A Mirage of Depth

Eisel Mazard runs the blog, à-bas-le-ciel, and has a YouTube channel of the same name.

Lately he seems to prefer YouTube videos to deliver his message, maybe because he’s a gifted speaker and is able to clearly present his thoughts.

That doesn’t guarantee they’re right of course, but he usually has something interesting, sometimes insightful, and maybe funny to say, even if he’s talking puff – as in this case.

The Background
Eisel is a student of language, culture, politics and offers up commentary on a range of topics.

In late January he made a video titled Gary Francione Is Wrong.

Even so, he goes to some length to qualify his comments by underlining the worthy nature of Gary’s work in general. One area where it falls, down, he says, is in relation to his stand on single issue campaigns.

At least he recognises, unlike so many others, that the work of Gary Francione isn’t so easily dismissed.

Ironically, though, Eisel followed this video with another one, in which he describes the book Waking Up, by Sam Harris, as “complete garbage” for being a failure of research and understanding.

To provide a background to his video, Eisel explains that he spent over 10 years of his life as Buddhist scholar, particularly of Theravāda Buddhism, the form that he says Sam Harris “invokes.”

Below the video, repeated on his blog, he offers the following commentary:

In short: it’s a complete mess. It’s worse than the blind leading the blind. It’s a flaky, true-believer, cult-member pretending to be a skeptic and an atheist, and pretending to be an expert on Buddhism at the same time. It’s really that bad. It’s as bad as a skeptic/atheist claiming to have informed opinions on the spiritual significance of Santa Claus based on his interpretation of the Bible (i.e., Santa Claus does not appear in the Bible) –really, his work contains errors of chronology that crude, along with all the absurd redefinitions of terms he indulges in, etc. Finally, what S.H. is doing DOES NOT have legitimacy as a secular/skeptical exercise: he has been writing about Buddhism, as a true-believer in Buddhism (even if it is very much an ersatz, California-based Buddhism); he makes dogmatic claims, as in that short quotation about Buddhist scripture providing a completely scientific (and “empirical”) description of consciousness and what to do with it (not a “myth”); he isn’t skeptical even in establishing what the scriptures say in the first place, much less is he ever skeptical in establishing their scientific validity. As I’ve reflected in other videos, I don’t think that Buddhist philosophy should be dismissed as mythology any more than Shakespeare should be dismissed as mythology; however, IT IS MYTHOLOGY. What the scriptures (suttanta) say about meditation really is a sort of mythology, heavily magical, and reflecting an ancient world-view (e.g., meditation can cause earthquakes, and this is explained because the world is believed to be a flat mass floating in a rather unstable situation, cosmologically speaking… any comment on how empirical and scientific this is, S.H.?). In his book, S.H. does not even show a familiarity with the range of already-existing attempts to “scientize” Buddhism, and their critics; he seems to be genuinely writing out of complete ignorance of Buddhist scholarship of any kind –even of scholarship in exactly the niche he’s trying to occupy.

Surprising, then, that Eisel would offer up such sloppy assessment of Gary Francione.

Shutter view
I get the sense that being a gifted academic, Eisel gets through books and other material fairly quickly. Maybe he’s done this with a fair chunk of Gary Francione’s material, and feels he has a solid understanding of his work. That would be untrue.

While his judgement of Gary Francione isn’t as bad as he says Waking Up is, it does demonstrate a lack of understanding, brought on by what might be a false sense of confidence.

Eisel says that Gary has some novel points of view, but that he (Eisel) also has some, and specifically in relation to single issue campaigns.

As such, he tells us that, “This video is not offering a critique that you have heard before.”

His unique insight can be summed up like this: if you want to save a species from going extinct, you’re going to have to get involved in a single issue campaign to save it.

He leads us to this revelation by recounting the time he was living in Laos where there was a species of native dolphin down to its last few members, about to go extinct. He tells us that, “if you want to save that species from extinction, you are looking at a single issue cause.”

Before getting to the substance of this statement, arguments in favour of single issue campaigns have been going on for several years, even before The Abolitionist Approach website was created in 2006.

For instance, in this 2006 article in Satya, The Longest Journey, Peter Singer and Bruce Friedrich say:

In recent years, there has been an odd controversy in animal rights circles as some activists fight against welfare reforms for farmed animals. A few groups have gone so far as to argue against campaigns for better slaughter practices for chickens, better living conditions for hens, and have even picketed Whole Foods for trying to make living and dying conditions better for the animals they sell. We find this to be both curious and counterproductive to the goal of animal liberation that we all share.

Peter and Bruce are telling us that in “recent years” – that is, prior to 2006 when the article was written – there were already arguments against single issue welfare reforms.

Maybe the argument Eisel makes has already been made?

In fact it has, in an even broader form. While it’s likely to have been made before 2010, we can find it in a 2011 article called Single-Issue Campaigns in Animal Rights. As one of the contributors to this piece, Doris Lin says, “I believe it’s more effective to focus on ending a use or saving lives, rather than regulating a use.”

