Last week, I held my monthly NYC activist meeting. Farm animal advocates from all different walks of life gathered in lower Manhattan for a 50-minute meeting that covered how to get further involved with farm animal advocacy. We talked about everything from writing letters to the editor regarding the connections between filthy living conditions of pigs and the Swine Flu; taking action on the new anti-confinement bill in New York State; and our national efforts that took place this past weekend in honor of Mother’s Day. These meetings have brought a real sense of activist community and camaraderie to New York City, and we always look forward to them. Part II of the meeting occurred when we relocated further downtown, in the basement of Lolita Bar, where a debate took place asking: Should Humans Radically Decrease Their Exploitation of Animals? At the end of the debate, a vote was taken and the answer was a resounding yes, humans should radically decrease their exploitation of animals.
Arguing in favor of the question was lawyer Mariann Sullivan, and arguing against was freelance writer Justin Shubow. Sullivan (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my other – better – half) was clear and articulate, sticking to the topic-at-hand, and trying her best to answer such inane questions as: “do you think ant farms are cruel?” before moving on to more relevant issues (environmental devastation, world hunger, and of course, hideous animal cruelty). Shubow had little to stand on, and managed to tick off many people in the room by his assertions that vegetarians are mainly women because women are overly-emotional and react without much thought. He also stated false and naive claims that many vegetarians are anemic (not true), the only way for a man to be a healthy vegan is by eating beans all day (as if), vegans are so deprived of nutrients and taste that they may suffer from Pica, a condition that leaves you craving dirt (the only “dirt” I crave is the occasional good gossip), and chickens don’t suffer (decide for yourself).
Anyway, the whole debate got me to thinking about effective advocacy and the value of speaking up for farm animals. I left with two very different conclusions:
1. Don’t waste your time on people who find it fun to bully you.
2. Even when you don’t see it immediately, your advocacy is seeping into these people on some level, and you are planting a seed.
At last night’s activist meeting, my North Carolina friend, Eleni Vlachos, who recently made an animal rights documentary called Seeing through the Fence, talked about her experiences traveling throughout the country with her film and leafleting with farm animal materials on campuses. Eleni, who was only in NYC for a few days, sent me an email earlier, and gave me permission to quote it in Making Hay:
“Yesterday while leafleting at the University of Delaware, one tall athletic man stormed by me and said, ‘I HATE you! I HATE you!’ While not nice, he can't possibly know me, and really hates the idea that he's participating in something cruel. If he and I actually spoke, he wouldn't say that to me. It's similar I think in other types of confrontations. People can come across as callous and uncaring, and many are to some extent, but there is a soft cushy spot in there that can be worked out most of the time.”
As far as communication tactics go, Eleni is a pro (this was evidenced in her film). That goes to point two of what I said above: even when we don’t realize it, we are planting seeds. Last night’s debate attracted some real bullies, including one who went up to Sullivan afterward and mocked the idea that some “helpless chickens” are going to change his mind. We were on our way out by then, but Eleni stuck around and tried her best to communicate with him on a rational, unemotional level (strange she could pull that off, being a woman and all). She told me later that he admitted he would rather animals do not suffer. “After people shed their defenses,” Eleni told me, “it's amazing to see their relative receptivity.”
Good communication is key when you are trying to advocate for farm animals. In many ways, we have to rise above the occasional mean person who yells nasty things at us. The truth is, for all of those people, there are 20 or 30 others who are actually getting it. Outreach is a numbers game, just like sales. If you’re leafleting, for example, there will always be people who throw out the leaflet immediately after you hand it to them, but there will be several others who will read it, and even pass it on to others. In some way, the people who ignore you or who throw out the leaflet are actually helping you weed through the riff-raff so that you can hand that leaflet over to that receptive person who you will undoubtedly reach. Every single time you leaflet, you reach someone.
Still, regarding point one above, there are times when it is best to move on to the next guy. Why spend an hour arguing with someone who is only trying to provoke you, when you could be reaching hundreds of others in that time? When advocating for farm animals, know your limits, and learn how to gauge when enough is enough.
That’s not to say that there aren’t times when it is totally warranted to speak out, to push people beyond their comfort levels (just as they are doing to you), and to exercise your First Amendment rights. There are. But my advice is to keep your eye on the big picture and to spend the majority of your energy changing hearts and minds, leading through example, and being the change you wish to see in the world.
Chicago Activist Brooke M. speaks up for farm animals on Earth Day