by John M. Simpson.
A study was published recently in Social Movement Studies entitled “Nobody’s paying me to cry: the causes of activist burnout in United States animal rights activists.” The authors concluded that, while many factors play a role, racist and sexist treatment of individuals within animal rights groups also contributed to what the authors described as “burnout:” “when people once deeply embedded in movements – people who intended to remain engaged – are forced to disengage due to the stress impacts of participation.”
The study used a phenomenological approach. The authors interviewed 17 activists, which included salaried employees of animal rights organizations and volunteers. The criteria for being interviewed included a self-declaration that the particular activist was worn out to the point of no longer being effectively engaged in the activist’s work. The interviewees reflected the following demographics: ages ranging from 31 to 66, 13 females, 4 males, 5 persons of color and 12 whites.
The study revealed three overall causes of burnout: (i) intrinsic motivational (i.e., issues specific to the individual involved); (ii) organization and movement culture; and (iii) in-fighting and marginalization among the activists themselves.
One of the negative items in the second category was what the authors termed a “culture of martyrdom” – whereby animals come first over any personal problems experienced by individual activists. One interviewee described it as an “ecosystem … of anti-compassion.” If activists felt exhausted from the work, they were labeled “weak.” As one put it, “‘[n]obody’s paying me to cry, so soldier on.’”
Of particular note in the category of treatment by other activists was the study’s finding that many of those interviewed had grown “exhausted and hopeless coping with oppression and bias within the movement.” Eight of the thirteen women in the study attributed their burnout in part to the sexism they experienced from men in the animal rights movement. As the authors described it:
Sam stated she was “treated kind of like a charming but benign presence” who was often “spoken over” while male activists took credit for her ideas. For others the sexism was more implicit and arose, in Karyn’s words, out of a “boy’s club,” where men instituted a “bro culture” built around language that “does not translate at all to women.”
The minority interviewees were blunter still:
[R]acial discrimination and bias were, in Laura’s words, “a huge problem.” All attributed their burnout in part to experiencing or witnessing racism within the movement. Kate called racism “a primary cause of my burnout” and described the emotional price she paid as a woman of color in the movement. In one incident she had to expend energy challenging an [animal rights] organization after it hired a white woman who “had been taking a racist position on the Black Lives Matter movement” as a speaker for an event.
Activists of color also reported that it is “’generally … a pretty white movement, especially in terms of who gets visibility.’” The activists of color had not all experienced blatant discrimination, but “the slow grind of implicit racial bias and erasure elevated their burnout.”
The results of this study come at an interesting time, not only in light of the #MeToo movement, but also how those themes have affected the animal rights sector. Last year, Wayne Pacelle, the Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – by revenue, probably the largest animal rights organization in the United States – resigned his position when three HSUS employees accused him of sexual harassment. After the allegations surfaced, the HSUS Board voted to retain Pacelle. However, as reported, Pacelle ultimately resigned after at least one Board member quit in protest. HSUS appointed a new CEO and publicly stated that it was embarking upon a “reconciliation” process with its employees, but it has apparently yet to announce the results of that process. Even with the changes, some donors were reportedly outraged by HSUS’ actions. Whether this will actually translate into lower revenue to HSUS from donors remains to be seen.