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dilemma: doing it all vs. doing one thing well

November 9, 2011

Several years ago I made a decision to be a committed activist. The problem? I care about a lot of social issues. In the end, I decided that since other animals have the fewest voices speaking up for them and, cumulatively, the greatest numbers of individuals suffer the most abuse, that that is where I would focus my activist energy. Plus, it was my entre into the animal rights world that made me truly understand the necessity and immediacy of activism.

I made a choice to be focused on one cause, because of the belief that energy focused mainly on one movement would be more effective than scattered energy. So, though I occasionally work with other campaigns for various causes, I keep most of my energies in animal rights. As Mississippi pushes a personhood amendment, occupiers take their cities over, Food Not Bombs hits the dumpsters and the streets, and many other necessary actions are taken to fight the normalized oppression in our society, I want to be there. But I have come to terms with not being there because of my perception (accurate or not) that there are more people engaged with those issues than there are with animal rights issues.

Though I decided to choose only one topic of activism for my main focus, I have not chosen only one tactic or even one avenue ofanimal rights work. I have tried to play two hands at once and do both in-the-streets activism and academic activism simultaneously. Not only that, but within each of those realms I try to do multiple things. Behind the computer screen I am working at an animal protection organization and researching and publishing outside of work as well. In the streets I organize a campaign which involves everything from keeping up a website to going to protests. I also actively support a number of campaigns and I am at anywhere from one to three protests a week. I belong to an animal rights organization as an active member who volunteers and attends meetings and I meet other obligations for this group and other activists.  Oh yeah, and I give money each month until I am living on my credit card debt.

I am busy and I am seriously multitasking. But what strikes me the most is that, among activists, my story is in no way unique. I think of my activist community and I can readily think of others in my position. For example, one woman I know is amazing at fostering and re-homing cats and she is a dedicated activist. She works as much as she can at her job to financially care for and find homes for cats, volunteers at a cat rescue, and takes cats to adoption events. At the same time, she is an activist and regularly attends protests and other outreach events.  From the outside looking in at her I see the struggles she faces. She needs to work to afford all the cat food and litter and medical emergencies, but she arranges work shifts around the week’s protest schedule, even if it means she makes less money.

My friend usually tells me she is handling it all just fine. I thought I was handling my balancing act well too, until my body revolted. As I was in the last couple months of graduate school, I showed up at a protest I had organized.  Half way into the protest, my body broke out in hives. I knew I had to be writing my dissertation, but I knew I had to be at this protest as well, and the clash was simply too much. It was the second time in my life and the second time that month I had broken out in hives.

This physical protest staged by my body forced me to think about what I was doing. And what I was doing was too much. The more I thought I also realized that not only was I doing too much but that my distracted attention kept me from doing anything particularly well.  I decided that I would be more focused. But, of course, nothing has come of this.

Why? Because choosing to excel at something, when it means abandoning something else, is a high stakes game when it comes to activism and animal rights. I know that my education provides me a platform others don’t have. The letters I put before and after my name mean that people let me give talks and publish my papers and if I play it right I can get animal issues taken seriously in research and academia. At the same time, I will do what so few other vegans will—I will get out into the streets and raise my voice. I will look at the toolbox of tactics and use less popular tactics such as protesting in a regular, strategic manner, and not just on Fur Free Fridays.

I can clearly see where I am useful in each realm, and I can clearly see the benefits each might have for animals (of course we need many tactics working together simultaneously to create change). So, how do I choose one over the other? How would my friend described earlier choose between only fostering or only doing activism? How would you choose between any two of the things you do on a regular basis to help animals?

Maybe the answer is not to choose. I know that is what I have been doing but, for me, it is not working. At work I feel guilty that I am not running my campaign. When I am doing that I worry I should be trying to get my writing out. When I write I am distracted because I could be working or at a protest. I am everywhere doing lots of things but I am never really “there” and I always feel that I should be doing more. I feel like a bad academic, and uncommitted worker, and a slacktivist even though I am dedicating most of my day to proactively trying to help assuage the ideas and behaviors that allow animals to suffer and die en mass every single second of every single day.

