A (Potential) Summary of Disagreements and Agreements on Direct Action

Alex Felsinger and I have been having a back and forth on the effectiveness of disruptions in recent days, and I think the best approach at this point is to try my best to summarize the evidence each of us marshall and compare them. I want to clarify that no matter how evidence based two people are, we can still disagree — and I think it’s quite possible that we have not made that clear enough at DxE. This is why academia is such a hotbed of disagreements. With pieces of evidence on two sides of a claim, we have to make judgment calls about which ones we favor (do we care more about rigor or comprehensiveness, do we care more about the quality of the institution putting out the study or the description of how the study is done) and how we interpret them (does a study showing people are affected by their group membership mean protests will do good by making people identify with a cause or do harm by making outsiders more intransigent). With that said, here are some of the key areas we’ve discussed and where I think we fall.

  1. Do disruptions lead to movement growth?

This, I think, is the crux of our disagreement. Alex has argued that disruptions do not lead to movement growth based on a number of studies that show that people are less receptive to activists who appear stereotypical. The key study cited is research from the University of Toronto (Bashir) that looks at how much respondents to a prompt say they affiliate with a person depending on whether that person is presented as a typical activist, atypical activist, or undefined person, but while the study shows people affiliate less with “typical” activists, it does not show that “typical” activists actively push people away. Other studies include:

  • One (Stuart) that analyzes self reports of ambivalence about participation in activism. Notably, this study does not say how strong this effect is, and the people are still involved in activism anyway.
  • Another (Klein) discusses how group affiliation affects our identity and behavior. This could mean protests stop people from getting involved for fear of being an outsider, but it also could mean that by making vegan or animal lover identities more salient, protests make people more active.
  • Another (Adair) describes the difficulty of maintaining group affiliations in a protest movement, but again it is not clear what this means for whether protests mobilize people or repel them.
  • Another (by Winnifred Louis, one of the experts on the psychology of collective action) discusses different aspects of planning collective action. It states that movements should avoid negative labels and that all else equal, actions more palatable to the public are better. However, it also states that “ if the issue is marginal to public debate, then nondisruptive conventional tactics may not attract the kind of attention that the cause needs to build a basic awareness from which other actions and methods can snowball.”

These citations leave a lot of uncertainty, as is to be expected when looking through scientific literature. There are two ways to respond to the facts that there are pros and cons to disruption:

First, you can try to minimize the cons and maximize the pros. For instance, we encourage activists and organizers to speak using “we” and not “you,” to emphasize commonality (“we all grew up eating animals”), to avoid speaking as if we are superior or separate, and to consider our venue when deciding how confrontational to be.

Second, you have to weigh the evidence based on its rigor and how comprehensively it addresses the issues. The most comprehensive review of the evidence on the psychology of collective action I’m familiar with is a review by Martijn Van Zomeren that concludes that having an emotional sense of injustice (being actively upset about what happens to animals), a political identity (e.g. “I am an activist” rather than “I eat vegan”), and a sense of self-efficacy are the key ingredients in what make people active on the individual level. Again, this is a literature review, not a single study but an analysis of the body of literature, and it’s the most prestigious literature in the field, so as a lay person I think this is probably the best understanding to go off of, with some adjustments for the new research Alex lays out.

That’s in addition to literature on contagious behavior, probably best summarized in the book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. The literature indicates that externally expressed emotions are more contagious than internalized ones, and one of the few experimental studies to test this came to a similar conclusion. Emotions like depression, for instance, are less contagious than ones like righteous anger.

Probably the most rigorous work on protests is a 2011 study we often cite on the Tea Party. There’s no study I know of that has been done with similar rigor on the actual impact of protests, but this is just one study and of course, the result could be a fluke. One issue Alex has raised is that the hateful character of the Tea Party may make it more contagious than other movements. He uses Nazi Germany as an example — and in social psych classes there are many more examples of this, such as the Jonestown Massacre or the Stanford prison experiment. While these extreme catastrophes are extremely salient, there are also many examples of positive contagions — I’d offer Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature as a good compendium of examples. Given that there are examples on both sides, I don’t have an intuition that the Tea Party protests should be more or less effective at their goals than animal rights protests at mobilization. I think a good place to look is a follow up to the work of Christakis and Fowler done on Facebook (you know, the notorious one that manipulated all our news feeds)— one of the largest experimental studies on emotional contagion done so far. It found that there was not a demonstrable difference in contagiousness between positive and negative emotions, although the spread of positive ones (measured by what happens when positive emotions are reduced) was slightly greater.

