Empowerment through understanding the phases of a cause


(Originally published in the January/February 2011 edition of Animal People News)

Social Movement Empowerment Project founder Bill Moyer was last mentioned in ANIMAL PEOPLE in his obituary, published in our January/February 2003 edition. His insights, however, have helped to inform almost every ANIMAL PEOPLE editorial.

A key strategist for Martin Luther King’s 1966 open housing campaign in Chicago, Moyer after 1972 spent the rest of his life teaching advocacy tactics. At invitation of ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett, who was then editor of the long defunct Animals’ Agenda magazine, and Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral, Moyer in September 1989 visited Stamford, Connecticut, to present one of his Movement Action Plan workshops to about 40 leaders of national animal rights groups.

Early in his presentation, based on the histories of other major causes and social movements, Moyer explained that a movement evolves as a variety of different flashpoint events occur that illustrate a failure to uphold an existing and widely recognized social value. The movement develops momentum as the people who respond to the different flashpoint events come together to seek one or more common goals that have some tangible substance– for example, laws that may be passed, projects that may be funded, and personal behavior that may be changed.

As these tangible goals are fulfilled, the underlying social value is strengthened and new norms are established for upholding the value. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Eighty-seven years later Abraham Lincoln echoed Jefferson in the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address, declaring human moral equality to be the bedrock value upon which the U.S. was founded. Yet even a century later, when Moyer developed his theories about movement evolution as a campaign strategist for Martin Luther King, the principle of equality was still often ignored in the routine management of public institutions. The civil rights movement initially desegregated public institutions, then expanded into broader efforts which advanced the greater goal of ending all racial discrimination.

The underlying social value pertaining to animals might be summarized as “be kind to animals,” or “don’t be cruel to animals.” Both of these ideas have been expressed in the teachings of major religions for millennia, and have been recognized to some extent in the secular laws of many nations for 100 to 200 years. The emergence of the humane movement in the 19th century, the animal welfare movement in the mid-20th century, and the animal rights movement in the late 20th century each advanced the values of being kind to animals, or at least not being deliberately cruel toward animals, by giving them increasingly tangible and specific form in legislation, norms of personal conduct, and institutional support, such as the foundation of humane societies and the opening of animal shelters.

Central to Moyer’s Movement Action Plan concept is recognition of the use of what he called the “transformative demand,” which is a sort of gearshift that converts the energy developed around flashpoint events into momentum toward tangible change. Transformative demands in the animal cause–among many others–include “sterilize your pets,” “don’t wear fur,” and “punish egregious cruelty as a felony.”

Transformative demands do not in themselves change the underlying societal value, but as they succeed, they increase the extent of compliance that is expected of every citizen, making the value more meaningful as a social norm. Sometimes the value itself is expanded, as in extending the idea that “all men are created equal” to women.

Not every transformative demand achieves the gear-shifting sought by activists in a single step, or even in a single movement. Often a gearing-down process occurs, enabling the cause to proceed, albeit more slowly than activists wish, when there is not yet enough momentum to move faster. The gearing-down process may be controversial within the cause, since to some activists it may appear to represent retreating from essential goals and accepting–if only temporarily–a new status quo which is still much less than ideal. But the gearing-down does not mean the movement is failing, Moyer pointed out. It may only mean that more people are getting aboard, to be brought up to speed. Once those people are up to speed, change may come faster. Moyer emphasized that different parts of a movement, making and responding to differing transformative demands, may exist simultaneously in different phases, much as a clock simultaneously marks hours, minutes, and seconds.

Each movement and each component sub-movement, if winning public support, progresses through eight cyclical phases that Moyer identified through long observation of the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, anti-nuclear movement, and labor movement, among others in which he was personally involved.

Crisis management

Moyer also explained that the cycles of progressive movements mesh opposite to the efforts of the powerholders to stop time or turn the clock backward.

“The powerholders maintain their power and the status quo,” Moyer said, through strategies beginning with “bureaucratic management to prevent the issue from becoming public.” This includes trying to control public access to information, denying that a problem exists, creating “societal myths which define the problem for the public opposite to reality,” and projecting “the threat of demons, such as terrorism, to instill fear,” so that the public will unquestioningly support the status quo.

“After a policy becomes a public issue,” Moyer observed, “the powerholders are forced to switch to crisis management. They explain that their policies are needed to overcome a bigger evil; re-emphasize old demons or create new ones; [and]create trigger events to justify and get public consent” for whatever they are doing. Opposition is at first ignored, then discredited, destabilized, and repressed to whatever extent the powerholders are able to accomplish. Eventually the powerholders begin to make promises of reform, adopt more conciliatory rhetoric, make a public show of conducting studies and engaging in negotiation, and make “minor changes through reforms, compromises, and co-option of opponents.”

