Containing Activist Anger
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.