When I first learned them word activism, it conjured up images of loud demonstrations, people chained to trees whilst surrounded by police and journalists, undercover visits to slaughterhouses with secret cameras, or even the nighttime rescuing of laboratory-imprisoned animals. I knew already as a meat-eating child that I wanted to grow up and do these things, and later as a vegan adolescent having started with letter writing, PETA2‘s Action Alerts and going to Green Party meetings, I could not wait to leave my disapproving family and get down into the real nitty-gritty of what I deemed, "real activism".
I went to demos, even lying naked on Frankfurt‘s December streets to protest the meat industry, I shared Meet Your Meat at every chance I got, and I wore badges and t-shirts proudly proclaiming that I was vegan. At one university seminar, an exasperated co-student exclaimed, "Do you have any clothes that don‘t try and tell me what I should and should not eat?" I cannot remember what I replied, but I remember being extremely annoyed, then saddened, then alone. Rather than progressing my anti-speciesist mission, I was simply ignored, attacked or ridiculed. Yes, I met others through meetings and events, but I felt like a fraud, like a hypocrite, like I was not really part of the movement.
It was frustrating. I was not doing enough. I wanted to go to the Running of the Nudes, but I had no time for international travel. I volunteered to be a school speaker on animal rights issues, but I wanted the topic written into the curriculum, not addressed as a one-off. I wanted to yell at the police who herded protesters around like they were themselves cattle on their way to slaughter, but given that I work with children, risking a criminal record was (and remains) not a sensible thing to do. I wanted to boycott all stores that sell animal products, but although there are more and more vegan shops in the world, they are not everywhere.
I felt like I had good intentions, but was stuck behind a brick wall, and in a way, I still do feel like that a little. It is now over two years since I last went to a big demonstration, a decade since I met with an MP over animal rights, I have never sabotaged a fox hunt, and I still shop at major supermarkets. I would love to do more. Yet, inspired by a cartoon on the back of the toilet door at one of my workplaces, I‘m re-evaluating whether I should be beating myself up over this. The cartoon emphasises self-care and recognising one‘s personalities, skills and limits, whilst at the same time honouring achievements, however small they seem.
We are not all able to participate in direct action, nor do all activists want to. Lobbying is not a soft option compared to chaining oneself up, and either may be more or less effective than the other depending on context and situation. Donating to a charity is a form of activism, as is signing a petition and reading a book to improve and possibly then share knowledge on a relevant subject. Adopting from a shelter is activism, taking part in Meat-Free Mondays is activism, and stuffing envelopes an hour a week as a charity volunteer is activism. Everything helps the cause, everybody who wants to contribute can do so, but in a way suited to their situations, and in a way that will help them to be most productive. Was I helping any animals by frustrating myself to the point that I could not even coherently write a lobbying letter? No. Was I losing motivation? Well, personally no, but I was losing sight of how to reach my goals, and I can see how somebody may lose motivation if everything seems so unattainable.
I am by no means suggesting we all stop pushing ourselves, sit back and do nothing; there is a lot more work to be done until animal rights are fully recognised and speciesism eliminated. But the world is diverse, people are diverse, and activists are diverse, extroverted and introverted, able to donate and needing every cent for their own groceries, outdoors and indoor folk, and interested in different specific campaigns. We are also more and more in number, and we can work together, splitting the tasks and tactics appropriately between us, and supporting each other if things don‘t go as planned or if other parts of life get in the way. I‘m not perfect, and may well always be angry at myself for not doing enough, but recognising that contributions can be made in different ways, and in partnerships, is one step towards maintaining a positive attitude.
Photo: Author's own.