This may slow or stop the progress of the movement, or may precede more meaningful change, depending on how the movement responds.

When Moyer addressed the animal rights movement leaders in 1989, the opposition strategies he described were most evident in the efforts of animal researchers, the fur trade, and animal entertainment to keep their practices hidden. Aggressive agent provocateur activity against Friends of Animals, funded by U.S. Surgical Corporation, had just been exposed. Even bigger covert operations against PETA and the Performing Animal Welfare Society were underway, funding by Feld Entertainment, the owners of the Ringling Bros. circus, and would be exposed within the next several years. U.S. Surgical and Ringling defended their activities as “counter-terrorism” made necessary by militant animal rights activism.

Of note, however, is that the industry-sponsored infiltration and disruption began when even the actions claimed in the name of the “Animal Liberation Front” were still mostly focused on documenting hidden practices. With just a few well-publicized exceptions, in the 1980s, most of the arsons, bombings, and vandalism subsequently associated with the ALF came after the 1992 passage of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.

Neither the covert actions, on either side, nor the seldom-used law, appear to have had any enduring effect on the progress of the animal cause as a whole. By 1996 farmed animal and food issues had already moved from relative obscurity to the top concern of activists who were then younger than age 40. In 2006 the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was expanded into the present Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The chief difference between the Acts, as introduced, was that while the 1992 Act focused on protecting laboratories and fur farms from property damage, the 2006 Act sought to protect labs, fur farms, and factory farms from exposure, after a series of “open rescues” embarrassed agribusiness by exposing routine abuses. AETA was significantly amended shortly before passage by California Senator Diane Feinstein to reduce the risk that it can be applied in response to exposure of conditions, apart from vandalism, but that agribusiness sought such legislation is in itself indicative.

Breaking out of “normal times”

Warned Moyer, “The chief means by which the powerholders maintain unjust policies and keep them hidden from the public is by having a two-track system of official vs. operative doctrines and policies.” A successful movement, Moyer emphasized, “needs to show that social conditions and powerholder policies violate the values, traditions, and self-interests of the public. This includes revealing the difference between official and operative policies and doctrines.” Activists must “keep the issue and moral violations in the public spotlight; keep the powerholders’ policies on society’s political agenda; counter the powerholders’ social myths, justifications, and denials; counter the powerholders’ demonology; and involve increasingly larger portions of the public in programs that challenge the powerholders’ policies and promote alternative visions and programs.”

Moyer described the first phase of a cause as “Normal times,” in which “conditions grossly violate widely held, cherished human values,” but “are maintained by the policies of public and private powerholders, and by a majority of public opinion,” largely by default, since the abuses “are neither in the public spotlight nor on society’s agenda of hotly contested issues.” In normal times, Moyer explained, there may be an institutionalized opposition to the status quo, which tries “to win achievable reforms through mainstream political channels and the courts,” with a hierarchical management structure, professional staff, “and a mass membership that carries out nationally decided programs.” But “These efforts have little success,” in normal times, “because they do not have sufficient public support to provide the political clout required to create change.” Independent from the institutional opposition, principled dissent groups engage in protest, but “are usually small, little noticed, and ineffective.” Even in normal times, Moyer continued, community organizations often “represent the [individual]victims’ perspective and provide direct services to victims,” but this activity tends to keep the participants too busy and depleted to mount a political challenge to the status quo.

Though Moyer wrote with little awareness of humane history, he described quite accurately the structure of the cause as it existed for decades before the rise of the animal rights movement. There were staid, frustrated national organizations used to being on the losing end of political battles; a handful of isolated advocacy groups trying to kindle a more influential cause; and hundreds of local humane societies so overwhelmed with the demands of sheltering three times as many animals as come to shelters now, and so dispirited by having to kill about 90% from lack of adoptive homes, as to be more inclined to hide than to lead.

Such “normal times” are more than a generation behind us now, largely because animal advocates kept revitalizing the cause with what Moyer identified as second phase activity. This consists of documenting grievances, “including the involvement of the powerholders,” Moyer noted, and also documenting the failure of citizens’ attempts “to use the normal channels of public participation” to effect reform.

“Become experts,” Moyer advised, since successful second phase activity requires thoroughly knowing both the issues and the relevant regulatory and political processes.

