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Brian Burns

Why Beyoncé Going Vegan is Bad for Animals

Why Beyoncé Going Vegan is Bad for Animals

By Brian Burns

This Monday, Beyoncé announced a vegan diet as her key to weight loss on Good Morning America. And while her fans rushed to the blogosphere to voice their disappointment, animal rights groups proclaimed victory. This announcement, along with many others this week - including Ben and Jerry’s soon-to-come vegan ice cream and Miley Cyrus’ similar dietary change – is hailed as strong evidence that the animal rights movement is winning.

But it isn't. Why? Because veganism for its own sake is not good for animals. Instead, the promotion of the vegan diet without animal rights messaging actively harms the animal rights movement. Moreover, the movement’s focus on mass consumer dietary change has little historical or empirical basis, despite being our movement's main strategy.

To be clear, both I and DxE believe nothing short of a vegan diet is morally permissible, because killing and eating others is wrong. But we must acknowledge that focusing on getting people to go vegan, rather than other tactics to help animals - such as protest, community building, or simply encouraging people to talk to their friends about animal rights - is a deliberate choice by the animal rights movement, and this choice is not optimal.  We can do different and do better than hailing celebrities such as Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus. Below are a few reasons why we should consider other options for advocacy rather than simply focusing on consumer change.

1. Veganism frames society’s conversation about animals suffering as one of consumerism and dietary choice rather than justice and equality.

When presenting any issue, framing is extremely important. Is climate change about saving people and the planet, or do-good liberals interfering with productive industry? Is high defense spending about imperialism and killing, or ensuring defense for a strong America? We should ask ourselves, then, how we are framing the suffering of animals - and the answer is that veganism and dietary choice frames animal rights in favor of our enemy.

If you've ever argued with someone who eats or kills animals, you must have heard, "it's my personal choice to eat meat!". Why then, are we making this argument for them? By framing animal rights as an issue of dietary change - titling animal rights leaflets "Your Choice", for example - rather than one of justice and equality, we set ourselves up for failure.

2. This framing disempowers vegans from speaking strongly for animals.

By focusing on creating individual dietary change rather than communities for activism, we create a dispersed nation of lonely vegans. This loneliness is extraordinarily disempowering, and causes vegans in best case to remain silent on animal rights, and in the worst case to go back to eating animals again (84% of the time, in fact).

Moreover, consumer vegan messaging induces complacency and stops vegans from helping animals. Because the central focus of our movement is to "go vegan", many get the sense that once they change their diet, they're done, and need to do no more for animals. But animal rights, as we all know, only begins with our diets. We need to inspire people to do more for animals by not just believing in animal rights themselves, but by bringing animal rights to their family, their friends, and the world.

Finally, say they decide to do just that. With a focus on veganism for veganism's sake, animals' lives often get lost in the message. For example, consider an interchange of which I myself have been very often guilty: you're eating with a friend, and they ask why you ordered the veggie burger rather than the steak. "I'm vegan", you respond. Not, "Animals deserve to live, they are not our food". Not, "In all ways that matter, animals are like us - and violence against sentient beings is wrong". A serious opportunity for dialogue and change is missed, and the personal choice framing is reinforced.

3. Veganism as a strategy has no basis.

Simply put, the vegan boycott as a tactic for helping animals - in place of others, such as protest and community building - is failing. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2012, the number of vegetarians has declined in the last decade, and "Vegetarianism in the US remains quite uncommon and a lifestyle that is neither growing or waning in popularity".

Perhaps then we're just not there yet. Perhaps with continued efforts at vegan advocacy we will reach some critical mass of vegans, which will in turn create a social cascade for animal rights in society. Unfortunately, this model is tried and tested - look at the nation of India. Some regions report as high as a 40% vegetarian population, yet animal rights is fading as violent western habits spread into the country. Vegetarianism, historically framed as a personal or religious choice, is an outdated fad. And while enormous change is beginning to happen for animals, this is due to grassroots animal rights organizing in contrast to - rather than in support of - the consumer vegan messaging so present in the movement today.

