Viewing entries in
East Coast Tour 2014

What if Everything We Think We Know about Social Change Is Wrong?

What if Everything We Think We Know about Social Change Is Wrong? (VIDEO)

by Brian Burns

Despite the explosive growth of grassroots movements in recent years ( #BlackLivesMatter, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, to name a few) and their extraordinary effects - in the last case, literally toppling governments - many in the animal rights movement ardently oppose protests of any kind. Citing dubious studies or anecdotal evidence, three assumptions have come to dominate modern thinking on animal advocacy:

  1. Change individuals. Focus on creating vegans one by one.
  2. Change behavior. Peoples' behavioral and economic choices, especially their dietary ones, should be the main goal of advocacy, not their beliefs.
  3. Be nice. In order to effectively create these changes, we should not provoke or disrupt, but rather lead by example and appeal to peoples' already-held beliefs.

But what if everything we think we know about social change... is wrong? In a recent talk at Northwestern Law School where he was previously a professor, DxE organizer Wayne Hsiung presented the work of some of the greatest thinkers in behavioral economics, sociology, and social justice to present a very different model of social change. Citing mathematical sociologist Duncan Watts on network science and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the power of nonviolent direct action, Wayne outlines why DxE's approach differs from the mainstream:

  1. Create activists. Activists, unlike isolated vegans, unite to form powerful coalitions to broadcast the message of animal rights, and in turn inspire more activists in cascades for change. Case study: Duncan Watts' experiments with online networks.
  2. Change beliefs, especially social norms. "Morality is higher than economics," in the words of economics Nobel laureate Robert Fogel, and peoples' beliefs have powerful effects on their behavior, and the beahvior of others. Case study: Robert Fogel's analysis showing that antebellum slavery was challenged and defeated by a powerful political movement in spite of its growing economic power.
  3. Challenge and provoke. Protest disrupts violent routines, demonstrates activists' determination, and broadens the circle of debate. Case study: the work of Cornell sociologist political scientist Sidney Tarrow, who says that protest is "the strongest weapon of social movements".

In the second half of the presentation, I explain how DxE puts these insights into action in our flagship campaign, It's Not Food, It's Violence. Each result has a practical analogue that DxE puts into practice.

  1. Build a network for activism. We create strong, empowered communities for animal rights. This includes DxE Connections (a peer to peer activist support network) DxE Meetups (weekly meetings where community members share experiences, skills, and insight), and an international support network (including a new organizer mentorship program) for communities around the world to unite for animals.
  2. Challenge ideas. We focus on changing culture and social norms by challenging deep seated beliefs about speciesism and the humane myth - ideas often lost in meatless-mondays gradualism.
  3. Take nonviolent direct action. We go inside the very places where animals' bodies are mutilated and sold, and deliver the strong message that the animals deserved. While difficult and subject to ridicule, the evidence is clear that provocation is powerful.

All this information is presented with much more detail (and even some humor!) in the talk hosted by Northwestern Law and sponsored by Vegan Chicago. Give it a watch!

Fertile Ground (East Coast Tour - Part 5)

Fertile Ground

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the fifth post in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

Ronnie and I are waiting at the airport to head home, after a whirlwind 18 day tour of 6 cities. We have met some of the smartest and most enthusiastic activists in the animal rights world -- and beyond. We have been challenged, at times, but we have also received incredible support. And we have spread the idea of a beautiful network for change -- create, connect, inspire -- to dozens of the most committed activists on the East Coast.

But as we return to the Bay Area, one idea is stuck in my mind: the importance of community.

Wherever the animal rights movement is strong, community forms the fertile ground upon which activists can develop and grow.

Sherrie speaking up for animals. 

Sherrie speaking up for animals. 

This was perhaps most personified by Sherrie in Providence. Sherrie is an indigenous woman who is embedded in radical environmental and feminist activist communities. She has participated in civil disobedience and has a fierceness that is obvious to anyone who spends a moment talking to her. She believes passionately -- powerfully -- in making the world a better place. And yet she has a warm and welcoming touch that is hard to believe until you see it in action. A woman 40 years older than her -- and not even vegetarian -- confides in her, tearfully, after watching our video, as if Sherrie is a decades old friend. An activist from Connecticut, Anthony, comes to stay and do activism with her, and feels as comfortable as if they were siblings. And the environmental network Sherrie has become a part of -- Fighting Against Natural Gas -- has inspired commitments from activists across the world, including the rural, front-line communities most affected by environmental devastation. The personal touch makes a world of difference. Offering to make someone food. Giving so generously that it seems that her home is yours. And listening with such engagement that she makes your words take on a power that you never knew they had. Sherrie is the sort of person, I think, upon whom great communities are built -- and through those communities, great activist networks.

