Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Wayne Hsiung
I met Wayne Hsiung about a million years ago (or so) in Chicago when he was studying at the University of Chicago and new on the local activist scene. There was a lot of buzz about Wayne, most of it centered around the fact that he was very smart. Meeting him did not disappoint in this department but did help to fill out the whole picture: Wayne has an uncommon combination of confidence and humility, audacity and sensitivity. Always articulate and cerebral but with rare qualities of approachability and warmth infusing everything, Wayne has a lot of complementary skills that are not seen together too often in one person. Perhaps this is why he is so magnetic and uniquely talented. It is no surprise that his rare combination of skills and attributes make Wayne someone who would go on to big things.
Fast forward a million years (or so) from when we first met and Wayne has helped to ignite a diverse movement of people from around the globe who have become empowered to courageously speak up for animals in the public sphere through the organization he founded in the Bay area, Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE, which now has chapters around worldwide. DxE and their actions happen to have sparked a lightning rod of debate and controversy within a short amount of time, prompting conversations, often heated, about strategy and approach within the vegan activist community that I believe, no matter where one is on the spectrum of support, are ultimately very valuable for a robust and evolving movement. Where do you stand on nonviolent confrontation? Where do you stand on the disruption of the status quo in the public sphere? Is speaking out a moral obligation or do negative public reactions make things worse for the animals? No matter where you stand, this is forcing us to ask questions of our own comfort zones - are they for us or for the animals? If these were people being eaten, would we still be silent? - and forcing us to challenge our own tendencies of accepting the entrenched societal customs. I believe that there are compelling arguments both for and against their style of direct action; no matter what you think about Wayne and DxE, I have no doubt that business-as-usual is being rattled and, ultimately, this rattling is a very good thing.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
It’s hard to remember how things started 15 years ago. But I’ll share two experiences that were key.
The first was a pretty deep and early connection with animals. Growing up in an immigrant family in central Indiana, my family didn’t have much community. We were the only people of color in the neighborhood, and we never made white friends. So I made friends with the local animals. I would stomp through the forests and creeks, babbling to the squirrels, the birds, and even the bugs. I invented all sorts of fantastic relationships for the animals – squirrels would be married to frogs, and cousins to the birds, and uncles to the deer – to make up for my lack of human family and community. I’d obsess over animal books at the library, insist on going to the Indianapolis zoo (usually on discounted days) on every occasion that I could, and beg, beg, and beg my mom and dad to allow us to adopt a dog. The day they relented is still, to this day, perhaps the most joyous day of my life. My first dog Vivian was my first and best friend and, in many ways, my hero. And though she destroyed almost everything she could in our house, the love and companionship she built up in our family was worth so much more.
Even at an early age, though, there were serious signs that something was not right about the way we treated animals. For example, as a kid, I was obsessed with the primate cage at the zoo. This was back in the day when zoos were much less careful than they are today about human/non-human interaction. There was a corner of the monkey exhibit where, if you were small enough, and willing to crawl under a wooden bar, you could get within a few feet of the wire cage that separated us from the primates. And if you brought a stick with you, you could stretch your arm out towards the cage, and the primates would stretch their arms out through a hole in the cage, and you could hand them a stick. If the zoo employees caught you doing this, they’d immediately command you to stop. But I became an expert over the years at avoiding the zoo employees, and I would literally spend hours upon hours just handing them sticks (sometimes, also playing tug of war), usually with a younger primate, often a boy just like me. We would stare at each other, wave at each other, laugh at each other, and sometimes, even talk at each other. But through it all, I always remembered the image an outstretched arm pushing desperately for a stick through a grim wire cage. And I remember always thinking to myself, why is he in there, and why am I out here?
The other sign that all was not well came from an early visit to China – specifically the Southeastern region where most of my family is from, and where dog flesh is still commonly sold. My parents tell me that we never got close enough to see it, but I distinctly remember hearing about Gou Rou (“dog meat’) and being absolutely mortified. “How can people hurt little ones like Vivian?” I cried desperately. But my parents insisted that I was being immature because, after all, we ate plenty of animals back home. I rejected this as a kid. But many years later, I realized that my parents were right. There is no difference.