The third phase of the cause, evolving as expertise is developed and shared, features “a new level of understanding about the seriousness of the problem, the violations of values, how the public is affected, and about the illicit involvement of the powerholders and their institutions,” Moyer outlined. “Growing numbers of discontented people quietly start new autonomous groups, which as a whole form a new wave of grassroots opposition,” independent of the older institutional opposition, who are seen “as working in a dead-end process with the power holders.”

At this stage, Moyer explained, “Though irritated, the powerholders remain relatively unconcerned, believing that they can continue to contain the opposition through management of mainstream communications. The official policies remain believed and unchallenged” by most of the public, “and the operative policies continue to be hidden.”

In the third phase of a cause, Moyer observed, “public opinion opposing current powerholder policies rises to 30%, even though the issue remains off society’s agenda.”

The fourth phase of a cause, according to Moyer, occurs when “Overnight a previously unrecognized social problem becomes an issue that everyone is talking about. It starts with a highly publicized incident,” such as the release of video from inside a factory farm or slaughterhouse, “that dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the general public in a new and vivid way. Shocked, upset, and angry,” the powerholders “take a hard line in defending their policies and criticizing the new movement.” Yet, “public opinion opposing the status quo rapidly grows from 30% to 50%, as for the first time the public sees the operative policies and hears views countering those of the power holders.”

Critical in the fourth phase of the cause is to “create a public platform for the movement to educate the populace,” in a manner that “wins the sympathies of the public,” so that the movement leaders “become recognized as the legitimate opposition. Getting the powerholders to change their minds and policies is not a goal of this stage,” Moyer cautioned, since it is necessary to build political support in opposition to the powerholders to win meaningful concessions.


“Pitfalls of this stage,” said Moyer, are “political naivete; burnout from overwork; not seeing progress as success; unrealistic expectations of immediate victory; and arrogant self-righteousness and radicalism.”

Moyer identified the fifth phase of a cause as an “identity crisis,” when “After a year or two, the high hopes of movement take-off seem inevitably to turn into despair. Activists lose faith that success is just around the corner and come to believe that it is never going to happen. They perceive that the powerholders are too strong, their movement has failed, and their own efforts have been futile.”

Ironically, Moyer observed, this “happens when the movement has just achieved all of the goals of the take-off stage.” Activists perceive that “The movement is dead because it no longer looks like the take-off stage. The image that most people have of successful social movements is that of the take-off stage,” including “giant demonstrations, civil disobedience, media hype, crisis, and constant political theater, but this is always short-lived,” Moyer noted. “Movements that are successful in takeoff soon progress to the much more powerful but more sedate-appearing majority stage.

“Although movements in the majority stage appear to be smaller and less effective, as they move from mass actions to less visible organizing, they undergo enormous growth in size and power,” as manifested by political successes such as the passage of the 2008 California ballot initiative that ordained phasing out battery cages for laying hens, sow gestation stalls, and veal crates.

The sixth phase of a cause tends to bring a leadership transition, from the charismatic confrontational activists who propelled the mobilizing grievance into visibility, to people with the political skills to hold growing organizations and networks together, form new alliances, keep media favor, and negotiate concessions from the powerholders in a manner which leads toward further gains.

As the cause enters the sixth phase, Moyer explained, it “must consciously undergo a transformation from spontaneous protest, operating in short-term crisis mode, to engaging in a long-term popular struggle.” Opposition to the status quo must expand from the activist nucleus to include actions of the apolitical majority of society, the activity of the older organizations which represented the pre-movement opposition to the status quo, and “mainstream political forces as they are convinced to agree with the movement.”

“The majority stage is a long process of eroding the social, political, and economic supports that enable the powerholders to continue their policies,” Moyer emphasized. “It is a slow process of social transformation that creates a new social and political consensus.”

Increasingly desperate, the powerholders typically “increase their counter-movement strategy to gather intelligence, discredit the movement, cause internal disruption, try to control and steer the movement, try to preempt it by claiming to do the movement’s program, and try to co-opt the movement under mainstream political control,” for example by passing legislation purporting to fulfill movement goals, while leaving loopholes that allow business as usual to continue.

Controlling standards

Agribusiness efforts to preempt action on behalf of farm animals began soon after the Royal SPCA of Great Britain introduced the Freedom Food certification program for producers of farmed animal products in 1994. As no such programs existed yet in the U.S., producers in the U.S. soon recognized the possibility of shielding themselves from the questions raised by animal advocates through initiating and controlling superficially similar certification programs.

By 2005, as Farm Sanctuary detailed in a 104-page Farm Animal Welfare Standards Report, and updated in the 72-page 2009 Truth Behind the Labels report, 19 agribusiness-directed certification programs purported to reassure consumers about the care of farmed animals.

