Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

December 2, 2015

Are "Nice" Vegans Making Us Look Bad?

Are Nice Vegans Making Us Look Bad?

Social change depends on norm-enforcing zealots, not passive supporters.

by Wayne Hsiung

 Gandhi was a classic
Gandhi was a classic

"Don’t push people too much.” “Avoid being judgmental.” “Be nice.” Mantras like these are common even in radical animal rights circles. Yet, one of the most distinguished figures in the history of sociology shows us that when it comes to social change, “being nice” doesn’t cut it. What the animals need, rather is a strong, public, and collective stand -- stands such as the Liberation Pledge -- because only such “zealotry” can create the powerful norms necessary for real and permanent change.


James Coleman was a name spoken with reverence when I was at the University of Chicago. A pioneer in the application of mathematical methods to sociology, Coleman incited controversy by showing, statistically, that children of color benefited immensely from being in integrated schools but that these benefits were being undermined by “white flight. ” This unpopular finding nearly led to his ouster in the 1970s; today, in contrast, his thesis is widely accepted. But while Coleman is most known for his breakthroughs in educational policy and sociological methods, one of his most cited papers is on the role of "zealots" in social change, and on the two factors that allow for such zealots to develop.

Coleman begins his famous paper with a classic question: Why do people contribute to projects for the public good? Each individual, after all, is usually not necessary to the completion of such projects, so it would only seem “rational” for most of us to sit out. This is what social scientists call “free riding” – backing out on a community cleanup project, for example, because the streets will probably be cleaned regardless of whether we personally help out. It’s easier for us to sit back and wait for someone else to do all the work!

But Coleman made an important observation: While free riding is quite common, occasionally we also see the opposite -- extraordinary contributions to the common good despite the lack of a selfish interest. In movements ranging from Gandhi’s Independence Movement to anti-authoritarian Solidarity in Poland, a small number of people became so enthused by a project that they bore extraordinary costs to see them come to life. How did such movements induce contributions by so many (sometimes at the cost of the contributors’ lives) when the personal benefits to the individuals were so small?

The answer, Coleman, argued was “zealots” who would take it upon themselves to hold others accountable. Zealots were the ones willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure that others cooperated with a new vision of the common good. The zealots’ primary tool? Denying “free-riders” the benefits of a movement, or socially sanctioning them for refusing to pitch in. (This was exactly the role of pledge-takers in the movement against foot-binding.) But unlike many scholars at the time, Coleman sought to understand such zealots by looking, not to individual motivations, but rather two elements of social structure.

The first element was the existence of a dense social network. Large public projects, such as social movements, require social connections to facilitate communication, coordination, and accountability among movement activists. Without such connections, each individual activist, looking only at the costs and benefits for themselves, would have no incentive to become a “zealot.”

Networks, once formed, have power to overcome self interest with community encouragement and support. Consider the example of team sports. Coleman pointed out that team sports often motivate people far more than individual sports, despite the fact that the rewards for team sports go to the team as a whole rather than just the individual. This happens because the team provides both encouragement and sanctions to ensure that team members continue to contribute.

The same is true, of course, of social movements. Networks and communities help individuals see beyond their selfish interests and inspire them to keep fighting for the common good. This is not only a solution to burnout; it also makes activists fight harder than if they were fighting alone, as they find value in the bonds of solidarity and acknowledgment from being part of a team.

The second necessary element of social structure is the development of mechanisms, within the social network, to encourage "zealots." No one likes to be the zealot – the person in the room who has to make unusual efforts to point out that something has gone terribly wrong – but someone has to do the job. The only way to ensure that such zealots continue doing the work they are doing, in turn, is to create channels through which other community members can affirm the zealots’ work. Gandhi, for example, had no inherent personal interest in confronting British rule (much less facing beatings and imprisonment). But he was sustained in this costly work by the acknowledgment and support of countless non-zealot supporters.

If Coleman’s analysis is correct – and zealots are crucial to sustaining new norms – then the conventional wisdom (i.e. “be nice”) in animal rights is serving as a major stumbling block to our success. We should be encouraging – not dissuading – zealots, as zealots are the driving force that will lead to the creation of new norms. They are the ones who are willing to go on offense, to undertake large personal sacrifices to ensure that new ways of thinking are affirmed. Indeed, experimental work by researchers at CalTech and other institutions supports the notion that norms are created by social confrontation rather than persuasion. (Moral norms, according to this work, are defined by the willingness of society to sanction those who violate them.)

All is not lost, however, for “nice” vegans. While they cannot serve the norm enforcement role of the zealots, they can provide an equally-vital function: supporting zealots. A few short words of encouragement can make all the difference after a difficult rescue. Protest signs need to be paid for. And someone needs to pick up the occasional activist who ends up in jail. But this should not confuse us from the central role of the social movement: to inspire “zealots” who will nonviolently confront.

Coleman’s career, interestingly, was a powerful example of his own “zealot” thesis in action. Coleman was unapologetic in condemning bad ideas, and he bore a huge social cost in doing so. But he fought through the backlash and ended up revolutionizing 3 fields of thought. We should follow both his theory and his personal example in being unrelenting, brave, and even confrontational in support of what we know to be right.

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