Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) are the animal rights activists behind the attention-grabbing disruptions of meat eaters in restaurants. Their action in Rare Steakhouse in Melbourne Australia, on Jan. 30 2018, sure got a lot of headlines. Dozens of protesters went into the restaurant, chanting on megaphones and holding posters with pictures of suffering animals. Some vegans applaud these tactics and participate in them, others call them cringeworthy. Here are some thoughts.
Two reasons to start the revolution
I can imagine that people take to these in-your-face tactics for two entirely different reasons. Reason number one could be that, with all the animal suffering and killing, vegans feel frustrated and want to speed things up. I sure can understand that people feel change is too slow.
The other reason seems almost like the opposite of the first: we’ve seen a lot of news coverage in the last two years or so that testifies to the growing popularity of plant-based eating: vegan startups doing really great (sometimes with investments from the meat industry), new vegan products being sold out as soon as they show up, celebrities going vegan, spectacular-sounding growth in the number of vegans, and so on. I presume that information like this may embolden some vegans and lead them to think that the time is ripe for action of this sort. The revolution is upon us!
My belief is that neither the ongoing suffering of the animals and our resultant frustration, nor the good news and our optimism, should inspire us, at this moment, to organize actions like restaurant disruptions. I’m not talking about direct action tactics in general. Indeed, I have no problem with these when they are well targeted (see below). But, I think in this case, the action is misguided and misdirected.
“Don’t tell people they are wrong”
In what follows, I’ll be paraphrasing a lot from a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival 2017, titled “To persuade others, pay attention to their values”. Panelists were Matthew Feinberg, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and Rob Willer, professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford.* The session is worth listening to in its entirety, but at one point, the moderator asks the researchers if they can give some advice on what not to do when you want to change someone’s mind.
The first thing Feinberg and Willer come up with, based on their extensive research, is: do not tell others that their values or their morals are wrong – unless you want to create an argument rather than persuade them. One’s moral values are so much part of one’s identity that to have them challenged very much constitutes a threat or reproach. People usually react defensively when threatened – in the moral domain, this is called “moral reactance”. I’ve previously written about one form that this reactance may take: do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of the one who does something good. The biggest problem with this is not that activists are ridiculed or judged negatively, but rather the fact that because of this reactance, people will be even less likely to change. (One tentative indication that this reactance took place in Melbourne may be found in the fact that the restaurant’s social media following has increased significantly as a result of this incident.)
So, what do these guys suggest as a solution? They suggest trying to reframe the issue in terms of values that your audience cares about. I’ll write about that in another post.
“Don’t engage in extreme behaviors”
The second thing the panelists recommend that activists shouldn’t do is to engage in extreme behaviors. What the researchers found in terms of a lot of protests and other activism is that the more extreme the tactic is, the more likely it is to turn people off. Feinberg and Willer here identify a paradox: if you want attention for your cause, you need the media. But, the behavior that the media is most likely to pick up on is the extreme behavior that is most likely to turn off the average reader or viewer, who, as a result, will be less likely to support your cause. The researchers add that, interestingly, activists who are themselves involved in these extreme behaviors, when polled, indicate that they find these tactics effective, not just for getting people’s attention (which they are correct in), but also for persuading people – (which they are not correct in).
(Side note: many vegans outside of DxE seem to believe, like me, that these tactics are not effective – and this difference of opinion within the vegan community seems to be, in and of itself, an interesting topic for the media.)
On the Facebook page of Melbourne Cow Save – who I’m assuming co-organized the restaurant protest – we can read: “This action wasn’t about educating people about veganism. It was about taking non-violent direct action to end the exploitation and killing of all animals. It was to force animal rights into the public consciousness through non-violent direct action”.
Yes, they were definitely able to get their message out there and get people talking. But is that necessarily a good thing? Getting an issue into public consciousness is not the same as changing that consciousness (and consequently, in the best case, the behavior). There certainly is value in raising awareness and helping to make a cause the topic of conversation, but if it is done in a way that mainly causes moral reactance, it’s probably far from ideal.
Cows aren’t puppies
I believe one of the mistakes DxE people are likely to make is to have too much confidence in the parallels between their cause and other social justice movements. They often refer to the non-violent civil disobedience and direct action organized by Martin Luther King or Gandhi, claiming – rightly, I think – that these tactics were instrumental in bringing about the desired change.
