Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jaded Yet?

Through my involvement with animal rights over the past several years, one of the things I’ve wrestled with has been maintaining a level of empathy that is strong enough to keep me attached to the movement, but controlled enough to allow me to be an effective tool for change. Many of us have battled with either feeling such an overwhelming sense of the abuse that we fall into a state of sympathy fatigue, or allowing our outrage to simmer so much that we become detached and unmotivated. As it becomes clear that my involvement with animal rights will extend beyond phases of college idealism and radicalism, I’m trying to figure out how to keep from becoming another disillusioned and jaded former advocate.

Julie Lewin, animal rights lobbyist and founder of NIFFA (National Institute for Animal Advocacy), recently spoke to PAWS members about advocating for animals within the political realm. She is a critic of the protest and demonstration tactics that PAWS often employs, because she believes they place too much emphasis on the activist, while not actually helping get laws passed. I disagree with Lewin’s argument. One of the ways I recharge my interest in the movement is by rallying around other like-minded people in these acts of demonstration. These methods not only provide us with an outlet for our pent up energy, but also change attitudes, especially on college campuses, where the issues surrounding a demonstration are so rigorously dissected. Many people are forced to reconsider their habits through the revelations that emerge in these subsequent discussions.

Although I disagree with Lewin’s argument about the most effective way to implement change, there is validity in her characterization of animal advocates. She explains that “[T]he initial excitement, optimism, and anticipation give way to frustration and disillusionment when worthy goals remain unachieved. There may be a period of retrenchment and lack of vigor. Some activists withdraw, and many who remain are more moderate and less visionary than those who leave.” While we are right to dismiss the false stereotypes of the angry vegan who cares about animals at the expense of humans, we should take seriously Lewin’s more nuanced and realistic image of what we may soon become. It is important to be aware of this phenomenon in order to prevent ourselves from falling prey to it. It seems as though many of the most passionate animal advocates eventually resign themselves to the inevitability of factory farming, after failing to attain enough of the lofty goals they set out to achieve. This doesn’t have to be the path we follow.

Although I’ve had moments where the sacrifice to social interactions and the marginal utility I gain from eating a tasty animal product makes veganism not seem worth it, reengaging myself with the animals that suffer always helps take me back to the heart of the issue. Rereading sections of Animal Liberation or watching Earthlings helps me remember that every meal I eat is making a decision about the relationship I want to have with those animals and the commentary I want to make about their suffering. It’s difficult to motivate myself to rewatch the videos and reread the material, because I know that I’ll immediately fall into a paralyzing state of depression that precludes action. I’ll be hypercritical of my carnivorous friends for being unaware, my vegetarian friends for not going far enough, and myself for not devoting every breath I take to stopping the abuse. But eventually, these bouts of self-hatred and alienation subside and I can use the power of those intense emotions as I work in realistic, and often tedious, ways to make change.

There is no easy way to deal with translating all the outrage and passion we have into the slow and realistic mechanisms of change. But learning how to do this is important if we are to extend our advocacy beyond these early phases of inspiration and excitement.

1 comment:

  1. As an additional remedy for feelings of apathy, I recommend cuddling with our nonhuman friends in order to inspire empathy. I've always thought that penguins would be particularly hugable (they're columnar and full-figured).