Banning bullfighting: does the motivation matter?

Catalonia, a so called “automous region” in Spain, banned bullfighting in 2010. “Torture is no culture” was the argument offered by animal rights organizations. Catalonians didn’t want bullfighting on their grounds. Now, the Spanish national government has overturned Catalonia’s decision, saying it is the responsibility of the regions to conserve national heritage.

I felt outrage when I read this. Bullfighting is one of those things where you wonder how it can still be going on, how it can not be, at this point, utterly, terribly illegal. Fortunately, the overturning of the ban doesn’t necessarily mean bullfights will be reintroduced in Catalonia.

Catalonians against bullfighting: what are their real reasons, and does it matter?

If you wonder how the Catalonian ban against bullfighting came to exist in the first place, you might think that it was this very same outrage, in collective form, that led to it. Undoubtedly, moral outrage did play a part, but it was not the only thing that drove Catalonia to impose the ban.

First of all, an important factor was that in Catalonia, the bullfighting arenas were already quite empty, and it was mainly an older population that still seemed to enjoy them. The fact that people stayed away may have been for moral reasons, but it could also have been that they had other, more interesting things to do. You can imagine that in such a context, it’s a lot easier to abolish something (kind of like how some countries have prohibited circuses with wild animals, but where there never were such circuses in the first place).

Secondly, the motivation to ban bullfighting was in part political. Many Catalonian nationalists were all too happy to see something that they considered as typically and traditionally Spanish disappear forever. Banning bullfighting was a statement of independence, a symbol of a breach with the Spanish culture and customs. These sentiments helped many Catalonians to vote in favor of the ban.

I wrote on many occasions that in our movement, we often attach too much importance to – and put too much faith in – moral drivers for change. We would love all change for the animals to be inspired by the right reasons, but caring or outrage are often not enough in and of themselves. In this case too, there were different drivers.

It’s of course hard to know to what extent political, economic and moral reasons were each responsible for the ban. Even today, looking at the reactions of prominent Catalonians who are pushing back against the Spanish court decision, it is hard to make out whether the statements given by Catalonian officials are actually motivated by concern for animals, or whether concern for animals is used to further a political agenda. “Barcelona has been an anti-bullfighting city since 2004. Whatever the court says, the Catalan capital will not allow animals to be mistreated,” tweeted Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. And, according to The Guardian, Josep Rull, the Catalan minister for public works, said: “The constitutional court can decide what they want, but we have already decided that there will be no bullfights in Catalonia. (…) We want a country where it is not possible to make a public spectacle of death and suffering to an animal. This is what we decided at the time in Catalonia and is unalterable for us.”

The question I want to ask, however, is: does it matter what the motivation was or is?

It may matter less than we think. I imagine that proud Catalonians who don’t care all that much about animals but who suddenly pick up animal rights slogans because they feel it’s a good argument to further the separation from the Spanish may start believing in these very arguments, just by using them. It’s what we call “fake it until you make it”, in psychology. Feelings and attitudes can follow actions, even if they were not initially there.

As a movement, we need to be pragmatic. We need to find as many possible arguments and drivers that can help animals. When people further the cause of animals to further their own agenda, I think we should support that – as long as that agenda is, of course, not immoral.

Of course, now that the ban is being challenged, we will see whether the motivations behind it are strong enough for the Catalonians to take a stand against the Spanish. Maybe the story of the Catalonian bullfights will turn out to be a story that actually confirms the necessity of ethical, moral outrage for permanent change. I think, however, that it’s rather the opposite: in this case, the ban may hold exactly thanks to the added support of the fiery and feisty Catalonian desire for independence.


Should we tell people that going vegan is easy?

Many vegans love to tell other people that going vegan is sooo easy. Indeed, it has become a lot easier, but I would argue that to most people going vegan is still not easy. One good indication of this is research that tells us that not even staying vegan is easy for most vegans: 75% of them fall off the wagon at some point.

Maybe going vegan was easy for you and me (actually, it wasn’t for me), but that shouldn’t lead us to uncritically extrapolate and assume that it’s easy for everyone. I always emphasize that maybe the most important skill for any activist is the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes (or to walk in their shoes). If you want to influence somebody into thinking or behaving differently, you need to know, first of all, what their experience of the world is.

That is important because others’ experience can be so completely different from yours, that what worked for you will not work for them.

