Editorials: For leadership, look in the mirror

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1992:

ANIMAL PEOPLE subscribers have been quick to endorse our belief that
the most meaningful form of helping animals is tangibly helping animals. We’ve
promised to focus upon individual and community initiatives, together with hands-on
care—the things each of us can do by ourselves or in small groups to collectively make
an immense difference. After over two decades of animal and habitat protection work
at all levels and in most regions of North America, we have come to the inescapable
conclusion that most of the progress on most issues has come about not because of
national campaigns, but rather through one-on-one persuasion, often in the virtual
absence of national campaigns. The number of homeless dogs and cats euthanized in
pounds and shelters is down from over 20 million per year a decade ago to under eight
million now as result of the unending efforts and experiments of local humane societies.

Only a handful of national groups even touched this issue in any serious manner before
1990, and only one, Friends of Animals, put a penny into providing low-cost
spay/neuter. The number of hunters in the U.S. fell from over 20 million to circa 15
million during the past decade, while only one of the ten biggest groups made hunting
a primary focus. The number of vegetarians in the U.S. has tripled or quadrupled, but
the Humane Society of the U.S. actually backed away from an apparently successful
anti-meat-and-eggs campaign in the mid-1980s, the American SPCA backed away
from endorsing vegetarianism just last year, and the other biggest groups, while offi-
cially pro-vegetarian, have largely left the matter to the smaller groups who specialize
in agricultural and health issues.
This is not to argue that the large national groups are irrelevant. At their best,
many have played effective support roles. The American Humane Association’s train-
ing seminars for local humane society staff are an outstanding example of what nation-
al groups can and should be doing. Younger but bigger and more flamboyant groups
have provided noteworthy support to locally based anti-fur and anti-dissection cam-
Of late, however, supporting roles don’t seem to satisfy many of the best-
known players. Some, pretending to political clout they have not yet demonstrated,
use unending direct mail campaigns to siphon donations away from local humane soci-
eties—often encouraging the misconception that some of the money goes back to
hands-on animal work. There are indications that others whose strength grew from
support efforts are now actively undercutting the people they once encouraged.
Thus in our premier edition we pay much more attention than we would like
to the machinations, actual or alleged, of national group leaders (some of who
actively tried to squelch our coverage). In view of our experience at The Animals’
Agenda, briefly recounted elsewhere in this edition, a casual reader who has not talked
to the sources and seen the documents we have could conclude we are waging a vendet-
ta. But we didn’t seek out these stories: they came to us. Moreover, the greater issue
is not what we personally think of an individual who, in his own words, wants to trans-
form his group into “the National Rifle Association of the animal rights movement,”
nor is the issue our opinion (or anyone’s) of another indivdual who admits she considers
any tactic justified in what she imagines is an Armagedon with herself as avenging
angel. We recognize that in any cause there is room and need for many styles of leader-
ship and many shades of philosophy, as well as for people who share certain values but
not others, and may not like each other. (The anti-slavery struggle, to name just one,
required the services of the misanthropic Henry David Thoreau, the apocalyptic John
Brown, the righteous Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the wisecracking, tolerant Abraham
The central issue we see has to do with priorities and the authenticity of leader-
ship. An effective leader, in our view, is someone whose conduct draws emulation
and support—freely given. Lastingly effective leaders in an ethical cause don’t habitu-
ally engage in unethical conduct, whatever the pretext; nor do they have to, because
manipulative ability isn’t what changes social values.
This is not to argue that leaders must be superhuman. Martin Luther King Jr.,
for instance, may have plagiarized portions of his Ph.D. thesis as a young man whose
moral beliefs had not yet been tested and reshaped by his subsequent experience in the
civil rights movement. He was an older, wiser man a decade later when, in his own
words, he gave us his “I Had A Dream” speech. If, under considerable personal stress,
King engaged in extramarital affairs, he did so outside the sphere of his leadership; his
cause was racial harmony and social justice, not domestic harmony and fidelity.
It should be plain to most of us that the most effective leaders we have known
have not been superhuman. On the contrary, those to whom we have most responded
have more often been friends, family, and chosen teachers. When we have been part
of social transformation, we have seen these people change along with ourselves, well
before the words of great leaders meant anything to us, and even longer before anyone
in government responded with anything more meaningful than a form letter.
ANIMAL PEOPLE holds that the formation of an “NRA of the animal rights
movement,” if indeed it can be done, would be antithetical and even irrelevant to the
cause of overcoming cruelty. In the first place, the struggle is not about rights so much
as it is about responsibility, and in particular about accepting responsibility for our
effects upon other creatures. At least ten times as many of us are actively engaged in
promoting kindness toward animals than feel any identification with the rhetoric of ani-
mal rights. In the second place, powerful political institutions are essentially conserva-
tive, since they must draw upon existing opinion, and thus can work only to negative
purpose, opposing change. To seek change would be to erode their own strength. In
the third place, the model of dominance and control exemplified by NRA-type politics
is precisely opposed to the model of empathy and cooperation that underlies our convic-
tion that a gentler way of relating to animals and nature is both possible and essential.
ANIMAL PEOPLE further holds that there are very few deliberate enemies
of animals in the world (a belief it is admittedly sometimes hard to maintain). Despite
the atrocities we all witness, ours is not ultimately a fight against evil; it is a struggle
against ignorance. Most cruelty, in our observation, is less deliberate than it is the
result of cultural blindness. In some parts of Africa a man who has his wife clitorodec-
tomized may think of himself as kind because he rarely uses a stick when he beats her—
and he values that opinion of himself, because he values kindness as he understands it.
Here, a man who routinely tortures fish on a hook may think of himself as kind because
he does not hunt mammals. A woman who keeps far more cats than she can feed or
clean up after may think of herself as kind because she doesn’t have any of them eutha-
nized. Regardless of our situation, we cannot respond to suffering until we recognize
it, and we generally recognize it only a little bit at a time, each recognition leading
gradually to further recognitions, which we tend to pass along to whomever we inspire
by our own examples.
The most effective leader you know should be the one you see in the mirror.
Do what you can do, as well as you can do it. Give your own efforts first priority; they
are, after all, most important, whether you’re doing hands-on care; writing letters to
newspapers; or simply providing your own family with vegetarian meals and the
lessons of kindnes. There is a time in every cause when helpful and supportive national
and international organizations can assist and empower local activists, but even the best
such organizations do not create the climate for change, nor does their existence substi-
tute for inspirational individual and community-based effort. In the end, it isn’t organi-
zations that make a difference, nor is it law, since laws that are not generally respected
for heartfelt reasons are also not generally obeyed. What does make a difference is that
each one of us will do something differently because someone whose opinion we
value—someone who might even be in the mirror—showed us a better way.
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