Direct Action Leading Where?

Why we need more vegans before more aggressive tactics

[Note: Direct Action Everywhere has issued an official response, which I have in turn replied to. But read this essay first!]

This video is a brief but incomplete summary of some of the core concepts in the essay.

When I ended my brief career as a journalist and became an animal advocate full-time, I participated in everything from aggressive pressure campaigns to distributing vegan ice cream samples. In recent years I’ve narrowed my focus towards developing persuasive vegan education materials and techniques. I don’t do this work just to spare lives through utilitarian dietary change; I do it because moving the public to our side is a critical step toward building a powerful movement.

Animal rights is a social justice issue — animals shouldn’t be treated as property and they should be given social status. However, while we can learn a lot from the long history of other social justice movements, our cause is distinct from all others in significant ways, many of which make our fight more difficult than others.

Taking a page from human rights efforts, disruptive protest and civil disobedience tactics have had a resurgence within the animal rights movement, largely due to the efforts of Direct Action Everywhere. The organization’s strategy is similar to PETA’s throughout the 80’s and 90’s — do something outlandish to gain media attention — but with far more frequency and a grassroots style.

By appealing to the inherent (and warranted) frustration of being a vegan in a non-vegan world, these tactics mobilize activists who are happy to have an outlet for their frustration. Other activists feel uncomfortable with the tactics, but push themselves to participate anyway because they believe it is effective.

While Direct Action Everywhere recently admitted that there are some differences between the animal and human rights efforts, they don’t consider the differences substantial enough to reconsider their continued use of disruptive tactics. But research into social movements — including a look at some of Direct Action Everywhere’s most frequently-cited sources — indicates that the differences are stark. In fact, continuing to use these tactics risks stunting our movement’s growth and making it more difficult to sway the public to our side.

To make real progress, we can’t isolate other movements’ results from their context. We must carefully consider the unique circumstances of our movement and take into account the role that public support will play in reaching critical mass, admit the difficulties we face when attempting to project credibility, and chip away at the habitual behaviors that prevent people from supporting our cause.

Public Perception Matters

As anyone who has engaged in animal rights outreach efforts can attest, it’s common to be asked, “Are you with PETA?” There’s a reason that question is so common: people want to know whether to dismiss our message outright or to give us a chance. They want to know whether we fit their negative stereotype for animal rights activists or not.

Due to its massive budget, 36-year existence, and media-based strategy, PETA has become synonymous with animal rights and their tactics represent those of our stereotypical activist. While some members would argue otherwise, Direct Action Everywhere looks an awful lot like PETA.

While both PETA and Direct Action Everywhere consider media coverage of any sort a victory in itself, research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology indicates that media coverage of activists who fit the stereotype for their cause is ineffective at gaining support. In one of the five tests in the study, researchers took an identical persuasive essay about the environment and attached three different author biographies: a stereotypical activist who engages in direct action and protest, an activist who advocates for the environment without direct action, and a non-activist. The result? Test subjects were less likely to be persuaded by the stereotypical activist than the other two authors.

Direct Action Everywhere, along with other groups such as 269Life and Collectively Free, use tactics that match the negative stereotype set by PETA

Further complicating things, Direct Action Everywhere insists that their members should focus on creating new activists rather than persuading people to become vegan. Organization founder Wayne Hsiung argues that veganism represents inaction and that we should instead be encouraging active participation via disruptive protest. He contends that the passion and energy exhibited by disruptive protest will draw the public to participate in the movement, even if they’re not vegan.

People are actively dissuaded from participating in radical action due to their fears of social ostracism

Unfortunately, research indicates quite the opposite. People are actively dissuaded from participating in radical action due to their fears of social ostracism: “Participants’ accounts reflected that they contemplated whether their actions or their group affiliations would impact upon their agency and efficacy, explaining that they avoid certain actions in order to retain agency and voice, and/or to avoid negative social ramifications from relevant others.” Others have reached similar conclusions in their research.

