To Change the World, We Must Believe People Can Change

Last year I walked into my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, and the first thing I saw on the board was a sign that read, “What’s the best mistake you made this week?” Each week the kids talk about mistakes they made and what they learned from them. I could imagine it: Spelling a word wrong was precisely how my daughter learned to spell it right; taking a crayon from a classmate and seeing what happened was how she learned she should behave. I’m not suggesting we return to kindergarten, but we can apply these fundamental principles of learning and redemption to effective animal activism.

We would not be activists if we didn’t believe that people could change. I believe an omnivore can become a vegan. I believe that a meat company can go from abusing animals to considering their well-being to even selling plant-based products. I believe a person, a company, or a government can get it wrong and then get it right. Sometimes this requires us to simply educate, but sometimes it requires us to exert pressure through public campaigns. To succeed as activists, we must create an environment for progress and improvement, looking for ways to turn mistakes into learning opportunities and choices that harm into ones that heal.

This work requires us to approach our activism with love, compassion, and patience. It means accepting that we also make mistakes and hoping we can learn from them. It means not being tempted into hate—both for those who are not where we’d like them to be and for people judging us for not hating those who are not where we’d like them to be. And it means we must accept that others will make mistakes and provide opportunities for them to learn.

This is not a new framework for social change but a tried and tested one. At a training I attended, led by Bernice King at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, I learned that Dr. King referred to it as building the “beloved community.”

Dr. King said:
The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. … It is this love which will bring about miracles.
Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community is a world free of poverty, hunger, racism, and discrimination in all forms. At Mercy For Animals, in addition to these, our vision includes ending the exploitation of animals for food. This is an achievable vision, and it requires all of us in the animal rights community to equip ourselves to bring about these “miracles” Dr. King refers to.

We are at a critical moment in history. We are all learning and recognizing where we have fallen short in our vision. People make mistakes and wrong choices and even offend, sometimes terribly. Dr. King’s approach doesn’t mean we should let these offenses go unchallenged, but it also does not mean that those who commit them are beyond redemption or unworthy of compassion. Rather, his approach helps us understand that at one point, we too failed to fully comprehend the scope of the problems we fight and the appropriate response to them. With this humility, coupled with our commitment to change, we can begin to create the world we want to see.

Sometimes when I bring up this idea, I am met with skepticism: Aren’t there boundaries? Aren’t there limits to this? Isn’t a culture in which those who go too far are “canceled”—shunned, shut out, silenced—desirable? In a TED interview, Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and leading voice in anti-racism, raised an important distinction. He said, “Figure out a way to discern those who are refusing to transform themselves and those who made a mistake and recognized it and truly are committed to transforming themselves.” We need to embrace those who are committed, even if they have made mistakes. If we lose the capacity for dialogue with those who think differently from us, we limit our chances to positively influence them. And if we withhold empathy from those who make mistakes (both individuals and institutions), we lose the ability to help them grow.

Compassion does not undermine our anti-racist and anti-speciesist positions; it strengthens them.

This is true for many negative isms, the belief systems and prejudices that divide and oppress. We know that the world, and so much of the suffering we aim to reduce, has been built with all these isms in play, shaping our institutions and society. Though we don’t like to admit it, they also shape us and our organizations. As activists, we believe that people, institutions, organizations, and societies can improve and seek out opportunities for change. Prejudices aren’t inherent—they are learned, and they can be unlearned. As activists, we must guide individuals and institutions through this unlearning process and pave a better path forward. This applies to our advocacy for animals and our anti-racist efforts to make our movement more inclusive and united.

Our prejudices form the walls that separate us and that we hide behind. Our goal is to find the holes or cracks in these walls, however small, and widen them until there are not only open doorways but no walls or barriers at all. Empathy and dialogue may be difficult and uncomfortable, but only through them can we establish the beloved community Dr. King describes. The world is waiting for us to seek out and help those curious to learn, not condemn them for making mistakes.

This is the central tenet of Mercy For Animals’ theory of change and leads us forward in our efforts to construct the more compassionate food system we all so desperately need. Those who are committed to transforming our society and our food system, we welcome you.