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Theories of Change

Theories of Change

DxE's Theories of Change

By Zach Groff

DxE’s first principle is that we believe in, and fight for, total animal liberation. With this goal in mind, we have built communities, exposed horrific violence, and taken direct action wherever animals are harmed. Many people ask us, and we ask ourselves, how what we do will achieve animal liberation. We’ve set out on the challenge of trying to check that we are achieving what we hope to achieve.

To figure out how we are doing at our goals, we are going to develop metrics - simple things that could range from the number of people at our actions to the engagement in our network. In order to refine our measurement, we are first specifying what’s called a “Theory of Change” (ToC) - the concrete way in which what we are doing will achieve animal liberation. In order to refine our Theory of Change, we wanted to present the main ways that nonviolence may bring about the sort of change we want to see. There is clear evidence that nonviolence works - the question is how, and we want your comments.

A Theory of Change is a specific description of a social change initiative that forms the basis for strategic planning, on-going decision-making and evaluation. A Theory of Change should be specific and should tell us how what we are doing will help to produce the outcome we want: a Species Equality Act or other major act of government enacting equality for all animals.

We’d also like to note is that as important as the Theory of Change is, it’s important to consider the ways different strategies might backfire. Undermining other activists, leading to public stasis, and creating a reaction stronger than our movement are all risks any activist must beware. We’ve made changes in the past on the basis of important criticisms, such as our decision to begin including animal imagery after avoiding it in our early protests and our revisions to blog posts after discussions with others in the movement. We welcome all theories and criticisms.

Here are a few theories worth considering. Feel free to suggest others!

Theories of Change:

1. Motivating activists to influence those around them.

In an influential study on the Tea Party, researchers suggested that Tea Party protests had a dramatic impact on public opinion not through their direct effect but because participants went home and spoke to their family and friends in a way that moved them in support of Tea Party policies. The first way DxE actions work is that activists go home and talk to people in their own lives in a way that moves them in the direction of robust support for animal liberation. This could include awareness, sympathy, or simply acceptance of the idea of animal liberation among activists’ friends and family.

2. Building a movement that can change the future.

One of the key things past social movements have had is a strong network -- such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or ACT UP -- and a underlying community - from the Black church to gay and lesbian community centers. Our movement lacks both a grassroots network and a supporting community, and one of DxE’s aims is to work with other groups to build networks and communities, as well as the other elements of a social movement, so we can effect change in the future by persuading, compelling, and leading the public and public officials to adopt liberationist policies.

A key question we are interested with this aim is what a network or community capable of producing change would look like, so we can know that we are building the right sort of institutions.

3. Creating a movement that can take advantage of political opportunities.

Aberrant events - from the fall of the Soviet Union to the Great Depression - powerfully change the course of history. Successful movements can take advantage of these events to powerful effect. Amid the tragedy of the AIDS crisis, gay rights activists got a seat at the public policy table that allowed major gains in the coming decades while #BlackLivesMatter turned the killing of Trayvon Martin into a national crisis that has changed police policies around the country. DxE could aim to create a movement, as with our previous theory of change, but one with the key attribute of being able to seize on unexpected opportunities.

4. Creating a fierce backlash that moves public opinion in support of animal liberation.

Past movements’ success has ridden in large part on the back of ugly reactions by their enemies. Despite their realistically slim numbers, the abolitionists scared the South into seceding, a doomed effort that ultimately freed the slaves. Civil Rights era protests sparked a violent reaction, famously symbolized by Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs. One way the DxE model could work is by sparking such an angry reaction that the rest of the country moves in the direction of supporting animal liberation. This could operate by changing each person’s opinion of animals, but it could also create pockets of sympathy with animal liberation that become useful in pushing policies.

5. Directly changing people who witness protests.

This perhaps the most obvious theory. People who witness DxE protests are forced to confront the issue and leave more aware and perhaps more sympathetic to animal rights. It’s important to note that there could be benefits to alienating people who witness DxE protests - an ugly reaction can generate sympathy - and that immediate reactions to protests are often unreliable indicators of their effectiveness. Nonetheless, this is an important theory to consider.

6. Directly changing people who encounter DxE actions in the media.

This theory is very similar to the previous theory. People who encounter DxE via press gain a heightened awareness and sympathy with animal rights. It has the same drawbacks, too, at least in the present term. An ugly reaction can be good, and the effects of press can vary widely depending on the tone of the story, the size of the crowd, and the particular media outlet.

Ultimately, it’s likely there are several ways our activism works, and multiple risks our activism should avoid. For that reason, we’d like to hear refinements to the above theory and the thoughts, concerns and suggestions of those inside and outside of DxE on how we can achieve animal liberation.

Why Disrupt? (Video)

DxE's Araceli Rodriguez dragged off of stage after disrupting Chris Christie's talk in Iowa. 

DxE's Araceli Rodriguez dragged off of stage after disrupting Chris Christie's talk in Iowa. 

Why Disrupt? (Video)

In light of the recent Chris Christie disruption, many people are asking, "Why disrupt?" 

DxE Organizer Wayne Hsiung sets out reasons that disruption has been key to every effective movement for social justice. This talk will show how disruption provokes attention, reshapes norms, and ultimately helps us build a stronger movement for animals.

Note: This talk was recorded in 2014. 

Should I Move... for the Animals? Lessons from Occupy Wall Street

Should I Move... for the Animals? Lessons from Occupy Wall Street

The original call to action in Adbusters. 

When it comes to effective activism, where you live might matter as much, or more, than what you do.

By Wayne Hsiung

On September 17, 2011, a few dozen protesters gathered on Wall Street. They were responding to the call of a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, Adbusters, to challenge the corporate greed that nearly led to a global economic meltdown in 2008. While a major depression had been avoided – job growth slowly began ticking up by 2011 – the benefits of the recovery were mainly going to the richest of the rich. The vast majority of the people on this planet continued to suffer quietly, with poor health care, stress, and even displacement or death.

