United Poultry Concerns
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14 September 2014
Pessimism Versus Negativity in Animal Activism
By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns


“Do you think we’re winning?”

“I don’t know. Yes. YES.”

That would be me, a 31 year veteran of the animal advocacy movement responding to a question I’ve been asked, and have asked myself, dozens of times through the years, hopefully, doubtfully, anxiously . . .

I view animal advocacy as a kind of public performance where we bring forth our deepest feelings and most passionate desires for animals to audiences of one or of many. Whatever our private despair reflecting the harsh reality for animals in this world, in the moment of advocacy we stand ready to make practical use of our knowledge, our passion, our goals for animals, and defy the portents. As animal rights activists we may be pessimists, but we cannot be negative.

Pessimism is a philosophic assessment of the world and its prospects. Pessimism of the intellect does not conflict with passionate advocacy for animals, but negativity does. Negativity brings dispiritedness into an area where it least belongs. Pessimism is not synonymous with defeatism, but negativity is, and defeatism is a contagious disease.

Negativity says we’re never going to win, people are never going to be vegetarian let alone vegan, little or nothing has changed in 30 years of animal rights activism and most people are always going to eat animals so we might as well just ask them to limit their intake to the ones who have been made to suffer a little less miserably. Negativity says animal rights activists should focus attention on health and the environment instead of animals because people only care about themselves.

karen leafleting

Karen Davis in the 1990s leafleting for chickens

These are some examples of negativity. I’m sure you can think of others . . .

Negativity acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy bolstering the pessimist worldview. But pessimist worldview holders cannot succumb to the negativity that justifies pessimism – not if the pessimist is an animal rights activist. The last thing animals need from an animal activist is the negation of hope for them.

Being positive is not about being all smiley-face, but about affirmation and ethical courage for animals. It is about keeping faith with those we have pledged to fight for, win or lose, no matter who says or does what. Here is a story of courage for animals by Lauren Gazzola from her article in The Dodo that struck a chord with me. I hope it does with you too. She writes:

“In recent years, I have been trying more and more to shift my veganism from a personal choice and a passive boycott to a socially meaningful, active protest.

“As part of this, I have been less and less willing to eat with people while they are eating animals.

“I started with my family, asking them to please let me know if they plan to be eating meat at a meal, because I would prefer not to join.

“But I am human, which is to say imperfect and complicated, as sensitive to social pressure and conflicting desires as anyone else.

“And one night last summer, I agreed to join my family at a restaurant where I knew they would be ordering meat.

“Some of the people I would be dining with live far away and I see them infrequently, and I wanted badly to see them as much as I could for the short time they were in town.

“So I went.

“But as the waiter took orders for veal and chicken and fish, I realized I could not stay there.

“‘I’m sorry,’ I told them. ‘I really can’t do this,’ and I got up, walked to another table, and had my meal by myself.

“Getting up from that table, walking the 30 or 40 steps across the restaurant, and turning my back on people I love was much harder than walking into prison.

“It required more boldness than defending property destruction and more confidence than taking on evil corporations.

“Similarly, shattering the veneer of consensus in order to make impertinent points about violence against animals will require much more bravery than marching in step with the drums of animal welfare.

“But this is the kind of radicalism we need now.

“And if we all have faith, in ourselves and in our moral position, if we refuse to repress our own voices and, instead, say what we mean, we will be able to accomplish things for animals that right now seem hopelessly out of reach.”

For more about Effective Animal Rights Activism, see:

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