» January 20th, 2013

Ideas can take on lives of their own, but they aren’t ethereal. They’re always grounded in the muck of reality. More than that, they are grounded in people. There are no ideas accessible to humans—no expressions of social change—without individuals to dream them up and lend them a voice. I mention this—a seeming truism—because there’s a sense in some corners of the animal rights movement that the ideas underscoring our activism should, in their pristine purity, transcend the individuals who articulate them and settle upon the masses like warm sun on a spring day. There’s a belief that individual egos should recede into the faceless masses while the ideas generated by those egos should go forth and conquer the world of ideas. What I’m saying here, to put a finer point on it, is that  some people think vegan activists are more interested in themselves than the cause they represent. That they are, in essence, vegomanaics.

Trust me, in my relatively short tenure as a field soldier in this movement, I’ve seen egos that make my “other job”—academia—look like it’s run by a den of cave dwelling monks. No naming names, of course, but I think it’s inevitable that, in a cause that storms convention from a distant and largely ignored, or even marginalized, periphery, some leaders will overstep the bounds of humility and, perhaps out of impatience, become obsessed with promoting their own identities as activists. My overall sense, though, is that these personae are the exception that proves the rule.

Which is not to say there aren’t egos infusing the field of animal activism; it’s to say there has to be. And that’s good. Again, I won’t name names, but I’ve seen many charismatic leaders win over many skeptical audiences to the power of their ideas on the initial basis of their personalities. And I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t note that I dived into this line of work in part because of the reassurance quietly provided by individuals who I watched put themselves “out there” as individuals—as individual egos with unique styles and images—and take a tough message to the streets through the power of personality. People change minds and effect change as much as the ideas that define them and their work. You can watch the same Shakesperean monologue by two different Hamlets and be moved to tears by one and lulled to sleep by the other. The reason? The messenger.

Those who want ideas to infuse the atmosphere like woodsmoke misunderstand the essential connection between social change and leadership. No matter how desperately we attempt to avoid hierarchical thinking and structuring, there’s no avoiding the need for effective leadership, no denying the power of humble but charismatic leaders who bring to a skeptical world a message of hope for the future of animals.

4 Responses to Vegomaniacs

  1. Lori says:

    Funny. As I was driving back from volunteering at a farm animal sanctuary today, before I read this post, I was thinking about commenting on your blog that I was really happy that you are not one of the, IMHO, too frequent “vegomaniacs.” I like and read this blog because you are humble, you bring up issues that are important, but never in a preachy way, and never act like you know it all. You’re more than willing to say that you might even be wrong. In doing this, you understand that you can bring in disparate factions and start a dialogue that may end up being as (or even more) important than the post itself. You more often than not also seem to understand the “real world” implications and application complexities. Your responses to readers are respectful and thoughtful, even when you disagree. So firstly, kudos to you.

    As a feminist, I also couldn’t help myself today, wondering at the gender differences in this movement. In most of the animal organizations where I have volunteered, the majority of the workers, interns and volunteers are women (and most notably, usually white women). Yet the “personalities” and big names are usually (white) men. (Note I say usually, not always, and this has just been my experience.) I find this disconcerting and would like to see more diversity on all levels. When the gurus of a movement are almost all white men, I find that problematic. (Yes, there’s Ingrid Newkirk and Jane Goodall, but…)

    I’m going to have to come out in disagreement with you on this post. I get totally turned off by the cult of personality that some men in this movement seem to perpetuate. I recently saw a Facebook thread on one “guru’s” page where he asked one of his followers not to post links or advocate other organizations–in this circumstance the other organization agreed with the guru’s stance, but because he said he is the one who “coined the phrase” and the concept “25 years ago” he didn’t want this follower to mention the other AR org. In my opinion, no one has come up with anything that hasn’t been thought, or usually said, before. They may be able to articulate it well, or even better than most, and they may have been lucky enough to get it published, but that doesn’t make an idea theirs.

    When you said, “There are no ideas accessible to humans—no expressions of social change—without individuals to dream them up and lend them a voice.” I would emphasize the INDIVIDUALS and not individual.

    Yes, some people have dynamic personalities and can speak well in front of an audience. But when their message becomes more about them than the message, I take umbrage.

    I have no problem with the more interesting Hamlet performing the play, but even Shakespeare borrowed heavily from previous thinkers and writers. While the messenger can sometimes be important, I’d like to see it be more about the message.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    Lots of nearcissits in the animal mafia, especially in Big Humane but also with smaller rescue groups. I represent one group where the board has a two year ter and then you are out. There is also an incestuos sexual politics to some of Big Humane where the members seem more interested in dating other “activists” than the mission to transform the situtations and outcomes of the critters. Eric Fromm wrote that humans seek out leaders and domination as they are scared of “freedom”. Big Humane proves this is true

  3. John T. Maher says:

    narcissists, sorry for many typos. considered it extended rebellion from my mother who taught English at colleges

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