Hide table of contents

This article is a really interesting example of people in a prosocial movement trying radical tactics and then changing their minds. I'm not sure there's any lesson here that the average Forum reader should learn; I'm just crossposting because I enjoyed it.

See parts two and three for how the Pledge has evolved.


The Failure of the Pledge and a Better Way Towards Vegan Tables

In 2015, animal advocates with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) launched an inspired new campaign among their members. It took courage, required sacrifice, and greatly backfired. This three-part series examines what the movement learned from the Liberation Pledge, how we might energize the intention behind the Pledge in a better way, and a piece to share with friends and family to do just that. 

What We Learned From the Liberation Pledge

How It Started

The Liberation Pledge was a fascinating idea and a bit of a disaster. Instead of energizing supporters’ social networks to create change, as its creators intended, it often had the opposite effect- to isolate advocates from their closest relationships. 

 In this piece, you’ll learn

  • What it was
  • Why it was a good idea
  • Why it failed

The next piece in this series suggests a better way to energize the intention behind the pledge, for animal advocates to align their actions with their values in their personal relationships. 

 The Liberation Pledge was a three-part public pledge to 

  1. live vegan, 
  2. refuse to sit at tables where animals’ bodies are being eaten, and 
  3. encourage others to do the same. 

Enthusiasts of the pledge hoped it would create a cultural stigma around eating animals similar to the stigma that has developed around smoking over recent decades. That is, even while smoking is still practiced, it is prohibited by default in public and private spaces. 

Before we had the Pledge, many of us felt alienated from friends and family who continued to eat animals. We were forced to choose between two options: speaking up and risking being seen as obnoxious, angry, and argumentative, or keeping the peace with painful inauthenticity, swallowing our intense discomfort at watching our loved ones eat the bodies of animals. 

The pledge gave us hope that there was another way: being honest with those around us while continuing to spend time with them. And, on a larger scale, we hoped that if we all joined together, we could create a world where eating meat is stigmatized: a world where someone would ask, “Does anyone mind if I get the steak?” before making an order at a restaurant (or maybe even one in which restaurants would think twice before putting someone’s body on the menu). 

Some people took it a step further, arguing it was immoral not to take the pledge, saying, “You wouldn’t sit quietly eating your vegan option while a dog or a child was being eaten, would you?” According to this view, it was our duty not to sit idly by while violence was committed in our presence. 

While some beautiful and inspiring stories were detailed on a Facebook group for the Pledge, it seemed to me that there were many more instances of total disaster: people experiencing huge ruptures in their oldest relationships around the Pledge while often lamenting that those they had just discarded  “care more about eating dead animals than they care about me.” 

From where I stood, the biggest effect of the Pledge was for advocates to lose relationships with family members who didn’t comply. Upon taking the Pledge, a close friend at the time experienced a years-long estrangement from their family, including those who were already vegan while many others decided to skip birthdays, weddings, and holidays with family. It’s possible that all of this added stigma around eating animals. With these relationships broken down, we don’t know. 

My Liberation Pledge

I believe the pledge was so popular because it politicized something that we desperately wanted for our own comfort–no animals on the table while we were there–and I took it pretty much as soon as it launched. 

The Pledge certainly contributed to my alienation from nonvegans, though I neither experienced the best nor the worst of it. My immediate family accommodated a request for vegetarian tables at holiday dinners, but I’m sure that there were many invitations I would have received if not for it. While my overall immersion in the animal rights community during that time certainly deserves some of the credit for the fact that I didn’t develop many new relationships with nonvegans during the following several years, the effect of the Pledge can’t be discounted. 

A website was created with advice for taking the pledge, which is still online as of this writing. It suggested that pledge-takers write a public statement (a model announcement is provided) to inform their friends and family about their new commitment. It also offered some logistical suggestions for getting together with friends and family who aren’t willing to cooperate with the rules of the Pledge. Most importantly, it laid out the reasoning for why we must, together, participate in the Liberation Pledge (to stigmatize eating animals) and directs the reader to “stay firm and nonviolent in the face of conflict.”

This was the right kind of advice, but it fell far short. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the founders of the Liberation Pledge underestimated just how difficult an undertaking they were proposing. In fact, the pledge in practice often had the opposite of its intended effect, an outcome that profoundly undermined DxE’s central theory of change. DxE believed in the power of social networks to create change. That is, by taking bold actions and making personal sacrifices, activists would present a model to their communities and inspire friends and family members to reconsider their views on animals. However, while the pledge was meant to spark this process, in practice, it resulted more often than not in the disconnection of activists from their social networks. Instead of creating change by leveraging their personal relationships (the most important resource activists have, according to the social movement theory of change), the pledge weakened and sometimes even severed these relationships. 