Reworded, this might be, “If you want to save a life, it’s fine to use a single issue campaign.” This is essentially Eisel’s argument, expanded to any animal facing death – not just a species at risk of being lost.

The same year, KD Traegner (your daily vegan) quotes from Lee Hall’s 2010 book, On Their Own Terms, providing even broader thinking to not only employ single issues to save animals from death, but to protect them from harm:

We need not turn away from animals under assault when there’s a chance we can spare them from harm and let them be. This should be obvious: Advocates can defend animals such as foxes without fearing that they’ve shirked a duty to speak for all animals at once.

In any case, given that single issue campaigns have been debated for many years, and that people continue to engage in them, it stands to reason that people continue to take part in them because they believe that in order to save a single animal (such as Sylvester the lion) or a species from decimation (http://racingextinction.com/save-animals/) a single issue campaign is the way to do it.

So the innovative idea Eisel thought he’d come up with doesn’t look that striking.

I think i could
Eisel also states, “I think i could be described as an abolitionist vegan.” Not in the sense Gary outlines that term – only in the looser sense that many people favour ie someone who wants to abolish animal use.

One of the claims Eisel makes around the 6 minute mark is that, “all of his [Gary Francione’s] strengths are in addressing factory farming and this critique of what he calls single issue causes.”

Say… what? All of his strengths?

While Gary does outline a case against single issues, boiling “all of his strengths” down to just these two topics – factory farming and single issues – is simply wrong.

What of his idea that all discrimination is related? His critique of the ability to balance human and animal interests in a welfare system? His more general critique of welfare? His support of actual rights, rather than rights as a figure of speech?

What about his commentary on the property status of animals? His insistence on nonviolence, something that Eisel seems to share? The idea that sentience is sufficient reason not to exploit animals? That welfare measures contradict the principle of rights?

Is factory farming even something that Gary singles out? Maybe Eisel misspoke in the context of a flowing monologue, otherwise he seems to have picked up the wrong books – he sounds more like he’s talking about Peter Singer.

The whole thrust of Gary’s work is to get away from a focus on factory farming and to look at animal use in general. The welfare paradigm he criticises dwells on factory farming, but he insists factory farming is too narrow a path, and one that betrays the broad focus of veganism.

Factory farming is just a symptom of animal use: where we should be directing our attention is animal use in general – a view consistent with veganism.

Whatever Gary’s shortcomings on a personal level, the idea you can reduce “all of his strengths” down to two issues is a slight of over 30 years of research and work in the area.

Endangered species
Back to Eisel’s example of the native dolphin species in Laos at risk of being lost. He says the only way to save these dolphins is to engage in a single issue campaign, and in the process, engage with people such as those that fish commercially, to save them.

This demonstrates Eisel’s failure to grasp Gary’s criticism of single issue campaigns.

That is, that by fixating on the interests of particular animals – in this case the dolphins in Laos – you necessarily elevate their value above other animals.

“But,” maybe Eisel might say, “these are endangered animals, if they go they’re all gone.”

This reflects an environmental view of animals, where the lives of individuals are secondary to that of the species.

Unfortunately, if the dolphins do go extinct, that’s just another sad example of our instrumental view of animals.

In an article that came out a year before Eisel’s video, Gary Francione and Anna Charlton explicitly address this issue:

[Paul] Watson is “bother[ed]” by the comparison between farm animals and marine mammals because the latter are “endangered and protected.”

So what? Does that make marine mammals more morally valuable? Not as far as we are concerned. An endangered marine mammal values her or his life just as a cow or pig or chicken or fish values her or his. It is just as wrong to kill a cow (or other sentient nonhuman) for no reason other than palate pleasure as it is to kill a marine mammal for palate pleasure or any other frivolous reason. What Watson is saying would lead to the conclusion that killing marine mammals would be less morally wrong if they were not endangered or protected. Maybe he would accept that conclusion. We wouldn’t.

Saving dolphins ahead of any other animal doesn’t make sense, especially if the time and possibly money you spend on a campaign to *try* to save them stops you from being able to save animals for certain.

That is, while you could try to stop the dolphins from being killed with a single issue campaign, and in the process give the impression that they’re more important than other animals, you could also adopt animals from a shelter; become a wildlife carer; save animals that have been discarded from slaughterhouses, but are still alive, and so on.

If this is impractical for one reason or another, while not as potentially critical, you might donate money to a sanctuary for the care of animals (rather than salaries or literature that supports welfare) or give your time to help.

All of these options provide concrete ways to help animals in need.

The scale of animal use is so enormous, as long as society rests on the principle that using animals is fine, that use will continue, as well as abuse outside the guidelines of that use, just as crime occurs outside law in wider society.

Yet if a person becomes vegan, they don’t just stop one or a hundred animals being killed or abused, they avoid use of animals in general, and also make up part of the gradual increase of citizens that reject the principle of animal use.

In any case, however you regard Gary Francione’s work, Eisel’s understanding of it is lacking for the same reasons he criticises Waking Up – albeit to a lesser degree.