Containing Activist Anger

» March 25th, 2013

In a post over the weekend I lamented how some animal rights activists responded to a YouTube murder of a horse by sending Tim Sappington, the killer, and the company that employs him, Valley Meats, death threats (or at least threats of violence). It goes without saying that I know such a response is extremely rare and that the overwhelming majority of activists condemn such tactics as impetuous and counterproductive. But still, I felt it deserved some attention because of it’s singular power to harm the movement’s reputation.

What surprised me—and I mean this genuinely, not as in “how could you think that,” but as in “wow, such a possibility never crossed my mind”—was how many vegan commenters and e-mailers were convinced that activists would never behave in such a manner, or that any case of such an undisciplined outburst had to be the result of counter-activists doing their dirty tricks under assumed identities, a la this gasbag. I guess I thought this was a case of mild denial.

To explore this possibility, I poked around for media and/or scholarly reports of death threats by animal rights activists. The results were grim. I learned about a BBC reporter whose children were threatened with burning after he did a story on culling cows;  that Michael Vick, after his dog-fighting regime was unearthed, received so many death threats that he called a press  conference to address them; that research scientists at Hopkins, Duke, and Harvard were threatened with death (once in the form of an allegedly AIDS-infected condom); and that, well, basically that I could spend the entire day filling this post with examples of death threats delivered by animal activists.

Bottom line: it safe to conclude that it happens, perhaps more than we’d like to admit. The fact that people (thankfully) don’t follow through with their threats is largely irrelevant in the context of my concern: undermining the cause’s effectiveness. The media bias is such that even one outburst registers in the court of public opinion as yet another piece of evidence proving the lunacy of such “activism.” Media portrayals might not be fair. But that really doesn’t matter either. There’s nothing we can do about the media.

The larger question is how to handle the phenomenon of isolated death threats. One way is to forthrightly acknowledge its reality. Those who promote the rights of animals are engaged in a project inherently charged with powerful emotions and core beliefs. There are always going to be loose cannons—people who resort to violent rhetoric to ease their own frustration rather than pursue an reasonable tactic to help animals—and, realistically speaking, I know of no way to stop their unhinged resort to violent intimations. We live in a world where everyone has a bullhorn.

Another way, prolix as it seems, is to drown out the vitriol with approaches to activism based on level-headedness, compassion, intelligence, and peace. In other words, to speak truth to power through rationality while encouraging those prone to violent threats to work out their anger in ways more productive to themselves and the animals they purport to care about.





11 Responses to Containing Activist Anger

  1. Dustin Rhodes says:

    I have written about this on this blog before, but during my 5 year stint at an animal rights organization I witnessed animal activists say threatening things NUMEROUS times. Of course it was condemned by the organization I worked for, but it does happen, and on a somewhat frequent basis. In truth, while there are countless wonderfully compassionate and smart advocates, we have our share of people who, let’s just say, don’t enjoy perfect mental and emotional health/balance. I am always shocked how many vegan folks are either in denial of this, or don’t have any type of contact/interaction with the angry folks who are wont to hurl frightening/aggressive/inappropriate insults. They exist. It’s an unfortunate fact.

    • Lorena Elke says:

      Dustin Rhodes, who gets to determine the definition of “frightening, aggressive or inappropriate”? What is frightening to you may not be at all violent. If you are going to use language like this, please supply concrete and specific examples, otherwise you are doing more harm to AR activists.

  2. Dawn says:

    Thank you Lorena. A report of a threat does not mean that there ever was one. A perceived threat does not mean there was one. I acknowledge that people get angry, and threatening. You need to acknowledge that the threats come on both sides. But your reports need to be accurate, if you actually find that reporting on threats on one side of an issue has value. People have strong reactions to violence. What would you like to see done about that?

  3. Bea Elliott says:

    Hi – I honestly don’t mean to be contrary but James the links you provided don’t necessarily qualify as evidence for me. In the case of the story about the farmer’s family who was threatened… I didn’t see any emails or documentation. Nor did the article mention that it was in the hands of investigators.

    Maybe the story about the research scientists is true… But even you say “alleged”.

    The threats against Vick may be authentic – I’ve read some awful things people have said against him… But these people weren’t even vegan let alone AR “activists”. So… Here again I’m still a skeptic.

