Don’t just do something

Don’t just do something

Most of us can write letters, bake vegan goodies and otherwise chisel away at our fellow humans’ speciesist views without even having to change gears. However, let me ask you to consider whether another transformation might actually be in order before getting too busy with all my previous activism suggestions, or anything else you might be doing, for that matter.

Many of us have heard the plea to just “do something.” When’s the last time you were asked to think first? But it is essential that we understand why we’re doing exactly what we’re doing. Otherwise we may well be doing the wrong thing, and then we are certainly not being the most effective advocates we could be. As Bob Torres puts it in his new book, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, “we need to be more than mere activists for the sake of activism: we need to be effective.”

Stephen Covey — author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First — uses a helpful metaphor that I will appropriate for our purposes — though, flipping back through an old copy of mine, you can read just about anything from First Things First and see how it applies to what I am writing today, so you might want to pick it up.

Picture yourself climbing up a long ladder. Once you get to the top, you feel victorious! You made it! However, looking around, you realize the ladder was put up against the wrong wall! Certainly you reached a goal, and you may have felt busy climbing that ladder. You might even have felt productive, perhaps you even wore yourself out, but really you were only spinning your wheels, because the wall you wanted to surmount is on the other side of the room, and now you are farther from that goal than ever. This parallels ineffective advocacy. Though you were working tirelessly in the service of a cause you believed in, you didn’t question the assumptions behind the work you were doing, much less the goal, and you found yourself somewhere other than where you’d really like to be.

You simply cannot be effective at anything unless you know what you want and why, and until you make a conscious decision about how to effectively achieve that goal. In other words, you have to think first. You can’t just do. Much like our diet, clothing and entertainment choices, our advocacy must be consistent with our beliefs, with the change we wish to see in the world. In other words, if we are doing something that does not fully align with our vision for the future, then we have gone off-track. So ask yourself, “Is the activism I’m doing consistent with the way I feel about animals? Am I actively creating a vision for the future with my daily choices (much as I do by being vegan), or am I merely serving a narrow vision as it exists today or has been laid out for me? What goal do I want to achieve?” Furthermore, ask yourself why you’ve chosen this long-term goal, and see if you can’t dig even deeper to determine whether it could be more radical (something that really gets at the roots of the problem). Now put your ladder up against the right wall and whatever you accomplish will build toward this goal.

You simply cannot be effective at anything unless you know what you want and why, and until you make a conscious decision about how to effectively achieve that goal.

It might be helpful to use the image of a compass pointing True North, helping you to make decisions throughout life, to avoid going off track. Keep following that compass and you will get to where you really want to be, not just walking around blindly. The key of course is understanding what True North is. For most of us, I suspect that True North is freeing animals from human domination. This may seem like a daunting goal — and of course it is — but it is True North and so we ought to point ourselves in that direction and do that which keeps us on target. We can do all those activities I suggested in my previous columns, but we need to keep our principles in mind as we go and make sure that, when we are accomplishing those things, we are pointing North, not Northwest or, worse, South! The activities themselves are fairly agnostic. It’s the message you communicate in the course of your activism that can take you True North or off-track. Are we asking people to go vegan (True North) or to buy cage-free eggs (off-track)?

This brings us back to the ladder. We need to make sure that every step we take carries us up the Ladder to Free Animals from Human Domination. There are a lot of ladders out there that look like this ladder, but some of these actually further entrench society’s view of animals as our things even as they purport to make animals’ lives better. If animals are given tiny concessions by their exploiters, and the main result of that is that people feel more comfortable eating them, then you are doing nothing to free animals from human domination. In fact, you might be taking steps back down your ladder.

Now, not everything we do to help animals is necessarily a step up the Ladder to Free Animals from Human Domination and sometimes that’s okay: True emergencies do come up, like Hurricane Katrina. Of course, for farmed animals, every day is an emergency. On average, 150 million mammals and birds are killed worldwide each day simply for the convenience of their protein and because people are accustomed to their taste. The only way to free these animals from human domination is to eliminate the demand for their flesh and secretions, and the only way to do that is to get as many people as possible to go vegan. You can see how urgent our ladder needs attention. If we accomplish tasks on other ladders, like the ladder to get hens out of battery cages, we are certainly doing something, but we have fallen off our ladders!

There are a seemingly endless array of institutionalized animal cruelties to fight, but the fact remains that it is only possible for these cruelties to exist because animals are considered human property, so their interests cannot be sufficiently protected against human interests. I think you’ll find — if you keep questioning the assumptions at work in our society — that all institutions exploiting animals continue to thrive because of a fundamental human belief that animals are inferior to us and that might makes right: “We can do whatever we want to and with animals, simply because we can” (or “because we were told by some greater authority that it was okay”). This fundamental sense of dominion is what we must work on altering.

So, ask yourself, “Instead of focusing on endless symptoms of the problem, and possibly reducing suffering through welfare reforms, should I instead join with others directly fighting the problem itself, and simultaneously reduce the number of individuals suffering?” Consider whether your activism goes right to the core of human entitlement to oppress other beings, or whether you are merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Eric is the publisher of An Animal-Friendly Life and co-founder of the Boston Vegan Association.

Originally posted on March 22, 2008

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