In the November 1 Newsweek, George Will, drags out a great quote to hit the nail squarely on half its head, as he does so frustratingly expertly. In a column about a particularly loathsome Democrat, Rep. Alan Grayson, who has been waging a campaign of nastiness and half (or no) truths, Will quotes Daniel Webster (1782-1852) as saying, “Anger is not an argument.”
Of course the other half of the nail would have been to mention the waves of Republican advertisements berating “bailouts” without mentioning that they were first passed under a Republican President or that some, like the auto bailouts, not only saved jobs and an American industry but have actually returned a profit. Or that simply because someone held office in the past two years the ruination of the economy is not entirely that person’s individual fault. While I personally believe these ads are just as calculated and contrived as any offered by Grayson, they work because they play on the anger, not the intellect, of those watching the ads.
When people are angry enough about something, a “close enough” argument becomes good enough. And close enough arguments can slip into claims that are patently false or constructed on such tortured logic or fact strands that they would be laughable if we weren’t so pissed off about something that we can’t stop to evaluate them. “I noticed that the fire department is always at a fire. Hey, the fire department must be setting houses on fire!” Close enough for a political ad.
In the same way that anger is driving this election cycle, anger seems to be driving so much of the debate surrounding the plight of animals in shelters, nationally and locally. And just as no politician will accept any part of the blame for the economic downturn, no one in animal welfare will accept any part of the blame for why so many animals are being euthanized, entirely unnecessarily, in shelters in Berks County, Pennsylvania and around the United States. We will blame someone, anyone, everyone else, but there is rarely any willingness to set aside our own anger over the problem long enough to be introspective.
Too many strays entering shelters? Blame the public. Accidentally euthanize the wrong animal? Blame the finder. Getting bad press and fewer donations? Blame the organizations getting good press and strong support. And do it angrily; the angrier the better. If you are angry, you must care more. And you certainly can’t be held accountable for your dubious claims, shady math, or outright lies. After all, you just care so much and you are so darn angry about what’s happening.
But as Webster said, anger is not an argument. It works to deflect responsibility, to cloud the waters, and to give you something to do other than the hard work of finding solutions. But it solves nothing.
Several years ago the HSBC recognized that we were very angry over the number of animals we were euthanizing. We blamed the public for letting them roam and breed. We blamed the State and local governments for not providing the resources we needed to provide proper care and adoption services for the animals we received from them. We blamed our staff for not having the skills to do their job right. We were righteously angry and we blamed everyone and we succeeded at solving very few of the problems we faced.
But finally we recognized that we had personal responsibility for much of what we were so angry about. We accepted the abusive and underpaid animal control contracts that were euthanasia contracts in disguise. We failed to have policies and protocols in place that would avoid tragic errors. We failed to provide the highest level of training to our staff and to make the hard decisions to let go staff who didn’t measure up. We could have offered more programs and services which would help the public do the right thing rather than surrender animals to us. And, finally, we did the hard work of looking at our own organization and making the changes that have led to an improvement in the welfare of the animals in our care- and resulted in a lot less anger on our part.
It also allows us to have a little more credibility when we do raise tough issues. What is government, the public, other organizations doing to improve the problems? Are they doing their part or are they just complaining and laying blame? It also puts us in the habit of looking in the mirror regularly and seeing what we can do that we are not. Where are we weak, what can we improve, who can we reach out to, if one approach is working what other one will?
The HSBC is still not saving every single savable animal. Why not? We know that much of our success comes from selecting particular approaches to our mission and choosing not to take on others. How do we do both? Our job is to continue to improve steadily, not reel from one crisis to the next pointing fingers everywhere but at ourselves.
I am still angry at the reality I see and that does motivate me. It might even motivate a few people out there to support the HSBC. But it won’t motivate the majority of people to join in our mission and it won’t cause real change to come about. Thoughtfulness, hopefulness and hard work will. And, yes, I get very angry when I see people in animal welfare screeching about this and that, hurling voodoo math around and saying all kinds of crazy things about all the others out there who are to blame without any acknowledgement that we are all the others. But I truly believe they are playing a losing game.
So when it comes to animal welfare issues- or the elections- let’s all be very suspect of the angry and ask them what they will actually and personally do to solve problems. Tell them we don’t want to hear about whose fault it is or how put upon they are, we want to hear solutions. Ultimately, you will decide whether these approaches work and you will decide if we continue to incentivize the continued use of anger as argument. Whether you vote with your ballot, your choice of where to adopt, or with your charitable dollars, do it thoughtfully, not in anger.
“But if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell you is, brother, you’ll have to wait.” John Lennon (1940-1980)