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Lessons for Activists from Ursula Le Guin

So many animal advocates were so sincerely grieved to learn of the death of feminist author Ursula Le Guin yesterday. I felt sad too, sadder than I would have imagined, since I read science fiction and fantasy only occasionally. But then I began to feel determined to do my part to live up to her legacy. So, now while we are feeling so sad, let’s review what animal advocates (and other activists) can learn from Ursula Le Guin.

#1 Know What You’re Doing and Why

Ursula Le Guin said “I know what I’m doing and why” about her use of the plural pronouns they and theirs when referring to individuals, but she always seemed to know what she was doing and why. You should too. It sounds so simple, but being sure to know what you are doing and why prevents all sorts of problems that commonly arise in the course of activism. That doesn’t mean never taking action unless you are certain! You can know that you are experimenting for the purpose of figuring something out. But it does mean being mindful of both short term goals and long term aims when choosing which of the 101 tactics you or your organization could use in any given situation, not to mention selecting among the 10,001 ways you might choose to spend any given day.

#2 Do Your Work

It was a character in one of Ursula Le Guin’s books who advised, “Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do,” but this quote seems to reflect her own attitude and is good advice for anyone who feels overwhelmed. (It’s also, by the way, how most sanctuary folks survive tragedy after tragedy.) Again, it sounds so simple! But it’s also very close to what my activist mentor told me that Ella Baker told him and other young activists doing lunch-counter sit-ins with SNCC and is also consistent with what I have heard Angela Davis tell her audiences. Do not despair because you cannot heroically and single-handedly save the world. There are things you are in a position to do. Do those things, and do them well, knowing that you are contributing to what can only be a collective struggle for change.

#3 Deliberately Cultivate Your Imagination

Ursula Le Guin said that “the imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.” She also said, “One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice.” Of course, her novels and other writing sparked the imagination of so many people. But reading such works is only one way to enlarge one’s imaginative capacity. Read widely. Listen to wildly different music than your norm. Attend plays and dance performances, especially if they have been staged by amateurs in your community. Look at art, wherever you can find it. Make art. Challenge fellow activists to dance or sketch or act out the problem you are trying to solve or what the world will look like after you solve it. Learn to value creative thinking just as highly as you value data analysis or any other of the cognitive tools we need, and know that this is a capacity you can cultivate rather than a talent you do or don’t happen to have.

#4 Question Utilitarianism

Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (pdf), may be the most poignant critique of utilitarianism ever penned. Due to the outsized influence of a small number of particularly callous men, a peculiarly callous form of utilitarianism has come to dominate the U.S. animal rights movement. That’s a topic for another blog post, but today may be a good day to remind everyone that withholding aid and comfort from some animals on the nebulous theory that doing so will make it easier to liberate other or future animals may not be a brilliantly effective way of creating a more compassionate world.

#5 Use Your Gifts Generously

Ursula Le Guin once famously refused to blurb an anthology that included no female authors, not because she wanted herself to be included, but because she wanted other women to be included. She tackled racism in the themes of many of her books, and she promoted and encouraged writers of color. All in all, she not only wrote of other worlds in order to change this world but also used whatever power she gained as a “famous author” in the way we hope people will use whatever earned or unearned privilege they may have, generously. No wonder people all over the internet were so sincerely sad to learn of her death at 88. Not just because a favorite author died, but because a fount of generosity is gone. Of course, her books will live on. It’s up to us to make sure her spirit of generosity does too.

3 comments to Lessons for Activists from Ursula Le Guin

  • Thank you for introducing me to Ursula Le Guin.It makes me sad that I get to know her through you, because of her passing. I will share her with the people around me. #5 speaks audibly and resoundingly.
  • ‘The Dispossessed’ was one of the best depictions of an anarchist future society I have ever read. It included them being vegetarian in part for utilitarian reasons but I can’t recall how much animals were discussed further.

    Rest in Power, Ursula.

  • Nadja
    For those new to her work, ‘Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences’ is an animal-themed collection of short stories and poems, which I absolutely loved. I’m feeling a need to revisit it, to read stories from POV of tree, of animal, of stone.

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