Perspective of an old warrior
Spending over a half-century in social justice movements, much of it consulting,
I have formed some conclusions that did not come down from the mountaintop, but merely represent the perspective of an old warrior.
Were I to identify the most pernicious characteristics I have encountered among justice-seeking activists, regardless of cause, lack of humility would be among the most prominent.
To a certain extent, this is inevitable. One must have a certain amount of arrogance to stand up and tell the world that society as a whole is doing something wrong. This requisite amount of arrogance may be amplified among animal advocates, since we are speaking out for beings who for the most part cannot register complaints for themselves.
Also, many and perhaps most activists in almost any cause are young; humility has never been noted as a trait of youth, even when drilled with military emphasis to always say “Sir” to their elders.
But recognizing the value of humility is also useful, whether one is urging all of humanity to go vegan to save our shared planet; or encouraging people to spay, neuter, and vaccinate pets, which these days is only socially accepted good sense, rather than a frontal challenge to conventional practice and belief; or in any other way “fighting” on behalf of animals, a cause in which authentic “victories” always come through persuasion, never through combat.
There is a pressing need for higher performance standards among advocacy groups, greater results-centered accountability, and more innovative means of broadening the animal advocacy support base.
Yet all of this might more easily be achieved through exercising an appropriate degree of humility in advancing our demands.
This does not mean compromising essential goals. It does mean showing generosity of spirit toward those whose actions or even entire industries we condemn, and demonstrating the capacity for self-criticism when obnoxious tactics make enemies instead of friends.
Indeed, demonstrating the ability to change our own behavior in a positive manner may be the most effective part of persuading someone else to change his or hers.
The value of “I am an alcoholic”
Just as members of Alcoholics Anonymous introduce themselves with the phrase, “I am an alcoholic,” acknowledging personal fault before exhibiting sobriety, animal advocates might usefully remind ourselves, as well as conceding to others, that probably no human has ever existed who did not in some way exploit animals, and that for most of us the choice to try to stop exploiting animals was not easily, quickly, or completely made.
Even the most vehement vegan will be, in some context, a hypocrite. Hypocrisy, however, to paraphrase the 19th century feminist and antivivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe, is not a greater sin than cruelty. The person who conscientiously strives to avoid doing cruelty, including in his or her treatment of others in acts meant to be persuasive, will be much more effective than the person who seeks to avoid hypocrisy to the extent of becoming an insufferable nit-picker.
Humility both fuels an ongoing quest for knowledge and enhances our capacity for forbearance.
Socrates embodied that humility, teaching Plato that the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.
That threatened the Athenians and cost Socrates his life, but his words are no less true today than when he spoke them, and actually have direct applicability to many of the situations which infuriate animal advocates the most, often at cost of alienating non-activists in the very situations where making common cause might be easiest.
Three examples from life
Consider, for instance, typical animal advocacy responses to heavily publicized cases of extreme cruelty or neglect involving cats, dogs, and small children.
By way of example, let us look at three unfortunately common situations of escalating degrees of complexity: an individual sets fire to a cat, an individual claiming to be an animal rescuer instead starves a number of dogs to death in cages, and a small child is disfigured or killed by a pit bull belonging to his or her mother.
Each of these situations tends to bring immediate emotive response from the public, as well as from animal advocates.
Initially, at least, the shared reaction is shock, horror, and condemnation, both of the specific deed and of the individuals responsible.
After that, though, the responses of animal advocates and the public often take sharply different directions, leading toward needlessly unsatisfactory outcomes, both for animal advocates and, ultimately, for the animals we hope to help.
The case of the cat
Animal advocates tend to be emotive people, empathic toward helpless victims, or we would not be animal advocates in the first place.
In the example of the person who burns the cat, much of the public as well as many animal advocates will initially explode on social media, in calls to talk shows, and in letters to local newspapers, asserting that the perpetrator also should be burned alive.
In the heat of the moment, this may be generally understood as an expression of outrage and frustration, akin to saying “God damn you!” in a situation which, no matter how annoying, does not warrant literally burning the other person in hell for eternity.
“Vengeance is mine!” sayeth the Lord”
Two minutes or less later, though, the person recommending immolation of the probably mentally ill cat-burner will tend to come across to anyone having a less furious reaction as deranged himself or herself, not someone to listen to in serious discussions of humane education and criminal justice.