Finally, boycotts on their own have not succeeded in other social justice movements without the accompaniment of direct action campaigns. The best possible example of this is the Free Produce Movement in the early 1800s, which sought to fight the American slave trade by boycotting all goods made by slaves. The boycott was tried, then decried as a failure by the leaders of the antislavery movement, who moved on to much greater success by building chapters across the country that held meetings, debates, and protests centered on the lives of slaves in the US, and not the quality of their cotton coats or tobacco cigars. We should think about what we can learn from these past efforts.


In summary, the centering of veganism for its own sake - exemplified by our movement's universal hailing of Beyoncé, Miley, Ben, and Jerry, despite little to no words from them on the subject of animal rights - is a stumbling block for our movement. What, then, do we propose instead? Simply: treat animal rights as an issue of social justice. Focus on creating activists instead of consumers. Build community centers for animal rights rather than making dispersed, lonely vegans. And most importantly, stay on message: animals and their lives, rather than humans and their diets. In doing so, we can create enormous positive change for animals. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for an updated strategy piece with much more information on this issue.


EDIT: It was pointed out that using Beyoncé’s name and image in the title of the piece comes in the context of the movement’s history targeting and policing black women, of which I was sorely unaware as a white man. 

While the intention of the article was to discuss strategic problems with consumer framing in the animal rights movement (using news items such as the movement’s recent hailing of Ben and Jerry’s, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé as lead-ins), the choice of Beyoncé as a title and image is indicative of implicit bias on my part, and certainly has aggravated much of the already existing hate towards black women (or all women) in the movement.  I seriously apologize for some of the horrifying comments that others made after the blog was published, either as a consequence of the article or as a consequence of the context in which the article occurred - for example, the selective targeting of women wearing fur rather than men wearing leather with hateful language such as “fur hag”, or some of Gary Yourofsky’s violent statements towards women and people of color.

In that respect, I hope that people can discuss the substance of the post - that vegan celebrities are not our messiahs, and more importantly that the animal rights movement must think seriously about consumer veganism as a strategy to help animals  - rather than selectively target certain individuals, especially when that targeting is selective on the basis of race, sex, or other group membership. Not only is it factually inaccurate to say that animals are suffering as a result of individuals rather than systems and social norms, but it is harmful in a very real way to people, and makes our movement weaker and less inclusive.



"An Opiate to the Conscience": Welfarism as a Step to Animal Liberation?

"An opiate to the conscience": welfarism as a step to animal liberation?

By Brian Burns

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would  eventually  lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would eventually lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

Advocates of welfarism often claim that while the “humane” use and murder of animals is not the end goal, advocating for welfare reforms while not challenging the notion of animals as property will make the public more sympathetic to animal rights, and thus move us towards animal liberation. Whole Foods CEO and self-professed “ethical vegan” John Mackey, for example, unapologetically frames Whole Foods as a groundbreaking progress-maker for both animals and public consciousness in response to an open letter by James McWilliams calling for the company to stop selling meat.

Is this correct? Is there historical evidence showing that a moderate message which appeals to those in the “middle of the aisle” will eventually push them closer to one end? To examine this question, I discussed trends in the antislavery movement in the US from the mid-1810s through the 1830s as part of a DxE open meeting on welfarism . Most of the information presented was gathered from Paul Goodman’s book, Of One Blood.

“An Opiate to the Conscience” - The American Colonization Society of the Early 1800s

From the early 1800s, the antislavery movement in the United States was dominated by a large, government-backed group called the American Colonization Society (ACS). As Paul Goodman writes, “The most important function of the ACS was to ensure sectional harmony by offering a platform sufficiently broad and vague on which both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, professed abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, North and South, could stand” (Goodman, 18). Despite its stated purpose - to improve the welfare of slaves in the South and convince their masters to free them to an ACS-created colony in West Africa, “the ACS renounced any intention of interfering with slavery in the United States. (Goodman, 16).” In fact, the society was extremely hostile towards those agitating against slaveowners: “It insisted that any agitation that placed masters under moral scrutiny or political pressure or questioned their Christian benevolence would chill the inclination to manumit … Nor must one ever speak too harshly of slavery itself, the suffering of the victims and the cruelty of the master, lest slavery become a moral issue for public discussion” (Goodman, 18-19). 

