Thanks so much to Paul for his contribution to The Accidental Activist!
Vice President, Animal Protection
The Humane Society of the United States
I have a confession. As with most confessions, it’s one I’m not proud of. And, perhaps unlike most things an animal advocate would confess, it harmed animals.
Before I get there, let me tell you a little about myself. I became vegan in 1993 and have devoted much of my time since then to trying to give animals a voice and reducing their suffering. I founded an animal protection club in high school, called Compassion Over Killing, which later became a national organization. After ten years of running that organization, I left to work at the world’s largest animal protection organization, The Humane Society of the United States, where I now serve as vice president of farm animal protection.
During these past two decades, I’ve been a part of dozens of campaigns: political campaigns, corporate campaigns, outreach and awareness campaigns, and more. The driving question in my life is a simple one: How can I most effectively be an ambassador for animals and therefore reduce the greatest amount of suffering?
But it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t always the case that effectiveness came first in my mind. You see, when I first became involved in animal protection, I suffered from what some people jokingly call “newveganitis.” As a young teen, I was sometimes more focused on what made me feel good, what made me feel right, what made me feel “pure” when it came to these serious issues. Effectiveness, I’m ashamed to admit, sometimes sat lonely in the back seat.
So here’s my confession: I believe that much of what I did in the first several years of my life as an animal advocate didn’t do that much to help animals. In fact, the real confession is that some of it was actually counter-productive, meaning I believe it harmed animals.
Fortunately for me, and even more fortunately for animals, reading one of Matt Ball’s essays (a precursor to “A Meaningful Life”) changed so many of my views on animal advocacy.
I wasn’t short on desire to help animals. I wasn’t short on repulsion at animal cruelty. I wasn’t short on willingness to make sacrifices to try to advance animals’ interests. What I was short on was the type of strategic pragmatism that Matt opened me up to.
Matt made it clear that the bottom line in animal advocacy is how much suffering we can reduce (and, of course, creating happiness is also very important). Everything else, as they say, is just commentary.
My appearance was once one that was, let’s just say, countercultural. At one time, multiple earrings adorned my lobes, dreadlocks fell from my scalp, and a long wallet chain hung from my very oversized jeans. I was the type of person who would implore myself and my fellow animal advocates to be willing to do almost anything for animals, which of course makes sense, considering the unfathomable misery our species inflicts upon them.
I remember imploring other advocates to shout our lungs out for animals, to argue with people and try to “beat them” in those arguments, and so on. It was even common back then just to expect as an a priori assumption that “true” animal advocates would be willing to go to jail without question “for the animals.”
The painful questions I wasn’t asking included: Was I willing to get a haircut for animals? Was I willing to put on a button-down shirt for animals? More broadly, was I willing to actually try to be effective for animals?
Rather than being interested in winning arguments and being right, I needed to be more interested in winning people over and being effective. For animals, it’s not enough for us to be right. We need to be both right and effective.
Matt’s essay caused me to rethink my focus on animal advocacy: to concentrate primarily on farm animals since they represent the vast majority of all the animals we exploit; to modify my own appearance so it would no longer be a stumbling block for others to dismiss compassionate living; to recognize that we tend to accomplish more with a friendly, welcoming message than one which simply accuses and condemns.
I recall stupidly thinking when I was a new vegan that in advocating dietary change, it was all or nothing. Of course, I now recognize that countless people care about animals and want to help them, but may not be ready to become vegan. We should be welcoming to everyone who wants to help animals, no matter where they are on their journey. That’s not to say we shouldn’t always encourage continuous improvement for everyone—myself certainly included—but it is to say that there shouldn’t be an orthodoxy or litmus test for people wanting to do something helpful for animals.
In many ways, it boils down to this question: Do we want a social club, or do we want a social movement? If we want a social movement, we need to open our arms and have a big tent.
To be a big tent, it’s imperative that we continually ask ourselves: Are we so insular as a movement that we demand purity rather than progress? Are we so orthodox that we don’t applaud people for taking the first step, but rather punish them for not taking the last step?
By adopting a mentality that welcomes people where they are, applauds them for taking the steps they’ve taken, and reminding ourselves in a friendly way that we should continually strive for uninterrupted improvement in that parts of the advocacy that matter most, our movement—and therefore animals—will be much better off.
I don’t profess to have all, or even most, of the answers on how to be an effective animal advocate, and certainly neither does Matt. But I do know that I wish his essays had been around when I first became part of the animal protection movement. Perhaps I’d have a bit less to confess today had I been able to read them back then.
You don’t have that excuse. You now have the benefit of reading Matt’s essays right here, and then thinking critically about how they may help you become a more pragmatic protector of animals. I’m certain they’ll give you a lot to think about, and more importantly, to act on.