Within Our Ranks
from No Compromise Issue 18

by Kim Berardi

I have often been told that the only important thing about an activist is that s/he believes in and fights for animal liberation. To some, it doesn’t matter what a person believes “outside” of animal liberation or what a person’s actions may be “outside” of the movement. I would like to take some time to point out the utter ridiculousness of this claim. How can an activist’s behavior be separated from the movement? It can’t. The only space that exists “outside” of the movement is that which has been artificially constructed specifically for the purpose of making activists not accountable for oppressive behavior.

What do I see as oppressive behavior within the movement? Well, unfortunately there is a multitude of examples. Obvious cases may include instances when activists have raped or assaulted another person. Racial slurs directed at someone are another example. Even language not directed at an individual can be oppressive.

The grassroots animal liberation movement is primarily made up of white twenty- to forty-year-olds. Although there appear to be strong women within the movement, I have known of dozens of cases of sexism within individual groups. I have heard of scores of women who have left the animal liberation movement altogether because it is not welcoming to women (or men, for that matter) who may not be as physically assertive as others.

Is the grassroots animal liberation movement immune to hate, prejudice and the promotion of oppression? It would be logical to assume that a group of people that struggles for the complete liberation of non-human animals would be more aware of the oppression of humans in our society. Unfortunately, this is not true. Oppression is not only tolerated among our ranks but also perpetuated among its “leaders.”

I often hear the old motto, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Animal liberationists apply this saying not only to animal abusers but to those who are knowledgeable about animal abuse but do nothing to stop it. I choose to apply it to activists who see oppression within our ranks and, like the public, do nothing to stop it.

One of the primary arguments I hear in favor of tolerating unacceptable behavior is that the movement is small and we need as many people as possible, no matter what their “other” beliefs may be. This is preposterous. The “take what you can get” mentality runs counter to what animal liberation activists fundamentally believe—otherwise, we would all be welfarists. This mentality is conveniently adopted as a mantra for those in positions of power in order to silence any dissent.

Another common defense brought up by perpetrators of offensive behavior is that those of us who “out” unacceptable behavior are trying to propagate “political correctness.” We are accused of politicizing language and behavior in such a way that it is suddenly unacceptable for people to “just be themselves.” This defense is also flawed. Language and actions have always been politicized. We do not commonly see this because those in power have already politicized language and behavior in such a way that their "slant" is considered the norm and thus, “apolitical.” It is only when individuals or groups of people challenge existing power structures that their efforts are disapprovingly called “political.” Thus the recognition of oppressive behavior magically becomes “political correctness.”

Free speech is also brought up as a defense for offensive behavior and language. “Don’t censor me!” is the chosen battle cry. I believe in free speech and that people are entitled to speak about whatever they choose. I also believe that a community can choose its membership. Activists whose behavior is deemed unacceptable are free to form their own communities. Yes, Dr. Laura and David Duke are free to become animal advocates if they so choose, but we have the choice whether or not to include them within our own respective organizations.

So why is this “outside” space created? There are several conclusions one can reach about the reasoning behind tolerating oppression and hate within the animal liberation movement. The first excuse is ignorance, although that wears thin given the abundance of information available to animal liberation activists. Another conclusion is that people are apathetic to issues that they feel don’t concern them. Those in positions of power have the privilege to decide whether they will become involved in “the issues of others.”

Another conclusion—the one that I find most disturbing—is that those who tolerate and embrace oppressive behavior within our movement do so because they do not, on a fundamental level, understand what oppression means, even in terms of animal liberation. “The animals” are an abstract concept for them, beings who do not exist in reality, but only on the screen and printed page. Everyone—non-human and human animals alike—is less than real. To these people, fighting for animal liberation has become an empty motion.

As long as social justice movements exist, there will always exist those who harbor indifference, prejudice and hatred within our ranks. But by taking steps to recognize and out these unacceptable behaviors, we can work towards building a stronger movement that won’t be sidetracked by prejudice, and will be able to focus on total animal liberation.