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Animal Rights: Moral Crusade or Social Movement?Estimated reading time: 26 minutes
[The following paper was presented by Kim Stallwood at the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory 2012 at the University of Manchester in September 2012. Stallwood is an independent author, scholar and advisor on animal rights.]
Is animal rights the duty of the individual or the responsibility of society? Is the animal rights movement a moral crusade or a social movement with a political agenda? Which will achieve moral and legal rights for animals: A moral crusade or a social movement?
These are the fundamental questions I try to answer here. This discussion informs my call for a new strategy for the animal rights movement.
The publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer in 1975 is usually recognised as the beginning of the modern animal rights movement. Notwithstanding formidable challenges to accomplishing its mission, the animal rights movement is making progress in public opinion and public policy; however, it fails generally to decrease the number of animals consumed; persuade people to go vegan; convince governments to pass meaningful legislation; and challenge fundamentally society’s attitudes toward animals. Moral and legal rights for animals are currently beyond the reach of the present animal rights movement.
The animal rights movement and its strategy, emphasising personal lifestyle choice, is no match for the animal industrial complex, the collective term used to describe the many traditions, institutions and industries which transform animals into products and services for human consumption.
Animal rights is more than just saying Go vegan! It is the responsibility of society. It is a legitimate public policy issue. It is, therefore, appropriate to assess the present strategy of the animal rights movement and make recommendations.
Animal Industrial Complex
Anthropologist Barbara Noske first identified in Humans and Other Animals the animal industrial complex as the accumulation of interests responsible for institutionalised animal exploitation. ‘Animals have become reduced to mere appendages of computers and machines,’ she wrote. (Noske 1989: 20)
The animal industrial complex breeds billions of animals, as their legal property, to make products and services for human consumption. Animals may be alive or dead; in their physical entirety, or as a piece or byproduct of their body; or overwhelmingly changed so as to no longer appear or represent in any way their original presence: an individual sentient being.
Human history records animals, simultaneously and confusingly, as mysteries beyond our understanding and practical resources to aid our survival. Today, animals are still revered; however, the animal industrial complex has transformed our relations with animals and significantly increased the number consumed. Indeed, there is such extraordinary growth that the animal industrial complex and its exploitation of animals threatens our survival.
Clearly, the origins of the animal industrial complex reach back to beyond the present era. Since 1945, however, the animal industrial complex has grown significantly. It is an integral part of the neoliberal, transnational order of increasing privatisation and decreasing government intervention, favouring transnational corporations and global capital.
The existence of the animal industrial complex is so pervasive that its existence often goes unrecognised and unacknowledged. What licences the animal industrial complex and its exploitation of animals? Which norms and values in society allow institutionalised violence to animals to occur without any effective public opposition or government intervention?
First, western orthodox Judeo-Christian religious belief systems, as allegedly directed by a supreme deity, positions humans exclusively as superior to animals, who are merely ‘things’ and not sentient beings. Although various scholars and theologians assert the Bible’s commitment to animal welfare as paternal dominion, among adherents and those generally influenced by such belief systems, the prevailing view is that animals are here courtesy of God for human use.
Second, notwithstanding recent findings from ethologists and primatologists who identify similarities in behaviour between humans and other animals, Darwin’s scientific Theory of Evolution, positioning humans as animals along a species continuum, established an ideology of scientific reductionism, which reinforced western orthodox Judeo-Christian religious belief systems and their hierarchy placing humans superior to animals.
Religion and science also provide a foundation to patriarchy, which situates man as superior to women, children, animals and nature. Embedded within patriarchy is the notion of the ‘other.’ Women, children, animals and nature are the other. ‘He is the Subject, he is the Absolute,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, ‘she is the Other.’ (de Beauvoir, 1986, 16) As women are the other to men, so, animals are the other to humans. Otherness empowers power and control, which licenses exploitation. As misogyny is the hatred of women by men, misothery is human ‘hatred and contempt for animals.’ Otherness also causes invisibility. Carol J Adams describes in The Sexual Politics of Meat the presence of animals in meat as the absent referent. (Adams 2010: 13) The meat on a plate can range in appearance from the explicit (e.g., one entire fish cooked and served whole) to the implicit (e.g., ground beef in a burger made from multiple animals).
