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March 2004
Editorial: 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 lasting change.

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 animal slavery.

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 nonviolent 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 the only language the abuser understands, then the only way to get the message across is to speak words they understand, and be sure they hear them.

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 is 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 fuel-inefficient 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 violence and nonviolence and the effectiveness of their tactics. I invite everyone to listen. Reflect. And respond.


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