Disruptive politics must be allowed to muscle in

July 7, 2006

Oxford alumni Mathew Humphrey and Marc Stears are a 'protected' species when it comes to animal rights protesters - a status they find problematic

We have become "protected persons". As alumni of Oxford University, we are both now covered by the terms of an injunction issued on May 26 by the High Court against animal rights protesters. No one is allowed to picket or demonstrate within 100 yards of our places of residence. But averse as we are to experiencing the "threat, intimidation and disruption" that the injunction claims to protect us from, this judgment still provokes unease. After all, as proponents of "democracy", we are committed to allowing room for political protest, even if that might make us uncomfortable.

In the past few months, there has been a sustained attack on animal rights protesters. Much of Oxford's research community has taken to the streets in Pro-Test demonstrations "standing up for science" against the "irrational attacks of anti-vivisectionists". Tony Blair has joined the row, signing the Coalition for Medical Progress's People's Petition and introducing the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), which gives special protection to scientists, research facilities and commercial companies connected to animal research. All this has been widely welcomed by the public, 76 per cent of whom support restrictions on animal rights "extremism" according to a YouGov poll.

Most political philosophers have concluded that this attack poses no threat to democracy. There is, they charge, no room for "extremism" in a properly functioning democratic order. Jonathan Wolff and Kenneth Boyd of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics argue that animal rights protesters have polarised the debate on animal research in a way that is just "plain unhelpful", simplifying complex issues and reducing an important discussion to a shouting match. Democracy, the commentators charge, instead demands that all sides "speak up in a reasonable manner and engage the public in proper debate". And for such a "proper debate" to take place, street demonstrations and campaigns of "intimidation and disruption" should be replaced by focus groups, citizens' juries and other deliberative mechanisms, where discussion could focus on the ethical questions involved and separate "scientific fact" from "uninformed fiction".

Such a view is attractive to academics, inclined as we are to model democratic debate on the scholarly seminar. Yet it is deeply problematic. While there are clear advantages to reasonable and rational discussion, it is difficult to get issues onto the agenda for deliberation, particularly when the view being put forward cuts against the grain of conventional opinion. In the case of animal rights, very few of the public are vegans, and most do not object to using medical products that have been tested on animals. The YouGov poll found that 70 per cent were in favour of animal testing. Most have assumptions about how humans should treat animals; they don't want those that die for human benefit to suffer unduly, but they know the place of animals in the moral hierarchy.

In the face of these ingrained assumptions, supporters of animal rights have to decide how best to encourage the public to reconsider. Such individuals could, indeed, attend a citizens' jury, but under what political circumstances do such juries come to exist? However far-sighted they are, organisations such as the Nuffield Council will never be capable of identifying the issues themselves. Political saliency is determined by the level of concern evidenced by activists, not by ethicists. Proponents of initially unpopular views will, therefore, have to engage in disruptive, polarising forms of politics to get their ideals into the public forum. This has been understood by protesters for generations. It was the direct-action campaigns of the civil rights movement and not the deliberation of a citizens' jury that got Americans to reconsider the issue of race.

All of this makes us deeply concerned about the current politics of injunction and constraint. Animal rights activists do not have ready access to members of the Government, they do not write the research protocols of university departments, nor do they attend the board meetings of pharmaceutical companies. If they are to get us to revisit our assumptions, they have to confront us with their alternatives, and the only real method available is to disrupt the settled practices of our daily lives. As they do so, some may stray into violence and, when they do, they should be constrained. But we must also remember that the ideal of democracy suffers if the regime of protection goes too far.

Marc Stears is a fellow in politics at University College, Oxford. Mathew Humphrey is an associate professor of politics at Nottingham University.

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