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Three contrasts at this week's turkey rescue
Tension can create change. Or destroy it.
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not all of these posts will be sent out by email, and some I may write from jail/prison, as I go to trial on November 29. So if you want to follow this journey, visit the blog every day. I’ll try to post by 10 am each day, but occasionally, I’m sure a post will be late.
Yesterday, we worked with one of the largest poultry farmers in the nation to rescue 20 turkeys, days before Thanksgiving. There were some obstacles caused by miscommunication. The birds who were initially brought to use were the wrong sex; male turkeys are difficult to place due to issues with aggression. Then more birds were brought to us, this time females, but they were too young to easily travel. Due to some smart thinking by activists on the ground, however, we found placement for the male turkeys.
There’s something incredibly poignant about rescuing turkeys on a week where more than 40 million will die. And what was immediately obvious, to everyone who was at the rescue, or who joined it via Facebook Live, is that turkeys are gentle, trusting creatures. Despite being prey animals, and ones who are a tiny fraction of our size, each of the birds calmed in our arms. The one I carried from the trailer to the transport truck nested into my chest as I carried him. As I walked, I thought, “Does this little one understand that he’s now going to a better life? Does he understand how lucky he is, to be one of a tiny number who are saved, in a holiday filled with so much violence?” The contrast between his past and future was both powerful and heartbreaking.
That contrast, however, was just one of three highlighted by yesterday’s event. Perhaps the most significant of these contrasts is that between animal rights activists and animal farmer. You see, the event was arranged in coordination with a turkey farmer, and one who had been the subject of an open rescue and investigation by DxE. I wrote a few days ago about the political whiplash I’m experiencing, as a result. The farmer in Utah has said we are “just saving lives.” Another in North Carolina, just days from now, will formally accuse me of being an animal rights terrorist and attempt to imprison me for my actions.
The actions in these two cases are virtually identical. And, while there are grave risks in going to trial, the courtroom may be the only place where we can bridge those two dramatically different postures. Are animals living beings to be rescued, or things to use? For the first time in my life as an activist, a court will take up that question, with my freedom at risk in the gamble.
The third and last contrast was one that folks participating, even in person, may not have seen: the contrast between a movement unified, and a movement divided. I don’t want to get into the details. But while the beautiful event was unfolding, there was conflict among animal rights activists behind the scenes. Anyone who has participated in activism, over a significant time period, has seen the internal disputes that can crush a movement’s spirit. What’s less understood is the historical importance of infighting (and attempts to address it) to movements of the past.
I did not realize, for example, how much internal conflict occurred in the Civil Rights Movement until reading Taylor Branch’s magnificent series on Martin Luther King, Jr. For many years, the NAACP and King’s adherents fought bitterly over strategy, fundraising, and even petty interpersonal disputes. But it was when these disputes were overcome — and the groups marched on Washington together in 1963 — that their true power was demonstrated.
Yet the resolution of this conflict, while strategically crucial, receives almost no mention in the mainstream accounts of civil rights. You don’t read about them in high school or even college history. You don’t see the conflicts in documentaries and films about the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps most surprisingly, you can’t even find much mention of them in Google searches. The only reference to conflict I could find, through quick internet searches, was a passing mention of it in the biography of Roy Wilkins, the then head of the NAACP.
This is unfortunate because the activists of today need to learn the lessons of the past. This was, in fact, one of the key reasons I started DxE. I felt the animal rights movement was dramatically disconnected from the history, evidence, and wisdom from successful social movements in the past 200 years. But while the lack of direct action was one of the movement’s notable gaps, in 2012-13 when DxE came into existence, there was a bigger gap that I didn’t see at the time.
Namely, we do not, as a movement, understand how to overcome our differences and work together for change. To the contrary, the movement suffers from what the psychologist Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of small differences (NSD), i.e., the tendency to exaggerate and inflame our differences with people who are close to us, precisely because they are close to us.1 NSD explains why we often get more angry about the animal rights activist who endorses a different strategy, than we do about the company that is torturing millions of animals. It explains why so many organizations fall apart from internal conflict over small details that seem befuddling to outsiders. And it explains why so many people leave the movement, often with a deep feeling of betrayal. “I thought you were one of us! How could you be so different!”
I’ve written previously about one of the manifestations of NDS, what I call the politics of punishment. But to truly solve the problem, and get a movement to grow and work together effectively, it’s important to address the politics of punishment at its root, not when a conflict has already erupted but in the underlying sociological tendencies that foster conflict in the first place. There’s so much that can be written about this subject. But let me mention a few things I’ve learned over the years.
Cultivate a culture of finding common ground, while still celebrating dissent. Many years ago, when I was interviewing for a job at McKinsey, the renowned management consulting firm, the company presented me with a matrix of prized qualities in leadership. While the matrix has changed over time, it can be reduced into 4 words: persuasion, drive, problem solving, and integrative skills. The last one was the biggest surprise to me but highlighted a crucial skillset in any movement in organization: the ability to bring ideas (and people) together. We should be celebrating not just the moments, but the people, who have this integrative capacity.
Highlight the human tendency to attribute negative qualities to those who disagree with us, so we can work on overcoming it. It’s human to assume the worst in others, what social scientists call the fundamental attribution error. But this tendency is amplified further by NSD. This is why divorces are often so bitter; why break-ups are often so hurtful; and why former best friends are often the worst enemies. We have a tendency to attribute negative qualities to those who were once part of our “team” but have now left it. How else, after all, can we explain such traitorous behavior? But this is an illusion. The people who we were once dear friends with have not become monsters simply because we are now in a disagreement. The best way to overcome this, moreover, is to highlight the potential for bias.
Keep our focus on the mission. I’ve shared this story before. But many years ago, when DxE was experiencing one of the many internal fights triggered by NSD, I asked Gene Baur for advice. He gave me a simple answer. “You can’t control everyone. You can only control yourself. And what you should do is just keep focused on your mission.” He was right. And by pivoting away from the conflict — ensuring it did not dominate my own mindset or the movement’s — we were able to continue to make tremendous progress.
What do you think can be done about movement conflict? Do you feel you’ve personally experienced NSD yourself? Do you think you’ve personally been caught up in NSD, and that it’s affected your perception of others in a negative way?
It’s unfortunate that the concept of NSD has been associated with the term “narcissism,” which suggests an individual pathology, and casts blame on the person exhibiting it. In fact, the phenomenon is a social one, and not one that we should blame individuals for.