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Effective Activism

This past weekend, I did a quick Q&A session on “Effective Activism” at the Northampton VegFest. Since I was free-styling in response to questions, I can’t give a coherent talk summary, but here are a few points that are maybe worth repeating.

First, set aside any notion that there is only one way to be an effective activist or that there is one activist tactic that will lead to animal liberation if only we all do it together in the exact same way. The opposite is true! Animals are exploited (not to mention displaced and polluted) in a multiplicity of ways in a multiplicity of places, each of which is shaped by both material (physical) and social (economic and cultural) forces. It’s sheer folly to think that doing just one thing–such as “promoting veganism” to the “mainstream” by leafleting–could end or even make a significant dent in a worldwide problem of such scope and complexity.

So, don’t feel dismayed if you’re not particularly good at leafleting or are other-than-“mainstream” yourself. There are 10,001 things we need people to do, including not only leafleting (or otherwise persuading) the other-than-“mainstream” folks who [ahem!] happen to be the majority of people in the world, but also all of the other tactical components of the multifaceted strategies needed to solve complex social problems.

For example, we need people who are gifted with words or images to write and design leaflets, posters, websites, and other media. We need researchers with the patience to spend hours finding and compiling information. We need natural scientists to develop new and improved alternatives to vivisection, and we need computer scientists to implement those that involve computer modeling. We need botanists, economists, and agronomists to work out how to transition regions now dependent on animal agriculture to plant-based agricultural economies. We need lobbyists to convince state and federal government to quit subsidizing big “meat” and “dairy” and to pour that money into  organic vegetable, fruit, nut, and grain cultivation instead. We need courageous  people to engage in direct action of all kinds, whether it be undercover investigations or just walking in the woods with a booming radio during hunting season. And we always need creative thinkers to come up with new ways of drawing attention to problems in ways that slip past the defenses people use to protect themselves from the things they don’t want to know.

Whatever you do, it’s important –for your own morale as well as for the efficacy of your activism– to be able to envision how what you are doing fits into a strategy that at least has the possibility of resulting in the changes you seek. If you start from a position of despair –“I know there’s no use, but I’ll do this anyway”– then you are setting yourself up to fail, because you won’t think carefully about what you are choosing to do and won’t have much energy to do it. So, it’s essential to spend some time working out what you think about how your aims might be achieved and how your particular actions fit into that strategy.

By “strategy,” I mean a plan or map that starts where we are now and ends with the achievement of our aims. (Since that’s pretty big, it’s useful to also have some intermediary goals.) Strategies include tactics. Tactics are things you do, like picketing or lobbying. Rather than choosing the same tactic over and over again, regardless of context, smart strategists make a careful assessment of the problem to be solved, including the physical and social factors involved, and then choose the tactics most likely to make a difference in this particular situation.

The most effective strategies tend to be those in which a variety of people and organizations approach the same problem from a variety of angles, working in concert or at least not undermining each other. As an individual, you can’t possibly implement such a strategy by yourself, but you certainly can envision how what you are doing could fit into such a strategy. And, if you work for or with an organization, you certainly can and should encourage the organization to think strategically in choosing its own tactics as well as work cooperatively with other organizations.

How do you choose what you will do? First, make an inventory of your own skills and resources, as well as your standpoint (who you are, where you are, what you know or are in a position to do that other people might not know or be in a position to do). Next make an inventory of what needs doing where you are. (You might want to consult organizations or other activists to get their ideas. What unmet needs to they have or see?) Compare the two lists. What needs doing that you are in a particularly good position to do? Voila! There’s the answer to how to spend your own time most effectively.

The importance of what I call “tactical biodiversity” brings us to another important tip: Resist any urge you might have to disparage activists working on a different aspect of the problem or using other tactics. Of course, we must have thoughtful discussions about whether and when to use particular tactics, and of course we must also think about where our collective energies might be most advantageously directed right now. But that’s different from complaining that people who use flamboyant protest or engage in nonviolence civil disobedience “make the rest of us look bad,” deriding those who try to create change from within the system as sell-outs, or insisting that everybody must drop everything to focus on the one thing that you or your organization is focused on.

Finally, along with respecting other activists, respect your own animal rights. The mind-over-matter mentality upon which speciesism rests tells us to treat ourselves and other people like disembodied brains, forgetting about emotions and other unruly aspects of our animal bodies. But, if you want to be an effective activist, and especially if you want to be able to do that over the long haul that will be necessary to actually achieve animal liberation, then you’ve got to be kind to the animal who is you. Eat well. Stay hydrated. Get enough sleep. Find ways to feel and express your emotions rather than suppressing or ignoring them. Remember that you’re not alone. Cultivate relationships with other activists. Set some achievable goals within your strategies and be sure to celebrate when you achieve them.

4 comments to Effective Activism

  • Hi pattrice,

    Thanks for this piece and for your book also. I’m reading it now at the suggestion of the speakers at Emotional Sustainability panel by the Toronto Pig Save.

    Thanks very much for all the education you’ve given me. Bobbie

  • “First, set aside any notion that there is only one way to be an effective activist or that there is one activist tactic that will lead to animal liberation if only we all do it together in the exact same way.”
    That actually made me laugh out loud because the notion seems so ridiculous, but, amazingly, I have heard that notion expressed, so that line needed to be written — and you put it just perfectly. What a great piece.
  • pattrice
    Karen, Right: The idea is literally laughable, and yet we are hearing it more and more frequently and more and more forcefully. Besides being ethically objectionable, the demand that we all drop everything else in order to “promote veganism” by means of persuasive argumentation encourages many new activists to devote their energies to the one activity with the least probability of success. They do it for a while, see that they aren’t getting anywhere, become demoralized, and give up. Meanwhile, the things that we probably COULD do if we worked in concert to seize opportunities –like actually shutting down Seaworld, which would mean everything to marine mammals and also undermine the process of socializing children to view animals as tools– don’t get done.
  • Thanks for writing this, pattrice! I fully agree that there is no one right way of doing things and that we need to work together doing whatever we are best at doing. I am promoting a strategy session in our group as a way to bring us all together and make sure we’re all on the same page–not in terms of tactics, but in terms of our goals. A strategy session/workshop/retreat is a great way to build trust and to help us all understand how to better work together towards the same goals.

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