Direct Action Everywhere? Sure, but later, please.

One would think that a discussion with, among others, Bruce Friedrich, of the newly founded Good Food Institute, and John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, might be an interesting and enriching chat. I for one, would see no reason not to shut up and listen.

The DXE (Direct Action Everywhere) people seemed to have thought differently, and applied their usual modus operandi: they disrupted the debate. According to this article (I haven’t seen a video yet), a DXE activist opened by asking for a minute of silence and then confronted Mackey. After she was removed from the room, eight protesters went to the front holding “what is Whole Foods hiding?”-signs and chanting their “it’s not food, it’s violence” slogan.

I’m open to learn about DXE’s strategies and theories, and I believe in some ways these guys are more thoughtful and reasoned than many other activists, and certainly nicer than what would appear from their rather agressive (or at least intrusive) methods. Still, I can’t see the point of an action like this.

A DXE disruption

I understand, of course, that there is no such thing as happy meat. I understand that Mackey holds some questionable views (though I would need to read his books and study his views more before I would want to judge them).

But I’m trying to imagine being the CEO of Whole Foods for a moment. Would I be swayed by some people being what you can only call rude in a public setting, where I was invited as a speaker? Would their chanting and holding up signs etc. make me feel motivated to do something? Would I be more likely to invite these people to a meeting in my office to discuss their desires and requests?

The answer to all these questions seem to be negative (though I’m not John Mackey). I’m not even talking about the question whether Mackey, even if he would want to, actually has the power to suddenly introduce dramatic changes at Whole Foods, like to stop selling meat (indeed he alludes to this here). I’m not even talking about the incredible things that Whole Foods has been responsible for in the US, providing a market to numerous producers – often new and small ones – of vegan products, and familiarizing millions of people with plant-based foods and eating. Last but not least, I was told by Bruce Friedrich that Mackey (a vegan) was actually arguing that eating meat is unethical. And this at Stanford University, a breeding place for future movers and shakers. Is DXE sure they want to attack that? 

Going beyond Mackey’s reaction, what does an action like this do for the movement, for animals? The DXE movement, often in the voice of Wayne Hsiung, says it’s about getting people talking, and about movement building and recruiting activists. Sure, it’s easy (well, at least not super difficult) to get a lot of press coverage with controversial actions. Sure, you might strike an emotional chord and attract a number of people who want to join you in holding signs and believing that it’s time for action.

But are these really good metrics for DXE to evaluate the success of their campaigns? There is such a thing as bad press. And all these activists might be stepping into something that’s in the end not productive (the reasoning seems to be circular to me: Why are DXE actions good? Because they bring a lot of more people in the movement. Why is that good? Because these people are going to do more of these actions. But we started out wondering if these actions were good in the first place…).

As vegans we are still fighting an uphill battle against stigmatization, against people believing we are all kinds of things: crazy, angry, negative, preaching, never satisfied… It seems to me that often, DXE actions confirm many of these perceptions.

I’m not against disruption per se. But I don’t believe there is public support, at this moment, for the disruptions DXE does, and I don’t believe these disruptions can create this public support. I can’t prove this, and I’m not trying to. I’m aware of not grounding my statements in anything much except common sense and intuition here. But I haven’t seen DXE made a solid case for their views and actions either. I believe the burden of proof is on them.

Basically, I believe that DXE actions are the right actions at the wrong time, and that the DXE people are maybe a decade too early. In his Changing the Game the late Norm Phelps suggested that when we pick our tactics and strategies, we take into account the time we live in. He wrote:

“This is not a time when we can expect direct strategies to bring success. This is a time for indirect strategies; for planting seeds that will bear fruit in the future when we enter a more favorable era (as we will; these things always run in cycles). This is a time for gathering strength and laying the groundwork for future success.”

The Good Food Institute, represented in the debate by Bruce Friedrich, wants to stimulate research into and development and financing of great meat alternatives, including cultured meat. As Sam Harris recently cleverly observed in his podcast with Memphis Meats  founder Uma Valeti, cultured meat could be the technological breakthrough that catalyses a moral breakthrough. This, for me, is one of the indirect tactic that Phelps described. Once there will be no more good reason left to choose real meat over meat alternatives (it is NOT the case now), we’ll have a much easier time making the point that all meat is unethical. And then DXE can knock itself out and protest to their heart’s content.

But not yet, please.

Right now, I think the energy that DXE has is their best asset. I agree with DXE in that being vegan isn’t enough. We should do stuff. But I think all these caring and compassionate people involved in DXE can find ways of doing things that could be more in tune with the present times and climate, and therefore could be more effective.


26 thoughts on “Direct Action Everywhere? Sure, but later, please.

  1. Another great post!

    There’s been a lot of talk of food deserts of late and, while having no personal experience of Whole Foods, I think that retailers such as them clearly have a big part to play in providing and promoting accessible & affordable veg food. Are they really, then, our enemies?

