Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Drained from Within: The Causes and Consequences of Burnout in Our Movement

When I was at the Animal Rights Conference recently, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a session called “Healing the Movement from Within.” This spoke to me for obvious reasons: one doesn’t need a background in social work or psychology to notice that there is a great deal of emotional pain among vegan activists and social justice-minded individuals in general and that this emotional pain can manifest in ways that create real consequences for our entire movement. How we manage this pain – or fail to do so – is writ large on social media platforms as we lash out against each other, shame one another, mistreat each other and jump to the worst possible conclusions about each other based on the merest suggestion of grounds to do so. This is not a startling insight; anyone can observe it daily.

Of particular interest to me at the panel was the contribution from Associate Professor Paul Gorski, who spoke emphatically about the serious repercussions of burnout, described by Merriam-Webster as “
exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration,” among activists and what we are beginning to understand about its roots and consequences. The research says that burnout among social justice activists has some consistent patterns on the emotional spectrum: it can register as depression, anxiety, exhaustion, a growing sense of cynicism and hopelessness, and combinations of these things. According to Mr. Gorski, these psychological symptoms are distinct from the daily travails of life in that they are chronic and they are debilitating. If the consequences of burnout persist, they pose a threat of diminishing our normal resilience and disrupting our ability to sustain our activism, which singularly jeopardizes our potential to create meaningful change for the animals. If the symptoms persist and are not addressed, a common result is the withdrawal from activism, perhaps temporarily, perhaps irrevocably. The research also tells us that 50% to 60% of social justice activists eventually drop out of their cause.

Maybe many who leave activism would quit anyway – we all know someone who got swept up in the initial emotional rush of a social justice movement but missed the deeper connection that is needed for the long haul – but do some, perhaps many, get pushed out the door by the continual hammering away at one another that is so pervasive in our movement? While the research is still being conducted (more on that later), Mr. Gorski believes that contrary to the common assumption that burnout usually happens as a result of butting up against a society that is antagonistic to our message, it is actually hostility from within the movement – in other words, intra-movement combat in the form of in-fighting and an unwillingness to address oppressions, like sexism, racism, classism, etc. – that wreaks the biggest toll on our ability to sustain ourselves for a lifetime as contributing, effective activists. Further, according to Mr. Gorski, it is the “culture of martyrdom” - a pervasive attitude that denigrates and mocks the need for self-care within our movement - that is one of our biggest challenges to the well-being and longevity of our activists and one of the biggest sources of burnout. (From my notes taken during the panel: “We need to see self-care as part of sustaining our movement.”)

What does this mean? It means that our growth as a movement is disrupted and stunted by the streaming out of those who might ordinarily remain active if not for feeling attacked from within. It means that our ability to collaborate and help one another with reaching goals is hindered. It means that progress stagnates. It means that the entrenched, powerful forces that benefit from a disrupted, more fragmented movement – in our case, animal agribusiness and other industries that exploit and violate animals – gain even more traction as we lose precious momentum despite holding the moral high ground. It is the animals who pay the ultimate price for our unwillingness to foster fewer conditions for burnout as we continue to try to score points off of one another and disregard our innate need for connection, support and being treated with respect.

I am a longtime vegan. I don’t feel particularly vulnerable to burnout but I can tell you that I am not impervious to it, either. For example, when a hunter shows up on the Vegan Street Facebook page and says, “Mmm…bacon” or verbally attacks us, it makes no impression on me. Nothing. What causes me to lose morale, though, is meanness and vitriol from other vegans. Truly, that is what feels like a punch to the gut to me and what makes me question if my efforts are worth the abuse. I am absolutely not alone with this; I observe the internecine attacks daily and I also see people who were once active become silenced, cynical, isolated and withdrawn as they grow tired of feeling pummeled by those within their very movement. Every day, I see vegans, newbies and seasoned activists alike, treated like the worst kinds of offenders by people within the movement and I just cringe. We are all going to disagree with one another and that is essential to creating a robust and effective social justice movement. Abuse and attacks, however, lead to nothing more than a flight away from vegan activism and this has profoundly negative consequences for our bottom line, which is building a more just and compassionate world. So:

If you say things like, “You should be doing [insert form of outreach] instead of [insert different form of outreach] or you are hurting the animals,” you are fostering burnout and you are hurting the animals.

If you say things like, “Sexism [or racism, homophobia, etc.] is nothing compared to what the animals go through! Stop being a selfish whiner and making everything all about you,” you are fostering burnout and you are hurting the animals.

If you say things like, “If you’re not a real activist [in other words, in the way the person recognizes as the only legitimate way], you suck and you should just disappear,” you are fostering burnout and you are hurting the animals.

We have always had a culture of blame, shame and misdirected aggression in our movement and now with social media, it’s like it’s been doused with kerosene. The end result is that people are continuing to get burned out, giving up their activism and muting their voices for creating the positive changes that are so desperately needed.

The way out of this? The more we lend one another support out of the line of fire and model more effective strategies for communication when we see other vegans being shamed, scolded or attacked online, the more we are helping to create a strong, healthy movement of people who are not afraid to contribute. I have no research to back this up but my guess is that connection and community are our best tools for sustaining and building our activist base. We are not robots: the human animal craves connectivity and community, which fosters a meaningful life of participation and altruism, believed by researchers to be more valuable than a happy one.

This isn’t rocket science. Want to help the animals? Don’t contribute to the burnout of other vegans. (By the way, if you would like to participate in research on activist burnout, please consider contacting Paul Gorski.)


