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Fur Revival: Why Animal Rights Needs to Clarify its Message

Fur Revival: Why Animal Rights Needs to Clarify its Message

After decades of campaigning against the industry, fur is back in fashion, much to the dismay of animal rights advocates. Sites now promote “eco-fur” and “humane-fur”, whilst flinging disdain at any synthetic alternatives, declaring killing an animal is much kinder than petroleum. Why has this magnificent volte-face come to pass?

Motives. What are Our Motives?

To be fair, we haven’t exactly made it easy for people to understand what we are trying to do. We use language that obfuscates our motives. We harp on about “cruel vs humane” instead of “ending animal use.” People in the movement declare it a victory when animals’ lives are taken from them in a way which is marginally less horrific than before. Is this what we actually want? Shouldn’t we be clear and upfront about our desire to ensure that no more animals are brought into this world just to be used and ended? Shouldn’t people who want to be part of the animal rights movement want to end their use and be vegan?

It seems that our vocabulary of motives is unclear. “Vocabulary of motives” is a term to describe the phrases and words people use to justify their actions. Regarding a social movement like animal rights, this vocabulary tells us why the movement exists and why people want to help (Donna Maurer, Eating Agendas: Food and Nutrition as Social Problems, 1995). Social movements rely on the commitment of their members wanting to do something rather than needing to, and being clear about our motives is essential. If the animal rights movement aims to end animal use, it should require its members to want to. However, with the current language of “cruelty” and “humane” we are hardly being clear that our motive is to end animal use. We can hardly blame people for not understanding why veganism is an essential part of being an animal rights activist, if they don’t want to end animal use.

Cruel and Humane: How the Fur Industry Has Used Our Language

Focusing on cruelty in the fur industry and undercover investigations has opened a market for “humane” fur. Fur has appealed to the motives of “ending cruelty” and “stopping animal abuse” by marketing some fur products as addressing those concerns.

Videos and descriptions of cruelty are, of course, successful in eliciting deep and emotional responses, and for some, this may be motive enough to stop consuming animals. However, the lack of consistency in the vocabulary does not provide clear reasons for why people should change their lifestyle. The rise of “humane” fur shows that many have absorbed the message that it is how animals are treated that matters. Toss out being vegan! That’s so extreme. We can care about animals and wear our furs too!

This trend of talking about treatment rather than use can be seen more broadly in Western countries. Figures from the UK, US, and Australia show that people are concerned about the welfare of animals, but continue to consume them. Once again, people are mirroring the language of motives presented by prominent sources from within the animal rights movement. The overemphasis on “cruelty” has given rise to the use and marketing of the word “humane” in animal industries. They are using our language, twisted, distorted, repackaged, and re-marketed. Is it any wonder why people are confused when we say we don’t eat free-range eggs?

Sustainability and Eco Language

The new spin on fur also capitalizes on the fact that people are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of synthetics and plastics. Veganism is often touted as being “green” and the fur trade has co-opted this language and presented the argument that “the goal of fur production is to maintain long-term ecological balance”.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the fur industry uses language such as “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, and “green” to appeal to the motives presented by activists against the production of livestock animals. Seeing “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” used in the context of fur demonstrates the complete inadequacy of environmental motives to provide clear and consistent reasons for not consuming fur.

Time to Shift Vocabulary

If fur is making a comeback, particularly in the form of “humane” and “eco” fur, this is partially the fault of the vocabulary we use. The fur industry has been able learn a vocabulary from the animal rights movement and adopt strategies to appeal to those motives.

If animal rights activists truly want to end animal use, then it needs to make that motive clear. Industries which use, confine, and slaughter animals speak our language, and they speak it with such fluidity, one would think it their native tongue. Nevertheless, there are those of us who see that the words are grotesquely misused, idioms distorted and changed so that they no longer resemble our intended meaning. But isn’t that the way when we refuse be clear? Isn’t that what happens when we hide our motives and try to use more indirect, generally appealing language?

Considering all the money and time injected into the anti-fur campaigns, perhaps it’s time to take a seriously hard look at what the motives of the animal rights movement are and use language which clearly and accurately reflects those motives.

Photo credit: Image from © Lime Lane Photography

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8 comments on “Fur Revival: Why Animal Rights Needs to Clarify its Message”

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sheila williams
5 Years Ago

the only people who wear fur are vain and the people who kill the animals for these sad so and so's who wear it do it just for their greedy profit.IT IS AS SIMPLE AS THAT.

5 Years Ago

Great article. The idea of humane fur is some thing that has confused me a lot lately. Thanks for explaining why! I also found your point about explaining motivations in this and other social movements very interesting and valuable. It would be nice if people wanted to make the world a better place more often.

Maureen K
5 Years Ago

Fantastic article. And one more point: the "humane" argument falls completely flat for me because fur is NOT A NEED! Food is another story and there may be an argument for focusing on humane treatment of food animals as a step towards abolition of eating animals.

20 Sep 2012

Interesting point, Maureen. I'd like to address two points, one about the food/need aspect and the second regarding the idea that humane treatment for food animals will lead to abolition. Food is a need, however, there is a significant amount of data to suggest that animal products are not a need. For people with access to a variety of plant foods, veganism is an option.* Animal based foods are quite often completely unnecesary. Focusing on 'humane' treatment does not necessarily lead to the abolition of animal slavery. Creating 'better' treatment for animal does not address the idea that animals are not ours to use. Period. I have not seen any convincing evidence that focusing on humane treatment creates a decline in animal consumption in the long run. As Gary Francione points out, "The notion that we should promote “happy” or “humane” exploitation as “baby steps” ignores that welfare reforms do not result in providing significantly greater protection for animal interests; in fact, most of the time, animal welfare reforms do nothing more than make animal exploitation more economically productive by focusing on practices, such as gestation crates, the electrical stunning of chickens, or veal crates, that are economically inefficient in any event... And welfare reforms make the public more comfortable about animal exploitation. The “happy” meat/animal products movement is clear proof of that." If anyone has empirical data that conflicts with this view, I'd be very interested to read it. However, there is an issue of honesty that would prevent me for adopting the methiod of advocating for more "humane" treatment: if one truly believes that animals are not ours to use or exploit, I think that it might be somewhat dishonest to support industries and ideas that perpetuate the idea that animals are ours to use. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. - Stevie *There will, of course, be cases where people do not have a legitimate choice of food sources, for whom veganism may not be a choice at all. But that would be a case of necessity.

5 Years Ago

Great article, Stevie! As a vegan activist focused on animal rights - rather than welfare, humaneness, or some other minor component of the problem - I agree that the words we use shape the message we give which ultimately determines what we achieve. I try, whenever possible, to frame things in terms of exploitation. The conditions are irrelevant (and in fact, I've long felt that the humane line is a convenient way to let people off the hook - they feel like they've done enough if they buy free range eggs. Thanks for this article and some concrete evidence I can use to back up my stance!).

17 Sep 2012

Thanks, Theresa. And also a big thank you for taking the time to try and convey the message clearly and consistently; I think it's vitally important.

5 Years Ago

Great article. Clear good helpful reflection.

17 Sep 2012

Thank you, Peter.

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