There were many other people we met in Providence who inspired us to be more empathic, more gracious, and more brave. Nick, Sherrie’s partner, was featured in a recent article in the Providence paper, as an unexpected leader in a radical movement for change, and has a heart as big as Sherrie’s. And it gives me great optimism for what they can build. Providence has a unique blend of heart, and will, and mind.

Boston activists disrupt a space of violence. 

Boston activists disrupt a space of violence. 

In Boston, we met a small group of committed activists, including Laura (who leads many of the demonstrations in her city) and Robert, who were just starting to think about the importance of movement building to achieving our ultimate ends. Others, including Elizabeth and Marcia, were excited by the prospect of joining the DxE Network -- and a blooming international community. A city filled with transients -- students move in and out all the time -- is a hard one to build a sustaining community. But I can see leaders stepping forward and solidifying a city with great potential for animals.

In New York City, the folks at New York Farm Animal Save have formed a vibrant community around weekly vigils for farm animals. Robert Jensen, one of our main organizers in the region, is a computer engineer with a humble demeanor and a heart of gold. When a homeless man came to ask us for food, Robert leapt forward to help him -- and even gave him guidance and support in his struggles with substance abuse. Miriam, Tony, Tomoko, Shafali, and others -- all dedicated activists who try to help every animal rights group in the region, no matter the campaign, were equally good hearted and supportive, sharing food, advice, and sometimes just kind words of support, to ensure that everyone who came to our talk, demo, and even social gatherings felt welcomed into the local animal rights community. Finally, Dana, who was DxE’s initial organizer on the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign, came out to join us despite the incredible pressure of a new job, an imminent move across the country (to San Diego -- hello Ellen Ericksen!), and an important exam just a few days later.

New York City had a great turnout, thanks to both the NY Farm Animal Save crew, and the SALDF at NYU Law. 

New York City had a great turnout, thanks to both the NY Farm Animal Save crew, and the SALDF at NYU Law. 

Even more surprisingly, to me, some prominent names in the vegan world -- the imposing Jamison Scala (whose incredible facebook page always gets hundreds of likes per post) and the fiery Eddie Lama (hero of the documentary, The Witness) -- came to both our talk and the demo the next day. And a brilliant young law student at NYU, Jay Shooster -- who sponsored our talk -- joined a DxE demo for the first time, showing that there are supporters of nonviolent direct action for animals even in the halls of power and prestige. In total, we had over two dozen people perform an in-store disruption. Their words were so moving and powerful and unified that my voice broke, and I was brought to tears. I know that the momentum they are building will only grow.

Philly was perhaps the most surprising city. I had been told, prior to arriving, that the city of brotherly love did not have the most vibrant of vegan/AR communities. But we were met immediately by my old friends Rachel and Tim. Rachel is a math professor at the prestigious Swarthmore College, where they’ve made a beautiful home for themselves in a forested suburban community just 25 minutes from Philly. She (and Tim by extension) was key to my development as an activist -- and person -- since I really did not have a close friendship circle before meeting Rachel in Chicago and starting a small local vegan board game circle that ended up spiraling in all sorts of unexpected directions  -- from karaoke to cooking competitions to ultimate frisbee. And yet while the Philly community was small, there were still passionate voices that joined us for our talk and demo.

George, a veteran Earth Firster, drove all the way from Redding, PA to see our talk and join our demo. An animal liberationist in the 1990s, he had since dropped out of the movement due to its failures in developing leaders in the grassroots. Too often, George said, animal rights activists were both rudderless and directionless. Activists were not given the opportunities they need to grow. And the movement’s vitality was sapped as a result.

George is someone that animal rights movement needs to learn from. In addition to decades of experience as an environmental activist, and a rural background so different from many young activists today, he has an appreciation for the importance of new ideas and people that makes him unusual among veteran activists. Too often, those of us who have been at this for a long time become wedded to particular ideas, strategies, and even people. We close ourselves off to new paths, and the movement loses as a result. But notwithstanding George’s extensive received wisdom, he came out to a talk by a new group that he had never heard of. And he took a lead role in our resulting action -- speaking strongly for animals, in a movement that he had so long ago moved away from, as ineffective and obsolete.

