With no apparent sense of irony, Rob calls his piece “ARZone: Digging For Truth” and begins it thus:
ARZone is a social networking chat site, which offers chats from a collection of guests in the Animal Rights ‘movement’. These chats are the cornerstone of ARZone, and are heavily promoted across social networking sites and the like, with advocates being asked to submit questions to their weekly guests. The site then offers the option of joining follow up forums about said ‘chats’, in which the guests views can be dissected. These ‘chats’ are obviously far less well attended, and promoted less heavily for obvious reasons. The final thing to note about ARZone, and this is the important bit, they claim to be an abolitionist endeavour.
The first part of the above is reasonably accurate, although I don’t know by what standard one would judge “heavily promoted across social networking sites”. In the case of ARZone chats, it is the habit of the five ARZone admins to post links to (i.e. to “Share”) the information about the week’s upcoming chat on Facebook, usually once per day each in the week immediately preceding the chat. In addition, all those people who are members of ARZone or who follow either the ARZone Facebook Group or “Fan” Page will receive a one-time announcement of the chat when the announcement is initially published, as well as a quick reminder about the chat, usually within minutes of the chat’s beginning. ARZone’s promotion of upcoming events on Twitter is of a similar nature to that on Facebook, but with markedly less frequency. Considering the total volume of all activity by all members of Facebook and Twitter (Facebook has 500 million members), I don’t know whether such activity can be properly considered heavy promotion. (It is useful to note as well that ARZone has never used any paid promotional methods of any kind.)
Now one might wonder why I bother writing so much on such a seemingly insignificant detail (especially since it’s a small part of Rob’s long and apparently involved critique), but the imprecision with which Rob describes ARZone’s promotion of its chats, and the way in which he states subjective matters of opinion as objective matters of fact is emblematic of his entire approach to criticism and they presage both his biases and his lack of rigor as displayed throughout the piece. Things won’t get better from here.
The last sentence of Rob’s first paragraph above is crucial to his case against ARZone, and in what follows, I will show that while technically correct – ARZone is in fact a site dedicated to the abolition of the exploitation of all sentient beings – Rob’s phrasing of the sentence implies something other than that, and his misunderstanding of ARZone renders impotent his criticism of the site and it’s methodology. More on that to follow, let’s look now at what Rob writes next:
The reason this blog has been written, is there has recently been a small (well, to those of us involved it seemed big for a while…) debate about ARZone. I can’t summarise all of the views here, but I will do my best to go through the main points on either side, as I feel the only relevant pieces so far available on-line are impassioned defences by the ARZone moderators.
I hasten to add, in the interest of fairness, that I have been one of those critical of ARZone. I will however endeavour to put this position behind me for the rest of this piece and examine the issue as fairly as I can. After all, I managed to put my lifelong, childhood indoctrination of being raised on an animal farm behind me, I’m sure I can manage to look objectively on something like this for a few minutes.
Based on the above, we should expect a fair and balanced piece to follow, indeed, we should expect something more than that, we should expect Rob to consider ARZone’s strongest case for itself, and for him to consider the words and actions of the ARZone admins generously. In other words, when choosing the evidence to bolster his case, he ought not to ignore evidence to the contrary, and he ought to assume the good intentions of those he disagrees with. To do otherwise would be not in keeping with the stated goals of the post. Moreover, as M. Andrew Holowchak says in his book Critical Reasoning & Philosophy: “A commitment to critical reasoning requires that you are open to rationally founded views that are inconsistent with your own. You assume fallibility and fallibility is a willingness to entertain all reasonable claims as true, if only provisionally, in an effort to increase understanding for all parties involved. Thus, a critical attitude is essentially one that is unselfish.”
Let’s hope for the best from Rob.
Next, he says:
The main thing to note about the criticism of ARZone is that it hinges on a very important fact. This fact is that ARZone claims to be an abolitionist endeavour. For instance, take a look at the description on it’s facebook page:
“ARZone is opposed to speciesism. ARZone believes that human and nonhuman animals are rights bearers and that human beings violate the rights of nonhuman individuals when they use them.”
Rob here again raises the issue of ARZone as an “abolitionist endeavor” and as mentioned above, Rob thinks this means that ARZone should operate in a certain way. We’ll get to that, but notice too that the description Rob uses of ARZone is one he has found on ARZone’s Facebook “Fan” Page. That’s fine, of course, ARZone maintains the page, and even though the description Rob found there was not one fully up-to-speed with where ARZone is today, that’s ARZone’s problem, not Rob’s. But, ARZone also maintains a Facebook Group, and at the time Rob wrote his post, it maintained two websites, the main and still operational site ARZone.ning.com and the now obsolete site ARZone.net. A check of these three would have shown that ARZone has an extensive (and more recently written) mission statement posted on all of them. (I’ll have more to say on the mission statement below.) In keeping with Rob’s stated goal of fairness, he should have taken the time to read that mission statement, and at least mentioned its existence to his readers. While he may have read it, he certainly didn’t mention its existence. So, this shows that either he wasn’t aware of the extent of ARZone’s presence on the internet, or that he didn’t care to thoroughly examine what ARZone has to say about itself, or that he did know about the mission statement but chose to ignore it anyway. None of these three is excusable in an author who presents himself as a fair and competent critic of others and none is in keeping with the spirit of the Holowchak quote above. Maybe I just expect too much from Rob.
