Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

April 8, 2014

Why DxE Brings the Message Inside

by Wayne Hsiung

There has been an unusual sight over the past few months in fast food chains around the country and (increasingly) around the world. Animal rights activists, with DxE and otherwise, are taking their message inside the places that serve animals' mutilated bodies.  Why?

Speaking out while others are eating, while not illegal, is a violation of one of our most important social traditions: breaking bread. When we sit down to eat, we seek nourishment, and comfort, and peace. We bond with those who are around us, and set aside our differences. Michael Pollan, among others, has written about the importance of “table fellowship” and how socially uncomfortable and alienated he felt in his brief spell of vegetarianism.  Pollan’s solution? Don’t just give up on saying anything about the ethical problems with eating animals; give up the vegetarianism, too!

The mainstream animal rights movement has, until this point, mostly accepted Pollan’s framing of the issue by admonishing us for speaking honestly about eating animals… while animals are being eaten. And there are superficially plausible reasons for this. The sociology that Pollan discusses -- the importance of eating to social cohesion and identity -- is undisputed. Food restrictions have been used for thousands of years as tools of oppression and exclusion.  Many religious traditions would forbid even the presence of those who handled foods that were deemed “unclean.”  And there is an undercurrent of intolerance, and even outright racism, to many of the criticisms of foreign food practices.  In a free society, diverse eating practices -- like diversity in our other basic needs such as autonomy or physical intimacy -- should be not just tolerated but positively encouraged. As Chipotle emphasizes, vegans and carnivores (including, apparently, multinational corporations) must… unite!

But is there something missing in Pollan’s beautiful story? Why are activists all over the world breaking this ancient tradition, and speaking out in defiance of “table fellowship”?

Disrupting Business as Usual

The first reason is that dissent is vital to achieving social change, and that dissent is only effective if it is powerful, confident, and yes, even (morally) disruptive. One of the ironies about the conventional discourse in animal rights is that it’s so far removed from the debate among those who actually study social change. There, the question is what form of confrontation -- violence or nonviolence -- is more effective. (At last year’s Farm Sanctuary hoe down in Orland, it was not surprising to me to see that the only social scientist among the panelists -- the brilliant political scientist Timothy Pachirat -- embraced the necessity of direct action to effecting social change.) But in animal rights, our allegiance to decorum and Pollan’s “table fellowship” leaves us paralyzed, and we are not supportive of, and even outright hostile towards, honest and heartfelt dissent. “Don’t say that here,” we say to ourselves. “People are eating!”

This is a huge problem if our goal is to make a world good, not for vegans, but for animals. Pioneering feminist, political consultant, and Rhodes Scholar Naomi Wolf commented on this recently after spending a year studying the history of dissent and protest in America. Activists through our republic’s history have achieved their demands only when they were not afraid to “disrupt business as usual.” Wolf notes that demonstrations today have become so bureaucratized, institutionalized, and integrated into the fabric of ordinary life that they don’t serve this disruptive function any longer. They don’t convey to the public that “all is not well.”  

One example of this. At our last SF protest on the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign, a San Francisco police sergeant politely approached me, in front of the closed Chipotle, and asked, “Does anyone want to get arrested?” The notion behind this was that civil disobedience has become so domesticated that the police tolerate and even encourage it, and want to assist activists in making it happen! Protest, when so cleanly integrated into the status quo, becomes mere theater, and the inspiring demonstrations of the 1960s are transformed, in Wolf’s words, into a bizarre Disney-land fantasy.

It is precisely because speaking out when others are eating is a disruption of conventional social norms, then, that it is such an important and powerful tool for social change. Passersby, customers, and even multinational corporations can easily dismiss and write us off, if we do not push our message in the places where it is most unwelcome. But when we transform a space where violence has been normalized into a space of dissent, we can jolt, not just individual people, but our entire society into change. And because we have now expressed that our cause is important enough to violate a powerful social norm, we leave a mark in people. “Wow, what the heck was that! They’re so outraged by something that they felt the need to come into the store to register their complaint.”  