For direct action to be effective, we need increased participation. For increased participation, we need to improve society’s understanding of animal rights. We need every activist’s brother or sister or partner to be supportive — we need them to be vegan.

Reaching Critical Mass

Hsiung has frequently cited the work of sociologist, researcher, and author Erica Chenoweth in defense of disruptive protest. In her TEDx talk, she discusses her analysis of “all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation since 1900” and concludes that campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience and protest have been substantially more effective.

Among other observations, Chenoweth notes that nonviolent mobilizations against longstanding governments were less likely to succeed: “Regimes that endure over generations may have a depressing effect on people’s expectations about the utility of nonviolent action in changing the regime’s grip on power.”

In other words, the more normalized a government’s rule becomes, the harder it is to persuade people to join a radical mobilization, even if they agree with the goals. Let’s remember that even the longest government rule in history pales in comparison to humanity’s persistent dominance over and consumption of non-human animals. We have a challenge ahead of us.

Erica Chenoweth at TEDx Boulder in 2013

But even taking these conditions into account, Chenoweth concluded that nonviolent movements always succeeded if they had the participation of at least 3.5 percent of the population. In other words, if 3.5 percent of people are willing to put their life or freedom on the line for a cause they believe in, victory seems inevitable. This is an incredible finding that should give hope to any fledgling movement, including the animal rights movement.

On Go Vegan Radio and in Direct Action Everywhere promotional material, Hsiung interprets this evidence to mean that we only need to convince “4 out of every 100 people” to participate in their ongoing disruptive protests in order to succeed. This is a flawed interpretation and is actually the exact opposite of what Chenoweth describes.

Chenoweth’s research determined that movements that engage in nonviolent direct action prior to reaching 3.5 percent participation are far less likely to succeed. That’s the entire point of setting the threshold — so we can learn when to mobilize and when to focus on growth. Direct Action Everywhere is taking the counterintuitive approach that we will grow by mobilizing, when their cited source says premature mobilization causes movements to fail.

In the same radio show and in presentations, Hsiung cites the work of famed political scientist and Cornell professor Sidney Tarrow. In fact, Direct Action Everywhere frequently touts Tarrow’s book Power in Movement as inspiration for their disruptive tactics. While the book is a fantastic analysis of social justice movements that all activists should read, Direct Action Everywhere completely misinterprets the author’s work just as they misinterpret Chenoweth’s.

Tarrow and Chenoweth are in agreement that, based on historical evidence, the early stages of a movement are better spent on growth than action. They also agree that some movements take longer to grow than others.

Tarrow observed that the Civil Rights movement, US feminist movement, and US environmental movement experienced their fastest growth during times of institutionalization and professionalization. “Institutionalization and radicalization were contrary but symbiotic trends that fed off each other,” he writes in Power in Movement.

In fact, only after the growth of these movements through professional advocacy did protest groups spring up: “It grew out of dissatisfaction with the steady institutionalization of these mainstream organizations among a generation of activists who had experienced the failures of these groups and disliked the compromises they had made.”

Our numbers haven’t grown large enough yet and we won’t grow larger during a mobilization to direct action

While I admit that our movement’s progress has been frustratingly slow, it’s illogical to conclude that now is the time to mobilize. Our numbers haven’t grown large enough yet and we won’t grow larger during a mobilization to direct action.

“The positive result of institutionalization was that the strength and numbers of the advocacy sector grew rapidly from the 1960’s onward,” Tarrow writes. “Focusing on environmental organizations in America, Robert Brulle and his associates found a near tripling in their numbers between 1960 and 1970 and another doubling between then and 1990. Using data on women’s and minority groups from the Encyclopedia of Associations, Minkoff found a sixfold expansion of these organizations from a total of 98 in 1955 to 688 thirty years later. The largest growth was seen in advocacy and advocacy/service-oriented groups, with smaller growth rates for groups specializing in cultural and service provision alone, and no growth at all for groups oriented toward protest.”