There are many, many sources an abolitionist might focus their attention on if they were looking to be critical – for instance, the industry of animal exploitation, ‘animal welfare’ groups, explicitly stated ‘New Welfarist’ groups like PETA…so it may seem odd that a group of abolitionists are the ones creating a criticism of another group claiming to be abolitionist. Therein lies the major problem.
If ARZone were simply marketed as a stance-neutral forum for hosting chats and discussing animal rights, I’m unsure it would receive any criticism at all. Well, it certainly wouldn’t have received any from me. After all there are hundreds of groups and sites peddling animal rights chats and discussion, and many are pushing/promoting counter-productive and false ideas onto a plethora of already convinced individuals. One more wouldn’t garner attention. The fact ARZone markets itself as abolitionist, though, leaves itself open to the definitions and obligations that go along with any position.
In the above, Rob is doing two things. First, we can assume that he is anticipating that others would ask him “Since ARZone is an abolitionist site, Rob, why can’t you, as an abolitionist yourself, just get along with them?” But it is often the case that activists are admonished to “stop the infighting” and work together. Rob is right, though, one ought not to place “getting along” with others ahead of one’s principles. Principles ought not to be compromised for the sake of community. But the second thing Rob is doing is making the specific case for why he, as an abolitionist, is justified in criticizing the other abolitionists at ARZone. Now, I agree with Rob that there are perhaps better things an abolitionist might do with their time other than criticize other abolitionists, but surely if, as an obvious example, a self-professed abolitionist killed healthy free-living squirrels while calling them pests, another abolitionist would be justified in criticizing them. So, is Rob justified in criticizing ARZone? No, he isn’t, and while he is entitled to his own opinion, it is unfair of him to hold ARZone to standards based solely on his own definition of “abolitionist” and on his assumptions about what abolitionists ought to do.
So, what is that definition and what are Rob’s standards? Well, in the second paragraph above we get a glimpse.
First, Rob says that if ARZone had “marketed” itself as a “stance-neutral” site it would have avoided criticism from him. One need only read the actual ARZone mission statement as posted on the aforementioned three places on the internet to see that it “markets” itself in just that way. The mission statement reads, in part: “Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) exists to help educate vegans and non-vegans alike about the obligations human beings have toward all other animals. By providing a space for a variety of blog posts, forum discussions, notes, videos and more, ARZone fosters a sense of community among its members. Through live online chats with a diversity of people who work both within and outside of the animal advocacy community, ARZone supports rational discourse and intelligent dialogue about the most pressing issues facing us today.” Clearly, as a site which seeks to educate both vegans and non-vegans, and which welcomes a diversity of people, from both inside and outside the animal advocacy community, ARZone is “marketing” itself as “stance-neutral” site when it comes to the opinions and people welcome there. That is not to say that ARZone agrees with or endorses any or all of those opinions or people, and in fact, the same mission statement goes on to state exactly what are the positions of the site itself. But, obviously, one can be committed to the rights of nonhumans while at the same time providing an opportunity for other advocates to ask questions of people who reject animal rights. Having non-abolitionists in ARZone doesn’t make ARZone non-abolitionist.
Second, Rob says essentially that if ARZone had properly described itself (according to his standards) then it could go on as just one more of those kinds of sites of which Rob claims there are “hundreds of groups and sites peddling animal rights chats and discussion, and many are pushing/promoting counter-productive and false ideas onto a plethora of already convinced individuals. One more wouldn’t garner attention.” This seems to say that ARZone, without its improper (according to Rob) abolitionist label, would be just one more site spreading lies, and as such nothing to worry about. But because ARZone presents itself as abolitionist, it’s supposed flaws and failures simply cannot be ignored. Rob seems to assume the conclusion he ought to be proving, which is that ARZone is spreading “false ideas onto a plethora of already convinced individuals” (in other words, promoting welfare reforms to advocates who support welfare). I should note that Rob has told me that he isn’t claiming here that ARZone actually is spreading false ideas, but rather he is trying to say that even if ARZone was doing it, why would it matter? However, as much as I’d like to take Rob at his word, the actual sentences he writes belie what he has told me; the meaning of the paragraph above, as written, seems clear – Rob is saying that ARZone is spreading falsehoods. Perhaps Rob will rewrite it to express what he now says he means? Until that happens, it is clear what Rob means. On his view, ARZone is spreading falsehoods and promoting “welfare” to those who know no better.
Next, Rob attempts to illustrate his point by way of analogy. (In another display of Rob having no apparent sense of irony, Rob must forget that he chastised me in the days before he wrote this post over my own use of analogy. He was wrong, of course, analogy has its place.) Let’s see how he fares…
Let me use an example here – take Newsnight, which is a news and current affairs program here in the UK. The cornerstone of Newsnight (at least as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t agree/know this, then let us just suppose) is it’s interviews with people currently in the spotlight of politics/media. Say Newsnight decided this evening it would adopt a stance of socialism from now on (I’m well aware this is un-probable, that’s not the point), and publicised this stance as it’s description on it’s web pages, and adverts. Newsnight would now be viewed and expected to behave very differently. After all, previously Newsnight was just a ‘news programme’, it is now a ‘socialist standing news program’.