Ultimately, these norms and values produce lebensunwertes Leben or life unworthy of life. The animal industrial complex renders the lives of animals as life unworthy of life. Animal exploitation, as an established and accepted practice, perpetuates and legitimises itself, while hiding from the consequences of its actions. For example, the true economic consequences of animal exploitation are not met by the animal industrial complex but by consumers and society. The animal industrial complex is also enabled with government approved programs (e.g., trade agreements, financial incentives, tax credits, exemptions from the law) whose costs are met again by taxpayers. The animal industrial complex favours privatisation and government deregulation to ensure it supervises itself with voluntary standards. The priority for the animal industrial complex is to protect its profits and other entitlements.
The dominance of the animal industrial complex is emboldened by the animal rights movement and its strategy emphasising personal lifestyle choice. The animal industrial complex accommodates demands made by the animal rights movement to end egregious use of animals. While these developments deserve recognition, they are accomplished without any obligation imposed on the animal industrial complex to end generally its institutionalised violence toward animals. Also, the animal industrial complex responds, in part, to demands from the animal rights movement by taking advantage of the opportunities for new markets in consumerism (e.g., meat-free, vegetarian and cruelty-free vegan). While these developments are to be welcomed, they have the effect of weakening the animal rights movement’s call for moral and legal rights for animals by ensuring the problem of animal exploitation remains as an optional personal lifestyle choice. While genuine cooperation between the animal rights movement and the animal industrial complex is an important strategy, the former must avoid being used by the latter, even unwittingly, to legitimise and even perpetuate institutional animal exploitation.
Political campaigns which call for public policy to end animal exploitation will mobilise vast financial resources from the animal industrial complex to ensure its profitable use of animals survives. There is, of course, enormous profits to be made from animal exploitation. These profits are protected by existing arrangements with governments and their regulatory mechanisms thereby ensuring the continuation of animal exploitation. The animal industrial complex has a proven history of collusion with private security forces and state law enforcement to monitor, pervert and harm the animal rights movement.
It is, therefore, not surprising that animal-related public policy is more about protecting our interests in what we do to them than in protecting them from us. Animals are represented in public policy by those who benefit from the power and control they exert over them. Animal researchers (not anti-vivisectionists) and animal farmers (not vegans) are more likely to be members of the policy-making networks which determine regulations and laws governing our relations with animals.
Generally, moral crusades are one specific issue which is framed as an exclusive cause with extraordinary meaning. Moral crusades may be religious imperatives, political campaigns or initiatives of some other kind which embed a religious, spiritual, political or moral belief as an integral component. Moral crusades rely upon campaigns which trigger moral shocks to provoke public debates. An extraordinary situation or conflict, which may receive unprecedented attention from the public or the media or both, may be called a moral panic. Examples of animal related moral panics include bird flu, BSE, dangerous dogs, etc.
Moral crusades can be controversial issues relating to lifestyle choice (e.g., alcohol consumption and recreational or illegal drug use), sexual activity (e.g., pornography, homosexuality, monogamy) or issues of individual freedom (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, death penalty). Generally, moral crusades are social movements whose missions address fundamental and profound issues relating to human activity, the relationship humans have with their perception of themselves and their place in society.
Even though moral crusades mean different things to different people, it is not unreasonable, if not entirely correct, to view the animal rights movement as one. Certainly, the animal rights movement at present behaves more like a moral crusade than a social movement with its emphasis on personal lifestyle choice.
Sociologists Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper define social movements in The Social Movement Reader as ‘collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices.’ (Goodwin and Jasper, 2003, 259)
The academic study of social movements by sociologists and political scientists offers insight into the animal rights movement as a social movement. Further, the writings of social movement practitioners (e.g., studies, histories, biographies, memoirs) also provide lessons to learn from their experiences. For example, the animal rights literature includes biographies and movement studies and histories. Further, sociologists and political scientists include the animal rights movement in their research.
In his book, Eco-Wars, political scientist Ronald T. Libby discusses analysis of the animal rights movement by Bill Rempel, a research scientist in animal agribusiness at the Department of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota. (Libby 1998: 62-63) Rempel makes the case that the industry’s perception of the political influence of animal rights groups passes through four stages. The animal rights movement develops, politicises, legislates and litigates an issue. From my experience with the animal rights movement, I conclude he was partially correct. Therefore, I have adapted it to the following five stages.