Chenoweth notes that some movements have turned radical too soon and their success rate decreases, but it’s relatively rare. In most cases, a movement grows large enough to realize their force in numbers, continues to fail through institutionalized means, and then turns towards direct action out of desperation. When all of their institutional and advocacy attempts have failed, an oppressed class decides it’s necessary to put their lives and freedom on the line to force change.

Direct Action Everywhere’s efforts are not out of desperation; they’re a result of a flawed analysis of social theory — an artificial application of a tactic onto a movement that hasn’t reached a point where it can be used effectively. We do not have 3.5 percent support, let alone participation in disruptive activism — and we’re not going to get it by engaging in direct action too early. We’ll get it through education and mainstream appeal.

Inherent vs Earned Credibility

Referencing Tarrow, Chenoweth, and others, Direct Action Everywhere has cited the following as successful disruptions:

  • Sit-ins during the US Civil Rights movement, starting with the Greensboro Four
  • Picketing in the early US gay rights movement
  • Civil disobedience by US and British suffragettes
  • Protests by disability rights activists which eventually led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

These movements all have one thing in common: they were for the benefit of humans. They sought to improve conditions for and raise the standing of a social class — thus the term “social justice movement.”

The oppressed class in each of these movements were able to actively speak out for their rights. They were active participants and organizers. They appealed to the dominant class with their humanity. They were their own supporter base.

Unfortunately, most animals completely lack any class standing in human societies. Instead, the vast majority of animals are treated as commodities — literally bred and raised for the sole purpose of being killed and consumed. Why were they excluded from society to begin with? Yes, because they look different from us — but also because they can’t talk to us in our languages. While ethical vegans are convinced that animal sentience is enough to warrant increased social standing, the fact remains that animals are unable to specifically request such rights since they cannot communicate with us.

Unlike every other social justice movement in history, the animal rights movement is unique in that the oppressed class cannot speak in a language humans understand.

Since oppressed humans can tell their own stories, their struggle comes with some level of inherent credibility

Since oppressed humans can tell their own stories, their struggle comes with some level of inherent credibility — only the most steadfast opponents thoroughly discount the spoken experiences of the oppressed. Animal rights activists have no such inherent credibility; we are intermediaries, speaking on the animals’ behalf in the way we believe they’d want us to.

How do we earn credibility? Researchers have determined that activist credibility is dependent on three factors: 1. perceptions of knowledge and expertise, 2. perceptions of openness and honesty, and 3. perceptions of concern and care. Furthermore, they concluded that defying a negative stereotype is key to improving perceptions of trust and credibility.”

Credit: M. Martinez, used with permission

Since no human truly knows what it’s like to experience the world as a chicken or a pig, it’s our responsibility as their advocates to illustrate the similarities we believe their experience has to ours. But unfortunately, we cannot actually know.

Non-vegans are desperate for any excuse to discredit our contention that animals deserve rights and we shouldn’t behave in a manner that makes it even easier for non-vegans to undermine our message. While this may seem problematic or akin to respectability politics, I am not suggesting that animal advocates become people they’re not; I am asking Direct Action Everywhere to stop encouraging vegans to be more aggressive. Antagonizing the public with disruptive demonstrations comes at the expense of our credibility, which comes at the expense of our effectiveness.

Our goal is to do what’s best for animals, not to do what feels best to us and not to defend our right to behave how we choose. We’re their only support and their only hope.

Starting From Scratch

Ideological support for animal rights in our society effectively started at zero percent. Almost nobody thought animals should have rights, so they were given none.

