Published on:

November 12, 2014

Three Emotional Approaches

By Saryta Rodriguez

The extent to which emotionality is effective and appropriate in nonviolent direct actions is a subject of many heated debates within the animal liberation community.  Conventional wisdom has long held the position that as activists, in order to be taken seriously and not to offend our audience to the extent that it will no longer heed our words, we must control our negative emotions when engaging in nonviolent direct action and only demonstrate those emotions which are positive and welcoming.  However, pioneering research in the social sciences tells us quite a different story, indicating that there is not only a place for negative emotions in the animal liberation movement but that negative emotions are of the utmost importance if we hope to truly enact change in the world.

Here, I would like to focus on three prominent emotions and the results they stand to yield in the animal liberation movement: happiness, anger, and sadness.

  The beloved house elf, Dobby, from the  Harry Potter  series.
The beloved house elf, Dobby, from the Harry Potter series.

The Dobby Approach: Have some free cookies and magazines!

On November 10, 2014, Direct Action Everywhere organizers Wayne Hsiung and Brian Burns gave a talk at the University of California at Berkeley entitled, “What if Everything We Think We Know about Social Change is Wrong?”  Early in this lecture, Wayne shared his experience as a student at the University of Chicago engaging in vegan outreach, years prior to moving to the Bay Area and founding Direct Action Everywhere.

Wayne began by sharing with us what he referred to as the “1-2% story”—a popular myth perpetuated within animal advocacy groups claiming that for all of the people to whom such groups reach out with the vegan message, 1-2% of these people will adopt a vegan way of life.  As his experience—and doubtlessly those of many other activists as well—illustrates, this is simply not the case.  Over the course of three years at the University of Chicago, Wayne and others offered free vegan cookies and magazines about veganism on campus to anyone willing to watch the gruesome five-minute documentary entitled “Meet Your Meat.”  Based on the sheer volume of cookies and magazines distributed over this time, hundreds of students should have gone vegan over that three-year period; however, when Wayne’s group reached out to people via email in the weeks following each campaign asking if they had committed to the vegan lifestyle, the group was met with…silence.

Understandably, Wayne asked the question: Where are all the missing vegans?

He and his group acted according to conventional wisdom.  They were not aggressive.  They were not disruptive.  Their demeanor was polite, and their offerings were 100% free of charge.  Still, the numbers simply did not add up.  Why?

One explanation I can readily offer is that, when it comes to free food, college kids will do just about anything.  I am confident, though disappointed, that many of the students who consented to watching “Meet Your Meat” couldn’t have cared less about animal liberation, and simply preferred to give five minutes of their time in exchange for food than money—which, for college kids, seems perpetually to be in short supply.  The combination of a minimal budget and a growing appetite often compels students to engage in all kinds of campus activities without really absorbing the intended messages of said activities.

Another explanation is that those who may have been truly moved by the video lacked the necessary community support with which to maintain their commitment to an admittedly challenging new way of life.  After watching the video, they were sent back into the world from which they had come—a world of parties, midterm exams, spring break, etc.  They were no longer compelled to engage in dialogues about animal liberation; and, as time wore on, their initial passion for the subject waned.

Finally, while watching this video may have opened many eyes to the atrocities committed by the meat and dairy industries, neither it nor the vegan literature dispensed after viewing it provided any instruction as to how to put an end to this once and for all.  The message delivered here was not one of true animal liberation—empowering activists to take the message to the streets—but one of simply, “Go Vegan”—i.e., change your personal lifestyle so that you can feel better about yourself, knowing that you personally are not participating in animal cruelty, while the rest of the world around you continues to do so, uninterrupted.

Brian later shared with us his personal experience as a member of this broken model: the “Go Vegan” model.  As a self-proclaimed math nerd, he was very antisocial in his youth and preferred reading math textbooks to socializing and engaging in dialogue.  The “Go Vegan” approach worked on him personally, as it had on Wayne (as well as myself); he saw something, read something, was repulsed, and radically changed his lifestyle.  However, what he saw and read did not empower him to enact any form of social change.  He continued to be isolated for a long time, living an animal-friendly lifestyle without encouraging others to do so.  It wasn’t until he encountered a strong liberationist community—Direct Action Everywhere— that he became increasingly comfortable discussing his views and the reasons behind them in public.  He is now a passionate and engaging speaker, giving talks not only to members of the DxE community but also at major universities such as UC Berkeley.

