Monday, April 27, 2009

The successful activist isn't even active?

photo courtesy of

The vegan cats blog inspired some interesting comments on a completely different topic. I thought I would make this the subject of today's blog:

Basically it comes down to this question: Just how active should an activist be? Or perhaps its better put as: What kind of activity best suits an activist?

I'm curious as to others thoughts on the subject.

I've never considered myself an activist. But we're all activists to an extent just by doing whatever we do and serving as some sort of example to whomever we interact with. I started thinking about this after reading a comment that was left by an anonymous vegan reader in the comments section of last week's blog (I've reprinted this comment below so you'll read it shortly). They left this comment in response to another vegan reader and myself. We were debating an issue and both agreed that we don't like imposing our views on other people. This anonymous vegan reader then criticized this viewpoint as being apathetic and falling short of our "moral imperative". Basically the reader was saying "you must do more you lazy schmucks" in so many words :-). I welcome criticism and want to hear whatever anyone has to say, its just that i'm not sure I fully agree with this particular criticism. I do feel its an important question.

Here's the comment in question:

This is very sad! BILLIONS of animals are living in hell, tortured and suffering and dying every day around the world and people can't spend one hour a week of their lives to be the animals' voice. There is so much apathy in the world. This is why animal cruelty will never end. It's not enough to just go vegan. It is our moral imperative to actively campaign to end the suffering of these precious souls. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem!

Not too long ago in this country it was perfectly acceptable to keep another human being as a slave. Do you think slavery would have ended if people just sat on their butts and said, "I'd have a hard time imposing my beliefs on a slave owner. I'd like to live in a world where other human beings aren't beaten and tortured, but I'm not one to put pressure on anyone"


And here is my response:

Hey Anonymous. I respect your ultimate goal very much. However, I wonder if you would consider the merits of our approach as well. Your basic message in your first paragraph comes down to where you say, "if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem". This is similar to George Bush's thinking when he said "You're either with us or against us" when referring to the iraq war, the terrorists, etc. I disagree with this thinking. This is the language of war. This is drawing up battle lines where they do not need to be drawn. By waging a war to end a war we're just adding one more war in a long line of wars. I don't believe we need to do that. After all, each of us can only do what we can and feel able to. We can celebrate this fact rather than condemn it. We don't have to attack or try to guilt others into doing more. This will only hurt a cause not help it. People are less likely to listen if they feel attacked and more likely to just tell the person to screw off and deem what they're saying as worthless. And if you do guilt them into doing more with this tactic, it won't be coming from a genuine place. I'm not sure if you were attacking me or the person who wrote the comment specifically or not, but after all, that person is a vegan and is doing tremendous amounts to save those animals you mention. That is not apathy. Even if they're not doing all they could do (which is debatable), what they're doing is still important to this cause. And even if the person feels uncomfortable telling others what to do, this person is still influencing others simply by being a living example. What could be better than that? A living example who is happy rather than angry and isn't trying to stuff their views down your throat? That's someone I'd like to listen to! In fact this person has helped me and I know serves as a living example to many others just through everyday people interaction. Why not celebrate what people are doing and inspire others to do more by example rather than point and condemn? This doesn't mean that you yourself can't still do what you do for the cause which may indeed be much more than us.

You question whether slavery would have ended if people hadn't gotten up off their asses and done something about it. True. But what did people really "do". How did slavery end? How did this huge behemoth of an entrenched way of life whose victims were quite powerless ever even begin to change? Most people would say Lincoln. But if you asked Lincoln he'd say the single biggest single reason was Harriet Beecher Stowe and her book "Uncle Tom's Cabin"'s effect on the country. Though I haven't read it yet myself, people say that the success of the book was that it awakened people's compassion. It looked at both the slave and the slave master as human beings. She didn't win hearts by saying "what a bunch of apathetic wimps people are!" or saying "WAKE UP PEOPLE, get off your lazy asses and do your moral imperative!" She simply told a story and let people come to that themselves. (and it became the 2nd best selling book at the time behind the bible). And of course slavery didn't just end all of a sudden. It slowly eroded. It remained long after Lincoln and even long after the 13th amendment. When it did finally stop outright as a practice in the 1930's, racism endured and still does. If we want animal abuse to end, treating everyone with compassion is the place to start (animals, meat eaters, apathetic vegans, and high functioning activist vegans). Because that's what they all deserve. Were you ever a meat or milk eater? Can you relate to what it was like to not know enough to give a shit about where your meat or milk came from? I can. And so how can I judge someone who is thinking that way now? Better that we understand where they are coming from by seeing it in ourselves and love them as such. We can still be activists and make sure the information is out there, and give people the resources and information when they ask and do what we can in our own lives to further the cause and be living examples. That's using compassion to inspire compassion rather than war to stop war. It feels right, and is not driven by guilt and stress or hate and violence. For me currently, it feels good to focus on what feels right for me and not concern myself with what others "should" do. How do I know what's right for you? I know what's right for me. It feels wrong and stressful to be trying to impose beliefs on others (as if we could). Yes billions of animals are dying, but even by not "doing" anything other than being living examples we are certainly furthering the cause. Perhaps even more so than by being "in your face" activists?

If you are able to accomplish more than me, then I salute you! And by all means, show me how! Tell me how you are doing it! Be my living example! Is it by scolding people? If so I can't help you there, but good luck! A system I can scold, but for people I'd like to have only compassion. If we want change then we need to "win hearts and minds" as they say. What's the best way to do that?

