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Activists Shouldn’t Fight with Anyone

This article is about how all activists, including animal activists, should stop fighting with people in polarizing ways. Instead, they should take a more intellectual approach to planning better strategies and avoiding fights.

Effective Activism

In a world with so many huge problems, there are two basic strategies for reforming things which make sense. Animal activism doesn’t fit either one. It’s a typical example, like many other types of activism, of what not to do (even if your cause is good).

Good Strategy 1: Fix things unopposed.

Work on projects where people aren’t fighting to stop you. Avoid controversy. This can be hard. You might think that helping people eat enough Vitamin A to avoid going blind would be uncontroversial, but if you try to solve the problem with golden rice then you’ll get a lot of opposition (because of GMOs). If it seems to you like a cause should be uncontroversial, but it’s not, you need to recognize and accept that in reality it’s controversial, no matter how dumb that is. Animal activism is controversial, whether or not it should be. So is abortion, global warming, immigration, economics, and anything else that sounds like a live political issue.

A simple rule of thumb is that 80% of people who care, or who will care before you’re done, need to agree with you. 80% majorities are readily available on many issues, but extremely unrealistic in the foreseeable future on many other issues like veganism or ending factory farming.

In the U.S. and every other reasonably democratic country, if you have an 80% majority on an issue, it’s pretty easy to get your way. If you live in a less democratic country, like Iran, you may have to consider a revolution if you have an 80% majority but are being oppressed by violent rulers. A revolution with a 52% majority is a really bad idea. Pushing hard for a controversial cause in the U.S. with a 52% majority is a bad idea too, though not as bad as a revolution. People should prioritize not fighting with other people a lot more than they do.

Put another way: Was there election fraud in the 2020 U.S. Presidential election? Certainly. There is every year. Did the fraud cost Trump the election? Maybe. Did Trump have an 80% majority supporting him? Absolutely not. There is nowhere near enough fraud to beat an 80% majority. If fraud swung the election, it was close anyway, so it doesn’t matter much who won. You need accurate enough elections that 80% majorities basically always win. The ability for the 80% to get their way is really important for enabling reform. But you shouldn’t care very much whether 52% majorities get their way. (For simplicity, my numbers are for popular vote elections with two candidates, which is not actually how U.S. Presidential elections work. Details vary a bit for other types of elections.)

Why an 80% majority instead of 100%? It’s more practical and realistic. Some people are unreasonable. Some people believe in UFOs or flat Earth. The point is to pick a high number that is realistically achievable when you persuade most people. We really do have 80% majorities on tons of issues, like whether women should be allowed to vote (which used to be controversial, but isn’t today). Should murder be illegal? That has well over an 80% majority. Are seatbelts good? Should alcohol be legal? Should we have some international trade instead of fulling closing our borders? Should parents keep their own kids instead of having the government raise all the children? These things have over 80% majorities. The point is to get way more than 50% agreement but without the difficulties of trying to approach 100%.

Good Strategy 2: Do something really, really, really important.

Suppose you can’t get a clean, neat, tidy, easy or unopposed victory for your cause. And you’re not willing to go do something else instead. Suppose you’re actually going to fight with a lot of people who oppose you and work against them. Is that ever worth it or appropriate? Rarely, but yes, it could be. Fighting with people is massively overrated but I wouldn’t say to never do it. Even literal wars can be worth it, though they usually aren’t.

If you’re going to fight with people, and do activism for an opposed cause, it better be really really worth it. That means it needs high leverage. It can’t just be one cause because you like that cause. The cause needs to be a meta cause that will help with many future reforms. For example, if Iran has a revolution and changes to a democratic government, that will help them fix many, many issues going forward, such as laws about homosexuality, dancing, or female head coverings. It would be problematic to pick a single issue, like music, and have a huge fight in Iran to get change for just that one thing. If you’re going to have a big fight, you need bigger rewards than one single reform.

If you get some Polish grocery stores to stop selling live fish, that activism is low leverage. Even if it works exactly as intended, and it’s an improvement, it isn’t going to lead to a bunch of other wonderful results. It’s focused on a single issue, not a root cause.

If you get factory farms to change, it doesn’t suddenly get way easier to do abortion-related reforms. You aren’t getting at root causes, such as economic illiteracy or corrupt, lobbyist-influenced lawmakers, which are contributing to dozens of huge problems. You aren’t figuring out why so many large corporations are so awful and fixing that, which would improve factory farms and dozens of other things too. You aren’t making the world significantly more rational, nor making the government significantly better at implementing reforms.

If you don’t know how to do a better, more powerful reform, stop and plan more. Don’t just assume it’s impossible. The world desperately needs more people willing to be good intellectuals who study how things work and create good plans. Help with that. Please. We don’t need more front-line activists working on ineffective causes, fighting with people, and being led by poor leaders. There are so many front-line activists who are on the wrong side of things, fighting others who merely got lucky to be on the right side (but tribalist fighting is generally counter-productive even if you’re on the right side).

Fighting with people tends to be polarizing and divisive. It can make it harder to persuade people. If the people who disagree with you feel threatened, and think you might get the government to force your way of life on them, they will dig in and fight hard. They’ll stop listening to your reasoning. If you want a future society with social harmony, agreement and rational persuasion, you’re not helping by fighting with people and trying to get laws made that many other people don’t want, which reduces their interest in constructive debate.

Root Causes

The two strategies I brought up are doing things with little opposition or doing things that are really super important and can fix many, many things. Be very skeptical of that second one. It’s a form of the “greater good” argument. Although fighting with people is bad, it could be worth it for the greater good if it fixes some root causes. But doing something with clear, immediate negatives in the name of the greater good rarely actually works out well.

There are other important ways to strategize besides looking for lack of opposition or importance. You can look for root causes instead of symptoms. Factory farms are downstream of various other problems. Approximately all the big corporations suck, not just the big farms. Why is that? What is going on there? What is causing that? People who want to fix factory farms should look into this and get a better understanding of the big picture.

I do believe that there are many practical, reasonable ways that factory farms could be improved, just like I think keeping factories clean in general is good for everyone from customers to workers to owners. What stops the companies from acting more reasonably? Why are they doing things that are worse for everyone, including themselves? What is broken there, and how is it related to many other types of big companies also being broken and irrational in many ways?

I have some answers but I won’t go into them now. I’ll just say that if you want to fix any of this stuff, you need a sophisticated view on the cause-and-effect relationships involved. You need to look at the full picture not just the picture in one industry before you can actually make a good plan. You also should find win/win solutions and present them in terms of mutual benefit instead of approaching it as activists fighting against enemies. You should do your best to proceed in a way where you don’t have enemies. Enemy-based activism is mostly counter-productive – it mostly makes the world worse by increasing fighting.

There are so many people who are so sure they’re right and so sure their cause is so important … and many of them are on opposite sides of the same cause. Don’t be one of those people. Stop rushing, stop fighting, read Eli Goldratt, look at the big picture, make cause-and-effect trees, make transition trees, etc., plan it all out, aim for mutual benefit, and reform things in a way with little to no fighting. If you can’t find ways to make progress without fighting, that usually means you don’t know what you’re doing and are making things worse not better (assuming a reasonably free, democratic country – this is less applicable in North Korea).

Elliot Temple on January 1, 2023


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