DC, I previously blogged about -- in particular, our wonderful stay with Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich. But just as important as Bruce, Dawn Moncrief, and the other big names we had the honor to speak to while in town, there were also some new faces who inspired us. In particular, Katherine, the sister of one of our most dedicated and intelligent activists in the Bay Area (Lisa), came out to her first demonstration, ever… and spoke out at an in-store disruption. While the grassroots community in DC does not seem strong, we hope we can continue to provide Kat and others the support they need from afar. As I emphasized to Kat, it is often the small acts of dissent, by brave people who do NOT have as much support as they should, who rouse the public into action on an issue that has long been forgotten.

And finally, there is Baltimore. There is so much more that should be written and said about our stay in Baltimore than can be done in a single blog post. Suffice it to say, we had conversations that truly blew our minds. I learned about the struggles of an inspiring leader fighting for animals in urban communities, the struggles of a convicted felon making the connections between human and non-human captivity, and the insights of a veteran feminist and LGBTQ rights activist on the perils of corporatization, and the vital importance of calling out human abuse of animals for what it is -- not just a minor cruelty, not just institutional discrimination, but a violent and domineering form of human supremacy -- that shook my thinking to its core. But on these last few subjects, I will have to say more later. For now, we have to board a plane.

But even as we leave, our connections -- and the international community we are building -- will remain. Thank you to all the activists we met. Thank you for your generosity, your open-mindedness, your passion, and your integrity.

Next stop? Chicago. The city that made me the activist I am today. 

Hungry to Learn (East Coast Tour - Part 4)

Hungry to Learn

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the fourth in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

About 16 years ago to the day, I decided to go vegan.

By starving myself.

There was a huge amount of research coming out about the benefits of so-called “caloric restriction” at the time, a diet with 20-30% fewer calories than a normal human being. The prevailing theory was that caloric restriction put your body into “emergency mode.” It was a signal to our DNA, “You haven’t had the chance to reproduce. Don’t age or die!” The resulting self-protective measures prevented not just aging but heart disease, cancer, and dementia (a particular concern for me, since I had a relative at the time who was suffering from mental decline).

I hated pretty much all vegetarian foods.  But I wanted to be: (1) ethical; and (2) healthy. Severe caloric restriction seemed an obvious way to accomplish both. I would eat a huge bowl of broccoli for lunch, a bowl of raw and unflavored tofu for dinner, and perhaps have some Fiber One as an after-dinner snack. I drank massive amounts of water, but never touched juice or even soy milk. And the occasional once-a-week granola bar was a treasured treat.

I lost 40 or so pounds (from a very fit 175 -- my current weight -- to a ridiculously slim 135), and my parents/grandparents thought I had gone insane. Not only was I giving up meat -- the dietary sign that our family had finally made it in the world -- but I was losing a terrifying amount of weight. But it didn’t matter to me because I was accomplishing my goals. I would live, I thought to myself, to the age of 120!

Or would I?

Our ability to understand even a single human being’s body is shockingly limited. Nutritional science, for example, has taken centuries, with thousands of experiments, to give us a very limited understanding of the impacts of various diets on human health. Antioxidants were once thought to be a cure all to everything from heart disease to cancer, but the most recent evidence suggests, in part due to the body’s adaptive mechanisms, they don’t do anything at all. Fruit juices that were once considered part of a healthy diet are now seen as major contributors to the diabetes epidemic. And fats, especially saturated fats from animal products, were once deemed the bane of human health -- and waistlines -- but the latest evidence shows that all the fears were probably overblown. 

In short, when it comes to complex systems such as the human body, our science is painfully limited, and constantly subject to revision.  That has been true, sadly for my 16-year-old self, of caloric restriction. The promising early studies have not held up to further scrutiny. I’ve subsequently put back on most of the weight… and satisfied my family members that I am not, in fact, insane.

But what is true of the study of the human body is perhaps even more true of the human brain. With 100 billion neurons firing in a dizzying array of patterns and sequences, each seemingly different than the last, the complexity of human brain puts nutrition science to shame. We lack even the most basic understanding as to what causes phenomena such as love, addiction, or even consciousness, and a true breakthrough may be thousands of years away.

