On the reasonable limits of extremism

A group in Britain, VARE [Victims of Animal Rights Extremism] claims that not enough is being done to “tackle the tactics of animal rights extremists that currently fall outside the remit of the police and Crown Prosecution Service.”

It’s one thing to oppose laws you believe to be unjust, but it’s a completely different ballpark to break laws—the substance of which is only ancillary to your cause—in order to make a point. I.e., it’s one thing to free lab monkeys (e.g.), but it’s something else to raise death threats against someone and firebomb their house. It’s nice if civil society can remain at least marginally civil even in light of questionable standards of ethics. That said, VARE has a couple problems with its crusade of righteousness.

First, while the individuals victimized (sorry, victimised) by these ‘extremists’ (a group, police say, of no more than 20 or 30 people) may have legitimate complaints, VARE seems to be stretching the limits of any so-called moral high ground. There seems to be little sense in creating new laws solely for the prosecution of a group of between 20 and 30 people (Laws which the Executive Director of the Research Defence Society says would—should—be on par with laws against racism and “football hooligans”). More to the point, while admitting that it’s a small minority of activists who resort to violence, VARE doesn’t generally make attempts to put forth such distinctions in its demands for harsher laws:

“It’s absolutely right to say there are only a very small number of people involved in the [anti-vivisection] movement who engage in illegal activities,” says Wendy Higgins, campaigns director at the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, a campaign group not linked to extremism. “But inevitably groups like VARE paint a picture of the entire movement as a bunch of extremists. (New Scientist)

It’s certainly not cut-and-dried, and I doubt there are any easy answers out there. But as long as VARE and its kin continue with the presumption that vivisection (for instance) is de facto ethically legitimate and good and wholesome and necessary, there are doubtless going to be problems with extremism—of all flavors.

(New Scientist: “Scientists demand law against animal rights extremism” by Shaoni Bhattacharya [April 22, 2004]; The Scientist: “Animal activist victims unite” by Stephen Pincock [April 23, 2004]; Vare Home Page)

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  1. It is simply absurd to maintain that there are only 20-30 people in the UK who are animal rights extremists. There are clearly far more than that.

    Moreover, your analysis that blames the victim (“as long as VARE and its kin continue with the presumtion [sic] that vivisection . . . is de facto ethically legitimate and good … there are doubtless going to be problems with extremism….”)

  2. Thanks for your comment. It wasn’t my intention to give the impression that I have anything resembling a comprehensive understanding of the animal rights situation in the UK, because I don’t.

    At any rate, any estimate of the number of extremists is going to depend on a number of factors, one of those factors being how you define extremists. Looking back at the NewScientist article, the police say that there are only 20 to 30 people responsible for the “most extreme” of the acts, which I’ll admit doesn’t necessarily translate into there being only 20 to 30 extremists. What it does mean, however, is that (if you accept the police’s estimation) there are only 20 to 30 people directly responsible for the most clearly criminal acts, other people doubtless being indirectly involved.

    Additionally, my rather cursory analysis—again, not based on a whole lot of personal experience, but on the articles cited—gives the issue much less than is due. The main point I was trying to make, which I could have done much better given more time and thought, was that both sides, the extremists and the scientists, could ease matters by abandoning their hardcore stance (or at least agreeing to some kind of ‘cease fire’) and entering into civil debate. (Although it’s my understanding that the majority of actors on both sides are moving toward this kind of civil debate.)