How to Get Glenn Beck to Put Your Issue on the Table
by Wayne Hsiung
Over the past two weeks, with three major press hits, millions of people across the world have been exposed to the debate over animal rights -- and DxE's #ItsNotFoodItsViolence campaign -- in a significant, serious, and meaningful way.
The LA Times, the largest paper in the second largest media market in the country, posted a piece discussing our campaigns and the meaning of "speciesism." (Our response here.) TheBlaze and Glenn Beck's influential TV and radio show both published angry rants about liberal animal rights activists going too far. (Our response here.) And, just this morning, Truthout published a powerful piece by my co-organizer Priya Sawhney on the intersections between racism, sexism, and speciesism. How did we get our issue on the table?
In one word: disruption.
I've written and spoken previously about how disruption has been a necessary element to every successful social movement . It has been described by distinguished political scientist Sidney Tarrow as "the strongest weapon" of social justice. It was the original form of direct action, going back all the way to Socrates, who was killed for speaking in places where his words were unwelcome, and defined most powerfully in America by Martin Luther King, Jr. And it works through three primary mechanisms: inspiring activists; provoking the public; and broadening the circle of debate.
That is exactly what our campaign of nonviolent direct action has achieved in the past year. We have jumped from 1 to 66 cities, mobilizing an inspiring and diverse array of activists across the world. We have provoked public attention and dialogue by some of the biggest names in media. And we have pushed the debate over animal rights into circles where it had previously been unheard.
And it is only by pushing our words and actions beyond social convention and comfort -- yes, to the point of disruption -- that we were able to make this incredible progress.
Consider: if we had adopted less disruptive or emotionally wrought tactics, would anyone have cared? Almost certainly not. We are a grassroots operation with no money, no history, and no famous names. The LA Times' of the world could not have cared less if we had picked a less provocative target, or adopted less disruptive tactics. Educating calmly outside of a McDonald's for bigger cages is not just ethically problematic; it's a story that's stale and old. "Protesters stream into 'humane meat' restaurant," on the other hand, is a headline well worth writing.
"But it makes us look extreme and crazy!"
And yet, at the same time, and despite our campaign's rapid growth and many successes, we've faced fierce internal criticism. It's worth emphasizing that this is nothing new. In every movement, disruption has been met by fierce critics from within movements for change. (Indeed, criticisms from within the movement caused King to write perhaps the most famous letter in the history of activism.)
One powerful example came up as I was examining the early documents of one of the most successful and famous activist networks in history: the SCLC (which, like DxE, had a central objective of inspiring networks of nonviolent direct action across the country). An early pamphlet defending the waves of sit-ins by students in suits and ties -- essentially, disruptive street theater -- had an interesting description of the reaction to the actions in the community. "It has electrified the Negro adult community with the exception of the usual Uncle Toms and Nervous Nellies."
The pamphlet was perhaps unfair to early opponents of the sit-ins. After all, there unquestionably was an intense backlash to the early waves of nonviolent direct action that swept across the country in the early 1960s. Common sense might have predicted that triggering this sort of reaction was a bad thing. After all, who among us wants to be seen as shrill, weird, or insane? (All words, incidentally, that were also used to describe William Lloyd Garrison.)
But common sense routinely fails us when it comes to social change. And what works on changing individuals often has no relevance at all on changing society. It turns out that the backlash, far from being counter-productive, triggered massive growth and sympathy for activists -- first and foremost, by finally getting their issue on the table for serious public discussion. The old adage often attributed (perhaps falsely) to Gandhi -- "First, they laugh at you. Then, they fight you. Then, you win." -- turns out to be true.
Direct Action is a Value, not just a Tactic
There's so much more to say, but let me end my point with this. In Glenn Beck's surprisingly thoughtful discussion of DxE's recent #DisruptSpeciesism action (in which he says, among other things, that he won't eat veal because of the cruelty), he mentions that, in listening to Kelly's heartfelt speakout, he was at first mobilized to outrage by the story because he believes it is about a human victim. Indeed, he has so much outrage that he wants to join the protest! "I'm thinking, this is horrifying! I'm taking my napkin and tossing it angrily on the table right now. My gosh, how can I help you?"
Then he learns the victim is a chicken. And he just laughs.
This, of course, is the definition of speciesism. A violent act that, at first, is a horror and outrage becomes.... a joke simply because the victim is a member of a different species. But before we leap forward to condemn Glenn Beck, we should ask ourselves, "Am I doing any better? If these were human children on the plates, how would I respond? And if I don't respond the way Beck suggests that we should respond -- by getting angry, by speaking out, and yes, even by disrupting the status quo -- am I really living up to what I say I believe?"
We live in a world where violence is routinely made normal. Where the bodies of gentle creatures who meant us no harm are routinely objectified, violated, and then even consumed in ways that would be widely perceived as nightmarish, if such things were to happen to a human being. We are constantly told that we have to accept these horrific practices, as if they were no different than personal choices as to what to wear.
But nonviolent direct action rejects that abhorrent value system. True, direct action comes in many different flavors and forms. ACT UP made clear that even a personal conversation, if coming from a strong spirit of dissent, was a powerful form of direct action. But direct action is, fundamentally, not just a tactic or strategy but a value... a belief that all is not well... and a disruption of the way things are. And when we take direct action, we are not just tactically leveraging our limited resources to make huge waves (as important as that is), we are living up to our deepest and most heartfelt values, speaking as the animals would if they could, and building our dream of a better and more beautiful world -- one disruption at a time.