What’s the Point of Disturbing the Peace?

As a soft-spoken academic philosopher, it had never been my intention to go out into restaurants, grocery stores, malls, and the streets and do things that might provoke passersby to hurl their angriest invectives in my direction: “Go to Hell!” or “Get a job!” Although I had watched activists from Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other less well-known social movements flout society’s conventional rules of politeness and deference to authority, it had not been my expectation that I would one day join them in violating such norms. Yet last month I found myself marching through Berkeley, CA with a crowd of hundreds of activists from Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), chanting louder than I ever thought I could, demanding animal rights.

Activists are often motivated to action by their emotional commitment to a cause. When I realized, one day, that such an emotional commitment was developing within me, my philosophy training kicked in and pushed me to assess my options objectively. I was poised to jump into DxE’s world of militant nonviolent direct action — the world of disruptions, speakouts, and open rescues — but first I needed to answer the following question: what is the purpose of such methods of activism?

This is not merely an intellectual puzzle; it is a deeply practical question that, as activists, we cannot afford to ignore. Confusion about the purpose of an action can lead to miscalculations and conflicts that undermine our ability to collaborate with one another. Suppose that two activists are planning a demonstration, but do not agree about its purpose; one thinks the demonstration should make veganism appear more accessible to bystanders, while the other thinks it should put pressure on a business to change its practices. An effective means towards one end may be ineffective for achieving the other, so such disagreements may produce a poorly planned action that, in the the end, brings about neither. In addition to its utility in the planning of actions, clarity of purpose is essential for communicating with the press after an action has concluded. When an activist communicates the wrong purpose to the press, an action that accomplished its purpose may be conveyed as a failure to achieve something else.

What, then, is the purpose of militant nonviolent direct action? We can begin by distinguishing between distal and proximal effects. Distal effects will be realized down the line. In this case, the relevant distal effect is animal liberation. Specifically, it is to create a world where the institutions and practices that oppress animals have been supplanted by alternatives that do not. Animal liberation is expected to proceed in stages over an extended period of time, however, and since it is impossible to measure today what we do not expect to see for at least a few decades, we should be prepared to evaluate the success or failure of an action in terms of its immediate, or proximal, effects. In this case, the proximal effects are what philosophers call instrumentally valuable. What this means is that their value comes from the contribution they make to something else: animal liberation.

One potential proximal effect is to inspire an immediate audience to become sympathetic to the cause of animal liberation. If this is an action’s purpose, then measuring its success will be straightforward: one need only interview bystanders. This is not, however, the purpose of DxE’s actions, nor has it generally been the purpose of militant nonviolent direct action throughout history. When Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on December 1, 1955, her purpose was not to convince racist passengers, bus drivers, or bystanders to be more sympathetic to her cause. To evaluate her action by looking at the extent to which the sympathies of the racists in the vicinity were engaged by them would be to miss their point entirely.

The actual purpose of militant nonviolent direct action can be understood in terms of two main proximal effects. The first is to produce greater solidarity among the activists themselves. Such actions deepen activists’ commitment to, and identification with, the cause. The activists are then in a better position to engage with their friends and family, and to inspire them to become activists themselves. This effect has been documented in the scientific literature, including in a recent groundbreaking study on the Tea Party by Andreas Madestam et al. (2013) that suggested the following: attending a tea party protest led people to change or mobilize the votes of twelve of their friends. This matches the most widely-accepted theory of the psychology of collective action, which finds that people are moved to take action for a cause by having a politicized identity, an emotional sense of injustice, and a sense that they can do something to help — all things that protesting helps provide (Van Zomeren 2008).

The other main purpose of militant nonviolent direct action is to disrupt powerful institutions that maintain a negative peace. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. distinguishes between a negative peace, “which is the absence of tension,” and a positive peace, “which is the presence of justice.” Widespread injustices occur in a negative peace, but are hidden by powerful social, political, economic, and militaristic forces. Such forces create an artificial sense of tranquility by suppressing or discouraging anyone who would openly challenge the injustices. In contrast, a positive peace is achieved when the injustices themselves have been eliminated. In a positive peace, the suppressing mechanisms that create an artificial sense of tranquility are no longer necessary; any tranquility is now a genuine reflection of a deep peace that permeates society as a whole.

Militant nonviolent direct action disrupts a negative peace by exposing the injustices that were previously hidden below a surface of civility. When gay rights activist Frank Kameny upended the quiet, assimilationist norm of the early 1960s gay rights movement by picketing the White House over federal discrimination, he sparked rapid growth and serious institutional conversations around discrimination (D’Emilio 1983). When environmental activists in the late 1970s repeatedly disrupted nuclear power plants’ construction plans across the United States, they cast a taboo over the entire industry (Gottlieb 2005).

In addition to these two main proximal effects, there may be others. For instance, one may seek to trigger conversations, get attention, or change social norms. Ultimately, these additional purposes can be understood in terms of their contributions to the two main proximal effects. Both can be seen as ways of increasing solidarity among activists and disrupting the mechanisms that enforce a negative peace.

When we understand the general purpose of militant nonviolent direct action, we understand how to evaluate an individual action. Specifically, we should be asking two questions: first, does it produce greater solidarity among the activists and disrupt a negative peace; second, are these proximal effects on a pathway to animal liberation? The action is a success to the extent that the answers are ‘yes.’ The answer to the first question depends on the skills of the organizers on the ground; it is their responsibility to ensure that their actions succeed in this way. Fortunately, the relevant scientific literature suggests that the odds are stacked in their favor. We have less control over the second question, for it depends on general facts about how social movements work. Fortunately again, the literature suggests optimism.

*I would like to thank Zach Groff for his helpful comments and suggestions.*