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Fighting the In-Fight: Why Do We Do It?

A very long time ago, when I was a lesbian separatist, the “SM Wars” were at their height. Seps believed that SM (sado-masochistic) sex was internalized patriarchy; that “tops” were perpetuating woman-hatred; and that SM lesbians should not be welcome in lesbian/feminist gatherings. SM lesbians, on the other hand, felt that the sexual choices they made (some of which they believed were rooted in childhood sexual abuse) were theirs to make, and were a “recasting” of patriarchy, a reclaiming of power.

I simultaneously participated in both worlds for awhile, never mentioning the one to the other, of course. (I am no dummy.) This experience was very good for me in many ways. The way that’s relevant to this conversation is what I learned about how members of disenfranchised groups come to be so very good at crushing each other, thus quite often taking precious and limited resources away from fighting the real enemy.

At the time, I was definitely one of the lesbians to whom she referred. I spent quite a bit of time beating up other lesbians. Not directly, mind you, but in conversation after endless conversation. Why does she pass as male? Isn’t she proud of her butch lesbian heritage? Why does the festival provide day care to male children? Why can’t lesbians understand that dental dams are a ploy to enlist our help in fighting a (then) primarily male disease? I won’t go on, but you get the picture.

And even though I was doing my part — I was engaging in gay activism, working in a lesbian-feminist restaurant, and volunteering at the rape crisis center — I eventually had to admit that I was also spending an inordinate amount of time and energy criticizing other lesbians: time and energy I could have spent doing something productive.

This “fight each other and not the enemy” dynamic is present in every movement, ours included. I’m not talking about healthy debate: struggling over strategy, hashing out approaches, or critiquing campaigns. I’m also not talking about discounting clear “outliers” from the movement: folks who call themselves animal rights activists while organizing pig roasts for their local dog and cat shelter, for example. I also don’t include in this discussion situations in which movement folks are called out on their bigotry toward fellow movement members (men who are sexist, straight folks who are homophobic).

Furthermore, I’m not saying we all have to like or agree with each other; with movement friends, I sometimes kvetch about this or that action taken by this or that individual or group, and there are plenty of people I admire, but don’t like on a personal level (and I am more than certain this goes the other way around).

But the venom with which we so often attack each other, often without complete information, and often quite publicly, is still stunning to me. And the incidents we choose to perseverate about — to rant and rave and condemn each other about — I mean WOW. We’re talking TINY here! A misplaced comment here, a misguided decision there, and BOOM, you better watch out for the firestorm. This is true to the extent that for years I withdrew from saying anything publicly within AR circles. I couldn’t bear the swift rancor that was quite often directed at me if I said the wrong thing.

And let me be clear here: we are talking about things like debates over the size of handouts — whether or not we believed this or that activist should be banned from the AR “fill in the blank” conference — whether purchasing new hemp items was ethically better or worse than wearing leather shoes scavenged from dumpsters. We are talking TRIVIAL SHIT compared with the ACTUAL FIGHT we SHOULD be fighting.

We are so quick to react with anger toward each other – anger we relatively rarely vent on those who should be the true targets: the people who actively exploit, torture, and/or murder animals. It’s typical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wretched — partly because it hurts, but also mostly because it’s divisive, and focus-wrecking, and exactly what the flesh and skin traders want us to do.

So why do we do it? This isn’t brain surgery here — we all know that in-fighting is both stupid and destructive. Over time, with much thought and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there are some very legitimate reasons for this dynamic.

First, anger is an intensely personal emotion, one which is much more easily vented upon people than upon institutions or corporations. Perdue Chicken, for example, is not a person. The sheer level of torment and devastation that corporation has visited upon the creatures (and waters and lands) of this planet is mind-boggling.

On the other hand, the animal rights activist “across” the computer from you is a person: a very real person with whom you might violently disagree, but one with a (usually) comparable status in terms of the damage s/he is leveling upon the earth.

