A Niche I Love or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the blog

Over the past year, my involvement in NARN has lead me down an interesting and somewhat painful path to self knowledge. It’s taken time, but I’ve had to define and redefine the nature of my activism, and my place within the animal rights movement. A lot has changed for me since I became an activist, especially because I live with a form of muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle disorder causing muscle weakness and wasting. (I’m lucky to have a mild form of the disease.)

For over a year now, I’ve been attending demonstrations despite the fact that it’s physically difficult and exhausting for me (and if I’m not very careful, painful afterward). Some people might be tempted to view this as admirable or determined, but it was largely my stubbornness and slowness to learn that were responsible, along with a slight disregard for my own health.

Several months into the foie gras campaign, the frequency of the demos picked up, and after attending two in the same weekend, I was left completely exhausted well into the next week. That’s what it took to make me realize that I might need to take my condition and health more seriously. I was emotionally burned out, too, and it was clear I needed to reconsider my role within NARN. The obvious answer was to spend more of my time doing technical work, particularly on the NARN web site.

There’s never a shortage of things to do for the VegSeattle and NARN.org websites, and I was already having a hard time keeping up, so it was the obvious choice. But it still wasn’t easy to talk myself out of demoing in favor of sitting at my desk–I do enough of that at my day job–but I was left with little other choice if I was to take proper care of myself. Although somewhat resigned, I stuck to my decision.

This is perhaps the first major lesson many activists must learn: take care of yourself first. I believe Kim McCoy (of Sea Shepherd) emphasized this at the opener for the Let Live Animal Rights Conference in Portland, Oregon. It’s clear why this is advice that should be taken to heart: if you don’t find a balance in your life and take care of yourself, you won’t be an effective animal advocate. There was a lot of talk at the conference about knowing your strengths, doing what you’re good at, and constantly re-evaluating what you’re doing to see if it works. While a lot of this was focused at the campaign level, it clearly hit me on a more personal level.

Other aspects of Let Live helped me gain additional perspective on my situation, and renewed inspiration. It felt like I gained a new lease on life, although it also left me exhausted (from the drive to Portland, not getting enough sleep, and the sheer number of people attending). I also found it difficult to socialize in this state, which led me to realize that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to network on behalf of NARN–so the same big questions were on my mind that weekend and I plenty of time to ponder them: what was my role? What were my strengths? It was pretty clear that web sitework was one. Writing has also long been a passion of mine–fiction and otherwise–and Let Live provided me with a few pathways to learn more about how these areas intersect with activism.

I attended workshops on design (by Josh Hooten of Herbivore, whose clothing I wore on several occasions during the conference) and writing (by Jasmin Singer of Farm Sanctuary). What both of these had in common was behind-the-scenes work. While often less glamorous and less recognized, supporting the infrastructure of the movement is as important as having people at protests. It also offers opportunities for nearly anyone to be involved—regardless of their abilities. The internet has opened Pandora’s box on this front: blogs, social networking sites, content writing and IT work for websites; the list goes on. And this is on top of other forms of office activism: preparing literature, sending letters and emails, doing basic administrative and financial work for animal rights organizations, etc. The possibilities are almost unlimited.

So if you’re new to activism and looking to get involved, realize that you have a host of options—including things as simple as encouraging friends and families to adopt a more compassionate lifestyle, the most basic form of activism. Prospective activists should also be made aware of the various ways in which they can contribute, although demand for such work usually ensures that it’s sought out (NARN certainly has some such opportunities, and we’re happy to accept help from volunteers). What’s more, this can make it easier to participate in animal advocacy without leaving your home, and without having to so much as leave your comfort zone. You can work when you want to on your own schedule, and if I sound like an ad for a job stuffing envelopes at home, it’s only because I’m excited about my new found focus on this sort of work.

I hope my experiences will inspire anyone reading this to do more – and do whatever you can to help animals. I wrote above that you don’t have to leave your comfort zone to do activism, but I hope all activists will choose to challenge themselves: you can always do more by trying things you’re not initially comfortable with. You might feel like you’re too shy or otherwise not good for front line activism, but don’t discount it without trying it. If you don’t like it, try it again, and remember that some forms of activism will never be comfortable or easy–but they are worthwhile. Even if it was unhealthy for me, I value what I learned about the movement and myself on the front lines.