The American Colonization Society, far from pushing the public towards abolitionism, reduced both Southern and Northern tension surrounding the issue of slavery. From our talk on the psychology of welfarism, we know that discomfort and cognitive dissonance are essential to motivate people to change their deep-set beliefs - and the ACS was extremely efficient at reducing both of them. Goodman writes, “In the North, apathy and indifference toward slavery were the toughest barriers… For most, until abolitionist agitation pricked their consciences, [slavery] was a distant abstraction” (Goodman, 124). Despite the organization’s widespread popularity both in the South and North and consensus at the time that it was pushing towards abolition, the resolution of tension and feel-good consciousness created by the society were, according to Fogel and many others, some of the “toughest barriers” towards the end of legal human slavery in the US. 

The Importance of Agitation

By “abolitionist agitation,” Goodman refers to the explosion of grassroots antislavery activism in the 1830s. Sparked by activists who felt silenced by the ACS (many of whom were former members of the society), independent chapters of self-styled “immediatists” began to pop up around the country, learning from each other via long letters and word of mouth. The action taken by these activists was radical and dangerous: William Lloyd Garrison’s public burning of the US constitution, which he called a “covenant with death”, almost left him dead after a lynch mob attempted to murder him (ironically he was saved by the police, who seized him and threw him in jail for his protest). Goodman writes that “Abolitionism grew, by contrast [to the ACS], in the teeth of elite hostility, intense popular prejudice, and physical violence, and it required an exceptional organizational and ideological commitment.” 

Despite these obstacles, however, the radical abolitionist movement was extremely successful, growing from four to 1348 independent chapters in just six years - a 34,000% increase in activism (Goodman, 124). This exceptional growth coupled with a strong message and provocative activism had extreme influence on public dialogue and political action on slavery, pushing public tension to ultimately to the brink of the Civil War. And as the antislavery societies rose across the US, the ACS was put on the defense, eventually discredited as a racist organization opposing rather than acting for progress.

What Can We Learn? 

Despite its profound power, agitation can be extraordinarily difficult as social animals. The nice, middle-of-the-road approach is often much more appealing, and often may seem to be the more effective way to enact change, since it does not elicit backlash. No surprise then, that companies such as Whole Foods have capitalized on its appeal to consumers by offering the same products of violence - meat, dairy, and eggs - sold in a more “compassionate” way. 

Unfortunately, the appeal of “moderatism” is precisely the reason behind its failure; in order to motivate people to reconsider their deep-set beliefs, one has to make them uncomfortable by presenting very different alternatives, and disrupting routine to force attention to these alternatives. Sometimes, seeking to reform the periphery of the system without attacking its root is the best way to ensure it survives and thrives. Such was the case in the American antislavery movement in the early 1800s, and such may be the case in the animal rights movement today.

The Power of Provocation

The Power of Provocation

By Brian Burns


A Life Disrupted

When I first walked in, I felt very…disrupted. Shook to the very core of my person. Things that I took for granted – the ability to breathe, the right to one’s limbs – were not given here.

I saw the bloody wing torn off of a hen who was ripped from her cage. The stench of months of compacted and rotting feces filled my nose and mixed with my blood. Worst of all, my eyes met with the despondent eyes of Sephy, standing over the body of her dead sister. She was weak, starving, and had given up hope. Sephy had lived her life in a state of constant disruption--not just for a few minutes. Never given a moment of security or safety, her friends or family - or her own existence - could be taken away in an instant.

Sephy was starving and on the brink of death when we found her on top of her dead sister.

Sephy was starving and on the brink of death when we found her on top of her dead sister.

So when asked, “Why provoke? Why disrupt?” I think back to the words of one of the wisest activists who ever lived, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” With this investigation and series of international protests, we are doing nothing more than bringing the truth to the public. It is our duty to do so – the moral obligation we have, given our relative safety as humans.

A Terrified Math Geek

Hiding in the world of math,  Calculus on Manifolds  was my closest companion in my junior year of high school.

