Social Change is a Sticky Staircase

Social Change is a Sticky Staircase (and Other Reflections on the Chipotle Campaign)

by Wayne Hsiung

Activists at a recent Chipotle protest in San Francisco. 

We set out the case for the Chipotle campaign in a recent talk: Chipotle's Seven Deadly Sins. But for those of you who want to dig a little deeper, here is a Q&A with some information about our campaign's strategy and goals. Enjoy! 


What do you think of efforts to increase humane treatment of animals and increase vegan options, as compared to an overall strategy for achieving animal liberation?

Incremental reforms are necessary, but they should be sustainable and part of a long term movement strategy. Unfortunately, that's often not the case. Consider the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958. The Act, which is far more ambitious in scale and scope than any animal welfare legislation considered by Congress since, was passed with widespread public support, so much that President Eisenhower is reported to have said, "If I went by mail, I'd think no one was interested in anything but humane slaughter." But, without a broader liberation movement behind it, the Act has had little effect in stopping violence against animals. Violations of the HSA are routine, inspectors often feel powerless to enforce it, and there has been a massive increase in animal abuse since its passage.

The difficulty is that the world we face, as animal advocates, is like a sticky staircase rather than a slippery slope. Incremental reforms are easily reversed or ignored -- the strands of the sticky staircase pull you back to the last step -- because prevailing norms and structures undermine a reform's continued relevance. Whenever we consider a reform, we have to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Is this reform sustainable in a speciesist world (or, instead, does it depend on institutions and actors -- such as the USDA or Chipotle -- that have an interest in undermining our movement's momentum)?
  2. Does this reform help build a movement for animals that will foster new progress (or, instead, does it pacify outrage about animal abuse and lead to institutional backsliding)?

When we ask these two questions, I think we'll find that conventional efforts to improve treatment and increase vegan options are problematic precisely because they lack any strategic long-term mooring. The two efforts, incremental reform and long-term strategy, must go hand in hand for either to be effective.


What is your response to Chipotle's claim that the company shares some "common ground with your group"?

The classic distinction between direct action and other forms of activism is the distinction between confrontation and compromise. As advocates of nonviolent direct action for animals, we have to be vigilant about compromising our values to the status quo. We have to, as William Lloyd Garrison put it, be as "harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice." The truth is there is little common ground between animal advocates and a multinational corporation that murders millions of animals. We want the world to someday see animal abuse as equivalent to human abuse, and we can only do that by calling out corporations such as Chipotle for what they truly are: engines of violence.


What is your response to those who say that animal rights activists should not protest companies like Chipotle because it is making an effort and has vegan options--in short, that activists should protest the bad/worse companies and that Chipotle is better?

The first response to this question is that Chipotle is not a better company. Indeed, that is exactly the point of the campaign! Chipotle is the third largest publicly traded restaurant company in the world. It is increasing its violence against animals faster than virtually any other corporation on the planet. And it profits immensely off of claims of humane treatment. For example, it instantly doubled its sales of carnitas after it switched to a supposedly "natural" supplier, and began marketing its meat as "responsibly raised." 

But as industry reports, mainstream media, and even independent class action lawyers have found, Chipotle's marketing claims are a fraud. In fact, brutally violent acts such as debeaking and castration are standard practice in "natural" or "humane" farming. The company still sources from so-called factory farms, which drive animals insane from confinement. And, most importantly, killing can never be a "responsible" or "humane" act. Killing is not a kindness; it's horrific and brutal violence. 

When you look at Chipotle's cultural impact (i.e. its effect on memes), the picture gets even worse. Chipotle is leading the world in spreading pro-meat propaganda -- financing a documentary called American Meat, putting up billboards that simply say "MEAT MEAT MEAT", and hosting huge festivals with hundreds of thousands of attendees who hear about how we can cultivate a better world by killing animals. Fifty years of research in psychology and social change has shown us that ideas matter. And Chipotle, perhaps more than any other company, is laying the ideological foundation for the mass murder of animals. In short, even if all of the marketing claims were true -- and they're not -- that would not make Chipotle a "good corporation." It would still make Chipotle one of the worst.

The second response to this question goes to a fundamental question as to what the animal rights movement is about: is it about helping vegans perpetuate a consumer lifestyle? Or is it a social justice movement focused on stopping violence against animals? If the latter, the vegan options at Chipotle are irrelevant. Chipotle is one of the largest and fastest growing animal killers in the world, regardless of whether it has vegan or humane options. Indeed, if the so-called humane options are offered as part of the prevailing "What we eat is a personal choice" narrative, then those options can actively undermine our momentum. Instead of being inspired to protest companies like Chipotle, potential activists and allies are pacified by the vegan bribe. "You choose meat. I choose tofu," they say to themselves. Left unspoken, however, is the stolen choice of the individual whose body was violently and involuntarily taken to sustain that compromise.