    Part of the problem with this sort of direct action is inconsistency. Do those involved in the Whole Foods protest then go and protest outside their local Tescos?*

    Or, after they’re done with McDonalds, do they then proceed to protest outside Freddy’s Fish Bar around the corner?

    Do they only buy things from vegan/ cruelty-free retailers?

    Cos if not, then what do their protests mean?

    (*other supermarkets are available 😀 )

  2. Excellent post, except that you go too far trying to be “even handed” and kind.

    >I believe in some ways these guys are more thoughtful and reasoned than many other activists

    In a world of Francione-bots, that is a pretty low bar.

    DxE does tons of harm to our efforts to actually reduce suffering in the real world, as opposed to being popular in the vegan bubble.

    1. lol for the low bar thing 🙂

      i try (try! mostly i’m not succeeding) to not guess at people’s intentions, and always assume they things because they think it’s a good thing to do…

  3. You say that in a future where we would have cultured meats we would have no real reason to choose real meat over meat alternatives, but right now we have no good reason to choose real leather over faux, real fur over faux, or other animal skins over faux alternatives, but many, or even most, of us still do…why will that change when it comes to meat?

    1. vicky, i think we all too easily say we have great alternatives. if an alternative wants to be great, it doesn’t just need to be quality, but it needs to be widely available, at a competitive price, with not too many downsides that the original doesn’t have.
      Even in the case of leather, it seems that there it’s still not obvious to find a product that’s entirely similar (in quality, in properties)… But you’re right, we’re getting closer there, and people still want the real thing. However, i believe that all these alternatives bring us closer to a time when we’ll just be able to shout out the moral slogans (if we want or need to).

  4. Here’s a key point: John Mackey was there, at Stanford, before some of the most influential future leaders in the world, to publicly argue that eating meat is unethical.
    That’s what DxE was attacking.

  5. I think the “Stanford Daily” article says it all, Tobias:

    “The reaction of the audience was generally unsympathetic, with several audience members booing or yelling back at the protesters. After about 10 minutes of chanting phrases such as “it’s not meat, it’s violence,” the debaters left the room.

    Security officers filmed the action but did not otherwise interfere. After 20 minutes, the protesters left the room.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I completely agree with the DXE protesters’ message, but not the delivery method. I could personally understand this type of protest being held at a grocery chain that has not listened or been receptive to our concerns, but as the article concludes at the end…

    “Mackey commented that if the protesters had stayed, they might have found out they were on the same side.”
    With the protesters leaving the room, so too went the voices of the animals the protesters were speaking on behalf of.

    Their voices not heard…and alienation left in it’s place.

  6. I agree that DxE’s energy is their best asset, though it would be great to see some different kinds of creative disruptions that draw the general public in, rather than make them want to walk away. A silent, respectful yet powerful disruption for eg. Can be more effective than a loud attention seeking one. I would participate in a disruption like that but I couldn’t go into a place like whole foods and do what they do there.

    1. Kate, that’s a great idea! Disruption that makes people laugh or engages them in a positive way would be great. And probably a lot more effective. If people are uncomfortable, they mostly tend to remove themselves from the situation. There are exceptions, of course, where people engage with negative disruption, but it doesn’t sound like this was one example of such.

      1. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
        ― Maya Angelou

        1. Taken from David Cain’s blog, “Raptitude”, and while it’s a post about internet activism, I think it holds a world of wisdom for all forms of activism:

          “…most activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right…in our attempts to reduce ignorance we ought to approach others as fellow learners, rather than people worthy of blame.

          The worst thing a person can do for their stance is to deliver it packaged with a moral judgment. This effectively eliminates the other person’s freedom to agree, and may even create a committed opponent to their cause. Doing this to a lot of people reduces the public’s receptivity to the cause altogether. Even if it is the truth, when you hurl it at someone it will bounce rather than stick.

          Changing minds is very delicate work. Great care must be taken not to express contempt for people who don’t (yet) see it your way. Put people on the defensive, and their minds are closed until they feel safe again. The moment a discussion triggers a defensive reaction, the possibility of learning anything is gone for that person…

          Even if one side is factually correct — and this isn’t always the case — the more anger that’s directed at the other side, the fewer of those people will feel safe to change their minds. Cornering people and making them wrong only encourages heel-digging and rationalizing and the touting of bad science, because at that point it’s just an exchange of emotional noise.”

      2. Yeah.. I don’t think there was much point in disrupting a Friedrich/Mackey talk and if anything, would have just annoyed all involved. A disruption like this one however, is a good example of effectiveness.. No one had to say a word, it simply spoke for itself and drew a lot of people in. I personally think the key is to not make people feel personally attacked or uncomfortable, but rather curious and intrigued, awakened or inspired.

  7. Which is more exhausting, constantly tiptoeing around meat-eaters – or constantly tiptoeing around other vegans – in order to be the most politically correct vegan activist?

    1. Tiptoeing does suck! I’ve found that tiptoeing is unfortunately just part of what’s required in some situations if we wish to be effective for the animals, though.
      Other situations call for a louder presence.
      Some situations call for something in between.

