Almira Tanner
Published on
August 12, 2021

The Power of Symbolic Victories

Humans want to be on the winning team. Winning also gives those involved in the struggle a boost of motivation and efficacy.

The Berkeley City Council just resolved to transition 100% of city food purchases away from animal products and towards plant-based foods. I believe this to be a major victory for the animal rights movement but, from an instrumental perspective - i.e. the resulting direct and concrete changes -- the gains are quite small. For one, the declaration is a non-binding resolution, not an ordinance or law; and the council has failed to follow through on many of its commitments before. The resolution’s own author, Councilmember Sophie Hahn, told the media it was “purely aspirational.” For another, Berkeley just doesn’t purchase that much food (approximately $2-3 million worth per year). And lastly, there is no set timeline for the city to reach the full transition. So why is this a major win? Because of the importance and power of symbolic victories. 

Let me explain... 

There are many strategies and theories of change that make up the “ecology” of the animal rights movement. (1) At DxE, we believe that we will change dominant institutions and achieve revolutionary social and political change for animals by mobilizing so many people that it will no longer be possible to maintain the status quo. History indicates we can almost certainly succeed by mobilizing a relatively small percentage of the population, but that this is likely impossible without a broader base of support from the general public. So at the risk of greatly oversimplifying a highly complex problem, the short version of our theory is that if we build enough support for animal rights among the masses and get 1-2% of the public out on the streets, we will win. Therefore, we should focus on shifting the spectrum of allies and building passive and active public support.

One key way to build this support is winning victories. Humans want to be on the winning team. Winning also gives those involved in the struggle a boost of motivation and efficacy, which can reduce recidivism and burnout in the movement. Within this specific campaign, passing the resolution led to our community feeling a sense of power and motivation - we successfully took on the Berkeley City Council and won! Taking action had an impact! I saw posts all over social media from supporters who now wanted to take action in their cities or join the movement or just felt more hopeful about all their efforts. All of this leads to more people supporting the cause, and sustaining or increasing their activism. 

Victories also increase the salience of an issue. Over one hundred media outlets reported on the passing of the resolution, leading to hundreds of thousands of people being exposed to a message about the harms of animal agriculture. (And the media is way more likely to report on a specific outcome or victory than a campaign with no end point.) Beyond just giving people information, discussing animal agriculture in the media signals that (1) this is an important issue that (2) politicians are addressing because (3) there is a movement out there with enough power to get their issue on the table. Once again, this builds our passive support. There is also an element of public and social pressure that comes along with victories. If governments are divesting from animal agriculture because they care about animals and the planet, and you’re someone who cares about animals and the planet, well... maybe it’s time you did something about it, too. 

So even if the Berkeley City Council does nothing from this point on (2), this campaign built our base of passive public support and spurred more people to take action, building power for our entire movement, and enabling us to get closer to the point where we have the numbers to create the revolutionary change we so desperately need. 

How has this played out in history? It turns out some of the most iconic campaigns from past social justice movements ended up as pretty big instrumental failures, yet key symbolic victories. Take Gandhi’s Salt March. This sustained campaign resulted in the arrest of tens of thousands and forced the British Government to agree to a negotiation with the Indian National Congress within a year. The negotiations ended with the Gandhi-Irwin Pact and an agreement from Gandhi to end the campaign. But the pact made no concessions at all with respect to Indian independence and barely modified the Salt Act. Instrumentally, the Indian people won very little. But people across the country were ecstatic as they felt the power they had at forcing the British to negotiate and cave to their campaign. 

The Birmingham campaign during the civil rights movement also led to few instrumental wins. Despite aiming to desegregate all public city facilities, the campaign won the desegregation of department store fitting rooms and not much else. Some “Whites only” signs were taken down and the government agreed that within 60 days they would “commence a program” (sound familiar?) of lunch counter desegregation. But the lack of instrumental wins didn’t stop this campaign from being a watershed moment in the civil rights movement, turning the public against segregation and leading Kennedy to proclaim that “the events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” Within a year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. 

So don’t discount the power of symbolic victories. They are building up our base of support and laying the groundwork for the big instrumental wins we will achieve in the future. And who knows where divestment will spread next? When Berkeley banned the sale of fur in 2017, it was purely symbolic as there was essentially no fur being sold in the city. Yet two years later, the entire state of California had banned fur. And that had a concrete impact on the industry. The Smithfields of the world might not directly feel the hit of Berkeley divesting, but they sure will when California does. I truly believe we can make that happen! If you want to be part of that change, please join our webinar on August 22nd at 10:00am PT and learn how you can get your city to divest from animal agriculture. 


(1) Relevant section starts at 50:00.

(2) I think it’s unlikely the city does nothing considering the amount of pressure from activists that got them to introduce the resolution in the first place and the media coverage it received after it passed. They are well aware that hundreds of local activists are watching them to ensure they follow through.

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