And yet we remain startlingly confident in our ability to predict how the brain and mind work, as manifested in not just individual behavior, but social change. This confidence, as the brilliant Duncan Watts puts it, is false.

“The social world… is far messier than the physical world, and the more we learn about it, the messier it is likely to seem. The result is that we will probably never have a science of sociology that will resemble physics. “

In everything from the best methods to stop war and encourage peace, to the expected outcome of a business merger, to trying to ensure a couple will stay together, to determining how to stop people from smoking, our ability to make predictions about the social world is astonishingly bad. Yet, because our common sense evolved to help us make sense of such questions, we are confident that we have solutions. But the conventional wisdom has it backwards. Rocket science isn’t so hard (despite the everyday person’s perception of its difficulty); social science, as I’ve written previously, is.

I’ll develop these ideas further in later blog posts. (I know I still owe many of you a sequel to “Science or Sciency-y.”) But I bring this point up now because the difficulty of the problems we face has been a common theme of the tour. In meeting with incredibly smart and open-minded leaders such as David Coman-Hidy at The Humane League, Rob Wiblin of the Centre for Effective Altruism and Animal Charity Evaluators, and Dawn Moncrief of A Well Fed World, I’ve really appreciated the common understanding of the difficulties we face as social justice activists -- and the resulting need for creative strategies and careful strategy and analysis.

I learned, for example, that David believes that some of the most important aspects of his work are, in fact, unmeasurable -- the community building dimension, for example, of THL’s chapter model. I learned that Rob is increasingly interested in movement building approaches to effective activism -- notwithstanding CEA’s traditional emphasis on individual-level change. And I learned that Dawn is involved in a dizzying array of projects, from giving out PB&J sandwiches to the hungry to offering grants to promising animal rights groups internationally. I learned, in short, that a lot of people are thinking hard, being creative, and recognizing the complexity of the problems we face.

Perhaps even more, however, I learned that it’s important for us to connect with one another. Casey Taft, the founder of Vegan Publishers and a professor at Boston University Medical School (where he works on stopping domestic violence) is not necessarily the first person you’d think to ask, in trying to understand social change. But insights he has developed as one of the world’s pioneers in stopping domestic violence can, in fact, be applied to animal rights, as he powerfully argued in a recent article.

The insight we can glean from listening to Casey is an example of a broader phenomenon: the importance of cross fertilization in obtaining good answers to difficult problems. There are numerous examples of this in my own field economics. Behavioral economics (resulting in at least two Nobel Prizes, and many more to come) was a result of cross talk between economists, psychologists, and sociologists. Paul Krugman’s Nobel Prize winning trade theory was developed from insights stolen from the scholarship on geography. And even the now discredited rational choice paradigm was the result of interactions between mathematics, physics, engineering, and economics. In short, on hard problems, we need to seek out perspectives from different areas of knowledge to get better at what we do.

And I think this is especially true when those other areas of knowledge contradict our own. This is why I was so excited to discuss DxE’s campaigns with Bruce Friedrich, one of the leaders at Farm Sanctuary. Bruce is most recently famous for debating Gary Francione on the value of welfare reforms. His prior position at PETA led him to undertake a number of campaigns, e.g. advocating controlled atmosphere killing, which brought down the ire and wrath of the radicals within our movement. Bruce, in short, is not a natural party for conversation for a group like DxE. 

But that makes his insight (and yes, his criticism) especially important to entertain. And in our conversations with Bruce, two things became apparent.

First, if our goal is network building, it is absolutely vital to emphasize that our model of activism -- building a movement for nonviolent direct action -- complements many of the strategies taken by other groups. If we are successful -- as I fully expect we will be -- our activism will make the lobbying, outreach, and education that Bruce does exponentially more effective. Indeed, in many ways, that is the entire point of nonviolent direct action: to create so much energy behind an issue that less assertive methods can finally sink in the way they should!

Second, while the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign has created an impressive international mobilization, it’s important for us to think strategically about how it fits into the longer term objective of building empowered networks for change. And, perhaps just as importantly, it’s important for us to explain this strategy to the world. How are we to get from A to Z, without taking steps B, C, and D?

There were a number of other important criticisms leveled at DxE by Bruce. But the key point, for me, is that there is much to learn from even those with whom you disagree -- especially when they have as much experience and wisdom as someone like Bruce (who, in his younger years, served 2.5 years of collective prison time for civil disobedience as a peace activist), and when our objective -- total animal liberation -- is one and the same.