      The animals don’t have the luxury of caring about who’s the most politically correct activist. All they care about is what will effectively reduce their suffering.

      Which is more exhausting in the long run?
      -Tiptoeing when it’s needed, even if it means slowly paving a path and progress for the animals?
      -Or not caring about tiptoeing or what’s most effective in each situation, and no progress made (or progress already made lost) due to alienating others?

      “Our bottom line is not how many people we can convince to think exactly like we do, but how many fewer animals are suffering and dying.

      It is time for us to realize everyone is a potential ally – and act accordingly.

      If approached positively and constructively, nearly everyone would help animals.

      By taking lessons from our long history of advocacy, we know that to create a better world for animals more quickly, we must widen our circle of allies. We must reach out to all compassionate individuals, not to promote our own personal philosophies or demand our particular diet, but to help them take one step for animals, be it in their daily choices or in their personal advocacy. This is how we will make a better world, opening more hearts and minds and make real changes for animals.”

      Sometimes tiptoeing is just a sucky requirement for approaching others positively and constructively, so that they in turn will be turned on (instead of off) from making this a more humane world for the animals.

      I feel that slow progress is better than no progress at all; and I think the animals would agree.

  8. Leaving such a bad impression could very well close people off to the animals’ plight for the rest of their lives. As the most rejected leafleter on the planet, I have little doubt that a good portion of my rejections come from people who have a bad impression of vegans and animal advocates due to activists’ public tantrums they have witnessed, heard about or viewed online. Such tantrums are the perfect excuse to dismiss the already uncomfortable topic of animal suffering.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Joe. How ironic is it that the work of promoting veganism is made that much more difficult by (ta-dah!) vegans themselves.

      I wonder how many attendees at a vegan event would be convinced to eat meat if protesters arrived, disrupting the opening meeting, and starting chanting that being vegan was wrong?

      I can’t help but laugh when I think of what the vegans’ reactions would be. Maybe something like the audience at the Whole Food meeting that DXE interrupted?
      “The reaction of the audience was generally unsympathetic, with several audience members booing or yelling back at the protesters.”

      Until we are left with the option of holding a gun to people’s heads to do something, whether to become vegan, to eat meat, or whatever, we’re left with persuasion as our only tool.

      Do I like the idea of having to work to persuade people to understand things they should just know if they had any common sense in my opinion? No, it sucks. But until it’s legal to shoot people for not being vegan, that’s the option we’re left with.

      Well, I guess you always do have the option to shoot people, but doing that and getting arrested probably won’t convince many people to be a vegan like you.

      In a nutshell, we are asking people to be like us; if we want to persuade people to be like us, we have no choice but to behave in ways that appeal (or at least not turn off) those people.

      Of course, that is, if you want be effective. If you don’t want to or care about being effective, then it doesn’t matter what you do. Just don’t get angry or be upset when you see things you don’t like in this world not changing.

  9. “As vegans we are still fighting an uphill battle against stigmatization, against people believing we are all kinds of things: crazy, angry, negative, preaching, never satisfied…”

    Thank you for saying what we have all been thinking.

    DXE disruptions resemble pompous grandstanding, no matter how sincere the sentiment behind them is. For now, PLEASE do not disrupt actual talks where veganism is being represented in order to gain (negative) publicity for the movement.

    I have reached 10x the people in one vegan potluck or cooking class than DXE reach in a disruption, all by a gentle, organized approach of providing strangers with good, plant-based food. No shouting necessary.

    Disruptions are a fine thing, however, when timed wrongly or performed in one’s underwear, they backfire and hurt all vegans. Please stop hurting the vegan movement with this form of thinly-veiled attention mongering.

    I’m just as angry at people for eating and using animals as any other vegan, however, knowing a thing or two about how to persuade human beings, I choose an educational approach over public harassment of strangers.

  10. I’ve had mixed feelings on DxE for a while. It comes down to that DxE does great work for future animals more than today’s.

    I’ve adapted from a conversation about this with a friend:

    You’re operating under the false assumption that DxE disruptions are intended either to convince or recruit their immediate audience. In reality, the intent is to challenge the cultural norms surrounding animal exploitation and to create conversations about animal rights in the broader culture. The more the issue is discussed, the more comfortable people will feel taking actions that demonstrate their opposition to animal exploitation (sharing videos, going vegan, coming to protests/community events, etc.)

    “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

    Another way of framing DxE’s strategy:

    When something is as socially normalized as eating animals, deciding to eat them doesn’t even feel like a choice; it just feels like going about your business…like doing what everyone is doing. The more people are exposed to that norm being challenged, the more those day-to-day actions start to feel like actual decisions…like matters on which there is more than one acceptable opinion. And that kind of environment will enable vegan arguments to be wider reaching and more effective than we’ve ever seen.

    I love your work Tobias, thanks a ton 🙂

    1. thanks for your input. mixed feelings here too about dxe, though i wouldn’t hold it against them that they take (or believe they take) a long term view of things…

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