We’ve made some progress, but this movement is still in its infancy. National surveys indicate 1 to 2 percent of the population is vegan, with another 1 to 2 percent calling themselves vegetarian. Unfortunately, other surveys indicate that most vegetarians do not see their diet as part of their identity and/or are not motivated by animal rights (and instead by animal welfare and personal health). As such, I would estimate ideological support in the US for animal rights rests at under 1℅ of the population, with a comfortable majority in full opposition. Even if every ethical vegan were to join Direct Action Everywhere, this is far short of the 3.5 percent willing-to-put-themselves-at-risk necessary for direct action tactics to have an impact.

Hsiung and other activists with Direct Action Everywhere will often cite this Gallup poll that asks whether people believe animals are deserving of the same rights of people, deserving of some protection, or don’t need much protection. The survey has been conducted three times since 2003 with similar results each time, with 25 to 32 percent of people saying animals deserve the same rights as people.

Most people in the US limit their interaction with animals to their dogs or cats, and they truly are treated like human family members with similar rights. I can’t help but assume that most people who answered that Gallup poll were thinking of Fido or Whiskers sitting on their lap while on the phone with the pollster. If so many people harbored strong beliefs for animal rights, the vegan population surely would have increased since 2003 — but instead, it’s stayed about the same at 1 to 2 percent.

Furthermore, despite 32 percent of respondents stating support for equal rights for animals, a smaller percentage were very concerned about the welfare of animals in zoos (21 percent), farms (26 percent), and marine parks (25 percent). Why would someone who believes in equal rights for animals not even show strong concern for their welfare? Not once does the survey ask about their support for the banning of these practices; such questioning would surely lead to far different responses. This poll is flawed and too unspecific to provide reliable data.

Regardless, Hsiung seems to contradict his belief in the Gallup poll’s results while speaking on Go Vegan Radio; when asked whether Direct Action Everywhere’s activists are vegan, he says that all core members are vegan and he believes most others involved are too. If the vast majority of his organization’s members are vegan, isn’t it safe to say that the cause primarily appeals to vegans? And that our estimated levels of support should be gleaned from the number of vegans in the United States, not the number of people who answered a poorly-phrased poll?

Public Support Matters

When challenged on the relevance of the Gallup poll in conversation, Hsiung and other Direct Action Everywhere activists backtrack and instead claim that public support doesn’t matter and that an incredibly small minority of activists can make a difference on their own. This often-referenced blog post uses the success of the March On Washington as evidence that only 0.1 percent of the population can provoke action, but it ignores that public opinion of the march was strong (40 percent supportive) when compared to support for animal rights.

When comparisons to the civil rights, environmental, feminist, and regime-change movements fail, Direct Action Everywhere references the gay rights movement — claiming that its low level of support at the time of the Stonewall Riots are similar to the animal rights movements’ today. While it’s true that opponents to homosexuality far outnumbered supporters, Stonewall sparked a national discussion because it humanized a population of which many people (36 percent) had no positive or negative judgement. We can’t compare this political environment to present day where 99 percent of people are invested in animal oppression through their daily consumption habits.

While there’s substantial research on the connection between protest and public opinion, none appears more comprehensive than University of Washington Sociologist Jon Agnone’s 2007 empirical analysis of the successes of the environmental movement. After discussing various theories about how protest and public opinion relate, he analyzes the passage of environmental legislation along with correlating protests and public opinion at the time.

Agnone concludes that “public opinion influences changes in pro-environmental public policy above and beyond its independent impact when accompanied by protest, which increases the salience of the public’s demands in the eyes of legislators.”

Furthermore, Agnone contends that his research has stark implications for previous analyses of social movements that ignored public opinion: “Social movement scholars need to account for public opinion on issues concerning social movements when evaluating the role of protest on policy outcomes. The amplification model of policy impact suggests work that overlooks the interplay between public opinion and social movement activity does not fully account for the determinants of public policy.”

In other words, research into the impact of protest movements that ignores the context of public opinion at the time is effectively meaningless. Marco Giugni, a sociologist at the University of Geneva and author of Social Protest & Policy Change, has researched the same phenomenon for over a decade, reaching similar conclusions: “social movements seem to impact policy only when assisted by other factors.”