So do what you can–and don’t run yourself into the ground. Remember, the animals are counting on us to be our best.

-Bryan Schultz

Tonight's NARN Social Discussion

Note: this entry has been edited since its initial posting.

Tonight’s NARN Social was a great time. We had some new faces (both were new to me, at least), and some spirited discussion.

The topic I came up with at the midnight hour–literally at midnight last night–was: How can we reconcile animal liberation and animal interests with animal welfare regulation in the agriculture and food industries? How much confidence can we have that changes will be made for the better when Smithfield Food’s phasing out of gestation crates has been delayed, and the veganness of KFC Canada’s veggie chicken sandwich is in question? Does it ultimately matter in the long term, or are these dead-ends on the road to animal liberation?

That’s a mouthful. It was all I could come up with, but it’s a huge issue. I framed it in a way that asks more of a practical question I was too tired to realize when I wrote it: can we regulate animal industries? There are certainly limits on what we can regulate–but the limits on what we can abolish are greater, at least logistically and politically.

Some great points were made in discussion tonight, once we hit on the topic: all social movements have ups and downs, gains and losses, and they all need different kinds of people working on things. I was glad the newcomers had interesting perspectives to share from queer rights and other, more historically established social movements. It was another good reminder (in the wake of Let Live) that all of us working to help animals are chipping away at a larger edifice of exploitation, and that change takes time.

I would go so far to say that it’s a myth that animal welfare and abolition of animal exploitation are exclusive or incompatible with one another. If we only sought to protect animals while they are still being exploited, we definitely wouldn’t get anywhere on the animal rights front. Fortunately, the movement as a whole is not taking things on in such a manner, but instead with a variety of positions, groups, and approaches. This diversity is a good thing. Besides that, animal liberation is probably a long way off if it’s going to happen–so it’s a worthy goal to relieve the more egregious animal suffering that’s out there.

(Note: It’s not that I don’t believe in liberation, it’s just that I’m skeptical about the progress humanity will make on this or any front–but still hopeful.)

I might also make the argument that if we could persuade more people to take action to make animals used for food suffer less (eating fewer of them, not intensively confining them, etc), it might cultivate more awareness and compassion, which might make people easier to reach and persuade to stop exploiting animals altogether.

There is certainly a concern that people becoming comfortable with so-called “Happy Meat” could entrench meat eaters and others who might otherwise be persuaded to go vegan. It’s my feeling that this depends on how pressured people are to give up their (fictional) humane meat.

But in the sense that it reduces suffering, efforts by PETA and HSUS to improve farming conditions is a good thing. But it’s far more important that the vegan message be promoted. I have no doubt that if factory farming was abolished tomorrow, all activist efforts focused on welfare would go towards promoting veganism. (I have yet to read Francione’s entire blog entry about this, which I linked to above, so I may write more on this subject once I have.)

(Edit: Before editing, I erroneously implied that PETA and HSUS both support veganism. HSUS doesn’t particularly support veganism, but PETA does. My point was: it’s good that welfare improvements are underway, but if there was no effort to spread the vegan message, it obviously would not help end animal exploitation. The converse is not so, however–animal liberation would end any need for animal welfare campaigns in the current sense)

It might be a harder sell without the horrific imagery of factory farms, but the situation would be less dire in terms of animal suffering, and abusive agricultural practices (not to mention exploitation) exist independent of factory farms. This movement may not have gotten the kick start it needed if factory farming hadn’t come into its heyday, but I would certainly celebrate if those dank sheds disappeared from the landscape–even if they were only replaced by somewhat less brutal farms.

In its current guise, the movement, like the factory farm, is not old. As someone said tonight, and as many others have said in the past: it’s going to take a lot of smaller steps before animals are truly free.

It’s always heartening to be reminded of the quantity and quality of people who are in it for the long haul.

-Bryan