It’s a question I hear a lot, especially from newer activists: What is the most effective model of animal activism? My response is that I wouldn’t want to characterize one form of activism as the most effective, because every social justice movement needs a variety of forms, and people generally need to hear a message in a variety of ways.

While some longtime activists might criticize so-called “hashtag activism,” for example, it has an undeniable place in our movement and is a gateway for new (and perhaps introverted) activists to ease into campaigns. As a recent article on the Psychology Today site observed, “Hashtag activism can be a powerful way to control a narrative regarding a common cause that has either been neglected or misrepresented by corporate media, and it offers the opportunity for communal participation across the globe.”

Moreover, although public disruptions may not be for everyone, it’s clear they have an impact. Last year, for instance, about 20 animal activists confronted fur-loving fashion designer Michael Kors during a speech; seven months later, he agreed to go fur-free. Was his ban on fur a direct result of the disruption? No, of course not. But it was yet another strong message—one he couldn’t ignore.

And I’ve heard some activists disparage bearing witness, participating in vigils, or giving water to animals being transported to slaughter as a waste of time, yet these activities (which are often very painful) can result in powerful images that may reach well beyond the vegan community they are shared to.

My point is that each of these models has a place in animal activism, because we need every tool in the toolbox to get our message heard. For every person whose first exposure to an animal rights message—a documentary, say, or a vegan leaflet—resulted in them going vegan, there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of people who need much more exposure to the message before it will sink in and have an effect. They need to hear about it from their family and friends, they need to see it online, they need to read op-eds and letters to editors. They might even need to listen to podcasts about it or watch a short TEDx talk. The sad truth is, people fear change, and they have been conditioned to believe that animal exploitation and consumption are socially acceptable, so activists have an enormous, culturally imposed hurdle to overcome.

(When various tactics are part of a broader campaign, it’s important that they are coordinated to reach a strategic objective. A campaign to get a local restaurant to stop serving foie gras, for instance, might rely on such tactics as communicating with the owner, outreach to the community, and demonstrations in front of the business, but they should be carefully planned to fit together and gradually escalate to achieve a more powerful impact.)

There’s an old-school marketing principle called the Rule of Seven, which states that a potential customer needs to hear your message at least seven times before they will buy your product or service. And marketing experts will tell you that to achieve those seven contacts, you must never rely on just one type of advertising—whether it’s print ads, radio, billboards, television, newsletters, digital ads, or whatever. Yes, we’re talking capitalism, but let’s not ignore how we as activists can benefit from this wisdom. People are slow to trust, so getting them to believe they need to change their behavior is a challenge. Of course, some people never “buy,” just as some people are harder to convince than others that going vegan is better for the animals, for the planet, and for themselves.

One of the models of activism I think is especially powerful—and one that is often overlooked—is telling stories … stories about animals and about our own transformations from omnivore to vegan. Animal ag apologists can argue with us about statistics and even health, but they cannot challenge our own experiences or the experiences of the animals we know.

The truth is, humans love stories. In fact, our brains light up when we hear or read a good story. A few years ago, neuroscientists at Emory University studied the neural patterns of volunteers who had each read a novel based on real events. The results showed that connectivity in participants’ left temporal cortexes—the part of the brain associated with receptivity for language—was heightened for several days afterward. Results like this suggest that narratives have much more meaning to people than facts and data. In other words, good stories can put you into someone else’s shoes.

We are drawn to stories of how people overcame adversity to become a better version of themselves, and I think that arc can be applied to the person who turns away from meat, eggs, and dairy foods to embrace veganism. Sincerity and candor are deeply moving, so don’t be afraid to admit your struggles and speak from the heart.

Emmeline can smile now.

The same goes for stories about animals who have been rescued from exploitation, whether it’s for meat, eggs, dairy, clothing, research, entertainment, or any other form of abuse. In the new edition of Striking at the Roots, I briefly tell the story of Emmeline, a rabbit who was rescued from a meat farm by my friends Tara and Heidi (with help from their friend Diana and her husband). “Because we had seen where she came from and were part of her actual rescue, we felt a special and immediate bond with her,” says Tara. “I was very protective of her experience. When she came to live with us, we spoke softly around her, moved carefully, gave her space to retreat to, and did all we could to earn her trust. We tell her every day what a good friend she is and how grateful we are that she’s with us. She’s a beloved family member, and now we can’t imagine life without her. We can only imagine what she’s seen in her short time before we rescued her, and we are in awe of her will to survive. The way to honor her is to give her the best life possible and to respect her as an individual.” To see more of Emmeline, check out the Tallulah Rabbit & Friends Facebook page.

When pressed on what my favorite model of activism is, I admit that it’s whatever form of activism you find to be the most fulfilling, because that is the activism that’s going to nourish you and keep you in the movement longer.

And I love the observation of activist and VINE Sanctuary cofounder pattrice jones. “Every successful social-change movement has involved a multiplicity of people using a multiplicity of tactics to approach a problem from a multiplicity of angles,” she says. “Some people push against the bad things that need to be changed while others pull for the good alternatives. Some people work to undermine destructive systems from within while others are knocking down the walls from without. We all need to recognize that and find our place within a multifaceted struggle, being sure to be generous and appreciative of those who are working toward the same goals using different tactics.”

 

You will find more information about the various models of activism—and staying in the movement long-term—in the new, expanded edition of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, to be published in November.

 

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