That does not mean we have to give up our strategy, much less our values. Bruce himself would be the first to acknowledge that, if there is a genuine ethical concern, it ought to be directly raised. (We had some intense conversations on the ethics of killing.) But if we want to find right answers, to change others, and to learn ourselves, we have to be willing to talk… and yes, even build bridges with people with whom we might disagree.

We are stronger together. We are smarter together. And it is only together, that we will achieve our greatest dreams. 

Learning and Connecting (East Coast Tour - Part 3)

Learning and Connecting

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the third in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read all the blog posts from the tour here.)

Wandering through a dark castle filled with piles of seeming rubble. Arguing with a secretly wealthy man who donates almost all of his money to help others, still lives with his mother, and refuses to wear shoes. And being inspired by the enthusiastic support of a few animal rights celebrities… but, even more importantly, the humble and good-hearted souls who comprise the animal rights movement in the Northeast.

Things could hardly get better.

But first, an apology. I meant to post short updates to the blog on a near-daily basis. But various problems and projects have gotten in the way. So blogging time has been hard to come by. The craziest moments, however, are hopefully behind us. So I hope to catch up a bit, now.  Let’s start with some early reflections.


We flew in on the red eye, and neither Ronnie or I got much, if any sleep. This was unfortunate because our first two meetings were with two of the smartest and most impressive people we’ll meet on the trip.

First up was my friend Alice, an enterprising Harvard Law School student who, after training to play the viola at conservatory, switched to a legal career and was as successful as a paralegal and law school applicant as she was as a musician. Alice is part of an incredibly smart and provocative group of young climate activists at Harvard who are pushing the school to divest from fossil fuels. And, in many ways, their campaign is not unlike DxE’s. For one, the ultimate end goal is social normative, rather than economic. There is a recognition that even Harvard, for all its seeming economic might, is just a flea compared to the fossil fuel industry. So the goal in the divestment campaign is not to deny Big Oil Harvard’s dollars but rather its intellectual, social, and moral credibility.

The thinking goes something like this: if we can convince the Harvards of the world to be so ashamed of fossil fuels that they will no longer invest, it could create a cultural cascade that spreads through our entire society. Alice and her colleagues are using Harvard -- sterling reputation and all -- as a lens through which we can understand the bigger problem: catastrophic damage to our climate. And as I talked to Alice about the Harvard campaign, I could not help but think of Chipotle.

We talked a lot about the similarities in strategy. The divestment campaign, like DxE, has many autonomous groups around the country working toward the same objective. Like DxE, it has pushed traditionally passive activists into bolder and more disruptive action. (A Harvard student was arrested during a civil disobedience for the first time in recent history.) Like DxE, it is focused on creating cascades of social and moral influence. There will be much to learn and share in the weeks and months to come, and I’m hoping that I can stay in touch with Alice as she and her group continue working hard to save our planet.

That evening, we had our second gathering with Jeff Kaufman, our host for the evening. Jeff is a prominent figure in a movement called Effective Altruism (EA). Spawned from the work of Peter Singer, especially his famous call to combat global poverty, Famine, Affluence, and Morality (which has become such a significant paper that it has its own acronym -- FAM), EAs use evidence to determine the most effective methods to make the world a better place. While many EAs I had discussed of late have fanciful (and I think non-falsifiable) beliefs about so-called x-risk -- risks to the existence of the human race, or life itself (everything from evil artificial intelligence to nanotech triggered grey goo) -- there has been increasing attention given to animal rights within the EA community.

Jeff, as a prominent blogger, community leader, and role model for EAs everywhere, has had an influential voice in trying to understand the most effective tactics for animal advocacy. But strangely, he’s not himself an animal advocate.

“I’m interested for methodogical reasons,” he told me. “I want to promote good thinking on these issues.”

And good thinking, Jeff suggests, has been in short supply.

This is not a problem unique to animal rights. Indeed, even in Jeff’s priority cause -- alleviating global poverty -- there is shockingly little evidence suggesting that our collective solutions have had much positive effect. But animal rights seems unhinged from the broader literature on development. Insights and concepts that are part of the common parlance in development -- e.g. the importance of institutions, the difficulty of social prediction, the power of inertia, the necessity for skepticism -- are still missing in our discussions of animal advocacy. Jeff is helping us change that with provocative posts like this one: Pay other people to go vegetarian for you?