It is tempting to think that reality is reality, and that we all experience it more or less the same way. But of course that’s not the case. Here’s an interesting example. Last week, pollsters asked voters whether Trump’s campaign had stabilized after the offensive videorecording came out. Look at how perception among Republicans and Democrats differed:


Reality of course remains the same in both groups’ cases: Trump’s campaign is in big trouble and he’s dealing with a lot of criticism coming from all kinds of corners of society. But looking at these graphs, you would almost think that Republicans and Democrats are each seeing a different version of Trump and his campaign. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they each have their own experience and their respective perception shapes their “reality”. Everyone is influenced by their biases, fears, wishes, etc.

We may think that we are the only ones seeing reality the way it is: unfiltered, unchanged. For instance, we may believe that no matter what others say, it is easy to be vegan today (especially when seen in the light of what is at stake, and what the animals go through, right?).

“Easy” however, is a relative concept. What is easy for you may not be easy for me and the other way round. We need to take into account the biases I mentioned, but also things like: the place where people live; whether they have certain health problems or allergies (imagine someone with a soy and gluten allergy); their general openness to new things, etcetera.

If people tell us that they find it hard to go vegan, and we just say it’s not (just like in the picture below), we’re not winning. Giving people tips and assistance on how to make going vegan easier for them is something altogether different than telling them it’s easy, period (and maybe implying that if they dare say it’s not easy, it means that they are selfish and put their own comfort above the misery of other creatures).



People will not feel listened to and appreciated when you ignore how they experience reality. A better way to deal with this is to recognize the difficulty they are having, empathize with it, and say that others (maybe including yourself) have experienced the same thing. The feel – felt – found technique offers a way to do this:

  1. I understand how you feel (recognize the problem)
  2. Others have felt the same (show they are not the only one)
  3. They found that after a while they… (show that change is possible, maybe explain the solutions they found)

When you explain that you (or if not you, then other people) had similar difficulties, you also don’t give the person the idea that you are some kind of superbeing (since you find easy something that they find very hard), and they will be able to identify much more with you.

Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulties in going vegan either. By all means, we can say that it’s perfectly possible and feasible, and getting easier every day. But looking at the world through other people’s eyes, recognizing their challenges, and helping them surmount them will serve us better than just declaring that going vegan is easy.


Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.
The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.
How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

Beyond meat logo

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.




Why changing (our) minds is so hard

Our ability to change our mind is a beautiful thing. Of course, sometimes minds are too easily changed: people can be under the sway of dictators, gurus, marketeers and just buy whatever those people are selling, without any critical thinking. But for many other people, changing their mind is a lot harder, especially when we’re talking about deeply held and cherished beliefs. These can be moral in nature (questions about whether GMOs, eating meat, spending a lot of money on going to other planets… is ok or not…), or factual (whether eating meat is healthy or not, whether there’s alien life on other planets, etc).

I love it when people, after having given an issue or question their consideration, suddenly say that they have changed their mind about it and now hold a completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinion on it. In this post I wanted to give you my thoughts on why this is actually rare. I will touch on three issues involved in changing minds (ours or other people’s):

1. changing our mind about something is hard
2. we don’t like other people to change our mind
3. we don’t like to admit we changed our mind, and we definitely don’t like to admit that it was other people who changed our mind


Changing our mind about something is hard

Why is that? Basically, we like to see confirmed the opinions and ideas that we already have. We want to justify what we are already thinking, and we don’t like any information that contradicts what we believe. Therefore we will be much more open to even notice information that confirms our ideas and opinions (this is called confirmation bias). Put simply, if you believe A rather than B, you’ll be more likely to seek out and find and believe stuff that confirms A. It goes without saying that this confirmation bias makes it a lot more difficult to change your mind. Just do the experiment: how likely are you (as a vegetarian or vegan) to read (and seriously consider) an article called “Three arguments against veganism”. Maybe you say you won’t read it because you know what it’s in there and because in the case of veganism there are no good arguments against it. But that would exactly prove your confirmation bias, I’m afraid.

Changing one’s mind about whether it’s right or wrong to eat animal products, is especially challenging, because this is an issue with concrete, real world consequences (not everything is: we may never be confronted with an issue like abortion, for instance). Suppose we’re omnivores, who suddenly come to the conclusion that eating animals is wrong (i.e. we just changed our minds). We are then suddenly experiencing that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs. The friction that we feel as a result of this is called cognitive dissonance, and the theory of cognitive dissonance says that we will try to resolve this “dissonance” (it’s not a nice experience). There are two ways to do this: 1. we follow up on our new belief and reconcile our behavior with it (we become vegan). Or 2. we don’t want to go vegan (we like meat), so we adapt our belief so that it matches with our behavior. We say things like: eating animal products is not that bad, animals are raised for this, the meat I eat comes from animals that didn’t suffer, etc. People who want to avoid going vegan would do best to ignore all the pro-vegan information altogether. This way they can avoid to change their mind and their behavior. So, another answer to the question why changing our mind is so hard is: we often have an active interest (a stake, or a steak!) in not doing so.

