Erin O’Connor discusses protests against research on primates at UCLA and asks for academic bloggers to support the rights of researchers against the attacks of protesters.
I think that’s a fair request, and that you can express that support regardless of your feelings about research on animals. I personally tend to think that experimentation on animals could be a lot more constrained than it presently is, that the arguments for some forms of animal experimentation, especially on higher mammals, should probably have to be more compelling than they often are at present. However, this is where “processual liberalism” is my first commitment, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.
There are a lot of ways that people who disagree with either specific programs of experimentation on animals or with the entire idea of animal research can potentially advance their political agenda. They can bring completely legitimate economic pressure to bear on UCLA or other institutions. Call for a boycott of UCLA unless it adopts far more stringent controls on animal research. They can make legitimate demands for far more transparency and monitoring in animal experimentation. They can press for all sorts of statutory limitations on animal experimentation, especially in California, which has a fairly open system for citizen-proposed legislation. They could call for far greater investment in simulation-driven experimentation, or new models for incorporation of human subjects in research designs.
At least some of those initiatives, pursued steadily and with an eye to building political coalitions, could lead to substantial changes in scholarly practice. But the folks attacking animal experimentation at UCLA are choosing to target the individual researchers by distributing their phone numbers, putting up pictures and addresses of their homes, intimidating their families, and so on instead. Not to mention leaving molotov cocktails at doors, breaking into buildings, setting fires and so on.
I don’t really give a shit what your cause is, that kind of action is not right, but it’s especially wrong for this cause–to show a depraved indifference to the personal lives and well-being of people because you’re allegedly upset about depraved indifference to the lives of animals. It’s a good way for animal-rights activists to lose potential political support, and evidence that groups involved in such action have no interest in building a broader political consensus for their views. It’s an anti-democratic arrogance born of unthoughtful righteousness. When you’ve got a host of political alternatives, you’ve got no excuse for putzing around with violence and intimidation.
This sort of action is also bad idea in purely pragmatic terms, as almost all attacks that ignore procedural liberalism are–because if you’re a very tiny, fractional minority and you abandon the protections of political process in your actions against others, you don’t have any way to complain when people do it to you. What’s to stop folks from publicizing the addresses of animal-rights advocates, suggesting that their kids be followed from school, making harassing calls to them at night, firing off denial-of-service attacks on their websites, and so on? The only security left, once you stop playing by the rules, is an assumption that your opponents are unlikely to stoop to your level to fight back against you. The political history of the last thirty years makes that last assumption look especially stupid: there is almost no tactic attempted by extremists on the left that hasn’t been mirrored and in some cases grotesequely improved upon by extremists on the right. Once you accept that it’s ok to put a molotov cocktail on someone’s doorstep because you disagree with them, you don’t have much to say about Timothy McVeigh except that he’s wrong and you’re right, he’s bad and you’re good–you can’t really say any longer that what he did was wrong, just that he did it in the wrong cause.
I’d rather stick to saying that it’s wrong to kill or hurt people just because you don’t like their point-of-view, or that it’s wrong to put pictures of people’s houses up on the web and invite people to come intimidate them and their families until they’re forced to concede to your view of things. What good is it to liberate animals if in doing so you put humans in cages?