By Anika Lehde
Hey, NARN Friends. Something has been on my mind lately. Like many people who are working to make the world a better place (for human animals and non-human animals), I’m sometimes disheartened by infighting, rifts, and snide name calling in activist spaces and movements—particularly the animal liberation and vegan movement. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be some major confusion between what I’ll call “Strategic Disagreements” and what is actually “Internal Accountability” to be non-oppressive ourselves.
I’d like to take a moment to differentiate these two categories of tension within social movements. This is important because the first type, disagreements, doesn’t require any specific sort of response; indifference, cooperation, avoidance, collaboration—while not all ideal—are at least acceptable. But the second type, accountability, requires immediate, constant, and transparent action.
Most of us have experienced the arguments—sometimes mild, sometimes nasty—about specific tactics, results analysis, personalities, internal politics, public perceptions, etc. within activist communities and movements. We may have been in the mix or on the sidelines, but either way we felt how destructive infighting can be, because it rarely takes place when people are in a learning or listening mode and sometime devolves into personal attacks.
Often the disagreement is around what is truly “effective” activism. Groups claim to have the answer, based on their specific method of research or experience. They see resources or energy going to another tactic and are frustrated by what they perceive to be a waste of time or energy—precious resources in animal activist communities. They may be critical of other groups and express publicly that others are incompetent and jeopardizing the animals themselves.
Sometimes the fights are around how radical or controversial we should be in our activism. The more conservative argue that the negative impressions left by more extreme actions negate their benefit. The more radical argue that anything less that direct action slows progress and creates space for moral ambiguity. There are many more types of strategic disagreements, even, but these are two common examples.
We have been told by our wiser comrades to not fall into this trap, that our infighting is exactly what “the other side” is betting on. You may have even been told that those we fight against have infiltrated the activist ranks and purposely start these fights to keep us inwardly focused and too beleaguered to make any progress.
This may all be true, and most importantly, the often negative and nasty way in which these debates take place pushes new activists away, attracts personalities who thrive in conflict, and may distract from the work at hand. We should not let disagreements on strategy devolve into name calling, mockery, or become the actual focus of our activism. These types of strategic disagreements are very important to discuss, and we should also do everything in our power to have them in constructive ways that increase our knowledge and understanding. But if we can’t come to agreement, we can at least agree to disagree and let our multi-tactic movement move forward without delay.
Internal accountability is very different in nature, but can look similar on the surface. It can sometimes even include the same people or be conflated with strategy debates. Trying to create internal accountability, though, means setting standards and norms for social justice spaces that are inclusive, as safe as possible for as many as possible, and don’t allow other forms of oppression to thrive (such as racism, sexism, sexual abuse, classism, or any other oppressive behavior or policies). This sounds easy until we take into account how deeply oppressive behaviors can run, even unexamined within ourselves, and how the very leaders of movements are sometimes the worst perpetrators of oppressive—and even abusive—behavior. Developing spaces that fight oppression on every front is challenging, but must be done to create a strong foundation for animal activism.
When oppressive animal activist policies or leaders are called out or oppressive tactics are identified, those who are unaffected by the abuse often label this process as “infighting” or “whining” and call for its end the same way one might call for those with different tactics to curtail their public arguments. The problem is that these aren’t the same; in fact, calling for accountability within the animal liberation movement is one of the most important things we can do to strengthen our movement, increase our ranks, and improve our strategies. We must hold each other to standards of non-oppression while doing animal activism. This is a never-ending process.
First, it is the right thing to do. This isn’t obvious to everyone. Those who watch as groups try to remove abusers from their ranks, or implement anti-racist practices, find the discord so uncomfortable (and it is) that they would rather sweep the issues under the rug rather than face them head on. They would rather look the other way and minimize the importance of these issues. This should be unacceptable. Even if if there was no benefit to animal activism as a whole (there is), creating safer spaces for activists should be a priority, because it is the right thing to do for people. Just because we fight for animal liberation doesn’t mean we are for human oppression. Besides, activism is difficult enough—we shouldn’t make it harder for those involved.
Second, it is the strategic thing to do for the animal liberation movement. Activist spaces that allow unchecked misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia, or any other oppressive behavior to thrive will not attract the strongest and most skilled activists. The best activists will not tolerate an unsafe environment and certainly won’t trust us as peers. Oppressive activist spaces drive away the people with experience in other social justice movements who could bring important new ideas, strategies, and learning to the table. What’s more, our inability to be consistent with an anti-oppression approach will delegitimize the animal liberation movement and reduce the diversity of thought and experiences necessary for creating real change for animals. What it will do instead is attract privileged narcissists who reinforce oppressive hierarchies and who would rather dismiss and mock their activist peers than work to create strong communities of resistance.
For these two reasons, we need to embrace and welcome processes of internal accountability within the animal liberation movement. How this looks on the ground may be different for every group, depending on the current issues they are facing. This could be ensuring that leadership within the organization is non-hierarchical and doesn’t replicate white-supremacy and male-supremacy. It could be making sure there is a documented process for dealing with accusations of abuse or oppressive behavior within the community (and following it). It could mean not accepting when peer groups participate in or use racist, sexist, ableist, and classist tactics, and calling them to accountability when they do (this is what people often confuse as infighting, but is actually movement accountability). It could be creating a culture of learning and sharing about all types of oppression with a book club or a weekly article reading group. It could be creating true and deep connections with other activist communities by showing up in solidarity with those movements (without expectation of reciprocation) so we can learn even more how to infuse our animal activism with anti-oppression strategies. I highly recommend this last step as it is incredibly informative to experience other spaces that are welcoming.
No matter the exact step, it is imperative that we don’t confuse this critically important approach to anti-oppression and internal accountability with the common “infighting” about general tactics and strategies. We also should never dismiss the process of strengthening our movement and building better activist spaces as a distraction. It is not a distraction, but rather a truly foundational part of the work that we do for animals. The oppression of humans and animals has a common enemy, and we can’t fight for one cause (animals) while participating in and propping up other oppressions.
Remember, let’s have constructive debates about tactics, but let’s not ever tolerate oppression. We can fight oppression in all its forms together! Let’s go! If you want to chat with me more on this topic, you can find me on twitter at @veganscore.
About the author:
Anika Lehde is a former NARN board member (2013-2015) and current Advisory Board member. She also volunteers for Food Empowerment Project, where she helps organize volunteers for outreach, fundraising, education, and other vegan food justice programs in Washington State. When not volunteering, Anika is the President of a marketing consulting firm and lead writer for Seattle Vegan Score, a local blog profiling vegan people, events, companies, and animal advocacy.