Shades of Grey
By Catherine Clyne
Everybody wants to be an absolutist—I know I do. It makes this
world easier to understand and navigate. When it comes to the use of
violence to bring about change, liberation and justice, it seems pretty
cut and dry. Either you condone its use or you condemn it.
Among advocates for social change, it’s an old, ongoing debate.
And a variety of aggressive tactics have been used with varying degrees
of success and failure, ranging from property destruction and intimidation,
to kidnapping, murder, bombing, even guerrilla warfare.
With animal activists and environmentalists today, outright murder
and assault are generally shunned. The debate primarily hinges on whether
or not the destruction of property—inanimate objects—and
intimidation are appropriate means for a desired end. Are they included
in the definition of violence? Is such violence acceptable on a relative
sliding scale? Or is any type of violence unacceptable?
The debate goes something like this:
Those who condemn property destruction, arson and intimidation believe
the use of such violence to spotlight abuse is simply counterproductive.
First, violent acts for social justice are rarely, if ever, understood
by the public as anything other than violence, and are commonly perceived
as “terrorism,” which is a particularly damaging label in
a post-September 11 world. Second, violence—no matter its form—negates
the righteousness of a cause by eroding the moral high ground. It allows
the abuser to be perceived as the victim, and successfully distracts
from the primary injustice. Loss of sympathy translates into a loss
of public support, which is ultimately needed to bring about real and
Committing a violent act feels good at the moment and seems victorious
if the results are immediate: a few—even hundreds or thousands
of—individuals might be relieved from pain and misery. But in
the long run, violence lengthens the reign of oppression by conferring
legitimacy, and splits what should be a unified front, causing precious
time and resources to be taken away from the central issue: the abuse.
Moreover, if the oppressor utilizes violence against staunchly nonviolent
advocates, the true face of the abuse of power is exposed, which will
ultimately lead to its downfall. But like any shift in social consciousness,
this takes time and incremental change. Slavery was not abolished overnight:
it took several thousand years just to acknowledge it was wrong. The
legal right to own a person in this country was overturned less than
200 years ago. To expect the abuse, use and ownership of animals and
natural world to end in just a few years’ time is to be irresponsibly
out of touch with reality. Bravado, property destruction and intimidation
will not change enough minds to shift social consciousness and abolish
The other side argues that we live in a violent world and the sheer
level of abuse and injustice is just too big to be toppled through
means. Animals, people, the planet—we no longer have the time
to wear away established systems of oppression with protests, fund-drives,
letters, petitions, boycotts, speeches, books, T-shirts, songs or prayers.
Too many lives are at stake: billions upon billions of nonhuman animals,
billions of humans—all remain mired in misery, powerless to fight
for themselves. As conscious people living within the power structure,
it is unconscionable not to use what power we have. This is urgent.
Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. If violence is
only language the abuser understands, then the only way to get the
message across is to speak words they understand, and be sure they
That this debate is even happening is a glaring reflection of the luxury
we truly have. If you or those you love were being abused, you would
do everything in your power to end it—property destruction, physical
harm—whatever it took to stop to the abuse immediately. And you
would expect the same from every conscious person. In an unimaginably
violent situation, hand-wringing over the appropriateness of broken
locks and windows, burned property and whatnot to end suffering is beyond
absurd; it’s offensive. In the face of real violence, theoretical
wrangling becomes meaningless, and to dwell on it, insulting.
So, if vandalizing a facility is what it takes to free hundreds of
research victims and instill fear in the vivisection establishment;
so be it.
If breaking into a carpet factory will liberate child slaves and discourage
profiteers from using slavery; the damage is outweighed by the freedom
the young ones deserve. If ramming a fishing ship on the high seas
what it takes to protect dolphins and whales from illegal slaughter;
the lives saved are worth those risked. If menacing phone calls and
staking out someone’s home, waving graphic signs is the only way
to get the attention of those in power, the terror the family experiences—which
ultimately is the fault of the abusers—is a necessary evil. When
profit takes precedent over the health of the environment, burning
vehicles sends a clear message. Jail time is a burdensome yet expected
punishment when challenging a system where abusers have more access
to lawmakers than those with nothing but justice behind their actions.
And we all know that with commercial media, If it bleeds it leads: in
our attention-deficient world, it takes the basest behavior to make
it into public consciousness. If it takes naked women and obnoxious
ads to get a nugget of truth across; the harm done to people and the
cause outweighs the potential of people learning about the issue.
What’s the Answer?
Each and every one of us is born into a world that is violent beyond
all imagination and comprehension. We did not choose it to be so. But
nothing in this world is black and white. Like it or not, we are heirs
to this world, where everything is grey. We each learn to decide what
level of violence is tolerable for us to continue living. The question
is to what degree. It is a terrible burden to be aware of just a tiny
sliver of the many dimensions of human violence and its far-reaching
consequences. Comfortable in its benefits, many prefer to shield themselves
from it, becoming either active or tacitly complicit in its perpetuation.
As painful a battle it is for a conscientious person to struggle against
the status quo, it really is up to us. The question for me, is this:
What kind of world do we want to live in, and how are we going to get
it? In this and next month’s issue, we explore some different
approaches. We hear voices of experience, people who have utilized
and nonviolence and the effectiveness of their tactics. I invite everyone
to listen. Reflect. And respond.