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Wayne Hsiung, The Evolution of Veganism: Is Empowered Activism the Next Stage?

May 30, 2014

Published on May 19, 2014

The terrifying truth of “humane” farming. Animal rights activists in 41 cities and 12 countries suddenly appear inside Chipotle and other restaurants to say: We will not forget. It’s not food! It’s violence!…

Footage taken from investigations by Animal Liberation Victoria and United Poultry Concerns.

Background music: “Another Radio Song” by the amazing Okkervil River.…

Source Vegan Publishers
By Wayne Hsiung

When I went vegan 16 years ago, I had never heard of soy ice cream. The University of Chicago dining hall would usually have only one vegetarian option — typically some form of steamed vegetable — and I would have to hope it also happened to be vegan. Outside of the dining hall, my meal of choice was uncooked tofu (which I bought in bulk from Chinatown), lima beans, and soy sauce. It was a miserable way to eat.

Fast forward to 2014, and things could not be more different. Whole Foods, with its wide array of vegan offerings, is spreading all over the world. Celebrities and politicians, ranging from Jay-Z to Bill Clinton, play up the vegan lifestyle. And even the third largest public restaurant company in the world, Chipotle, offers a celebrated vegan option. In many ways, the vision established by the first vegan, Donald Watson, more than half a century ago has become a reality: veganism has a place in the world.

Yet the most reputable polling firms outside of our vegan echo chamber, e.g. the esteemed Gallup Poll, show that animal-free eating has not significantly increased in the US; indeed, it has dropped from a self-reported 6% of the population in 1999 to 5% in 2012. And while there was a mild slowdown in meat consumption due to the financial crisis of 2008, the most recent numbers show that the massive growth in slaughter, even in a country as saturated by dead animal flesh as the United States, continues unabated.


It’s not because growth is impossible. The incredible growth in the Israeli vegan community shows that rapid change can occur. It’s also not because of lack of awareness.  Google searches for the term vegan have increased dramatically since 2004. And, as with many other niche diets (e.g. Atkins or gluten-free), vegan is now part of our cultural lingo.

So what is holding us back? Direct Action Everywhere has been exploring that question carefully for the past year, both in theory (check the strategy tag on our blog) and in practice (with our grassroots It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign). And what we have concluded may surprise you. Because many of the things that we have been taught about animal advocacy, it turns out, are dead wrong. And what is needed now is not more options or more accommodation but, rather, a strong, confident, and inspirational social movement that can resist social erosion and corporate influence to create real and permanent change. In short, we need to start playing offense.

The Options Imbroglio

As an organizer for the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign, one of the first questions I get is, Why Chipotle? Our campaign, which has now inspired actions in 37 cities and 13 countries (see our most recent video compilation here), focuses on Chipotle as a metaphor for the broader problem of animal exploitation and species bigotry. And while Chipotle is now one of the largest and fastest growing animal killers in the world, it has also gone out of its way to market itself as friendly to vegan consumers — most notably, by adding another vegan option, sofritas, to its famously simple menu. Many, therefore, ask us, what’s the problem? Shouldn’t you be praising, rather than protesting, a vegan-friendly chain?

There are many implicit assumptions in this question, however, that don’t stand up to scrutiny. The first is that extra options will have some benefit for animals. But the past decade of data should give us pause. Vegan options have exploded in the US, yet veganism has not grown significantly. (In contrast, veganism did explode in Israel… and without the profusion of options we have in the US).

The distinguished Columbia psychologist and business school professor Sheena Iyengar shows us why: more options often don’t lead to more sales. Consumers exposed to new items are often paralyzed by the anxiety of choosing. Brands that streamline the choice process — notably, Apple (which offers only a single option for most product lines) — have seen spectacular success, as consumers increasingly flock towards simple solutions. Indeed, in Iyengar’s most famous study, consumers were ten times more likely to try a new product in the “low options” scenario than the “high options” scenario. People, it turns out, often don’t like to choose, particularly when it comes to a new product of which they have little knowledge. And the market, with its array of independent firms acting without coordination, often provides more choices than what the customers are ready or able to bear.

