by Brian Tomasik
First written: 25 Feb. 2015; last update: 31 Dec. 2017


Animal activists, and most reformers throughout history, have debated whether to make their case in a professional, moderate manner or whether to protest more confrontationally. This is a difficult issue, and given the persistence of the question, there probably aren't easy answers. In this piece, I share my personal reactions to aggressive activism, as one anecdotal data point to inform the broader discussion. While I personally am turned away by confrontation, the historical record may point in a different direction, so I maintain agnosticism about how activists can make the biggest difference.

How I started caring about animals

As a child I didn't think at all about animal emotions. Indeed, until around 8th grade, I didn't think much about others' emotions in general. Even after I realized the importance of activism, my moral compass was entirely preoccupied with human injustices.

My high school had an animal-rights club. In one of the stairways, a member of the club had posted a sticker of a chicken saying "Please don't eat me" or something like that. When I saw it, I remember thinking to myself, "That's pretty stupid."

My views on animal welfare were revolutionized by two factors at the end of high school:

  1. Learning that animals were conscious. My assumption that they weren't was the single biggest obstacle to my caring about them. (Interestingly, I think this is relatively rare. My impression is that almost everyone, except certain philosophers, believes that pigs and chickens are conscious.)
  2. Reading some basic arguments from Peter Singer about speciesism. It wasn't as though Singer persuaded me of a point I had previously rejected. It was more that I had never really thought about speciesism in the first place from an intellectual perspective; I didn't even realize it was a moral issue. I had previously only seen animal-rights activists making themselves look foolish and so assumed they were crazy.

Substance is most convincing

I'm not much affected by campaigns that contain more slogans than substance, more symbolism than statistics. I participated in a few protests against the Iraq war in 2003, and I was often embarrassed by chants, puppets of Bush's head, protest signs that didn't contain any arguments, and speakers who talked in generalities rather than about concrete facts. (I tried to include actual information on my protest signs.) Shouting "'What do we want?' 'Peace.' 'When do we want it?' 'Now.'" tells me nothing about the political realities of international relations. If I were a skeptical onlooker, I would want to know why the war was a bad idea.

Flashmob die-in protest - Bourke St Mall MelbournePassion alone isn't convincing. Hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims passionately defend their religious beliefs, but this passion by itself tells me little about the truth of the claims. In 2003, I watched a local documentary about women in the Albany, New York area who fasted in protest against the Iraq War. A friend asked me: "What would a war hawk say to that?" I replied: "Well, the protest didn't convey any actual arguments against the war."

I'm most likely to change my mind in response to

  • reading a Wikipedia article or other source that presents many sides of a debate
  • a strong philosophy/ethics paper
  • knowing that other smart people disagree with me
  • seeing powerful images or videos, such as non-cherrypicked depictions of inhumane factory-farm slaughter or the brutality of predation in nature.

I disregard almost all advertising, but the ads that do have an effect on me are those that contain interesting arguments or factual claims. I don't trust the ad itself, but my curiosity may be sparked so that I look into the issue further. Of course, maybe the fact that many ads are not substantive tells us that most activism doesn't need to be either. But at least, substance seems important for convincing people who will be more influential in the future.

Confrontation turns me away

I think many people agree that violent protest results in net harm to the cause of the protesters. Violence allows those who disagree with animal rights to turn off their intellect and turn on their hatred. Whenever animal rights comes up, people can thought-stoppingly say "violent criminals!" and cease any further investigation. In a similar way, Islamic terrorists engender feelings of hatred, and any remorse Westerners might have felt about Western occupation of Islamic holy lands goes out the window. Violent Palestinians hurt peaceful Palestinians by sustaining outrage among Israelis and Americans. Violence can sometimes help one group take power over another through warfare. But as a means of political protest by a minority faction, violence seems to backfire most of the time.

Fortunately, the fraction of animal-rights activists who use violence is tiny. The more difficult question is how to evaluate confrontational non-violence like civil disobedience and street protests. There are many smart people on both sides of this debate, so the question is unlikely be resolved any time soon. Indeed, this issue may be as old as political protest in general.

Personally, I'm turned away by confrontational protests, especially those that involve breaking the law or other policies. For instance, when Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) yells loudly in Chipotle restaurants, they know they're violating the rules of the store in an effort to get attention. This makes me frustrated (even though I too care about animal rights) because these protests are actively disrespectful. Causing disruption allows onlookers to feel anger at the protesters and thereby tune out any substantive message that might have been conveyed. Or worse, onlookers might think: "If that's what this crazy, disrespectful person is preaching, let me do the opposite." While DxE is clearly different from PETA, I think the following applies in either case:

from the description text of one [...] video: "PETA is an organization I probably would support... If they weren't so freaking insane." From the audio of another video at 1:59: "Thus, no one actually gives a shit about saving animals, because they think, oh shit, everyone that wants to save animals is a fuckin' lunatic. Hell, let's go out and buy some damn KFC!"