In Power in Movement, Sydney Tarrow discusses cycles of contention — the contagiousness of protest and resistance lead to big ups and downs in the prevalence of protest. This happens in general (think of the year 1848 or the 1960s) and within movements (the 1970s and today being examples of cycles of contention within environmentalism). Alex is right that most of the movements Tarrow studies are comparatively large, because it’s hard to study smaller movement events since there are so many of them. The history I’ve read has found that protests groups started small and then grew (the lively late 1970s anti-nuclear movement started with a small protest in one town and then grew, the revolutions of 1848 began with a few protests in Sicily).

I think the psychological evidence on protests is very unclear on the whole — there are reasons why it would turn people off and reasons why it would motivate and get more people involved. Given that, my inclination is that we have to go one level up to the economics and sociology on the importance of social contagions and the history that protest movements start small. I think one of the major disagreements in animal advocacy on the effectiveness of protests comes from the question of whether we study individuals’ reactions or wider social phenomena, and I can understand why someone would believe the former to be more important but think that the latter is the better way to go.

2. Do disruptions work with public support and with high mobilization?

I think Alex and I agree here — a movement with public support and many people involved has good chances to succeed.

3. Do disruptions without public support work?

I actually think Alex and I agree here, too, for the most part. As Alex covers, protests that are too far afield from public opinion do not generally change institutions (he cites Giugni and Agnone on this). The studies Alex cites, though, deal with the effects on policy and not public opinion. When I went searching for the effects of protests on public opinion, the evidence I found was unclear, with the best study being one by Doug McAdam that gave a somewhat ambiguous conclusion. Given that, I think the Tea Party study above is the best to go off of, which found that protests led people to go home and persuade their family and friends.

Still, I think it’s worth noting that the direct effect of protests is not the goal right now with DxE’s work in most cases— the goal is to build up protests to the point where they start doing work. I say “in most cases” because the exception is in smaller places where we think we have the ability to be more influential, such as Berkeley, CA. We have not commissioned a poll here yet on the question of total animal liberation, but a moderate city councilmember told me he estimated 60–70% of people disagreed with our message — that is, 30–40% agreed, which is similar to the levels for other movements as Alex mentions. Elsewhere, the goal is growth and changes in public opinion (which we expect over time from investigations and from more people knowing animal advocates) so we get to the point where we are more influential. This is why this question depends so heavily on the first one.

Now, this touches on another issue, which is exactly how far behind us public opinion is in general. Alex makes the very fair point that while Gallup has found 32% of people say they support animal rights, 1–2 percent of people are vegan, implying that stated support is somewhat meaningless. This is another area where there is lots of uncertainty, and there has not been a movement quite like this before — where individual behavior and stated beliefs were so confusingly apart. I think Alex and I agree on the basic reason why this is happening — people are not thinking of their food when they answer the question. I think this shows that the public’s cognitive dissonance is ripe for the picking. I’d say this means that labeling, taxing, and otherwise stigmatizing meat consumption at the institutional level is something quite plausible (and there’s much more clear agreement on this). [Ideally, that would be done with a food justice component subsidizing healthy food.] We don’t explicitly focus our messaging on this, again, because our goal is to mobilize activists to change hearts and minds (not only via protests but also via investigations).

4. Do disruptions without very robust mobilization work?

I think Alex and I disagree on this question. Again, the meaning of this question depends highly on the first one — if protests help mobilize, then even if they do not achieve their institutional aims without mobilization, they may be necessary to start moving down that road.

