Why the Animal Freedom Movement Needs Nonviolence

Eva Hamer
July 12, 2023

The Gist

  • ​​Nonviolence is crucial for the animal rights movement to effectively manage internal conflicts and advance its cause. Embracing and practicing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can foster healthier conflict resolution and cooperation within the advocacy community.
  • Principles of Nonviolence include confronting injustices courageously, reconciling conflicts in a way that fosters future harmony, focusing on destructive systems rather than individuals, and sustaining a high level of spirit and morale during campaigns.
  • Nonviolent practices go beyond external action, necessitating an internal change in one's emotional discipline and thought processes. Engaging in exercises to dismantle judgmental thoughts can lead to healthier relationships within the movement.
  • Training in nonviolent methods, whether self-organized or through organized courses, is encouraged. Such training, combined with reading and independent exercises, can help individuals effectively employ nonviolent strategies in their advocacy efforts.

Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been involved in the animal freedom movement since 2015 and I’ve seen, time and time again, conflict slowing down the movement’s momentum. In work that is mainly limited by person-hours and the ability to work together, conflict represents a grave threat. 

At the same time, conflict is, to misquote Melanie Joy, normal, natural, and necessary. That’s to say that it would be naive to expect a movement without conflict. The ideal that we should hope for is that as a movement, we learn to process conflict in a healthy and constructive way. But many of us don’t have a very robust model for what healthy conflict looks like. Agreements and shared understanding of how conflict will be practiced can help everyone do their part. 

Nonviolence—which extends beyond just the physical and includes how we talk to each other and ourselves—can give us a model for healthy conflict within movement groups, giving everyone an idea of what’s expected of them and some skills they can develop towards its execution. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered trainings for animal advocates in Nonviolent Communication in hopes to support norms and skills around healthy conflict. 

In preparation for my latest set of workshops, I’m offering this blog series about Nonviolence and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in an effort to provide the content of these trainings in readable form. There is no substitute for practice and hands-on learning, but reading and doing exercises on your own can also be a great way to interact with the material. 

This piece introduces the concept of Nonviolence and its place in the animal rights movement. It describes starting assumptions and goals of two specific philosophical traditions within nonviolence: Nonviolent Communication and Kingian Nonviolence. Later blogs will describe the vocabulary and practice of Nonviolent Communication and provide exercises to begin the practice. 

How I Learned The Importance of Nonviolence

I got my start in animal advocacy with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). DxE is deeply committed to Nonviolence, and back in those days, most of its members were expected to go through a weekend-long training in Kingian Nonviolence. Kingian is a philosophical and principled approach to Nonviolence based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and studying it gave me a sense of the spiritual foundations of Nonviolence—a sense that relating to each other with unconditional goodwill is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it seems most effective in the short term. 

DxE’s trainings were often led by Kazu Haga from the East Point Peace Academy in Oakland. Kazu always stressed that these courses were just scratching the surface. So in 2020 I sought out a teacher Kazu recommended and began an intensive study of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a practice pioneered by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. With NVC, Rosenberg sought to use the Nonviolent philosophy of Dr. King and others and build out a set of tools and strategies to help people live out that philosophy in their relationships. Rosenberg left NVC in the care of an organization called the Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC), a decision that allows the practice to grow and evolve while still being held to integrity with its founder’s vision. Though I can study and share NVC without becoming certified, it is in the interest of this sense of integrity that I am currently on the path toward fulfilling CNVC’s requests as a certification candidate.

Some of my teachers are people who have helped NVC continue to grow after the death of Marshall Rosenberg. I specifically want to name Roxy Manning, whose work on power and privilege gives me language to link the systemic lens of Kingian Nonviolence with the interpersonal lens of NVC, and Sarah Peyton, whose work on Relational Neuroscience deepens my practice and provides insight into the effect that trauma has on our bodies and behaviors. 

Participating in real-time training, as opposed to only reading, felt crucial for my development of these skills. As I’ll discuss more throughout this series, I deeply encourage real-time practice with other people, either self-organized or through courses. 

Our Nonviolent Roots

Six Principles of Nonviolence

NVC is rooted in the traditions of nonviolence on which so many social movement organizations base their activism. Many social movement organizers look to the U.S. civil rights movement as a particularly deep source of inspiration and guidance for building movements today. The principles below were first laid out in this form by Martin Luther King Jr. as a description of the ethos of the movement that created him.

Principle One

Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation.

Nonviolence seeks to create a third way beyond violence or pacifism. 

Once, while introducing this concept during an NVC training in a beautiful outdoor space, two dogs who were accompanying training participants began to fight right in front of me. The dogs’ caregivers pulled them apart in the time it took me to drop my notes and start to get to my feet. These caregivers intuitively understood Nonviolence in this moment as an active process to prevent violence. It wasn’t pacifism, sitting back and declining to participate in the dogfight, nor was it violence, such as joining in or adding punishment. They provided exactly the amount of force needed to prevent the fight from continuing, and they did so with a pure intention to care for everyone involved. 

Similarly, our practice of Nonviolence seeks to intervene in violent institutions. We don’t say live and let live or respect everyone’s path. We seek to stop harm from happening to animals. To the extent that our strategies look gentle, this is for strategic reasons. When force is needed to stop harm, Nonviolence requires it. NVC calls this the protective use of force. 

Principle Two

The Beloved Community is the framework of the future. The nonviolent concept is an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.

Following the earlier discussion of the protective use of force, we always seek to intervene in a way that allows the door to be open to reconciliation in the future. NVC isn’t just about resolving conflict in the moment, but laying the foundation for long-lasting harmony, inviting the whole world into King’s vision of the Beloved Community. 

