Editorial: Fighting the good fight
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1993:
Those of us who have worked with cattle know that there are two ways to get a
balky cow to move. Cowpunchers yell, push, and beat the animal, who often becomes
even more obstinate. Milkmaids by contrast just walk in front of the cow, hands in pock-
ets, and she follows from curiosity. One experienced milkmaid with a pocket full of apples
could probably move more cattle farther, faster, than all the cowpunchers west of the
Mississippi, if she had a mind to, but no one has ever convinced the punchers, who con-
tinue to rave and kick and beat on almost every farm and feedlot.
Persuading the public to adopt humane attitudes and practices often seems similar-
ly frustrating. Problems and solutions evident to those of us in animal protection are
ignored and overlooked time and again by governmental authorities, whether we’re talking
about violence to animals as precursor of violence to humans, the folly of spending mil-
lions for animal control but next to nothing on animal population control, or the hidden
costs of the meat industry to human and environmental health. Undeniably, progress is
being made, and even in comparison with a few years ago, it is impressive in many areas:
the rapid drop in animal shelter euthanasia rates, the decline of sport hunting, the collapse
of the fur trade, and the exponential increase of interest in vegetarianism, to cite just a
handful. Still, the progress can seem as slow relative to the size of some of the issues as
the pace of Old Bossy may seem to a young cowhand who’d rather be traveling at the pace
of a souped-up pickup truck.
Thus there are those who seek to mandate reform through legislation n o w,
whether or not such legislation has public support or can be enforced. And the elements of
public support and enforceability do go together, since no law that is not generally respect-
ed can be made to work, with any amount of coercion. Witness the failure of the Volstead
Act, 1919-1932, which tried to end alcoholism in the U.S. via prohibition of alcoholic bev-
erages, but succeeded far less than the public awareness campaigns of the past decade,
which have virtually cut teenaged drinking and drunk driving in half. Prohibition mainly
brought us the Mafia, and gave organized crime an entry point into legitimate business.
Likewise, premature and overbroad attempts to enact coercive animal protection
laws can galvanize opposition and make enemies out of natural allies––people who may not
think exactly as we do, but whose interests have more in common with ours than those of
our opponents. One need look no farther than the tension between many humane groups
and breed fanciers over proposed breeding bans, which began when fanciers were excluded
from participation in drafting the first anti-breeding ordinances that received wide publicity.
Breed fanciers have long been active financial backers of many humane societies and neu-
tering programs, including organizations as big and old as the American SPCA of New
York City and as small and new as the Elizabeth Brown Humane Society in St. Johnsbury,
Vermont, which is still raising funds to build its first shelter. The relatively minor percent-
age of pet overpopulation that can be traced to breed fanciers could easily be offset by their
own breed rescue activity. Since most breed fanciers oppose mercantile and random breed-
ing as vehemently as anyone, pushing them into the same political camp as puppy millers
and the commercial pet trade without so much as a consultation was a major tactical mis-
take, the consequences of which may dog humane groups for years to come.
There is a time and place for coercive legislation: to codify and enforce standards
of behavior that have been accepted by the public through a thorough process of education.
For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Civil Rights
Act of 1968 all built successfully on a foundation of public opinion supporting racial equali-
ty under the law, which had been established through decades of dedicated work. They
passed and were respected primarily because the overwhelming majority of Americans, in
all parts of the country, had already come to accept that racial discrimination is wrong.
Even if such bills could have been enacted 40 years earlier, when the Ku Klux Klan openly
controlled the legislatures of Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and Maine, enforce-
ment in a climate of opinion that frankly endorsed racist politics couldn’t have succeeded
any more than Prohibition did.
A correlative of the lesson that attitudes must be changed before laws is that when
laws are enacted, they must specifically target the abuses they are intended to correct. At
the outset of Prohibition, the public was well convinced that alcoholism was the root of
much evil. The Volstead Act was endorsed by virtually every major social reform group,
including many humane societies, whose work then included sheltering children abandoned
by alcoholic parents. Prohibition failed because it was so broadly applied that for every
alcoholic it sobered up, it deprived a neighborhood of a social glass of beer or wine.
Eventually, over a decade, the onerous restrictions reversed public sentiment.
Which brings up propaganda. Some partisans in any cause maintain that the crisis
of the moment is so urgent and compelling that we cannot wait to win over the majority of
the public with facts. We must rally support through circulating horror stories, inflating sta-
tistics, and demonizing the opposition.
Such tactics may succeed in raising a rabble and generating momentum toward
achieving a specific short-term objective: storming the Bastille, sinking the Bismarck, or
lynching the first strangers who ride into Ox Bow after ill-founded rumor has it that some-
one was murdered. Propaganda tactics are even more effective in generating donations to
support cause-oriented groups, since donors typically respond to appeals on impulse, and
since the consequences of making an ill-chosen donation rarely return to haunt the donor.
But propaganda in the long run is self-defeating. It works on the psyche much like
pornography, in that as the viewer becomes more familiar with the material, it becomes
ever less titilating. Propagandists, like pornographers, must constantly seek out new depths
of abuse and degradation to shock and excite potential donors and activists, who meanwhile
may become so depressed by the barrage of horror as to quit opening the mail or even drop
out of the cause entirely to avoid further emotional stress.
Worse still, propaganda displays contempt for the recipient. It says, in effect,
“You’re too stupid and insensitive to respond to facts.” People who find out they’ve been
taken for fools often respond with a backlash rejection of anything and everything the propa-
gandists promoted––sometimes including worthwhile ideas..
Finally, propaganda devalues and debases the legitimate arguments on behalf of
the cause it purportedly serves. When propagandists act on their belief that the truth alone
isn’t strong enough to win people over, they demonstrate a distinct lack of faith in their fac-
tual support. This enables opponents to shift the focus of debate to easily confused rhetori-
cal abstractions, e.g. in the biomedical research area, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
Instead of engaging the facts, including recognition that much animal-based biomedical
research extrapolates findings from one species to another just as if rats, pigs, dogs, and
boys are all the same, opposing propagandists need only stir up fear that what antivivisec-
tionists really want is to sacrifice children to save rats.
ANIMAL PEOPLE believes we are engaged not in no-holds-barred war, but in
humane education, which may at times become a desperate struggle against ignorance and
prejudice, but must itself be conducted humanely. This includes respecting both our sup-
porters and our opponents enough to conduct debate on an honest plane, hearing out oppos-
ing points of view, taking opposing interests into consideration, and if there are irreconcil-
able differences that necessitate an absolute win/lose situation, conducting ourselves
nonetheless in such a manner that opponents on a particular issue need not become enemies
over everything, including issues where we otherwise might be allies.
Judokas and boxers bow or shake hands before a bout in symbolic agreement to
fight the good fight cleanly. They understand that the object of their fight is to establish
dominance, not to annihilate one another, and that delivering low blows is the desperate
last resort of someone who’s been outpointed, who has no more to lose by disqualification.
A low blow missed by the referee can sometimes turn a fight around. Likewise successful
propaganda may turn a cause around, temporarily. But the momentum can be sustained
only if the substance of the matter is sufficient to back up the propaganda. If not, all one
gains is a reputation for misrepresentation, which eventually disqualifies the propagandist
from participation in the public forum.