One of the things that most irritates me is people telling me about awful instances of cruelty that they have witnessed-without doing anything about it-except of course to write in to me as if I was a giant dustbin in which to purge their guilt and grief. When they receive the written equivalent of a slap on the face in reply, the invariable defence is, it's easy for you to do things but who'll listen to me?
Do you know what the greatest power in the world is? It is compassion. Where does my power come from? Not from a name, or position or wealth or title-it comes from my willingness to do something about issues that I feel strongly about. What stops anyone from doing the same?
The ability to take action is assailed by two assumptions. First, that society has become too big and too complex for an individual to make a difference-unless that individual has extraordinary wealth or heads a major organization. Our societies consist of tens or hundreds of millions of people. Our governments are tied down in bureaucracy and fear doing anything that could cost them votes. Multinationals with big advertising budgets control public opinion. How then can a single individual possibly bring about any significant change?
The second assumption is that our lives are essentially meaningless, that the pursuit of self-interest is the only reasonable goal for anyone, self-interest being defined in narrow materialist terms. So money equals success equals fulfillment.
Except that isn't the case. I have just finished reading a book about someone whose life and work challenges both these assumptions.
Henry Spira was enlisted into the animal liberation movement by a cat he was dumped with by a migrating friend. Previously he had championed the people's revolution in Cuba, and taken part in the labour union struggle in America. His move to animal rights was a natural extension of his empathy with the oppressed and exploited as he realized that it is animals whose suffering is the most intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned of all.
Using the insights gained from decades of working for the weak and exploited, Henry Spira became one of the world's most effective animal rights campaigners. I am going to give you the fundamental principles that he used to make a difference. Imbibe them, live them and your life too will be about more than just consuming products and generating garbage.
Begin by understanding that if there is no struggle there is no success. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, it never will. The fundamental lesson is that the meek don't make it. But audacity must be augmented with attention to detail, with an awareness of social attitudes, power relations and scientific possibilities. So while you may be brave and bold, you must also know what you're talking about. For example when you display the courage to stop an obviously overloaded cart, you need to back it up with knowing the law that forbids animals from being overloaded. You need to know that you can call the police for help; you need to know how to check the animal for injuries, and the number of the shelter where the animal can be taken if he requires treatment. You need to be able to convince the owner that treating his animal well is in both their interests. You need to be able to mobilise crowd support for your action so that there are people to help unload the cart, bring food and water for the animal and keep an eye on the unloaded goods till they can be collected.
None of this is difficult. I have written a book on first aid that you can keep handy and a pamphlet of the laws is available free from PFA.
The animal welfare movement does not require bleeding hearts, what it needs is serious people who care enough to educate themselves and use that knowledge creatively.
Like Henry Spira, for years before him, animal groups had been protesting against animal testing without any success. He realized that it was vital to have a victory no matter how small, to encourage its own supporters to believe in the possibility of change and to gain credibility for the cause with the outside world. He targeted a researcher in a Washington Museum who for years had been mutilating cats to study the effects on sexual behaviour. Not only was the topic of no human benefit or interest, it used an animal that has a high 'cuddle' factor-most Americans think of cats as pets. Spira obtained detailed data on the nature of the experiments from the government funding agency that are required to provide this information on request. He first petitioned the museum which stonewalled. He then launched a public campaign. He took the facts to a few newspapers - one of whom ran a small story. He mailed museum trustees and benefactors, the funding agency and Members of Congress. He even mailed the researcher's neighbours. Spira rallied other animal groups into picketing the museum and visitors were handed flyers showing
Cats with their heads shackled. Pretty soon, the museum realized it had a problem that was not going to go away. The funding agency gave notice to the researcher, the scientific community that normally closes ranks in the face of any challenge became queasy around this issue, and within just a few months the experiments were terminated. Animal rights had won its first victory.