At such times animal advocates will be wise to remember the Biblical admonition that, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” meaning that human pursuit of justice should take into account what is healthiest for society as a whole, leaving revenge to God or karma.
These are the educable moments when advocacy for humane education and more effective humane laws have a real chance to gain public and political support––if animal advocates can resist marginalizing themselves by appearing to be as dangerous as the offender(s) whose acts initiated the discussion.
The case of the “rescue hoarder”
All of the above admonitions toward humility, and more, pertain to the example of the erstwhile animal rescuer who allows dogs (or any other animals) to starve to death in cages, unattended and undiscovered until severely decomposed.
That individual is probably also seriously mentally ill. This is not an excuse for the deed of negligence. However, exercising humility in the rush to judgement tends to reveal not extenuating factors––since dead is dead, and guilty is guilty––but rather a more complete understanding of what happened, which may help to prevent repetition of such incidents.
First to be considered is how the mentally ill rescuer turned torture-killer came to have the animals. Some such perpetrators, and perhaps most, at least initially acquire animals by “pulling” them from animal shelters where they may be euthanized as unadoptable. Many become addicted to the good feeling they get from “rescuing” an animal, to the extent of disregarding what must be done next, to successfully rehabilitate and rehome the animal.
Loss of humility feeds the “rescue angel” syndrome
But a big part of that good feeling comes from the praise and encouragement offered by other rescuers, and, to a lesser extent, the public, to whom the term “rescue angel” is not yet the pejorative it has become for many of us who are deeply involved in animal advocacy.
Then, as Beth Clifton recently explained to ANIMALS 24-7 readers in depth and detail––see Why would a smart dog on the loose say, “Don’t rescue me!”? by Beth Clifton––the would-be rescuer comes to internalize the “rescue angel” self-image to the point of becoming unwilling and indeed psychologically unable to say “No” to endless requests to “pull” just one more supposedly doomed dog or cat, or house just one more animal dropped off by a fellow “rescue angel,” or member of the public, for fostering.
Because the “rescue angel” lacks the humility to say “No,” at risk of fracturing her image, she becomes overloaded, overworked, overwhelmed, and eventually either collapses into paralyzing depression and/or a drugged stupor, or simply abandons her menagerie, trying to flee a situation from which there is no actual escape.
Exercising humility, an animal advocate who becomes a “rescue angel” can accept help as well as try to give it, and an animal advocate who takes the time to understand the syndrome can recognize “rescue hoarding” situations and intervene, gently, before “rescued” animals suffer and die.
The case of the “pit bull mommy”
Cases in which a small child is disfigured or killed by a pit bull kept by his or her mother tend to produce one of the few instances in which both pit bull advocates and advocates for the victims of pit bull attacks are, temporarily, on the same side of the otherwise deeply divisive issues surrounding pit bulls.
Both pit bull advocates and victim advocates initially tend to vehemently blame the mother, vying for support from the otherwise uninvolved public.
Devoutly believing that fatal and disfiguring dog attacks are never the fault of the dog, and that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners, pit bull advocates blame the mother because she is the most convenient alternative to recognizing that some dogs, especially pit bulls, are just plain dangerous no matter how lovingly and carefully they are raised and kept.
Victim advocates also typically blame the mother
Victim advocates are usually closely related to victims of pit bull attacks, have themselves suffered pit bull attacks, and/or have lost pets to pit bulls, and are frequently experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in consequence. Victim advocates also tend to reactively blame the mother, for allowing her child to be around a dangerous dog.
This often occurs even when the pit bull in question was not known to have ever before been involved in a dangerous incident, had passed behavioral screening by a humane society or animal control agency, and attacked the child by running into the house through a doggy door, digging under a fence, or just racing out of control down a sidewalk.
If the child was even momentarily out of the mother’s sight, or if the mother was unable to intervene effectively, instantaneously, and even if the mother is herself badly injured or killed in her efforts to save the child, the mother is usually furiously blamed by both sides, even as each side also tries to shame the other for allegedly making the mother, or her survivors, feel worse.
Humility suggests middle ground.
The history of the pit bull breed and the weight of data compiled since the 19th century demonstrates that a pit bull is many levels of risk beyond the risk level associated with the average dog.
Pit bull advocates not involved in rescue and not trying to “save them all” by misrepresenting their behavior and identity, such as the Pit Bull Federation of South Africa, known for warning that pit bulls are not family dogs, readily acknowledge this and do not allege that pit bulls were ever “nanny dogs,” or are otherwise safe to keep with children and most other pets.
