Ruthless Pragmatism How-To

I’ve been thinking about this idea of ruthless pragmatism over the last few days. What is ruthless pragmatism? How can we actually be ruthlessly pragmatic? Do we even want to be?

Defining ruthless pragmatism is harder than you might think. The problem is that it’s easy to claim we’re being pragmatic, but I think mostly that consists of acting out our biases. If you are inclined to think that people won’t hear our (animal rights) message, you’ll probably tend towards so-called “direct action”, because you think that intimidation and property damage are the most pragmatic approach. If you think otherwise, maybe you tend towards outreach and education. Either way, it’s easy to give lip service to pragmatism.

The other problem of definition is one of scope. Anyone concerned with animal rights should also be concerned about human rights. For example, non-human animals might be best served by the forced extinction of the human species, but that doesn’t consider all animals’ rights. Similarly, we need to be careful not to sacrifice other social justice issues on the altar of animal rights.

But I think a ruthless pragmatist needs to have an even broader and longer-term view. It’s easy to push yourself to give 150% for animals all of the time, but how long can that last? If you are unhappy with your life, will you be a lifelong activist? Is it better to push as hard as possible for ten years and then stop, or should you aim for a reduced effort over fifty years? If you engage in actions that violate your own sense of justice, are you being pragmatic, or does the inevitable psychological backlash make this ineffective in the long run?

These are all hard questions. It’s easy to say things like “by any means necessary” or “we must all do things we don’t like”, but I’m not convinced that this attitude is truly pragmatic. It certainly feels pragmatic. Activists, more than most, are prone to mistake self-denial and self-abuse for pragmatism. It’s easy to look at all the suffering in the world and think that only if you are personally unhappy are you really doing all you can. But that’s a trap that leads to burnout and increased despair. If you’ve been active in animal rights for a while, you’ve probably known people who’ve left the movement, many giving up veganism or even going back to eating meat. A pragmatic movement will do its best to keep people active and living their values for their entire life.

There’s another part of ruthless pragmatism that we’re missing as activists, and that’s measurement. I’ve heard very little in the movement about concrete strategies for measuring the success of various actions. Does the ALF have a feedback loop built-in? Do they stop and evaluate every few years? Sure, they may measure their economic damage, but do they actually have a way to evaluate the impact of that damage?

But let’s not pick on the ALF. Do we at Compassionate Action for Animals do this? We do, actually, but we could do much better! Most of our metrics are not measuring the actual impact on animals. Instead, we measure things like number of attendees at events and their evaluations, number of leaflets distributed, etc. These are all interesting, but we haven’t actually established a concrete connection between these numbers and the actual impact on animals. Even worse, we don’t have any good way to figure out if we should be doing some other set of activities entirely.

Pragmatism requires more than measurement after the fact. We also need to constantly be on the lookout for new research to direct our actions. As a movement, I don’t hear much talk about the latest research in psychology, sociology, or economics. Much as it may be painful, we need to take a page from Madison Avenue and figure out the best ways to influence people (hint to the so-called abolitionists, it’s not logical argument!). More and more these days, research is showing that people’s behavior is shaped by unconscious factors they can’t even articulate. How can we take advantage of that in our movement?

So do we want to be ruthlessly pragmatic? I’ll give that a qualified “yes”. First, we need to expand the scope of our ruthlessness. Our ruthlessness must be both ethical and sustainable. Anything else just isn’t ruthless or pragmatic enough. Second, we need to work past our built-in biases and use measurement and research to make our actions as effective as possible.