Every movement, every group, runs this risk of turning certain people into icons. It is hard to have a movement without leadership. It is hard for that leadership to not become icons, and it is almost impossible to have a non-hierarchical group once the leaders have become icons.
I was blissfully ignorant of what made up the vegan/AR movement until this past year. It is always a bit of a disillusionment once you start to become aware of the movement politics, the disagreements, the all-too human aspects, especially because it seems to follow a honeymoon period where you are enchanted with the players, the things they’re accomplishing, awe at the amount of time they’ve been considering the issues.
I think both aspects are actually important to our personal development. The honeymoon period serves its purpose – when we’re new to the movement, to the literature, and to the issues, we need mentors. We tend to look for the authority figures to help guide us. The danger is that we can easily put the leaders of the movement in a position where we refuse to see that they are human, flawed, and learning and changing just as we are. We actually need the disillusionment to remind us of that.
Within the movement itself is this growing split between “abolition” and “welfare”. At least, it is growing to me. It could simply be that it is my awareness of the split that is growing. In many respects, it makes sense to just call them two different movements, though from the outside looking in, we’re not to the point where it would be comprehensible for people not in “the movement” to see that there might actually be two different movements. Does it matter? It certainly doesn’t from the perspective of being out in the trenches, trying to convince people to go vegan.
My views are most closely aligned with the “abolitionists”, though of course what views you are allowed to have and still call yourself an abolitionist is up for debate, and in fact seem to be becoming more and more absolutist. There is a lot of name calling on all sides, even on the same side, it seems. There is extensive iconification of some of the key figures on all sides as well, which is naturally only recognized as a problem on the “other” sides.
Disagreement is essential, as is disillusionment. We need to actively prevent the people we admire from becoming icons. One of the things I love about Bob and Jenna Torres is that they are so willing to publicly (on their podcasts , forums, wherever) admit when they are wrong. They have become influential enough that I would not doubt they are also in danger of becoming iconified, and I only hope that all of the people they mentor through their podcasts and writings actually listen when they say “hey, we were wrong, people told us we were wrong and we thought more about it and listened.” It is so important that we recognize that no matter how much further down this path someone is, no matter how much more experienced they are or how much they’ve written, they are still fallible.
We should question, we should come to our own conclusions. We should, in fact, periodically question our own conclusions, just to make sure we’re not letting our own views become entrenched.
Questioning is what brought us to veganism, and the last thing we should do is stop questioning in a misguided belief that we have come as far as we can. Veganism is the start, not the end. The leaders can be wrong, just as we can be wrong. We should start with the assumption that everyone is wrong about some things. We need to discourage statements about how we “owe leaders respect”, and we need to be cautious not to blindly quote things the leaders have said.
My view is that no one, not even our influential leaders, are 100% consistent, perfect, pure. If we look hard enough, we’ll find inconsistencies. No group, no person is perfect. Remind yourself of that every time you quote anyone. Remind yourself every time you are critical of someone for not being perfect in their views that you, yourself, have inconsistencies.
My disillusionment has grown to the point where I’m frankly tired of too much in the movement, and while I feel my views are most aligned with the abolitionists, I’m fast getting to the point where I want to reject that term. The illuminating point in that realization is that, disillusioned or not, my own actions have not changed to any great degree. In fact, my activism has hardly changed since realising there were differences within the movement, that there was such a thing as abolitionism and welfarism . We are each our own movement. We are stronger when banded together, but I don’t think we’ll ever be a strong movement as long as we hold Puritan style ideals that we insist people live up to before we’ll work with them or support them. Compromise is part of real life, and assuming we don’t sell out our beliefs, there is not actually anything wrong with it, despite the absolutist views that are often voiced.
Don’t get me wrong – there are things that we should not compromise on; that’s not what I’m going on about here. I’m talking about the small details that do not have an impact on one’s baseline beliefs, but which might very well be used to rake a person or organization over the coals of purity.
My example has to do with sanctuaries. There are three that I have close personal experience with. One has an icon’s stamp of abolitionist approval, though that icon has tried to pressure them to remove some links from their website. A reason would probably be found to deny “abolitionist” status to the other two, possibly based on what is not said on their websites, or what books they might recommend to people. These are not details I’m concerned with, in light of the fact that their overall beliefs are consistent with mine, and on that they do not waver. When I look at whether these three sanctuaries are “worthy” of my support, I believe that they are, and I base that on my personal interaction with the sanctuaries, with the people running them. All three sanctuaries are different. All three have separate strengths, different ways of reaching the community, and different communities altogether. All three hold, in my opinion, beliefs consistent with my own, even if they are not identical in every respect. All three are, in my opinion, acting consistent with their beliefs. All three have some views that I disagree with, but when it comes to the bottom line , we are on the same page. I’m content to let purity live in the minds of others; meanwhile I support people I have determined through personal experience to be following a path I think is effective.
The same evaluation can be applied to any organization. Even PETA, who I disagree with more often than not, has some literature that is consistent with my views. I can hand out their literature that has a message I agree with, even if I think the organization’s views are not the best match to mine. In fact, just today I got an email from them and agreed to let them send me, at their cost, 50 leaflets on the dangers of leaving dogs in cars in the heat. It is information that people need to be educated on, and if PETA is willing to send me 50 leaflets with the information, I’m willing to get it into people’s hands. I don’t have to agree with PETA’s sexist anti-fur campaign to be comfortable using their leaflets to potentially save the lives of some dogs from dying of the heat in a closed vehicle.
Finding points of disagreement should be a goal. Not for the mere sake of being contentious, but as a sanity check, as a way to ward off iconification. If we can’t see the flaws and accept the (acceptable) compromises of every single person we look up to, we have work to do. No one is perfect; not seeing flaws generally means we’re letting ourselves be blinded, and are probably simply parroting the ideology of others. That’s not healthy. The flaws don’t necessarily invalidate their arguments, and our admiration for them doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with them. Real life requires compromise, leaving purity in the theoretical realm. This does not mean we compromise our ethics; neither should the purity of absolute ideals paralyze us from taking any action at all.
Does this make me not an abolitionist, that I’ll leaflet with some abolitionist literature from a non-abolitionist organization? Or that I can accept a lack of purity in the people and organizations I support? I don’t give a damn, to tell you the truth. Abolition is a term that is becoming as iconified as some of the people in the movement, and if I need to avoid applying that label to myself, so be it. Regardless of my label, my fight is the same.