The beginning of this protest movement, however, was interesting in that the call was not to Occupy Your Local Bank. Rather, the call went out for activists across the world to Occupy… Wall Street. For those of us who see financial greed and misconduct as a widespread, global practice – as it surely is – this might have seemed a strange decision. After all, there were bad actors in not just Wall Street but also in LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. Moreover, it seemed unrealistic to ask activists against inequality, who were politically weak, geographically dispersed, and few in number, to uproot their lives and travel to New York City. Yet that is exactly what Adbusters did.

The rest, of course, is history.

Perhaps the most powerful movement against inequality in a generation was triggered, leading to tens of thousands of protesters not just in NYC, but also in dozens of cities (and eventually, countries) across the world. Public discussion of inequality skyrocketed, and serious policy changes were sustained (e.g. Obamacare) or enacted (extended unemployment benefits) as a result. And it all started when just a few dozen activists gathered in Zucotti Park.

Occupy Wall Street is just one small example of the power of concentration to cause growth in a movement.  In areas ranging from technological innovation to improved health care practices, concentration has been instrumental to giving marginal ideas the boost they need to survive and ultimately flourish.

Yet within animal rights circles, we often take the opposite approach. We say that we have to disperse widely to get the broadest reach. We stretch ourselves thin to reach schools, neighborhoods, and cities that have the lowest concentration of animal rights sympathy. We even sometimes move to far-flung regions of the world in an effort to spread our message far and wide.

The story of Zucotti Park (and the extensive research into geographic concentration in sociology, political science, and economics) suggests flaws in this approach. From sociological research into the spatial clustering of social movements, to recent breakthroughs on the importance of high-density cities to innovation, to Paul Krugman’s now canonical work on economic geography, there is a convergence around a simple idea: concentration matters. And it matters for three principal reasons. First, concentration allows for shared resources, knowledge, and commitment. Second, concentration provides a stronger foundation for growth. Third, concentration creates political opportunities that are out of reach for a dispersed movement. 

Sharing

Many of the resources in a grassroots movement – e.g. community spaces, protest equipment, or even a website – can only be acquired through group effort. For example, a community of three people probably does not have the ability to rent out a community space. But if there are clusters of activists in the same area, they can share in the expense and acquire resources that previously had been out of reach.

This clustering is particularly important, as Mancur Olsen pointed out many years ago, when the resources are “public” in nature, i.e. they benefit the community as a whole rather than specific individuals. While public goods are vital to community development – and innovation – it can be difficult to secure contributions for such resources because every individual can “free ride.” That is, since securing the resource probably does not depend on their individual contribution, and they can’t be excluded from utilizing the resource once it is secured, it often makes sense to let others do the work. But if everyone takes this approach, then even public resources that we all want may end up underfunded.

Geographic concentration helps us combat this problem in two ways. First, it allows for better coordination between activists to ensure that public resources receive commitments from individuals. It’s a lot easier to check in and ask someone for help when you’re seeing them physically on a regular basis. Second, once a resource has been secured, e.g. a community space, geographic concentration allows for more people to benefit from it. Instead of having to rent ten different community spaces in ten different regions, we can rent one – and everyone gets to use it!

What’s true of material resources is just as true of knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm. It is well established by scholars of technological innovation, for example, that geographic concentration greatly benefits new industries such as the car industry in the early to mid 20th century, or the computing explosion in the early 2000s. Particularly with technology such as software, this might seem puzzling. Why should everyone cluster in Silicon Valley, for example, if all the work can be done remotely (and far more cheaply in regions of the country with far lower property costs)? The reason is that knowledge has a way of spilling over when innovative people are all in the same city, neighborhood, or even room. Instead of each re-inventing the wheel, participants in a movement – whether technological or moral – can learn from and enhance one another’s insight and experience. The result, very often, is an innovative explosion.

Perhaps the most important sharing, however, is of commitment and enthusiasm. Doug McAdam at Stanford identified social influence as the key determinant in movement participation many decades ago, and we know that social influence spreads more powerfully when people are geographically close to one another. (See, for example, how geography can surprisingly have impacts on loneliness or happiness.) Maintaining and growing our commitments to social justice, in short, may be as simple as moving closer to one another.

Growth

DxE is an international network that has now had participation in an astonishing 130 cities and 27 countries. Indeed, our founding mission was to inspire direct action… everywhere. Not just in one geographically concentrated region. And, indeed, the international scope of our network is one of the most inspiring aspects of our activism. Doesn’t concentration defeat this purpose?

The answer, surprisingly, is no, and for three primary reasons. First, if a movement is truly a movement – rather than just an organization led by a few key people – then concentration and growth go hand in hand. One of our most important values within the DxE organizing group is emergent leadership: the notion that leadership is assessed not by individual talent or success but by community empowerment. The mark of a great leader, under this philosophy, is the creation of other leaders.  Emergent leadership (which is all the rage in the tech circles that are most focused on innovative forms of organization, e.g. Google) is the only way for a movement to effectively grow. We can’t compete in the battle of dollars and cents. We can’t hire our way to liberation. But we can inspire leadership in the grassroots, where we trade in the power of ideas rather than dollars.  

If this is our model, however, then we need not worry about individuals moving towards greater concentration. It is the culture and community that will lead to sustained international growth, after all, and not any particular set of leaders. If our movement is strong, then new leaders will step up. That is exactly what has happened, in fact, in cities such as Vancouver and Chicago. When Wilson left Vancouver (or Almira left for a two-month stay in the Bay Area), you might have thought that the chapter would fall apart.  In fact, it became even stronger because it gave new leaders an opportunity to step up. Similarly, when Katie left Chicago, it might have been seen as a blow to the Midwest. But again, new organizers such as Linzi and Ernesto stepped up (and Katie started a new chapter in Tucson).

