Lex Rigby, Viva!’s Manager, tackles the tough task of dealing with activism failures...
We are nothing without resilience. It’s what told myself time and If we’re to sustain our activism, whatever the social justice issue may be, then we need to learn how to recover from the difficulties we face, the traumas we experience and the failures we encounter.
Confrontation and failure
At the beginning of 2014, I was participating in my third whale defence campaign in the Southern Ocean, directly intervening in the illegal killing of protected whales.
The previous year we’d been massively successful – saving the lives of 932 whales – but here we were again, facing down a colossal whaling fleet, backed by the Japanese government. A typical David and Goliath story.
Our key tactic during this operation was to find the factory whaling ship – think floating abattoir – and block the transfer of dead whales from the fleet’s three harpoon ships.
It wasn’t unusual for the crew of our ships to find themselves in the centre of an aggressive confrontation, but there was one specific cold February morning that almost broke me.
To slow our progress tailing the factory ship (the only ship in the whaling fleet our ageing vessels were capable of matching speeds with), two of the harpoon ships began trailing 300-metre-long steel cables from their sterns and took turns to cross our bow, in an attempt to foul our propeller and disable our rudder.
It was a frustrating time; these were our tactics – albeit on a much larger scale – being used against us!
I’d been on the small boat team during the previous Antarctic whale defence campaign so I’d become accustomed to the long hours, the frigid cold and the odd projectile thrown at us by angry whalers.
However, during this particular confrontation we had one mission – to cut those damn cables loose!
We spent more than 10 hours in a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB), wielding cordless angle-grinders in countless failed attempts to cut through the cables; trailing defensive lines from our other RHIBs to block the path of the harpoon ships; and endlessly radioing their captains to call off their attack.
As the factory whaling ship disappeared off radar we conceded. They’d won this round.
Once we were back on-board the ship, I slumped to the deck. I’d never felt exhaustion like it. But it wasn’t so much the physical exhaustion that bothered me, it was the mental exhaustion that came with the knowledge that we’d failed.
We’d lost the factory ship and the whaling fleet were once again free to kill endangered and protected whales in a so-called Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.
Thankfully, the season ended for the whaling fleet shortly after, 784 whales short of their self-appointed ‘quota’.
Struggle and perseverance
Since then, I’ve felt the same overwhelming sense of failure more times than I care to admit, but I didn’t think it could ever feel worse than that moment on deck. Sadly, I was wrong.
Six months into my new role at Viva!, the UK’s leading vegan campaigning charity, I set out to re-investigate a pig farm that had made national headlines the previous year for its shocking cruelty to animals.
I’m talking about Hogwood Farm – the hell-hole at the centre of Viva!’s ground-breaking documentary HOGWOOD: a modern horror story.
Despite doing everything I thought I could to prepare – watching endless clips of raw footage from inside the farm, talking through experiences with previous investigators and trawling the internet for every single thing ever written about the place – what confronted me as I stepped through the door to one of the fattening sheds was a whole new ‘holy s**t’ moment for me.
Slumped at the end of a gangway, filled with sick and injured animals pulled from their pens, was a pig covered in blood. I looked down at her trotters, camera in hand, both watching and filming in horror and disbelief as a number of other pigs took it in turns to pull away her flesh with their teeth.
It’s hard to really describe what went through my mind as I knelt beside her, blood pulsating across the floor, and looked at the sheer dejection in her eyes. I remember she didn’t flinch; it was like she’d become entirely numb to the pain.
Almost two years on, I still carry the burden of her suffering around with me; alongside my wallet, keys and phone.
Although we called in the RSPCA, contacted the police, reported the farm to the government and appealed to Red Tractor and Tesco (who they supplied at the time) to drop the farm, no action was taken.
In the end it took a further harrowing investigation in 2019 for Red Tractor and Tesco, as well as Cranswick PLC, to remove Hogwood from their supply chain.
Patience, persistence and perseverance paid off, but it hasn’t stopped the anxiety, guilt, anger, disappointment and isolation I still feel today because of that individual pig’s suffering.
It doesn’t matter that she was just one of the more than 10 million pigs killed for meat that year. She was the one I could have helped – and yet couldn’t.
Burn out and resilience
Really, all anyone involved in a social justice movement is looking for, is a sense of peace and resolution.
We battle to effect positive change, and for most of us it’s the anger at the injustice that drives our passion to stick with the struggle.
It wasn’t until I listened to one of Dr Melanie Joy’s talks about sustainable activism that I began to realise, by being angry 80 per cent of the time, my activism was becoming increasingly ineffective and quite frankly, too exhausting to maintain.
I felt guilty about going to the gym, taking time off to visit a nature reserve and binge watching Friends while animals continued to suffer.
And yet these were the very activities I now recognise as the mechanisms I developed to alleviate my frustration and restore my mental health.
Burnout is real and it can creep up on any of us, at any time, so it’s important to learn to distinguish between a bad day and when you really need to take a break.
When symptoms of secondary trauma persist over time, in more than one situation, and change how you used to feel in similar situations, it’s time to attend to your needs and strengthen your resilience!
Now, the best advice I found on how to do this came from an article by Aliya Khan on Everyday Feminism:
1. Figure out what burn out feels like for you: Feelings associated with burnout might include lack of motivation, frustration, sadness, irritability and fatigue.
You may feel one, all or even none, but know what you feel is normal and do the best you can until you can do more.
2. Start building up a coping bank: If you can identify behaviours, activities and ways of coping, ask yourself if they’re still working for you. These activities should give you a sense of fulfilment, relief and replenishment.
3. Find a community you can confide in: Sharing experiences demystifies burnout and can provide vital support moving through it.
4. We may just need a break from what we’re doing: Taking time to rediscover or find new passions and interests can be the most difficult and most transforming thing we can do for both ourselves and for movements.
We deserve to live happy and fulfilled lives, so building our resilience and developing sustainable activism need to be a priority if we’re to be successful on any level.
Don’t disconnect from the world because terrible things happen in it. Find the good things and allow them to restore, rejuvenate and reinvigorate you and ultimately your activism, so you can fail better and come back stronger.
Viva! is positively vegan and since 1994 has been campaigning to end the suffering of farmed animals. Viva! helps people reduce their meat, fish, dairy and egg intake and move towards a compassionate diet. It believes that every step towards being vegan is a positive one. www.viva.org.uk