Direct Action Everywhere cites the work of Doug McAdam as a counterpoint, but on closer examination it too falls short of supporting their conclusions.

McAdam wrote a compelling analysis of the 1964 “freedom rides” in the book Freedom Summer. Over 700 mostly-white college students from the North, West, and Midwest traveled to the South for the summer to participate in an effort to provide black people with education on voting and rides to the polls. Upon their arrival, three of them were murdered and violence continued throughout the summer, but very few quit and went home.

McAdam partially credits the strength of community between the activists for keeping the campaign active in the face of repression. Direct Action Everywhere treats this as evidence that public opinion doesn’t matter if activists have community, but they skip an important observation from McAdam: the students came from liberal homes with parents who supported their beliefs and their decision to participate. While they didn’t have public support in the South, they had support back home and nationwide (36 percent, according to numbers that Direct Action Everywhere cites).

The research is clear: civil disobedience works, but only in concert with reasonable public support

Direct Action Everywhere encourages disruptive activists to ignore negative reactions from friends and family — even fellow vegans — but instead such reactions should be treated like a red flag. The research is clear: civil disobedience works, but only in concert with reasonable public support.

A recent study confirms this yet again, but goes further to indicate that mass mobilizations to protest serve an important purpose of demonstrating to other supporters that the movement is viable. “Having many agents willing to pay those costs [of protesting] can signal to others that there is enough of the population willing to take costly action, that the revolution has a chance of succeeding. In contrast, polls and social media may involve much lower costs, and so agents simply saying that they support change does not indicate that they would be willing to act if needed.”

However, they also conclude that small turnout to protests and poor demonstration of strength “can actually discourage enough of the population to make success impossible.”

Direct Action Everywhere’s strategy is akin to mobilizing today, seeing that their numbers aren’t enough to succeed, and then mobilizing again the next day. Direct action is a powerful tool that should be used at the appropriate time. The less public support an issue has, the less powerful a mobilization to direct action will be, especially if it plays into activist stereotypes and ostracizes the public.

An Example of Failure in Tactical Replication

When two black women took over the microphone at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle last August, the Black Lives Matter movement gained unprecedented media coverage, both favorable and unfavorable. Even though Black Lives Matter faces significant challenges, it enjoys the inherent privilege of other social justice movements: a built-in supporter base. In this case, nearly 40 percent of the US population are people of color, most of whom acknowledge white privilege and structural racism as problems society must address.

When conservative (and some liberal) media flipped into a tailspin over the “rude” and “disrespectful” tactic of stealing the stage from Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter supporters were ready to step up to defend the action and divert the conversation toward the issues instead of the action. The result? The Sanders campaign acknowledged that these issues are widely supported, hired a Black Lives Matter activist as national press secretary, and added many of the movement’s goals to his platform.

Activists with Direct Action Everywhere seemingly noted this success and decided to co-opt the tactic for their own use. They disrupted at least five Sanders rallies with yelling and protest signs, gaining some media attention ranging from neutral to negative. Core members of the movement distanced themselves from the tactic on social media, embarrassed to be associated with it. But even if every single vegan in the US would go to bat to defend the disruption, our numbers would pale in comparison to the support Black Lives Matter received — the number of white allies alone outnumbers vegans (who are human allies to non-human animals) by a measure of 30 to 1. Why would we assume we can take the tactics implemented by Black Lives Matter and have a similar impact when our movement exists in a different context?

The Sanders campaign eventually contacted Direct Action Everywhere to ask what could be done to get the organization to stop disrupting. Why? Because it was annoying and a distraction from the popular social issues of their campaign. But that was the extent of it. In the end, the Sanders campaign didn’t add anything to their platform about animal rights or hire a vegan to its staff because, unlike with Black Lives Matter, the widespread public support for the animal rights movement simply doesn’t exist yet.