On the other side of the coin, mothers cannot reasonably be expected to be dog experts, let alone experts in assessing the risk associated with either dog breeds or individual dogs, especially amid a cultural atmosphere in which “it’s all in how you raise them” is generally accepted as the prescription for successful mothering as well as dog-keeping.
Neither can mothers reasonably be expected to be able to keep an active small child in sight at every moment, or be able to avert every incipient disaster that might afflict an active small child, from a sudden dog attack to falling down a flight of stairs.
There is no humility in assigning blame
Mothers, children, and dogs all make mistakes. Special car seats for children exist because society long ago accepted that cars are dangerous, no matter how careful a driver may be, and that special precautions, mandated by law, are appropriate to mitigate risk, completely apart from any efforts by police or insurance companies to assign blame.
There is no humility in assigning blame. This is an exercise in moral judgement.
Assigning blame may have a place in assessing damages to be paid by the culpable parties after someone is killed or disfigured, whether by a pit bull or in a car accident, but assigning blame has no useful place in preventing harm in the first place.
Preventing harm requires recognizing risk, admitting that grievously harmful accidents happen sometimes even when everyone is careful and responsible, and then doing whatever is necessary both to prevent accidents and to keep the damage to a minimum when accidents occur.
In humble admission
In truth, and in humble admission, I never had to deal directly with either cruel acts by commission, such as someone burning a cat, or cruelty by omission, as in “rescue hoarding cases,” or with pit bull attacks.
Much of my consulting, for animal advocacy organizations as well as others, dealt with conflict mediation, both internecine and inter-organizational. One point I learned to emphasize is that although it is understandable that our passionate beliefs evoke strong emotions, our conduct should never cross the line of civility.
If we are not able to temper our egos, be tolerant of diverse convictions, and treat colleagues with respect, our efforts to engender compassion from the public lack a moral foundation. Integrity, once abandoned, is arduous to reclaim.
What is epistemology & how does it help?
Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge, has been my principal passion. If there is any antidote to the personality traits that impede progress in social justice movements, especially animal advocacy it is to be found in how we define, acquire, and validate knowledge.
That assertion might seem tangential to my explanation of the need for greater humility, but in truth epistemology breeds humility.
Exploring whether we know anything with certitude is unforgiving territory, a perilous minefield not to be traversed lightly, whether the subject is the motivation behind an act of cruelty or a deeply rooted pre-existing belief that might be called into question by scrutinizing a current dilemma.
When speaking of universal truths, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted, the road is replete with detours and dead ends.
T-rex & the meat habit
No thoughtful person would describe the human animal as healthy. To manage our deficits, we develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain our equilibrium and meet exigencies of the moment.
To avoid being overwhelmed by uncertainties, we often resort to detrimental qualities to make it through the night. As doubt and confusion continue to shadow us, there is a tendency to inflate our own self-importance and sense of moral superiority––as in the example of the “vegan police” officer who alleges that a meat-eating friend is bringing the world to an end.
Though animals and the earth would benefit by the friend becoming vegan, his meat habit, taken by itself, is no more consequential to the outcome of the next 60 million years than was the diet of Tyrannosaurus Rex 60-odd million years ago. Sacrificing the friendship and the opportunity to have an enduring influence on the friend by setting a positive example would be little more than an egotistical exercise in virtue-signaling.
In medicating ourselves with answers that frequently emanate from insecurity, opting for the absolute instead of seeking the shaky balance of considerations, our epistemological filter ceases to function. This often results in our species losing its way.
What quantum mechanics have to do with animal issues
Further compounding matters, the advent of quantum mechanics contradicted much of what we had assumed to know about the universe.
What does this have to do with animal issues?
One need not be a physicist, or even have any knowledge of quantum mechanics, to sense that the more orderly world as we knew it no longer exists. Old assumptions have been supplanted by unanswerable questions that even Albert Einstein found unsettling.
And this is as true in the realm of morality as it is in astrophysics.
Peter Singer vs. Tom Regan
When heading an ethics institute, I was asked how we formulate moral precepts in a sea of ignorance. I responded, “With great humility.” Our vast and mysterious cosmos gives pause to all but the arrogant, as they fail to recognize their limitations, or simply ignore them at the expense of others.