Now imagine Newsnight was interviewing a right-wing, conservative politician. But imagine that politician was simply asked questions which, rather than challenge his stance for the most part, simply asked him about certain policies and how they worked. Much like Newsnight does now (sorry, Paxman), it would be taking a neutral stance toward the politician, not a socialist stance. This would undoubtedly be noticed, and those socialists in the audience might feel aggrieved that the politician had got off ‘scar free’.
Now imagine further – 3 months into socialist Newsnight, and it was still adopting a largely neutral agenda. It had perhaps interviewed a small amount of socialist politicians and figures, but largely was on neutral ground.
Would you really say Newsnight was socialist in any way, or is it just intending to be? It seems to me that such a situation would show that although the producers had perhaps decided to take a socialist stance, the program itself had not been socialist in any form.
And what should socialists think of this? A socialist sees socialism as the right way to do things, and the right path forwards. She has seen 3 months of socialism being turned into some neutral stance via this program, and she has seen no real sign of the socialism which has been spoken. And, in fact, given the percentage of socialists that there already were on Newsnight previously, has seen not even a larger percentage of socialists than one would expect given the relatively small political spectrum. Does the socialist not have a right to feel aggrieved that Newsnight is using the tag of socialism in this way?
To be fair in one’s criticism of this hypothetical TV show, one would have to begin by defining socialism, and then by agreeing what the proper conduct of a “socialist” news program would look like. You will forgive my ignorance (I haven’t met many “self-described socialists” in America) but according to Wikipedia, “Different self-described socialists have used the term socialism to refer to different things, such as an economic system, a type of society, a philosophical outlook, a collection of moral values and ideals, or even a certain kind of human character. Some definitions of socialism are very vague, while others are so specific that they only include a small minority of the things that have been described as ‘socialism’ in the past.” The article goes on to list NINE different “Socialist Ideologies” and offers a positively dizzying array of other types of socialism. It would be difficult to know, in Rob’s hypothetical situation, which members of which socialist ideology our news program would be letting down by not being adequately socialist. For every socialist disappointed, there might well be another pleased as punch. Obviously, we would have to have at least some way to judge whether the TV show lived up to its billing and conducted itself as any good comrade would.
So by what standards might we judge? Here’s a fair guess. We would look to the statements and positions of the news program itself, and rather than rely on our own preconceptions of what some label or another might mean, we would ask what the goals and aspirations of the show were, and how and why it took the steps it did to pursue and fulfill them. We might find that we would disagree with their methodology, but unless we said they were lying about their intentions, and that would be a very serious charge indeed, whether they lived up to our definition of socialist wouldn’t matter. What would matter, given that they were open about their aims and methods, and given that there are many types of socialism and many paths to achieve it, is whether they lived up to theirs. A fair-minded person should do the same when it comes to ARZone and abolitionism, shouldn’t he?
So far I have used the example of Newsnight and socialism, but the smarter among you will have already realised that this is an analogy for ARZone and Aboltionism. And in fact the only difference is that there seems to be a slight bias toward abolitionist guests on ARZone than toward socialists in the Newsnight example – but, as I hope is clear, a slight increase in the number of socialists on Newsnight would not be justification for calling Newsnight a socialist programme.
Clearly a socialist might feel that, not only is Newsnight misappropriating her morally favoured position, but also that it is diluting it. It is telling anyone watching it that ‘this is socialism’, and that socialism need not necessarily agree with basic socialist theory. If you believed passionately in socialism, would you not consider this a problem?
In the above two paragraphs Rob tries to connect the dots for us, as if we couldn’t see the analogy he was drawing all along, but he fails. He fails because he doesn’t understand the crucial similarity between a news show and ARZone, and he appears to misunderstand the shared common purpose of both. A news program is not an opinion program, or an editorial program, or an advocacy program. It is a news program, designed to bring people the news, through accurate reporting and fair and honest interviews, without promoting any particular agenda. That is not to say that certain news shows won’t have a liberal take on current events, or that others won’t have a conservative one, but only that even with those built-in biases, the best news programs provide space for an honest airing of a wide variety of views, asking critical questions of guests without being insulting, all the while scrutinizing their own preferred ideologies as much as they scrutinize others. That’s why, in America, everyone knows that neither Ed Schultz nor Rush Limbaugh are really “newsmen” in the true sense of the word – they are partisans promoting their agendas. There is a place for that sort of thing, but it isn’t in a news show.
What Rob and others want ARZone to be is not what ARZone is. Rob wants ARZone to promote his brand of “abolition”. ARZone wants to educate people about speciesism, animal rights and veganism through an open and honest airing of a wide variety of views. If Rob understood what ARZone was, he might understand its methodology. He doesn’t, and his criticism of ARZone lacks standing.
Regardless, Rob now goes on to suggest “improvements”.
The abolitionist criticism, then, has gone onto suggest improvements. The first, which has been rarely mentioned, is to remove the abolitionist label. As the Newsnight examples shows, ARZone is not currently acting in any way abolitionist. The individuals behind it may well claim to be abolitionist, but the individuals in the example may also claim to be socialist – with all due respect, so what? It changes nothing.
