Here, finally!, is my review of Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation (Melanie Joy, 2008). At 2,000+ words, it’s perhaps my longest book review yet. Towards the middle, I kind of wander off the book review path, discussing issues of “mainstreaming”, violent vs. non-violent tactics and intersecting oppressions. Some of these are central to Strategic Action for Animals, while others are just touched upon. They all struck a chord with me, though, maybe because they’ve been floating around the internets lately. But bear with me, it’s all related.
Becoming the Change
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the publisher’s invitation.)
Building a Strategic Movement
Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals. Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism. Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food. Skinny Bitch…in a Box. With all the recent popular releases on the topic of animal advocacy, 2008 feels as though it’s shaping up to be the year of the veg*n. (Even Oprah’s getting into the act, y’all!)
Social psychologist Melanie Joy joins the conversation with her first book, Strategic Action for Animals: A Handbook on Strategic Movement Building, Organizing, and Activism for Animal Liberation. Joy’s goal is simple: to encourage fellow activists to maximize their effectiveness, by carefully weighing, analyzing, and strategizing their activism. Because the animal liberation movement will never have more money or (entrenched) power than the corporate and political forces we’re fighting, the only way we can triumph is through strategy.
A “strategic movement,” Joy explains, is one which thinks globally, but acts locally. Before engaging in a piece of activism, animal advocates must think about how the action will impact the animal liberation movement as a whole. Additionally, every isolated piece of activism must be considered in relation to those that precede and succeed it. Every lofty goal is comprised of a series of minute steps or tasks; instead of shooting for the stars and burning out before takeoff, animal activists must set reasonable goals and embark on a carefully mapped journey. Such meticulously crafted plans take time, dedication – and strategy, strategy, strategy!
Part of “strategic activism” involves diversity: in individual activists, in the goals and approaches of various animal liberation campaigns and organizations, in the messages employed and the demographics targeted.
Citing Bill Moyer’s Doing Democracy, Joy describes the “different types of activists and organizations that work simultaneously and in different roles”: the Citizen – “the upstanding member of society, the one to whom the mainstream can easily relate”; the Reformer – who “may or may not be more radical than the Citizen”…”he or she typically works in a professional opposition organization”; and the Rebel – who “is more confrontational, participating in rallies and perhaps civil disobedience”. As examples of each, Joy offers up the SPCA, the PCRM and ALDF, and PETA, respectively.
On Mainstreaming and Direct Action
It’s this section of the book – wherein Joy discusses mainstreaming the animal rights message, the use of violent vs. non-violent tactics, and appealing to the masses – where I found myself shaking my fist in disagreement. For starters, the classification of PETA as a “rebel” organization is laughable. Sure, their shtick is organizing outrageous stunts that end up offending the masses (usually omnivores, but oftentimes potential allies as well), but they are at the core an animal welfare group. Just consider, for example, their stance on “dangerous” breeds (they support BSL and recommended to the court that Michael Vick’s pit bulls be executed…you know, the ones that were successfully rehabbed?), not to mention their appalling forays into “animal adoption“. They may be adept at the PR game (if you believe the cynical old adage that “no publicity is bad publicity”…which I don’t, not fully), but their practical respect for the rights of all animals is sorely lacking. They aren’t “radical” or “rebellious” so much as “controversial.” Then again, perhaps I’m defining the term “animal liberation” too narrowly; I guess from a welfare perspective, PETA might be considered “radical,” but meh. Not so much in my book. (Well, if I had a book.)
In regards to the specific roles of Citizens, Reformers and Rebels, I think Joy (and Moyers) are right in their insistence that a movement needs all three in order to succeed. Some work within the system to change it, while others work without to de- and reconstruct it. The Rebels serve a particularly vital function: they make the Citizens and Reformers look not-so-crazy in comparison. That’s why I found myself so uneasy with Joy’s emphasis on mainstreaming. By insisting that the Rebels – the radicals, the hippies, the slightly mad idealists, the Dennis Kuciniches – mainstream their messages, indeed, their very characters, Joy is essentially insisting on a shift to the center. This undercuts the very purpose of the Rebels, which is to counterbalance the more mainstream (“sane”, “reasonable”, etc.) activists. If the Rebels are continually trying to make their arguments more palatable, moderating themselves, then so too will the codes of the Citizens and Reformers move towards the middle, the mainstream. Where does it end? How mainstream is “mainstream enough”?
