Learning and Connecting (East Coast Tour - Part 3)

Learning and Connecting

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the third in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

Wandering through a dark castle filled with piles of seeming rubble. Arguing with a secretly wealthy man who donates almost all of his money to help others, still lives with his mother, and refuses to wear shoes. And being inspired by the enthusiastic support of a few animal rights celebrities… but, even more importantly, the humble and good-hearted souls who comprise the animal rights movement in the Northeast.

Things could hardly get better.

But first, an apology. I meant to post short updates to the blog on a near-daily basis. But various problems and projects have gotten in the way. So blogging time has been hard to come by. The craziest moments, however, are hopefully behind us. So I hope to catch up a bit, now.  Let’s start with some early reflections.


We flew in on the red eye, and neither Ronnie or I got much, if any sleep. This was unfortunate because our first two meetings were with two of the smartest and most impressive people we’ll meet on the trip.

First up was my friend Alice, an enterprising Harvard Law School student who, after training to play the viola at conservatory, switched to a legal career and was as successful as a paralegal and law school applicant as she was as a musician. Alice is part of an incredibly smart and provocative group of young climate activists at Harvard who are pushing the school to divest from fossil fuels. And, in many ways, their campaign is not unlike DxE’s. For one, the ultimate end goal is social normative, rather than economic. There is a recognition that even Harvard, for all its seeming economic might, is just a flea compared to the fossil fuel industry. So the goal in the divestment campaign is not to deny Big Oil Harvard’s dollars but rather its intellectual, social, and moral credibility.

The thinking goes something like this: if we can convince the Harvards of the world to be so ashamed of fossil fuels that they will no longer invest, it could create a cultural cascade that spreads through our entire society. Alice and her colleagues are using Harvard -- sterling reputation and all -- as a lens through which we can understand the bigger problem: catastrophic damage to our climate. And as I talked to Alice about the Harvard campaign, I could not help but think of Chipotle.

We talked a lot about the similarities in strategy. The divestment campaign, like DxE, has many autonomous groups around the country working toward the same objective. Like DxE, it has pushed traditionally passive activists into bolder and more disruptive action. (A Harvard student was arrested during a civil disobedience for the first time in recent history.) Like DxE, it is focused on creating cascades of social and moral influence. There will be much to learn and share in the weeks and months to come, and I’m hoping that I can stay in touch with Alice as she and her group continue working hard to save our planet.

That evening, we had our second gathering with Jeff Kaufman, our host for the evening. Jeff is a prominent figure in a movement called Effective Altruism (EA). Spawned from the work of Peter Singer, especially his famous call to combat global poverty, Famine, Affluence, and Morality (which has become such a significant paper that it has its own acronym -- FAM), EAs use evidence to determine the most effective methods to make the world a better place. While many EAs I had discussed of late have fanciful (and I think non-falsifiable) beliefs about so-called x-risk -- risks to the existence of the human race, or life itself (everything from evil artificial intelligence to nanotech triggered grey goo) -- there has been increasing attention given to animal rights within the EA community.

Jeff, as a prominent blogger, community leader, and role model for EAs everywhere, has had an influential voice in trying to understand the most effective tactics for animal advocacy. But strangely, he’s not himself an animal advocate.

“I’m interested for methodogical reasons,” he told me. “I want to promote good thinking on these issues.”

And good thinking, Jeff suggests, has been in short supply.

This is not a problem unique to animal rights. Indeed, even in Jeff’s priority cause -- alleviating global poverty -- there is shockingly little evidence suggesting that our collective solutions have had much positive effect. But animal rights seems unhinged from the broader literature on development. Insights and concepts that are part of the common parlance in development -- e.g. the importance of institutions, the difficulty of social prediction, the power of inertia, the necessity for skepticism -- are still missing in our discussions of animal advocacy. Jeff is helping us change that with provocative posts like this one: Pay other people to go vegetarian for you?

No shoes. No worries. 