Rob must be suggesting these improvements as disjunctive conditions, otherwise there would be need for only this first one stated above. As Rob previously has said, the problem (for him) lies in the fact that ARZone has labeled itself as abolitionist and that without that label, ARZone would not even face criticism, at least from him. So, it must be the case that removing the “Abolitionist” label from ARZone is all that is necessary to end the criticism of it. Be that as it may, ARZone is an abolitionist animal rights social network site, and it will continue to call itself one. Rob may not think ARZone measures up to the definition of “abolitionist” that matters to him, but frankly, so what? Rob Johnson has no exclusive claim to the word, and has no special qualifications to define it. Additionally, Rob says “ARZone is not currently acting in any way abolitionist.” This is just nonsense. Whatever reasonable criticism of the site there may be, ARZone acts in almost every way as an abolitionist would act. Rob risks making a complete fool of himself with such absolutist statements of so little merit.
The suggestions continue:
A second would be that, rather than treating the guests in this neutral manner, an interviewer was appointed who was abolitionist, in order to quiz guests if abolitionist criticisms are not forth coming from the audience. If you simply endeavour to question a guest about their own actions, for the sole purpose of receiving an answer, this doesn’t constitute the actions of an abolitionist so much as the actions of someone who is more generally interested. At best ARZone could currently claim to be an ‘animal protection’ site (not even animal rights, as the title suggests, as many of their guests are not rights advocates – even in one of ARZone’s own administrator’s views). An interviewer who has prepared questions could at least challenge the guest on matters of abolitionist theory, and hence promote an abolitionist promotion via any short comings in the guest’s answer. It would then be clear that ARZone was at least attempting to be an abolitionist endeavour, however wrong that attempt might go.
Now, although Rob doesn’t make it clear, this second “improvement” could only be necessary if it were the case that ARZone ignored Rob’s first suggestion further above. Again, considering that without the “abolitionist” label, ARZone would be just one of hundreds of other sites spreading falshoods and not to be bothered with, this second suggestion only makes sense if ARZone ignores the first. So, assuming that ARZone ignores the first suggestion, which of course it will, what of the second suggestion? ARZone will ignore it as well.
Rob assumes that the flaws which his suggestion aims to correct actually exist, but he offers no evidence that they do. He suggests that ARZone should have an abolitionist interviewer, as if the admins of ARZone were something other, as if no member of ARZone was. Also, it may appear to him that guests go unchallenged, and by his standards they might, but this is a subjective matter of opinion and not an objective matter of fact, at least not insofar as Rob has shown. Beyond this, Rob misunderstands the very nature of the questions as asked. More often than not, questions are posed in such a way that the question itself contains an affirmation of abolition and a criticism of the guest’s known position. A challenge to the suspected answer is contained with the question and both the guest as well as the membership know it. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t need abolitionist “gurus” to indoctrinate them, even if Rob thinks they do.
Moreover, Rob seems to think that one can’t be an abolitionist unless one is actively challenging those who aren’t themselves abolitionists, although it is unclear at what point the challenges might be permitted to end. Perhaps Rob supposes that some person might be able to “shut down” any guest with successful follow-up questions, but one has to wonder, how long should any back and forth on any one point go on? The disagreement over abolition vs. welfare is well-known. Is it likely that any advocate for welfare is going to concede her position, even after going 15 rounds in every question? How long would chats have to last? How many guests would subject themselves to such a thing? More than one of Rob’s fellow Abolitionist Approach adherents have gone so far as to suggest that ARZone ought to interogate “welfarists” so stridently that none of them would ever want to accept an invitation to chat. Maybe if ARZone’s mission was to do nothing but present a one-sided view of the debate that would make sense. But that is not ARZone’s mission, as has already been pointed out.
But what if it were true that an abolitionist must always challenge non-abolitionists on the positions they hold, and that anyone who doesn’t do so must not be an abolitionist, just as Rob seems to be saying. What he actually said bears repeating: “If you simply endeavour to question a guest about their own actions, for the sole purpose of receiving an answer, this doesn’t constitute the actions of an abolitionist so much as the actions of someone who is more generally interested. At best ARZone could currently claim to be an ‘animal protection’ site…” So, if what Rob is saying is true, then one cannot be an abolitionist without actively challenging what non-abolitionists say. It is difficult to understand, however, how what Rob says could actually be true however.
Would it have to be the case that every abolitionist must challenge every non-abolitionist on every point of disagreement between them on every occasion when they meet or else risk losing their right to be called abolitionist? That seems unlikely. So then what Rob might be saying is just that when one asks a question of non-abolitionist guest in a chat, the question must be sufficiently challenging to the guest’s views or else the questioner is not an abolitionist. But that would mean that if one questioner asked a non-abolitionist a non-challenging question in the first part of the chat, but then asked a second very challenging question later in the chat, such a questioner would be at first non-abolitionist and then later abolitionist, within the same chat, questioning the same guest. That makes no sense; on that basis one would go from being abolitionist to non-abolitionist and back again, over and over and over.
But I see now what I am missing. What Rob is saying is that by asking non-challenging questions to a non-abolitionist guest, one is not acting like an abolitionist. That makes sense, because one could be acting like an abolitionist in one part of a chat and acting like an animal protectionist in another part of the chat, based on how challenging one’s questions might be. In that way, abolitionists might not seem like abolitionists all the time, even though they would be abolitionists all the time. But then what are we to make of Rob’s contention that ARZone is an animal protection site? If his argument is that the admins are merely acting like non-abolitionists only when they are asking non-challenging questions of non-abolitionist guests, then it seems unlikely that ARZone can be anything other than an abolitionist site, unless Rob contends that acting like non-abolitionists on certain occasions means that one is not an abolitionist at all, ever. If that is the case, we’re back to where we started, and abolitionists must always challenge every non-abolitionist every time they might meet. If you are lost by now, don’t feel badly, Rob’s argument is like a trip through a carnival’s House of Mirrors, distorting reality until it is unrecognizable.