Let me offer one suggested solution to this quandary: we must make it easier for people to change their minds by making sure the negative consequences of changing one’s mind are as small as possible (see my talk Making Compassion Easier). In other words, we’ll need to provide people with great alternatives to animal products, which are available everywhere, at competitive prices.

We don’t like other people to change our mind

All of us like to think of ourselves as adult, mature individuals, who can make up our own mind about things. We do not like anyone to tell us how to think, and value our – real or perceived – autonomy. I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and pointing to a book that I thought he should read. He picked it up and when he read on the cover “this book can change your life”, he snorted, said “I”ll change my own life, thank you very much”, and put the book down.

Already 350 years ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. You may have experienced that when you tried to influence or convince someone of something that you believe in, they just dig in their heels even deeper, and the distance between you and them only becomes bigger.

Our task, then, would be to help people discover the arguments to change their minds by themselves, rather than us offering them those arguments (and telling them their opinion or arguments are incorrect). One way to do this is by mainly asking them questions, as is done with the so-called Socratic method. Socrates, in his dialogues with others (as written out by Plato), didn’t offer his discussion partners his own opinion, but teased out their own arguments, doubts, assumptions etc. by asking them questions. When someone defends eating meat on the basis that it’s what predators do in the wild too, rather than telling them that these predators don’t have the moral apparatus or the alternative in terms of veggie burgers to help them behave differently, we could ask something like: can you see any difference between humans and lions in this respect?

We don’t like to admit that we changed our mind

I started this post by saying how I admire when people change their minds. I admire it also when they can publicly acknowledge this. However, the latter is very hard to do for most people. We believe that that showing that we changed our mind is the same as admitting that we made a mistake, and that this makes us look weak, stupid, or whatever. This is a matter of self-preservation and saving face.

How often do you hear a public figure, like a politician, say that they changed their mind? They have good reason to avoid saying that, because their audience tends to think of politicians who change their mind as wishy-washy people with wishy-washy, unstable opinions (if this person changed his mind about this today, will he not change his mind again tomorrow, about the same thing or another thing?). We expect people like politicians to be well-informed from the start and to never change course once they have chosen one (though of course we will be happy if they change their minds in a direction that we applaud). The result is that people will rather hold on to an opinion, long after they’ve been convinced it’s not a correct one. This goes for politicians as well as in our own relationship disputes.

Suggested solution: given that it’s hard for people to admit that they changed their mind, we can try to avoid them having to admit it. What I mean is that, if we would love a person to change their mind from x to y, it is good not to have them defend x too much. As soon as we start a discussion with them about x or y, and they defend x, the more difficult it will be for them later to choose y. And if we present ourselves all the more as champions of y, it becomes even more difficult for them to change, as y will be associated with someone else. It will be the opinion of someone else that they copied (the second issue I discussed above). What’s happening is known as polarization: two parties having opposing viewpoints, just getting even more opposed, digging their heels in. The more one party defends their position, the more difficult it will be for them to change their mind. I think this dynamic will be the most explicit where two people have already some kind of competition going on: siblings, roommates, partners… who debate a lot.

Basically the other should have the idea that once they change their mind, we won’t be there to tease them with things like “see! see you were wrong before?!” or “ha, finally you listened to me (and allowed me to influence you)!”. Try to help make sure that the other person will not lose face. Try to make sure they don’t have to admit defeat because there was no battle to begin with. This means trying to not present an issue as a conflict of arguments, as two different positions being opposed to each other. Show how it’s not a black and white matter, how the other party already shares some of your opinions and how you already share some of theirs. This way once a party changes their mind, it will not seem as if they switched camp (and should therefore be afraid of losing face) but just integrated some of your arguments and are now seeing things differently.