Hiding in the world of math, Calculus on Manifolds was my closest companion in my junior year of high school.

Despite my conviction, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, for the majority of my childhood, I was a terrified math geek. Mockery from popular or strong kids, when I struggled to catch a football or stammered while constructing a sentence, was the only confrontation I knew – and I hated it. I took solace in the world of mathematics: one not governed by emotion, chance, or social standing. Perhaps my closest friend in high school was a series of textbooks on calculus and geometry that I read on my own time.

This experience also turned out to be my entryway into animal rights. While I had a relatively privileged upbringing, and never had animals in the home, I knew what it was like to be alone. When I first saw a baby calf being torn from his mother, I was consumed with an anger I had never felt before. I stammered as my eyes filled with tears: “Why - Why him? What did he do to deserve this?!” I learned, sadly, that these incidents are not isolated, but are widespread results of our systematic exploitation of other animals.

So I decided to do something, and looked to the most famous organizations and biggest figures in the animal rights scene; but the same fear that had plagued me was also plaguing the movement. We’re simply afraid of saying what we mean. The reality is too harsh, and our families and friends too close, to bring the truth to the public.  So I took the mainstream advice of promoting Meatless Mondays, and when my friends were not so inclined, would encourage them to buy from the very same humane facilities that DxE exposed.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, I was met with the same ridicule that brought me to the movement itself. I became the pandering vegan who everyone prodded with bacon jokes. Yet again, my experience mirrored that of the movement as a whole: the animal rights movement is an orphan of the left, subject to ridicule by even the most famous progressives. To date, the movement is known by the public as a strange fringe issue – more of a consumer fad than a social justice movement; more of a personal choice than a moral problem.

Throughout this entire process, I never questioned the anti-confrontation approach. I never dared to touch the unexamined question: What if we could change all of this by simply saying what we mean? What if, instead of honesty being our biggest obstacle, honesty was our strongest weapon?

 The Power of Provocation

When I saw a DxE-orchestrated protest for the first time, it made me very angry. These people are making vegans look bad! I wished that these people would put down their signs, quit the chanting, and return to polite, quiet advocacy. It turns out that this sentiment is widespread: Americans don’t like protests. A meta-study by Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro found that 70% of Americans thought the level of dissent in American society was “dangerous,” and that 74% unconditionally “disapproved” of sit-ins and other public demonstrations.

Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro says, "Americans don't like protests. But protests may work anyway."

Columbia social scientist Robert Shapiro says, "Americans don't like protests. But protests may work anyway."

Why, then, is this evidence in support of provocative tactics? Because the data was recorded in the ‘60s and ‘70s, during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the US. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an almost universally revered American hero in the twenty-first century, was almost universally reviled in the twentieth; yet in just a few years, as a result of massive nonviolent protest campaigns, people became much more sympathetic to the very causes they decried. The point: provocative protests challenge the status quo, and change the hearts and minds of people – even if they hate the protesters. Dr. Shapiro writes as summarizing his study, Americans don’t like protests. But protests may work anyway.”

This phenomenon is one of many ways in which provocation works. Sydney Tarrow, a distinguished social scientist at Cornell, has identified three main mechanisms through which disruption and public protest create social change, in ways that non-provocative forms of advocacy do not:

1. Disruption obstructs routine, and forces attention to the issue. Living in a speciesist society, the exploitation of animals is always present and too often unquestioned. Extreme violence – such as mass shooting and mutilation followed by the ripping up and eating of corpses – is completely normal when done in appropriate places (slaughterhouses, restaurants, and grocery stores). We must change this. We must create a world in which murdering anyone is wrong. Nonviolent direct action disrupts this violent routine and forces people to reconsider what is normal.

Many people, including animal rights activists, become angry when these places are protested, because DxE is doing the absurd: protesting what most accept as okay. But is precisely the normalcy of murdering feeling beings and eating their bodies that demands us to protest - the source of this objection is the very social norm that we have to destabilize. And In order to create a world in which extreme violence is not normal, we must disrupt the places where it is.