I guess one could argue that what Rob really means (and it’s just a guess, because it is impossible to tell from what he’s written up to this point) — what Rob really means is that because ARZone so obviously lets non-abolitionist guests go unchallenged so much of the time that even if they are abolitionist, they almost never act like it and so ARZone is effectively not abolitionist. One could argue this, but it would require the production of evidence and some accounting of the questions, answers and follow-ups of each and every chat, which is something Rob so far has not done. All he has done is state his opinions on the matter, and given his own stated biases, no-one should take his opinions at face value. Perhaps Rob is satisfied with assuming the truth of things which he ought to be proving, but no-one else need be. As I said, ARZone will ignore this suggestion too.
Here then is the third suggested improvement, but we can call it the “second-second” one if Rob prefers:
A second improvement would be to replace the chats with debates. ARZone’s chats currently resemble a fan club – not in the harsh sense that they desperately adore everyone who comes on, but in the sense that even badly answered questions are largely ignored. The guests of course are often professionals, and hence extremely experienced at twisting around and wriggling out of even the most difficult questions – and so, as to be expected, the advocates whom ARZone have persuaded in to participate in the chats do not generally spot this. However, if you have a professional on the other side, or at least an experienced, knowledgeable other, then you have someone who will push these inconsistencies. Sure, on some occasions you will pick badly and have someone ill suited to such a role – but on the whole ARZone will see an improvement toward it’s abolitionist claims.
Rob continues to base his suggestions on things he hasn’t made the case for, namely that guests are inadequately questioned and almost never challenged. In addition, he misses, almost entirely, the point of ARZone. ARZone exists to encourage grass roots advocates and activists to enter into dialog with each other and with others in and out of the movement. ARZone is not a “top-down” affair, where the “expert of the week” takes on whichever guest happens to be “on the firing line”. ARZone trusts that its wide membership is fully capable of engaging with each week’s guest by asking thoughtful questions and understanding the replies. More importantly, there is no need in the movement for more “leaders”. What the movement needs are more people empowered to make changes in their own lives, their own families and their own communities. Debates between “professionals” are already happening too often, in too many places. ARZone offers something else, something inclusive, something of value to our members, even if it doesn’t meet Rob’s arbitrary standard of “abolition”. Beyond that, a debate format would not change the way the chats would be conducted, it would only change the number of questioners presenting questions. This suggestion is really the same one as Rob’s “first-second” suggestion immediately preceding and it will be ignored for the same reasons.
Next, Rob considers the responses he has seen to the criticism of ARZone.
As to be expected on a moral issue, emotions have often ran high – and each side has made personal comments about those on the other. However in the midst of personal comments, came response from ARZone. I will summarise these roughly, along with their validity in lieu of the actual criticisms/suggestions for improvement made:
a) ARZone does not allow guests to reject questions. The guests now (as opposed to early policy) have to answer the questions put to them.
- The problem with this response is that it is largely irrelevant. I myself had the impression that rejection of questions was allowed, as earlier in it’s history this was true. However, as stated previously, these guests are professionals/extremely experienced – the few challenging questions are easily wriggled out of. An interesting example of this is where a new-welfarist blogger was allowed to mis-define abolitionist in it’s entirety (with no challenge from any of the ‘abolitionist’ administrators). The ARZone even featured a further occurrence of this as a highlight of the chat in their blog, in which the blogger claimed he himself was an abolitionist.
The blog is called ‘words to inspire debate’ and I’m sure ARZone will use this to say they were only trying to inspire debate. Still, if we go back to the Newsnight analogy, would Newsnight get off by saying they are socialist, but they are simply trying to inspire debate? Rationally, it doesn’t seem so.
As Rob admits, the original criticism of ARZone was that guests were free to reject questions. Knowing that this is no longer the case, rather than withdraw the criticism, as one would expect, Rob just says that the literal truth of the criticism is “largely irrelevant” and all that matters now is that guests are adept at evading answers. Now, in Rob’s mind it might be the case that allowing guests to reject questions before they are even asked might be the equivalent of the guests answering questions in a less than forthcoming way, but any reasonable person would recognize that these two are not at all the same thing. It doesn’t speak well for Rob that he persists in presenting an objection which he knows full well no longer applies. I believe “unselfish” was a word in the Holowchak quote referenced earlier, Rob might want to look it up.
ARZone did, in the past, offer guests the right to refuse any question they chose, but in every case except one, no guest ever did. More importantly, and as has been true for a while now, guests are no longer given the opportunity to reject questions.
But what would anyone be able to do if a guest were to refuse to answer a question? Suppose that a guest said to ARZone, “No, I won’t answer that one.” Would ARZone leave that question out of the chat? No, ARZone would respond, “You don’t have to answer it then, but we will ask it, and it will show in the transcript that you were asked and declined to answer.” What more could ARZone do? Of course, if a guest told us ahead of time that a significant number of questions would go unanswered, we might rescind the offer of a chat. There’s no use in talking to someone who is non-responsive. But, to repeat, there has only been one instance of any guest refusing to answer any question.
