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The Nature of Social Change

First of seven talk summaries from AR2007.

NB: Recordings of this and (almost) all sessions at AR2007 are available for purchase. Recordings of a few of the panels I’ve spoken on at previous conferences are available online for free:

The texts of a couple of my previous AR conference talks also are online:

That said, here goes with the first of this year’s summaries: The Nature of Social Change

I was on this early morning panel with Farm Animal Reform Movement founder and president Alex Hershaft, who started us off by distributing and discussing this outline. Below Alex’s outline, you can read a summary of the presentation I gave last year on that same panel. I said some of those things this time too and I won’t repeat them here. I also said some of the things I said in this 2005 talk on the power of grassroots movements and again I won’t repeat myself here.

This year, since we all had just listened to a highly structured talk from Alex, I groggily elected to give a free-form talk loosely organized around my thoughts on these three words: nature, social, change. Since the notes from which I spoke don’t reflect what I actually said, I won’t be able to give as accurate an account of this talk as I would like. Nonetheless, here goes:

Change: Activists are always talking about how hard it is to create change but, actually, change is the only constant in life. Change — biological, social, and ecological — is happening all the time. Rather than thinking about ourselves as being at the very difficult business of creating change out of nothing, we can be more optimistic and realistic by thinking of ourselves as working within an ongoing process of continual change. So, rather than creating change out of nothing, all we have to do is figure out how to get the change that is going to happen anyway to flow in our direction. Since the direction of natural change is always back toward balance and since what we want is an end to the violent imbalances created by people, we ought to be able to draw on or align ourselves with natural forces as organic gardeners do by, for example, drawing upon the natural process of decomposition for compost rather than applying synthetic chemicals that produce short-term progress at the expense of the long-term health of the soil.

(I meant to, but did not, go further into the metaphor of gardening. Good gardeners are observant, thoughtful, adaptive and good at seizing unexpected opportunities. In organic gardening, you have to very carefully assess the lay of the land, thinking about things like what the soil is like and how much sun the plot gets, before figuring out things like which varieties to plant and whether or not to mulch. Too often, activists skip that step, applying their favored one-size-fits-all tactic [protesting, leafleting, or whatever] to any problem in any setting. And, too often, we keep on doing that thing even when it’s clearly not having the intended effect. Soon I’ll be posting something about how that habit led to missteps in the recent case of the famous football player and how a more strategic approach might have helped us to provoke anti-dogfighting activism, rather than defensiveness, in communities where that activism is most desperately needed.)

Also in talking about change, I spoke of the difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy and identified emotion as a source of renewable energy for activism.

Social: All activism is social, in two ways: (1) activism is a collective endeavor in which (2) we are trying to change the thoughts, feelings, and (most importantly) behavior of other people. If we want to change people, then we ought to educate ourselves (rather than just guess) about why and how individuals, groups, and institutions really do change. For example, individuals do sometimes change their behavior (even when it costs them to do so) if they become convinced that what they have been doing is inconsistent with their ethical beliefs. Corporations, on the other hand, are by definition amoral profit-seeking entities, so behavioral remedies that make their current course of action less profitable are much more likely to succeed than heartfelt pleas to behave more ethically.

Both in seeking to change the hearts and minds of individuals and in working with fellow activists, empathy — the ability to feel where other people are coming from, even if you don’t agree with them — is essential to effective social change activism. Activist organizations are nothing other than systems of relationships. Empathy is necessary to keep those relationships healthy.

Nature: Similarly, social change movements are systems of relationships that include organizations as well as non-affiliated activists. Like ecosystems, movements are healthiest when they are diverse. The only times that activism has led to significant social change has been when a variety of individuals and organizations were coming at the same problem from a variety of angles. That means, among other things, that we need to quit picking on activists who share our goals but use different tactics. Chances are, whether we can see it or not, what they are doing helps us. The fear of direct action against vivisection motivates scientific institutions to listen to the people talking quietly and politely about alternative ways to do research.

Just as we need to respect movement biodiversity and understand how our own organization or type of activism fits into the animal advocacy ecosystem, we need to understand how the exploitation of animals fits into the interlinked system of oppression that includes racism, sexism, and environmental despoliation (to name a few) along with speciesism and to think about how our movement can strengthen its relationships with movements that are working on problems that might not seem to be related but will, in fact, have to be solved in order to achieve animal liberation for everybody.

I’m not at all sure in what order I said all of this, or even if I said all of this, although I did try to go from change to social to nature. I know that I stressed emotion as a natural resource, the relentless nature of change, the importance of movement biodiversity, and empathy as an engine of change, since empathy inspires us to act for the animals while at the same time facilitating our interactions with other activists and the people we are trying to reach.

For sure, the summaries of my other talks (in which I did stick to my outlines) will be more coherent.

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