The Role of Confrontation in Animal Advocacy
It is an age old debate across all manner of social justice movements: the discussion about whether it is better to push for incremental changes that work with the trajectory of social reform, or if we should sharply confront current social norms and push for radical change. Within animal advocacy, it is a debate that has been both divisive and confrontational in itself. Animal advocacy has a rich tradition of strong and effective legal activism, stretching back more than a hundred years in many Western countries. In addition, there is also a strong thread of “underground” activism that has been important in the history of animal rights. Splitting the difference between these two poles are actions that are confrontational and challenging to social norms while not crossing over into the underground. Protests, sit-ins, marches, and other disruptive actions are routinely employed in animal advocacy, and these types of activities provide a counterpoint to more gradual focused activism, such as that geared towards legislative change or promoting dietary change for health or environmental reasons.
In the article “Confrontation, Consumer Action, and Triggering Events,” author Jacy Anthis explores the role of these “confrontational” actions, outlining how the history of other social justice movements would suggest that “[confrontational tactics have] a useful ability to spark moral outrage, facilitate productive discourse, and raise awareness for a social issue.” The essay explores these tactics with a positive outlook, while noting that there can also be “considerable risk of backfire effects and encouraging a powerful opposition, making their effectiveness highly dependent on certain conditions.”
The effectiveness of confrontational tactics is framed first and foremost by the author’s comparisons to historical social movements, such as the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, and the worker’s rights movement earlier in the century. The author states this is a natural place to begin when thinking about confrontational tactics. There are many ways to analogize animal advocacy with these movements; for example, at the time, these movements faced “seemingly insurmountable challenges given the pervasiveness and strength of their oppression,” as animal advocacy does. Giving a brief history of both of these movements, the author notes that, for them to work, advocates had to “take risks, engage in direct action, demonstrate an ability to disrupt the normal functioning of society, and maintain that disruption until concessions are won.” Both have countless examples of civil disobedience and actions that were disruptive to the social order and arguably effective in changing attitudes.
Of course, much has changed since the 1960s, especially the diffusion of media, the rise of the internet, and online activism. We live in a viral world, and effectiveness is often tied to a given action’s ability to reach a viral peak, a critical mass of sharing, media coverage, and online discussion. It is not completely clear how much virality actually translates into social change, but it is no doubt important for a cause’s visibility. The author devotes a fair bit of writing to this, with good reason, and notes that “the most certain effect of emotional arousal seems to be its ability to increase the virality — or tendency to spread — of a social message.” Citing research into the sharing of articles from the New York Times, Anthis states that articles that acted as “facilitators of high arousal emotions, anger (negative) and awe (positive), increase the probability [of being on the ‘most emailed articles list’] by 34% and 30%, respectively.” In other words, confrontational actions can arouse strong emotions in the public and this can increase organic sharing of the news online. The question is, what if the emotions aroused are negative and not favorable towards animals?
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments in the article is the author’s note of how “radical flanks” can shift the center of the overall movement. Essentially, the thinking is that the margins define the center, and that, in addition to having an effect in and of themselves, confrontational actions serve to make the moderate voices of the movement seem even more moderate and socially acceptable. They “shift the window of acceptable ideas on an issue,” and in this way, both moderate and radical groups can benefit from a sometimes tenuous coexistence. (Also see: Dillard, 2002). It sounds like an intuitive way of looking at the moderate/radical dynamic, but it is a point of view that would probably be controversial for many advocates. In the era of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and other laws designed to dissuade even above-ground activists from straying too far into radical territory, the division between moderate and radical activism has very real stakes.
For many animal advocates, the problem with embracing confrontational tactics is generally related to the difficulty in measuring their effectiveness or due to the personal risk involved in engaging in confrontation. The author of this paper doesn’t provide exhaustive responses to such concerns, but does make a strong case that confrontational tactics could be used as one of the many tools for effective animal advocacy. Although the article is unlikely to settle the debate around where the movement should pitch itself, it does provide food for thought for readers on both sides of the debate.