And what should we make of Rob’s comment about the “new-welfarist blogger” who “mis-defined” the word “abolitionist”? Well, that “blogger” was David Sztybel, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and who has written about and been active in animal rights for 20 years. As David understands the idea, he is an abolitionist, even if Rob thinks he isn’t one. As I’ve said, and as should be obvious, Rob doesn’t hold the license on the word “abolitionist” and no-one, least of all David Sztybel, need be constrained by his definition of it.
b) ARZone have a disclaimer – you can view their disclaimer on facebook, or on their main site – it goes something like this:
“Disclaimer: We are an abolitionist animal rights site. Although our guests may include advocates of regulation and some pro-violence advocates, we only support the abolitionist approach to animal rights. We do not necessarily endorse or agree with everything stated by guests or ARZone members or any links on our site provided by members and guests. To the extent that these sites promote: (1) any type of violence against persons or property; (2) welfare regulation; (3) any form of racism, sexism, or heterosexism; (4) endorse any of the large national animal organizations or (5) promote “happy meat” or vegetarianism, ARZone rejects those positions.”
- If we were all in a court of law debating abolitionism, this disclaimer might be perfect as a defence of any non-abolitionist promotion ARZone engaged in (though, even this is highly arguable). However, again, so what? We are not in a court of law, and for this disclaimer to do it’s job of making ARZone abolitionist, it would have to be viewed by every single person viewing or participating the site. After all, abolitionism is a theory – it is a set of ideas. For a person to be abolitionist they simply have to agree with them, for a group or project to be abolitionist it has to have some significant practical sign of this – as a group or project has no ideas of it’s own. As I said before, the creators of ARZone may claim to be abolitionist, but this doesn’t make ARZone abolitionist.
A disclaimer, therefore, sets forth a position in a sense of ‘we are this – so don’t bother challenging us as it says it right here’. However, let’s go back to Newsnight – would Newsnight suddenly be socialist just because it claimed to be? Even if it offered it in small text in the credits or something? I really don’t think so. It is possible one individual can claim a stance, and be that position without ever acting on those beliefs. However it is nonsensical to think a thing can be so with the same old neutral, or even simply non-significant positive actions.
I’m not sure what the point of Rob reproducing ARZone’s disclaimer is, he doesn’t provide any context. However, since he begins his piece with a criticism derived from the description of ARZone he found on Facebook, it seems odd to now discount the importance of another statement ARZone makes about itself. Anyway, unless I am mistaken, the disclaimer as written above was modeled on the disclaimer used on Gary Francione’s Abolitionist Approach website, and it was intended not so much to declare the purpose of ARZone, but rather to disclaim any affiliation or relationship with any of the many members and guests of the site and anything they might link to or promote. It’s a pretty standard type of disclaimer, meant to let visitors know the limits of the responsibilities of ARZone with respect to the content found on the site. Rob seems to think it was designed to do something else, but he must be confusing the disclaimer with the mission statement, which is understandable, considering that he either didn’t read or chose to ignore the latter.
No matter though, this criticism again only makes sense if one already accepts the assumption which underlies Rob’s entire line of reasoning, which is that ARZone in not abolitionist and that it is engaged in promoting or advocating something other than abolition. That isn’t the case, and therefore Rob’s criticism continues to amount to nothing.
And it continues:
c) The promotion and event of guest chats may not be perfect, but they are just to get an idea of a guests position for which to dissect afterwards in forums.
- This itself would be defendable on some level. But let’s place it in context of what actually happens. Facebook events are created with thousands of people, perhaps even within that hundreds more, cross posting when it comes to chats. It is treated as a very public, socially marketed event. Nothing even close to this occurs for after-forums. ARZone have made more attempts at promoting the after-forums since the criticism, but unless they both spend as much time doing this (if not more) than promoting the actual chats, and also manage to drum up as much pull for the after-chats, then they are not succeeding at the level needed for this response to be defendable.
Hence why one of the improvement suggestions was to change the format to debate or add a challenging interviewer – as at the end of the day, you aren’t going to be able to counter the problem the softer guest chats provide.
Rob is starting to grasp at straws. He has no idea how many people post links to any one chat announcement, nor does he know anything about the amount of traffic to any of ARZone’s sites, nor does he know anything about the number of page views any particular post on ARZone receives, nor does he know anything about how much time the average visitor spends on the site. He also knows nothing about any conversations which occur through subsequent Facebook postings, emails, private messages, or other forms of communication. In short, Rob knows next to nothing about ARZone and the behavior and interests of its membership. It could be true that the chats garner the lion’s share of the attention on the site. But it could very well be true that traffic throughout the week on the site is evidence that people are reading and taking the time to think critically about what guests have said, and what others have said about what they’ve said. Rob simply has no way of knowing either way,and someone so uninformed really isn’t worth paying much attention to.
But, in the interest of finishing this tedious work, here is what Rob says next:
d) Debates are not an option as most guests will not do them.
- this response says more about the problems with ARZone than it does about the suggested improvement. I mean, why does a certain calibre/stance of advocate not want to go into debates? All other things equal, it seems fairly intuitive that such an event would not offer them the opportunity that a chat does to defend and promote themselves! The reason you get higher reputation guests with the chat system is precisely because the format is ineffective for an abolitionist outcome, as higher calibre advocates would not want to be quizzed on abolitionist theory, but are happy to do the chats.