2. Disruption provides evidence of determination. The animal rights movement, especially with its consumer-centric framing of veganism, is often perceived as a diet fad. By disrupting routine and condemning the deep convictions of close family and friends, we demonstrate that animal rights is a serious issue for which we are willing to take significant social risk. This evidence of determination in turn flags animal rights as an issue to which the public should pay attention.

3. Disruption broadens the circle of debate to outside the affected and activist community. We live in the world of the 140-character tweet. People are overloaded with information, in addition to their commitments to their work and routine. Often, the only people who care about animal rights issues are animal rights activists themselves. Disruption calls attention to an issue that otherwise would be lost or ignored in today’s sea of information.

Note that none of these mechanisms can be triggered without social cost on our part. In order to disrupt normalcy, we must stand out. While a non-confrontational approach certainly has its merits, and often works well once the issue is a subject of discussion, provocative demonstrations are necessary to bring the issue to the table in the first place.

We must go further. We must provoke our close friends and disrupt places we have accepted as normal from birth. We must accept ridicule, abandonment, and shame for standing out and challenging normalcy. While this is profoundly difficult – as I can attest, as a shy and trembling math geek – we may take some reassurance in the fact that history, social science, and most importantly, morality are on our side.

Why Target Whole Foods

DxE investigators find shocking mistreatment of animals at a "humane" Whole Foods supplier.... and attempt to rescue a little hen named Mei from the brink of death.

Why Target Whole Foods?

By Brian Burns

There are many reasons to target Whole Foods, from its horrendous violence towards animals to its incredible growth based on fraud. Here are some big reasons why the company is one the animal rights movement should protest, followed by some questions we are often asked about the campaign.

1. It’s massive. 

Despite its public image, Whole Foods is the second-largest grocery store in the US valued at $17 billion, more than double that of other industry giants such as Safeway. On top of its gargantuan size, it has announced long-term plans to quadruple its stores while most comparable chains have seen zero to negative growth. But this rapid expansion has come at the cost of countless lives: analysts have reported to us that the company profits from approximately $2.4 billion in meat sales and hundreds of millions of animals killed annually, with the sales accelerating every year.

Whole Foods is not a progressive mom-and-pop shop. It's a corporate machine - one whose engine runs on stolen lives.

Whole Foods says they respected him. Yet they mutilate and deface his body, then hang him mockingly in their store.

Whole Foods says they respected him. Yet they mutilate and deface his body, then hang him mockingly in their store.

2. The company lies about caring for animals.  

Whole Foods says its animals are “Raised with Care” with strict animal welfare standards developed by the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) – for example, laying hens are able to “move around freely, exercise and flap their wings”. What they don’t say is that GAP is almost entirely funded by Whole Foods (almost 95% of its budget coming from the company in recent reports). GAP allows mutilation, including castration of baby pigs and the slicing of hens’ beaks at almost all of its farms.

Worse yet, they are committing not just factual - but also moral - fraud. They are feeding the public the false idea that somehow, you can care for animals and kill them too. And tragically, the public is eating it up.

Whole Foods says “Values Matter” – but more importantly, truth matters. And DxE has concrete evidence of Whole Foods’ fraud with a first-of-its-kind investigation of a “Humane Certified” Whole Foods farm.



3. It preys on people’s concern for animals. 

People care about animals, and Whole foods seeks to commodify that care and sell it for profit. In 2012 regulatory filings, Whole Foods categorized these people – their largest customer base – as “Conscionables”, or “customers [who] connect with us on a deeper level because of our shared values.” With its recently announced $20 million PR campaign “Values Matter”, the company explicitly stated that its profits depend on deceiving consumers, particularly the “Conscionables”, with a false image of a progressive company that cares for animals, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

Its recent "Values Matter" campaign even contains bizarre and offensive advertisements proclaiming "PICK A CHICKEN, COOK A CHICKEN, KNOW YOUR CHICKEN", and "CHOOSE A FISH, COOK A FISH, SAVE A FISH" - as if, by eating animals killed by Whole Foods, you are  actually saving them from death.