The American Humane Association certification program, begun in 2000, the Humane Farm Animal Care program, begun in 2003, and the Animal Welfare Institute program, begun in 2006, have had an uphill battle to gain recognition, complicated by AHA concessions to agribusiness.

The November 2010 official debut of the Global Animal Partnership introduced a further complication: a multi-step program, structurally unlike all the rest, with initial funding from Whole Foods Market empire builder John Mackey and a board consisting of Mackey and another Whole Foods colleague, three other industry representatives, and four prominent animal advocates.

What influence GAP may have on consumer behavior and agribusiness is bitterly debated and will take time to know, but just that it exists indicates deep concern within the food business about public response to ongoing exposure of abuses.

“Splits begin happening within the power structure,” Moyer continued, “as over time pressure from the new social and political consensus causes some of the power-holding elite to switch their position, even openly oppose the policies of the central powerholders, in order to protect their own self-interest.” At this stage, said Moyer, “Public opinion opposing the powerholders’ policies slowly swells to a large majority of up to 85%.”

Yet even then, Moyer cautioned, much of the public may still fear change more strongly than they oppose the status quo.

The seventh phase of the cause is success. This may occur in a manner resembling the fourth phase, when “a trigger event sparks mobilization of broad popular opposition, but this time the overwhelming coercive force in a relatively short time changes policies or leadership,” summarized Moyer.

More often, “Realizing that they can no longer continue their present policies, the powerholders proclaim victory and start changing their policies and conditions to those demanded by the movement and social consensus. The powerholders try to take credit for this, even though they are forced to reverse their policies, while activists often have difficulty seeing their role in this success.”

Success is not the end

Concluded Moyer, “Success is not the end of the struggle, but a basis for creating new beginnings.” In the eighth phase, Moyer said, the cause needs to “celebrate success; follow up to make sure that new promises, laws, and policies are actually carried out; mobilize to achieve additional successes, which are now possible under the new conditions; and resist backlash which might reverse the new gains.”

Failing to transition into eighth phase activism cost animal advocates a signal victory when in 1995 the Canadian government revived the Atlantic Canada offshore seal hunt, after a 10-year suspension. Campaigns against the Atlantic Canada seal hunt had been waged since 1900, kindling into an international cause celebre in 1969. Yet, when the offshore phase of the seal hunt was suspended in 1984, there was almost no follow through. The major international organizations declared victory and abandoned efforts to finish off the land-based seal hunt, which continued without interruption.

Sealers and furriers subsequently won laws and court rulings that enabled the Canadian government to revoke the nonprofit status of animal advocacy groups who campaigned against sealing and the fur trade, then lobbied without influential opposition to revive the seal hunt–and to heavily subsidize it with taxpayers’ money. Revived international activism in 2009–15 years later–brought about a European Union ban on the import of seal products, drastically reducing the number of seals killed in 2010, but the Canadian government is still defending the seal hunt in court and out, still making deals to sell more seal products to Asia, and Canadian animal advocates remain mostly muzzled.

Every issue within the animal cause exists somewhere along the eight-phase continuum that Moyer described, and could be analyzed at length from that perspective.

The no-kill movement in animal sheltering, for example, might be near the eighth phase in many regions, since hardly anyone actually expresses opposition to it, but there is still much need to ensure the continuing success of birth prevention and adoption programs, and to avoid the loss of effective programs due to economic stress. In other parts of the U.S.–and the world–dog and cat welfare remains in “normal times.”

The value of Moyer’s Movement Action Planning approach is that it enables advocates to develop successful approaches for moving ahead by recognizing what to expect next, by recognizing where they are now in the typical evolution of any cause or sub-movement within a cause.

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ANIMAL PEOPLE is an animal rights charitable organization dedicated to the principle that animals’ lives have intrinsic value apart from human interests. We believe there is an urgent need to cultivate human compassion for the other creatures with whom we share the earth. To that end, ANIMAL PEOPLE seeks to further animal advocacy by providing a global forum in which people who care about animals can speak and be heard. Click to see author's profile.

1 Comment

  1. A really interesting article. We included Bill Moyer’s social change framework (in brief, and among others) in our Strategic Advocacy course. See:
    I think it is vital that animal protection advocates understand their role as agents of social change, and learn from studying other successful social change movements. That’s why the first Module of our course covers social change (including social change frameworks and movements). All too often we in the animal protection movement fill our time on short-term ‘fire-fighting’ practical activities, sometimes causing us to lose sight of the longer-term goal of changing society to respect and protect animals (through advocacy and education/awareness). But in the end, it is only this strategic and proactive work which will achieve our goals in a sustainable way.

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