Direct Action Everywhere touts the fact that Hillary Clinton released an animal welfare policy after a few of their Sanders disruptions. But they actually had very little to do with that decision, which was likely motivated by Clinton’s desire to gain Russell Simmons’ endorsement after a meeting with his representatives backstage at a concert. And regardless, Clinton’s welfare policy is made up of non-controversial positions, misuses the term “animal rights,” and shines positive light on farmers and ranchers — in other words, it’s a policy worlds away from supporting this movement’s ultimate goals.

Elephant in the Room: Habitual Behaviors

We face another challenge that human rights movements do not: not only do we need to change public opinion, but we also need to change individual habitual behaviors before substantial institutional change can follow. Humans consume animals on a daily basis, often multiple times per day; this will need to change for animals to obtain rights. This is a significant difference from human rights movements, where the dominant class merely accepted a new belief or law in order for the oppressed class to attain their goals.

  • White people didn’t change their personal behavior to allow desegregation; they just accepted new laws (and continue to perpetuate racism in other ways).
  • Cis-gender straight people haven’t had to adopt new habits to allow for LGBTQ+ rights; they just accepted new laws (and continue to enjoy our heteronormative society).
  • Men didn’t change their behavior to allow women to vote; they only altered their approach to comply with new laws (and continue to benefit from sexism in other ways).
  • Only a small minority of property owners were “burdened” by the passage of the American Disabilities Act, while most able-bodied folks were hardly impacted.

Direct Action Everywhere has encouraged their activists (and all vegans) to relocate to Berkeley, CA, where the organization has opened an Animal Rights Community Center. They plan to try to enact a ban on meat sales, using their protest and disruption tactics; while this is bound to be an interesting experiment, evidence indicates that it’s doomed to fail — even if they, against all odds, pass a law.

Historical efforts to legally mandate behaviors that the public doesn’t support have been failures

Historical efforts to legally mandate behaviors that the public doesn’t support have been failures. The two best examples are closely related: the prohibition of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933 and the ongoing drug war, particularly as it relates to marijuana.

In both cases, puritanical forces pressured the government to outlaw intoxicants that were in high demand. In the 20’s, illegal alcohol vendors made so much money that they were able to pay off government officials to stay in business. Alcohol was both secretly imported and produced domestically with violent forces often controlling supply. Of course the ban on alcohol was eventually repealed — and marijuana prohibition is on course for the same fate.

Direct Action Everywhere’s strategic plan calls for a ban on meat in Berkeley within the next 8 years, but how? Their disruptive tactics are unlikely to grow support for such a measure, so their plan seemingly relies on political pressure and legal prohibition in defiance of public opinion.

If they were to successfully persuade the government (against all odds and despite the massive agricultural lobby) to ban the sale of animal products while 99 percent of people in the US currently consume them, what evidence do we have that the population would just accept that decision?

Map showing dry (red), wet (blue), and mixed (yellow) counties in the United States. (Wikipedia Commons)

Alcohol prohibition still exists in the United States on a local level; indeed, there are hundreds of cities and counties that still prohibit the sale of alcohol. Do these laws prevent people from drinking? No — in fact, the rate of binge drinking is higher in dry counties. Without addressing public opinion, we’d likely see the same phenomenon with a ban on animal products in a city like Berkeley, where people could easily travel to Oakland or San Francisco to purchase or eat meat. And regardless, enforcement of the law would be terrible since public officials wouldn’t agree with it (and would want to seek out meat for themselves).

People in the US love to drink and no puritanical force of law will convince them out of it. And while alcohol can be healthful in moderation, it isn’t nutritionally necessary. The backlash to a ban on animal products — which most people (and even nutritionists) still think are needed for optimal health — would be far stronger than it was even to the ban on alcohol.

Direct Action Everywhere believes that grassroots activists are our most powerful tool because animal industry doesn’t have activists of their own, but their plans will create an army of them.