Rob sure likes to assert things as fact even though he can’t possibly know them to be true. How does he know that “higher reputation guests” are more likely to join a chat than participate in a debate? Beyond that, what is an “abolitionist outcome” anyway? Why is it that Rob thinks no-one in ARZone is capable of asking questions about “abolitionist theory” (as if there was only one)? Who does he think is so capable, and why? What is the difference to a guest whether she faces questions online from one person or fifteen? Rob’s writing suggests more questions than it answers and creates more confusion than clarity.
He goes on:
Perhaps the most important aspect of the discussion regarding ARZone has been on the subject of ‘open debate’. It seems clear the objective of ARZone is to allow for ‘open debate’ to be available and accessible for all – as summed up here in the closing lines of one of the Administrators impassioned defences:
“ARZone tries very hard not to censor anyone’s opinion – and certainly not because of a mere disagreement with a particular view. Those with the best ideas surely need not fear others with different ones.”
This, of course, is a noble intention. But, again, this is not really what is being criticised. Open debate IS an important part of any movement, and of any furthering of understanding. And if the guests were all deliberating and speaking/being questioned constantly over abolitionism, then such an open debate might quite easily allow for the site to ‘be’ abolitionist. The chats do not resemble this, though, and the abolitionist-based questions take up a minority percentage of the time – and even then, as highlighted with the mis-characterisation of the term ‘abolitionist’ previously in this piece, the outcome may well be that open debate is only forthcoming from the opposite side of the abolitionist.
One response to this has been of ARZone to claim that this is the fault of the abolitionists – after all if they attended, then the abolitionist side would be put forward. This seems a strange claim from a site claiming to be abolitionist. After all, I indulge in many forms of abolitionist advocacy, and am involved with at least 3 abolitionist groups – not once does a group unleash the shackles of the abolitionist theory we believe in and allow others to take the reigns. We often are involved with non-abolitionist individuals, but we don’t let them control our actions. Perhaps this is another problem with the format – after all, if Newsnight were to go socialist, but then allow viewers to decide the questions for the interviewer (as well as allowing mis-characterisations to go through), surely Newsnight is not being socialist in any manner.
Rob again misunderstands what ARZone is about. ARZone advocates for abolition, this is true. But contrary to what Rob and a few others think, how abolition is going to be brought about in this world is an open question. No one “theory” has supplied a sufficient answer. The aim of ARZone is not just to question any guest about abolitionism, as Rob seems to think it ought to be. That this isn’t the sole aim, doesn’t mean that ARZone is therefore not abolitionist, as Rob seems to think it means.
ARZone is an abolitionist site, intent on finding the best ways to achieve abolition in the shortest possible time. Rob may not think so, but Rob’s mistaken thinking does not change the facts. In any case, if Rob, or anyone else thinks that guests are insufficiently challenged, or that the questions asked are not reflective of whatever theory they subscribe to, they are more than welcome to invest some time and effort and challenge the guests with their own questions any time they choose. ARZone believes in free and open discourse.
And this brings us, mercifully, to Rob’s final point:
In open debate, does the best argument win?
One further point to consider, is the administrator’s comments on the subject of ‘open debate’ previously mentioned. I quote “Those with the best ideas surely need not fear others with different ones.”. Of course what is meant is that in an arena of open debate, if your argument is the best, you should win. In my criticism of ARZone, I labelled this an idealistic view of communication, and an idealistic view of debate. And though this subject is not really something one can approach with neutrality (ie, you either think ARZone is acting effectively, or you don’t – there seems no objective way to prove it) I feel that it is important to discuss the issue – as, after all, regardless of whether ARZone is abolitionist, it’s entire being is to provide open debate.
Firstly, what is assumed is that the best ideas will always win. A survival of the fittest appears in relation to ideas, basically. I think this is mistaken for a very good reason.
Richard Dawkins coined the phrase ‘memes’ in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The central focus of the book was on biological evolution, as conducted through genes trying to find ways of passing copies of themselves on. Such a tactic in nature is often referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’, as the fittest individuals with regards to performing necessary tasks in any given species tend to be the one’s who reproduce more and populate the gene pool. Dawkins though explains a second type of replication outside of biological evolution towards the final chapters, and that is the evolution of ideas/sets of ideas (or ‘memes’) in human culture.
Dawkins analogises the two types of evolution often, as there are huge similarities. However the focus of Dawkins life work, on the morality front, has been in showing human culture does not appreciate rationality, and that the ‘best’ or most rational ideas (I assume this is what the administrator meant) do not always win. Whilst in biological evolution the survival of the fittest is a pretty easy to understand term (if one understands the environmental context), in cultural terms it is similar – but by no means does ‘fittest’ mean most rational.
To explain briefly, the reason for this (and it is a fairly wide held believe now among rationalists) is that memes, like genes, work together. So several genes might clump together to define that an individual has red hair, and that gene might be well populated in bodies where an individual also has freckles – as the freckles and red hair genes might thrive in similar environments/help one another. The same goes for ideas. One example Dawkins has been vocal about throughout his entire career is religion. Belief in a deity, for example, thrives when accompanied by the fear of burning in hell. Similarly, a cynical individual (like myself) might add that ‘faith’ itself thrives when accompanied by other ideas which are not rational, or that irrational arguments for other beliefs thrive when an individual values ‘faith’.