- Public education, when people are enlightened about the issue and embrace it into their lives
- Public policy development, when political parties, businesses, schools, professional associations and other entities that constitute society adopt sympathetic positions on the issue
- Legislation, when laws are passed on the issue
- Implementation, when laws and other public policy instruments are enforced on the issue
- Public acceptance, when the issue is embedded into the values of society
This is the lifespan of a successful social movement, as it emerges from obscurity to acceptance. The five stage analysis makes it possible to determine which stage is reached by a social movement, what is next, and why some organisations and issues fail, stagnate or succeed. Most issues start in stage one and expand to the others, but not always in a clear sequential order. Life is very complicated. Everything never fits neatly into any analysis. Simplistic schemes are problematic. Nevertheless, they help to determine where we have come from and where do we go from here.
For any social movement to achieve its mission it must pass through each of the five stages and maintain an active engagement in each one. In doing so, its ability to resist setbacks, obstacles and opposition from opponents is diminished increasingly. In other words, as a social movement expands its presence in each stage while maintaining activities in each one, the power and control that any opposition may weald against it is further weakened.
For example, bloodsports in Britain — hunting and killing, foxes, deer and stags with packs of dogs on foot and horse back and hare coursing — was for many years in Stages One and Two. The hunting issue is now in Stages Three and Four. With the passage of the Protection of Wild Mammals Act in Scotland in 2002 and the Hunting Act in England and Wales in 2004, bloodsports went from being a legal to an illegal activity. Nevertheless, pro-hunting interest groups continue to pursue, not always successfully, their attempts to undermine or even overturn the legislation.
The Animal Rights Movement
The five stages illustrate the transition animal advocates must make from moral crusader to political activist and the animal rights movement from a moral crusade to a political movement. We can never assume a growing collective of personal lifestyle change automatically leads to institutional, societal change. The capriciousness of human nature is subject to change. Institutionalised regulations and laws are much more entrenched expressions of society’s values.
History shows that social movements, including animal rights, are accused routinely of seeking change which will adversely impact society if they achieve their objective. But it rarely, if ever, turns out to be true. Indeed, it is surprising any social and economic progress has been made, given these outrageous claims. The challenges other social movements confronted for various human interests are clearly different from those which the animal rights movement faces. To make this statement is not to underestimate their significant accomplishments; nevertheless, the animal rights movement asks one species to change thousands of years of custom with its relationship with all other species.
Those who maintain we must use animals will say any rights animals may have must be subordinate to dominant human interests. This frames human and animal interests as a competition. A strategic dichotomy all too prevalent in human history: men superior to women; whites to blacks; natives to immigrants; heterosexuals to homosexuals; and so on. In our case, it is humans are superior to animals, which is called speciesism. As society evolves and we become aware of our superiority prejudices, we seek to resolve them, as we become more aware of the resulting injustices. We readjust, accommodate and move on, in all likelihood, all the better for it.
The same, no doubt, will be true for animal rights; particularly when it is understood that to feed the world’s population and encourage well-being, animal exploitation in animal agriculture and animal research are fundamentally problematic. This is why it is vital for the animal rights movement to be viewed as more than just as a moral crusade.
I conclude the animal rights movement is mostly in Stage One (Public Education), with some presence in Stages Two (Public Policy), Three (Legislation) and Four (Implementation). If Stages One and Two are the moral crusade, Stages Three and Four are the political movement.
The animal rights movement has not progressed much beyond the first stage of a moral crusade. Should I spay or neuter my companion animal? Should I stop eating meat? Should I visit a zoo? This consumer-based advocacy is more usually known as vegetarianism and cruelty-free, vegan living. Inevitably, the animal rights movement confronts the animal industrial complex because of its instrumental use of animals. The arenas in which this conflict is played out include public opinion, public policy, legislation, law and society generally. But the animal rights movement is not competent for these encounters. Its understanding of the animal industrial complex, and institutional animal exploitation, is limited to optional personal lifestyle choice. Animal rights is not understood as a mainstream political issue.