No shoes. No worries. 

This comes despite the fact that he views animals as morally insignificant. And yes, he eats animals. To some, this might be reason to condemn Jeff as a monstrous and selfish person. But this can’t possibly be right. By any objective standard, Jeff and his wonderful wife Julia are among the most selfless people in the world. Jeff, a high paid engineer at Google’s Boston office, donates 50% of his income to charity, still lives with his mother, father, and two sisters, and is famous for often refusing to wear shoes. Julia, in turn, matches Jeff's donation rate, and is a social worker who has written beautifully about our obligations to the poor… about how many of the things that we take for granted as belonging to us are, in fact, granted to us only by the hands of fate.

Words that she shared with Jeff, many years ago, have resonated with me strongly since I first read them on Jeff's blog. 

It's easy for me to buy a milkshake at Bev's if I'm in Carytown. But if I were living in Bolivia and that two or three dollars could help my little sister pay school fees, would I still buy the milkshake? Of course not. At the end of the year that two dollars goes to Save the Children instead. The hardest thing is remembering the kids in Bolivia when I'm in Carytown. It always makes me feel like yelling or crying when my roommate tries to talk me into going with her to the ballet or opera, because I don't know how to explain to her that the money for that ticket isn't really mine—it should really belong to someone who needs it, and I have to give it to them.

This sort of compassion is uncanny -- and is exactly the sort of sentiment we need more of in the world. But the cause of animals, to many people, remains sadly remote. Jeff doubts the consciousness of animals. Julia, in turn, recently posted her worries that a too-aggressive form of veganism -- the dominant framing for animal rights -- is necessarily exclusionary and classist. We spoke into the late hours of the night on these and other issues. And while I could sense increasing sympathy for what we at DxE (and the animal rights movement generally) are trying to accomplish, there was no epiphany moment.

Instead, I went to bed with two important lessons. First, to make any headway, we need to make a real place for ourselves in the modern Left. Even among the most passionate do-gooders in the world -- indeed, perhaps especially among such people -- animal rights is a cause that is, at best, not understood, and, at worst, openly derided as ridiculous, trivial, or even oppressive. There is not a single strategy for us to change that perception, but, as I have suggested previously, (1) increasing our message strength and confidence and (2) our movement’s diversity are key.

Second, though -- and this is just as important -- Jeff and Julia are examples of why we must proceed with humility. Though neither is particularly interested in animals, they are fiercely devoted to making the world a better place -- and have made far greater commitments than the vast majority of the social justice community. In short, far from being bad people, they are two of our planet’s best people.

Of course, doing one good, or even great, deed does not excuse other bad ones. And I would never suggest that we should back down from our belief that every animal has the right to be free from harm. After all, it is one of the basic ideas of this tour that our movement needs to inspire the strength to say what it truly means: that every bite of meat is an act of discriminatory violence.

But we should not, and cannot, go about our work with a sense of superiority, entitlement, or (worst of all) power over those around us. Far from it, especially when our message itself is confrontational, it is important for us to proceed with humility and even generosity towards others. Let’s speak honestly and directly when we feel our animal brethren’s lives and bodies are being disrespected, physically torn to pieces right before our eyes. But let’s come to that position from a place of love and nonviolence.

If you’ve had a confrontation about speciesism, offer to buy someone a meal afterwards. Acknowledge areas where your interlocutor may, in fact, be better than you (as both Jeff and Julia are, in so many different dimensions). And above all, don’t give up hope.

Perhaps by far the most inspiring aspect of our tour after all, is how, in city after city, the idea of animal liberation is bubbling up to the surface. It’s still largely unnoticed by the mainstream. It needs time and nurturing to develop. But it is an idea that has been independently discovered by communities, cities, and even entire nations. And when progressives all over the world are converging on the same basic set of beliefs, it is a powerful sign that the writing is on the wall. That is reason, not just for hope, but confidence. The world is changing faster than we think.