Frankie Seymour, of Animal Liberation (ACT) in Australia, is an animal rights activist and writer. Amongst many other campaigns, she sailed on the Sea Shepherd during the 1981-82 campaigns in its hunt for the Russian whaling ship Zvesdney in the Bering Sea, and took part in the subsequent campaign against the killing of dolphins by the Japanese fishermen of Iki Island.
SURVIVING COMPASSION IN THE ANIMAL MOVEMENT
By Frankie Seymour
In personal correspondence with the editor of abolitionist-online (www.theabolitionist.info), where this article appears in Issue 8.
For some years, I’ve been becoming increasingly worried about how our movement treats its people. Without our people, there is no animal movement – but we lose people in droves, and we don’t seem to spend any time thinking about why or how – or what we can do to keep them. This article of mine started as an entry in my private journal. Halfway through, it occurred to me and on that basis, I should be attempting to share some of these insights. So that’s what I am doing.
Recently, while I was typing up a swag of poems I wrote twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, I could not help noticing something: when I was young, I was (of course) very angry about the way animals were treated – but back then, I regarded my anger as a strength. It was anger that pushed me to get off my bottom and do something. It also made me feel invulnerable.
Somewhere in the course of the last twenty years, something has changed. Now I see my anger as a vast and very dangerous weakness, almost a sickness. Whenever I hear of a new atrocity, a new lie, a new trivialisation of animal suffering, I have to give myself time to get over the anger attack before I even think of trying to do anything about it.
Many people still see me as I was back then, passionate, a bit of a firebrand, an angry soul. Maybe it is still a persona I wear before the world. But I have changed. Oh, I still get just as angry, I haven’t “mellowed”, or anything like that. But how my anger makes me feel has flipped its polarity.
I suppose, when you beat yourself brainless against the status quo all your life, trying to make it see why it has to change, when the anger never has any relief, it is always there, boiling away, minute after minute, year after year, it becomes like too much of anything. In small quantities, anger may be a good thing. It imparts strength, drive, invulnerability; it helps you make the world a better place. But, like any other good thing – salt, sunshine, rain – too much of it without a break becomes a very bad thing.
Anger, constant and unrelieved over a lifetime has made me weak, weary, sick. It has made me afraid to get angry.
Over the course of my life I have also learned how important it is in today’s society, to keep your anger under control. When you get angry, it does not matter how lucid, how rational, how flawlessly logical you remain (and my anger has never in any way impeded my logic), people do not hear your flawlessly logical argument; all they hear is your anger. You cannot win an argument, however right you obviously are, if people are not listening to you.
This has created an additional incentive for me to stay calm, an added fear of “losing it”. But this is not my primary fear. Mostly, I am afraid of getting angry simply because of how it makes me feel: weak, sick, exhausted.
The result is that I am afraid to do anything that might make me angry. In essence this means I am now reluctant to do most of the things that need to be done to change the status quo: keep abreast of all the ongoing horrors and injustices; write the letters detailing them to the politicians; read their insufferable responses; hand out the leaflets to the public; face the inevitable barrage of abuse you cop at protest demonstrations; and so on.
I know that somehow I have to find a balance, a place inside where I know I can still feel the anger without it making me feel sick, and also without letting it show in my face and voice where it can hinder my purpose. I don’t mind if it doesn’t make me invulnerable anymore. I just want to be able to get back to doing the work that needs doing.
So, being a compulsive analyst, I analyse my problem. This is how it goes.
The problem with anger, and also with fear, is that nature never intended these emotions to be sustained over years and life times. Fear and anger are intended for immediate use in dangerous situations – fight or flight from predators or other natural perils. Fear makes you run away. Anger makes you chase the aggressor away. They either get you out of harm’s way in short order, or they don’t, in which case you aren’t feeling anything any more because you’re dead! With fear and anger, human society has done one more thing that nothing else in nature has ever achieved – created conditions where sentient beings, both human and non-human, are often forced to be angry or scared for years at a time, or for entire lifetimes.
Activists for libertarian causes in countries whose legal and governance systems deny the basic human rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press etc, are a bit like dogs and cats that live in the wild. They rarely suffer from the diseases of old age because they rarely achieve old age. In such countries, if the sustained anger and fear get too much for you, you can always find a way to go out like a hero or a martyr, and know that your death will mean something.
Animal activists who live in liberal democracies do not have this luxury. I am sure that I am not the only middle class, middle aged animal activist to find myself in a state of unrelieved anger. There are animal activists who have lived eighty or ninety years in places like Australia, who have never stopped caring, have never stopped feeling angry, and have never had the option of making the supreme sacrifice – at least not with any serious hope of it actually making a difference to the way animals are treated.
With a view to finding a way to get a handle on my anger, I have pulled out all my notes from courses I have attended (in the course of my former day job) on leadership skills, negotiation skills, conflict resolution and so forth. All of them emphasize the importance of trying to see every argument from all sides. They all provide a range of tools (they all suggest pretty much the same tools) to help you do this.
