Book Review: Strategic Action for Animals by Melanie Joy (2008)

June 16th, 2008 5:34 pm by Kelly Garbato

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.

By the by, I posted a condensed review on Amazon, so if you’d like the short of it, go here (or here, if you prefer LT).

Otherwise, onward.

Strategic Action for Animals by Melanie Joy (2008)

Becoming the Change

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(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…

Intersections

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?

Again, I can’t help but wonder: would a certain spinster aunt prove unwelcome at a tabling if she refused to cover her boobless (but still female) chest?

IBTP.

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.

P.S.

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?

(Crossposted to.)

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An abridged version of this review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined.

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7 Responses to “Book Review: Strategic Action for Animals by Melanie Joy (2008)”

  1. kara Says:

    zowie, girl, you are thorough! thanks for you sidebar on mainstreaming, which is appreciated by freaks everywhere.

  2. Kelly Says:

    Thanks for the blurb on Lantern Books, Kara! A thorough review was the least I could do, considering how long it took me to deliver :)

  3. Alice James Says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the insights the author brought to how to sustain a movement and an organization and all that implies, psychologially. I was pleased with her empathetic yet analytical view of what a toll being an activist takes, and how organizations can be hotbeds of dysfunction. I’ve been burned out and I’ve been disgusted, because of an organization’s lack of reflection on what activists need to be healthy and happy and to stay in the game for the long run. I’ve seen meetings like she describes in her book, where people are squabbling or bored, because there’s no agenda or direction. I’ve seen activists work way more hours than they should because they are on the verge of mentally collapsing.

    So I agree that it’s a book that individuals and organizations should read, if only (but not only) because it gives opportunities for reflecting on these kinds of issues, in addition to issues about the practicalities of running (and building) an organization for animals, etc. I think it’s also an excellent primer (especially for the new activist) on what a strategic movement is and on the stages a movement goes through (the backlash part was interesting to me–there begins external pressure that results in internal pressure, and people squabbling about “freakiness” vs. “mainstreaming”).

    I couldn’t agree more with you on your agreement and support of the book’s focus on inclusiveness. Racism, sexism, and etc. definitely can and does exist amongst activists, just as it does in the wider world.

    However, I was really disappointed in your interpretation of Joy’s brief advice to dress conservatively. Where in the world does she say anything about women wearing makeup or anything about wearing chinos? I looked through my book again, wondering how I could miss it, and saw nothing.

    Chapter 1: At the same time, activists must do everything in their power to come across as conventional as possible. If the aim is really to liberate animals, and not to gratify our own egos, we must be willing to wrap ourselves in the garb of the mainstream.

    Chapter 4: For instance, when talking to a Buddhist, you should refer to basic Buddhist tenets such as nonviolence and compassion for all beings; and when advocating to a Quaker you should connect animal liberation with peace, justice, and conscientious objection. You should also dress and act in accordance with the norms of the group you’re reaching out to, so that your message is more likely to be heard.

    Chapter 5: When planning to engage in civil disobedience, activists should prepare ahead of time by learning about their rights and the tactics of intimidation used by law enforcement officials, and by dressing as conservatively as possible so as not to be perceived as “terrorists.”

    In regards to chapter 1, I think how one responds indicates what their priorities are. Is it more important to me to look like a punk (which I once was) or is it more important to me to reach out to as many people as possible, including…people of other races and ethnicities, as the quote from chapter 4 alludes to. In regards to chapter 5, again, I think the quote speaks for itself. Is the message more important or the medium? Is animal activism a style, or it is a meaningful political and ethical action?

    That you spent a portion of your review rallying against Joy for a sexist comment that she never made (about makeup) is really disingenuous.

  4. Kelly Says:

    Alice –

    However, I was really disappointed in your interpretation of Joy’s brief advice to dress conservatively. Where in the world does she say anything about women wearing makeup or anything about wearing chinos? I looked through my book again, wondering how I could miss it, and saw nothing.

    The “makeup and chinos” comment was meant to be snarky. I never actually quoted Ms. Joy as saying that women should wear those things – because she never actually said that. Rather, she argues that activists, when in the public eye, should dress conservatively, unassumingly, to the mainstream (and again, I’m paraphrasing). To most Americans, “mainstream” for women includes makeup. (Even the so-called “natural” looks involve makeup…usually, loads of it!) It may also include khakis or chinos, possibly skirts, etc. I mean, do you get any more mainstream America than the stereotypical khaki-clad preppy? ;) Hence the “makeup and chinos” joke. I could just as easily have said “lipstick and heels” or, if I was a WOC, “hair relaxer and American Apparel”.