Behavior Change Starts with Education

People in the US used to love to smoke. Instead of making cigarettes illegal, a different approach was taken: educational campaigns (by government and nonprofit agencies) successfully pushed smoking from social norm to social taboo. As with meat consumption today, most people in the US once believed that cigarettes were perfectly healthy, so the ad campaigns focused on defeating that myth.

While most still don’t favor banning tobacco products, support for a ban has slowly increased with the educational efforts (with the 2016 survey being an outlier of the trend), even though there has been no attempt to persuade people to support a ban. In other words, as fewer people smoke, more people are okay with restricting its use — people don’t like being hypocrites. If the anti-tobacco movement were a social justice movement, public support would have them poised for an effective use of direct action (with at least 3.5 percent participation) in the wake of this successful education.

It’s interesting to note that in the same Gallup poll about tobacco, the vast majority of US smokers agree that it’s unhealthy to smoke, yet continue to do it. With improvements in advertising methods and medical technology, this gap has shrunk over time.

The latest research on environmental behavior change indicates that exploiting that “hypocritical gap” could work toward our advantage. Researchers looked at the discrepancy between the number of French citizens who agree that environmental protection is important (93 percent) and the number who have adopted environmentally-friendly behaviors (38 percent) and saw an opportunity for the environmental movement: once people are persuaded that the environment is important, their own hypocrisy can effectively be used as a self-persuasive tool to encourage improved behavior.

While the animal rights Gallup polls discussed earlier do not indicate support for a movement, they do indicate that the public has growing sympathy for our cause. This is a public ripe for educational efforts that would eventually lead us up to a point where past social movements have been prior to mobilization. And with improvements to vegan food options (including the potential of real meat and dairy produced without animals), people will have an easier time than ever shifting their behavior away from animal use.

We must achieve social status for animals through behavior change before that status can be improved

It’s worth mentioning that Direct Action Everywhere’s new “Forty Year Strategic Roadmap” actually encourages a massive public education campaign to “elevate the victimization of animals throughout society,” but inexplicably they have not scheduled this until the year 2030. This is entirely backwards.

Our movement is behavior change first, social change second. We must achieve social status for animals through behavior change before that status can be improved through a mobilization similar to what we’ve seen in past social movements.

Intersectional, Not Identical

The very premise that we should cut-and-paste tactics from social justice movements is rooted in the belief that all movements are 100 percent comparable to begin with. While I’ve focused this essay on the ineffectiveness of co-opting tactics from other social justice movements without taking into account the specific considerations of our movement, other activists have written extensively about the ethics of comparing human oppression and animal oppression in the first place.

“Amplify the voices of marginalized people who talk about these issues themselves instead of appropriating their histories or experiences to further our agendas,” Christopher-Sebastian McJetters says on Sistah Vegan. “Noble though your intentions may be, what does it say about your activism if you need to say incendiary things when you don’t have those experiences?”

I believe Direct Action Everywhere’s issues with racism and sexism among their ranks stem from the same source. When an organization’s leaders strip all nuance from their analysis of previous social justice movements, they’re not promoting respect for human struggles independent of their lessons for the animal rights cause.

We must consider the context, the frequency, and the timing in which certain tactics were used successfully in the past.

But McJetters continues to say that comparing oppressions isn’t entirely taboo — after all, systems of oppression are intrinsically linked — but that animal rights activists should be careful about how and when to make those comparisons. I believe the same is true about using tactics from other movements. To avoid undesired results — such as turning people away from veganism — we must consider the context, the frequency, and the timing in which certain tactics were used successfully in the past.

This uncontextualized perspective has seemingly led activists to ignore how racism and classism hinder the success of the animal rights movement. Direct Action Everywhere’s forty-year plan fails to acknowledge that we’ll need to work to fix our broken food system before animals can be taken off all plates with a constitutional amendment for animal rights. This failure to understand intersectionality is also reflected in their choice of Berkeley as their “seed city,” where the cost of living excludes poor folks (and most people of color) from participating.