I believe these problems were mostly a matter of inadequate training. Pledge-takers were sent to the front lines of a fiery struggle for social change (their family dinner table) with nothing but a template letter. In contrast, tactics that involved legal risk or personal safety were only encouraged with plenty of training. While the Pledge wasn’t a matter of life and death, freedom or prison, it was a risk to members’ closest and most important relationships. With 20/20 hindsight, it seems that it was unwise to encourage pledge-takers to risk these relationships with so little training.

The Meaning of Nonviolence

A lot of people might think of activism as characterized by righteous anger, held in an image of somebody yelling into a megaphone at a protest. But DxE understood that while anger has its place as an energizing and powerful force, the task of winning over hearts and minds is difficult, delicate, and requires extraordinary discipline over our own emotions. They might not have fully understood how much more difficult this is with our loved ones than with the public at large. The same advocate who can always treat hecklers at a protest with kindness might still be underprepared to treat their own family members with love and acceptance when the topic of animals comes up. 

The Alienating Aspects of the Framing

Instrumentalizing Relationships

Framing the Pledge as a political action instrumentalized our closest relationships, communicating to those closest to us that we thought of them as objects to be used for the cause. 

I Matter to You, but You Don’t Matter to Me

By framing the Pledge as a pledge or oath, it was presented as a promise to people who weren’t present. Exasperated by the custom and direction to make a public statement before having private conversations with those affected, the Pledge had an unnecessary effect of communicating to our loved ones that they didn’t really matter to us, at least not in comparison to this new thing we were doing. By not including our loved ones in a decision that would greatly affect our future interactions, we communicated something that was often taken as profound disrespect. 

At the same time as it communicated that we didn’t particularly care about our loved ones, it explicitly appealed to their care for us, creating a heartbreaking competition about who loves the other less, and therefore gets the accommodation. Some of our loved ones must have felt that they’d be showing disproportionate care for us by agreeing to vegan tables, and so they attempted to call our bluff by serving meat. 

Of course, not every Pledge conversation went this way, and many included affirmations of how much the relationships meant to us. Some relationships truly were deepened by the pledge, but it seems that they were the exception. 

Unnecessary Escalation

Even if you plan to hold a boundary around sitting at such a table, framing it as such in initial conversations is confrontational to an antisocial degree. Rather than inviting others to understand our experiences, the explicit focus on integrity (I wouldn’t sit if a dog were being eaten) unnecessarily created an adversarial dynamic. 

One Size Fits None

By being all or nothing, the Pledge puts us in a position where we are de facto excluded from many large events or gatherings with people who don’t know us well. In these cases, it won’t  make sense to accommodate us by inconveniencing so many others, especially if our hosts don’t know us well. 

As It Lives Now

In the early days of the Pledge, attendees at every DxE event were repeatedly encouraged to take it, in observance of its third tenant, to encourage others to do the same. Today, it is rarely discussed in public, probably due precisely to some of the harms I’ve described. 

While some people continue to practice it in some form, it seems that the political framing has largely dropped off. We understand that, while it didn’t take off as a political strategy, the practice of only sitting at vegan or vegetarian tables is important for our own mental health. Most people still practicing the Pledge (at least the ones I know) are dedicated animal activists who largely associate with other vegans. When we don’t, we might quietly suggest a vegan establishment and only inform our potential dining companions of the pledge when necessary. “The Pledge” still exists as shorthand for this habit, even when its third tenant and political framing are absent. 

While mostly inert, I believe that the Pledge continues to cause harm, albeit small harms compared to when it first came about. The Liberation Pledge Facebook Group remains somewhat active as a periodically updated illustration of the Pledge’s continuing effects. A recent post asks for advice for dealing with a mandatory school event, predicting that the writer will end up sitting alone in the corner throughout. To this person, it seems that the Pledge will prevent her from getting to know her classmates and thus prevent her from becoming a person whom they can know well enough to look to as an example. In addition, the poster’s relationship with the Pledge deprives her of the chance to develop connections with others. 

A Better Way

You may be thinking at this point that I’m encouraging everyone who has taken the Pledge to renounce it: that’s not where I’m going. 

In the next piece, I offer a proposal for rethinking the concept behind the Pledge to support the relationships and well-being of movement participants. With some slight modifications, the promises of the Liberation Pledge can be realized as a vehicle for connection and a microcosm of social change. Click next to learn more. 