    I understand the reasoning behind “dressing conservatively”, but such admonitions can reinforce discrimination against people who don’t conform to the mainstream…women who aren’t sufficiently womanly (and men who aren’t sufficiently manly), gays and lesbians, transgendered persons, people of color who act “too black” (or “too white”), etc., etc., etc. Sure, perhaps it’s a good idea not go out of your way to antagonize the people you’re trying to persuade through your choice of dress…but on the other hand, you shouldn’t feel pressured to be someone you’re not, just because that’s what society expects of you. If you feel comfortable as a punk, you should be a punk – and if others are going to hold that against you, that’s their problem, not yours. It creates a barrier, yes, but it’s another barrier in need of breaking. In addition to eradicating their speciesism, you need to eradicate their classism (misogyny, homophobia, racism, whathaveyou) as well. I don’t think challenging the non-animal related “isms” of others is “gratifying my own ego”, as you put it.

    That’s really all I was getting at. I don’t think Ms. Joy is sexist/racist/homophobic/etc.; rather, I just wish her argument in favor of “dressing conservatively” had been more nuanced. (Particularly considering her dismissal of activists who engage in direct activism – ie., those whose actions she disapproves of – elsewhere in the book.) Lately I feel as though the animal advocacy movement is operating in a vacuum, oblivious to the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression, sometimes even relying on other “isms” to advance the AR cause. As a woman, an atheist, a feminist, a secularist, an anti-racist, and a GLBT ally, that hurts me, on so many levels.

  5. Kelly Says:

    Oh, I should also add that, in terms of dealing with psychological trauma and burnout, I thought pattrice jones did a better job of dealing with these issues in Aftershock. Which makes sense, as that is the primary focus of the book.

    Don’t get me wrong; overall, I enjoyed Strategic Action. I gave it four stars instead of five not for the “sexist comment that she never made”, but because it wasn’t as thorough a discussion as I thought it could have been. My Amazon review barely touches upon these other issues we’re discussing. Since the book raised them for me, however, I thought the blog post would be a good enough jumping-off point for further discussion.

    And, for the record, I don’t think Joy’s comments re: dress and appearance (which, to the best of my recollections, she raised several times throughout the book – it wasn’t just one throwaway comment) were necessarily sexist; rather, they were more generally just “ist”. Depending on who defines “conservative” or “conventional”, they could be sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, [insert your “ism” here]. Since she did mention these other “isms” elsewhere, I expected her to at least address them in relation to her advice. That’s the crux of my disappointment.

  6. Alice James Says:

    I guess we see it differently. As I said, I think the mainstreaming comment works in favor of inclusiveness: when I was a raging punk, rarely did I see people of other ethnicities who were punks (or goths or hippies for that matter). Instead, I knew people who were actually afraid of me before they got to know me. I don’t think people have to change who they are to be a bit more mainstream–just temporarily tone it down. She suggests ways to frame the message to reach out to the mainstream–and I don’t see objections to that. Why is clothing a big deal then? I could see if “mainstreaming” implied sexism, as you are saying, but there just wasn’t anything to that in the book. I poured over it, thinking I’d missed something shocking, but didn’t see a thing. It’s a small book, so it wasn’t hard to look. (And I do understand now that you weren’t actually saying there was anything about lipstick and chinos in the book, but it sounded that way.)

    I do agree that animal activism works in a vacuum, at times; but whereas you see the mainstreaming comment as reinforcing it, I see it as obliterating it. But here, we’ll just have to disagree. 10 years ago, I’d have probably agreed with you. Now, not so much.

    Thank you for a good discussion.

    P.S. Could you remove the comment I’d written with my email address in it? That was my bad.

  7. Kelly Says:

    I agree, I think we’re probably reading the “mainstreaming” comment differently. I think Ms. Joy most likely meant it in a very general, generic way, whereas her comments got me thinking more globally, about who gets to define mainstream and how.

    To many people, a woman without makeup and with two nose rings is non-mainstream, non-conservative, what have you. Yet, in makeup, I’d feel as though I were in drag; and I’d feel nekkid without my nose rings (I have a big honker; the rings make me feel purty). I guess what I’m saying is there’s a difference between “toning it down” and compromising yourself to please others (especially others’ stereotyped images of what you “should” be or do). The former is okay as needed, the latter, not so much.

    Sorry, I think I’m at that point where I’m tired and repeating myself. Will go delete that first comment now :)

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