What Ringling Bros. Can Teach Us About Protest (Hint: It Works)

Ringling Bros. today announced the phasing out of its elephant shows. What can this tell us about effecting corporate change?

Ringling Bros. today announced the phasing out of its elephant shows. What can this tell us about effecting corporate change?

Nonviolent protest has an astounding track record of success. Recent movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab Spring have used protest to force discussion when previously there was silence, pressure politicians into passing legislation, and even topple governments. Moreovoer, the renowned political scientist Erica Chenoweth has shown that movements only need 1-2% of the population participating to effect massive and systemic change.

But despite this overwhelming evidence, some say that protest does not have a place in the animal rights movement. Emphasizing the sheer scale of violence against animals, the entire human race’s complicity in this violence, or the currently low support for animal liberation in the public, some decry protesting as woefully ineffective.  In the "three-year-old theory" of corporate behavior, the movement is too weak, and corporations so capricious, that activists must run their campaigns as if they were dealing with an antsy toddler: speak slowly and kindly, since if you stop being nice you risk inciting a temper tantrum. In face of consensus that corporate progress is forced by "fear and loathing", some fear the only option is through voluntary coaxing of corporations.

The good news? They’re wrong, and evidence abounds. Just today, Ringling Bros. announced the phasing out of using elephants in their circuses, self-admittedly due to animal rights protests. SeaWorld stock is worth half of what it was a year ago, and is attempting desperately to placate its outraged customers while silencing protesters. Finally, Whole Foods has announced the development of previously absent egg-laying standards in its GAP animal welfare program, in light of DxE’s investigation and open rescue of one of its largest Certified Humane egg suppliers. Protests, not pleading, have seemed to work.

Of course, none of this is close to enough for animals. Ringling Bros. will continue to exploit horses, tigers, and lions among other living creatures, SeaWorld is far from dead yet, and Whole Foods still profits in the billions by killing fellow earthlings. Moreover, changing companies is only a small part of the path we must take towards animal liberation - much more important than incremental institutional changes are fundamental shifts in social norms about animals, which is the main focus of DxE's activism. 

But even with this in mind, these moves by are indicators of a growing and powerful social movement for animals. They also serve as evidence that protest is effective - even, and perhaps especially, in the animal rights movement. And finally, they refute the popular "three-year-old" theory of corporate behavior. We know that protest works, and a growing, international movement is putting that knowledge to practice. Join us this March in saying what animals, not corporations, would like to hear.