In contrast to the animal rights movement, the animal industrial complex, which does understand the politics of animal exploitation, is resolutely entrenched and fully engaged in all five stages. Which stage would the animal industrial complex want the animal rights movement to be in? Its answer would be the stage we currently occupy, Stage One Public Education. Further, it will do everything in its power to ensure the animal rights movement maintains this position. This is because the first stage is the beginning and the stage with least influence of all the five stages. Remember: the further along the five stages that a social movement progresses, the greater its ability to resist its opponents, thereby increasing its ability to succeed. In other words, the animal industrial complex is largely unchallenged by the animal rights movement in its present form, as it is in Stage One and functions as a moral crusade. Whereas the animal industrial complex is fully engaged in all five stages.
Why is the animal rights movement entrenched in Stage One?
The answer lies in how we become animal advocates.
With the exception of those who were raised by vegans or vegetarians and educated about animal cruelty and exploitation, people become animal advocates because they experience a personal transformative moment.
Everyone who is an advocate for animals has a compelling personal story. These unique narratives describe how they were transformed from someone who ate meat and fish to a vegetarian or vegan. Personal transformative moments may be triggered by a variety of experiences, including reading a book, watching a film, speaking with a friend, witnessing animal cruelty, experiencing a profound relationship with a companion animal and so on.
Philosopher Tom Regan describes in Empty Cages three types of animal advocates. (Regan 2004: 21-28) The Damascan, who has a startling revelation. The Muddler, who struggles with the challenge of animal rights throughout their life. The Davincian, who intuitively understood all along. Scholar Ken Shapiro also characterises animal advocates as Caring Sleuths, who discover, seek and embrace the suffering of animals.
These personality types help to illustrate who animal advocates are and how they each arrived from different places. Also, they help to explain why animal advocates are a diverse group of people who do not always agree. Regardless, each personal narrative is unique. Everyone experiences a personal transformative moment when, what was previously hidden from view and what we are trained not to see, reveals itself for what it is: animal cruelty and exploitation. Meat is not seen as delicious steak but as the charred remains of dead animal body parts.
The personal transformative moment is powerful. So compelling, in fact, that it overwhelmingly informs the rationale of most of the animal rights movement’s current strategy to educate the public. This is why the calendar of the animal rights movement falls mostly into Stage One Public Education: media stunts, information dissemination, demonstrations, advertising campaigns, personal appeals by celebrities and so on. These are all attempts by the animal rights movement to influence people, essentially, to go vegan.
The modern animal rights movement has increased public awareness about animal exploitation; encouraged people to live cruelty-free lifestyles, particularly as vegetarians and vegans; persuaded corporations, charities, non-governmental organisations, churches and other entities like them that constitute society, to adopt various pro-animal policies; and lobby local, national and international governments and their agencies to implement regulations and pass laws limiting or prohibiting some animal use. Most of these accomplishments, but certainly not all, fall within the First Stage of Public Education, or they began in that stage and later developed into Stages Two, Three and Four.
These accomplishments are remarkable. Not only for the prevalence and range of animal cruelty and exploitation but also for the two key differences uniquely distinguishing the animal rights movement from other social movements. Indeed, all social movements face significant challenges, internally (e.g., limited resources) and externally (e.g., disinterested public and unsympathetic media). But these two key differences add significantly to its challenges, making the mission of the animal rights movement even more daunting and its accomplishments even more impressive. Also, it helps to explain why animal rights is often thought of as a moral crusade.
The first of the two key differences speak to the nature of social movements and their protagonists and beneficiaries (‘agency’). It is customary that social movements are populated and supported by those whose self-interests are sought. They are the agents of their change. Protagonists seek legal status withheld from them usually because of a prejudice more widely felt by society. They wish to redress wrongs committed against them or improve their well-being and legal standing. With respect to the animal rights movement, the protagonists are mobilised in the interests of beneficiaries who are not even the same species. The beneficiaries — all animals who are instrumentally used by humans — are unable to form their own social movement to advance their own agenda. The protagonists who seek animal rights come from one species, which is the same species that oppresses all others. The animal rights movement is the only social movement whose beneficiaries are not the protagonists and not the same species.