Conventional wisdom teaches us that what I’m calling The Dobby Approach (inspired by an image of Dobby from the Harry Potter series that Wayne included on a slide about vegan outreach) is the most effective way to save animals.  Wayne’s experience at U-Chicago, Brian’s experience as a young vegan and my own experience of having been vegan for many years prior to becoming an activist illustrate that this model simply doesn’t work.  Yes, it changes individual minds; but the goal of our movement is not to create individual vegans but to create communities of activists who can support each other (thus ensuring that people stay committed to the cause and don’t abandon it) while spreading the message, inspiring a domino effect.

The Angry Approach: I’m so angry I made a sign!

Conventional wisdom offers us one, and only one, counterpoint to the Dobby Approach: that of the Radical Angry Vegan.  The general consensus among mainstream animal advocate communities is that “Being aggressive, disruptive or confrontational makes us look crazy and unreasonable, and can only hurt our movement.  It damages our credibility while offending the very people we hope to reach!”

Bert Klandermans (a professor of Applied Social Psychology at the VU-University of Amsterdam), Jacquelien van Stekelenburg (head of the Department of Sociology at the VU-University of Amsterdam), and Jojanneke van der Toorn (an assistant professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Leiden University) assert in their article, “Embeddedness and Identity: How Immigrants Turn Grievances into Action” that:

“It is not enough to assess that one is treated unfairly; it is also important to have an affective reaction–specifically anger–to translate that assessment into action.”

Their argument is based on the understanding that it is negative emotions—most commonly, feelings of outrage and offense—that motivate people to engage in direct action.  Think about this in the context of your own life.  How often do you take the time to write positive reviews on Yelp after going to a good restaurant or store? How does that number compare to the number of times you have rushed to your computer to rant after an infuriating experience at such an establishment?

When someone says something with which you agree on social media, you may take the split-second required to “Like” the comment; but in all likelihood, you will not compose a lengthy reply.  By contrast, when someone says something with which you strongly disagree via these same mediums, you may feel compelled to compose a long, aggressive reply in which you rip apart the offending statement point by point, citing multiple examples to the contrary and including links to articles and videos that support your position.

While I understand and value the insights provided by the above team of Dutch social scientists, I have to admit that my personal experience as an animal activist simply does not correlate with these findings.  Ample individuals have told me that, while they care immensely about non-human animals and want to contribute to the cause, they shy away from it specifically because they have been confronted in the past by the stereotypical Radical Angry Vegan.  Their personal, negative experience with this one Radical Angry Vegan has since led them to the misconception that all animal liberationists are angry, judgmental, vicious people—not the kind, compassionate individuals we often claim to be.

So, how do we reconcile these findings?  We know that, statistically, the Dobby Approach doesn’t work; and while we know that there is some value to being open about our anger concerning the atrocities committed against non-humans, I for one am not fully convinced that The Angry Approach is the best way to inspire social change of this magnitude.  Might there be a third option?

The Somber Approach: The slaughter of non-humans is a true tragedy, and we must mourn the victims while advocating for the end of non-human massacre.

  DxE's October 2014 International Day of Action:  Ghosts in the Machine , Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.
DxE's October 2014 International Day of Action: Ghosts in the Machine , Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley, CA. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

My two favorite Direct Action Everywhere International Days of Action in 2014 so far have been Silenced Voices (July 2014) and Ghosts in the Machine (October 2014).  For our Silenced Voices demonstration, we entered restaurants around the world where meat and dairy are served (in the US and some other countries, the focus was on Chipotle; in countries where Chipotle has little or no presence, DxE branches visited establishments such as McDonald’s and Burger King), with recordings on our phones, laptops and other electronic devices.  Entering in silence, we then coordinated the start of our recordings, so that they would all play simultaneously and increase in volume as time wore on.

The recording included the real-life sounds of:

  • A hen crying for her life as she was turned upside-down and her throat was slit.
  • A piglet being castrated.
  • A cow having her horns seared off with a hot iron.
  • A pig, squealing, surrounded by the corpses of his friends and relatives, moments before being murdered with a stun gun.

The sounds first played individually, for about 20-30 seconds each; then, for about a minute, all of the sounds played at once.  Following this, one activist at each location gave a brief speech explaining to consumers what they had just heard, and imploring them to no longer support such atrocities.