But, of course, some may argue that there are so few vegan options that it’s impossible for additional options to have negative consequences at this point in the market’s evolution. So let’s assume that options have significant benefits (despite the lack of evidence). Even accepting some benefit from ta third vegan option at Chipotle, would that benefit outweigh the costs of Chipotle’s massive pro-killing marketing machine? This is a corporation, after all, that financed the distribution of a documentary called “American Meat,” that attracts hundreds of thousands to its Cultivate festival to hear about how they can make the world better by eating animals, and that recently started putting out billboards with the message: MEAT MEAT MEAT. Should the simple act of adding a third vegan option to their menu somehow absolve them from responsibility for this heinous glorification of violence?

One of the puzzling things about supporters of Chipotle is that they appear to want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to believe that the vegan option has massive economic significance while ignoring the impact of the new “humane meat” options. But, as I pointed out in a recent discussion with HSUS’ s Paul Shaprio, this logic fails:

There seems to be a basic contradiction in your views, however, and one that favors Chipotle in all ways. For one, you say that the “humane” meat options are mostly irrelevant because they simply replace existing sales of meat at other stores. You say this despite the 100% growth in sales that the company has linked directly to the addition of a humane option, the 1000% growth the company has experienced over the past 5 years, the 100% profit premium that the company receives for its sales of dead animals, and, finally, the company’s express statement that it is supply constrained and must invest in new production in order to fuel its massive engine of violence.

On the other hand, when it comes to the vegan option, you suddenly contradict your prior view in the same paragraph and assert that the new vegan option (in contrast to new options for humane meat) has massive economic effects – indeed, that the new option is key to making veganism mainstream. You say this despite little evidence that the vegan option has made any splash at all (0.012 of the company’s total sales, and declining over the past few months), and the fact that Chipotle targets the exact demographic (wealthy and middle class folks in urban centers) who are most likely to live in places where there are already plenty of vegan options.

Paul, unfortunately, did not respond.

And that leads us to the final reason the “vegan option” dialogue is so misguided. There is no reason to believe that a massive multinational corporation will respond to protests by running home with its toys. Indeed, since sofritas is, even by the company’s acknowledgment, approximately 0.012 of total national sales, its primary value is to create a so-called “halo effect” around the company’s other products.  Even if no one actually buys the product, customers will assume that a company that is serving such an “ethical” product must be doing good things across the board. The ethical flavor of the vegan option bleeds into the company’s brand.  And, indeed, this is exactly what happened with Chipotle’s Gardein option in 2010, which they announced to a stream of positive press, even from animal rights groups, only to take it away once they achieved their marketing halo.

If Chipotle is not genuinely interested in spreading veganism and animal rights — which seems rather likely, since it is one of the most profitable animal killers in the world — and is simply using the vegan option to bolster its brand, then it is threats to its brand that will most persuade it, this time, to keep the vegan option on the table. And that is exactly what happened when, unlike with the Gardein fiasco of 2010, Chipotle decided to keep the sofritas option in 2014 in the face of our growing nationwide protests.

Chipotle, of course, is only one corporation, albeit a massive one, in a broader society. But the lessons we have learned from that campaign can be extended to our movement more generally. And one of the biggest lessons is this: additional options, on their own, are no solution.

Accommodating… Violence?

The debate over vegan options, however, touches on a more fundamental issue for our movement. For most of the past half century, the animal rights movement’s focus has been on creating a safe space for vegans. We, as vegans, want to be acknowledged, and accepted, or even just left alone. We want the bullying and ridicule of vegans to stop. “We’re people too!” we say. “We just love animals!”

And for sure, there is value in creating a safe space for those who choose not to support violent industries. After all, if no one feels safe, then how can they possibly maintain the lifestyle and identity? For more than 50 years, therefore, our mission has been to make sure vegans felt comfortable, to make them feel safe and accepted, to make them feel ok.