Forty years to animal rights sure sounds nice, but it takes unrealistic idealism to a whole new level. A century passed between the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement — and now, over 50 years later, basic rights are still withheld from the black population. Discussing the civil rights movement as if we can learn from its victory when it’s still ongoing erases this continued struggle and, ironically, makes it harder for our movement to gain universal traction.

A Better Movement

If protesting were enough for an extreme minority opinion to change the world, I’m not convinced the world would be a better place. Opinions come a dime a dozen and I don’t want fringe minority opinions to have sway over our society. For example, here are some worrying US opinions that are more popular than animal rights:

  • Abortion should always be illegal with no exceptions (19 percent)
  • Homosexual sex should be illegal (28 percent)
  • Muslim veils should be illegal (28 percent)
  • Executions of people with intellectual disabilities should be legal (19 percent)

The holders of these views cannot simply demand to have them imposed on the rest of society because the majority would reject it in the current political climate. Just the same, we cannot expect to impose our beliefs on others. Without persuading more people to our side, we’ll be no more effective at achieving our goals than the Westboro Baptist Church is at achieving theirs.

There may even be specific issues within the overall cause of animal rights where direct action can be used effectively because they have ample public support (circuses and marine parks, dog and cat issues), but they should be considered on a case-by-case basis. In the end, though, I am baffled that anyone could look at the research and conclude that direct action should be used persistently to grow a bigger movement rather than used sparingly to mobilize a movement when the political climate is right.

So what can we do? We don’t need to all take one approach, but we should ensure that what we’re doing isn’t harmful to others’ efforts. We can conduct outreach through traditional means like leafleting and canvassing, support organizations and companies that are innovating new advocacy approaches and products, and provide vegan community through organizing inclusive and welcoming social events. We can bring the concepts of animal rights to other communities and movements by participating in their efforts and demonstrating that vegans are rational, caring, and supportive of intersectional struggles. We can inspire others to join us by decreasing the barriers to entry.

“There is no single model of movement organization and no single organizational trajectory,” Tarrow writes in Power in Movement. “In fact, heterogeneity and interdependence are greater spurs to collective action than homogeneity and discipline, if only because they foster interorganizational competition and innovation.”

Chenoweth, too, advocates a diversity of strategies: “I think movements can over-rely on particular methods — like protests, rallies or occupations — that can exhaust participants or alienate the general population without effectively disrupting the opponent.”

Unfortunately, Direct Action Everywhere doesn’t take the advice of their most-cited scholars. In fact, Hsiung discourages vegan education and criticizes vegan advocates by saying veganism makes our goal about the consumer instead of about the animals. He does have a point: we should focus our efforts on creating ethical vegans, with some focus on disputing the myth of the nutritional need for animal protein. We need to create vegans who understand and support animal rights.

How can you approach effective activism with an open mind when you base an entire organization around a tactic instead of a goal?

However, I would levy a similar criticism on Direct Action Everywhere: their ideology isn’t to do what’s best for animals, it’s how to use a singular tactic for animals. How can you approach effective activism with an open mind when you base an entire organization around a tactic instead of a goal?

The most effective animal rights activists have an open mind. They are able to tame their frustration and dampen their egos, channeling that same energy into effective progress. They work to normalize our cause rather than radicalize it prematurely. They observe that social change is cyclical and takes time, especially when behavior change is involved. And most importantly, they acknowledge that strategy doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all, ready-to-use packages that we can borrow from other movements.

And they recognize that, for now at least, we don’t need direct action everywhere.


Alex Felsinger has been vegan since 2005 and active in the animal rights movement since 2009, most recently as Program Director at Farm Animal Rights Movement. He is now focusing his time on a soon-to-be-announced project where he’ll be working to develop improved interventions to promote veganism to the masses. He extends a special thanks to the several friends and colleagues who took the time to review and edit this essay prior to publication.