The question of benefits enjoyed by humans from exploiting animals is the focus of the second difference between the animal rights movement and all other social movements. Although there are benefits to humans from liberating animals from our exploitation, the perception of animal rights is that, if it is accomplished, it would adversely impact human interests. Animal rights requires humans to relinquish all benefits gained from animal exploitation, regardless of whatever harm it may cause to humans. It is customary among social movements that any benefits gained by protagonists and enjoyed by them as beneficiaries, also brings some benefits to others with minimal impact or little cost to society.
Notwithstanding these two key differences, animal advocates want to persuade people to change their hearts and minds, as well as their lifestyles, with respect to their relations with animals. The personal transformative moment is the currency of the animal rights movement, which seeks to foment in others similar conversion experiences. Indeed, personal change does change one person at a time. But institutional change changes society. The fault line between success and failure for the animal rights movement lies in understanding the difference between personal change and institutional change.
Notwithstanding the emergence of the modern animal rights movement, there is no major increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans in the countries where it is prominent. Opinion polls commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Groups between 1994 and 2012 suggest the percentage number of adult vegetarians in the USA to be no more than five per cent. (Vegetarian Resource Group 2012) The UK Food Standards Agency found similar results (three per cent said they were ‘completely vegetarian.’) (Food Standards Agency, 2009, 48.)
By emphasising personal lifestyle choice over institutional change, the animal rights movement pursues a strategy which is not fit for purpose and impedes severely its ability to achieve institutional change. A new strategy, with equal emphasis in action at the level of the individual and society, is needed. The animal rights movement, only then, will be in a better position to succeed in achieving its mission and confronting the animal industrial complex. Framing animal rights as a political movement emphasises a strategy which moves from the individual to society, an approach that includes public policy, legislation and law enforcement. This choice in strategy is reflected in how its mission is viewed. Generally, animal rights is seen as a demand for individual lifestyle change. In contrast, as a political movement, the animal rights mission calls for the transformation of society and its relationship with animals.
New Strategy for the Animal Rights Movement
At the RSPCA’s Rights of Animals symposium at Trinity College Cambridge in 1976, I heard Lord Houghton of Sowerby challenge the animal rights movement in the UK.
My message is that animal welfare, in the general and in the particular, is largely a matter for the law. This means that to Parliament we must go. Sooner or later that is where we will have to go. That is where laws are made and where the penalties for disobedience and the measures for enforcement are laid down. There is no complete substitute for the law. Public opinion, though invaluable and indeed essential, is not the law. Public opinion is what makes laws possible and observance widely acceptable. (Paterson and Ryder (eds.) Animals’ Rights: A symposium. 1979: 209. Emphasis in original.)
Although he did not frame his remarks in the context of my five stage analysis of social movements, Lord Houghton’s emphasis on the law and Parliament as the essential and unavoidable stage, answers the question whether the animal rights movement is a moral crusade or a social movement? I believe Lord Houghton would have said the animal rights movement is a social movement pursuing a political agenda with the necessary support of the people. This is why he said, ‘to Parliament we must go.’
If the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer in 1975 signifies the beginning of the modern animal rights movement, I consider the RSPCA’s Rights of Animals Symposium in 1976 to be its first birthday party. Now, it its mid-30s, has the animal rights movement followed Lord Houghton’s advice? My answer is that it has not. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to understand why. When I look back on these formative decades in the history of the modern animal rights movement, I see a period principally of public education.
By public education I mean the emergence of the modern animal rights movement and the development of animal ethics, the study of of our moral relationship with other animals, and the impact they made in introducing animal rights into the public discourse. Campaigning for and thinking about animal rights encapsulates what has taken place so far. Activists and philosophers may not make, at first impression, complementary traveling companions; but the animal rights movement demonstrates well why both are needed to inspire and inform. Indeed, in many cases, philosophers were activists and vice versa! Further, many social movements also had complementary academic and advocacy flanks. For example, feminism included the women’s social justice movement and women’s or feminist studies.
Animal ethics is an essential development in understanding what we mean when we say moral and legal rights for animals. Animal ethics is now an accepted subject for philosophy in the academy. Animal ethics informs the public debate about our complex relationship of ‘compromise and concealment’ with other animals.