Joy seems worried about the (very real) possibility that the actions of a few radical animal advocates will invite our opposition to mar the animal liberation movement as a whole with the scare-mongering “terrorist” slur. And yes, this is happening, with alarming frequency (AETA, anyone?). But I see this scare-mongering as inevitable, a desperate move by animal exploiters to undercut our message, which is finding an increasingly receptive popular (dare I say mainstream?) audience. It’s “inevitable” because, no matter what we do (or don’t do), our opposition will try to label us “terrorists”. ALF and ELF are only the beginning: anyone who attends a vegan potluck, runs a successful website, or donates their time or money to the SPCA is a terrorist in their eyes. Nor do they make any distinction between the “Citizen” and “Reformer” welfare-esque groups and the hard-core animal rights “Rebel” groups: all are violent, radical terrorist groups out to destroy the American Way of Life ™.
The reality is, no matter how much we try to soften our message (and, by extension, the movement), those who benefit from animal exploitation will try to dismiss us as terrorists, criminals, extremists, members of a radical fringe. We have the truth on our side; but if we allow them to frame the debate, we lose.
Granted, I think the use of “violent” tactics is a legitimate subject for discussion. However, simply referring to these tactics as “violent” is to allow our opposition to frame the debate. Property destruction is not violent in the same way that, say, exploiting animals is violent. Breaking a piece of wood is hardly akin to breaking a chicken’s neck.
I can’t help but wonder, if we were hypothesizing about a situation in which a human was being similarly exploited, would we even be having such a discussion? Would it be acceptable to break into a house (property destruction) and steal a dog (theft) that you knew was being physically abused on a regular basis? Would it be acceptable to do so if the victim was a human child instead of a canine?
Though I’m personally ambivalent about the use of property destruction as a tactic (practically speaking, perhaps it’s not the best idea, but…how can you not feel a thrill when you read headlines like these?), I don’t think I’m in any position to demand that ALF disband. They don’t speak for me, nor I, for them. It’s an unfortunate reality that the public at large will lump all of us animal activists into one homogeneous category, but that’s no one’s fault. (Except maybe that of our educational system and news media, for their abject failure in fostering critical thinking skills.) Who am I to dictate how other activists “should” act?
I’d also like to point out that Joy distinguishes between “violent” acts and open rescues. As open rescues are largely non-violent and transparent, Joy argues, they’re acceptable strategies for the animal liberation movement. However, I highly doubt that animal exploiters consider open rescues “nonviolent” – after all, they involve limited property destruction (i.e., assuming the rescue requires the rescuer to break into a facility), trespassing, and theft (you know, those sentient beings you’re
stealing rescuing). Here, she resists falling into the trap of letting the opposition frame the debate: a factory farmer can say an open rescue is an act of terrorism till (s)he’s blue in the face, but Joy doesn’t buy it, and rightfully so. I only wish she’d take the same tack when dealing with other individuals and strategies.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that it’s a-ok to act like an obnoxious jerk. Clearly, if an animal advocate is approached by a non-veg*n expressing an interest in veganism or animal rights, it would behoove him or her to engage – rather than berate – this potential ally. But, different messages for different audiences. Don’t expect me to be so warm and fuzzy when an acquaintance tries to slip some forbidden ingredient into my meal (it’s happened) or a troll pops up on my blog to inform me that he’ll henceforth be doubling his meat intake to compensate for my terra-ist dietary preferences.
Likewise, I’m not about to start wearing makeup and chinos to “mainstream” my physical appearance. That in itself is playing into issues of gender stereotyping and classism, which brings us to…
The flip side of this focus on mainstreaming is Joy’s emphasis on coalition building – and, on a more individual level, recognizing how different forms of oppression parallel and intertwine with one another. Speciesism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ageism, sizeism, transphobia, religious intolerance – none occur in a vacuum. A society that denigrates women is likely to mistreat animals as well. If we’re ever to see a kinder, more compassionate world, we must work to eradicate all forms of oppression. This means recognizing and calling out “isms” wherever we find them – first and foremost, in our own hearts and minds.
Certainly, this is a practical strategy: if we’re to recruit more people to the animal liberation movement, we must begin by treating them as equals. But this is, at its core, a self-serving reason to care about other forms of oppression (and a painfully transparent one at that). Rather, we should work against “isms” because it’s the right thing to do. Because we should care about what happens to other animals, non-human and human alike. Oppression, no matter the form it takes or the places you find it, is wrong. As a veg*n, I consider the suffering of humans no more and no less important than the suffering of (non-human) animals. For this reason alone, I feel that all forms of oppression are my concern. Our very humanity requires nothing less.