  1. Beautiful, Marla!
    I've had a developing theory that the real issue isn't animal rights, but human rights (one right we DON'T have is a right to exploit or cause suffering). Vegans are passionate people, and sometimes tend to put their ideas ahead of some sentient creatures (like other humans). I have ideas about how this could be changed, but I don't usually feel comfortable expressing them in vegan circles because I know how they will be received (mixed, with some agreement and some violent rejection). In my view, in order for positive change to happen, there must be a commitment to consciousness and kindness toward all beings, human and nonhuman. I also think there is room for people who are not 100% on board, like vegetarians, and people who eat vegan but are otherwise uncommitted (like so many celebrities who come and go). We need to have compassion for ALL creatures (including ourselves, wherever we're at), or we're just going to end up on a rampaging anti-other people trip. The one thing we should feel free to remind ourselves and others about is the fundamental need to be kind. Again, great piece Marla. I always enjoy your writing.

    1. I agree! I once read a facebook or youtube comment where a woman mentioned that strict animal veganism must be intertwined with other human rights issues like the immigrant farm workers who are exploited for our vegan food. She was met with rude and blunt comments from another woman saying "that has nothing to do with veganism. Veganism is about the animals." I believe that veganism is about reducing the suffering of all sentient beings, including people. We are animals too, so we shouldnt put ourselves above OR BELOW other living beings. Of course the easiest change to make is a plantbased diet, but I dont think you can say "oh, I'm done. I did my part!" We should also try our best to avoid things that contribute to the suffering of our fellow human beings. I think many vegans have so much compassion for the animals that they forget to treat each other and other human beings with respect rather than disgust and disdain.

  2. AMEN. Marla, I wasn't at AR, so I appreciate your sharing Paul Gorski's thoughts from the "Healing the Movement from Within" panel.

    When I read your next-to-last paragraph, I wondered if you'd been reading my mind this past week! Because effective communication, connection & community here on Long Island are exactly what I'm focused on right now. To augment the Vegan Long Island meetup site, I'm creating a new website that will help local vegans connect based on common interests/skills/identity/location (with over 1300 members, our group is so big that people need a way to find one another & connect). I was inspired by the "hubs" at the People's Climate March website, as a way for people to self-organize. And in addition to that, I've come up with a plan for coordinating volunteer participation in various advocacy projects, which I'm calling the "Making a Bigger Difference Tournament."

    Here's my draft for the Conduct Guidelines, which I'll be going over at the Tournament's kickoff meeting. (You may detect the influence of my experience with UU behavioral covenants, and my enthusiasm for NVC.) I have more notes for each section, but I'm leaving them out—I just want to share exactly what I wrote on Monday so you will see why I felt so validated by your post:
    - - -
    Conduct Guidelines

    - Why am I bothering to set up these guidelines?
    Because life is too short, and our mission is too important, to be spending a lot of time and energy on drama. I'm hoping we can minimize it by addressing common pitfalls at the outset.
    But it's about more than just avoiding drama. It really is about making life more wonderful.

    1. I will communicate my needs.
    (If I don't communicate my needs, others may not know what my needs are. Unmet needs are the perfect recipe for angry/upset feelings. With communication, I can help prevent that kind of conflict.)

    2. I will tell the truth and strive to keep my commitments.
    (This is about trustworthiness and reliability. When trust is gone, it's hard to rebuild it. A team works much better when you can count on others to be honest and do the things they say they'll do.

    3. If someone else's perspective is different from mine, I will try to put myself in their place and see their point of view.
    (Sometimes multiple perspectives are valid. Or someone else might have better/more complete information than I do, in which case I can learn something new from them.)

    4. If I am troubled because I can't understand why you think/say/act as you do, I will ask for help in understanding you better.
    (In return, if you are having trouble understanding me and ask for help, I will do my best to explain myself more clearly.)

    5. If I make a mistake, I will own up to it. When others do the same, I will try to be quick to forgive.
    (It's healthy to practice humility, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude. On a daily basis.)

    6. While vegan advocacy is serious work—as we know, it's literally a matter of life and death—it's okay to find joy in being an agent of change.
    (More than okay; it's recommended! Finding joy is part of self-care, and self-care is important for our longevity as change agents.)
    - - -

  3. I know I'm not the only vegan/AR person who has been verbally attacked and insulted by other vegan/AR people for not agreeing with them on one particular point or issue. I don't mind civilized disagreement and discussion--but the personal attacks are ridiculous and shameful.

    One thing that bothers me is many vegans' disinclination to participate in positive, morale-boosting networking. I run a vegan meetup organization, and all of the events I hold are positive, social gatherings that are meant to allow vegans to converse and not feel so alone--yet it's like pulling teeth just to get people to come to these meetings. I've set up big potlucks and so forth only to have one or two people show up. It seems to me that one of the reasons we vegans often feel so isolated is because we ourselves are refusing to take advantage of opportunities to meet other like-minded people.

    1. Oh! Where are you? Where do they take place?

  4. This is so important, and really needs to be said over and over again. Thank you!

  5. Have Matt Ball, Bruce Friedrich, or Peter Singer ever written scathing essays condemning someone else's vegan ideology? The overwhelming unipolarity of intolerance in veganism is the "emperor with no clothes" of this blog post. Until ethical veganism becomes more accepting of other flavors of veganism, the calling out of vegans who do not toe the "moral baseline" will continue.

  6. My question is, how would you suggest communicating about disagreement with certain actions within the movement? Sometimes a see an event which I think could have been a bit more effective had it been done a slightly different way. I always try to be nice, but do you think bringing up any kind of disagreement is bad? I always mention that I am proud of the people involved, and glade that they did sonething regardless of how. Then I try to suggest an alternative that might have been better. Is this contibuting to burnout?


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