Four Reasons Why Direct Action Leads to Animal Liberation

What A Recent Piece in the Vegan Blogosphere Gets Wrong

A recent piece on DxE’s strategy echoes a common sentiment: we need more vegans before more aggressive tactics. I’m glad to see this subject getting the attention and serious discussion it deserves, including a look into the social science literature on the subject. Alex dealt with the matter thoughtfully and in welcome detail. I came away from the piece, though, more confident than before that activists engaged in open rescue, confrontational protests, and community building for animals are on the right track for four reasons.

1. The evidence on mobilization shows the opposite of what Alex says: confrontation creates mobilization.

Alex says that confrontation is ineffective at building a movement because it turns people off. He says this despite the fact that Direct Action Everywhere, in its three year existence, has mobilized thousands of activists for animal liberation with less than $100,000, garnering major media around the fraud in humane marketing and the effects of politics on animals in the process. Don’t think this is a blip on the radar: major corporations like Whole Foods have pulled propaganda from their sites and expressed extreme concern at the effects of DxE’s investigations. There are scores of stories about the friends and family influenced by DxE activists as a result of their newfound confidence (and we’re starting a survey to get some data on this).

DxE activists protest at a Berkeley City Council meeting in support of the Berkeley Animal Rights Center.

Looking at the science, though, the literature shows that nonviolent confrontation grows a movement — far from inhibiting it as the piece says. The sad thing about activism in general is that across the board, the evidence is spotty. One of the few studies to precisely nail down the effect of protests — done on the Tea Party in 2011 — found that attendance at a protest both mobilized people locally and brought ten more votes to Tea Party candidates. There are plenty of historical examples of this, from when the decision by a few chapters of the proto-gay rights organization known as the Mattachine Society to protest led to much faster growth for those chapters to periodic explosions of riots over bread in early modern Europe where word spread from person to person.

2. Community building matters, and that’s a central part of what DxE does.

It’s true that organization and connections between activists matter as well. Here, Alex misses that protests are only a part (and not the largest part) of what DxE does. We also spend much of our time building community, including meet ups and individual friendships that have empowered hundreds of people to be confident speaking out for animals in a way they never were before. The new Berkeley Animal Rights Center is a radically new exercise for our movement in organizing people — precisely the sort of growth that Sidney Tarrow and Erica Chenoweth talk about as laying the groundwork for a major movement of nonviolent struggle.

3. Negative stereotypes are inevitable — we can’t live in fear.

Against all this, Alex offers psychological evidence that people are less persuaded by activists who appear stereotypical (as confrontational ones do). The studies cited on the latter point are largely theoretical, and many of them actually go against the claim that social ostracism is a major threat to activism. As one cited study reads, “Disengagement from the movement appears to be unrelated to [social ostracism.]”.

There’s a deeper issue, though: even if we turn some people off from supporting animal rights, if we turn more people on in a more serious way, then that may be worth it. In the authors’ words from the paper on why typical activists are less persuasive (emphasis added): “Unfortunately, however, the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping: By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.” If turning people off is the inevitable side effect of creating activists, then we can’t cower in fear of potentially turning people off.

Of course, not all messaging is equal, and here again Alex gets DxE’s approach wrong. DxE does not “consider media coverage of any sort a victory in itself” — our goal is media coverage that generates an animal-centered public discussion. A gimmick that generates discussion about a protest but not the underlying issue does not satisfy us. From Bernie Sanders to Whole Foods, though, DxE activists have generated deep, substantive conversations about animal exploitation.

Alex mentions that over several years there has been no growth in the number of vegans, and there’s recent evidence that chicken consumption has been going up, despite years of activists focused on less confrontational activism insisting that such slick, institutional activism was bringing it down. We have every reason to move to new tactics with a better chance of helping.

The advice of Erica Chenoweth and Sidney Tarrow to focus on growth is actually strong evidence for DxE’s approach rather than against it. The movements both of them chronicle started small and only grew because there was a small number of people demonstrating resistance in the first place. The aspects of a movement that lead to mobilization in Sydney Tarrow’s view — what he calls “mobilizing structures” — are exactly what DxE is building: “a delicate balance between formal organization and autonomy — one that can only be bridged by strong, informal, nonhierarchical connective structures” (which sounds a lot like DxE’s bylaws).

4. If we want evidence, we have to study past movements, and we may need to be more confrontational, not less.

Given the evidence that confrontation helps growth, we should only avoid it for this downside if we have a better alternative. On that note, Alex offers humane education, drawing a parallel with the anti-smoking movement. Education on smoking, however, only took root following decades of court battles and public disputes with big tobacco — exactly the sorts of public disputes that DxE is trying to create through open rescue and confrontation. There’s not much other evidence on humane education. If there’s no public discussion and you try to educate, nobody is listening. We hope that the controversy we cause makes other groups’ efforts at vegan education more impactful.

DxE activist Sara Muniz interrupts a Hillary Clinton rally in Las Vegas, NV.

The final major issue raised is the comparison between the animal rights movement and other movements. Since our movement is not led by the oppressed, Alex argues that we lack credibility and must be less confrontational so as to avoid negative stereotypes. Alex draws too sharp a distinction between our movement and other movements. While animals lack legal rights, there are more regulations on their use than there were laws protecting other oppressed classes before their movements started. While animals do not speak our verbal languages, humans readily understand animal body language and express sympathy when advocates present images of animals in pain. Perhaps most absurd is the idea that “support for animal rights in our society effectively started at zero percent.” The idea that animals deserve equal consideration has, in one form or another, been written about for millennia from Pythagoras to Ashoka.

Again, though, this is looking at only one side of the coin. If our movement is not led by the oppressed, then it may take an even bigger push to get mobilization, which — if community organizing and nonviolent resistance foster growth — implies more of DxE’s sort of work rather than less.

(Alex then drops in what he essentially admits is a non-sequitur with a reference to a campaign of harassment and doxing of DxE activists.)

The impact of DxE’s activism so far suggests that the latter interpretation is more likely to be the correct one. Alex cites our disruptions of Bernie Sanders rallies as clearly ineffective but if you look at the articles on the event, they were substantive and leaned toward positive. This was despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the action was not led by the direct victims of speciesism and not one with immediate public support. On top of that all, the articles framed the issue politically, a framing that energizes more activists.

Alex is right on the money when he calls for a diversity of strategies. Engaging with institutions, protesting, caring for animals, and fighting for food justice are all critical efforts for animal advocates. In order to undertake any of these strategies, though, you need to create energized and engaged activists. DxE does that, and that’s why we do need direct action everywhere.