On criticizing other activists and organisations

It is true that different people or audiences will be touched by different things, and that hence we do need different approaches. Yet this is no excuse not to try to find out which approaches are better than others. Not all strategies, actions, communication styles… are equally effective. Also, because some approaches or actions may theoretically have a net negative effect for the animals (turning more people off than on, for instance), it should be totally okay to discuss strategies and look for the best ones. We have, as a movement, limited resources, and if we want to be effective for the animals, we need to do our best to find out what works well and what works less well. We should then invest most of our efforts in what works well.


That being said, when we discuss strategies, actions etc, I think it is good to keep some things in mind, so that when we talk about other people or groups, we are being constructive, even when we are critical. Here are some of the things that I think are important when discussing and criticizing each other’s work (note: I am not claiming I always stick to these principles – sometimes I get carried away).

Be aware that there are real people behind whatever you are criticizing
No matter how much you hate a certain opinion, campaign or whatever… the people behind it are probably well meaning individuals whose main concern is helping the animals. Even if that’s not always true, it is probably better to assume it is. People can be hurt. Especially criticism from people who are on your side of the fence (working also to save animals) can be painful. I am sure criticism can contribute to burnout, and we definitely don’t want people to burn out and leave the movement.

Be a slow opinionist
I’m in favor of slow opinion. It means trying to be thorough before you come to a conclusion. It means being aware of the fact that you never have all the information and that you don’t know everything. It means being aware of the fact that you may have (indeed probably have) some blind spots. Slow opinion also means that you can have no opinion on something for a while, or even forever. Slow opinion obviously also means that you do your research and read and try to get to know the other person’s or organisation’s stance before you criticize them. You may want to ask about it in private first. Slow opinion means that questions are better than statements.

Think twice before criticizing organizations
Animal rights organizations get a lot of flack especially from the “grassroots” part of our movement. Organizations should definitely be examined critically, but don’t be too fast. It’s always good to realize that organizations might have different concerns than individuals: they need to keep more stakeholders in mind, they need to be concerned (yes, they do) about their public image, about relationships with all kinds of partners including businesses, other NGOs and governments. Know that your information on why they do what they do may still be incomplete. Maybe they can’t communicate everything they believe or know, for strategic reasons.

Be civil
Being civil is not just a matter of being respectful to people, but also of being effective. Whatever is not voiced in a calm, polite, reasonable way has a lot more chance of falling on deaf ears. That’s not productive. It’s a waste of time. Being civil helps us make progress faster.
Being civil also includes being honest. Don’t say things that you know are not true, don’t change words, make stuff up or exaggerate things.

Be aware of the medium you are using
If you write on social media (which most of us do nowadays) be aware of the limits of the medium. Watch out for your own biases, prejudices, projections etc. that might influence the way you read what other people write. Often they are not as angry or mean as you are imagining. It’s always a good idea to take a few deep breaths, or wait a while before you respond to a post on social media.

Don’t be afraid of changing your opinion or position
It’s ok to change your view as you are thinking things through or new information becomes available to you. Don’t be stubborn. It’s not about being right, it’s about finding out what works. Don’t be afraid to admit when you were wrong.

Only criticize in public when it has added value
Real criticism is best done in private. It is not automatically wrong to express critical views in public, but be aware of the risks. You might be helping the spreading of rumors or things that are simply not true.

Keep in mind that criticism often just does not work
In his timeless classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie warns us to be very careful with criticism. Let’s finish with a quote by him:

“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Any other points? Let me know…

7 thoughts on “On criticizing other activists and organisations

  1. Thanks a lot for these great points and reminders, Tobias. I have found the following two resources to be extremely helpful in regards to these two points you made:

    1) “We have, as a movement, limited resources, and if we want to be effective for the animals, we need to do our best to find out what works well and what works less well.”


    Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) “is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to helping animals by providing useful information to advocates to help them increase their impact.
    Faunalytics conducts opinion polls, audience surveys, focus groups and other types of research. Our results can help you understand how people think, so you can choose the best ways to influence them. That makes you more powerful in creating change for animals.”

    Subtopics are broken down under the “Library” menu, one of which is “Effective Advocacy”:
    “Topics relating to animal advocacy strategies & tactics, social movement progress, program evaluation, and related subjects.”

    2) “I am sure criticism can contribute to burnout, and we definitely don’t want people to burn out and leave the movement.”


    The IDA (In Defense of Animals) Council of Sustainable Activism “helps activists deal with burnout, stress, and secondary trauma caused by the tragedy-filled nature of their noble work. Animal activists are confronted with animal abuse in zoos, labs, animal agriculture, circuses, marine parks, and other abysmal situations. As caretakers and guardians of the voiceless, activists need physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing to work efficiently and to truly enjoy living in harmony with their vegan values.”

    2b) At the above link, there are also several other resources with their links listed, and here is a link to Sustainable Activism posts featured on IDA’s blog:

    2c) IDA has even launched a toll-free “Animal Activist Helpline” people can call:
    Phone: (800) 705-0425
    Email: helpline@idausa.org
    “In Defense of Animals is proud to offer our Animal Activist Helpline as part of our Sustainable Activism Campaign, offering emotional and self-care resources for animal activists. Our goal is to help animal activists gain clarity on their missions, work effectively and efficiently, create successful and satisfying careers, balance activism with the rest of their life, and avoid (or heal from) burnout and trauma.

    This nationwide service is free, confidential, and available via phone or email.”

    2d) Last, but not least, the Sustainable Activism Campaign also has a youtube channel:
    The videos include everything from short 1 min videos with “Sustainable Activism Tips”, to longer videos of recorded teleseminars, such as “Beating Burnout. Sustainable Activism Teleseminar”.

    Sorry this is so long…I hope you will forgive me…after many years of working on animal welfare issues, I have found Faunalytics and the IDA Sustainable Activism Campaign to be probably the two most valuable resources I have ever found over the years. I guess I want to spread the word to others who may not know about them like I once did in the hopes they may find them helpful resources in their journey, too.

  2. >we definitely don’t want people to burn out and leave the movement.

    This isn’t necessarily true, is it Tobias? We both know people who do active harm to the animals’ cause, and it would be a good thing if they left the movement.

      1. Uh oh…my simple brain didn’t manage to process things in that light…but now that you mention it…
        If only criticism could somehow lead to burnout in those dishing it out, instead of burnout for those on the receiving end…

  3. Marcuse: the one dimensional man, 1968 and still actual! in this case: recuperating animal rights defenders by turning them into harmless slow opinionists and vegetarians!

  4. Yes, one approach for different kinds of people is actually a bad idea. I learned about this from a guy who was very successful in insurance that he bought a landed property within 6 years of selling. He told me that you cannot approach every one with the same “touch” as each person is triggered by different things due to their different experiences that shape their perceptions.

    I will try to give my opinions at a slower pace – understand first. I think I will now apply this to my life. 🙂

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