No shoes. No worries. 

No shoes. No worries. 

This comes despite the fact that he views animals as morally insignificant. And yes, he eats animals. To some, this might be reason to condemn Jeff as a monstrous and selfish person. But this can’t possibly be right. By any objective standard, Jeff and his wonderful wife Julia are among the most selfless people in the world. Jeff, a high paid engineer at Google’s Boston office, donates 50% of his income to charity, still lives with his mother, father, and two sisters, and is famous for often refusing to wear shoes. Julia, in turn, matches Jeff's donation rate, and is a social worker who has written beautifully about our obligations to the poor… about how many of the things that we take for granted as belonging to us are, in fact, granted to us only by the hands of fate.

Words that she shared with Jeff, many years ago, have resonated with me strongly since I first read them on Jeff's blog. 

It's easy for me to buy a milkshake at Bev's if I'm in Carytown. But if I were living in Bolivia and that two or three dollars could help my little sister pay school fees, would I still buy the milkshake? Of course not. At the end of the year that two dollars goes to Save the Children instead. The hardest thing is remembering the kids in Bolivia when I'm in Carytown. It always makes me feel like yelling or crying when my roommate tries to talk me into going with her to the ballet or opera, because I don't know how to explain to her that the money for that ticket isn't really mine—it should really belong to someone who needs it, and I have to give it to them.

This sort of compassion is uncanny -- and is exactly the sort of sentiment we need more of in the world. But the cause of animals, to many people, remains sadly remote. Jeff doubts the consciousness of animals. Julia, in turn, recently posted her worries that a too-aggressive form of veganism -- the dominant framing for animal rights -- is necessarily exclusionary and classist. We spoke into the late hours of the night on these and other issues. And while I could sense increasing sympathy for what we at DxE (and the animal rights movement generally) are trying to accomplish, there was no epiphany moment.

Instead, I went to bed with two important lessons. First, to make any headway, we need to make a real place for ourselves in the modern Left. Even among the most passionate do-gooders in the world -- indeed, perhaps especially among such people -- animal rights is a cause that is, at best, not understood, and, at worst, openly derided as ridiculous, trivial, or even oppressive. There is not a single strategy for us to change that perception, but, as I have suggested previously, (1) increasing our message strength and confidence and (2) our movement’s diversity are key.

Second, though -- and this is just as important -- Jeff and Julia are examples of why we must proceed with humility. Though neither is particularly interested in animals, they are fiercely devoted to making the world a better place -- and have made far greater commitments than the vast majority of the social justice community. In short, far from being bad people, they are two of our planet’s best people.

Of course, doing one good, or even great, deed does not excuse other bad ones. And I would never suggest that we should back down from our belief that every animal has the right to be free from harm. After all, it is one of the basic ideas of this tour that our movement needs to inspire the strength to say what it truly means: that every bite of meat is an act of discriminatory violence.

But we should not, and cannot, go about our work with a sense of superiority, entitlement, or (worst of all) power over those around us. Far from it, especially when our message itself is confrontational, it is important for us to proceed with humility and even generosity towards others. Let’s speak honestly and directly when we feel our animal brethren’s lives and bodies are being disrespected, physically torn to pieces right before our eyes. But let’s come to that position from a place of love and nonviolence.

If you’ve had a confrontation about speciesism, offer to buy someone a meal afterwards. Acknowledge areas where your interlocutor may, in fact, be better than you (as both Jeff and Julia are, in so many different dimensions). And above all, don’t give up hope.

Perhaps by far the most inspiring aspect of our tour after all, is how, in city after city, the idea of animal liberation is bubbling up to the surface. It’s still largely unnoticed by the mainstream. It needs time and nurturing to develop. But it is an idea that has been independently discovered by communities, cities, and even entire nations. And when progressives all over the world are converging on the same basic set of beliefs, it is a powerful sign that the writing is on the wall. That is reason, not just for hope, but confidence. The world is changing faster than we think. 


Sleight of Hand (East Coast Tour – Part 2)

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch. While a magician performs, pickpockets steal the audience's belongings. 

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch. While a magician performs, pickpockets steal the audience's belongings. 

Sleight of Hand

by Ronnie Rose

(This is the second in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Read the first part here.) 

“What is this I have in my hand?” he asks us, holding up a deflated red balloon.

Wayne answers, “a balloon.”

“Do you think this balloon, once blown up, will be able to fit inside of this glass?” We pause for a second, looking at the wine glass on the table and then back up at the balloon, imagining the scenario.

“No,” we say in unison.

“Now, I’m going to test your perceptual abilities.” The magician starts to blow air into the red balloon, and we watch him as it inflates to the size of a large watermelon. We both look down at the wine glass again, measuring the likelihood that the two disproportionately-sized objects will be able to fit together.

“You know, I really can’t make this happen without this tool I have, which you may have heard of, called a magic wand. Let me get it.” The magician reaches into his black velvet overcoat with his right hand, while still holding the inflated red balloon in his left hand. We wait in anticipation to see what will happen next. 

As he fumbles in his overcoat for the magic wand, he quickly pulls out a knife and stabs the balloon. It pops. I’m startled. My mind is struggling to catch up to the rapid movements and make sense of the chaos. After a short lapse, I realize that in the same hand as the balloon, there now appears a bottle of red wine.

I am thoroughly impressed.

“What you didn’t notice was that there was a bottle of wine inside of the balloon,” he jokes as he opens the bottle and pours it into the glass.


What I didn’t mention in the scene above (a sleight of hand of my own) is that the magician was not only our host in Boston—our first stop on the East Coast tour—but the critical theorist John Sanbonmatsu. As you may recall, I have written about John’s work on this blog before. He has played a key role in my intellectual development on topics of animal liberation and speciesism, and by association, in the development of DxE and the It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign.

I asked John after the magic show if he ever performs for his classes (he teaches philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute). “Yes,” he tells me, “in fact I bring magic to the class when I’m teaching Michael Pollan. I use my magic to show how he engages in misdirection to fool his audience every time he writes about how wonderful the conditions are for animals raised for food.” John continues, “Pollan is saying, ‘Hey, look over here! Look how beautiful this grassy field is!’, while diverting all attention away from the horror of the knife going into the poor cow’s throat.”

Like Pollan, magicians aim to misdirect the audience’s attention and awareness away from the source of the trick, so that its cause is obscured and appears to be supernatural. Magic, simply put, is an elaborate deception of the senses. John explains to us, “magic has been around for thousands of years,” and it is perhaps one of the oldest and most wide-spread forms of performance art on the planet.

Magic, I realized, is not only encountered as a performance on the stage, but pervades every waking moment of our lives. The manipulation of perceptions (also known as “marketing”) is an art that corporations and exploitative ideologies have mastered to build, and justify, their empires. For example, Chipotle and other marketers of “humane” meat, eggs, and milk mislead and dupe the public just like Michael Pollan; they carefully craft slogans and polish stories about animal agriculture that appear benign and just, while diverting attention away from the source of real ethical concern: we are controlling, dominating, and killing other sensitive beings because they are different.

As performed in Chipotle’s viral marketing videos, Back to the Start and The Scarecrow, this ethical concern magically vanishes as viewers watch happy animals turned into happy burritos without the pain, fear, and suffering of slaughter. 

And voilà! Attention diverted, money made, trick complete.


Activists in Boston bring the silenced voices and cries of animals into Chipotle, where their bodies are sold. 

Activists in Boston bring the silenced voices and cries of animals into Chipotle, where their bodies are sold. 

One of our roles as activists is to expose the tricks, and the mechanisms behind them, for what they are: fraudulent and harmful. We need to pull back the shroud and unveil all the props of deception. We need to redirect the world’s attention back to the violence behind the scenes—back to the knife poised to penetrate that poor cow’s throat.

On this tour, we are attempting to do just that. We are traveling from city to city to create, connect, and inspire activists to organize actions against species tyranny and violence. At each stop, we are presenting about our experiences in DxE, learning from others, and orchestrating demos for the It’s Not Food, It’s Violence campaign, which has now reached 50 cities in 16 countries. 


Wayne advises me during the magic show, "Ronnie, we have to focus on what he's doing with his other hand, that's where the trick is!"

"Ah," retorts John the magician, "I see that you're a skeptic... That's excellent. Skepticism is what makes a good activist."

Create. Connect. Inspire. (East Coast Tour - Part 1)

Final hugs with the two girls. 

Create. Connect. Inspire. 

by Wayne Hsiung

(This is the first in a multi-part series about DxE's East Coast Speaking Tour. Follow the tour on facebook here.) 