The great thinkers throughout history grappled with these issues, but one cannot know the unknowable. Perhaps the most intense of philosophical clashes, still underway in many arenas, is between the Empiricists and Rationalists, with the former relying heavily on sensory experience and the latter advancing reason.
That difference may even be perceived in the differing arguments for animal rights issued by Animal Liberation author Peter Singer and by Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights, the 1974 and 1983 opuses that helped to incite what we now recall as “the animal rights movement.”
Great minds don’t always think alike, but fools seldom differ
Such striking disparities have always been prevalent among our renowned philosophers, as brilliant minds often perceive the universe through a different lens, and always will, as it is the ability to see something beyond what most others do that is the defining quality of brilliance.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty that binds us all, I am driven by an egalitarian ethos that has been my faithful companion, nourishing me in the best of times, and sustaining me in the worst. I would give my life to touch what I perceive as justice, but I don’t presume my truth to be the ultimate truth.
Some find fault with my doubts, but history is crowded with those who confused arrogance with knowledge. We each must find our way, being tolerant of those who take another path. All of us have strong beliefs that guide us as we traverse our way through the myriad challenges of life, but those convictions should be embraced with humility.
Indeed, our troubled world cries out for us to recognize our frailties.
I am not suggesting we should succumb to paralysis. On the contrary, life is for loving, learning, creating, playing, and serving those in need. For me, there is no greater privilege.
We don’t need Aristotelian logic to interpret our perceptions, or unlock the secrets of the universe to comprehend the language of being.
Beauty awakens the senses; passion feeds the heart; and beneficence enriches the spirit. Our sensations speak to us with an unmistakable rhythm, and the moments still belong to us.
An authentic appreciation of Ed Duvin’s role over the years as an animal advocacy strategist includes recognizing that Ed has also consistently been a conciliator too, including in his most provocative work, his 1989 essay “In the Name of Mercy,” as well as in the follow-up essay “Unfinished Business,” and in the many other essays he published in his Animallines newsletter.
Behind the scenes, Ed simultaneously urged the relatively complacent and mainstream Humane Society of the U.S. to exercise more ambitious and less compromising moral leadership, and moderated the often self-destructive impulses of In Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz and others to charge blindly ahead, oblivious to strategic pitfalls that were likely to alienate the very people he had the best chance to persuade.
Why Humanelines was provocative
Ed Duvin’s Animallines writings of decades ago were as provocative as they were not because he disrespected anyone, or said/did anything deliberately offensive, or actually looked for a fight beyond simply saying his piece, often with many self-effacing remarks along the way, but rather because the established humane movement and the rising animal rights movement had not yet even begun to address either pet overpopulation, which was in the “movement” ballpark and right under everyone’s nose, or farmed animal issues.
Instead, we still had the spectacle of meat being served at every “animal advocacy” conference except Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft’s, which then could still have been held in a fast food restaurant’s conference room (had a fast food restaurant been willing to host a vegan gathering), and people marching for “animal rights” while munching on hot dogs bought from sidewalk vendors.
Ed woke people up
Ed woke people up, in an eminently respectful manner. Most of “In the Name of Mercy” would not be provocative today because what Ed pointed toward is now mainstream belief and practice in the animal sheltering world. What might remain provocative, though, is his insistence that people working on companion people issues be honest with themselves and the public.
The Big Lie espoused by most of the animal sheltering community in 1989 was that killing dogs and cats “in the name of mercy,” as was claimed to be the case, was usually not merciful at all, and was done chiefly through failure to address the dog and cat overpopulation problem where it starts, with uncontrolled breeding and the attitude that animals are commodities.
The Big Lie espoused by most of the animal sheltering community now is that “We can save them all,” even if “saving them all” means leaving unwanted animals at large in inappropriate situations, “fostering” animals out to hoarders, rehoming dogs who have often already killed other animals and/or injured people, and will likely go on to kill and injure more animals and humans; and, above all else, again falling to address dog and cat overpopulation issues where they start, with uncontrolled breeding and the attitude that animals are commodities, expressed today by treating every dog and cat issue as a problem in merchandising.
With all due credit to Karen Davis (comments below), whose work Beth & I have admired for decades, and have often published, Ed has not lost any of his supposed fire.
Rather, what Ed continues to demonstrate is that there is a vital difference between sitting close to a small fire and keeping the embers burning all night, and building a bonfire so intense that it forces everyone away from it, rapidly consumes the available fuel, and is stone cold by the darkest hours before dawn.