I strongly support undercover investigations, which involve breaking the rules by trespassing. But the reason I value these exposés is because of the information they reveal, and I would prefer if the footage could somehow be obtained legally.

Other examples of civil disobedience

We look fondly on historical cases of civil disobedience by movements that we support, such as civil rights. But in the moment, it's less clear how civil disobedience will be received. A helpful exercise is to imagine that the protests were conducted by a cause with which you disagree. For example, if you're pro-choice, consider Operation Rescue:

The slogan of Operation Rescue was "If you believe abortion is murder, act like it's murder."[2] [...]

Operation Rescue's initial tactics involved peaceful sit-in demonstrations to block the doors at abortion clinics in Cherry Hill, NJ and select boroughs of Metropolitan NY, inspired by decades-earlier civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Operation Rescue sprang to infamy during the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, where over 1200 rescuers were arrested in July and August, capturing national attention. Independent OR-style organizations cropped up around the country during these early years, the most successful being the California organization, Operation Rescue West (ORW), founded by OR’s National Tactical Director, Jeff White. More than 40,000 people were arrested during OR's demonstrations over the first four years.

Does this make you more or less receptive to the anti-abortion message?

Even though I don't react well to civil disobedience, many smart people seem to support it, not just in the realm of animal rights but also, e.g., with Occupy Wall Street and other modern-day protest movements where we don't have the 20/20 vision of hindsight the way we do for the civil-rights movement.

Psychology and history are inconclusive

Nick Cooney argues for moderate messages because of the foot-in-the-door effect. Others defend radical messages by citing the door-in-the-face effecta and arguing that moderate messages may not translate to more radical ones. Which is right?

Similarly, radical flank effects can be helpful or harmful to a mainstream movement, and it's not obvious which way the net impact will go.

In "Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970", Herbert H. Haines coined the "radical flank effect". The article is well written and raises an important issue, but the evidence for its conclusion is extremely weak. Haines only shows that funding for mainstream civil-rights organizations pretty consistently increased during the period 1957-1970, despite the emergence of radical/violent black activism in the 1960s. Haines interprets this trend as suggesting that the radical flank increased funding for mainstream black organizations. But it's equally plausible to hypothesize that funding increased because the civil-rights movement was becoming more prominent in general, and one of the consequences of a growing civil-rights movement was that some activists would adopt more radical tactics. In other words, if we assume that the mainstream civil-rights groups were on a trajectory to grow anyway, this explains both their increase in funding and the growth of radical groups in the 1960s. Indeed, Haines found that radical groups also increased their funding in the early 1960s, which is most naturally interpreted as a byproduct of an overall growth in the civil-rights movement. No complex interactions between radical flanks and moderates need be hypothesized to explain the data. The most that Haines has shown is that the radical flank of the movement was not so harmful as to inhibit the growth of the mainstream civil-rights movement. That said, there's selection bias here because the civil-rights movement was successful. Some of the literature Haines reviews did suggest stunting effects of radical flanks in other movements.

Dale Carnegie's advice "to Win People to Your Way of Thinking" is exactly the opposite of confrontation:

1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
4. Begin in a friendly way.
7. Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.

Does social change need to involve conflict? Most social changes in history have been relatively tame, such as fluctuations in fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, scientific and philosophical beliefs, religion, and the like. The New Atheists were aggressive in their writings and speeches (which I think is fine, given that they offered substantive arguments), but they didn't, e.g., disrupt churches and get themselves kicked out. If they had, I suspect they wouldn't have been as widely embraced.

It does seem as though all major liberation movements in history have included confrontational protests, and history books do testify to the effectiveness of civil disobedience. So maybe there's something special about liberation issues, or political causes more generally, that requires confrontational action. Of course, I don't know how past movements would have fared without confrontation, since I know of no examples where confrontation was never employed to at least some degree. It's possible non-confrontational liberation movements might have succeeded as well. (Scholars of history can judge much better than I can on this point.)

Which groups does the meat industry fear most?

The animal organization that meat producers fear most is clearly the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). HSUS can boast that it has an entire website, HumaneWatch, devoted to discrediting it. (There's also an entire website devoted to discrediting HumaneWatch: Stop HumaneWatch.) One representative of the Nebraska Farm Bureau wrote that "It is HSUS and its issues that truly deserve our attention because of the threat they pose to our society [...]. Laugh at PETA but fear HSUS."