Further explanation is perhaps for another day. But what I’m trying to ask, is what reason does ARZone have for believing that even if they don’t explicitly push abolitionism (and instead favour open debate where abolitionism is a relatively minor consideration), that they are promoting abolitionism? Or perhaps more poignantly, if you allow a figure from a welfarist organisation to debate ‘openly’ and ‘freely’, without much explicit challenge, to people who are already pre-disposed to agree to this position (for the reason that they live in an extremely welfarist and speciesist society), then why wouldn’t people be influenced toward welfarist beliefs?
The reaction to such a claim is obvious even to a critic like me. Firstly, censorship is wrong. Well yes, of course it is. But this doesn’t mean we should create conferences to hear paedophiles out, or allow murderers to walk scot free because they disagree with us. If it is a moral issue, there is an obligation to push rational consistency. Censorship should be a part of no forum, and no one wants ARZone to censor it’s chats. Asking a guest questions which show the inherent rational inconcistency of their position is still a must.
Secondly, the response will be that ‘the best ideas will win’. This doesn’t make sense though for the reasons just mentioned. For an idea to grow and thrive it requires propagation, not a straight battle with mainstream fallacies. If I stand out in the street tomorrow simply chanting abolitionist theory, it is unlikely it will spread, at all. This is a bizarre example, but it shows clearly that an idea needs propagation to grow – it’s need to be strongly challenging it’s ‘allelles’ (opponents) and not just lying by and hoping to be picked up in passing conversation. The advocates for the idea need to push it, and in the vast majority of cases (especially those like veganism or abolitionism where huge mental shifts are required) ‘open’, audience decided debate will simply allow for the mainstream views to be propagated.
Abolitionism is not only contrary to the opinion of the public, it is contrary to the belief of most animal advocates. The idea that they will pick it up whilst having the beliefs that support welfarism or single issues seems optimistic at best, unless these allied beliefs are also challenged. ‘Planting seeds’ is pointless if the nutrients in the soil are propagating invasive weeds.
I must stress that although this final point, to me, seems to be backed up by the rational evidence of what we know about ideas and ‘memes’, it is just my opinion.
It seems intuitive to a very large degree, though, that ARZone’s problem is it’s claim to be abolitionist – it just doesn’t seem to be abolitionist. Whether or not it provides a stage for new welfarist ‘memes’ is a matter for further debate – though if I’m honest it would take a strong argument to displace the heavy evolutionary ideas that seem to weigh against it.
This was all very interesting, but has little to do with ARZone. As far as I know, no-one in ARZone contends that “the best ideas win”, as if all one has to do is put the idea into play, stand back and wait for success. Rather, we contend for the same thing exactly as what Rob makes a good case for: Rational discourse. ARZone believes it is only through rational discourse – by which we mean an open and collaborative dialog respectful of all individuals – that we can spread the good ideas of anti-speciesism, veganism and animal rights. Not one admin at ARZone thinks this task will be easy, and none of them think dismantling the systems of exploitation or the attitudes about the “better treatment” of nonhuman animals will happen without us mounting a serious and sustained challenge to those things. I don’t know who Rob is trying to convince here, but ARZone was convinced long before Rob wrote this.
What separates Rob from ARZone are two things. First is Rob’s belief that the only way to counter what he sees as the wholly wrong approach of others (the “welfare” approach) is by direct and sustained challenge. Second is his belief as stated here that there is “abolitionism” as a single and well-defined theory. Neither of these things are true.
In the first instance, very few people are ever “wholly wrong” and even when (especially when?) they are, the way to, if not change their minds, then at least get them to see the errors of their ways, is through discourse, not dictate. If the ideas of abolition are going to spread, it will not be because someone tells others how wrong their ideas are, it will be because the abolitionists will make their own positive claims. Attacking “welfare” can’t involve attacking “welfarists” as too many people begin their journey into animal rights by way of “welfare”. Abolitionists must find ways to talk to “welfarists” such that we create a conversation, not such that we win a fight.
This cannot be an adversarial process, where we win and others lose. That kind of thinking is what has gotten humankind into this mess in the first place. The challenge facing abolitionists is in finding ways to engage and make alliances with well-intentioned people with whom we disagree, while at the same time we remain true to our abolitionist convictions. A knock-down drag-out rhetorical war of words in a online interview might make some people feel like winners, but this isn’t about people winning debating points, it’s about moving a society. That’s why it’s called a social movement.
In the second instance, abolitionists need to understand that people want desperately to do things to protest the slaughter of dolphins or the experiments on beagles. People want to think of themselves as compassionate and as acting upon that compassion. Until abolition can connect with that deep emotional need, it will remain a minority position. But, abolitionism is not a singular opinion and it will never become one. There are abolitionists who will support the ending of the practice of tail-docking, just as there are abolitionists who will break open the fences and cages confining minks. To deny that these people, and so many others, are abolitionists is to deny the meaning of the word. Worse, it is to sacrifice the power of the idea in the service of an all too narrow ideology.
ARZone is an abolitionist animal rights social network, seeking an end to speciesism and exploitation, whether Rob Johnson thinks it is or not. ARzone will continue to welcome a diversity of members and guests as it strives to make sense of human-nonhuman relations. Please join the conversation, and be a part of the solution, at www.arzone.ning.com and please,