Creating Viral Stories

Going inside a restaurant, and breaking the rules of Pollan’s table fellowship, does not just convey a stronger and more confident message, however. It also feeds a cycle of viral storytelling that has been vital to every movement’s growth.

There are too many examples of this from previous social movements to even count. But here are a few that come to mind. The first four students to perform a nonviolent sit in were met with hostility even by fellow people of color. “Fellows like you make our race look bad.” But though controversial, their story took off… and eventually triggered a massive wave of sit-ins around the country. The pioneering feminist Emmeline Pankhurst was widely criticized for her astonishing acts of defiance, including arson and vandalism on the British Parliament, against a patriarchal society that denied her the right to vote. But strangely, for all the hatred against her, people could not stop talking about her and her campaigns. Finally, and more recently, a seemingly ordinary Tunisian fruit vendor, in defiance of social norms, doused himself with gasoline in front of the governor’s mansion and burned himself alive. People said he was “crazy.” But his small act of defiance, triggered a movement, the Arab Spring, that changed the face of the world.

Conflict and controversy, in short, feed a campaign cycle. “Young people distribute information calmly about economic inequality” would never have reached even a college newspaper. “Protesters Occupy Wall Street!”, in contrast, took over the New York Times.

Direct Action Everywhere’s own growth is an example of this phenomenon. Despite being a grassroots network with no resources and only a handful of founding Bay Area members, we have seen explosive growth over the past few months In part because we have been willing to tread where other groups refuse to go, figuratively and otherwise. We have been willing to breach the traditional rules of table fellowship and confront animal abuse in the space where it’s most regularly and obviously glorified. Love or hate us, that helps us get our issue on the table, and in a strong and uncompromising way that sets our movement up for long term growth and success.

Empowered Networks

The third and perhaps most important reason to go inside, in violation of the rules of table fellowship, is that it gives our activists, and other activists who watch our demonstrations, the inspiration to speak more strongly in their personal lives.  It offers support for others who can now say,  “Well, if they can speak out inside of a restaurant, then surely I can offer a few words to my friends!”

As social animals, we humans are heavily influenced by the behavior of our peers. And this as true of activists as it is of other people. So when we see a movement comprised entirely of passive action, we become passive ourselves. When we have a movement that socializes its adherents to “not make too much of a fuss about this,” then we will be inclined towards complying with the social norms of the day. And worse yet, as the groundbreaking psychologist John Jost has shown, subconscious biases will allow us to rationalize this sort of accommodation as good for the world.  

Going into stores, rather than merely standing outside, is a way for us to send a jolt of electricity through our own movement. So many individual activists have shared with me the empowering effects of demonstrating in places where they had previously been scared to demonstrate, of speaking in places where they had been previously been scared to speak. And there have been powerful empirical demonstrations of this effect, even for viewpoints and movements that have little substance behind them, e.g. the Tea Party.  Speaking loudly and proudly in defiance of social convention, it turns out, inspires others to do the same. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why we encourage our activists to step outside of their comfort zones,  past the boundaries of tradition and the table fellowship, and into the stores that our selling the dead bodies of our friends.

Summing up

One of Direct Action Everywhere’s biggest supporters in the Bay Area, the wonderful Diane, does not look like a radical activist. She does not talk like one either. Soft-spoken and always polite, there is a kindness and calmness that runs off of her like water. And yet Diane has come with us into places of violence for the past 6 months, and, more recently, has even begun to lead the charge by seizing the megaphone and leading our chants: “One struggle, one fight! Human freedom, animal rights!”

Something Diane wrote, many months ago when she first began to participate in DxE’s events, has resonated powerfully with me over the past few months. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but the words were something like this: “Change begins when you push yourself out of your comfort zone.” Those words wonderfully summarize my thoughts on the matter. We simply have to push boundaries -- indeed, create a movement that pushes boundaries -- if we want to see change.

 Diane's story shows the power of pushing boundaries in making change.
Diane's story shows the power of pushing boundaries in making change.

For Diane, that has meant regular participation in our demonstrations and an increasingly vocal role -- and breaking the rules of Pollan's "table fellowship." 

We want you to do the same. Because it’s only with your support that we can overcome the inertia of the table fellowship -- and finally bring direct action for animals everywhere.