by Christian Ewert & Deborah Kalte
On a busy street during an ordinary day with people walking by, black-dressed activists in Guy Fawkes masks get in position. They claim a part of the public space by standing in a cube formation, some of them hold laptops and tablets that display disturbing and evocative footage of animal farms, others carry signs that bear the word “Truth” in English or other languages. Yet some other activists stand beside this cube and reach out to passersby to discuss animal welfare and veganism. Together, these activists perform, as they call it, a Cube of Truth.
The Cube of Truth is a complex performance of the animal rights organization Anonymous for the Voiceless. What started in 2016 as a local event of Australian activists has soon become a worldwide movement which has, as of today, performed more than 10’000 Cubes of Truth. It is thus a rather new, yet very successful form of communicating and informing the greater public of the “hidden politics behind common consumer goods” as scientists Micheletti and Stolle have called it. Or as the organizers state on their website, “people can learn there is no humane way to exploit, enslave or murder an animal.”
Indeed, the almost militaristic and anonymized cube depicts “the truth” about animal suffering in writing and on explicit and very graphical footage, while the outreach team (in civilian clothes) hands out information, asks questions, and engages in deliberation. With their impressive performance, the activists have, in their own words, “successfully convinced hundreds of thousands of people” so far.
The Cube of Truth is one of the many examples of innovative strategies that citizens have developed to engage politically and express their concerns with current consumption practices. Possibly the most familiar political consumer activities are the boycotts of certain products or companies. Other strategies include the conscious choice of products such as organic or Fairtrade, the decision to adapt one’s lifestyle along certain guidelines, for instance by living vegan, or discursive actions such as campaigns that target fast food chains by anti-branding them (for example “Murder King”), culture jamming (such as the famous Nike Email Exchange), or public protests.
Conscious or political consumerism, as it is often called, has been on the rise for at least 30 years or so. It can be seen as a response to the increasing power of multi-national corporations, and the (perceived) inability of states and international organizations to hold these corporations accountable for their (mis)conduct. And indeed, companies such as Nike, the global diamond trader De Beers, or Shell have felt the consumers’ “wrath” in the past and have consequently changed their practices to some degree. Today, many companies have developed some form of corporate social responsibility scheme to communicate the ethics of their behavior.
As a performance related to political consumerism, the Cube of Truth is unique in two ways. For one, the activists do not address big corporations but instead, target ordinary people. While the first-generation political consumerism aimed at influencing the behavior of multinationals such as Nike, De Beers, or Shell, this second generation is trying to convince consumers to adopt a more conscious and animal-friendly lifestyle.
More importantly, however, the Cube of Truth is unique because of its performers: the vegan community.
In Western countries, only 0.5–3% of the population identifies as vegan, making vegans a tiny minority that is culturally dominated by the mainstream omnivore society. Think about how major supermarkets always sell some form of meat, eggs, or dairy, and how common leather clothing is. Think about how difficult it is to find vegan-friendly menus in some (often less urban) restaurants. And think about the mockery and ridicule that vegans experience, even with family and friends.
It is then perhaps not surprising that vegans create their own communities that stand in stark contrast to omnivores. Using a term coined by the linguist Michael Halliday, vegans form their own “anti-society.”
An anti-society is a small minority which is embedded in a (much) larger and dominating host society (the mainstream). The anti-society has its own values and norms, cultural practices, and even patterns of communication that are distinct from the host society.
And given its dominated status, many anti-society practices and patterns of communication center around the question of identity: Who are we, compared to them? What is important to us, and not to them? What do we do differently, compared to them? Maintaining its distinctiveness is necessary for an anti-society’s survival.
Understanding the vegan community as an anti-society sheds a new light on the Cube of Truth. Yes, vegans perform the Cube of Truth to convince non-vegans into adopting a more animal-friendly lifestyle.
But vegans also perform the Cube of Truth for themselves. Together, they plan and prepare each performance. Together, they wear the same clothes and masks and stand in strong formation for their cause, firmly representing their values. And together, they not only have access to “the truth” (about animal products and welfare), but also show it to the world.
As a highly ritualized performance, the Cube of Truth impresses passersby. Simultaneously, it impresses its performers as well, because it connects each individual performer to the larger, global community. A community that shares similar values, norms, practices, and communicative patterns.
To outsiders (i.e., non-vegans), the Cube of Truth holds meaning because of the graphic footage of animal suffering, the helpful discussions with the outreach team, or the black clothes and masks. To insiders (i.e., the performers), it holds meaning because it is a joint undertaking that welcomes contributions, and thus creates a strong sense of shared identity and belonging.
With tens of thousands of performances, the Cube of Truth is a highly successful manifestation of political consumerism. Maybe it so successful because it speaks to non-vegans and vegans alike.