Monday, September 8, 2014

For the Animals, By the People . . . Not the Man: A Vegan Feminist Critique of Social Movement Hierarchy

I learned this week that another abolitionist organization has been "thrown under the bus," so to speak, as factionalism within the abolitionist vegan movement continues.  The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS) , formed by Sarah K. Woodcock (an unpaid young woman of color), has been, for lack of a better word, "blacklisted," by prominent abolitionist author Gary Francione.  Without having all of the details, it seems that, based on publicly posted announcements, TAVS suddenly wasn't "abolitionist" enough (code for, there was not enough deference to Francione's theory).  As many of my readers are well aware, this is not unlike the experience of many abolitionist grassroots groups and projects that have come before.  Francione requested that TAVS remove all reference to his name and work, and TAVS subsequently announced that the organization was no longer affiliated with him.  Not long after this one-sided split, Bob Linden of Go Vegan Radio contacted Ms. Woodcock to inform her that she was hereby removed from the speaking lineup at Francione's "World Vegan Summit." I have been in communication with Ms. Woodcock, and present my analysis below with her permission.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the ramifications of patriarchal organizational structures within social justice spaces.  Many people bemoan the "in-fighting" of the movement, and of the abolitionist faction in particular.  I have argued in the past that factionalism is both normal and healthy for social movements, and is something to be expected. "Squabbling" and "divisiveness" happens.  It is essential for tactical development and movement growth. Of course, the stressful and difficult work of "in-fighting" can also detract time and resources from important activism.  It might also be off-putting to those who just don't want to be involved with the turmoil or who have just had enough.  These are challenges that are endemic social change work, and, again, are to be expected.

My concern, however, is with the co-optation of the supposedly-democratic structure of new social movements with patriarchal forms of control.  "New" social movements are defined by their appeals to social justice and their rejection of traditional social structures that are found to be oppressive.  Importantly, they are characteristically democratic in their organizational structure. That is, instead of appealing to the classic patriarchal structure of increasing control and influence (with those at the top typically being highly privileged persons who are supported by a large mass of unrecognized persons of little prestige), everyone gets a say. In "new" social movements, everyone has the potential to participate equally.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is comprised primarily of women and young people, two demographics that are vulnerable to exploitation.  Too often, the volunteer work offered by youths, women, persons of color, and others go undervalued or ignored, with prestige and rewards funneling up the organizational ladder to those "in charge."  The persons "in charge," inevitably tend to be wealthy, well-educated white men.  Social justice spaces become yet another place for privilege to be enacted.  The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, in particular, has had many problems with men usurping positions of power.

We should be concerned as a social movement, not so much with the "squabbling," but more so with the exploitative situation that is created when we maintain a patriarchal social structure of command within our organizations.  First, it perpetuates injustice for vulnerable persons who are trampled within the system.  Especially for a movement that seeks to end oppression and the exploitative hierarchies that support it, maintaining such a structure within the social movement space seems especially problematic.  Secondly, it creates a major disincentive for these persons to participate.  Women, for instance, get frustrated with putting in hours of unrecognized organizational work only for top authors and academics to reap the rewards (this pattern happens in all social movements, not just Nonhuman Animal rights).  Social movement research has indicated that having contributions acknowledged is an extremely important indicator of future participation.

Vegan Information Project, Dublin

I was excited to learn that TAVS has been "liberated" from this chain of command.  TAVS and other grassroots abolitionist groups like it that run on the hard work and ideas of volunteers of all backgrounds are essential for movement health. These groups provide crowd-sourced activist resources and invite everyone to participate as equals.  This democratic ethic is foundational to the vegan world we work for.  This organizational structure is welcoming, inclusive, and more likely to attract and retain membership.  We need a movement for the animals by the people . . . not the man.  An intersectional social justice movement should first and foremost be critical of patriarchal rule within its confines.  For that matter, a movement needs to take care of its activists before it can take care of others.  For some time now I have been calling for activists to work towards a community of accountability.  I encourage my readers to prioritize this goal and support fellow activists who have been victimized.