Interview with Michael Huemer, the author of ”Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism”
March 30, 2020
Factory farming has taken place all over the world, on a massive scale and for a very long time. It will be difficult to bring it to an end, it will take a lot of time and it will require a lot of work from many people, both companies and organizations. Only a big, global and innovative movement will be able to achieve it.
We definitely need more organizations in many more regions and need to support the creation of new organizations which, with a deep understanding of the opportunities and challenges in their cultural area, will seek new solutions or other applications for the solutions that we have now.
We also need good models of cooperation between them and perhaps even ideas on how to promote and incentivize cooperation between organizations.
Conflict prevention, or the promotion of good communication between organizations, prevents burnout, especially among the most engaged and experienced people. Providing support is important within any organization, but it can also work between groups. Attacks from people that are fighting for the same cause hurt us much more than any attacks from our adversaries. Hostile behaviour can range from public hostilities to quiet intrigues, but they are always damaging and create tensions that will be hard to overcome.
Having good relations is not only about preventing burnout but also about providing support and developing leaders. Strong social movements are leader-ful, but being a leader can be the loneliest place in an organization. Running an organization is a truly rewarding, but also extremely stressful undertaking, and many of the challenges it brings will be incomprehensible to others — except for those who are also in the same position. I feel that one of the best outcomes of my organization becoming international is the fact that I got a community of peers who are leaders in their own branches of the organization. But they are not the only people with whom I have had long and honest conversations about challenges, problems and ideas for solving them. People from outside of your group might help you look at something from a completely different angle and just knowing that there are a lot of people out there that support you and want you to succeed is important to maintain your motivation, especially when things are getting hard.
There is also the most intuitive argument: cooperation makes us stronger and more resistant to threats in case of attacks from industry or the state. It is easy to act alone when we are successful, but every successful organization must also take into account the backlash, often directed squarely at the leaders. In such situations it is easier to fight back and support each other and survive situations that could destroy single groups if they are working completely on their own. Even researchers claim that it’s organized coalitions of organizations, and not individual organizations, that are behind important social changes. According to Leslie R. Crutchfield, author of ”How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t”, the difference between movements in which organizations do and do not work together is the difference between success and failure:
”If your movement is crippled by policy disagreements, personality conflicts, territory fights, or scraps over which organization gets the credit, or the donor list, or the prime-time media slot, you are not alone. Every movement — whether winning or struggling — faces intra-field challenges. (…) The difference in winning movements is that leaders manage to put their egos and organizational identities to the side (if only temporarily) so disparate factions can come together around a common agenda — although the path to victory can be arduous and never linear.”
Cooperation does not necessarily mean that we run campaigns together or that we agree on a common strategy every time. At a minimum, it means treating each other as important allies in the fight for a common goal and keeping communication in a friendly and professional tone. It is helpful to inform each other about more important plans, so as not to get into a conflict concerning e.g. starting a campaign when we care about the media response. Companies and politicians know (or assume) that we are working together, so it is good to actually coordinate than be fooled by the institutions that are the target of our campaigns.
We can treat the existence of other groups as a necessary evil that we need to deal with but I want to show that the existence of other groups is really beneficial for the movement and often for our organizations.
The sense of threat related to the emergence of new initiatives of a similar nature — not only among NGOs but also businesses — is partly due to the assumption that social activity is a zero-sum game, especially in the case of competition for donors, competent employees or volunteers. For someone to gain, someone else has to lose. The reality is more complicated.
Interest in the protection of the interests of farm animals is now a very niche topic, even in countries where people tend to support higher animal welfare. This means that, as is generally the case in market niches, more people communicating about their activities will increase awareness of the problem and attract new people to the movement rather than taking resources away from existing organizations. Organizations always have a slightly different way of communicating, which means that they will be able to attract slightly different people and ultimately increase the overall number of people who support the issue. To give you an example, almost all of our volunteers and staff have never before worked for any other animal welfare organization. The more people talk about a problem, the more likely the media will be to address it, and the more people will decide for the first time on financial support for the fight against factory farming. Step by step the cake for everyone is getting bigger and bigger.
Although it is always worth considering whether creating a new organization in a country where there are already many of them or starting a project that is already being implemented by other organizations is the best use of resources and time, I have to say that I am not entirely convinced that it’s a problem when the existing organizations suffer damage or even cease to function. If an organization’s method has run out of gas, it is difficult to attract volunteers or funds, or is known for its poor management or treatment of employees, then perhaps the fact that it has been established in a country many years ago should not be an argument for not starting to work there, or for not undertaking campaigns that a given organization is already running, if there are many indications that it is not running them well.
We should think about neglected areas or activities, but if there are important reasons to operate in an area where other organizations already exist, it is often really worth doing so. New organizations can force existing organizations to improve efficiency and thus also help to save more animals. We like to think of ourselves as doing our best to run effective campaigns, but the introduction of a healthy competitive element really encourages us to do even better. Monopoly and central planning harm innovation in the market and competition is developing it. Our movement needs a lot of innovation and continuous generation of new solutions, so it is worth avoiding monopolistic thinking.
In my opinion, creativity is also a strong argument for more organizations, especially those that operate independently. New groups often do not have so much to lose and therefore they have more freedom to take risky solutions that would not be allowed by lawyers or management in large organizations. I am not talking here about things that are illegal, but sometimes just uncomfortably novel, or things that could harm the image of an organization if something goes wrong. Innovative solutions will often appear on the margins of the movement and not in its centre, and then will often be adapted by other organizations, and this process strengthens us all.
I will start with the simplest and perhaps most banal thing: remember the goal. Sometimes another organization has the resources or contacts that will make them do something better. So it’s better if they do it while you focus on developing your strengths somewhere else. (At the same time it is a problem if we assume that there is only a limited number of actions that make an organization effective, like corporate outreach). There are a lot of problems to solve, there is too much work to do rather than too little, so every pair of hands is needed.