Sometimes when i'm waiting at a bus stop for a bus, I get kinda fidgety. I just hate standing still feeling helpless, like i'm wasting time getting nowhere. So I decide to walk and catch the bus at one of the next stops. Inevitably, the bus passes me while i'm walking in between stops and I end up waiting anyway.

Maybe "doing" nothing as an activist is the same. Maybe "doing nothing" by waiting at the proverbial bus stop accomplishes more than "doing something" and missing the proverbial bus... Even though we may feel helpless by just standing there in the face of such unimaginable cruelty to so many beings, we may actually be doing more for them.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not saying to do nothing as an activist of course. By all means do anything and everything you can. This is more about the general attitudes and motivations behind whatever it is that you do as an "activist". In other words, take care not to become an oppressor yourself in your crusade against the oppressors.

What do others think about this? What is the best way to effect change? Should we even be trying to effect change? Is it best to do as Ghandi said and just change ourselves? Not concern ourselves with what others do if they aren't looking for advice? Or should we be yelling from the rafters to any who'll listen and even those who won't? Somewhere in between? Leave a comment if you'd like...


photo ©2009 Eric M


  1. I have to admit, I didn't read the two very long paragraphs. :)

    But I'd say that just by you having this blog and being out there publicly on the Internet, that's a form of activism.

    What I don't like is when someone tries to hide that their vegan. Or if someone says, "I'm vegan. But it's a personal preference." To me, that's a cop-out. She doesn't have to try to convince the other person to go vegan, but at least she shouldn't make it seem like it's no big deal.

    That green is my favorite color is a personal preference. And you can have your own favorite color, and it's no big deal. That you're contributing to animal suffering is a big deal, and it shouldn't be treated as just another choice. I'm rambling, so I'll stop now. :)

  2. Eric,
    This was a very interesting post. I get anonymous' frustration but I think s/he went about it in a very aggressive, misdirected and cowardly way. I disagree that you are part of the problem- just because you are not out there handing out flyers- each person must make their own decisions as to how much is enough to make them feel part of the solution, but being a vegan certainly constitutes being part of the solution and by NO MEANS could it ever be construed as being part of the problem- I can't even begin to imagine how. Particularly in your case, you are a more part of the solution than "anonymous" gives you credit for, as you raise awareness in others through your blog.

    One thing I would like to point out, however, is that activism need not intrinsically be scolding the people who we think are doing wrong. I have been involved in animal activism since I was 15 years old,and through all of the activism I have ever done it has always been a positive rather than a negative experience- meaning, giving people information on what is going on so that they can make informed decisions, not telling them that they are evil because they eat meat/wear fur/ etc... most people have no idea what they are eating/wearing- the media has them all brainwashed (were it not for my high school french teacher, who roped me into the animal rights club, it would have been a long time before I started questioning what I was eating) - Just look at those milk commercials- "Happy cows come from California"?!?!?!?!?! It makes me want to scream! To see these smiling cows in green pastures when in reality most of them never see the light of day- I feel that it is my duty to tell the milk drinkers that this is a lie, if I don't, who will? I feel that it can be done with compassion- I see it happen (and participate in it in such a fashion) and I know that we get through to people. Activism has made a huge impact in my life, it has informed who I am as a person, and since it changed me I am confident it can change others. But that doesn't meant that you are a bad person if you don't attend protest rallies- you have your own form of activism, I think your blog is an activist platform as well- and you're doing a great job with it. It's all about what works for you.

  3. Thanks for the insightful comments guys. Its such an interesting question and really applies to many sorts of interactions, not just vegan activism. I'm still a bit mixed about the whole thing...

  4. Hi Eric: I think that kind of aggressive “activism” does more harm than good. Personally, that sort of behavior would turn me off more than anything else. I especially have a hands off approach to family and friends. If they have interest or questions they can come to me. These are the last people whose faces I want to get into. When they’re ready, they’ll let me know. I never talk about veganism with friends unless they ask and it’s their choice if they want to visit my blog.

    That’s what I like about leafleting. I’m handing out to strangers I’ll never see again and the literature speaks for itself. All I have to do is reach out my hand and ask, “Will you take a look at this information about factory farming?”

    I think any vegan who is filled with a raging anger (which I totally get—don’t think I haven’t spent sleepless nights and belted out lyrics at home to vent my frustrations) should not take up activism until they’ve learned to control their emotions and strategize effectively. Take a retreat from the frustrations and ills of society and just enjoy being vegan. One of the very first things I realized was that if I looked and acted miserable no one would want to be like me, heck, I wouldn’t want to be me.

    One of the best pieces of advice I heard from some vegan instructors at a permaculture class was how they decided they were tired of waking up angry all the time and wanted to focus on what they were for rather than against. It changed their lives and it also made them more approachable.

    People are curious and attracted to people who are happy and confident. So be happy. Treat yourself well. See the humor in things and imagine the world the way you want it to be.

  5. P.S. Most of the time I just want to be left alone and not have to constantly be thrust upon a soap box as “defender of the animals.” But then I read some bit of news or see some images and get all fired up again and it’s like, why try to sit back and relax? It’s too hard to hold my tongue. And, honestly, I’m having too much fun riling people up and challenging their perceptions of vegans.