When I think about how aggressively we should confront prejudices within our own movement, I know that I -- like most people -- tend toward compromise. "People don't change immediately," I tell myself. "And these are the good people in a world where so few people care about our cause."
Then I'm hit with the startling historical example -- and phenomenal statistical success -- of William Lloyd Garrison. I blogged about the Garrison-Lundy debate a few days ago. But one cannot appreciate the intensity of the conflict until one reads Garrison's own words:
I should oppose this Society [the ACS], even were its doctrines harmless. It imperatively and effectually seals the lips of a vast number of influential and pious men, who, for fear of giving offence to those slaveholders with whom they associate, and thereby leading to a dissolution of the compact, dare not expose the flagrant enormities of the system of slavery, nor denounce the crime of holding human beings in bondage. They dare not lead to the onset against the forces of tyranny; and if they shrink from the conflict, how shall the victory be won? I do not mean to aver, that, in their sermons, or addresses, or private conversations, they never allude to the subject of slavery; for they do so frequently, or at least every Fourth of July. But my complaint is, that they content themselves with representing slavery as an evil,—a misfortune,—a calamity which has been entailed upon us by former generations,—and not as an individual CRIME, embracing in its folds robbery, cruelty, oppression and piracy.
They do not identify the criminals; they make no direct, pungent, earnest appeal to the consciences of men-stealers; by consenting to walk arm-in-arm with them, they virtually agree to abstain from all offensive remarks, and to aim entirely at the expulsion of the free people of color; their lugubrious exclamations, and solemn animadversions, and reproachful reflections, are altogether indefinite; they 'go about, and about, and all the way round to nothing;' they generalize, they shoot into the air, they do not disturb the repose nor wound the complacency of the sinner; 'they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean.' Thus has free inquiry been suppressed, and a universal fear created, and the tongue of the boldest silenced, and the sleep of death fastened upon the nation. 'Truth has fallen in the streets, and equity cannot enter.' The plague is raging with unwonted fatality; but no cordon sanitaire is established—no adequate remedy sought. The tide of moral death is constantly rising and widening; but no efforts are made to stay its desolating career. The fire of God's indignation is kindling against us, and thick darkness covers the heavens, and the hour of retribution is at hand; but we are obstinate in our transgression, we refuse to repent, we impiously throw the burden of our guilt upon our predecessors, we affect resignation to our unfortunate lot, we descant upon the mysterious dispensations of Providence, and we deem ourselves objects of God's compassion rather than of his displeasure!
Were the American Colonization Society bending its energies directly to the immediate abolition of slavery; seeking to enlighten and consolidate public opinion, on this momentous subject; faithfully exposing the awful guilt of the owners of slaves; manfully contending for the bestowal of equal rights upon our free colored population in this their native land; assiduously endeavoring to uproot the prejudices of society; and holding no fellowship with oppressors; my opposition to it would cease. It might continue, without censure, to bestow its charities upon such as spontaneously desire to remove to Africa, whether animated by religious considerations, or the hope of bettering their temporal condition. But, alas! its governing spirit and purpose are of an opposite character.
I've never wanted to be a trouble maker. And yet, Garrison's example shows that there are times when one has to take a strong stand -- even if that means attacking (implicitly or otherwise) those we see as allies. Garrison did not wait for the rest of his movement to "get it." He stood strongly for slave liberation and equality, in the face of a movement that sought to compromise with slaveholders, even when this meant trampling on former friends and allies.
Garrison's path was not necessarily the best one. And my intuition is that there are better ways to push our movement toward greater confidence, strength, and integrity. Our campaign against Chipotle, for example, pushes a frontier issue -- humane meat -- but our intent is certainly not to attack any other animal rights group. However, maintaining a strong message, without stepping on toes or hurting feelings, is a delicate path. And all we can do is try -- and recognize that the criticism and conflict we fight through is worth it because, in the long run, it will make our movement brighter and stronger.
Garrison was not afraid to step on toes and lose friends. We have to have that same confidence, even in the face of internal movement criticism, if we are going to match Garrison's astonishing success.