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April 2004
Is Definition Limiting Our Progress?

By Pulin Modi

Movements for animal/earth/human liberation are facing hardships because activists are more immersed in trying to maintain an image of absolute morality than effective activism. Our focus for framing a world of compassion, however, should be inclusive of critical thought on tactics and campaigns for lasting change. When most in the West consume frivolously, devour the bodies of tortured animals, and profit from ignorance, we must reassess the discourse used to evaluate and communicate within our movements. We need to think beyond the closed activist circles to what really works in mainstream society. As illogical as it may seem, it is possible that an activist dressed as a chicken outside of KFC is more effective than an activist in an underground ALF cell. Actions need to be placed within the context of structured campaigns. Once we come to a clearer understanding of the institutional roots of oppression we will be able to recognize that absolute ideologies of purity are comforting, but detrimental to a realistic vision of social change.

The extent to which compassionate individuals are limited by terms such as ‘violence’ is devastating. Why does it matter if something is ‘violent’ or not? Isn’t effectiveness what we are working towards? Concerning oneself in maintaining a moral balance is important, but locking oneself into an ideology of absolutism will cause disillusionment. If you are against property destruction, for instance, are you telling me that you will support a laboratory break-in to liberate animals if there is no fiscal damage, but the moment a lock is broken you will denounce the act? Such rigid beliefs will never allow for the diversity our movements need to embrace. Society’s construction of what is appropriate is largely based on legality, however we need to utilize more appropriate means of decision-making to find the best way to do what is morally acceptable; even necessary. Deliberate violation of laws (including clandestine evasion of the legal system) has been a vital part of social justice movements for centuries.

The actions of Mahatma Gandhi, an icon for ‘nonviolence,’ perfectly demonstrate a flaw of absolutist pedagogies which abound within modern progressive circles. How many times have you heard Gandhi’s name dropped in discussions on nonviolent philosophy? Yet for all those who talk of respecting this influential leader, how many understand his actions within their given social, economic, and political context? One must never overlook the distinctive qualities of each social movement throughout time. We can learn from Gandhi’s legacy, but no one should be so naïve as to assume the same tactics can be successfully interjected into just any social movement.

Furthermore, how many remember that Gandhi participated in the burning of government property (citizenship passes) during his campaigning? And how many recall his stance that burning British goods and cargo did not constitute violence? How quickly we could label this man a ‘violent’ activist given these facts. Perhaps we ignore them for the sake of convenience, but they point to a clear and consistent philosophy towards social activism. Gandhi recognized the impact of financial loss in an economy driven by possession and profit. Rather than remaining limited to marches and meetings, the movements Gandhi helped to spearhead were inclusive of targeted, sustained, and innovative acts.

We should be strategizing for creative and proactive campaigns rather than rehearsing the routine of ‘how to be an activist.’ All forms of activism, whether writing a letter, holding a demonstration, or burning down a building, should reflect a clearly thought out restructuring of ideas because oppressive institutions are designed to withstand significant resistance—at both physical and ideological levels. For instance, the Bush administration is perhaps the most despised U.S. leadership in history, but even amidst massive global dissent, Bush continues to work for his own goals. What will it really take to dethrone such a character from the position of President? An online petition certainly won’t convince him to step down.

We need to focus on what needs to get done instead of worrying about how others will criticize every step along the way. If we are confident in our mission the rest will follow as simple logic. No one wants to be around a loser, right? Why not get to what is going to achieve results? Discussing violence is important to place our actions in perspective, but more time must be devoted to expanding our movements to be more creative and constructive.

Furthermore, most people in the world have limited access to ‘alternative’ sources of information, so corporate interests—like smoking, eating animal flesh and junk food, etc.—are widespread in our habitual lives. When we have such a massive privatized media system, there is almost no way to expect the general public to understand a point as specific as the role of violence in social justice movements. The term violence now has as much meaning as ‘terror,’ as our minds are bombarded with sensationalized nonsense rather than useful information. But whereas most Americans have been conditioned to stand against violence or terrorism in a situation of America as the victim, they are in favor of the tactic of bombing to force the opposition to give in. Why is it that the same tactic of bombing would be completely unacceptable to these people if it were used to work towards the liberation of primates, for instance? Is it because they disapprove of the cause or the tactic? I do not think there is anything necessarily wrong with having a model of morality which varies based on specific circumstances.

Essentially, diversity is the key to any movement. The more varied approaches are used to pressure a target or educate people, the more success we can achieve. Actions can and should be symbolically powerful, visually stunning, and/or all out chaotic. We need to embrace such flexibility because it recognizes the need for a broad-based approach to multi-faceted issues. There is no luxury of waiting for just the ‘right’ moment; every opportunity should be treated with unique potential to make a difference.

Our movements are in desperate need of invigoration, and I believe this will come from resistance based in critical thought and action. Please let us choose our words and actions proactively to develop through to the next level and work for true change.