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…