Effective actions are the result of people gaining confidence in their ability to effect change. The more you do, the more you can do. When he learned that Amnesty International had sponsored a Danish group of researchers to burn pigs with hot metal rods and give them electric shocks to find out whether torture could be conducted without visible traces, Spira did not hesitate to take it on. Although in essence, Amnesty's work to help victims of government and police torture shares the same values as the animal movement, it was precisely because of is high moral standing, that its use of animals as lab tools was unacceptable and a betrayal of its own principles. In this context it is telling that one of Amnesty's own leaflets says, ' torturers in various countries insist on being addressed as doctor instead of as sadistic criminals'! When Amnesty kept stalling on the issue, Spira finally threatened to go public. Amnesty complained that he was doing the same thing to them as they were doing to torturers in South America. Exactly, replied Spira, because you are playing the same role that they do! In 1978, Amnesty International pledged that the organization would not sponsor any medical experimentation using animals.
Position issues as problems with solutions. This is best done by presenting realistic alternatives. Offering solutions makes it a positive rather than entirely negative campaign. When Spira decided to go after animal testing by the cosmetic industry, what he sought was not just some companies reducing or replacing animal tests - what he wanted was a change of attitude within the industry so that animals would never again be used. To a large degree he succeeded. Kicking off his campaign with a brilliant full page ad against Revlon's use of rabbits into whose eyes chemicals are poured to test shampoo, he asked readers to write in to Revlon demanding that the company fund a research project to find non-animal alternatives. The company received over 4,000 letters within the first week itself. Supporters asked their neighbourhood stores not to stock Revlon. A 12 year old boy persuaded 3 small department stores to stop selling Revlon cosmetics.
Revlon sales and stocks crashed. Competitor Avon responded by reducing its tests and the industry published a list of corrosive substances that need not be tested. Within the year, Revlon became the first cosmetic company to fund a $750,000 research project to find non-animal alternatives to testing cosmetics. Other companies followed suit and as a result of this initiative, many cosmetics giants have been able to completely give up animal testing. On its own, the animal movement could never have funded the research that made this possible.
This victory over Revlon did not require wealth or the leadership of a large organization. It simply came from creatively applying insights gained from decades of working on the side of the weak and exploited.
Activism has to be result-oriented. Raising awareness is not enough. Awareness follows a successful campaign and a successful campaign will have achievable goals. So set goals that are achievable. Whether it is educating the police in your local thana on the animal protection laws, or getting your neighbours to contribute their food leftovers for homeless animals or writing an animal-related column for a school/club/ local newspaper, or turning 5 people a month vegetarian. Bring about meaningful change one step at a time. Don't assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem. In fact as far as possible avoid bureaucracy. Once you get going, you will find you can win victories, you can fight government, and you can make an impact.
Don't suspect motives. If someone is helping you achieve some good, then you don't attack their motivation. It doesn't matter even if they are helping only to look good themselves-in fact, all the better. There should be more people who believe that promoting the cause of the weak and defence less will advance their own careers.
Fighting for animals is not easy. And it's just as difficult for me as it is for anyone. We are seeking a revolution in people's thinking that animals are not edibles or lab tools. We are asking people to extend their moral horizons to accept the notion of fair play. Animal activists are called terrorists. If you oppose needless violence to animals, does that make you a terrorist? The trick is not to give up trying. It's crucial to have a long term perspective. Keep looking at the big picture while pushing obstacles out of the way.
Nor does it feel like a sacrifice. I do it because it's what I really want to do, want to do most and feel most alive while doing. It's more effective if one does it if one really feels good about doing it, if one gets up in the morning just raring to pick up where one left off the night before-as opposed to doing it for others, doing it because it should be done or because it's the right thing to do. What impels me is not a sense of duty but a sense of joy.
And that's why if you are sensitive to animal suffering, I urge you to action. People with a purpose, a mission, may not have material comforts but they find life fulfilling and enjoyable. Seldom are they bored or at a loose end. They find meaning in their life by living in accordance with their own values.
They live by the Henry Spira principle: Let's do what we can today and then do more tomorrow.
Come, join the action.