Activism and the Melbourne Cup

Nov 04, 2014

On Facebook Drew asks, in relation to yesterday’s Melbourne Cup:

Given that the average Australian pays to eat dozens (hundreds?) of animals every year, many of which are forced to live under inhumane conditions so that we can pay less for them, how rational is it to get angry about the deaths of two horses in a relatively small industry by comparison?

Indulge me in making the case.

People eat animals. Their parents ate animals. Their children will eat animals. For most people, eating animals is a superbly entrenched habit. It doesn’t matter through what violence that meat comes to be: to the animals, the environment, or the factory farm communities. It is a testament to the power of habit, tradition, and motivated reasoning that widespread intensive meat consumption persists despite the awesome horror of modern animal food production.

As an activist, I have rarely found direct assaults on such deeply entrenched habits effective. People shut down quickly when their foundations are questioned, and terminate conversations quickly with ethically absurd “tasty murder” cliches.

Enter Horse Racing

In the Melbourne Cup we find a festering nexus of gambling, binge drinking1, and easily substitutable entertainment, that 364 days of the year no one gives a shit about.

This presents a tantalizing line of attack to the concerned vegan. Most people have no customary attachment to horse racing. It’s just a stupid thing everyone does every year. There is little cost nor shame to recognizing the inherent cruelty of the event, at least when compared to food. Particularly given such a gentle2 yet emotionally sticky hook as the favourite horse running last then keeling over. A second horse being shot after breaking a leg provides further ammunition.

The Melbourne Cup practically invites you to renounce it. And importantly, this is becoming an acceptable mainstream position. Even Murdoch-owned The Australian published a couple of anti-racing opinions this year.

Surely it is rational for an activist to stoke the flames?

Disavowing the Cup is a good, safe warmup. Level one animal rights. Heretical thoughts can be entertained—maybe we shouldn’t be needlessly cruel to animals?—with little fear of upsetting deeply held customs. Planting that first seed of doubt and reflection is the hardest step for us activists. We need to sow it wherever we can.

  1. Literally the “worst sporting event for alcohol intoxication and assaults during and before the event” in Victoria, according to a government report.

  2. I know that’s a weird adjective. I’m comparing to say, Earthlings, which is too fucking crushing to be anyone’s first exposure.