It’s been over 12 years since I last left home on a trip longer than a few days. More than 14 since I had a proper vacation. So it is with some trepidation that I leave the Bay Area today. Lisa and Natalie, my two special, and special-needs, girls are constantly on my mind. And a potentially-dangerous family health situation continues to draw my attention home. I’ll have to call in to a few hospital meetings with an oncologist at Stanford from a couple thousand miles away. (And even as I write this, I tremble at the bad news this man may bring.) 

My co-organizer Ronnie, ready for the red eye flight. 

But I’m also excited. In 15 years as an animal rights activist, I've never done something like a speaking tour. For many years I never thought that my voice mattered enough that anyone would want to hear what I have to say. And it always seemed an imposition to ask anyone for an opportunity to speak when my words had not been expressly invited. It has taken years -- decades, really, with the support of incredible mentors in academia, law, and (above all) activism -- to train in myself the confidence to speak even when my words might be unwelcome. 

And that is, perhaps, the first theme of the tour. That we must collectively steel ourselves to speak even when our words are unwelcome.  That we must resist the conspiracy of silence by saying plainly that atrocities are occurring right in front of our eyes.

That is, to me, the most important message of the inspiring speech by Lauren Gazzola, SHAC7 defendant, that we posted to our site yesterday. From the earliest days of human civilization, dissent has been the time-tested tool for social change... the original and most powerful form of direct action. From Socrates in the Greek Agora, to Martin Luther with his 95 theses, to Mohamed Bouazizi with his burning words of rage, the power of the word has always overcome the power of the sword. And that is our movement's mission today: to inspire a powerful wave of nonviolent dissent that will overcome even our mightiest foes.

But, of course, much of the speaking tour will not be unwelcome. And that is the second theme as we fly East: that even a radical animal rights story, if told well, can be embraced by people from all walks of life. Half of the groups that will be sponsoring us on the tour will be non-animal rights groups -- from the Students for Sustainable Investment (part of the divestment campaign) at Harvard to the Asian students alliance at Northwestern.  People routinely tell us that the world will turn away if we say things too strongly, too directly, too honestly. But DxE’s successes over the past year prove this is not true. In fact, it is our weakness  -- and not our confidence and strength -- that has led our movement astray.

This is not to say that animal rights will face no opposition. There undoubtedly will be opposition, particularly when our movement begins to show its confidence and strength, and we can expect that opposition to be fierce. What it does show, however, is that even in the face of fierce opposition -- indeed, especially in the face of fierce opposition -- we can and will find strong allies. Love for animals lies latent in people all over the world. The animals of this earth are simply waiting for that love to be realized into a powerful movement for change.

And so we set out today, and every day, to do that. And that brings us to the third and most important theme of the tour: that, to effect real and permanent change, to follow in the footsteps of successful movements, we have three essential objectives: To create activists. To connect them with allies across the globe. And to inspire those networks -- through mutual support and community -- to stronger words and actions against violence and prejudice .

Create. Connect. Inspire. In my conversations with Ronnie, as we prepped for this tour, those three words rang most strongly in our minds. We hope that they will continue to ring throughout the movement. The incredible people who have joined the DxE network, both within the Bay Area and beyond...  the beautiful networks and relationships that those people have made... and the inspiring words that have flowered, in cities as far flung as Istanbul and Chennai, on behalf of the same message: It's not food. It's violence. We depend on all three of these to fuel our movement for change. We depend on every one of you. And it is with every DxE activist in our minds that we fly, with hope in our hearts, to spread our message of change. 

My skin may be brown, but I'm still American. The sign says so! 

Every day, before I go to sleep, I remind myself that, not so far away, there is a child suffering unimaginable terrors. I think of a little girl huddling in darkness, pressed up against thousands of her tortured sisters, trapped in a pile of feces that has enveloped her foot in an unyielding vice of pain, moaning silently but with no one to hear her cries. I think of her, and it nearly breaks me. It reminds me that whatever problems I face in life, they are trivial compared to what my animal brethren are facing in concentration camps just a few miles away.

But I also remind myself that there is hope for this world. You give me that hope. We give each other that hope. And it is with hope and gratitude, above all, that we take our message East. Thank you to everyone who is part of the DxE network, and more broadly, part of the community of social justice. It is only with your tireless efforts that we will finally dispel the nightmare of the cage and the blade, and replace it with a world where the cages are gone, the blades are put down... and the innocent child from our nightmares will finally be safe and happy and free.