Alex talks about how Erica Chenoweth says that movements that achieve less than 3.5% mobilization are much less likely to succeed, but she just says that over 3.5% they are guaranteed to succeed. We do not mean that to say that we have or will achieve 3.5% and therefore we will win — we mean it as a benchmark. Most of the nonviolent movements she studies succeed at much lower rates — and they were focused on regime change. We spoke with Erica Chenoweth in an in-person meeting about our approach, and she felt that for a movement not aimed at regime change, a lower percentage of the population will do. I think it’s fair to disagree based on our movement battling a more deep-set practice, but I lean toward thinking that what Professor Chenoweth said was right, that we likely need quite a bit fewer people.

Again, though, I do not think that .00058% of the population mobilized is enough to change the world without further mobilization (and I hope we haven’t said that). I claim that a small mobilization is the best way to get to a larger one.

Finally, one of the ways to turn a small mobilization into a larger one is to have that small mobilization concentrated in one place so that it’s a larger mobilization there. If you have 1,000 people in the U.S., that’s a tiny fraction of the population. In a town of 100,000, it’s 1%. There is evidence to support this point from sociology, urban studies, and economics (there are more examples on DxE’s blog). The biggest reason we chose this strategy of focusing on smaller local growth is that every social scientist we’ve spoken to about movement strategy recommended it — which, as I said above is a rare thing.

5. How well does our movement compare to past movements?

A final issue of contention is how our movement compares to past movements. Here, Alex discusses that we lack credibility as we do not come from the oppressed class and that disruptions erode our credibility, so we should avoid them. There are other ways that our movement differs from other movements, though, that suggest we might want more disruption. For instance, since we are not the oppressed class we are less motivated even if we intellectually agree. For that reason, the importance of emotions in mobilization suggests we may need more emotional activism like disruptions. Similarly, because animals are not voters, animal issues get less attention in public policy, and political scientist Daniel Gillion has shown that protests are one of the best ways of getting attention to an issue. Confrontation, by triggering an emotional reaction, makes things spread faster and its emotional content can make people question systems they are part of in a way other tactics do not.

I do not mean this to say that Alex is flat out wrong that our movement is different from other movements. All movements are different, and all comparisons are imprecise. My point, instead, is that it’s at least unclear whether we should be less confrontational than other movements. My instinct is that the reasons to be less or more confrontational are roughly equal, and we should aim for similar levels of confrontation and escalation.

There’s also one more issue — if we dismiss evidence that is from outside of animal rights, all we are left is the evidence on animal rights strategies, and that evidence is pretty limited and anecdotal. I think it’s better to use the imprecise evidence we have and try to draw the best conclusions.

6. How effective is humane education?

We had a brief mention in our discussions of humane education. I think I was too quick to imply that humane education is always ineffective. I think the evidence on persuasion suggests that persuasion works best when it’s a cooperative process rather than an argument. This is reflected, I think, in that one of the most successful persuasive tactics studied rigorously by political scientists appears to be a very in-depth, structured, collaborative discussion at people’s door steps. I just think humane education should be retooled to be more personal given its goal of direct persuasion (whereas the goal of disruption is mobilization and institutional change). I would love to see DxE activists do that sort of work, though I’d want to focus more on institutional change than individual change.

My best reading of the evidence is still that disruption is a helpful tactic, but Alex has moved me in a few ways. First, he’s persuaded me that we should think about public opinion more, especially when our campaigns get more aimed at concrete asks. We should be conscious of our goals, designing our disruptions to maximize growth (minimizing costs to activists and maximizing inspiration) for now, but when — whether in specific localities or in discussions with a corporation — we are negotiating, we need to have an eye on that.

Second, he’s reminded me (even if he disagrees with this) that disruptions make sense as part of a broader strategy. We’ve been trying to emphasize open rescue more and scale it up over the past year, and this continues to be our goal, but there’s more work to do on this.

Third, he’s reminded me of the importance of having our claims tested and discussing evidence. This discussion has definitely made me more conscious of the costs and benefits of disruption and how we can minimize the former and maximize the latter.