Of course, the main reason to fear HSUS is just that it has a huge budget. Industry isn't going after smaller animal groups as much because they have much less money. On a per-dollar basis, some smaller animal groups seem more effective than HSUS, especially considering that I fear HSUS's wildlife work probably increases net wild-animal suffering. Still, HSUS's moderate face is probably part of the reason why meat producers fear HSUS so much. If the meat industry starts a smear campaign against a confrontational animal group, I would update my views toward confrontation being more effective than I had thought.

A radical animal activist might reply that arousing industry opposition is not a perfect measure of impact because industry cares about the short term, not the long term. Animal liberationists don't lobby for costly welfare reforms in the present but rather aim to change society's long-run attitudes, which doesn't hurt the meat industry as much right now.

In one talk, Jeff Sebo encourages an open-minded exploration of many activism strategies, possibly including non-violent property destruction (though he doesn't necessarily endorse it). While I agree that we should be open-minded, non-violent property destruction (except when done in the context of a different undertaking, such as filming undercover footage) seems prima facie to be a terrible idea -- and one that's very risky to test out. As one data point, consider that in July 2015, PETA accused SeaWorld of sending someone to infiltrate anti-SeaWorld protests and suggest destructive actions, such as draining SeaWorld's tanks. Unless SeaWorld is misguided about how to discredit activists, this suggests that non-violent property destruction could be very damaging to the animal movement.

Risk of physical damage or violence

The possibility of violence breaking out—whether initiated by a few protesters or by agents provocateurs—adds a level of risk to physical, street-level demonstrations that's absent from electronic forms of spreading a message (articles, videos, social media). Of course, sometimes physical altercations can increase the interest by reporters in a protest. (Most protests that make national headlines are those where violence has broken out.) But the net impact of such publicity seems likely to be negative, since otherwise many protestors would deliberately make their protests violent, yet in my experience, there seems to be almost universal consensus among activists that initiating violence is a terrible idea.

That said, discrediting of an online movement is also possible, such as by alleging sexism or by creating fake profiles of users who say nasty things (the digital equivalent of agents provocateurs).

Painful stunts

Sometimes activists engage in risky or painful actions as a form of protest, like getting arrested, fasting for long periods, or getting branded. These are costly signals of one's commitment to the cause.

My personal reaction when seeing such protests is: "No! Unless you derive personal satisfaction from the stunt, I would rather have you do something productive to signal your commitment. For example, spend 1000 hours writing articles, talking with people, raising money, earning to give, or doing something else that directly improves the world. Don't give in to the race to the bottom that is publicity stunts." Perhaps someone could reply that I'm ignoring the long and successful history of civil disobedience as a means to garner media attention. Shouldn't a stunt that gets 1 million people to hear your message count as "directly improving the world" more than writing articles that few people will read? Maybe. I'm just commenting on my own emotional reactions to publicity stunts and my wish that society as a whole would reward hard work and good arguments rather than whomever is willing to pull off the next public spectacle to grab attention.

I guess I don't have concerns about fasting if it's done appropriately. However, branding carries potential health risks, and if they occur, they won't just harm you but also the people who pay premiums into your health insurance. And getting arrested may be a small hindrance for future jobs, since job applications often ask whether you've been arrested. Perhaps the explanation that the arrest was done as part of civil disobedience will be satisfactory, but there's still some risk to adding an arrest to your record. Kasperkevic (2014): "Protesting for a cause – and having an arrest on record – can have a long-term effect. Once it’s marked on someone’s legal record, it’s a red flag for employers."

Radical means vs. radical ends

There are two different dimensions along which activism can be radical: ends and means. These are easy to conflate because often radical means coincide with radical ends. Animal abolitionism is a more radical end. Yelling in restaurants is a more radical means. In this piece I'm mostly expressing my personal dislike of radical means. Indeed, on issues besides animal liberation, many of my own views are very radical, but I try to keep my methods of activism moderate.

Following are some examples of where different charities might fall:

Moderate ends (welfarism) Radical ends (abolitionism)
Moderate means Humane Slaughter Association Vegan Outreach
Radical means some of PETA's welfarist campaigns Direct Action Everywhere

Christine Bayles Kortsch reports that Emmeline Pankhurst and collaborators wore conventional clothing in order to reduce "public censure" (pp. 91-92):

the more radical their message, the more feminine their clothing. [...] Simultaneously challenging mainstream fashion and political conservatism could be dangerous. [...] dress could be used as a subtle tool, as a way to render intellectual or political radicalism more palatable.

