What if Everything We Think We Know about Social Change Is Wrong?

What if Everything We Think We Know about Social Change Is Wrong? (VIDEO)

by Brian Burns

Despite the explosive growth of grassroots movements in recent years ( #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, to name a few) and their extraordinary effects - in the last case, literally toppling governments - many in the animal rights movement ardently oppose protests of any kind. Citing dubious studies or anecdotal evidence, three assumptions have come to dominate modern thinking on animal advocacy:

  1. Change individuals. Focus on creating vegans one by one.
  2. Change behavior. Peoples' behavioral and economic choices, especially their dietary ones, should be the main goal of advocacy, not their beliefs.
  3. Be nice. In order to effectively create these changes, we should not provoke or disrupt, but rather lead by example and appeal to peoples' already-held beliefs.

But what if everything we think we know about social change... is wrong? In a recent talk at Northwestern Law School where he was previously a professor, DxE organizer Wayne Hsiung presented the work of some of the greatest thinkers in behavioral economics, sociology, and social justice to present a very different model of social change. Citing mathematical sociologist Duncan Watts on network science and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the power of nonviolent direct action, Wayne outlines why DxE's approach differs from the mainstream:

  1. Create activists. Activists, unlike isolated vegans, unite to form powerful coalitions to broadcast the message of animal rights, and in turn inspire more activists in cascades for change. Case study: Duncan Watts' experiments with online networks.
  2. Change beliefs, especially social norms. "Morality is higher than economics," in the words of economics Nobel laureate Robert Fogel, and peoples' beliefs have powerful effects on their behavior, and the beahvior of others. Case study: Robert Fogel's analysis showing that antebellum slavery was challenged and defeated by a powerful political movement in spite of its growing economic power.
  3. Challenge and provoke. Protest disrupts violent routines, demonstrates activists' determination, and broadens the circle of debate. Case study: the work of Cornell sociologist political scientist Sidney Tarrow, who says that protest is "the strongest weapon of social movements".

In the second half of the presentation, I explain how DxE puts these insights into action in our flagship campaign, It's Not Food, It's Violence. Each result has a practical analogue that DxE puts into practice.

  1. Build a network for activism. We create strong, empowered communities for animal rights. This includes DxE Connections (a peer to peer activist support network) DxE Meetups (weekly meetings where community members share experiences, skills, and insight), and an international support network (including a new organizer mentorship program) for communities around the world to unite for animals.
  2. Challenge ideas. We focus on changing culture and social norms by challenging deep seated beliefs about speciesism and the humane myth - ideas often lost in meatless-mondays gradualism.
  3. Take nonviolent direct action. We go inside the very places where animals' bodies are mutilated and sold, and deliver the strong message that the animals deserved. While difficult and subject to ridicule, the evidence is clear that provocation is powerful.

All this information is presented with much more detail (and even some humor!) in the talk hosted by Northwestern Law and sponsored by Vegan Chicago. Give it a watch!