Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

In the aftermath of the Francione debate, DxE’s cofounder explains why veganism is not enough.

by Wayne Hsiung 

In yesterday’s discussion, Gary Francione repeatedly stated that DxE is “anti-vegan” – implying that we condone the use of animals. This is false. At DxE, we believe that it’s important to avoid personal contributions to animal exploitation, and we have strong norms against using animal products within our community. (Indeed, many of our organizers – including me – take this a step further and refuse to eat with others who are eating animals. Here’s Lauren Gazzola explaining why at last year’s AR conference.)

The difference between DxE and Gary is that, at DxE, we also believe that our personal actions are not enough. That if veganism is a political principle and not a personal choice, we must live out that difference in action.

Let’s use a hypothetical to explain the difference.  

Suppose you come across a mob of people beating a child with a stick.

In the face of nightmarish violence, a global movement for animals grows. #LightThePath to liberation.

“Join us,” they say. “It’s fun.”

The first response to the mob is, “Everyone else is doing it, so I might as well, too. And who knows, maybe they’re right that it’s fun.” This is the unthinking reaction that most people give to the brutal violence raging against animals. While we often condemn them for this choice, moreover, it’s important to note that most people don’t make a real choice. They never say to themselves, “Between torturing and slaughtering billions of gentle baby animals, or not torturing and killing… I choose torture.” As with other historical participants in atrocity, they simply accept the way things are; they are products of the system to which they were born.

Our most basic perceptions of the world – even something as simple as the length of a line – can be hugely distorted by cultural or social influence. And it’s difficult for ordinary people to see atrocity as atrocity, when it has been “made normal.” So yes, participating in mass violence is a shameful and unethical choice, but let’s always keep in mind that, ultimately, this participation is a systemic and not individual problem. (See the recent talk we gave at Northwestern for more on this distinction.)

The second response to the mob is, “I’m not comfortable with beating a child. It’s wrong. So I’m not going to join you.” This is veganism – non-participation in a violent practice. And while it’s certainly preferable to beating the child ourselves, it still falls far short of the moral baseline. Because where we have the power to take some action to help someone who is being abused – whether a human or non-human child (and note that virtually all animals killed by humans are, in fact, children) – we have a duty to do so. Indeed, many jurisdictions make it a crime when we fail to act to assist a helpless person in need.

This is especially true when we have benefitted in some way from the victim’s abuse. For example, while ordinary citizens do not have a duty to intervene in or report violence, if someone joins and partakes in the benefits of such a criminal conspiracy, the law requires them to take action to stop that conspiracy.  For example, suppose that you have been paid to be the getaway driver in an armed robbery. It’s not enough to say, “I won’t participate” after you’ve already been paid. After all, if you have benefitted from the crime, you have a responsibility to stop it.

As beneficiaries of 10,000+ years of human supremacy, and of continuing violence against animals both in captivity and the wild, we are all in this position. We are beneficiaries of a violent conspiracy. Our homes, our gadgets, our streets, and, yes, even our vegan food are products of violence against animals.  (For every animal humans kill for food, there are perhaps 1,000 who suffer and die to habitat loss and climate change.) And simply attempting to remove ourselves, when we continue to benefit from this system of violence, falls far short of our moral duty. So yes, participation in violence is shameful and unethical, but so too is inaction in the face of violence. So too is veganism without action.

But then what is the moral baseline? This brings us to our third response to the mob: action.  “Hey, stop what you are doing!” we might say to the men who are beating the child. Those of us who can muster the courage might try to physically shield the child from the blows. We might call 911, or try to rally other neighbors to help us save the child. We might even use physical force to defend the child and take away the stick. But if we truly seek to fulfill our moral duty in the face of the largest atrocity in history, we must do something beyond inaction.