This brings me to the second reason that growth is sustained by concentration, however: the power of symbols. We know that talking about numbers, for their own sake, has limited impacts. A million is simply a statistic, they say, but the story of one suffering child can change the world. What is true of suffering is also true of inspiration. The key to mobilizing a network is to have powerful symbols of success. In short, strengthening key hubs that have been important to the history of social justice can have impacts that resonate across the globe.

This was the power of Occupy Wall Street. It was one regional cluster, for sure. But it was a regional cluster that had symbolic importance across the world. And when thousands took over the Brooklyn Bridge, the world – and not just NYC – paid heed. The result was that Occupy encampments sprouted in dozens of cities across the world.

Of course, there are ways to maintain geographic concentration while fostering an international network. We encourage organizers to maintain relationships throughout the network, but especially in cities to which they once had a geographic connection. (Chicago will always be close to home for me personally.) Regional or international convergences, moreover, can help spread the strength of the big urban centers to smaller cities with less active movements. But at root, it’s important to remember that this strength comes from concentration and connection – not dispersion – and this is as true, surprisingly, as in the remote regions of the country as in its urban hubs.  

Political Opportunity: Banning Meat in Berkeley?

The third and perhaps most important reason for concentration is that it expands our movements’ opportunities, and allows us to achieve incredible political change. One of the central findings of social science is that changing institutions – the formal and informal set of rules and understandings that guide every human decision – is absolutely key to creating real and permanent change.

Imagine a world where eating animals is banned in Berkeley. The city would quickly become a hub to expand animal rights across the world.

The problem is that institutional change is hard and uncertain. How do we change cultural conceptions of animals, for example, so that they are seen as persons and not property? While we can’t say, for sure, what the specific solution to this problem is, we can make some general observations about social change in the past. And one key strand in our understanding of social change, from history, is that collective political action is absolutely vital. It allows even marginal social interests to get their issues on the agenda.

Imagine, for example, if every animal rights activist in the world suddenly moved to Berkeley. What has, until now, been a fairly marginal issue – even in a progressive hub of the United States – would suddenly have real political power, the power to change both formal and informal institutions. Legislatively, we could achieve incredible results such as a wholesale ban on the killing of animals. Socially, we could create entire neighborhoods, communities, and even professional associations that believe fiercely in animal rights. Culturally, we could suddenly transform our social norms so that eating animals would be seen as the species bigotry that it is. Establishing systemic change in one region, moreover, would not only prevent movement erosion and recidivism but also give the movement a powerful political bulwark upon which to expand its political reach. It is no surprise, for example, that the UK played a vital role in stopping the slave trade around the world; the moral movement against slavery first gained success in Britain. Progressive hubs for animal rights can serve the same function, but they are only possible if we can reach the critical mass to achieve real political change.

Should I move for animals?

There are compelling reasons for our movement to seek concentration. First, it allows for shared resources, information, and commitment. Second, it benefits international growth, ironically, by establishing symbols for success. Third, by expanding the political opportunities, concentration fosters sustainable change in institutions.

In short, moving to an activist hub is a powerful way to fuel the engine for change. Indeed, even moving locally near other activists can have powerful effects for activism, as geographic distance can serve as a huge barrier to activist collaboration and solidarity. Like the hundreds or even thousands who left their homes to take camp on Wall Street, moves of this sort can be costly or even physically risky, but they also present incredible opportunities for the movement. So the next time you ask yourself, "What can I do for animals?", seriously consider this: 

Move to Berkeley. 

The Evidence Bros

THE EVIDENCE BROS

By Zach Groff

All opinions expressed in this piece are my own, and are not intended to represent my employer.

The animal liberation movement has an evidence problem. No, I don't mean the lack of evidence - though that's a problem, too, and any academic researcher willing to take on the task of studying effective activism could do our movement a tremendous favor. I mean a bro culture that treats as settled science what is very much not, and dismisses any argument to the contrary.

The most recent example of this was a post by the "Vegan Bros" advising DxE activists to lie down in a busy street. This is part of their schtick, and I agree that humor is vital for both satire and comic relief. But this unfunny joke reveals, I believe, an insidious dynamic in the modern animal liberation movement.

Activists, frequently men, use “logic” and “science” to quash counterarguments even when these are actually shakily masking common wisdom. For readers of Paul Krugman's blog, this is akin to the Very Serious People: those who present themselves as bold contrarians and demand austerity in the wake of an economic crisis as being what logic demands when in fact there is substantial evidence pointing in the other direction. These Very Serious People portray themselves as evidence-based contrarians when in fact they are the opposite: followers of public opinion that defies much of the evidence. In the animal liberation movement, supporters of "evidence" repeat the words "evidence" and "science" endlessly in response to disruptive or confrontational tactics with the assumption being that serious, evidence-minded people can resist the emotional pull of these protests.

I should note that I am myself a very evidence-minded person. I work at one of the leading research institutions on solutions to global poverty, one that is frequently cited by GiveWell in its charity recommendations. I identify as an Effective Altruist, I have donated substantially to GiveWell top-rated charities, and I believe that evidence should be the primary determinant of what strategies we pursue. I would add that there is a debate to be had over confrontation, but an evidence-based debate would look very different from the discourse of the modern animal liberation movement.

Having an appreciation for evidence means having an appreciation for the uncertainties, weaknesses, and qualifications of specific pieces of evidence. In the case of the animal liberation movement, this means being very careful when we specify precisely how many animals a particular action will save. It also means being open to multiple forms of evidence, provided we account for their underlying assumptions, and being aware of our tendency toward measurability bias: overweighting short-term, direct effects that are concrete and measurable and underweighting longer-term and more diffuse effects.

The case for collective action depends on these longer-term and more diffuse effects. In the immediate term, political scientists have found, voters broadly agree in their hatred of protesters. But conflict inspires activists to join in, attracts readers and attention, and then once a movement builds, 100,000 loud, obnoxious people are not to be mocked and dismissed— they are to be reckoned with and pacified by acceding to their demands. This is not to mention the subtle shifts in opinion that occur when a position begins to be portrayed as a common or significant one by a powerful movement rather than a fringe group.