There is a long history of corporate interests attempting to co-opt a movement with false concessions, and it is often the companies that engage in moral posturing (the Enrons and BPs of the world) that have the most to hide. We can't allow our movement to be co-opted or deceived by cheap marketing tricks. If all it takes to convince us to put down our signs and our bullhorns is a cheap vegan burrito, then our movement will never muster the mettle it needs to succeed. But the momentum behind our campaign, in a very short period of time, tells me that our movement does have what it takes. We're tired of apologizing and compromising and begging for even the most meaningless reforms. We're ready to speak and act directly for what we believe: the right of every animal, human or non-human, to live a life free from violence.

Third and finally, it's important to note that campaigns are not collaborations. They are adversarial in nature. You would not stop to praise your opponent in an election campaign, the moment you scored a political point. Neither would you back down in an important lawsuit , simply because your opponent made a minor concession or change. There is this quite admirable notion in the progressive left that all activism (indeed, all politics) should be done with a friendly face. But this has little basis in the science or history of social change. Indeed, it is contradicted by the example of successful animal rights movements such as Israel's, which has jolted an entire nation and tripled the population of vegans in merely one year. To succeed, we have to be, not meek and accommodating, but strong, confident, and unrelenting in pursuit of our goals. (Bill McKibben makes a similar point about climate change activism. The plague of the climate change movement is that it has never, until now, had an enemy.) 

Corporations are not sensitive souls that need constant praise to continue on the right path. They are ruthless, profit maximizing engines that are legally obligated to focus only on shareholder returns. To sustain any concessions -- and even more importantly, to sustain public dialogue -- we have to keep their feet to the fire. Indeed, if you are concerned about the vegan option, then our campaign is perhaps the best way to ensure that it stays on the menu


Some people say that protesting against companies like Chipotle -- i.e. companies who have embraced humane treatment of animals and offer vegan options -- will confuse the public.  What is your response?

The truth is that our entire movement's message is too often confused. We say that we believe in animal rights, but we are not confident enough to say that we believe in a world where every animal -- even those that are traditionally ignored such as farm animals -- is safe and happy and free. We yell and scream when defending one species that is cute and cuddly, but smile and apologize when advocating for another species that is even more brutally abused. And, too often, we compromise our mission and our values for the sake of temporary and superficial victories.

The irony is that, if we stick to our basic values, the message is powerfully clear. "It's not food. It's violence." That's not a difficult message to appreciate. And in the context of human oppression, no one would argue that being opposed, for example, to Apple's sweatshops is "confusing" because Apple also sometimes sources from non-sweatshop conditions. (In fact, Apple is one of the most responsible corporations on ethical sourcing.) Doing one good deed, for manipulative marketing reasons, does not absolve a company from responsibility for doing many other bad ones.

In short, the confusion over the Chipotle campaign is a product of our lack of presence and confidence. But if we can develop a real presence in progressive politics -- by saying clearly and strongly and constantly that violence is wrong, period -- the message of our movement suddenly becomes very clear. Indeed, inspiring that dialogue within our movement is one of the most important (albeit unstated) objectives of our campaign. As a movement, let's take on our opponent's strongest case and still be confident that we can win. Let's be absolutely clear about what we believe: that violence against animals is always wrong.


Are you calling for people to boycott Chipotle?  Why or why not?

Boycotts are a tactic and not a value, and they are a tactic that is only effective when you have sufficient support to either affect a company's bottom line, or trigger public dialogue.

We did some preliminary estimates that suggested that, even in a best case scenario, a boycott would affect less than 0.05% of the company's revenue. There are simply too few animal rights activists to make any dent, via boycott, on a company this big. And while passively deciding not to buy from a store can be a meaningful symbolic action (I personally do not eat at Chipotle, or any other restaurant that serves dead animals, for this reason), it's a small part of what makes a great campaign great. As a tactic, it lacks the emotional impact, drama, and energy of a truly inspirational campaign. 

So I would much prefer that supporters speak or act against the company. Organize a protest. Tell your friends about humane washing. Or even just mention to the manager that you're an aggrieved customer, if and when you buy a burrito. Staining the company's reputation in the public sphere -- through creative and nonviolent protest -- can affect not just the tiny handful of activist consumers but the millions of non-animal rights activists who shop at Chipotle all over the world and, more importantly, trigger a much-needed dialogue on the status of non-human animals. 

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