Just as I’ve been troubled by the rampant speciesism I’ve encountered in feminist circles (and the misogyny spouting from the mouths of so-called “progressives”), so too am I disturbed by the racism, misogyny, and homophobia (to name but a few) I’ve experienced among animal liberationists. In the wake of the Michael Vick case, I was disgusted to see an activist on a listserve (for an animal rescue group I’d rather not name) use “the n-word”…which triggered a debate over whether the slur is even racist (!). Instead of using the incident as a jumping-off point for dialog (and, hopefully, education), the discussion was shut down because “it’s all about the animals.”
Well, it is and it isn’t. It isn’t because animal activism doesn’t preclude the need to be a decent fucking human being. It is because all forms of oppression are intertwined – to defeat one, you must defeat them all. As this argument too often falls on willfully deaf ears, I’m incredibly happy that Joy raises it in her book – that it’s a part of her vision of “strategic action for animals”.
In light of this discussion of parallel oppressions, I find Joy’s emphasis on maintaining a “presentable” appearance especially discomfiting. As I mentioned above, this borders dangerously on gender stereotyping and classism. I understand the need to appeal to the masses, but at what cost? Policing gender roles and enforcing middle- and upper-class (white) dress codes?
But I Digress!
(I do that quite a bit, actually.)
As I was saying, Joy’s “strategic activism” involves diversity – not just in the roles individuals and organizations play, but in the way they develop and implement campaigns. For example, Joy suggests forming “think tanks” and conducting market research in order to best reach your target demographic (indeed, to choose a target demographic!). Temporary and long-term coalition building is another useful strategy; for example, Defenders of Wildlife and the HSUS may not share a mission statement, but every once in awhile their goals might overlap. Why not form a temporary alliance, pooling ideas and resources, to reach a common objective? Don’t dismiss seemingly unrelated activists, organizations and movements – more often than not, you’ll find that you’re both fighting a common evil.
Many of the suggestions within Strategic Action for Animals are geared towards grassroots animal advocacy organizations rather than individual activists. For example, you’ll find chapters on organizing and managing a grassroots organization, developing and waging successful campaigns, and maintaining the health of your employees, volunteers and organization. Since it’s a rather slim volume, I thought Strategic Action for Animals could have discussed the topics of time management, conflict resolution and leadership a bit more, rather than referring the reader to additional resources. However, for organizations, it’s a useful starting point for building a successful, long-lasting animal advocacy group. If you’re in a position of leadership in an animal advocacy organization (or are thinking about starting your own group), I recommend reading Strategic Action for Animals in conjunction with pattrice jones‘s Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World – A Guide for Activists and Their Allies, also from Lantern Books.
Individual activists will also enjoy Strategic Action for Animals. If you’re looking to volunteer for (or work with) an animal advocacy group, you can use the lessons in Strategic Action for Animals to “shop around” for the right group for you – a sustainable, strategic group with a cooperative (vs. competitive) power structure that will value both your hard work as well as your personal wellness. Though I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with Joy, I appreciated the opportunity to formulate my own counter-arguments, particularly regarding the concept of “mainstreaming”. Joy also touches upon the abolition/reform divide, which should provide plenty of fodder for further debate!
For fellow activists, I recommend reading Strategic Action for Animals along with Aftershock and perhaps Mark Hawthorne‘s Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, . Whereas Strategic Action for Animals concentrates on movement-building, Striking at the Roots offers a number of specific types of activism that the individual can engage in, either alone or as part of a group.
Joy prefaces a chapter with the following quote from Ghandi, which stuck with me throughout the book: “You must become the change you want to see in the world.”
Whether that “change” – to you – comes in the form of a mild-mannered, khaki-loving, vegan-eating college kid; a tree-hugging, organic-gardening hippie; or a multi-pierced, black-masked animal liberator, I couldn’t agree more. Just become the change.
Note to publishers: Joy mentions that animal advocates need to address the emotions behind irrational justifications for omnivorous eating, which got me to thinking – I would love, love, love to see a book on the psychology of animal liberation. This would include research, of course, on the most effective means of swaying meat-eaters, but could also extend into other areas; for example, is tabling with a graphic video playing in the background more or less effective than simply handing out brochures? This also goes to the “market research” Joy mentions, so perhaps a collaborative handbook is the ticket?
Also on my wish list: an anthology of essays and research on intersecting oppressions*, and/or a handbook to help animal advocates recognize and check their own privilege. There’s a terrible need, I’m afraid.
* Ecofeminist anthologies are well represented, but how about something more global?
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