(The full story of Pankhurst is more complex. Pankhurst's activism was very radical: Her organization smashed windows, assaulted police officers, conducted hunger strikes in prison, and engaged in arson.)

I agree with moderate dress for radical messages. It's hard to get more radical than some of my views, such as that even electrons have a tiny degree of moral standing. Therefore, it's helpful for me to be professional and mild in other aspects of my self-presentation.

Likewise, if you want to combat speciesism, my feeling is that doing so via op eds, speeches, videos, pamphlets, and the like will be more persuasive than by carrying out publicity stunts. On the other hand, many effective movements in history did use publicity stunts, so my personal intuitions may well be wrong.

Side topic: Vegan political correctness

Animal advocates sometimes use language in non-standard ways in order to make a point. Some examples I've seen:

  • Advocates may say "non-human animals" rather than just "animals" in order to highlight the fact that humans are also animals.
  • Advocates may say "him/her" instead of "it" when referring to an animal.
  • Advocates may say "cow flesh" instead of "beef", "pig flesh" instead of "pork", and so on, in order to more viscerally highlight the reality of what's being discussed.
  • Advocates may try to replace expressions like "Kill two birds with one stone" and "There are many ways to skin a cat".

I think revising your own language as a personal choice is usually fine, and if these revisions are seen as light-hearted social commentary, they can spark conversation. However, I'm rubbed the wrong way by the idea of expecting people to use "non-speciesist language" and judging people for not doing so.

My own personal perspective is that taking non-speciesist language overly seriously makes your cause appear unbearable to outsiders: "Oh, you're one of those people who is overly focused on policing language rather than addressing substantive concerns. Why don't you find something more productive to do than worrying about words that might offend your vegan sensibilities?"

Unlike in the case of political correctness for humans, one can't make the argument that the groups being referred to will themselves take offense at the "insensitive" language. The argument would have to be one about how language translates into people's behavior toward animals. And in that case, my personal sense is that excessive political correctness in the realm of animal advocacy is more likely to hurt the movement than help it, by making it seem elitist, insufferable, and lacking in humor or perspective.

In a comment on Bien-Aimé (2017), Nora Miller says: "Words truly affect how we see the world and efforts to increase awareness of thoughtless speech like this can have positive effects." In another comment, Kerri Gray adds: "Our word choices influence how we evolve as individuals and as a society. It can be a struggle to remove conditioned phrases from our speech, but well worth the effort when those phrases might alienate or hurt others. Striving for compassionate communication is an exercise that strengthens minds and opens hearts." I may be atypical, but in my experience, the choice of whether to use phrases like "beating a dead horse" makes no apparent difference to my levels of compassion or my understanding of how bad it would be to actually beat a horse. (I guess beating a dead horse doesn't cause harm, and it's beating a live one that's problematic.) The issue seems similar to violence in movies or video games, where I think witnessing such violence makes pretty minimal difference to my actual inclinations to imitate that behavior. Meanwhile, by trying to police words (or police fake violence in movies), you end up alienating most of the population, who find your obsession with symbols rather than substance to be annoying.

I think it's plausible that violence in movies and video games makes a nonzero causal contribution to real-world violence, and likewise for speciesist language. However, my guess is that the effect size is pretty small, and it's probably approximately zero for most of the population. Moreover, attempts to legislate morality in these domains leads to backlash. Many other violence-reduction and speciesism-reduction strategies seem much more cost-effective.

In some contexts, using ordinary "speciesist" language is necessary, such as if you're trying to communicate to technical experts. If you're writing in an animal-agriculture journal about humane-slaughter techniques, it's better to use the phrase "livestock production" than "enslavement of farm animals". The standard jargon is what it is, and I would rather make real progress for animals while using that language, instead of expending effort trying to challenge language itself. Using ordinary language in such contexts is like wearing a suit to a lobbying meeting, even if you'd rather wear a T-shirt. You have to pick your battles.

I realize that I may live in somewhat of a glass house on this topic, because I also discuss ideas (such as the potential suffering of electrons) that to many outsiders look like "going too far" and "wasting time on unimportant non-issues". I think intellectual exploration of the boundaries of sentiocentric ethics is important, but I am aware that my work may be somewhat similar to excessive insistence on anti-speciesist language in terms of turning off "the masses" to the core message of animal suffering.


  1. Adriano Mannino has mentioned the contrast between these two persuasion techniques in the animal context.  (back)