Yes, I'm going to talk about cupcakes, cookies, and donuts -- but in the context of a discussion of incrementalism, and access to decision-makers, and the problems that arise when we get to know people we're trying to influence (or investigate, in the case of journalists).
A couple of months ago, Shirley Thistlewaite of shelter reform watchdog blog Yes Biscuit posted about the immorality of using gifts of baked goods to make nice with the staff at a gassing "shelter."
I don't know anything about the specific situation beyond what I read in Shirley's post, but based on that information, I agree with her completely that this is terrible, pointless advice. Suggesting someone bring donuts or cookies to a gassing facility would be like telling abolitionists to bring a nice coffee cake to slave traders to try to convince them to explore a different line of work.
But as someone who works with no-kill supporters all the time on how to be more effective in their advocacy, that shouldn't mean we never consider deploying the power of sugar and flour to advance our cause.
I frequently suggest that no-kill advocates take care to appear credible and legitimate to elected officials, government employees, and the media. When appropriate, we need to be able to dress, speak, write, and behave like everyone else who comes before the town council or tries to get an appointment with an agency director or elected official.
Bringing gifts of food to the people who serve as gatekeepers for those individuals is a proven tactic for getting access to them. Everyone does it, from drug company sales reps who bring cupcakes to the secretary of the hospital procurement officer, to the guy who wants the planning commission to approve his condo development and says it with peanut brittle.
Because "everyone does it," it conveys a message that has nothing to do with giving someone a cookie because you approve of what they're doing. It serves as a subtle signal, one they're probably unaware of receiving, that you're legitimate. It puts you in their comfort zone.There are many ways to do that, and the no-kill movement needs to use them all. Like any other advocate for a cause, we need to figure out the best approach to a given situation, try it, and, if it fails us, try something else. We need to do that as many times as it takes for us to get it right.
We need to look at those who have succeeded in advocating to our target, and adopt their methods.
We also need to do multiple things at the same time -- in other words, taking a good-cop, bad-cop approach, so the nice, friendly advocate with the donuts seems like a much better person to talk to than the 500 certified crazy cat ladies protesting with signs outside the pound.
We need to get our calls answered by the city council, and our stories covered by local media. And to make that happen, we need to be able to lobby professionally when needed, and protest effectively when needed, and do both at the same when needed. Which means we need watchdogs like Shirley to make pound directors cry, and we also need lawyers like FixAustin's Ryan Clinton to put on a suit and talk to the press.
I could wrap this up now with a nice little bow, a pretty package of good advice on how to be a better advocate using both picket signs and donuts, but I'm not going to. Because Shirley's objection to lobbying with baked goods shines a big, bright spotlight on a huge problem all movements for social change, including ours, share, and I want to talk about that even more than I want to talk about deep-fried sugar and flour.
Look back up at the headline on this post: "Incrementalism, access, and the politics of cupcakes."
In public policy terms, "incrementalism" is when we sacrifice big, systemic reforms in favor of smaller, non-systemic reforms or changes. Sometimes we're forced to accept less than we want because we lose a popular vote or are out-politicked. Other times, advocates and activists deliberately choose to seek incremental change, because it's easier and often occurs under the radar, thus not triggering opposition.
Incrementalism is used by both the left and the right in America politics. It's why the religious right focuses on regulating parental consent, tax dollar funding, and third-trimester abortion instead of overturning Roe v. Wade, and it's also why the LGBT movement fought for civil unions instead of marriage equality for so long.
Incrementalism can work, but when it's utilized non-strategically, it carries a poison payload. (I suppose you can tell I'm not a fan.) For instance, take the case of the big mainstream LGBT organizations lobbying for "separate but equal" civil unions. A movement for civil rights should never advocate for inequality; it may be politically expedient, but it's immoral and profoundly confusing. It also damages your credibility in the larger political and social community in which you operate.However, the real danger is not incremental change itself, which is probably inevitable and can work, but the replacement of a systemic goal with scurrying around putting a bunch of band-aids on a broken system. It's when we drop a concrete, measurable goal like "providing children with a hot lunch at school every day of the year," and replace it with an intangible one, like "fighting poverty" or "empowering the poor."
Don't get me wrong; change usually does happen in increments. If you look at Austin's journey to becoming no-kill, it was done in segments over several years. Ryan Clinton of FixAustin.org spearheaded a political and PR campaign that involved changing the entire make-up of local government, while Austin Pets Alive's Dr. Ellen Jefferson coordinated a step-by-step, data-driven program to save different segments of the population of pets being killed in the city pound.
But at no time were nebulous concepts like "reducing euthanasia" or "making Austin more humane" the goal of the movement. Each incremental change was a well-defined, planned part of a strategy working toward the very specific, system goal of ending the killing of healthy and treatable pets in the city. In other words, as long as you don't confuse the means with the end, you should be okay.
The other word I used was "access," and this is one I, as a journalist, have had a lot of first-hand experience with.
It's a simple fact of human nature that we find it harder to expose, or oppose, people we have come to know as fellow human beings.
Don't get me wrong; people turn on their friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances all the time. I am not saying it's impossible. It's just that knowing the names of someone's grandkids does usually make it harder to take them down publicly.
That's why access to the powerful is such a dangerous thing for journalists and activists: We have to fight a very normal human desire to put ourselves in their shoes and see their side of things on an emotional level.
This of course makes for a more civil society, and is probably some kind of evolutionary advantage. But it doesn't make for good investigative journalism, and it can derail a reform movement overnight.
The large animal welfare organizations are all dedicated incrementalists, and they have become emotionally embedded with the people who maintain the status quo. They have been trying to "improve" sheltering for decades now, and in the process have become the biggest enablers of a failed model of animal control, one that cannot help but be dependent on killing the very animals they claim to be trying to help.
The no-kill movement, on the other hand, is not an insider movement, and it's not a movement seeking incremental change. It's like Roosevelt's New Deal or Reagan's "New Morning," a movement for big, fundamental, systemic change. And one of the most effective ways to break that type of movement is to subvert it. To get you inside the system you're trying to change, to make you feel sympathy for the people in that system, and to distract you with little victories that don't add up to the kind of change you were originally working for.
To go back to our original example, that is is why it's both wrong and a mistake to bring cookies to someone who makes a living stuffing living animals into a gas chamber and killing them. You don't want to know that person's grandkids' names; you want to take them down. You can do that more effectively as their enemy than as their friend.
On the other hand, you may very well want to bring donuts to that person's boss at City Hall. That's because you want them to think you're a smart political advocate with a power base, so when you present your 10-point plan for reforming animal control (point 1 of which is firing the pound director's ass), they'll take you seriously.
And that is why donuts can be a good thing, just like wearing a suit and tie, getting your printed materials bound, and creating an organization with a website and mission statement: They buy you credibility and lower the defenses of the people you need to influence.
But you can't forget, as I promise you the guy pitching his condo project to the planning commission never forgets, that your mayor or the head of the department of environmental services is not your friend, nor is she part of your constituency.
And that's why, even though I don't like seeing the political power of pastry being denigrated, I also recognize it has its problems.
Baked goods, suits and ties, and professional websites are simply tools to gain access to decision-makers, and get them to listen to you. The relationship with that person also is a tool, a tool to achieve your goal. That's why you can't let yourself by compromised by that access, whether through sympathy or something darker that's also part of human nature: a love of power.
In other words, it's fine to bring cupcakes. Just don't drink the kool-aid.