At its core, animal advocacy is based on the recognition that billions of land animals and trillions of sea animals are killed each year for human consumption, while countless more are tortured for medical “research,” and more are used and abused as commodities. This is the common purpose that unites us.
But, animal advocates are people and people are inherently flawed. We make mistakes (a lot!) and our behaviors don’t often reflect our values. Oppressive tendencies and beliefs are interwoven into our lives, thoughts, and actions from a very young age and reinforced continuously by broader society.
So, critique can play a very important and necessary role in our movement. Critique can help us “call in” one another and is essential for learning and growth. To have an inclusive and diverse movement, we need to embrace things like the #metoo movement and call out harassment (e.g. the recent expose on one male leader in animal advocacy).
However, critique often seems to overshadow the “work” of animal advocacy in three key ways.
First, within many circles the focus is almost exclusively on critiquing others. With so much energy and time spent on critiquing just about everyone and every group trying to help animals, imagine if more of this was instead spent on actually doing things to help animals.
Secondly, criticism is commonly used as a weapon for silencing others and elevating one’s own status as an advocate. It seems that despite supposedly being united by a common desire to reduce animal suffering as much as possible, we are very much capable of causing a lot of suffering to other humans (and often, it seems, enjoying it!) “Calling out” or simply publicly (and aggressively) disagreeing with fellow advocates is regularly used as a tool to dis-empower others, while elevating one’s own “activist status.”
Finally, criticism is used to justify singular tactics as the “only” way or the “best” way. It amazes me how many people and organizations seem to think they know the “truth” about what is effective. Actually, it is very clear we know very little! So when people tell you they know the best way to help animals, get far, far away. Because the truth is: we don’t know.
In reality, our movement is strengthened by a diversity of perspectives and different theories of change on how to move forward. I love having conversations with people who have very different (and often very strongly-held) views on effectiveness in animal advocacy. For instance, a relatively new organization called Animal Think Tank is focused on movement-building within the animal advocacy movement. Through conversations with some of their leaders, I have come across a whole wealth of literature and research that is incredibly valuable to the movement.
People, instead, seem to selectively refer to information that matches their specific beliefs without being familiar with research or theories that would counter or question their own opinions. It also amazes me how people can cherry-pick from research to present an argument and use poorly-designed and/or non-peer-reviewed research to make broad claims.
I also find it incredibly valuable to have conversations with people who think differently than me and, as much as possible, to approach them with an open mind. I’m in no way perfect so this isn’t always easy! And this perspective does not include when people are using oppressive language or engaging in oppressive activity. There, it is a privilege to be able to not respond emotionally. What I am talking about, instead, is these debates around reducetarians vs. abolitionists or is palm oil vegan? Here, it is amazing how much I have learned by talking to people on different “sides” of the argument. I often find that people’s thinking is more nuanced then they may, perhaps, be willing to admit!
While criticism is essential to creating an inclusive and effective movement, if all we do is criticize each other we aren’t going to get very far! And we sure are wasting an awful lot of resources and time on the way. Someone recently said something to me that beautifully captures my own thinking on how and when to present criticism:
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind?
- Is it the right time?
Sometimes, we have to say hard truths. We have to acknowledge how oppression is impacting our spaces and our opinions. But, in my experience, most of the criticisms I see are based on loose fact, speculation, and personal opinion on “effectiveness.”
If we want to help animals, we don’t need to be able to all work together and, in fact, it is unlikely that would be effective or functional in any way. I don’t want to work with white supremacist vegans or trans-exclusionary folks. But I also don’t want to work with people who aren’t interested in the possibility of changing their opinion. And that includes those giving lip-service to past errors, when being completely unwilling to hear criticism or change their beliefs, tactics, or underlying framework based on new information.
Ultimately, we are running out of time while animals suffer on such enormous scales we can’t even begin to imagine. So I say, if you think a strategy is effective, why not try it out? If you’re not hurting anyone, you’re not using oppressive messaging or language, it be a valuable lesson. I personally have engaged in many different types of on- and off-line activism and through these experiences have learned a LOT. If you just theorize about what’s effective, you may completely miss why something is effective. Similarly, if you just practice only one type of activism or campaigning strategy and assume it’s effective (without truly looking into research that doesn’t support this), you might be missing out on a broad understanding of the theory of change behind what you are doing or if you are, in fact, having the impact you think you are. Because, and I’ll say this just once more: there is no singular tactic that has been proven to be the most effective way to help animals.
I ask you to consider: When is the last time you changed your opinion?
I don’t just mean about the best vegan chocolate (it’s white chocolate Vego, by the way), but about something fundamental to the way you approach animal advocacy. I would guess this is not something that happens too often. So why are we wasting so much time and energy trying to convince other people what they are doing is wrong or isn’t helpful? Is it because we simply want to be right?