But if activism is the moral baseline, why do so few vegans take action? There are at least three important reasons. The first is that they have not been taught to do so. Partly due to pseudo-scientific research, our movement is so focused on personal consumer behavior that it loses sight of its reason for existence: not vegan food, but the animals. I’m distressed by the number of conversations among AR activists that start with the tone and color of justice, and end with the tone and color of a vegan cupcake. But this is not a personal but a movement flaw. We need to collectively stop talking about where we can get vegan French fries, and start talking about animals and their lives. We need to make action for animals, not vegan consumerism, the unrelenting focus of our movement.  If people are not taught to act, they will not.

The second reason is that people have no idea what action to take. There is extensive research showing that, if people are presented with too many options, and those options have uncertain effects, they will often be paralyzed by indecision. “I want to help animals, but how?” Anyone who says they have a 100% clear answer to this question “What action?” is deceiving us, but there are big picture insights, from both the practice and scholarship of social movements, that should inform our decisions. One of those big picture insights is that movements rise or fall on the basis of their ability to mobilize and sustain nonviolent direct action. It turns out doing so is rather hard because early movement adopters face ridicule, rejection, or even repression. But it’s not nearly as hard as one might think. In fact, all you need is 3.5% (and probably far less). If you can mobilize 3.5% of the population in sustained and nonviolent civil resistance, you win. Every single time.

DxE's model in one simple infographic. 

This is the reason for DxE’s existence. We don’t need to convince 100% of the public to “go vegan.” We need to inspire those who are already vegan to take action. To give people the mentorship and support they need to speak and act strongly and publicly for animals. To build the organizing capacity, the social institutions, and perhaps most importantly, the culture that our movement needs to change the world in one generation. To create activists, connect them in networks, and inspire those networks to take nonviolent direct action.  

But can we actually succeed? This brings us to the third reason for vegan passivity: hopelessness. Recall the hypothetical we started this discussion with, of a mob attacking a child. While morality requires us to intervene, where we can, it does not and cannot require us to intervene if there is no way to actually stop the violence. Morality cannot require the impossible.

If the raging atrocities against animals are unstoppable, then, we have no obligation to take action. Action requires hope. And hope, in our movement, is seemingly in short supply. Many advocates suggest that the end of animal exploitation might occur hundreds, if not thousands of years from now. They say, with confident regret, that people will most likely always exploit animals. We’ll never get to 3.5%.

But this is nonsense. Indeed, it is a cognitive bias that a distinguished psychologist at Harvard calls “The End of History Fallacy.” Because it turns out, change does happen, and it happens far faster than any one of us can predict. Just a few decades ago, marriage equality would have been unthinkable. Only 1 in 4 supported it, and even progressive politicians rallied to “defend marriage” against the insidious influence of “the homosexual agenda.” A professor of mine in law school, one of the most distinguished progressives in the legal academy, said that, when he started as a professor decades ago, the term “gay rights” sounded like a criminal conspiracy. Yet 20 years later, the tides have turned. Over 60% of the population now supports marriage equality (and a much higher percentage of young people), and it has been enshrined as a constitutional right. Gay rights is no longer a criminal conspiracy. It’s what every upstanding American citizen believes.

We will achieve the same progress for animal rights. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll showed that 32% of the populationhigher than the percentage who supported LGBTQ equality in 1996 – currently believe that animals should have the “same rights as people.” Moreover, this percentage is increasing quickly…. while animal exploiting industries get smaller. (Agriculture, for example, is a vanishingly small percentage of the American economy, and our calculations show that it would take a mere 1-2% of US GDP to rescue every single animal currently in captivity and place them in a sanctuary for the rest of their lives.) Further, animal issues are blowing up in our broader culture. The Dodo founders have pointed out that animals are among the most shared subjects on social media, and an astonishing 79% of people in America say they must be protected from “all suffering and harm.” As Frank Bruni of The New York Times points out, windows into the world of animals are growing, both big and little. And the more we see of animals, the more we realize: they are us. They are our family members, our children, our friends. And when we see they are us, we see, too, our duty to defend.

In the face of all these incredible reasons for optimism, it’s time for us to discard our cynicism and doubt. It’s time for us to be inspired, not to lonely inaction, but empowered activism. And it’s time for our movement to take a new and more confident tone: That we are strong. That we are smart. And that we are inspired.

And we will succeed.