Further to animal ethics, there is also the development of animal welfare science in the biological and veterinary sciences and animal studies in the social sciences and humanities. They indicate significant changes are underway in the academy to understand our relations with animals. Two further related developments in the academy are animals and the law and the political status of animals. In the United States, animal law is enjoying significant growth in research and litigation; however, the study of animals and politics is less developed, although there are indications that this is changing.
For many years, Robert Garner has stood out as the primary political theorist exploring the political status of animals. His current research considers society’s treatment of animals within the context of justice and the application of ideal and non-ideal theory to animal ethics with respect to legislation related to regulating and ending animal suffering. New research in the political status of animals is being led by Siobhan O’Sullivan in Animals, Equality and Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) and Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in Zoopolis (Oxford University Press2011).
O’Sullivan makes the case that existing inconsistencies within the law relating to animals should be addressed. For example, laws relating to dogs as companion animals and research tools are different. Clearly, this difference reflects the nature of the relationship between dogs and people. One is a companion animals. The other is a research tool. The law which establishes the highest standard of animal welfare should be applied consistently wherever the law relates to that species, regardless of the circumstances. In other words, the law should be the same for the same species in different circumstances.
The approach that Donaldson and Kymlicka take is to apply political theories on citizenship to animals. Our varied relationships with animals have their own moral complexities which have, in turn, political consequences.
Some animals should be seen as forming separate sovereign communities on their own territories (animals in the wild vulnerable to human invasion and colonisation); some animals are akin to migrants or denizens who choose to move into areas of human habitation (liminal opportunistic animals); and some animals should be seen as full citizens of the polity because of the way they’ve been bred over generations for interdependence with humans (domesticated animals). (Donaldson and Kymlicka, 2011, 14)
The debate about animal ethics engaged by Singer, Regan and others is augmented by the debate about politics and animals made by Garner, O’Sullivan, Donaldson, Kymlicka and others. It is one thing to claim moral rights for animals. It is something else to persuade society and its representational governments to recognise legal rights for animals, including enforcement by the state with its legal apparatus.
Most, if not all, social movements struggle with the question of fundamentalism and real politik or abolition and regulation. Often, they fail to resolve it successfully. The animal rights movement is no exception. Frequently, this tension is framed as an exclusive choice. I do not support this view. Both are needed to help the other achieve the change they seek. The challenge is to learn how to direct strategies simultaneously and complementarily pursuing both. This is why animal rights is more than just a moral crusade pursuing idealistic goals of abolition. It is also a pragmatic social movement working to embed the values of animal rights into public policy.
There are five challenges the animal rights movement must address in order to implement this strategy of theory and practice.
- Establish animal rights alongside human rights as the responsibility of society in the mainstream political arena as related and complementary points on a moral and political continuum
- Organise within political parties to develop policies in support of animal rights
- Make animal rights relevant to people and their lives by building alliances with the various institutions that constitute society
- Position animal rights as part of a progressive agenda of social change thereby rejecting the view that there is a competition between human and animal interests
- Frame animal cruelty and exploitation as violent behaviour which has serious consequences not only for the animals but also for ourselves
Animals can neither join a moral crusade nor organise their own social movement. Unlike humans, they can not be the agency of their own liberation. Further, animals are not the problem. They do not chose to subject themselves to the cruelty and exploitation we inflict upon them. We are the problem. And we are the solution. We can only stop institutionalised violence to animals and award rights to them if we want to.
Notwithstanding significant challenges and noteworthy accomplishments, the impact to date of the modern animal rights movement on society’s relationship with animals is limited. The present reliance upon a strategy emphasising personal lifestyle choice appeals only to a small minority. It is naive, even delusional, for the animal rights movement to believe that this present strategy of a moral crusade will persuade society and its representational governments to recognise legal rights for animals, including enforcement by the state with its legal apparatus.
The animal industrial complex is the formidable adversary of the animal rights movement; however, its position as opponent can be softened and, in certain situations, could be positioned as associate, if the animal rights movement became a social movement with a political agenda. Therefore, I believe the new strategy of the animal rights movement must be simultaneously as a moral crusade and as a social movement. This is the only way to cross the fault line laying between success and failure in understanding the difference between personal change and institutional change.