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The simple formula behind social change is not so simple
Change = (# of people) x (commitment)
When I started as an animal rights advocate around 20 years ago, I thought the primary vehicle for social change was persuasion. I handed out literally tens of thousands of leaflets (and baked thousands of cookies to accompany them). I expected that, if even a relatively small percentage of people changed as a result of my efforts, I could make a dent in my local community.
What I didn’t understand then is that the system has a way of pulling people back to the status quo. People give up vegetarianism and veganism, after trying it, at shockingly high rates (at least from the point of view of someone who sees veganism as a moral baseline). And the sea of forces in our society, that drive people to continue to use and exploit animals as mere products, vastly overwhelms our efforts at persuasion.
The solution I found in the literature on social change was quite simple: a movement. A true social and political movement serves as a bulwark against regression, a foundation upon which efforts at change can build. It generates energy for collective efforts at persuasion, which are much more effective than 1:1 conversation. (People are much more likely to change in the face of a movement than an individual conversation because a movement conveys a sense that norms are changing.) And a movement can store the energy created for social change for future use, when political opportunities arise, not unlike a battery in an electric car.
The formula I arrived at, after consulting with both scholars and practitioners of social movement, was quite simple. Movements need as many people as possible working for change. And they need each person giving as much as they can for the collective effort. Or, in short:
Change = (# of people) x (commitment)
This underlying theory of change remains the same, nearly 10 years after we started DxE, and nearly 15 years after I wrote a controversial draft article that, when leaked, ruined my reputation in animal rights circles (but also seeded some useful conversations). But what I have learned in the last 15 years is that, while the underlying formula is quite simple, bringing it into practice is quite hard. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
Getting large numbers to work together is hard.
Human beings naturally group up in tribes of around 100-150, at maximum. Once you get beyond that, you need to invent systems and bureaucracy that are hard to maintain, and that often suck the movement of its intrinsic, motivational energy. People who join a movement due to inspiration can die in a thousand bureaucratic paper cuts.
Leadership is crucial but hard to find.
Good leadership combines two abilities. The ability to establish a collective vision, to inspire people to work. And the ability to manage people effectively in pursuing that vision. It is extremely difficult to find people who have these abilities, and it’s perhaps even harder to cultivate them. But our ability to scale, and build effective systems, depends on leaders in a way that I didn’t recognize when I started DxE.
Infighting destroys movements.
I had some small interpersonal squabbles in my early organizing. But I didn’t recognize the fundamental importance of infighting to social movements until starting DxE. The distrust and animosity caused by infighting is a poison to movements. It takes a combination of strong leadership and culture to inoculate us from these negative impacts.
Relationships, not people, are the more fundamental unit of social change.
The simple formula I suggest above, while descriptively accurate, misses something very important: namely, that what keeps people working in a movement over the long term, and allows those people to work effectively with others, is the strength and health of the relationships between people. The problem is that this is much harder to measure. But if I were to modify the formula that I started with, it would probably be something like this:
Change = (# of relationships) x (relationship strength)
By “relationship strength” I don’t just mean the strength of the social tie between any two movement supporters. I also mean the strength of their collective commitment to the movement’s vision. “Collective” here is key. It’s not enough that each person cares on their own. What builds movement power is when that person’s commitment to a goal is shared, in the same way that a shared fitness goal might enhance each individual’s ability to work out every day.
Communities are crucial, but hard to build.
Community is in many ways the solution to these obstacles. But because of the temporary nature of modern social commitments, community’s are highly susceptible to collapse and decay. I’ve shifted my thinking somewhat in the direction of trying to find existing “natural” communities, e.g., ethnic or religious groups, to build movement power. The problem is that those natural communities are also falling apart. Take the declining commitment worldwide to religious institutions.
Storytelling is key to everything. So is sacrifice.
These two really go hand in hand. The most effective campaigns, from Greta’s Fridays for the Future to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent march for civil rights, are powered by powerful stories. And very often, those stories are stories of sacrifice. An autistic girl leave school and strikes on the government’s doorsteps for climate justice. A brave young minister steps proudly into jail to fight for a dream of racial equality. Simple themes, that set out an injustice in the world, and a movement’s willingness to sacrifice to fight it, have driven so many movements for change. I’ve now seen this work, powerfully, for animal rights; the stories of rescue, repression, and sacrifice have been the most successful efforts to build power in DxE (and perhaps animal rights) history.
But the movement still desperately needs good storytellers to harness these stories for change.
As I come back home for trial, I’m thinking hard about what to do next. I have 3 more trials myself that will unfold in the next year. And I am counsel of record in Matt Johnson’s trial in Iowa, which I expect to be one of the most important battlegrounds for animal rights in our movement’s history. But as I focus on these concrete legal challenges, I aim to keep these lessons in mind.
What do you think of this list? And what do you think you’ve learned, in your journey as an animal rights activist?