Even countries with a lot of organizations dealing with solving the problem of industrial farming are very far from achieving their goal, and there are only a few such countries in the world. We need more groups and more people involved if we are serious about getting rid of factory farming. Sometimes the setting up of new groups in the country might shake the sense of security but in such moments it’s good to go back to the original goal that made us all get involved in activism: fighting cruelty against animals. The organization we are running is just one of the tools to dismantle this problem but we need many many more of them.
Even if we are convinced we know what is behind another person’s actions, we are often wrong. Keep this in mind and assume goodwill, or at least refrain from judging. I myself try not to ruminate and support people who work for the animals, even if in the past I had some problems with them. Until the moment when they do not exceed some unhealthy level, the easiest thing for me to do is to assume that there has just been a misunderstanding and leave it there.
There will also be situations where the maintenance of relations will be more burdensome than beneficial. Unfortunately, the way we approach leadership and choose leaders means that there is a much higher proportion of people in leadership positions with psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies than among the rest of the population. People with narcissistic and/or psychopathic tendencies are often very charismatic and seem competent because they easily talk about their successes, often exaggerating them or attributing the work of others to themselves.
If we never know the motivation of others, we will never be sure that this is the situation we are dealing with, but it is worth considering such a scenario as well. If you have repeatedly felt that there is a large discrepancy between the declarations of the person and their behavior, or you have really important reasons to suspect someone of trying to hurt your work, you might also be right and then for your own good it’s better to cease further attempts at cooperation. There are situations when it is better for the whole movement that people who manipulate others or treat activists badly are ostracized. You can learn more about this issue from the lecture that Carolina Bertolaso gave at CARE conference in Warsaw.
Personal meetings are very valuable for building trust between organizations. We may have the best technology in the world, but being able to look each other in the eye and shake hands builds a bond of trust much better than communicating over the internet. Communicating through email or using instant messaging can easily generate conflicts. When we don’t see each other’s facial expressions, we write in our heads a narrative about their humour or how seriously they take what they write. Real people are nicer than the ones on the internet.
For building good relations, meetings that are not focused around work are also very important. Going out for a pizza together may give more benefits than a formal meeting of leaders, where everyone behaves professionally and rigidly. It is worth investing time in building such relationships, even if they do not give us the feeling that we are working hard while participating in them (and we are hard working people, of course). Resolution of conflicts is always very time-consuming and affects our emotional well-being. It is better to prevent it than to waste time solving problems later.
This advice is very close to my heart, because I am rather a direct person. When there are misunderstandings, it is easy to start building a narrative about the motives of the other side in one’s head and to look through the prism of this narrative at all the subsequent behaviours or statements. It is best to nip such situations in the bud. Honesty is not easy, but it is a good basis for building true trust. If something in the behaviour of another person touched you, it is worth grabbing the phone or arranging a meeting. Resolution of potential conflicts in writing is unlikely to be productive and may lead to further aggravation of the situation.
The fact that we do not have insight into the perspective of the other side leads to one more cognitive bias. When both sides work for the good of the relationship, we see clearly only our own effort, but only a part of the other side’s effort. This problem in perceiving the other person’s contribution is visible even in the case of married couples — when asked how much they spend on housework and how much time their partners spend, they tend to underestimate the other person’s contribution and overstate their own contribution. If this problem occurs in the case of people who live together, the impact on people who rarely even see each other will be huge. To make sure you’re doing as much as you need to to make the relationship between your organizations work, do more than you think you should.
Continuing the theme of relationships: if two people who love each other sometimes argue, it is worth assuming that in other types of relationships there will also be conflicts and misunderstandings. This is just the way it is, and the fact that such a situation has occurred does not mean that it is over and it is impossible to rebuild trust. Conflict can be purifying and can be an opportunity for sincere conversation, which can increase the level of trust and improve the relationship. The sign of our adulthood and healthy approach is not that there are no misunderstandings, but that we can resolve them and learn from them.
An initiative that in my opinion deserves praise and recognition for promoting cooperation between organizations is the Open Wing Alliance launched by The Humane League. I think that an important part of the success of this project is not only the space for cooperation and setting common goals, or organizing congresses for organizations from all over different regions, although all these elements are certainly important for building an atmosphere of cooperation. Above all, The Humane League leaders and Open Wing Alliance coordinators model the respect and the spirit of friendship and support of each other in their own behaviour and attitude.
Another great project is a Year of Change being carried out by PETA in Europe. The organization awards three grants each year to provide a full-time position for one year to three animal rights organizations in Eastern Europe. The objectives and methods of the organization must be within the framework set by PETA, but the organizations are also free to decide which positions they most need. I think that this is a model that could be used by more organizations if they have the means to do so.
Apart from these two organized programmes to support other organizations and promote cooperation between them, there are organizations that work in the spirit of supporting others, although they do not have any official programmes in this regard. When I founded my organization — Open Cages — we received a lot of financial and mentoring support from the Danish organization Anima, with which after years of fruitful cooperation we decided on a merger, resulting in Anima International, of which I am now the CEO.
Apart from Anima, I received a lot of advice, support, contacts, materials and good words from various organizations, but four of them deserve special mention because I feel that their attitude of selfless cooperation is really unrivalled. These organizations are: Animal Equality, Obraz, Oikeutta Eläimille and The Humane League, whose leadership went out of their way to help us and support us. Thank you very much!
If we agree that cooperation and good relationships between organizations are important and that more organizations are likely to benefit the goals of the movement, then it is worth considering how we can better achieve these goals as a movement. These are some of my ideas: