Ten Ways to Make a Difference
Excerpted from Ethics into Action, Oxford, 1998, pp. 184-192

The whole forward thrust of the movement Henry has created rests on his shoulders. If Henry disappears tomorrow, there's an interesting question as to how much of it will survive, how much will be nipped in the bud, how much will be lost by there not being some mechanism in place for someone else to pick up that mantle. In the time that I have talked to Henry, he has never come to grips with the issue of who is going to carry on in his footsteps and continue fighting the fight the way he fought it. [1]

This comment was made by Barnaby Feder, who profiled Henry for the New York Times Magazine. But Henry doesn't see the continuation of his work in terms of grooming individuals to take over from him. In many interviews, and in articles he has written himself. Henry has described the methods he has used to bring about change. His methods are what count, not who uses them. The following key points are, therefore, set out here so that others can continue to fight as he has done, whether for animals or for the oppressed and exploited more generally. [2]

1. Try to understand the public's current thinking and where it could he encouraged to go tomorrow. Above all, keep in touch with reality.

Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They start to believe in their own propaganda and lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change. Henry saw this in the Socialist Workers Party, where members were so used to the Marxist- Trotskyist framework that they all accepted that they lost contact with the real world in which they were trying to make a revolution. As Henry put it: "You need to have a crap detector rotating all the time."

Henry grabs every opportunity to talk to people outside the animal movement. He'll start up a conversation with the person sitting next to him on a bus or train, mention an issue he is concerned about, and listen to their responses. How do they react? Can they feel themselves in the place of the victim? Are they outraged? What in particular do they focus on?

2. Select a target on the basis of vulnerabilities to public opinion, the intensity of suffering, and the opportunities for change.

Target selection is crucial. Henry knows that he can run an effective campaign when he feels sure that, as he said about the New York state law allowing laboratories to take dogs and cats from shelters, "it just defies common sense that the average guy in the street would say, 'Hey, that's a real neat thing to do.'"

You know that you have a good target if, by merely stating the issue, you put your adversary on the defensive. During the museum campaign, for example. Henry could ask the public: "Do you want your tax monies spent to mutilate cats in order to observe the sexual performance of crippled felines?" The museum was immediately in a very awkward position. Cosmetic testing made another good target, because you only had to ask, "Is another shampoo worth blinding rabbits?" to put Revlon officials on the defensive.

Keeping in touch with reality is a prerequisite for selecting the right target: If you don't know what the public currently thinks, you won't know what they will find acceptable and what will revolt them.

The other elements of point 2 suggest a balance between the good that the campaign can do and its likelihood of success. When Henry selected the cat experiments at the American Museum of Natural History as his first target, he knew that he would directly affect, at best, about sixty cats a year—a tiny number compared to many other possible targets. But the opportunity for change was great because of the nature of the experiments themselves and the location and vulnerability of the institution carrying out the experiments. In 1976, it was vital for the animal movement to have a victory, no matter how small, to encourage its own supporters to believe in the possibility of change and to gain some credibility with the wider world. With that victory gained, Henry began to give more weight, in choosing his targets, to the amount of suffering involved. Even so, that was never the dominant consideration. If you multiply x by y, but y = 0, then no matter how large x may be, the product will also be 0. So, too, no target should be chosen without considering both the amount of suffering and the opportunities for change.

3. Set goals that are achievable. Bring about meaningful change one step at a time. Raising awareness is not enough.

When Henry first took an interest in opposing animal experimentation, the antivivisection movement had no goal other than the abolition of vivisection and no strategy for achieving this goal other than "raising awareness"—that is, mailing out literature filled with pictures and descriptions of the horrors of vivisection. This was the strategy of a movement that talked mainly to itself. It had no idea how to get a hold on the levers of change, or even where those levers might be located. It seemed unaware of its own image as a bunch of ineffective cranks and did not know how to make vivisection an issue that would be picked up by the media. Henry's background in the civil rights movement told him that this was not the way to succeed:

One of the first things that I learned in earlier movements was that nothing is ever an all-or-nothing issue. It's not a one-day process, it's a long process. You need to see the world—including individuals and institutions—as not being static but in constant change, with change occurring one step at a time. It's incremental. It's almost like organic development. You might say, for instance, that a couple of blacks demanding to be seated at a lunch counter really doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference because most of them don't even have the money to buy anything at a lunch counter. But it did make a difference, it was a first step. Once you take that first step and you have that same first step in a number of places, you integrate a number of lunch counters, you set a whole pattern, and it's one of the steps that would generate the least amount of resistance. It's something that's winnable, but it encourages the black struggle and it clearly leads to the next step and the next step. I think that no movement has ever won on the basis of all or none. [3]

Some activists think that accepting less than, say, the total abolition of vivisection is a form of compromise that reduces their chances of a more complete victory. Henry's view is: "I want to abolish the use of animals as much as anybody else, but I say, let's do what we can do today and then do more tomorrow." [4] That is why he was willing to support moves to replace the LD50 with tests like the approximate lethal dose test, which still uses animals, but far fewer of them.

Look for targets that are not only winnable in themselves, but where winning will have expanding ripple effects. Ask yourself if success in one campaign will be a stepping stone toward still-bigger targets and more significant victories. The campaign against Revlon is an example: Because it made research into alternatives respectable, its most important effects have been felt beyond Revlon and even beyond the cosmetics industry as a whole.

While raising awareness is essential if we are to bring about change, Henry does not usually work directly at raising awareness. (His advertisements against meat are an exception.) Awareness follows a successful campaign, and a successful campaign will have achievable goals.

4. Establish credible sources of information and documentation. Never assume anything. Never deceive the media or the public. Maintain credibility, don't exaggerate or hype the issue.

Before starting a new campaign. Henry spends several months gathering information. Freedom of information legislation has helped enormously, but a lot of information is already out there, in the public domain. Experimenters report their experiments in scientific journals that are available in major libraries, and valuable data about corporations may also be a matter of public record. Henry is never content simply to quote from the leaflets of animal rights groups, or other opponents of the institution or corporation that he is targeting. He always goes to the source, which is preferably a publication of the target itself, or else a government document. Newspapers like the New York Times have been prepared to run Henry's advertisements making very specific allegations of wrongdoing against people like Frank Perdue because every allegation has been meticulously checked.

Some organizations describing experiments will conveniently omit details that make the experiments less shocking than they would otherwise appear. They may, for example, neglect to tell their readers that the animals were anesthetized at the time. But those who do this eventually lose credibility. Henry's credibility is extraordinarily high, both within the animal movement and with its opponents, because he regards it as his most important asset. It is therefore never to be sacrificed for a short-term gain, no matter how tempting that may be at the time.

5. Don't divide the world into saints and sinners.

When Henry wants to get someone—a scientist, a corporate executive, a legislator, or a government official—to do something differently, he puts himself in the position of that person:

[The question to ask yourself is:] If I were that person, what would make me want to change my behavior? If you accuse them of being a bunch of sadistic bastards, these people are not going to figure, "Hey, what is it I could do that's going to be different and make those people happy?" That's not the way the real world works.

Being personally hostile to an opponent may be a good way of letting off steam, but it doesn't win people over. When Henry wanted to persuade scientists working for corporations like Procter & Gamble to develop nonanimal alternatives, he saw their situation as similar to that of people who eat animals:

How do you change these people's behavior best? By saying you've never made a conscious decision to harm those animals. Basically you've been programmed from being a kid: "Be nice to cat and doggy, and eat meat." And I think some of these researchers, that's how they were taught, that's how they were programmed. And you want to reprogram them, and you're not going to reprogram them by saying we're saints and you're sinners, and we're going to clobber you with a two-by-four in order to educate you.

As Susan Fowler, editor of the trade magazine Lab Animal at the time of the Revlon campaign, put it:

There is no sense in Henry's campaign of: "Well, this is Revlon, and no one in Revlon is going to be interested in what we are doing, they're all the enemy." Rather ... he looks for—and kind of waits for, I think— someone to step out of the group and say: "Well, I understand what you're saying." [5]

Without this attitude, when Roger Shelley came along ready to listen to what Henry wanted Revlon to do, the opportunity to change the company's approach could easily have been missed.

Not dividing the world into saints and sinners isn't just sound tactics, it is also the way Henry thinks. "People can change, " he says. "I used to eat animals and I never considered myself a cannibal." [6]

6. Seek dialogue and attempt to work together to solve problems. Position issues as problems with solutions. This is best done by presenting realistic alternatives.

Because he doesn't think of his opponents as evil. Henry has no preconceptions about whether they will or will not work with him to reduce animal suffering. So he opens every campaign with a polite letter to the target organization—whether the American Museum of Natural History, Amnesty International, Revlon, Frank Perdue, or a meatpacker—inviting them to discuss the concerns he has. Sometimes Henry's invitations have been ignored, sometimes they have received an equally polite response from a person skilled in public relations who has no intention of doing anything, and sometimes they have led directly to the change he wanted without any public campaigning at all. But the fact that he suggests sitting down to talk about the problem before he does any public campaigning shows that he isn't just stirring up trouble for the fun of it, or as a way of raising funds for his organization.

Henry puts considerable thought into how the person or organization he is approaching could achieve its goals while eliminating or substantially reducing the suffering now being caused. The classic example of an imaginative solution was Henry's proposal to Revlon and other cosmetics manufacturers that they should fund research into alternatives to the Draize eye test. For more than a year before his campaign went public, Henry had been seeking a collaborative, rather than a confrontational, approach with Revlon. In the end, after the campaign finally did go public, Revlon accepted his proposal and, together with other companies, found that for a very small expenditure, relative to their income, they could develop an alternative that enabled them to have a more precise, cheaper form of product safety testing that did not involve animals at all.

Having a realistic solution to offer means that it is possible to accentuate the positive, instead of running a purely negative campaign. In interviews and leaflets about the Draize test, for example. Henry always emphasized that in vitro testing methods offered the prospect of quicker, cheaper, more reliable, and more elegant ways of testing the safety of new products.

It is always possible to find a positive side if you look hard enough, though it may not be one that will appeal to everyone involved on the other side. There was nothing Henry could propose that would appeal to the cat researcher Lester Aronson, who had spent decades mutilating animals and was too near the end of his career to try something different. But Aronson could not continue to experiment without the support of the American Museum of Natural History and the National Institutes of Health. The interests of the museum and of the NIH were not the same as Aronson's. Henry sought to split his adversaries by arguing that the pointless cruelty of the cat research was actually turning sensitive young people away from the life sciences. Closing Aronson's lab would be an opportunity to put the museum's research funds into something creative and respectful of life, which could inspire people to choose a career in biology. The problem was to convince the museum and the NIH that this really was a better outcome. To do so, Henry had to generate problems for them. For the museum, those turned out to be the prospect of continuing bad publicity and threats to its public funding. For the NIH, it was pressure from Congress that could have had an impact on its overall budget. With such negatives in the offing, the previously spurned positive solution of closing the lab and funding different kinds of research started to look more attractive.

In terms of offering a positive outcome, the difference between the campaigns against the cat experiments and those against the Draize test was one of degree, not kind. If your tube of toothpaste is blocked, whether you will be able to get any toothpaste out of it will depend on how badly blocked the tube is and on how much pressure is exerted on it. So, too, whether an institution or corporation will adopt an alternative will depend on how negatively it views the alternative and how much pressure it is under. The more realistic the alternative is, the less pressure will be needed to see it adopted.

7. Be ready for confrontation if your target remains unresponsive. If accepted channels don't work, prepare an escalating public awareness campaign to place your adversary on the defensive.

If point 6 is about making it easy for the toothpaste to come out of the tube, point 7 is about increasing the pressure if it still won't come. A public awareness campaign may take various forms. At the American Museum of Natural History, it started with an article in a local newspaper, then it was kept up by pickets and demonstrations, and finally it spread through the national media and specialist journals like Science. The Revlon campaign went public with a dramatic full-page advertisement in the New York Times, which itself generated more publicity. The campaign continued with demonstrations outside Revlon's offices. The Perdue and face-branding campaigns relied much more heavily on advertising and the use of the media. Advertising takes money, on which, see point 8.

8. Avoid bureaucracy.

Anyone who has been frustrated by lengthy committee meetings that absorb time and energy will sympathize with Henry's desire to get things done rather than spend time on organizational tangles. Worse still, bureaucratic structures all too often divert energy into making the organization grow, rather than getting results for the cause. Then when the organization grows, it needs staff and an office. So you get a situation in which people who want to make a difference for animals (or for street kids, or for rain forests, or for whatever cause) spend 80 percent of their time raising money just to keep the organization going. Most of the time is spent ensuring that everyone in the organization gets along with one another, feels appreciated, and is not upset because he or she expected to be promoted to a more responsible position or given an office with more windows.

Henry has been able to avoid such obstacles by working, essentially, on his own. That isn't a style that will suit everyone, but it has worked well for Henry. Animal Rights International has no members. It has a long list of advisers and its board consists of trusted close friends whom Henry can rely upon for support without hassles. Henry doesn't need a lot of money, but he does need some. He has been fortunate in finding two donors who support him regularly because they like to see their money making a difference.

When Henry needs more clout, he puts a coalition together—as he did on the repeal of the Metcalf-Hatch Act, in fighting against the Draize and LD50 tests, and now, to persuade McDonald's to take a leading role in improving the welfare of farm animals. Since his early success at the American Museum of Natural History, other organizations have been eager to join his coalitions. At their height, these coalitions have included hundreds of organizations, with memberships in the millions. Here, too, though, Henry keeps hassles to a minimum. Organizations are welcome to participate at whatever level they wish. Some get their supporters out to demonstrate or march, while others don't. Some pay for full-page advertisements, and others ask them to write letters to newspapers, where they may reach millions without spending a cent. What no organization can do is dictate policy. Henry consults widely, but in the end, he makes his own decisions, thus avoiding the time-consuming and sometimes divisive process of elections and committee meetings. Clearly, in the case of major disagreements, organizations have the option of leaving; but if the coalition is making progress, organizations will generally swallow the disagreements in order to be part of a successful team.

9. Don't assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem.

Henry has used elected representatives in his campaigns to put pressure on government agencies and to gain publicity. But the only campaign in which he achieved his aim through legislation was the repeal of the Metcalf-Hatch Act. Here, since bad legislation was the target of the campaign, he had no choice. Otherwise, as far as he can. Henry stays out of conventional political processes and keeps away from the courts: "No congressional bill, no legal gimmickry, by itself, will save the animals." No doubt there are other situations, and other issues, on which legislation will make a difference. But on the whole, Henry sees laws as maintaining the status quo. They will be changed only in order to keep disturbance at a minimum. The danger of getting deeply involved in the political process is that it often deflects struggles into what Henry calls "political gabbery." There is a lot of talk, but nothing happens. Political lobbying or legal maneuvering becomes a substitute for action.

10. Ask yourself: "Will it work?"

All of the preceding points are directed toward this last one. Before you launch a campaign, or continue with a campaign already begun, ask yourself if it will work. If you can't give a realistic account of the ways in which your plans will achieve your objectives, you need to change your plans. Keeping in touch with what the public is thinking, selecting a target, setting an achievable goal, getting accurate information, maintaining credibility, suggesting alternative solutions, being ready to talk to adversaries or to confront them if they will not talk—all of these are directed toward creating a campaign that is a practical means of making a difference. The overriding question is always: Will it work?


1. Barnaby Feder, videotaped interview with John Swindells, Chicago, November 1996.

2. The ten points that follow draw on Henry Spira, "Fighting for Animal Rights: Issues and Strategies," in Harlan B. Miller and William H. Williams, eds., Ethics and Animals (Clifton, NJ: Humana Press, 1983), pp. 373-377, and Henry Spira, Strategies for Activists: From the Campaign Files of Henry Spira (New York: Animal Rights International, privately circulated in 1996), esp. p. 3.

3. "Singer Speaks with Spira," Animal Liberation, January-March 1989, p. 5.

4. Ibid., p. 6.

5. Susan Fowler, videotaped interview with author. New York, December 1996.

6. "Singer Speaks with Spira," p. 5.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Ten Ways to Make a Difference'