Because anger is a person-to-person phenomenon in its expression, for the most part, it’s easy to lash out at this other person without fear of annihilation: but directly taking on something of the magnitude of Perdue Chicken in the same way we lash out at each other is almost unfathomable. Not impossible; but extremely difficult.

Another reason has to do with how we survive as AR activists. To actively, consciously, bear the weight of suffering that surrounds us is, of necessity, a limited activity in our daily lives. We have to know how to balance: we need to know how much to let in and how much to avoid. To delve into that sea of pain takes an act of will and strength that’s immense in part because we know we can never wash all the salt off.

It’s just plain easier to grapple with the annoyance or even anger we visit upon each other than consciously experience the depths of despair and rage we feel when confronting our true enemy.

There are other reasons, I’m sure, but the bottom line is that this isn’t something a few “petty” people do, nor is it insignificant in terms of the damage it does. In-fighting is real, and it’s destructive, and most of us do it. And in order to stop it, we have to understand why we do it in the first place. (And no, “because everyone else is wrong” is NOT a valid answer.)

I’m not going to wrap this up by begging us to all get along. I honestly don’t think we ever WILL all get along. But I would just ask this. Bring some self-awareness into your life for the next month or so. Observe what you find yourself doing for animals in the course of the day. I am not counting cleaning the litter box or walking a dog, unless you operate a dog or cat shelter.

I’m talking about writing letters to Proctor and Gamble, planning an anti-circus demo, cleaning a coop, or explaining to your high school students why you don’t eat flesh.

I’m also talking about flaming other activists on Facebook, writing email diatribes directed toward AR groups, and Tweeting about the evils of various AR strategies.

How much time do you spend on these things? Where is the bulk of your time going? How about your energy? How much of that are you pouring into in-house negativity? Be honest. If more of your energy is going into slamming other activists than into actively helping animals, perhaps you can consider tipping the scales in the other direction. Just a thought.

7 comments to Fighting the In-Fight: Why Do We Do It?

  • Miriam, thank you so much for this piece. This exact subject has been bothering me so much lately, and you just really hit the nail on the head with your keen observations and insights.
  • Wen
    I got a massive headache trying to wrap my mind around this piece. But in the end, you are right.
  • bravebird
    Hope your headache wasn’t due to my sometimes convoluted writing. ;-)
  • bravebird
    It’s a hard one, that’s for sure.. Thanks for your kind words. :-)
  • Bambi
    Agreed.My thoughts as far back as 20 years ago when I began my journey in Animal Rights and outreach.
    This is why my friend will never own a true vegan business again. Sabotage people in your own frontline?
    If you have emotional, parental or general anger issues please get help instead.
  • bravebird
    I’m glad you raised the issue of getting help — so many activists shun that sort of thing, believing that it’s a waste of time and energy and that they have better things to do, etc. Interestingly, of course, many of those same people will spend hours a week hanging out with other activists, while they feel that one hour a week is “too much time and energy spent on unnecessary things.”

    The reality is that those of us with mental or emotional issues of any kind (which includes those of us who have experienced trauma, as well as many others) will almost definitely need help coping with those issues at some point or another, IF ONLY because we will burn out and be of no service to anyone if we don’t. This tends to happen when our own issues, compounded with the trauma of dealing with animal exploitation, abuse, and murder, become too much to bear.

    Having said that, it is NOT primarily the ones who have “issues” who are the ones being jerks to other activists (to be blunt). It’s often people with no real “issues” other than general arrogance, or lack of social skills, or bigotry, or frankly just aggressive personalities, who are the ones causing the problems. More often than not, the ones with issues simply disappear after being targeted by these people one time too many. Then it’s bye bye one more activist, and we (collectively) only have ourselves to blame.

  • Sheryl in VT
    Thank you for writing about this issue, and especially for describing your own past participation in in-fighting.

    “(M)embers of disenfranchised groups . . . crushing each other” breaks my heart. It’s motivated me to participate far less in movements I care about, at least when it comes to group activity. There is so much I can do on my own. Still, I crave community and group action. I echo your pleas for compassion.

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