While I do not deny that there may be important lessons to be drawn from other social justice movements, we need to be mindful of the fact that the animal movement is not in the same phase at this time as the civil rights movement was when people used these tactics to advocate for an end to racial discrimination. We need to keep in mind where our movement is in terms of the level of public support for our cause. I can imagine that this kind of direct action would go over much better, and have a bigger impact, if it were about something on which most people agreed with the protesters. An DxE activist is actually quoted as saying, “If they [the restaurant] were selling the bodies of dead puppies in that place and we disrupted it, we’d be hailed as heroes.” Well yes, probably, but whether vegans see a difference or not between cows and puppies, the audience at large does.
It’s good to meet the audience where they’re at, and not expect them to have our values or adopt those values on the spot. For example, disrupting a restaurant where puppies are being eaten would be very effective in a Western country where most people share the value that dogs are companions, not food. However, in some parts of the world, eating dogs isn’t seen in the same way, and, therefore, a disruption would not be nearly as effective. Meanwhile, disrupting people eating beef in a country like India, where commonly held views on cows are very different from those in Western countries, may actually be effective.
Let’s give people no excuse not to listen
So, no, these activists, as the spokesperson realizes, will not be seen as heroes. The fact that this matters is not an ego concern, and undoubtedly, the protesters have no problem not being liked. Indeed, to some extent, they may actually welcome being considered a pain in the butt. But, we vegans are still a tiny group who can still use – indeed, require – much more support than we currently have. We need to do things that enlarge the support we get, rather than alienating potential allies. Even though things seem to be getting better, 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. We should not feed or confirm these perceptions (which are sometimes true, but most often not), and we should certainly not give people any excuse not to listen to us.
Having said all this, let me try to be the most charitable I can be – of course, my heart is with these activists – and play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s see if we can come up with arguments in favor of such restaurant disruptions and other radical tactics.
- Maybe such tactics make more moderate animal rights activists and other vegans seem more approachable and rational when compared to this so-called radical element (this is the so-called “radical flank effect”), and that could be a good thing. However, it’s equally possible that many people who still believe it’s acceptable to eat animal products will continue to equate the less radical parts with the radical part and, thus, consider all vegans as radical or extreme. It’s not true, and not right, but it’s all too human.
- One good thing I can see about DxE (and also about some other forms of street activism) is that it seems to attract and recruit a lot of activists. Vegans who until then had been passive, get fired up seeing DxE demos and become activists (see the explanation for the pull of this further down this post). And, being an activist (i.e., doing something more for the animals than just not eating them), is important. But, of course, if we have serious doubts about whether at least these DxE actions have a positive impact, more people participating in them wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. If there is a discrepancy between actions that attract activists and those which are effective, then it seems to me we should see if we can attract new activists with these maybe not ideal actions, and then try to move them towards more effective forms of activism, maybe organized by the same group.
- I will also grant that there is a lot of uncertainty about what works, what works better and what doesn’t work. Often, it is not easy at all to measure the impact of certain forms of activism. Defenders of DxE tactics will say that even if people react very negatively to the protests at first, the protests might plant seeds, and these seeds may later sprout and change people’s minds. I consider that possible, though given the significant risk of alienating potential allies by these actions, the burden of proof that these actions are effective should be on DxE.
- Finally, I’m quite open to the idea that some day restaurant disruptions like this could be quite effective, even though I personally may never like how they feel. I can imagine that in a world where we have most people on our side, it can be helpful to give the laggards the feeling that they are, well… lagging. But, that time is not now.
The warm glow of group solidarity
One other advantage these actions can offer – although they are not the only type of action to do so – is to give activists energy and a sense of belonging, as well as increasing group cohesion. Let me bring in Feinberg and Willer one last time. When they’re asked about what people get from coming together with others that share their values, this is their answer – and I think it will speak to a lot of vegans:
“You get a lot of things out of binding together with morally similar others and expressing moral judgments about the same things that you think are wrong and should be condemned, and finding togetherness and praising things you think are morally praiseworthy. You can develop a sense of morally-based group solidarity, which is a powerful thing. (…) It’s a great feeling when you join together with like-minded others and find yourself celebrating this commonality that goes all the way down to the depths of your convictions. People’s values are their deepest held beliefs, by definition. They’re willing to fight and die to defend their values. And so, when you can come together with other people and celebrate these values and share them, and discriminate between yourselves and those who don’t hold those values, that can be a powerfully transcending experience and generate strong feelings of trust within the group. It’s not strange and it’s not objectionable that people do that, that they are pulled to that sort of thing.
It is, indeed, not wrong or objectionable to go for these feelings, and especially in a world where few people agree with us, it is normal that we seek out the confirmation of like minded-people. But we should be careful that the warm glow we get from doing activism does not blind us to the actual impact of our actions.
We must be careful, in other words, not to confuse feeling good and doing good.
Want to read more about vegan strategy and communication? Check out my book How to Create a Vegan World.