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.