But while this is a wonderful and even vital strategy for retention, it is a terrible strategy for growth. If we hope to expand beyond the narrow segment of society that we currently have, we have to shift our objective away from making a safe space for vegans, and towards achieving liberation for animals. In short, we have to start playing offense.

I have blogged previously about why this is an effective strategy at the level of individual persuasion. The most effective litigators and campaigners are always confident and assertive — not defensive — in their views. But what is true of individual persuasion is even more important for a movement. And what the It’s not Food, It’s Violence campaign shows us is that our movement’s activists are ready to take a stronger stand. They are sick of apologizing, and begging, and deferring to oppressive behaviors and beliefs, and ready to say what we truly believe: that violence against animals is always wrong.

This is not just an emotional intuition, moreover. The historical data in support of this proposition is powerful.  According to historian Paul Goodman, the antislavery movement grew by 45950% (not a typo) in half a decade after William Lloyd Garrison shifted the rhetoric of the movement away from reaction to assertion. The first four activists to hold a sit-in for Civil Rights, in 1960, triggered a massive movement of 70,000 more demonstrators by their defiance of social norms. And  the bold and confident message of the Stonewall rioters in 1969 inspired an incredible 2500 gay rights groups, nationally, by 1971 (from the 50-60 that existed in 1969).

These are the signs of a truly growing social movement. These are the signs that we can expect to see of a truly successful animal rights movement. And these are the signs that we are beginning to see in countries such as Israel. And, in all of these cases, shifting the dialogue away from defense to offense triggered this incredible growth.

The Next Stage?

So what are the takeaway points for us, as activists? The first is that we have to move beyond simply creating an environment that accepts and tolerates vegans. We, after all, are not the ones who are being oppressed, and when a multinational corporation throws us a vegan bone, we should be skeptical of its true intentions.

The second is that a confident and assertive approach — playing offense rather than defense — is key to our movement’s growth. At both the level of individual persuasion, and movement effectiveness, it is absolutely vital that we maintain a strong and outwardly-facing posture, and not be content with defending ourselves from attack. Don’t be afraid to say what you believe, even if others feel annoyed, angered, or judged.

The third lesson is that our model for movement building has to change. If we are to grow beyond a few percentage points of the population, and start making true progress towards animal liberation, we have to see that vegans, and vegan consumer options, are not enough. What we need, if our movement is to grow, is more and stronger activists. This is, to a certain extent a battle for veganism’s soul. Is it a consumer fad that will forever be relegated to the margins of society? Or will it transform into a serious social movement for the most oppressed and denigrated class in history?

Only time will tell. But the path forward for veganism is a path that will be set by our own resolve. As Donald Watson himself said in the inaugural edition of the Vegan News, in response to criticisms that veganism was too much, and too soon, “Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination?”

Some may question whether the world is ready for a shift towards a stronger version of veganism: animal liberation. But the world is never ready for a stronger message… until we make it ready. So let’s go out and do the hard work to make our world ready.

Wayne Hsiung is an attorney, founding organizer of Direct Action Everywhere, and coordinator for Animal Liberationists of Color. He was lead organizer of the Earthlings March that mobilized thousands of activists in 41 cities in 17 countries, has served as a law professor at Northwestern (where he co-authored research with renowned Harvard scholar Cass Sunstein), and has organized social justice campaigns since 1999. Wayne studied behavioral economics at MIT and the University of Chicago and blogs at The Liberationist about the science of social change. Despite two graduate degrees, he regularly finds himself outwitted by his four furry companions.

slowly the winds of change
will blow.
and hopefully soon,
everybody will know.
that animals are our
equals not here
for exploitation.
and when that day
comes there will
great shouts
of jubilation

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

5 Comments leave one →
  1. karenlyonskalmenson permalink
    May 30, 2014 2:18 pm

    slowly the winds of change
    will blow.
    and hopefully soon,
    everybody will know.
    that animals are our
    equals not here
    for exploitation.
    and when that day
    comes there will
    great shouts
    of jubilation

    Liked by 2 people

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