Given that I write and comment about strategies and communication styles within the vegan/animal rights movement, people often ask me about my views on certain tactics and approaches. One of the questions I get most often is what my view is on the “Cube of Truth” street actions by the group Anonymous for the voiceless. In this post I’ll briefly share some some thoughts on this particular form of action.
To help form my opinion, I attended one cube of truth in Berlin, somewhere in Spring of this year (2018). I didn’t actively participate, but was there as an observer. My thoughts and impressions are mainly based on this one instance, and also on my impressions of online videos, and feedback by other vegans. This still gives a very incomplete picture, so I’ll consider my opinion as preliminary. Judging from what I hear, while the structure of the Cube of Truth is always more or less the same, the way passers-by are approached and talked to seems to differ much among cubes or groups.
For those who are not familiar with the concept: a certain number of activists are standing in a busy area. They are arranged in a square, all facing outwards. They hold signs (displaying messages like “truth” or “watch to see why we are here”) and laptops showing graphic images of animal cruelty. They wear Guy Fawkes masks. Passers-by who stop to watch the footage will be addressed by other activists, who are not in the Cube, but who are outreachers. These activists will ask the onlookers what they think of the images, inform them further, and try to get a commitment to change (see below).
This concept has become very popular, and has spread all over the world since its conceptualization in April 2016 by Paul Bashir and Asal Alamdari in Australia. Together with DXE and the Save Movement, the Cube/Anonymous represent today’s most popular street actions. At the moment of writing, there have been 4000 demonstrations in 650 cities worldwide, allegedly convincing 215.000 bystanders to take veganism seriously.
My impressions of the one Cube I attended in Berlin were largely positive. I was rather impressed with how I heard the outreachers talk to the onlookers. Most were not pushy. They were asking questions and listening, rather than just blurting out all the facts and numbers on animal suffering they had. I was told that outreachers only approach people who have been watching for a while, and will not bother with those who just walk by and seem not to be open for any conversation.
Outreachers seem to ask people to go vegan or to try Challenge 22 (a vegan challenge of 22 days). From what I read and hear, there’s no desire to ask for “steps” or reduction, possibly because this is not considered an ethical ask (I’ll get back to this).
I did one little test with a couple of onlookers who had been addressed by an outreacher and asked them about their experience of the conversation. They answered that it had been positive. They were not ready to go vegan, but they had definitely received food for thought. I’m not sure whether this couple was checked as a success (“will take veganism seriously”) or not by the outreachers.
It was moving to watch the audience being moved (see if you are moved by that yourself, here)
I can definitely see some very positive aspects to this kind of activism. First of all, it seems to be very successful in attracting new activists. It’s easy to imagine that standing there, trying to reach people, together with other activists, gives one a satisfying feeling – a feeling of actually contributing to the movement and helping animals. No matter how big the actual impact is, this is valuable in itself. The movement needs as many active people as possible (something I consider more important than being “very very vegan”). I can see that many of these people could transition to other kinds of activism (which would be especially important if some day we’d conclude that this form of activism is not sufficiently effective – a conclusion I’m not able to make at this moment).
It’s easy to see that this form of joint activism is more attractive to many vegans than just standing in the street (with leaflets or a sign) by oneself, and that doing things in group provides a sense of community and mutual support (after a Cube, activists often get together for a meal or a drink).
Some possible concerns
There are concerns about the masks as well. Some people I talked to seem to find them off putting. I do understand the purpose of using masks in general: they make it clear to people who are walking by from afar that something is going on there, and this could motivate them to come closer and check things out. Of course, if they find the masks scary, or too alternative looking, they might not.
A second purpose of the masks is that a person with a mask looks more like a kind of statue, and that may make it easier for people to come closer and to watch the computer screens for a while. One doesn’t feel one is being watched. Of course, you could ask the question why the laptops aren’t just put on some kind of stand, without any people having to carry them. Presumably that might take away from the visual spectacle.
As to this particular mask: I’m less sure of the choice. I don’t think many people know or care about the symbolism behind it. And if it would be a bit scary to a sufficient percentage of onlookers, it might be interesting to think about other masks.
The day of the demo was bright and sunny, and that meant that it was hard to see the computer screens. To me, that seemed kind of an advantage. Showing graphic images to unsuspicious onlookers is probably the most controversial part of this form of activism. It’s especially concerning when there are children among the audience. Seeing very graphic images may trigger or traumatize some people. Keep in mind that people have not given their consent and have not been warned about what they are going to see. They just approach the screens, not knowing what to expect, and may suddenly find themselves staring – with their small children – at blood and gore.
This is not to say I believe that negative footage should never be shown. But there is a difference between very bloody and gory footage (animals’ throats being cut in slaughterhouses for instance) and other images that may also very well pull heartstrings, but are not as shocking. Apparently images from this latter category are also used – like this video of a mother cow running after her calves that are being taken away… Stuff like this is not traumatizing or gory, but could very well stay on one’s mind for a long time (subtitles could be added to make more clear what is happening).
I wonder to what extent tests and polls are being done in general, and to what extent Anonymous is confident about results and impact. It seems that as a metric they use the number of “conversions”. Outreachers check a conversion when a person verbally commits to one of three things: 1. Going vegan. 2. Doing the vegan22 challenge. 3. Watching one or some of the vegan documentaries with the intention of learning more about veganism. Outreachers are generally asked to be conservative in their decisions as to whether or not to count an interaction as successful.
Obviously the impact has a lot to do with how many people-hours go into to an action like this, versus how many people are actually being reached. If you stand there for three hours and only reach a dozen people, it seems not the best use of one’s time. I don’t have an idea of the average number of people reached though, and I guess one event will inevitably be better and bigger than another.
Conclusion and some suggestions
Like I wrote at the beginning, my impression is based on limited experience and information. But from what I can see, if you want to do one-to-one outreach (rather than more institutional outreach) and if you want to talk about moral arguments (rather than health, or rather than working with food), then Anonymous and their Cube of truth seem to offer an appealing way of doing activism for many vegans.
Based on what I wrote above, here are some suggestions that Anonymous could possibly consider:
- Check the efficacy of the masks, and use different ones if these don’t seem to be the best ones. Maybe make the whole thing visually a bit more cheerful and attractive
- Consider keeping outright gory images to a minimum and replace them by other coverage that may be more effective and less off-putting
- Do more research about impact in general. Maybe use something like “mystery shoppers”: people from the movement who walk in on the outreachers and pretend they are non-vegans, maybe playing devil’s advocate at times. Other activists could have “meta-conversations”: conversations with people who were approached by outreachers
- Put sufficient efforts in training people in good communication skills. I’ve learned that Anonymous is launching a global online education initiative called “AV Academy”.
- Consider using a wider variety of asks and drop the dogma that we can only ask for veganism/vegan challenges or nothing. Many more people might be open to doing Meatless Monday or seriously reducing their consumption (for some of my criticism of “abolitionism” and the way this term is used, see this piece)
- If at all possible, consider using food. I’m a big believer in food outreach. I realize handing out food makes the logistics a lot heavier, but it would contribute to a friendlier image and combine the head and the stomach. Maybe handing out coupons for nearby vegan restaurants could be interesting.
Update October 2019: it has come to my attention, mainly through posts by Anonymous leaders, that the organization seems to be in the process of radicalizing, forbidding any messaging where veganism is not presented as the moral baseline, and basically not welcoming (except for one time) non-vegans. I find what I have read concerning.
More updates may follow.