At the Bay Area demonstration that I attended, for the first time since I moved to the Bay Area in March and started engaging in direct action here, not a single customer antagonized us.  Also for the first time (to the best of my knowledge) since my arrival in the Bay, one customer was so moved by our demonstration that she stopped eating and began to cry.

For our Ghosts in the Machine demonstration, we targeted grocery stores around the world (Bay Area activists engaged at Berkeley Bowl’s larger location).  We entered the grocery stores in funeral attire, carrying a black, cardboard coffin.  We then placed the body of a victim of violence—in the case of Berkeley Bowl, the corpse of a hen—into the casket and held a memorial service for her, as well as all of the victims on display in the meat and seafood counters behind us.  Various activists delivered brief eulogies for the departed, and we solemnly exited the store in an organized funeral procession.  (We regrettably had to place the body of the hen near the door as we exited, so as not to be criminalized as thieves.)

While the employees at the meat counter behind us were incredibly hostile and aggressive throughout our demonstration, the customers were not.  Whereas at past demonstrations customers have violently pushed past us, varying in vocalization from muttering insults under their breath to shouting into our faces or ears, in this case I felt that a path was cleared for us as we left.  I did not find myself having to squeeze around anyone; and in briefly glancing at some of the faces around me both during the memorial service and upon our exit, the majority of the faces I encountered wore expressions of genuine interest and even sadness—rarely hostility, and perhaps only once amusement.

What these demonstrations have taught me is that, more effective than the Dobby Approach and the Angry Approach combined, is the Somber Approach: Focusing on the tragedy being inflicted upon the victims, rather than trying to sway the public via cheerful consumerism or condemning the choices of those who simply don’t understand what they’re doing (yet).  Both Silenced Voices and Ghosts in the Machine, perhaps more evidently than any other demonstration DxE organized in 2014, truly focused one hundred percent on the victims—not on us, and not on commercial veganism.  These demonstrations forced people to view the bodies on display in a new light: not as dinner options but as corpses of individuals who neither wanted to nor deserved to die.  Victims whose only crime was to be born of a species other than homo sapiens.  I am convinced that the spectators at these two demonstrations were considerably more moved, and thought about what they had seen for a significantly longer amount of time, than the spectators at any of our other demonstrations—many of which include chanting on street corners, which some perceive as aggressive and hostile.

This is not to say we should not be disruptive; in both of these demonstrations, as with all DxE demonstrations, we did disrupt the status quo.  Disruption and confrontation are paramount to our success.  We cannot let business go on as usual. We cannot allow people to continue ignoring the problem; but these two demonstrations in particular illustrate how to be both disruptive and confrontational without perpetuating the stereotype of the Radical Angry Vegan.

On a more personal level, all movement-building aside, these types of demonstrations resonate most powerfully within me.  I am not nearly as angry with meat- and dairy-consumers as I am pitying of them, for I strongly believe that these industries hurt humans almost as much as they hurt non-humans.  When I think about these industries, my gut reaction is not one of rage but one of overwhelming sadness.  So, in my case, it is far more emotionally authentic to engage in a funeral procession or to encourage folks to hear the voices of the victims crying out in pain than it is to shout from the rooftops, “GO TO HELL, MEAT-EATERS!” 

In closing, I should note that the Somber Approach is not without anger; but rather than the Radical Angry Vegan brand of anger that lashes out at people and makes them uncomfortable, this anger serves as fuel for enacting positive social change (and, yes, still makes people uncomfortable—but for different reasons).  The anger bubbles beneath the surface and pushes us as activists forward, just as an instigating comment on the Internet fuels us to write a reply—sometimes aggressively and offensively (Radical Angry Vegan-style) but, in some cases, in an intelligent and well-thought-out manner (Constructive Anger-style).  Thus, this model does not directly contradict our Dutch social scientists so much as it pushes their declaration one step further, distinguishing between constructive and destructive modes of anger.

Not all responses or actions fueled by anger are themselves angry, and what the Somber Approach enables us to do is put our anger to good use while maintaining one-hundred-percent focus on the victim.  The kind of anger inherent in the Somber Approach does not create an Us vs. Them dynamic—that is, us wonderful, perfect vegans versus the heinous and immoral Everybody Else—but rather emphasizes the Us with Them dynamic: we humans standing boldly before our fallen non-human brothers and sisters, unabashedly mourning them in the same way that many Americans would mourn their dogs and cats at home.

I believe that, ultimately, we are all most effective when we remain true to ourselves; and the Somber Approach is what rings most true to me.