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I was very active in the animal advocacy movement for about 20 years, including when the Liberation Pledge was announced. My reaction to it was basically the same reaction I had to nearly everything DxE did. It's way too early for this to work. Specifically, while I think there's a good idea, it will only succeed with a much larger critical mass of people involved from the start.

All the best estimates I've seen suggest that around 1% of the US is vegan. I think it's reasonable to assume that most animal advocates are vegan, but that most vegans are not animal advocates.

What might be a good estimate for the number of advocates? The Animal Rights Conference used to attract a few thousand people. Let's say 2,500. The size of the movement as a whole is probably some multiple of this. I'd guess 10-100x. So we're talking about 25,000 to 250,000 people. The US has about 333 million people right now, so this is ... (does math) ... about 0.075% of the population at best.

I'm not sure what the critical mass is for having enough advocates to make this stuff work, but looking at the civil rights movement might provide some insight. In 1963, 200,000 people attended the March on Washington. The US population was only about 189 million then, so this was 0.1% of the population at one rally which required people to take time off work and travel to attend! I can't find any estimates on the size of the movement as a whole, but I think a cautious low estimate might be that there were 10x as many people who were quite invested (1% of the population), and 100x  (10%) who were at least casual supporters, willing to write letters to congresspeople and tell them they'd vote based on their civil rights record.

My feeling (obviously there's no way to prove this) is that this is the right order of magnitude for the Liberation Pledge and other stuff DxE has done. And moreover, trying to do these things too early is a huge waste of energy, likely to lead to extreme activist burnout, all while probably making the population at large less sympathetic to the cause.

There's also a real question as to whether we can ever get to the advocate numbers we'd need. That vegan number (1% of population) has been stalled for a long time. I swear I read an interesting article about this by Che Green (formerly of Faunalytics), but now I can't find it. From memory, the article argued that vegan outreach should focus on recruiting new advocates, not just new vegans, and that those advocates should focus on more winnable efforts like corporate and political efforts, rather than trying to grow the vegan population as a path to success. I found it fairly convincing.

I've been critical of a lot of vegan advocacy, so I want to go on the record as loving this post and the sequel. I especially like this line from part 2:

[I a table with meat I have to] emotionally disengage from what’s happening, not to think of who is being eaten and what their presence means. If I choose this, then to some extent I disengage emotionally from the people around me. In this case, I’m not bringing my whole self to the table.

Very interesting, I hadn't heard about this!! 

I've only really gotten to know scrupulous agreeable vegans who are aware of the hostile vegan perception and so correct against it really hard. Because of this social context, I definitely roll my eyes at nonvegans complaining about aggro vegans, cuz it sounds made up! I also think "does anyone mind if I order a steak" and maybe even napkin math is not only a reasonable equilibrium, I go further and say that it's like a minimum viable equilibrium for any defensible understanding of moral uncertainty or epistemic cooperation. And I've definitely met plenty of nonvegans who would interpret the suggestion of this norm as smug virtue signaling going too far and whatever, and I don't even know how to become sympathetic to this reaction haha. 

More to the point: yes, in 2015 part of my exhaustion and disillusionment with veganism was basically that if 1/10 restaurants are viable for me then i'm just deleting 90% of interactions from my lightcone in a way that's annoying to go out of my way to correct for. This definitely matters, it was salient to me! I've always been into finding common ground with my species through bantering in local slang on the sidewalk or getting takeout, it's restorative and helps me fight various sources of jaded cope with the brokenness of the world. 

I think you need to consider how this looks to nonvegans. Specifically, the ones who reject the premise of veganism, that eating animals is in any way immoral.

Veganism is a bit like being pro-life. You're holding that a certain organism has full moral weight, as a person does. Pro-life people do this with fetuses, vegans do it with animals. But from the perspective of nonbelievers, this position is an absurdity. They believe your position to be incorrect at a factual level.

Now consider how unreasonable it would seem if you declared that you would not sit at a table with anyone who has had an abortion. The reaction would be beyond disagreement, it would be seen as a complete loss of civility over a fundamentally flawed worldview.

Of course, there are some people who hold the vegan worldview but don't follow through with eating vegan, possibly because they're uncertain about their worldview or because they lack the conviction to act according to their beliefs. Those people can be influenced to stop eating meat.

But for everyone else, the ones who do not accept the vegan worldview, no change in behavior will take place until you change their worldview. Any attempt to force a change in behavior first will only create conflict, not change.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities