What Does Our Movement Mean?

The Animal Rights Movement’s Most Urgent Question
By Lauren Gazzola

Lauren_GazzolaAre we a movement that means it’s ok to eat animals, or a movement that means it is not?

On a rainy March afternoon in New York City, a colleague of mine at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent an email to staff:

“We have a lot of leftovers from the event last night. Eat up! The steak & chicken are in the fridge on the right. Grilled veg is in the same fridge on a plate covered with foil.”[1]

I hit Reply All:

“Before you help yourself to the former,” I wrote, “remember, those were individuals, like Melody (now living at VINE Sanctuary) who wanted to live their lives.”

I included a link to Melody’s story on the VINE webpage, which described how the dairy industry discarded her as a sick calf before she found refuge at VINE.

Another colleague replied to the chain, chastising me for “imposing [my] views,” and “judging people for their dietary choices,” admonishing me to remember that “what people eat is their own choice.”[2] A director tried to keep the calm, urging that we not discuss “politics and values” on all-staff email and that, when something touches a nerve, we “please…take the time to walk down the hall and talk in person.” Through the grapevine, I know that many of my coworkers thought my email was out-of-line, though they did not say so publicly.[3]

Meanwhile, over the past two years, a new network of activists called Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) has been marching into restaurants and grocery stores, protesting in the very spaces where the butchered bodies of animals are sold and, increasingly, where killing animals is marketed as “humane” and good. They have popularized the tagline, “It’s not food. It’s violence.” Not unlike the reactions of my coworkers, DxE has been chastised for “proselytizing” about “personal views” and “judg[ing],”[4] denounced as extreme[5] for advocating an end to all consumption of animals, ridiculed for “legitimately believ[ing] ‘speciesism’ is a thing,”[6] and criticized from within the animal rights movement itself for making vegans look bad.

I see no reason to stop.

As I reflect on the 21 years since Satya was first published, I am thinking about how the animal rights movement has both made progress and, at the same time, reinforced some of the ideas and behaviors that allow violence against animals to continue. Nearly two decades after I first read an issue of this magazine, our movement has achieved some of the goals we were working so hard for back then: exposing the reality of factory farming and making veganism widely known and more (though not sufficiently or equitably) accessible. However, we have also reinforced the idea that whether to eat animals is a “personal choice” no different than not eating gluten, that choosing to eat them is the sort of thing that is beyond public condemnation or social ostracism, and that speaking up when people do is rude or unwarranted. Our movement has failed to create a context in which my email to my coworkers and DxE’s protests make sense.

I believe this is our movement’s most urgent task: to transform the meaning of these actions, from improper impositions of personal views into legitimate protests of violence against animals.

I don’t deny that animal rights activists often “look bad”[7] when they disrupt restaurants and grocery stores, point out the obvious within their coworkers’ emails, refuse to sit with people while they are eating meat, or protest and object in any number of other public and private ways when people are purchasing, eating, or wearing animals. But I am far from convinced that looking “bad” is inherently problematic—in fact, I am not convinced that the looking bad is “inherent.”

On the one hand, it makes intuitive sense to stop behavior that our communities shun. Manners and mores teach us which behaviors are acceptable and which are not and, often, what is right and what is wrong. I know that it is rude to cut in front of someone in line, for example, not because I read it in a social rule book or have studied the philosophy of manners, but because I have learned it, soaked it up, from my community. Social norms are essential (and unavoidable) to learning how to live with others.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the notion that we should not speak up precisely when people are participating in the atrocity we are trying to stop strike us as strange and potentially problematic? Aren’t direct protests (against both unjust laws and unjust social norms; think, e.g., both Civil Rights lunch counter sit-ins and gay rights kiss-ins) and critiques within our personal relationships (think, “Hey, that thing you said was kind of sexist….”)[8] deemed essential parts[9] of other social justice efforts? Indeed, wouldn’t it have seemed warranted if—with the same matter-of-fact tone, complete with Ps and Qs—my email had pointed out the implicit sexism in a colleague’s email? But the animal rights movement has done summersaults to avoid these approaches, to avoid looking bad—dwindling our protests, watering down our message, joining forces with animal agriculture, and deeming tolerance of the very thing we are trying to stop a primary virtue.

The problem here is that, while existing social norms are useful guides when we want to conform to those norms, they are crummy guides for how to change them; giving into current social mores isn’t a very good model for transforming them.

Ironically, the best argument for continuing protests like DxE’s or commentary like my email comes from the argument for not doing these things: that we suffer social condemnation when we do. That feeling is extremely powerful, engendering gut feelings that we should stop what our community is condemning. But we should not cower in the face of this social power—we should harness it.

Along with “don’t make vegans look bad,” it has become an operating theory in our movement that people are more likely to change their behavior when they feel good than when they feel bad—we should not make them feel guilty for eating animals or like we disapprove of their behavior. But anyone who has ever said or done something that has caused them to feel embarrassed knows that feeling bad—namely, feeling unaccepted by the group—is a much stronger motivator to change than feeling just fine about our actions.

I am not suggesting we should harangue or vilify individuals for eating animals, or be intolerant towards those who are phasing out animal products rather than going vegan (ahem) cold turkey. Nor am I suggesting we should avoid constructive conversations about the how’s and why’s of not eating animals. On the contrary, I am arguing that we should think beyond trying to change individuals one at a time and realize that we can act directly upon the social context itself.

This means asking different questions. Not, “What message will convince an individual to change their behavior in an unchanged world?,” but, “What social phenomena do we need to put out into the world in order to compel our society to grapple with this issue?”

For example, a common misunderstanding of DxE’s activism is that they are trying to make vegans with their protests, or to change the minds of people within the immediate vicinity of the demonstrations. “You won’t make someone vegan by yelling at them,” the refrain goes. Indeed. And when we are having a one-on-one conversation, or giving a presentation, let’s not yell. But this assumption about the goal of DxE protests is mistaken, and there are other ways to understand them.

For example, the protests could be seen not as yelling “at” people, but yelling near people (and near products of violence) about violence against animals, disrupting not just peoples’ shopping but also their unthinking about animals as food.[10] Or as causing provocation that prompts public discussion about animal rights. DxE’s efforts could also be understood as creating a community and a platform where people who care about animals can go to do activism, creating an animal rights protest faction within society.

This misunderstanding about DxE protests seems to derive from thinking that the way to change the world for animals is to make vegans one-by-one—individual change as the vehicle to collective change, rather than the other way around. We have trouble imagining a short-term goal other than “making vegans” or “reducing meat consumption”; trouble seeing that activism that turns people off in the short-term might put something out into the world that creates a social context that may turn people on to animal rights in the long-term.

Protest is not useful primarily because of its immediate effects, but because of what it provokes within a society, what emanates from it—that is, the effects it has on the social context itself. Think Occupy Wall Street. Occupy did not remedy inequality or stamp out Wall St. greed, but its provocative actions[11] helped highlight these issues and force them prominently into public dialogue, gave people who are pissed off about income inequality a public space in which to act out their protest and organize, and helped flesh out the public discourse that surrounds efforts at concrete policy changes (such as the “Fight for 15” campaign to increase the minimum wage). As noted in a recent New York Times article:

“It started in New York City as what seemed a quixotic drive confined to fast-food workers. But the movement to raise the hourly minimum wage took root in other parts of the country, and is emerging as a significant, and divisive, element in the presidential campaign…Ruth Milkman, a labor historian and distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center in Manhattan, traced the roots of the push to increase the minimum wage to the Occupy Wall Street movement that pulled hordes of protesters into the streets of New York City four years ago. ‘The reason this is getting traction now is that there’s a lot of concern in the broader population about growing inequality,’ she said.”[12]

What would public dialogue about animal rights look like if “it’s violence” was as resonant a concept as “the 99%” and #BlackLivesMatter?

What kind of progress could we make if public discourse about animal rights shifted from a debate between factory farming and animal welfare to one between animal welfare and animal rights/liberation?

Debates over what we actually want are necessary if the zeitgeist is to move beyond demonizing factory farming, fur, and cosmetic animal testing to denounce violence against animals overall. And I really do mean debates. When activists “look bad” by speaking up strongly for animals, they often provoke people to express dismissive (e.g. “Live as you choose, but let me eat what I want.[13]) and even hostile (e.g. “[I]f you feel like judging me for eating [animals], I’m going to laugh at you.”[14]) responses. This, too, is often believed to be unhelpful. And with this, too, I disagree. It assumes we should judge our effectiveness based on the immediate responses of those who accept ideas we are challenging—as though conceptual change is a smooth process of making our case and having people come to accept it, rather than, often, one of provocation, dismissal, rejection, defensiveness, debate, and, only then, acceptance. Moreover, it is, again, to frame our project as one of directly changing the minds of individuals, one by one. But if we think of our project as creating a social context that gives meaning to our protests—indeed, to our whole movement—these negative reactions can be seen as opportunities.

Most directly, they are opportunities to respond with our position. More generally—and more importantly—when we provoke people to defend eating animals or to condemn our protests, they express out loud beliefs that are rarely stated, “reasons” and “justifications” for eating or wearing or experimenting on animals that all-but-never need to be offered because these practices are so widely socially accepted. It forces the other side of the debate to define itself—which is gold when that side of the debate is utterly indefensible. Reactions such as “let me eat in peace,”[15] “it’s a personal choice,” “it tastes good,” even “violence tastes goddamn delicious[16]—not to mention the entire narrative of “humane” animal agriculture—cannot stand the light of day, cannot stand up to arguments against the violence. These justifications have persisted because the animal rights movement has yet to truly demand they be defended.[17]

We should provoke more of these responses. We should work to allow such ideas—and not that it is normal, socially acceptable, ethically unproblematic—to define what it means to eat/wear/experiment on animals. We should think of this kind of provocation—both through provocative public activity as well as simply stating what we really think, which proved remarkably provocative in the case of my office email—as the conceptual equivalent of undercover investigations. Let justifications for violence against animals show their true colors.

These efforts—creating provocative public activity that advocates strongly for animal rights; prompting others to defend violence against animals; saying what we actually mean—are ways to act directly on the social context itself, changing the meaning of our movement from one in which violence against animals is acceptable as long as it is “humane,” to one in which the absurdity of this position is apparent. In this context, our public protests and interpersonal admonishments make sense, and they are able to do their work.

No action is neutral. When we are not protesting near meat cases, when we are allowing them to be advertised as “humane,” when we sit down with someone who is dining on someone else’s body,[18] if I had not sent that email at my office—these are not morally or politically neutral acts. When we allow violence against animals to pass unremarked, or when we concede that there is a right way to do the wrong thing, we signal—though imperceptibly when this violence is normalized—that the violence is acceptable. If protesting and objecting are not understood as legitimate, if they make animal rights activists “look bad,” we should not retreat into silence, nor into a weaker message; we should act to change how our protests and objections are perceived, i.e. create a context that infuses them with different meaning.

Of course all of this is only true if there is value in changing values, not just behaviors. But anyone who recognizes that Whole Foods could not start selling dog and cat meat tomorrow knows the independent power of cultural norms. Anyone who has ever felt peer pressure knows that social norms are one of the most powerful policers of behavior. If we animate narratives and norms that begin to render violence against animals socially unacceptable, this collective pressure—not just collective pressure not to eat animals, but also collective support of not eating them and of speaking up on their behalf—will do more to change individual behavior on a large scale than urging people to “choose veg” in society where not choosing veg remains a socially acceptable option. In this scenario, the cultural norms come first, the effects on individuals second.

The paradox, of course, is that, in order to create that social context, we must do more of the things that are currently seen as ridiculous, rude, or bizarre—we must protest, we must speak up, we must say what we mean, and we must inspire others to do so. My email to my coworkers and DxE’s protests are, in large part, efforts to create the very context in which these things, themselves, make sense. The only way out of a situation in which we are ridiculed or dismissed for our protests is through it.

What would it mean for our movement if animal rights protests happened prominently and regularly in our society, akin to campus divestment protests and fast-food worker strikes?

There are forces that threaten to suck the life out of efforts to build a mass movement for animal rights—not just corporations that seek to contain anxieties over eating animals by assuring consumers that they (the corporations) are raising and killing animals the right way, but also, and even more problematic in terms of what our movement means, large nonprofits for whom “getting involved” means handing out vegan literature, sending a donation, or calling our legislators.

But this is not set in stone. Large animal organizations could use their considerable resources and influence to support grassroots efforts and create not just vegans but activists. They could facilitate, rather than siphon off and demobilize, efforts that disrupt the status quo. As DxE’s incredible growth in just two years—from a handful of activists in the Bay Area, to activists and protests in 130 cities and 27 countries—shows, when there is social support and a platform for speaking up strongly and publicly for animals, people will step onto it.

Large animal groups could also use their prominent presence in public discourse to explain the actions of those who protest violence against animals. They could make the gist of their message a focus on the shortcomings of animal welfare, rather than on the benefits of it; on why activists are still protesting, rather than on why they should see the welfare glass as half full. They could investigate those claiming to be the good guys,[19] suppliers of Whole Foods and Chipotle and their ilk; refrain from framing undercover investigations around a bad facility or a particular company or a handful of individual workers; show that even the highest welfare in animal agriculture is horrific. In short, they could work to gut the humane myth rather than perpetuate it[20] and to support grassroots organizing rather than undermine it. And, if they did, they could have faith that the effect of these efforts will not be everyone re-embracing factory farming, corporations ending welfare reforms, or vegan products disappearing from the shelves. We have come too far down the animal welfare path for that—an accomplishment to be sure, but it is time to turn onto a more direct route to our goal.

What could our movement accomplish if vegans thought their job was not simply to buy the soy milk rather than the cow’s milk, but to stand up, stand with others, and speak out unequivocally for animals?

Ultimately, whether DxE’s efforts come to make sense (after all, what is nonsensical about protesting violence against animals in spaces where that violence is for sale?) and whether actions like my email are eventually seen as comparable to saying “Hey, that was kind of sexist…” is as much a function of the social context our movement creates around them as it is the intrinsic qualities of DxE’s efforts or my individual behavior in my office. When we engage in these isolated actions, we invoke an entire movement. So the question is, What does the animal rights movement mean?

Lauren Gazzola is a longtime animal rights and social justice activist. She is best known as one of the SHAC 7, six individuals and a nonprofit organization convicted of controversial “animal enterprise terrorism” charges for publishing a website that advocated and reported on the international, grassroots Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign to close the animal testing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences. She works in the Communications Department at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit human rights and social justice legal organization. Follow @LaurenGazzola.


[1] This is a composite, with slight paraphrasing for clarity, of two separate emails sent from two individuals.

[2] He also scolded me for “food shaming” and noted that “people have their own health needs, and possible eating disorders which you may not know about.” While I am highly skeptical of claims that any human “needs” to eat animals in order to be physically healthy (if they have effective access to healthy vegan food—which, currently, not everyone does; which is why our movement must stop being about having 39 different flavors of vegan ice cream at Whole Foods and participate in efforts to create new food systems), I recognize that defining certain foods as “good” or “bad” can be psychologically traumatic for some people. I agree that these issues should be part of an intersectional food justice analysis. But the upshot of that analysis cannot be, as suggested by my colleague’s email, that we simply throw up our hands and say animals must die because food shaming and eating disorders and trauma around food are also real issues. I also believe these legitimate critiques are often deployed in bad faith when the issue at hand is animal rights: would my colleague have criticized me for “food shaming” if I had pointed out the human rights abuses committed by the Coca-Cola Company, or the child labor and slavery that supplies certain chocolate manufacturers, and urged a boycott?

