

Some people think that reading groups are a waste of time. They say that the time we spend sitting around, reading books, and talking to each other would be better spent getting “real” things done.

We strongly disagree with this line of thinking for two reasons.

First, readings groups are important work because collective critical thinking and reflection is crucial to the long-term viability and integrity of our movement. Many of the failures of the so-called animal rights movement in recent decades are tied to the movement’s rejection of critical thinking and careful reflection. The idea that we should stop our talking and just go out and do something (anything!) has given rise to the endless cycle of practically and morally flawed welfare reforms, single-issue campaigns, vapid slogans, and regulation-focused protests that dominates the movement. These kinds of initiatives can look quite attractive if you’ve not stopped to think about the details.

Following Gary Francione, we believe that a little bit of careful thinking shows us that a legitimate animal rights movement must take a very different form. As the abolitionist movement grows, we must maintain a commitment to collective critical thinking and reflection. Reading groups are important both in their content (i.e., because they teach us about the ideological and methodological history of the animal rights movement) and in their form (i.e., because through reading and discussion we become better critical thinkers).

Second, reading groups are important work because they help participants become better educators. As we have said elsewhere, we agree that the cornerstone of abolitionist advocacy is education: going out into the world and talking to friends, family, colleagues, and strangers about animal use, animal rights, and veganism. But to be good educators, we all require a bit of training. Our ability to effectively communicate a clear abolitionist message is bolstered by having a solid grounding in the history of the movement and the history of animal ethics, as well as some familiarity with the contemporary works which explain what abolitionism is, what it demands, and what makes it different from other approaches. In the course of your discussions with friends, family, colleagues, or individuals you meet while doing outreach work in your community, you’ll face many questions and challenges. The more you’ve read, the better you’ll be at understanding and responding to the issues you encounter.

For example, you may be chatting with someone who is familiar with one of the many well-known animal protection organizations who focus on regulation. Having a firm grasp on the underlying details of the abolitionist approach will allow you to clearly articulate what makes abolitionism different. If the person with whom you’re speaking is fond of this regulationist organization, you should be able to explain the flaws in the group’s approach. If the person you’re talking to is already put-off by the organization, hearing a clear abolitionist message might help them realize that the advocacy organizations they’ve previously encountered do not represent the full spectrum of efforts. In either case, being well-versed in the history of the movement and the details of abolitionist theory can make a tremendous difference.

Similarly, the counterarguments you are likely to encounter while doing education work have been extensively discussed in academic and movement literature. Whether it’s the argument that there are no such things as moral rights, or that all that matters is suffering, or that plants can feel pain, or that animals do not have souls, these arguments (and countless others) have been vigorously debated in print. By participating in a reading group that deals with some of these readings, you’ll be able to work through and practice responding to these arguments before you encounter them in your own advocacy work.

Of course, our position isn’t that advocates must read all the relevant works in animal ethics. And it would be a mistake to spend your whole life reading without going out and speaking to people about what you believe. (There can be too much of a good thing!) But having a basic grounding in the history and theory of our movement will sharpen your understanding of what we’re working toward, make you a more effective educator, and help to maintain the integrity of our movement going forward. Reading is far from a waste of time.

The IVA generally runs an online reading group in the fall (starting in October or November). If you’re interested in participating, please let us know.