Political scientists recognize this, as do sociologists and economists. But focus narrowly on the near-term, and all you will see are immediate, negative reactions. Look only at survey data to figure out what appeals to people, and you will miss out on the powerful social norms and emotional context that frame survey responses. Use studies with bias built in to the design, and you can easily find a life-saving impact of leafleting whether or not it exists.

The use of evidence by the "Vegan Bros" and others often commits the oversights mentioned above. At the Animal Rights National Conference, speakers cited debunked studies on leafleting and assumed causality in a downward trend in animals slaughtered that, according to the HSUS's own statistics, has at least stagnated. Yet despite the weakness of this evidence, the effectiveness of strictly accommodationist tactics— tactics that defy historical precedent— retains a stranglehold on the movement, while confrontation, despite a fair amount of research touting its potential (nicely summarized in this blog post), is regarded as freakish.

It is no coincidence that one of the most aggressive promoters of this "evidence" is the Vegan Bros and the bulk of the “evidence” crowd is largely cisgender and heterosexual men. This knee-jerk invocation of "evidence" to guard the prevailing wisdom conforms to narrative that has a long cultural history. From the Book of Genesis to Virgil's Aeneid, Western culture often portrays masculine reason as contrasted with feminine emotion and praises those who dispassionately do what logic demands despite the pull of their heartstrings.

Unsurprisingly, scientific and mathematical fields have a well-documented problem with gender balance. This is problematic in its own right, and as a movement, we stand a risk of alienating women, LGBTQ people and the broader, feminist left. Controversy over this problem is rife, and there's cause for concern about its effects: a peer-reviewed literature review suggests that men have a more autocratic approach to leadership, suggesting that male leadership on the movement's assessment of evidence puts us at risk of discounting alternative views— as seen, for instance, in our movement's all too common disregard of tactics viewed as emotional.

People are motivated not just by facts, but by emotion, and the most effective tactics must take this into account. The emotional content of an action is not a roadmap to its ineffectiveness. Instead, in the context of nonviolence, emotion is part of what makes the action work. Those who dismiss the effectiveness of provocation despite its emotional appeal make a fatal error, for that emotional appeal gives nonviolence its potential, and there is evidence behind this.

The irony is this: people often avoid nonviolent direct action because of their emotions— a desire for popularity, a discomfort with conflict, an inclination to conform. So it is perhaps the bros who are the most emotional of all, despite their attempts to hide this in the guise of reason. This is troubling for a bro, because undertaking nonviolence requires admitting the possibility that evidence and emotion are on the same side, and that those of us who care about the former should get comfortable with the latter.

Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Activists across the world took action this weekend for animals as part of the international event: #LightThePath (Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen)

Why activism, not veganism, is the moral baseline

In the aftermath of the Francione debate, DxE’s cofounder explains why veganism is not enough.

by Wayne Hsiung 

In yesterday’s discussion, Gary Francione repeatedly stated that DxE is “anti-vegan” – implying that we condone the use of animals. This is false. At DxE, we believe that it’s important to avoid personal contributions to animal exploitation, and we have strong norms against using animal products within our community. (Indeed, many of our organizers – including me – take this a step further and refuse to eat with others who are eating animals. Here’s Lauren Gazzola explaining why at last year’s AR conference.)

The difference between DxE and Gary is that, at DxE, we also believe that our personal actions are not enough. That if veganism is a political principle and not a personal choice, we must live out that difference in action.

Let’s use a hypothetical to explain the difference.  

Suppose you come across a mob of people beating a child with a stick.

In the face of nightmarish violence, a global movement for animals grows. #LightThePath to liberation.

“Join us,” they say. “It’s fun.”

The first response to the mob is, “Everyone else is doing it, so I might as well, too. And who knows, maybe they’re right that it’s fun.” This is the unthinking reaction that most people give to the brutal violence raging against animals. While we often condemn them for this choice, moreover, it’s important to note that most people don’t make a real choice. They never say to themselves, “Between torturing and slaughtering billions of gentle baby animals, or not torturing and killing… I choose torture.” As with other historical participants in atrocity, they simply accept the way things are; they are products of the system to which they were born.

Our most basic perceptions of the world – even something as simple as the length of a line – can be hugely distorted by cultural or social influence. And it’s difficult for ordinary people to see atrocity as atrocity, when it has been “made normal.” So yes, participating in mass violence is a shameful and unethical choice, but let’s always keep in mind that, ultimately, this participation is a systemic and not individual problem. (See the recent talk we gave at Northwestern for more on this distinction.)

The second response to the mob is, “I’m not comfortable with beating a child. It’s wrong. So I’m not going to join you.” This is veganism – non-participation in a violent practice. And while it’s certainly preferable to beating the child ourselves, it still falls far short of the moral baseline. Because where we have the power to take some action to help someone who is being abused – whether a human or non-human child (and note that virtually all animals killed by humans are, in fact, children) – we have a duty to do so. Indeed, many jurisdictions make it a crime when we fail to act to assist a helpless person in need.

This is especially true when we have benefitted in some way from the victim’s abuse. For example, while ordinary citizens do not have a duty to intervene in or report violence, if someone joins and partakes in the benefits of such a criminal conspiracy, the law requires them to take action to stop that conspiracy.  For example, suppose that you have been paid to be the getaway driver in an armed robbery. It’s not enough to say, “I won’t participate” after you’ve already been paid. After all, if you have benefitted from the crime, you have a responsibility to stop it.

As beneficiaries of 10,000+ years of human supremacy, and of continuing violence against animals both in captivity and the wild, we are all in this position. We are beneficiaries of a violent conspiracy. Our homes, our gadgets, our streets, and, yes, even our vegan food are products of violence against animals.  (For every animal humans kill for food, there are perhaps 1,000 who suffer and die to habitat loss and climate change.) And simply attempting to remove ourselves, when we continue to benefit from this system of violence, falls far short of our moral duty. So yes, participation in violence is shameful and unethical, but so too is inaction in the face of violence. So too is veganism without action.