And while I hope this is some strange affliction or issue that only I have, I know it is not. This movement is run by a small, dedicated group of people who, protest, blockade, petition, speak up and speak out with every ounce of energy and second of time we have. There is activist folklore and myriad examples of the dreaded “burnout,” but I wonder, if I choose to do just one thing,and to do it well, maybe I can avoid that. And let me be very clear, by choosing one thing I don’t mean a total rejection of anything else. Anyone can make it to one or two protests every week, no matter what else they are doing. I could always keep up this blog even if my main focus was on running a campaign. What I am talking about is choosing only one avenue of activism/ animal rights work to focus on, and having only one major project within that realm.

I spoke to another researcher recently who is actively focused on animal rights. I am impressed by the level of energy and time he is investing in collecting and analyzing data for a particular project. When I told him that he said some thing to the effect of, “this doesn’t seem like much, I used to be an organizer.” It really drove home for me the amount of work each of these things takes and the way one’s thoughts must border on obsession to come up with the type of innovative ideas that actually drive change. But to become consumed, enveloped, obsessed by an issue, one must be free of other agendas.

I can see the beauty in dealing with only one issue at a time. The problem is, that if I do choose one focus, no matter what path I take I can’t imagine that I will ever feel good about the path I chose not to take. That is an unfortunate side effect of being willing to acknowledge suffering—once you acknowledge it you can’t ignore it. And even if our struggle to right the wrongs of our species seems hopeless, we are ethically bound to at least try. In a movement where the actions that each of us takes is just a tiny drop in a huge bucket of what needs to get done, it is difficult to judge our impact. It will take millions more like us to achieve our goals, and so there will likely never be proof in our lifetime that we have taken the “right” path, the one that will save the most lives. [1]

In the end it is clear that I am doing a lot of things, but I am doing none of them well enough.  I can recognize that, but what I can’t do is decide what to better and what to leave behind.


Footnotes:

[1] The only clear exception to this I see is fostering, adopting and doing sanctuary work for animals or freeing individual animals from situations of abuse. The people who do this are definitely having a profound immediate impact. However, for those of us focused on longer-term goals or cultural or institutional shifts, there is little to direct us.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 10:37 am

    I, too, had a similar work ethic until I realized that with a finite amount of resources (including time and energy), I would have to make cuts. Before these cuts, I tutored homeless kids, worked on women’s rights things, volunteered on a regular basis at farm animal sanctuaries, cooked with school on wheels, worked full-time, and went to school full-time; in addition, I had a brother I took care of and a sick husband. I was wearing myself down, getting sick all the time, and pretty damn depressed. It occurred to me that if I did wear myself down, I wouldn’t be able to do ANY thing so I forced myself to re-prioritize, adjust, and cut back. Switching my focus to economics helped with that, actually. In economics, it’s called “opportunity costs.” Every time you make a choice, you forgo the next best option. There’s no way around it. Remember – compassion starts with how you treat yourself.

    • November 9, 2011 10:44 am

      Er, I mean, tutored with School on Wheels and cooked with Food Not Bombs.

  2. November 9, 2011 6:44 pm

    I hug you. At the risk of sounding patronizing, what a drag it is getting older, realizing the finite nature of time and energy. I can’t tell you what to do but I can tell you what I do – I think you already know, though. I’ve opted to (generally) laser-focus my work on the thing I am best at and get the best results doing. I don’t give my time if I’m just going to be a body or a number to be counted. If the organization can’t get someone else to be a body, then they need another kind of help – a kind of help I could possibly give them. I would rather spend a few hours on the phone with that organization giving them strategic help, than spend a few hours being a body. (It’s too bad that many organizations are so seat-of-the-pants they don’t recognize that my strategic counsel is potentially more valuable to them than just my body.)

    Similarly I’d rather spend my available time working (for pay) so I can afford to give money, since fewer people can do that these days, than use those same hours volunteering. If I’m going to volunteer, I’d like it to be from a board-level position so I can offer the organization something more substantial. Again, volunteers are often just bodies.

    I don’t usually feel guilty about my narrow focus. When I do, and I express my regrets about not going above and beyond for xyz issue or action, I’ve usually heard “oh pshaw, what you’re doing is important, keep doing that, it’s working.”

    Finally, I agree completely about fostering and hands-on rescue. I have had experiences where this has interfered with my focus, but on balance, it’s something we can’t possibly say no to when the need is so there in front of us.

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