And that brings me to my second experience. Unlike many vegans, I did not come to veganism as a consumer or dietary lifestyle. I was never a picky eater, and (like many people who come from a background of food insecurity) the particularities of the food I was eating never really concerned me, as long as I had some food to eat.
I came to veganism, instead, as an extension of other social justice causes I had been working on. In particular, in the late 1990s, there was a swell of activism around false convictions of people on death row. A small team of volunteer investigators at Northwestern, through diligent research, had discovered numerous instances of clearly innocent people (generally poor, people of color) who were set to be killed for crimes they did not commit.
I related instantly to this cause because I knew what it meant to be attacked physically for something that was completely out of my own control. From an early age, I had been mercilessly bullied by kids at school as a strange immigrant kid with sloppy clothes. And the most terrifying aspect of that experience – and the reason racial epithets are so hurtful – is that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better. I was being attacked for who I was, not for anything I did. And the same thing was happening to these men on death row. They were captives to a society that saw them as worthless beings, punished for the crime of being poor, powerless, and “different.”
It didn’t take long for me to see the connections to another class of beings who were in that same dreadful state. But unlike my experiences with bullying (eventually, the school caught on, and some of the bullies were reprimanded quite severely), it did not seem anyone was particularly concerned about the animals' fate. And that’s when I decided that something needed to be done.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
The two things that I wish I had learned are, first, that animal rights and veganism (at least in its political variants) are not about diet but, rather, justice, and, second, that there is a huge community of warm-hearted, smart, and motivated people out there supporting you every step of the way. Tap into that community. Build with that community. Empower that community. Too much of my early veganism/activism was done under the false notion that what’s most important is finding hard-working individuals. But as Robert Putnam put it, there’s only so much you can do if you’re bowling alone. Growing as a vegan or activist is a collaborative project.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
There is so much evidence that stories are by far the most powerful way to get your message out, to provoke dialogue, and to make change. Lincoln is reported to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, regarding the antislavery movement in the United States, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” And while that quote may be a myth, it reflects a truth that Steven Pinker, among others, has identified: movements for empathy have almost always been triggered by stories. A kind and distinguished black woman calmly refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus. (Civil Rights) A desperate fruit vendor lights himself in fire to protest tyranny in Tunisia. (Arab Spring) Three young woman are brutally attacked by a police officer with pepper spray simply for begging him to stop beating their friends. (Occupy Wall Street)
Storytelling is a core organizing principle of Direct Action Everywhere because we’ve seen the power of stories in prior movements, and we know we have to harness the power of stories for ours.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
Our network. At DxE, our formula for social change is “Create. Connect. Inspire.” And there’s a huge literature in sociology, psychology, political science, and economics on the importance of empowered networks for creating change. Look, for example, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember Martin Luther King Jr. as singularly responsible for Civil Rights, but the network he was part of had a life and power of its own – spawning SNCC, the March on Washington, and countless other important groups, events, and individual leaders for the movement.
At DxE, we carefully study both the history and science of social change to identify the attributes of networks that allow them to grow and thrive. And our hope is that what we learn will empower the entire movement.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Three things come to mind.
The first, and most important, is cynicism. If we don’t believe we can change the world, we won’t. But too often we look around us, at a sea of seemingly apathetic faces, and tell ourselves that we can’t achieve our dreams. This is not just self-defeating but inaccurate. The problem before us is, in fact, far easier than what faced historical movements. (Just as one simple illustration, the antislavery movement sought to destroy an industry that was more than 2000 times larger, as a percentage of the US federal budget.) And we only need to mobilize a small percentage of the population to effect massive systemic change. We have to believe we can do that.
The second problem is undue focus on individuals. At DxE, we focus on creating networks and communities – and not just individual vegans—because we know that individuals disconnected from supportive communities will not remain committed to the cause. An astonishing 60% of self-declared vegetarians eat meat within a week after identifying themselves as vegetarians, and a far higher percentage give up over the long term. Duncan Watts, among others, has identified the power of highly energetic networks to creating and sustaining change. We need to make creating those empowered networks, and not converting individual vegans, our main focus as a movement.
