Wayne Hsiung
Published on
July 15, 2015

Why are we afraid of radical change?

Bill Maher’s problem is not hypocrisy or ignorance. It’s something deeper: a fear of the radical.   

by Wayne Hsiung

Earlier this week, comedian and talking head Bill Maher wrote in The New York Times that Costco needed to free its hens… by switching to “cage free” facilities. Those of us who have actually seen so-called cage free facilities were dismayed by the idea that some people would read Maher and get the idea that cage-free means “free.” In fact, cage-free facilities have the same confinement, abuse, and mutilation of battery cage facilities. (And add a host of new problems, too.) The mortality rates are often even higher than battery facilities, as the hens attack and cannibalize one another in the disgusting concentration camp conditions.

In today’s New York Times, my co-organizer Priya Sawhney brought Maher’s – and the public’s – attention to the horrible conditions in even “cage free” facilities. Priya’s letter makes the point that if our concern is over abuse, shouldn’t we be ending animal agriculture entirely, rather than making a minor modification (with uncertain benefits) to a system of mass violence?

 Radical change is within our reach, but only if we are ready to openly defend it. 
Radical change is within our reach, but only if we are ready to openly defend it.

But there’s a broader phenomenon at work here. Maher and others are not uninformed or hypocritical. They legitimately seek to end abuse, and that is a laudable sentiment. But they are also highly influenced by their social environment – including the environment within the animal rights movement – that goes out of its way to accommodate to conventional norms, including norms relating to the use of animals. We are told that enslaving and killing animals is “normal” and that we therefore can’t challenge this violence too aggressively. Rather, we should calmly present information to the public – and celebrities such as Maher – and happily slide down the slippery slope to animal rights.

The problem is that societies don’t change because we’re educational or nice. And individual people do not change because of information or rational argument. (A recent study shows this is true of even moral philosophers. A whopping 60% of them say that eating animals is wrong, many times the rate in the population at large. Yet their behaviors are shockingly no different than the public at large.) They change, first and foremost, because the norms around them change.

And how do we get these norms to change? Advocates so often say to us that we can’t push too far, or ask for too much, because the only way to achieve success is to get our foot in the door. But this directly contradicts decades of research into social movements showing the power of disruption and confrontation to generate attention and shift social norms. On everything from women’s right to vote to environmental protection, the biggest and most fundamental change has been caused by radical moral and political movements. (Don’t believe me? Listen to Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel.)

The trick, of course, is that the “early adopters” of such a strategy face humiliation and embarrassment precisely because of their supposed radicalism. Cambridge Professor Thomas Taylor laughed at Mary Wollstonecraft when she suggested the radical idea of women’s equality. The British ridiculed Gandhi for daring to push the radical concept of self-determination. And people laugh today at the radical divestment movement growing on university campuses (even Harvard!) to extricate our economy from fossil fuels. But the laughter and pushback were not reasons to stop. To the contrary, they were reasons the movement absolutely needed to push on because, in the face of such laughter, if they didn’t keep pushing, who would?

The moral of the story? We should be encouraged by statements such as Maher’s. They are a sign that our movement is on the cusp of a breakthrough. But the way for us to achieve that breakthrough is not to sit back and rest on our laurels. We need to keep pressing society – keep pressing figures such as Maher – to take us down the path, not to bigger cages or better deaths, but a radically different world. One where every animal is safe, happy, and free.

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