    I don’t doubt that there have been some loose cannons here and there but my hunch is more often than not that the “facts” are exaggerated and slanted in the direction to make it seem like “non-meat-eating-people” are loony! I don’t know… Maybe I’m hanging out with the right (or in this case the wrong) crowd – But of all the countless hundreds that I can and do vouch for — No one does or would condone anything vaguely resembling hostility. I just know peace-niks… Maybe I’m out of the other loop?

  4. Rebecca Stucki says:

    I believe that sometimes (not always) the words “death threats” are an overstatement. I know I myself have sometimes wished that animal harmers got a taste of their own medicine (e.g., “I hope that someday you are locked in a cage, unable to move, for three months”), but that is a far cry from an actual death threat. It does amuse me, however, that the people I address consider my words as wishing them harm, when they go out of their way to insist that their handling of animals is absolutely kind and humane.

  5. Ingrid says:

    Perhaps my definition of “activist” is different than what’s implied or defined here. I got involved with AR groups many years ago as a neophyte vegan — then moved into more hands-on welfare work in shelters, rescues then a wildlife hospital. In none of those volunteer positions, working intimately at times with issues of animal abuse, did I encounter people you could deem unhinged enough to make legitimate death threats. If anything, the animal advocates I’ve known are exceedingly cautious not to undermine their cause with vitriol. In private, I think everyone expresses anger, sorrow and exasperation, but you channel it. This is all admittedly limited by way of being anecdotal.

    What I have encountered is members of the animal-caring public, who, unaccustomed to cruelty issues, react in emotionally strong ways. I’d be curious to know how the investigations panned out in terms of identifying the perpetrators of violent threats. That is not denial — just healthy skepticism. Every movement has unstable I persons acting out their dysfunctions. I’d just like to know what the truth is on these allegations.

  6. Lori says:

    Every movement, cause and/or group has it’s fringe. People in all walks of life behave badly from time to time…some more often. In gun control debates, I’ve seen gun proponents get downright vitriolic. Or I’ve seen the average American call for the nuking of an entire race of people (Arabs) after a terrorist attack.

    I’m sure that some AR activists have been emotional and rude. But also, there are a lot of people who are not AR activists who get VERY upset and emotional about abuse of dogs, cats, and horses while only caring about other animals in the most extreme cases, if at all. Like Ingrid said, IMHO, it’s more likely these types who get overly abusive in correspondences. I’m also not denying that some AR people have gotten out of control at times, but I don’t think it’s necessarily endemic to this movement. It’s more of a side-effect of post-modern communications than anything.

  7. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I agree entirely with your summation of the need for anger management as it will be taken advantage of by those who wish to paint us all with the same brush either by the media who appear to relish sensationalistic data or by those who wish to damn us even more. I was the victim of a death threat when I objected to a BULLFIGHTING display some years ago and it was terrifying!!! Of that I can attest! But now Im a letter and e-mail writer and attend the occasional live protest every once in a while! I am in awe and deeply respect those who protest more actively and in a creative legal manner! Whatever talents one can bring to this ‘fight’ one must!

  8. In the case of Valley Meats, a follow-up call was placed to the Chavez County Sheriff’s Dept. It was found that no threats of death or bombs were made (as in where people say “I’m going to come and kill you”). What they got was people saying they thought he deserved to die; they also counted people commenting on the YouTube video saying “you should be shot with M16s) as having issued a death threat. Clearly, this is a misuse of the term, just as euthanasia is a misuse of the term for the horse being shot as it was.

  9. Carolle says:

    James, thank you for bringing this issue up. It is important to remind people, or better yet be examples of, non violence activists. No one can contemplate, learn, grow, or change their minds & habits when fear is around. Thank you for this post.

  10. Bea Elliott says:

    Time and again it always seems to be the exaggerated use of language. I don’t know… Do AR activists blow up and out of proportion what the nonhumans endure? Maybe their lot isn’t as bad as we make it out to be? (please note the sarcasm).

    But here we have a meat producer who’s blog headline is “PETA Terrorizes Teen Boy In Louisiana”. When I read the piece I expected to find angry threats or something else hostile and vicious… And a disclaimer here — I am NOT a peta fan for many reasons – But this attempt to make them out to be a dangerous concern to others is just ludicrous. Of course it was (another) failed attempt at advocacy. Perhaps it was a chance at the press… It certainly wasn’t a wise move — But did peta “terrorize”? I don’t know – Maybe I’ve lost the meaning of the word as well. :/

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