Vegan and animal rights activists come in different shapes and sizes, and there are several possible ways to categorize them. Let me suggest one way: we can distinguish between those who are working or volunteering for an organisation, and those who act individually.
I am aware that I am simplifying and generalizing, but bear with me for a moment, because I think what category one falls into, may often determine part of one one’s activist style and philosophy.
Faithful readers of this blog will know that I often make a distinction between pragmatic and more ideological activists or activism. Now the thing is that when you work or volunteer for a veg/animal rights organisation, you will often be a lot more pragmatic. You will have to be. This is because organisations tend to do different work than individuals. Organisations often became organisations (this is to say individuals joined together to form them) in order to have more influence and impact. Trying to establish alliances with institutional agents can increase this impact. So especially bigger groups often put a fair amount of resources into institutional change.
The institutions that animal rights/veg groups try to influence, can take many forms. They can be political: local, regional or national governments, political parties… They can be corporate: businesses in all shapes and sizes, from food producers to restaurant chains to any business with a restaurant in it… They can be other organisations in civil society: environmental or health organisations who may be natural allies and help spread a message. They can be academic: schools and universities. All these institutions can have a multiplicatory or leverage effect: if you can move them, they’ll move many other people for you.
It is definitely possible to move institutions from an individual or grassroots position, and in fact it probably happens all the time. Yet it is undoubtedly often easier to do so – and to do so at a bigger scale – from a position within an organisation – changing laws, for instance, is not something easily done as an individual.
There are several reasons for this. Organisations represent a group of people, and some institutions – especially political ones – will only be moved if they see the organisation speaks for or can influence a certain number of people. Organisations also often have several resources available that individual activists or smaller groups do not always have: the means to do research and show certain results to institutional partners, or an outreach channel of many thousands of followers. They can use these channels to advertise what the “partner” did – which is of course great to either put pressure or incentivize them. Organisations also have more money, which may be useful for certain purposes, like campaigning, lobbying, etc.
These institutional allies will not always want to do exactly as the animal rights/veg groups suggest. They will not necessarily spread the message in the exact same way. This could because they don’t believe in it the same way we do, or because they think their own constituency is not ready for it. In my experience, for instance, when institutional partners want to do outreach about plant based food among their audience, they feel more confident emphasizing health and environmental reasons, than animal rights reasons.
When others don’t want to take on our exact message, we have the choice. The first option is to take an absolute stance and refuse to work with them. The second is to be strategic: we compromise and accept the way in which they will bring the message to their voters, members, employees etc. Of course, in our decision a lot will depend on the perceived gains and the perceived sacrifices. But the point I want to make is that generally, if we don’t want to be pragmatic and just stick to our strict ideology, have way less chances of starting alliances that may help influence big numbers of people. Don’t compromise, and you may end up working and preaching on an island.
The work that individuals (not affiliated with groups) do, is often more about reaching out one by one. It is easier there to be stricter and uncompromising: if a person doesn’t want to listen, one moves on to the next person. But the more one is out in the real world, away from the internet, partnering with other actors, the harder it becomes to maintain a strict ideology if one wants to have results.
I can understand that some activists do not want to be pragmatic. I understand they don’t want to advocate for meat reduction rather than full blown veganism, for instance, because they believe this can’t be reconciled with their views. That is fine. But at the very least, I hope those people can grant other people – and groups – a more pragmatic approach, without accusing them of betrayal or being greedy for funds, or whatever arguments animal rights groups get thrown at them these days.
Because there is no betrayal. I have said this before: we should be true not to our ideology and its rules (for instance veganism), but to the values and objectives below the ideology: decreasing animal abuse.
It is good to bear all this in mind when forming an opinion of (big) organisations. Also remember that you rarely have all the information about them (practise slow opinion). You probably don’t know their entire strategy. Just assume that their intentions are the same: putting an end to the use, suffering and killing of animals.
Of course organisations have their own challenges. They may evolve in a wrong direction, become less efficient, more wasteful, bloated etc. But that doesn’t mean this is a given, or that the net benefit of these organisations is not good. Just like individuals, organisations will probably never be perfect. But we need them. As a movement, we need their resources, their expertise, their experience, their outreach and their influence to make the difference we want to make for animals.