[3] This email exchange has since prompted a concerted effort at CCR to discuss substantive animal rights issues.

[4] Klein, Karin. “The Chipotle protests: People are species chauvinists, but so are cats and dogs.” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 29, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-chipotle-animal-rights-20140927-story.html, visited 07/17/2015.

[5] Chimelis, Ron. “Animal rights group has a point, but let me eat in peace.” Masslive.com, March 02, 2015, http://www.masslive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/03/animal_rights_group_has_a_poin.html, visited 7/16/2015.

[6] Pinkham, C.A. “Animal Activist Barges Into Restaurant, Rants About Her Chicken Baby.” Jezebel.com, October 09, 2014, http://kitchenette.jezebel.com/animal-activist-barges-into-restaurant-rants-about-her-1644596141, visited visited 7/16/2015.

[7] To some people. As DxE’s explosive growth has shown, and as I can attest from the support I have received (along with the disapproval) at CCR, these actions can also inspire others to speak up.

[8] I advocate this being an act of “calling in,” rather than “calling out,” whenever that can be constructive.

[9] Parts. Conceptual and normative change must be paired with structural change.

[10] See further discussion below about the non-neutrality of not protesting near meat cases and the like. Indeed, many of DxE’s protests could also be understood as “calling in” shoppers, as they include refrains such as, “Whole Foods knows you care about animals. That’s why they’re trying to convince you that they kill animals nicely,” etc.

[11] This points to yet another misguided preoccupation within the animal rights movement: with the content of our message. Content is important of course, and I have been a critic of the movements’ too-weak message (indeed, it is weak to the extent that prominent players have shunned the terms “liberation” and even “rights” to rebrand us the “animal protection movement”). But we have fixated on content—asking what is the most convincing argument we can make to individuals to get them to change their behavior within an unchanged social context—to the neglect of other factors, such as the strength of our convictions. If we attended to these other factors, we might conclude that they play at least as much a role as the content of our argument—that a willingness to protest, otherwise speak up in public, openly rescue animals, blockade a slaughter plant, or engage in any number of other actions that demonstrate our commitment (which, incidentally, is hard to do when paired with weak content), if demonstrated by a large enough proportion of our movement, could have an effect comparable to Occupy’s on public dialogue—i.e. on the social context—about animal rights.

[12] McGeehan, Patrick. “Push to Lift Minimum Wage Is Now Serious Business.” New York Times, July 23, 2015. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/07/24/nyregion/push-to-lift-hourly-pay-is-now-serious-business.html?_r=0, accessed 7/24/2015.

[13] Chimelis ibid.

[14] Pinkham ibid.

[15] Chimelis ibid.

[16] Pinkham ibid.

[17] Often, there is an (also useful) aura of being caught off guard when people are pressed to defend violence against animals, resulting in downright ridiculous defenses, such as “most animals, given the opportunity, would eat me” (“Best arguments against vegans,” YouTube.com (Direct Action Everywhere), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IseHqSIUAHw, visited 07/17/2015). But we should not dismiss these responses for being ridiculous—until our movement truly presses for a defense of this violence, flimsy and downright absurd justifications will remain sufficient for the violence to persist.

[18] I do not believe there is a one-size-fits all prescription for activism, and I concede there may be situations in which it might make more sense to join a meal where people are eating animals. But most often, I think we should not, and—more to the point— we should work to normalize this kind of refusal.

[19] I was excited to see a recent Mercy for Animals investigation of an “American Humane Certified” Foster Farms facility.

[20] Whatever the merits of organizations that work to enact welfare reforms and implement vegan options – and I do believe there is merit to these things – there is no reason that so many large animal protection organizations should be singing essentially the same tune. One or two of them should tack and support a stronger message and a more grassroots approach. Our movement would benefit from this kind of strategic diversity. The point here is not that there is no place within our movement for animal welfare efforts; it is that the dominant meaning of our movement is no longer the liberation of animals but bigger cages, better deaths, and vegan options in a non-vegan world.