4. It’s insidiously influencing our culture.

The public’s view of our food system is evolving due to growing awareness of factory farming and repeated undercover investigations at the worst-of-the-worst” facilities. But despite the fact that 99% of all animal products come from factory farms, most people believe that most animals are treated humanely, and that the industry is changing for the better. This is no coincidence. Companies like Whole Foods are actively shaping the public’s view of animal agriculture with false marketing. Examples include “Know what Kind of Life your Dinner Lived” and “A Hearty Helping of Animal Compassion with Every Order [of meat]”. 

5. It’s buying our movement. 

By any measure [Whole Foods] is a remarkable company…I’ve known John for many years, and he serves on the board of The Humane Society of the United States. We also serve together on the board of the Global Animal Partnership.
— Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society of the United States

Despite its horrible record of animal abuse, some of the most prominent figures and groups in the movement, including Peter Singer, publicly thanked Whole Foods for its compassion towards animals. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey even sits on the board of the largest animal protection group in the country! This is an invasion of the movement snatchers. And we can't let them succeed. Because if they do, they will have bought out our movement's greatest strengths: our integrity and our soul.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Are you calling for a boycott of the company?

No. The number of vegans – let alone animal rights activists – is very small in relative to Whole Foods’ enormous customer base, so a purely economic boycott would have little significance. We can amplify our message drastically, however, by taking direct action against the company with public protest – especially against a company as famous as Whole Foods. Boycott if you can, but more importantly, direct your anger at Whole Foods with more than your wallet by joining the It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign.

What about vegan options?

Keep in mind the stories of Mei and Sephy, both of whom were rescued from dire conditions and horrendous violence at the hands of Whole Foods. Given this company’s track record of animal abuse, it should be a target of the animal rights movement, and they know it. Offering vegan options is a well-documented strategy of quelling animal rights dissent. But we will not be duped by Whole Foods throwing a few vegan items our way.

Moreover, public protest is the best way to encourage Whole Foods to continue offering vegan options. Companies do not act like people – they will do what is best for PR and profits. With a pressure campaign directed against the company’s exploitation of animals, Whole Foods will scramble to do whatever it can to placate the public, including offering more vegan options and even improving its miserable animal welfare standards.

What about their animal welfare standards?

Whole Foods’ animal welfare standards are a marketing ploy at best. Despite claiming to protect animals, their “5-Step” animal welfare standards allow severe mutilation of newborn creatures, including castration of baby pigs and slicing of chicks’ beaks, all without painkillers. The “Certified Humane” label often touted at Whole Foods’ meat counter is equally meaningless, giving “cage-free” birds only one square foot of space to move, and allowing the burning of animals’ flesh while still fully conscious. 

Why do you not talk about veganism?

Direct Action Everywhere strongly endorses veganism as a rejection of speciesism but chooses to frame our advocacy in terms of the rights and lives of animals rather than the dietary convenience of humans. Framing is extremely important when convincing people to change both their thoughts and behavior. And the dietary framing of animal rights has, thus far, failed: despite massive efforts by large organizations at “vegan conversion,” the percentage of vegetarians and vegans in the US has not budged, even a little (according to Gallup, “Vegetarianism in the U.S. remains quite uncommon and a lifestyle that is neither growing nor waning in popularity”). We need the public to think of animal rights as a social justice issue like any other, not a consumer fad.

In addition, it is clear the animal rights movement needs activists, not consumers. In order to change the massive system of animal exploitation, we need mass political action far more powerful than a diffused boycott. The standard vegan narrative, unfortunately, has created a world of isolated vegans who are often afraid to speak up strongly for animal rights. DxE seeks to create the opposite: a global network of tightly connected activists who are able to both inspire each other to act boldly, and to create activists out of ordinary people – setting a wildfire of protest around the world. 

Why protest inside?

The goal of the Truth Matters: It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign is to change the public’s idea of meat from food to a product of violence against sensitive creatures. Consequently, we go inside of restaurants and grocery stores, where animals’ bodies are routinely served and eviscerated, since it is in these places that extreme violence against animals is normal. The conflict and backlash that come with challenging these violent norms, contrary to common belief, serves the movement positively by drawing attention to the issue and starting a substantive discussion of animal rights. For more information on going inside, see here.