masculinity & Sea Shepherd’s approach to direct action

Following on from my recent post about strategy and tactics, with a focus on conflations and exceptionalisms, I wanted to pen some critical comments on the approach — not the actions — of Sea Shepherd. I want to emphasise the distinction between approach to and the actual actions as this is an area in which there are issues that can, should and need to changed. I am sure I am not the only one with direct action experience, including running training camps and workshops that has noted some serious issues with Sea Shepherd approach to actions. I am focussing on the actions in the southern ocean that are also presented in the Animal Planet documentary (for lack of a better description) series Whale Wars.

To pre-empt potential criticisms about selective editing in the portrayals of Sea Shepherd actions in Whale Wars, the approach to actions is still very clear. A simplistic example is the repeated use of imagery of one of the ‘small boats’ flipping whilst being lowered. This was captured during the first season, yet is used in the opening sequent of the second season. It has visual value to the marketing of the series, yet the underlying reasons behind this thankfully without harm accident are there irrespective of the coverage. These issues are clear in the pre and post actions and comments of more experienced Sea Shepherd staff and campaigners. The actions are hyper-masculine, hierarchical and very non-sustaining. These are very interlinked and I will try to explain each clearly.

The hyper-masculine basis of the actions can be seen in the very blasé attitude of the more established members of the crew. There are various examples where the newer members of the crew, with limited training, and I use the term very lightly, are expected to be able to carry out all aspect of an action safely and effectively. It is the area of safety that is of serious concern given the location of the actions — life threatening after even small errors in judgment. You may try to excuse the lack of training away based on the urgency of the actions. The source, however, is a blasé masculinist attitude of being able to just do it: she’ll be right. It embodies an ideology that whatever the outcomes of our actions we are ‘tough enough’ to deal with them.

The very limited, inadequate/non-existent training provided to new members of the crew is very non-sustaining. Sustainable activism is essential to all movements — not only do we want people to continue to be active and seek change, we want those who have learned skills to continue utlise them and pass them on to others. This passing on is quite limited in the Sea Shepherd actions, and the implications of this are very clear in the high turnover of new members each year (also directly linked to the hyper-masculinist attitudes and approach that dominate). Consider how much more effective the actions would be if there were a significant number of skilled-up activists each year.

Being non-sustaining reinforces and perpetuates existing hierarchies. It also protects the status of established crew. This is not necessarily intentional. It can also be intentional, if unconscious (irrespective of their attitude). Many of the established crew have worked for years to get Sea Shepherd to where it is, having come through the trials and tribulations that new crew members experience to a far lesser extent. These past efforts expended foster a sense of ownership and the burnout associated with a prevalent absence of the support required for sustaining the self — widespread in most activist circles, and an issue that has received some, if far from enough, movement attention — can reinforce this via a perception that attribution is not fairly ascribed (comes to easy to those who came on board late).

In the last few days, I noted another example of the hyper-masculine. The Sea Shepherd facebook page was updated with recent actions. In the comment section, a response to a critical comment (the context of the original was not very clear) was

‘until your booty is out there doing something and not sitting behind a computer. The only thing you should be doing is giving praise for what these people do.’

Unpacking this comment opens up many issues for discussion (the issue of online v in person action is something I am currently writing about elsewhere). A core theme is if your body is not on the line, the action you take is less valued, perhaps not even worthwhile. This ties back to the boat-flipping footage used in the opening credits of Whale Wars. The actions of those in the boat has cemented them as real activists as they have put their body on the line — irrespective that they were not giving an adequate level of training. They are now hardcore. Such notions have been a common undercurrent in direct action (not universal) for some time. This is often a very uninformed view to hold, aside from the hyper-masculinity inherent.

To finish this up, the notion of putting your body on the line as being more valuable, even real, activism has significant masculinist overtones that we need to critically reflect on. That such ideas underpin a lack of adequate skill-sharing and training, fostered by and fostering (self-reinforcing) a mentality that ‘new’ activists need to earn their stripes (intentional use of cliché) and put up or shut up clearly illustrate this issue. There is a need to appreciate the actions of seasoned activists and what they have gone through, yet we need to create a more supportive atmosphere and sustainable approach for both the new and the more seasoned activists.

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