When we study NVC, we work a lot with our own internal emotional process. This might seem irrelevant to some people who expect more focus on the external practice of communication in a workshop for animal advocates. However, the more advanced and frequent application of the skills we practice in NVC is in our closest relationships. Maintaining relationships within the movement is crucial to allowing our movement to succeed.  

Principle Three

Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. The nonviolent approach helps one analyze the fundamental conditions, policies and practices of the conflict rather than reacting to one's opponents or their personalities.

NVC is a communication modality that believes that everyone’s needs matter, and every single thing a person does is an attempt to meet a need, no matter how tragic. Nonviolence is how we might choose to be if we really believed that.

“Everything a person does is an attempt to meet a need” is a radical statement. When I don’t get pushback while introducing it in a workshop, I assume it hasn’t been understood. What I’m saying is that all actions, no matter how violent or despicable, are attempts to meet needs that we all share—such as a need for significance, self-expression, or belonging. 

This is not to say that we excuse or enable violent actions. Again, Nonviolence means interfering to prevent violence from happening. By understanding the needs that people and institutions are trying to meet by committing violent actions, we can help them find better, nonviolent ways of meeting those same needs. Thus, we can work towards a world where everyone’s needs are met. 

Principle Four

Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve the goal. Self-chosen suffering is redemptive and helps the movement grow in a spiritual as well as a humanitarian dimension. The moral authority of voluntary suffering for a goal communicates the concern to one's own friends and community as well as to the opponent.

While this principle is often rightly applied to political sacrifices, such as facing incarceration, an NVC lens would ask us to apply it to interpersonal conflict. Willingness to suffer means willingness to do unglamorous work, to engage with people we dislike, and to seek to understand our allies and adversaries even when doing so is uncomfortable. 

I’m currently facing felonies for my rescue work, but the hardest and most thankless suffering I’ve endured for the movement has been in the conflicts I’ve endured. Even if we aren’t in a position to take legal risk, we can cultivate a more willing attitude towards our own suffering. Accepting discomfort and suffering—physical, emotional, and otherwise—as part of a larger cause imbues it with meaning. 

Principle Five

Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent attitude permeates all aspects of the campaign. It provides mirror-type reflection of the reality of the condition to one's opponent and the community at large. Specific activities must be designed to help maintain a high level of spirit and morale during a nonviolent campaign.

We can think of NVC as a Kingian practice of self-purification. NVC is a practice of building emotional discipline to break habits of judgment and blame so that we can relate with love to everyone, even those causing harm. With this discipline, we can act in a way that maximizes our chances of achieving reconciliation in the end. 

This is why we teach Nonviolence as an internal practice as well as an external one. Over the rest of this blog series, I’ll describe exercises that ask us to dismantle our own judgmental thoughts before turning our attention to relationships with others. In this way, the project of promoting the study of NVC is to create an internal culture in movement groups that minimize blame and judgment.

Principle Six

The universe is on the side of justice. Truth is universal and human society and each human being is oriented to the just sense of order of the universe. The fundamental values in all the world's great religions include the concept that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. For the nonviolent practitioner, nonviolence introduces a new moral context in which nonviolence is both the means and the end.

Principled nonviolence asks of us a kind of faith. We’re invited to believe in this principle and act accordingly. We believe that the means are present in the ends. That means that if we use violence to get to an outcome, we’ll have violence in the world we’ve created. When we’re in doubt, Nonviolence can be a North Star to guide us toward beloved community. 

Principled Nonviolence vs Strategic Nonviolence

So far, I’ve discussed the principles of Nonviolence and instilled a sense that Nonviolence is the right thing to do even if it doesn’t seem effective. This belief can be a guiding force in moments of uncertainty, because acting in integrity with it can make even our mistakes less harmful. But in addition to the principled Nonviolence described above, we also draw insight from the narrower concept of strategic Nonviolence.

Strategic nonviolence was described by Gene Sharp in The Politics of Nonviolent Action. He sought to divorce Nonviolence from this spiritual dimension to practice its techniques without the God stuff. (The big names in Nonviolence before then, like MLK, Gandhi, and Jesus, were pretty into the God stuff.) He was aware of the extreme capacity for violence that the State has, and that armed resistance justifies the State’s use of violence in the eyes of the public. For Sharp, nonviolence was not necessarily a moral right, but a strategic necessity. 

He was also interested in the inclusivity of Nonviolent action—that it allows movements to include more people and be truly populist, and the inclusivity of a Nonviolence that doesn’t require subscription to a spiritual element. 

Like Sharp, I am non-religious and I organize in secular spaces. And yet I resonate with a dimension of the work that speaks to our whole selves, our place in a larger system, and the meaning that our impact will have after we are gone. 

I believe in the ability of animal advocates, as a community, to accept a secular spiritual element to our Nonviolence. A community of people who are up against a cultural institution with tens of thousands of years of power, who cry at vigils, who watch their own parents eat the bodies of the victims, can handle a spiritual orientation to the work. 

If you’re not ready for spiritual Nonviolence, then I welcome you to practice first and consider the philosophy later. And don’t get hung up on my use of the word spiritual—I might mean it more broadly than you think. For instance, my colleague Aidan thinks about the imperative of Nonviolence as: “How can I conduct myself so that if I later realize my convictions were wrong, I can still be proud of the actions I took?”

However you approach it, Nonviolence and NVC will offer you tools to improve your relationships, your internal emotional landscape, and your advocacy. The second blog post in this series will introduce the practice of empathy as a fundamental concept in Nonviolent Communication. 

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