Third and finally, we too often lose sight of our inspiration – social justice. There is virtually no evidence that a consumer-based movement has much potential to grow – much less change the world. (Indeed, the consumer-based “free produce” movement in the 19th century barely registers a footnote in the history of antislavery.) The distinguished philosopher Will Kymlicka has written recently on how animal rights is the orphan child of the Left, and one of the reasons for this is its insistence on framing the issue in terms of consumer lifestyles that are alien to, or out of the reach of, the vast majority of human beings on this planet. There is more to social justice than a boycott. There’s more to meat than just a meal. (“It’s not food. It’s violence.”) And we need to frame the issue more strongly, and with more inspiration, for our movement to grow.
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
“I’ve seen a dog being tortured and killed, and it’s the most evil thing I’ve ever had to witness. I know you feel that way too. But we in America are routinely engaged in practices that are just as horrific to other animals. We have to see that for what it is – discriminatory violence – and empower ourselves to take action against it. Here’s the good thing: there are people all over the world taking a stand. Species is the next frontier of justice. And if we come together behind a strong message, we can change the world."
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
I had a lot of really positive early role models. You were actually one of them, Marla, because I immediately noticed that you stuck to your principles, but maintained a positive tone. That’s not an easy balance to manage, but it’s a vital one if our movement is to both maintain its integrity *and* grow.
But by far the most influential people on my veganism and activism have been my fellow activists at Direct Action Everywhere. I have learned so much, grown so much, bonded so much in the past 11 months that I’m a completely different -- and better -- person than I was at the beginning of 2014. The activists in the Bay Area we have are obviously close to my heart. But even beyond that, I’ve met so many people around the country (at our Forum at Cal-Berkeley in May, and then later during our East Coast Speaking Tour) who just blow me away with their commitment, passion, and integrity. We really focus on building good culture and character at DxE – honest, optimistic, transparent, and enthusiastic – and that has really paid off in the team of amazing people we have leading our chapters around the world.
Re: other influences, I don’t think any can compare to the influence of my peers. But Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria continue to inspire me from afar. The work we do is, in many ways, modeled after theirs.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
I used to play ultimate Frisbee, karaoke, and tons of board games. But animal rights has always been my first priority for the past 13 years, and over the past 2 years, it’s completely taken over. That’s ok, though, because there are so many diverse, interesting challenges that there’s always something new to learn. (The past year, for example, has been a crash course in video editing, so we can make videos like this.) The only thing I need to recharge is to connect with another activist (with DxE or otherwise) who’s enthusiastic about making change.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
Anti-speciesism. There are so many vegans, and even quite a few animal rights activists. But there is little discussion of what it means to be an anti-speciesist – to treat every animal, or animal body, with the same respect and consideration that you’d offer a human being.
What we’ve learned from a few decades of research into other forms of discrimination is that they are often deep-seated and unconscious, that they shape our basic assumptions about the world in ways that disadvantage oppressed classes, and that they powerfully influence our behavior in ways that we don’t even recognize. We know, for example, that even those who identify as “anti-racist” are more likely to pull the trigger when faced with a person of color; that sexism is not just about explicit violence, but also subtle assumptions about women (weak, dependent, less intelligent, etc.); and that people with ethnic sounding names will, by that alone, be rejected both socially and professionally from positions of influence or power.
But we have just begun starting these conversations regarding anti-speciesism. For example, what is an anti-speciesist to do when a friend or family member is dining on the body of a murdered being? The obvious answer, from an anti-speciesist perspective, would be to react the same way we would react toward a murdered human being. And while there might be legitimate reasons to deviate from that reaction, we should carefully scrutinize whether our disparate treatment of animals or their bodies has more to do with our indoctrination in an unthinkingly violent society, or genuine concerns regarding effectiveness.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
Just the beginning. Our greatest dream – a world where every animal is safe, happy, and free – is within reach. But only if we’re inspired to do more.
Thank you, Wayne!