But then what is the moral baseline? This brings us to our third response to the mob: action.  “Hey, stop what you are doing!” we might say to the men who are beating the child. Those of us who can muster the courage might try to physically shield the child from the blows. We might call 911, or try to rally other neighbors to help us save the child. We might even use physical force to defend the child and take away the stick. But if we truly seek to fulfill our moral duty in the face of the largest atrocity in history, we must do something beyond inaction.

But if activism is the moral baseline, why do so few vegans take action? There are at least three important reasons. The first is that they have not been taught to do so. Partly due to pseudo-scientific research, our movement is so focused on personal consumer behavior that it loses sight of its reason for existence: not vegan food, but the animals. I’m distressed by the number of conversations among AR activists that start with the tone and color of justice, and end with the tone and color of a vegan cupcake. But this is not a personal but a movement flaw. We need to collectively stop talking about where we can get vegan French fries, and start talking about animals and their lives. We need to make action for animals, not vegan consumerism, the unrelenting focus of our movement.  If people are not taught to act, they will not.

The second reason is that people have no idea what action to take. There is extensive research showing that, if people are presented with too many options, and those options have uncertain effects, they will often be paralyzed by indecision. “I want to help animals, but how?” Anyone who says they have a 100% clear answer to this question “What action?” is deceiving us, but there are big picture insights, from both the practice and scholarship of social movements, that should inform our decisions. One of those big picture insights is that movements rise or fall on the basis of their ability to mobilize and sustain nonviolent direct action. It turns out doing so is rather hard because early movement adopters face ridicule, rejection, or even repression. But it’s not nearly as hard as one might think. In fact, all you need is 3.5% (and probably far less). If you can mobilize 3.5% of the population in sustained and nonviolent civil resistance, you win. Every single time.

DxE's model in one simple infographic. 

This is the reason for DxE’s existence. We don’t need to convince 100% of the public to “go vegan.” We need to inspire those who are already vegan to take action. To give people the mentorship and support they need to speak and act strongly and publicly for animals. To build the organizing capacity, the social institutions, and perhaps most importantly, the culture that our movement needs to change the world in one generation. To create activists, connect them in networks, and inspire those networks to take nonviolent direct action.  

But can we actually succeed? This brings us to the third reason for vegan passivity: hopelessness. Recall the hypothetical we started this discussion with, of a mob attacking a child. While morality requires us to intervene, where we can, it does not and cannot require us to intervene if there is no way to actually stop the violence. Morality cannot require the impossible.

If the raging atrocities against animals are unstoppable, then, we have no obligation to take action. Action requires hope. And hope, in our movement, is seemingly in short supply. Many advocates suggest that the end of animal exploitation might occur hundreds, if not thousands of years from now. They say, with confident regret, that people will most likely always exploit animals. We’ll never get to 3.5%.

But this is nonsense. Indeed, it is a cognitive bias that a distinguished psychologist at Harvard calls “The End of History Fallacy.” Because it turns out, change does happen, and it happens far faster than any one of us can predict. Just a few decades ago, marriage equality would have been unthinkable. Only 1 in 4 supported it, and even progressive politicians rallied to “defend marriage” against the insidious influence of “the homosexual agenda.” A professor of mine in law school, one of the most distinguished progressives in the legal academy, said that, when he started as a professor decades ago, the term “gay rights” sounded like a criminal conspiracy. Yet 20 years later, the tides have turned. Over 60% of the population now supports marriage equality (and a much higher percentage of young people), and it has been enshrined as a constitutional right. Gay rights is no longer a criminal conspiracy. It’s what every upstanding American citizen believes.

We will achieve the same progress for animal rights. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll showed that 32% of the populationhigher than the percentage who supported LGBTQ equality in 1996 – currently believe that animals should have the “same rights as people.” Moreover, this percentage is increasing quickly…. while animal exploiting industries get smaller. (Agriculture, for example, is a vanishingly small percentage of the American economy, and our calculations show that it would take a mere 1-2% of US GDP to rescue every single animal currently in captivity and place them in a sanctuary for the rest of their lives.) Further, animal issues are blowing up in our broader culture. The Dodo founders have pointed out that animals are among the most shared subjects on social media, and an astonishing 79% of people in America say they must be protected from “all suffering and harm.” As Frank Bruni of The New York Times points out, windows into the world of animals are growing, both big and little. And the more we see of animals, the more we realize: they are us. They are our family members, our children, our friends. And when we see they are us, we see, too, our duty to defend.

In the face of all these incredible reasons for optimism, it’s time for us to discard our cynicism and doubt. It’s time for us to be inspired, not to lonely inaction, but empowered activism. And it’s time for our movement to take a new and more confident tone: That we are strong. That we are smart. And that we are inspired.

And we will succeed. 

 

 

Why are we afraid of radical change?

A DxE investigation in January showed us the truth of cage-free eggs, suffering and death, but also presented a radical path forward: openly rescuing animals from violence. 

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.

Celebrity Vegans: What Does the Science Say?

Celebrity Vegans: What Does the Science Say?

by Wayne Hsiung 

The Internet was afire yesterday with back and forth arguments about the impacts of celebrity vegans, most of whom adopt vegan diets for selfish reasons.  But one thing was notably missing from the discussions: evidence.

As someone who has performed research with some of the top social scientists of our day, back in my time as a researcher and then faculty member at MIT and Northwestern respectively,  I have a special interest in utilizing evidence over mere intuition. So what does the evidence say?

1. Celebrities don’t have nearly the influence that you might think.

Malcolm Gladwell coined the term The Law of the Few to assert that, when it comes to social change, some people are just more important than others. Those with special influence, connections, and fame – like Beyonce or Miley Cyrus -- can cause messages to explode exponentially. Gladwell’s popular writing refers back to work by a psychologist at Yale, Stanley Milgram, who famously conducted a study on spreading messages through a social network in 1969. Milgram’s study made two startling conclusions: first, that every human on the planet is connected within just a few small steps (thus the famous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon test);  second, that an astonishingly small handful of people seemed to be “supernodes” through which all messages would be transmitted. Gladwell implied that, if we could change Milgram’s supernodes, we could change the world.

It’s a compelling story. The problem is, quite simply, that the data does not bear it out. Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia, showed us why. First, in experimental tests of message transmission using thousands (rather than dozens) of messages, it turned out that supernodes were not so important. Messages would, in fact, be spread through a small number of social steps. But there were many pathways through which this could happen, most of which did not utilize any highly connected person. The supernodes, it turns out, were not important.  A second set of experiments explained why. In everything from musical tastes to Twitter retweets, it turned out that masses of highly motivated “ordinary people” – and not a few strategically placed influencers – were the driving force for change. If Watts is right – as most social scientists now think (see, e.g., Christopher Chabris's takedown of Gladwell at Slate) – then we should be spending more time on building networks of highly motivated ordinary people and less time on celebrities. Gladwell’s Law of the Few should be retracted and replaced with the Law of the Many.

2. Focusing on selfish motivations (e.g. health) can “crowd out” intrinsic and moral motivations (ethics).

Many say that we should “throw everything but the kitchen sink” to convert people to veganism. Others say that humans, as selfish animals, must be given selfish motivations to refrain from harmful conduct. The upshot is that we often focus on selfish reasons for people to go vegan – health, beauty, etc. The problem, again, is that these arguments are contradicted by the evidence.  

In a series of ingenious experiments,  sociologists, psychologists, and economists have shown that selfish motivations can “crowd out” moral ones – and lead to more harmful behavior as a result. In perhaps the most famous example, Uri Gneezy and his collaborators showed that creating a material incentive to encourage parents to arrive on time to day care actually increased the number of people who would show up late. The reason? There was a prior moral motive to show up on time – the embarrassment of forcing employees to stay late, and appearing to be bad parents – but focus on the selfish motive, i.e. financial costs, crowded this moral motive out.  And when framed in a callous and self-centered away, surprise, surprise, parents failed to pick up their kids.

The same is true of focus on selfish motivations for veganism. To the extent it’s framed in selfish terms, people will behave selfishly (e.g. abandoning veganism the moment it becomes inconvenient). This problem, in turn, is not just theoretical. The vast majority of vegans (over 75%) revert to eating animals, and in an astonishingly short period of time. (One study found that 60% of self-identified vegetarians were eating animals again... within a week.) This reversion, moreover, is associated with selfish motivations for going veg. 

In short, if we want to create effective, robust change, we should focus on the social and moral instincts that have driven human beings since our inception as a species

3. Economic change, on its own, is not effective at creating social change.

Finally, many argue that the growing consumer power of vegans, limited though it might be at present, will take us down the path to liberation. Animal exploitation, as an economic industry, must be challenged on economic terms. Only by increasing the costs for exploitation, or benefits of nonviolence, can we shift our social equilibrium. Celebrities, given their supposed influence on mass consumer behavior, are a powerful tool to achieve this success.

But once again, the data from notable historical periods simply does not bear this out. Robert Fogel, the Nobel Prize winning economist, is famous for exhaustively researching the data on slavery and finding that, surprisingly, economic factors played almost no role in its disappearance. To the contrary, slavery was a massive, profitable, and growing system, right up to its abolition in the 1860s. But if slavery didn’t end via economics, how did it end? In short, moral and political mobilization.

Fogel’s research is part of a massive trend in social science that some have called the “cognitive revolution.” The basic idea: that we cannot understand behavior without looking at mental models and processes. Numerous examples of activism targeting consumer behavior -- from the failed free produce movement (which attempted to economically modify slavery via boycott) to modern green consumer activism -- have failed to achieve tangible results. In contrast, powerful moral and political mobilizations -- the antislavery movement that began in the 1830s, or the early environmental movement built on direct action -- achieved groundbreaking systemic change. Yet in so many ways, modern thinking within animal advocacy remains mired in outdated social science. As animal advocates, we too often assume that we can understand incredibly complex economic systems as if they are deterministic and predictable, e.g. with poorly-supported claims of how many animals we "save" via a vegan diet. And we focus on changing supply and demand rather than reshaping the moral and political ecosystem that determines what counts as a “product” (as opposed to a “victim’s body”) in the first place.  This naiveté undermines our effectiveness. 

Summing up, when you see the next celebrity going vegan, don’t jump on the bandwagon. First, ordinary people – like you – are the ones who power movements. Second, the selfish motivations that often motivate celebrities can “crowd out” the powerful moral norms that are our movement’s greatest weapons. Third, even if celebrities drive consumer behavior, that alone is not sufficient to drive social change.

So by all means, keep eating vegan, Hollywood. Just don't expect social change to result.

Because it is the moral power of ordinary people -- and not a celebrity-inspired consumer fad -- that will change the world for animals. 

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.

Conclusion

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.

Thanks,

Brian

On Redefining Personhood

On Redefining Personhood

By Saryta Rodriguez

 

One week ago today, history was made. The legal definition of personhood was turned on its head, but, first, a bit of background:

For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.

For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has endeavored to apply the writ of habeas corpus to chimpanzees. Their third attempt to do so occurred in April 2014. The New York Times reported that a chimp named Tommy, with the help of the Nonhuman Rights Project, was suing his captors for unsuitable living conditions, including solitary confinement.

Tommy was once a circus chimpanzee, whose caregiver recently passed away, leaving him under the care of the man referred to as “the repairman.” Wise met Tommy and the repairman at Circle L Trailer, the owner of which apparently also makes his living renting out reindeer during the holiday season for photos and such, including commercials for Macy’s and Mercedes-Benz. (No data concerning the fate of these poor souls was provided by the article.)

