Bad protest tactics hurt credibility

I’ve reached the age where the phrase “dinner party” actually excites me. I remember my parents’ dinner parties as those evenings during grade school when I most wished I had the social life of all those popular kids. Now, I’ve become a victim of the curse that afflicts us all: becoming our parents. Like them, I’m planning and attending relaxed, gourmet get-togethers with close friends, topping the night off with good wine and conversation.
The most recent of these parties was at my friend Troy’s place. We had spaghetti with marinara sauce, an organic salad (Troy’s choice), beer and wine.
I noticed some new postings on Troy’s fridge. His roommate smirked a bit when I read aloud the new assortment of “No Fur,” “Meat is Murder” and other assorted slogans popular among those involved with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“So, Troy,” said his roommate. “You’re still planning on going to that rodeo protest this weekend?”
While putting together the dinner, Troy quietly admitted, “Yep.”
Someone else asked how a rodeo protest was conducted. Troy got that look on his face that always lets you know he’s about to do something goofy, and said, “We’re gonna run out with the calves and shout, Rope me! Rope me instead!'”
Troy has changed a lot in the seven years I’ve known him. Back in high school, he never cared much about scholastics. Instead, he concentrated his energies into playing his guitar and having fun.
Today, Troy is a serious student. He still plays guitar, but now cares more about reading books and writing papers than becoming a legend of speed metal.
With his newfound interest in his education, he seems a touch more pretentious. He’s turned from a long-haired, guitar-picking metal head into a long-haired, guitar-picking philosophy student. He supports most liberal ideals, such as environmentalism and socialist economic systems.
I tend to lean to the left myself, but often find myself playing devil’s advocate when having a discussion with Troy. Perhaps it’s a simple case of my cynicism conflicting with his idealism.
This night, he seemed to be displaying his newfound cause: animal rights. I pressed Troy to tell me the logical rationale for animal rights. With no disrespect to my fellow Daily columnist, I’ve always believed that vegetarianism is an attempt to escape the fact that we have to kill to survive. How do we know that animals feel pain and plants don’t?
Even in high school Troy was somewhat of a health food nut. As a result, the guy’s as skinny as a rail. In all that time, however, I had not known him to be vehement about animal rights. When I heard he was getting involved in a rodeo protest, I felt strangely uncomfortable with the idea. Looking at all the newspaper clippings on his fridge, a certain uneasiness came over me. In the past, I’d always been somewhat annoyed with vegetarian friends who tried to convert me. This fridge evoked a different emotion, however — I felt genuinely threatened.
And, for the first time, I saw parallels between slogans like “Meat is Murder” and “Abortion is Murder.” This animal rights rhetoric, popular among many young, secular, liberal minds, was frighteningly close to the anglo-Christian, pro-life rhetoric I had grown to despise and devalue ever since I started going to college.
I continued pressing Troy to explain the logical rationale behind PETA that night. He avoided the issue. But eventually, a couple of weeks later, I got it out of him.
“I’m going to that rodeo protest this Sunday,” he said to me over the phone one Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure if he had gone to the previous protest we all talked about at the party.
“Oh,” I said. “Really?”
“It doesn’t sound like you like that idea,” he said.
“Well … I’m not sure I do.”
“You don’t think protesting a rodeo might change things?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think it will change anything.”
This is where I started to hear the pro-life undertones in Troy’s argument that really grate on my nerves. Extremist actions such as these rarely cause any lasting change, they just create conflict.
Conflict is fun — it’s an attractive method of protest for some — but I’ve never been a believer that such actions do anything but polarize viewpoints and foster more hate than understanding.
“Troy, when you see pro-lifers holding up signs of bloody fetuses, screaming baby killer,’ does that make you think they’re right?” I asked, attempting to appeal to his liberal sensibilities.
“No, not really,” he agreed.
“Well, I think protesting a rodeo is no different. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind about cruelty to animals like that.”
“Perhaps they haven’t thought about what they’re doing before. Don’t you think it’s worth it if you can at least change one person’s mind about the rodeo?”
I shook my head. “See, there’s your mistake right there. You are assuming they don’t think about it, when in fact many of them probably do.”
They don’t even think about it. I’ve heard pro-lifers say the same thing about women who get abortions. Assuming ignorance on the part of others is never the best way to persuade anyone. Apparently, Troy’s protest didn’t consist of anyone throwing red paint on fur coats or yelling and screaming at people. All he was doing was handing out pamphlets that described the cruelty many of the animals go through. For example, Troy told me about how they shock some of the bulls to get them angry enough to buck for the bull riding competition.
“I used to never think about it much,” he admitted. “But then someone showed me what went on and it changed me.”
His methods may have been low-key, but I felt his choice of venue was his biggest mistake. Attempting to change people’s minds about cruelty to animals while they’re being seated for a rodeo is ultimately counter-productive.
Troy said he felt he was doing good if he could change at least one person’s mind. In doing that, though, how many other minds had he further antagonized? How many people now feel even more resentment toward animal-rights activists than they did before they were handed those pamphlets?
Perhaps I was acting more out of emotion than logic, too. The similarities I saw between Troy’s fridge and a line of pro-life protesters immediately put me on the defensive.
Also, I’ve just never been big on the idea of protesting. Sure, what people in the 1960s did was good; they burned draft cards and spoke out in great numbers against injustices like racism and sexism. In that way, protesting has proven it can effectively change the world. Maybe my life isn’t as much like my parent’s as it seemed.
Today the word “protester” seems to mean something else to me. It conjures up images of people filled with hate, rage and revenge, not pictures of benevolence, cooperation and standing up for what’s right.
Pro-life and animal-rights protesters often go to the wrong extremes, taking drastic measures that do more harm than good to the cause.
I know Troy has a much more level head than that. He hasn’t dumped red paint on the coyote fur of my parka, and he enjoys a good steak every now and then. I guess I just worry about him getting too out of hand. But, hey, what are friends for?

Chris Druckenmiller’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.