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Domination Games

April 23, 2018
by

Source Humane Myth
By James LaVeck and Jenny Stein

Coming to terms with a culture of power abuse in the institutional animal advocacy movement 

Justice is not achieved, nor maintained, without sacrifice. Confronting troubling issues within one’s own family, or within one’s movement, is messy, scary, and often costly. But sometimes, it is necessary.

As we write these words, there are individuals in the US animal movement who are being harmed or have been harmed by abuses of power carried out by those with high levels of influence and status. Secrets, lies, and aggressive suppression of criticism have enabled personal damage and betrayal of public trust to continue.

As a community, we animal advocates need to support victims when they come forward. We also need to encourage witnesses to speak out. Board members and others in positions of oversight must dramatically up their game, or, in some cases, step down. None of this will be easy. It will take courage on the part of many.

Secrets, lies, and aggressive suppression of criticism have enabled personal damage and betrayal of public trust to continue.

A culture of power abuse

For twenty years, we have witnessed a culture of power abuse grow within the US institutional animal advocacy movement, which we define as a group of multi-million dollar organizations whose competitive mentality and hierarchical structure mirrors that of for-profit corporations. Now, allegations have surfaced in the media of inappropriate sexual conduct and power abuse by former CEO Wayne Pacelle and former Vice President Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with former Executive Vice President Nick Cooney of Mercy for Animals. While none of this is a surprise to many veteran activists, it should signal the beginning of a long overdue course correction for our movement.

Our own personal experience as social justice filmmakers has given us a unique perspective, because our means of working for change has connected us with people in a wide range of contexts, including activism, education, politics, philanthropy, law, and the arts. Of all the different settings in which we’ve done our work, sadly, the most predictably toxic, destructive and exploitative has been that of institutional animal advocacy.

Thankfully, our work has given us the opportunity to closely collaborate with a large number of grassroots activists at the local and regional level. These individuals are among the most genuine, compassionate, and hardworking we have ever met. To us, they are the spiritual descendants of those citizen activists in past eras who took up causes like women’s rights or the abolition of human slavery, before they were popular, when few people in society had the imagination to realize that terrible injustices were taking place, and even fewer had the courage to publicly confront them. Such everyday heroes of our own era have been our role models and teachers. Making films and other educational tools to empower their efforts has been the honor of our lives.

In stark contrast, the more experience we have had with the higher ranks of the institutional movement hierarchy, right up to the top leadership of some prominent national organizations, the more we have encountered individuals whose cynicism, arrogance, narcissism, and addiction to domination are nothing short of breathtaking.

Sexual harassment is but one of several ways that influential leadership figures have compulsively preyed on those serving the cause.

Losing a generation

Sexual harassment, now widely understood to be more about domination than sex, is but one of several ways that influential leadership figures, not all of them men, have compulsively preyed on those serving the cause.

We have seen credit for the work of brave investigators, animal rescuers and community activists stolen by large organizations that should have been supporting, not undermining, their efforts.

We have seen promising academic careers sabotaged by demagogues viciously discrediting former students and associates who dared to express ideas of their own.

We have seen talented journalists whose refusal to toe the line cost them their platform for reaching the public.

We have seen celebrity supporters and key funders of grassroots organizations wooed away by corporatized charities.

We have seen well-intended members of the public duped into believing they are “helping animals” by eating their dismembered body parts adorned with “humane” labels.

We have seen idealistic activists pressured into taking part in the killing of animals who could have been saved.

We have seen some individuals so traumatized by such violations that they were driven to acts of self-damage, or had to spend years of their lives attempting to heal.

 And yes, we have seen vibrant, beautiful young people “plucked” from the ranks of new activists who ever appear on the scene, eager to make a difference. Instead they are used as “arm candy,” for sex, or for the cultish self-aggrandizement of leadership figures. Others are recruited to be the focal points of sexist activism campaigns, or, perversely, to create a confusing cloak of open-hearted goodness around figures who are habitually dishonest and abusive.

As it dawned on us one day, “this is a movement that consumes its young.” The addictions of leadership figures and those who enable them have generated such havoc, and disillusioned so many, that they have created a lost generation.

As it dawned on us one day, “this is a movement that consumes its young.”

Rotting from the inside out

Over the time we have been involved, starting in the late 1990’s, the US movement has come to be influenced more and more by the consumerist celebrity culture that has sapped our national vitality. Making matters worse, key leadership figures have actively promoted the methods and mindset of Washington political operatives. The result has been an increasingly cynical, manipulative and intellectually dishonest approach to many aspects of advocacy work.

In this unhealthy climate, wave after wave of new activists have become fodder for the “domination games” played by “celebrity” leaders and those in their inner circles. With cool detachment, they rapidly sort out who has something useful to offer their personal and organizational agendas, be it money, fame, political connections, creative talents, dedication, loyalty, or, as recent events have demonstrated, sexual appeal in the eyes of someone in power.

Patterns of serial abuse now being exposed in other segments of society are causing an awakening about the high cost of complicity and indifference. Like many other people, we recently watched the victims’ testimony against the disgraced physician who, in the course of his career, molested over 250 young gymnasts associated with the US Olympic program. In the faces of those young women as they publicly confronted their abuser, we saw no expressions of triumph, no gleeful vengeance, no sense of final resolution or peace. What we saw were the heavy eyes of those whose innocence had been stolen from them by a deranged person whose abuses were allowed to continue despite many victims coming forward. Such a profound level of disillusionment cannot be created by just one destructive individual. It is systemic. It involves many people looking the other way, or worse.

There was one moment of testimony that especially haunts us. It was when gymnast and activist Aly Raisman, in calling for an investigation of what, and who, enabled such outrageous abuse, declared that “USA Gymnastics is an organization that is rotting from the inside.” Our assessment is similar: Major segments of the US institutional animal advocacy movement are, like USA Gymnastics, rotting from the inside out.

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power corrupts
be it
large or small
but the greatest
power is kindness
which is not
power,
at all.

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

 


2 Comments leave one →
  1. karen lyons kalmenson permalink
    April 23, 2018 8:26 am

    power corrupts
    be it
    large or small
    but the greatest
    power is kindness
    which is not
    power,
    at all.

    Liked by 1 person

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