Steven Wise (NhRP President), Natalie Prosin (NhRP Executive Director) and Elizabeth Stein (New-York-based animal rights expert) filed their petition at the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, NY. The petition described in detail Tommy’s miserable living conditions, such as his isolation and lack of space, and culminated in a series of nine affidavits from primatologists around the world asserting the cognitive sophistication of chimpanzees and the suffering Tommy was being forced to endure. In essence: “Chimps have feelings, JUST LIKE US!”

Unfortunately, on December 4, 2014, the Supreme Court declared that Tommy is not a “person” entitled to a common law writ of habeas corpus because he is “unable to bear duties or responsibilities.” Roughly two weeks later, the NhRP filed a motion seeking leave to appeal to New York’s highest court on the grounds that this decision contradicts previous decisions made by the Court of Appeals and that numerous cases bestow personhood on petitioners who are unable to bear duties or responsibilities. The motion was denied in January 2015.

…Thus went the third attempt.

I guess the fourth time’s the charm. On April 20, 2015, the NhRP announced that its fourth demand for a hearing under habeas corpus on behalf of nonhumans since the organization’s inception has met with success. For the first time, in May 2015, a hearing will be held on behalf of two chimpanzees—Hercules and Leo—who are being unlawfully detained at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

While Justice Jaffe, who issued the decision to hold the hearing on April 20th, downplays the significance of the habeas corpus statute and New York State court spokesman David Bookstaver maintains that “All this does is allow the parties to argue their case in court,” this unprecedented event will inevitably call into question the legal definition of personhood and, independent of the results of the hearing itself, I anticipate a domino effect in the months and years to follow.

NhRP is calling for the release of Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary in Florida, and the burden will rest on Stony Brook University to prove that there is just cause for further detaining these individuals.

I wrote here about my concerns regarding single-issue campaigns. There, Brian brought up the NhRP’s work as an example of single-issue campaigns that have potential for continued positive impact, a statement with which I agree. Unlike campaigns which fail to challenge the status quo—the foundational notion that animals are property—the NhRP’s work is challenging the very notion of what it means to be a person. This work forces us to consider animals as individuals, which can be challenging when talking about systemic violence against animals such as factory farming. While we at DxE believe in the importance of telling stories, it is ultimately impossible to tell the story of every individual animal currently being abused and exploited. Allowing them their day in court, however reluctantly courts might be doing so (one does get the sense that Jaffe and others are shying away from accepting responsibility for the major implications of this case on the Animal Liberation Movement, independent of the case’s outcome), gives at least some nonhuman animals a seat at the table.

Now we just have to multiply those seats. As usual, I’ll take a moment to remind us that our work is not over. For starters, it comes as no surprise to me that the first nonhuman animal to get a seat at the legal table is a chimpanzee. While chimpanzees such as Leo and Hercules are still exploited for scientific testing, held captive at zoos and victims of other violations, humans generally have an easier time identifying with them than with others.  They look like us, their intelligence is similar to ours and can be measured in similar ways, and they can even be taught to “speak our language” via sign language and computer use. Our next hurdle is to get those who are less like us a seat; otherwise, we risk reinforcing a false speciesist hierarchy, the Orwellian nightmare: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

There is also, as is all too often the case with human legislation, the matter of access. Hercules and Leo are lucky that someone found out about them and reported their plight. They are lucky that the NhRP is willing to fight for them, and has the resources to do so. One way in which all of us in the animal liberation community, even without law degrees, can contribute to the mission of giving nonhumans legal personhood is to keep abreast of situations like that of Hercules and Leo. Research as often as we can the plight of nonhumans near us, and report grievances to organizations such as the NhRP and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (If you are able, these groups could also make great use of financial donations.)

We can all also contribute by taking part in campaigns that challenge the values of society at large. As DxE Bay Area organizer Chris Van Breen put it: “After all, judges are a part of society and are susceptible to social and political pressure…If we want laws to be enforced, we need to put social support behind them.” In short, one of the most valuable things we can do is what many of us are already doing. It is to put animal liberation on the public agenda—and keep it there.

The hearing will be held on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Check back here for an update!

How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture

By Zach Groff

A year or two ago, I was a lonely, wavering vegan. I held my few vegan acquaintances at arm's length and jokingly called myself a "demi-flexi-freegan" because of my constant willingness, indeed compunction, to adapt to any situation and avoid making demands of others. When the subject of animal rights came up in conversation, it was because someone else brought it up and forced it upon me. The only form of activism I would engage in was leafleting, and only after I was repeatedly prodded.

Given all of this, you might be surprised to learn that I fully believed in animal liberation. As a child, I thought it was weird that we killed animals for food. In high school, when we read an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, I adamantly defended Costello's question about why it was wrong for the Nazis to send Jews like sheep to the slaughter but okay to send actual sheep to the slaughter. I figured there had to be some reason it was okay to kill animals that I just didn't know. When I got to college and realized there was no such reason - that everyone thinking seriously about it had concluded that animal agriculture was problematic - I quickly went vegetarian, and vegan a year later, after reading Animal Liberation.

The lesson I absorbed from the general culture was that I should be subtle and minimally demanding in my advocacy for animals. I should not go out and preach, but if someone asked why I was eating chickpeas, I should answer honestly. I should avoid associating with the one angry vegan in my residential college. I should hang out mostly with non-vegans, where I had the chance to change others for the better.

Despite how meek and timid I was, I got my fair share of grief. Though we hear a lot about angry vegans in our culture, we rarely hear about the all-too-common angry meat eater who, enraged by my answer to his own question about eating chickpeas, proceeds to fire argument after argument my way and take offense at my responses. I put up with it, adjusted, and occasionally leafleted.

Through a variety of experiences, I started to feel this dispersed, one-on-one conversational approach was lacking. I looked around and saw activists who, focused on maximizing their effectiveness, looked at a limited subset of the evidence on persuasion and touted the so-called concrete impact of leafleting, but ignored the more diffuse effects that come from acting as a group. When people come together to protest, one rarely knows the impact the protest had, and one certainly cannot tease out individual impact (though there is rigorous evidence that protests have a sizeable overall impact). Yet by participating in a protest, an individual can expect to make that protest more powerful, and I suspected activists were overlooking this to the detriment of our cause.

In August of 2014, one of my Facebook friends shared Priya's #DisruptSpeciesism video. I saw it, and I knew this was what our movement needed. I knew our arguments were strong, even irrefutable, and Priya walked right into a store and made her demands confidently. I shyly commented on her video "Anyone in New Haven want to organize an action?" She immediately responded, linked me to animal rights groups in the area, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting at a table talking people into disrupting a T.G.I. Friday's.

Walking into that T.G.I. Friday's, my whole body trembled. As the leader of this ragtag group, I had to project an air of calm and confidence, but on the inside I was terrified. We gathered in the parking lot. People were running late, and I needed money for our bullhorn, so I ran to the supermarket. When I came back, the whole group was there. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach and wanted to put it off, but I knew that putting it off would do nothing.

In we walked. Gulp.

We walked past the manager, not asking for a table or responding to his questions, and I remember thinking, "I wonder what he thinks." I went to the center of the store, told people to spread out, held up my sign, and began. The whole restaurant's eyes were on me as I began to do what I had always feared: say what I felt in the face of violence.

DxE gets a lot of attention for our disruptions, and there's no denying they're controversial. What is clear to me, though, is this: there is no more empowering experience for an activist than to speak the truth where the truth is hidden. There is no experience more uniting for a community.

Amid emails from Wayne, Priya, and Brian, I hardly even noticed when we seamlessly eased into planning our second action, a funeral action. January came, and in order to launch the Whole Foods campaign, we had an action each week (rather than one for the month). We formed an organizing team, started holding open meetings, and geared up for social events and sanctuary work. Amid all of this, I hardly even noticed that something radical had happened: I had ceased to be a lonely vegan. I started spending much of my time - virtually or in person - with others who rejected speciesism.

Cut to this past Monday. I received a notification from a fellow activist that the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, would be speaking at Yale the next morning at 10:00 a.m.; would I be interested in attending? I had met Vilsack a few years earlier. When I met him, I already knew that the USDA was in bed with animal agriculture, but the possibility of bringing this up - even politely - did not even cross my mind. I remembered him as almost suspiciously charming and, it seemed, quite comfortable with his fairly hidden but powerful position.

This time, I knew I had to disrupt that comfort. I had to greet Vilsack, respectfully, with the truth. The notion that animals matter - that animal agriculture is not about producing things but about exploiting innocents - never even appears on the USDA's radar. If there is debate over animal agriculture, it is over food safety, the environment, and health - not over the farmed animals who outnumber the American population by a factor of more than 30. Here was the man most responsible for animal agriculture in the U.S. today, and he would be there the next morning.

I quickly pulled together my organizers. Matt DeLucia and his wife, Lorin LeBlanc, took off work to come down. Jared Hunter, Allan Brison, Lauri MacLean, Minh Nguyen, and Hanh Nguyen, all delayed their commitments so they could make it. I consulted with Brian and devised a plan to ask a question and unfurl a banner with the simple message: "Stop subsidizing violence."

The morning of our disruption was easily one of the most terrifying of my entire life. I came into work early to get work done before I stepped out for the talk. My arms and legs were shaking. My stomach churned incessantly. I wondered if I'd made a mistake.

Ten minutes before the talk, I arrived to find a distraught Lorin and Matt. No bags allowed, and the banner was too big to get in otherwise. We huddled outside for far longer that we should have to avoid suspicion and decided to call it off. The others, who had come all this way, would listen anyway. On my way back to work, I got a text. There would be a Q&A. I turned back around and raced in late, knowing I would be able to make my point and we could follow up with a chant to hammer it in. 

Paprika.

Paprika.

Politicians are known for filling speeches with populist half-truths, but it's perhaps most difficult to hear such a speech when the half-truths completely ignore outrageous violence against innocents. I had a quote rehearsed, but I threw it out as soon as I heard the word "efficiency," a euphemism in animal agriculture for the most brutal forms of abuse. I knew I had to tell the story of Paprika, a hen who I'd met that week at Pepper's Place, an animal sanctuary in Massachusetts.

Vilsack's speech ended. Every inch of my body trembled. I've rarely ever asked a question before of a public figure, and when I do, I always wait to be the very last question. This time was different. I was nervous, but I knew that I was here for something more than myself. I was not even here for something - I was here for billions of someones victimized by the industry the USDA supports. I knew I had support in the room and friends around the world watching the livestream.

So I got up, first to the microphone, and I started. It's hard to describe what happened next, but it felt like years of hiding the truth - years of being silent in the face of a system I knew to be violent - came to an end. Here I was, with perhaps the most powerful man in the country if not the world on farmed animal issues, and I could deliver the plain truth straight to him. I took my time, made my point, and finished by asking,  "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?"

Unlike when I was a lonely vegan years ago, when his response to my question ended, we rose as a community, not an individual. Together, we chanted, "It's Not Food, It's Violence!" The eyes of the room and those watching the livestream around the country were on us. Most importantly, the man responsible for the supervision and support of animal agriculture was forced to confront the perspective of the beautiful individuals farmed for food, perhaps for the first time in his tenure.

As I left, I felt triumphant, but this will not be a triumph unless it is one of many.  This confrontation must be the beginning of a new normal, in which we constantly challenge public figures and those around us with the truth. If everywhere they went, public figures had to face the simple question, "Why do you support violence against innocent animals like Paprika?" mass violence against animals could no longer be ignored. Public officials tend to perceive the most vocal opinions as the most representative. To get our issue on the table, we must speak the unadulterated truth wherever and to whomever we can force to listen.