My experience is that these tools work fine in the workplace, but they fall very short of being useful in animal rights confrontations. Their authors always tend to assume that, if you fail to see the other person’s point of view, it is because you lack empathy. They try to teach you skills to help you overcome this lack of empathy, for example, training yourself in habitual thought processes which more or less mimic natural sympathetic impulses. They completely fail to consider that it may be because you are being overwhelmed by empathy for your opponent’s victim that you find it so hard to feel any great empathy for your opponent.
However, thinking about how to feel empathy for the perpetrators of cruelty reminds me that Buddhism also teaches that we should meditate on compassion for our enemies. This calls to mind an insight that occurred to me years ago: that the only way I have ever been able to forgive a human for being cruel to an animal (or another human) is to see the perpetrator of cruelty as an animal themselves, to recognise that this human is just a helpless little primate, driven to behave as it does through its own ignorance, anger and fear. Even greed, after all, is merely a kind of fear – fear of future shortage – a problem humans, with their ability to think about time and imagine the future, are particularly prone to. And power only corrupts because the more you get the more you realise how little you actually have; ultimately it is the comprehension of your powerlessness that corrupts you with fear.
Whether this is a management tool or a Buddhist meditation, it does not matter, I am sure this is the answer I am seeking. It is clear to me that my first step on the journey back to being an effective activist is to start seeing our enemies as victims in their own right. This does not mean compromising the change I want from these people. It just means I fight the fight to change them without sending myself into paroxysms of repellent and debilitating rage.
It occurs to me now, however, that my fear of anger may just be a symptom of a deeper weariness. When I read about each latest atrocity to animals, I flinch from the grief of the horror and suffering I am reading about even more than from the anger I know it is going to provoke in me. I flinch as I would from an open wound.
And I have to ask myself, after all I have read, all I have seen, why is this wound still open? Why have I not developed a thicker skin of scar tissue over the place where I can be so badly wounded?
I suppose, it is partly because I don’t want to. I don’t want to become numb, uncaring, apathetic – but what is the use of still caring if you can’t trust yourself to do anything that might make a difference? So I wonder what has changed to make it so much harder than it used to be.
It might have something to do with the fact that I now have so much difficulty hoping that anything is ever going to get better. Animal rights reform is a slow process, I have always known that, I have never expected change to happen overnight. What is new is that the environmental crisis is closing in fast now. The reforms necessary for averting that crisis (reforms which, incidentally, would put an end to most of the anthropogenic animal suffering in the world) are just as slow. Often I find it hard to convince myself we have enough time left to get any kind of protection in place for animals before humans themselves start dying en masse – and we all know what happens to animals when humans go into crisis mode. Anything and everything that moves gets eaten or just killed, and all the remaining vegetation (our last hope of survival and the only hope of any animals that manage to escape our predation) gets burned or plundered. Nothing, but nothing survives, except a few degraded, savage, starving humans.
And yet. And yet. Is it coincidence that, at the very moment when all life on Earth is in such jeopardy, this last great libertarian movement, the movement for the rights of non-human animals had also appeared? Is the very existence of such a movement not cause for hope? By caring so much for beings who are not our own species, are we ourselves not proof that humans can be decent, that they have the potential to get better?
Time is short, but there is still hope. We do not know everything about our world and its natural ability to heal itself. Maybe we humans who have compassion for all living things are simply Gaia’s own immune system cutting in at last to turn a cancerous species back into a functioning organ. But one thing’s for sure. If we give up in despair and stop trying, there really will be no hope.
This is what I keep telling myself, and it is what I urge all my fellow activists to believe, especially anyone who has read this and recognised aspects of their own condition in the condition I have described in myself.
For what it’s worth, here, in short, are my conclusions: for the anger, always try to remember that humans who do cruel things are also animals and victims; for the despair, always try to remember that we are, ourselves, the walking, breathing proof that humans can be better!
One last caution: if these ways of thinking about anger and hope do not work for you, I strongly advise you not to force yourself to keep being an activist past the point where the anger makes you weak, past the point where even thinking about the things that are done to animals feels like salt in an open wound. At this point, you are not only in danger of becoming a victim yourself, you are at risk of becoming part of the problem.
Too much unrelenting anger for too long can fester into hate, turning us as evil as the evil we are fighting. Unabating pain, like any emotional or physical stimulus that is unremitting, can turn your whole nervous system numb to everything, so that you end up sinking back into the apathetic masses. The two things the world does not need now are more hate and more apathy.
You can retire from being a frontline activist, you can even unsubscribe from all those mailing lists that conscientiously bring the bad news into your life on a daily basis so that you become afraid to even open your mail. But you can still live your life inoffensively, not eating animals, caring for your own animals, raising your kids to do the same. It is much better to do no more than this than it is to force yourself past the point of no return, and become part of the problem!
~ Thank you, Frankie, for a very incisive and thought-provoking article.