ACE research associate Jacy Reese recently published an essay on the effectiveness of confrontational activism in creating effective social change for animals. You can find the full version here. The opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACE.
Confrontational tactics like protests, sit-ins, marches, and other public demonstrations seek to disrupt existing institutions, norms, behaviors, and beliefs regarding a specific social issue in order to create a tension that forces society to reconsider its practices in that area, intending to create widespread positive social change. This essay explores confrontation and related ideas from a perspective of effective altruism, considering whether activists — especially those working to help nonhuman animals — should support confrontational or nonconfrontational activism with their limited marginal resources. It considers evidence from historical and modern social movements, psychology research, and other sources.
Overall, the evidence considered in this essay suggests confrontation has a useful ability to spark moral outrage, facilitate productive discourse, and raise awareness for a social issue. This ability, which seems crucial for effective social change, may extend quite well to some nonconfrontational approaches but not as well to others. This suggests the animal advocacy movement should consider reducing its focus on nonconfrontational tactics that seem to mostly lack this upside, like directly changing consumer behavior with the “Go Vegan!” approach, and increasing its focus on actions that are more likely to create nonlinear change through moral outrage and launching animal rights into public discourse. Examples of nonconfrontational tactics that fit this criterion include undercover investigations, speeches, essays, op-eds, and other literary works, especially those that highlight the personal stories of suffering animals. Examples of promising confrontational tactics include marches and other forms of direct action, although they seem to involve considerable risk of backfire effects and encouraging a powerful opposition, making their effectiveness highly dependent on certain conditions.