Another thing that can help people avoid losing face when changing their mind, is when there is another factor (which is not you) that they can attribute their change to. People might be wary of changing as long as they fear having to acknowledge your influence on them, but they might more easily do so if they can attribute it to for instance, a change in their health situation (the doctor told them something), or because there’s now an organic store nearby, or they discovered they are allergic to dairy… All of these and many more factors can offer good reasons or excuses (it doesn’t matter) to change their mind. If you discover that there might be such a reason, by all means, let them use it, and don’t insist that it was *you* who was the determining factor in changing their mind.

Needless to say, the ability and readiness to change one’s mind will vary a lot among individuals. Some people may be extremely stubborn. Or people may be able to easily change their mind in some domains, but not in others. Some people will be good at changing their mind across the board. These people are 1. very rational or 2. very mature, or both. The rational people just go for anything that seems correct to them. They are to a large extent aware of their possible biases, and they know that it’s not because *you* gave them some arguments that they are not true and that he or she shouldn’t carefully evaluate them. Maturity helps them to acknowledge your influence without feeling in any way humiliated or inferior. Mature people are not afraid of looking weak.

In general, it is safe to assume that on big issues like eating meat, changing minds is not easy. Still, it is possible. I think our role is ideally the one of a kind of coach that helps tease out arguments and ideas that others already believe, rather then telling them how to think.

Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.



Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

[This article is based on the presentation I gave on Facebook communication at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the presentation here.]

Communication is difficult. We learned to speak a couple of languages, we maybe learned some public speaking. But most of us never learned to really emphatically and effectively communicate with others.

Online communication is even more difficult. There are screens between you and me. When we communicate on social media, we only have our words and our smileys to convey our actual feelings and attitudes – and not the body language that we can use in real life. So yes, it’s hard.

A discussion on Facebook can be a friendly exchange of thoughts. It can also be a little bit more aggressive, but still a “sportive” boxing match. Or it can be a downright mean and nasty shouting match. That is the dark side. It is very easy to get to the dark side on Facebook, and very damaging. When a discussion turns nasty, nobody wins: not us, not the other people participating in or reading the discussion, and not the animals.

When we see a conversation turn nasty – or when we think a conversation might turn nasty (given the subject or our own sensitivity about the subject), we have three options:

facebook light flight fight

Choosing Fight means going into the discussion head on, not caring much about civility or friendliness. It means letting your feelings (anger, aggression, irritation) speak the way you feel them. It usually doesn’t result in anything good.

Choosing Flight is ignoring the comment or the entire discussion. You just leave, maybe because you think it’s useless, or because you want to avoid nastiness.

Choosing Light means retaining your self-control, and – in spite of potential nastiness from the other side – remaining friendly, empathic, and rational. It’s often very hard to do.

My suggestions are:

  1. stay in the light as much as you can (unless it’s a time-waster)
  2. if you can’t, choose flight
  3. but don’t fight

Here are ten things you can do (you don’t have any control over what others do) to help keep the conversation on the light side, and not trigger others:

  1. be aware that how you say it trumps what you say
  2. be nice
  3. have a sense of humor, no matter how serious the topic is
  4. listen
  5. be open-minded
  6. use phrases like “in my opinion,” “I believe,” “I think,” rather than sounding like you’re stating everything as facts
  7. think about the other people as human beings with actual needs
  8. take your time to reply. Facebook allows for this.
  9. avoid judging, shaming and guilt tripping
  10. avoid sarcasm. it’s fun, but it doesn’t help

When a conversation turns sour, that may be (partly) because of you, but there are also situations where even when we try to stay in the light with all our might, other people will continue to behave downright nasty (yes, it does happen). In that case, don’t forget your options to unfriend, unsubscribe, unfollow, and if all else fails, just block the person so they stop existing for you.

Here is the full presentation





Vegans: you can’t do this alone

We need to work in unison with other forces that can bring us closer to a vegan world.

[This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the full presentation here.]

It used to be that the main force driving the world towards a (more) vegan world was us: the animal rights/vegan movement. We’ve been around for a couple of decades, we’ve been committed, caring and compassionate, and we’re still here, fighting this good fight.

But today there are allies. At least, they are allies if we let them be allies. If we form alliances with them. And we should.

Now when I say we need to form alliances with other sectors, movements, forces, domains… many people will say “Yes! Yes!”, thinking about alliances with movements that try to lift the oppression of other groups: black, women or gay liberation movements for instance.

I support these alliances, of course, but I’m talking about maybe less obvious kind of partnerships. Here I’m focusing on alliances with 1. the health/environmental movement and 2. the business sector. 

I feel I have to point out the value of getting in bed, so to speak, with at least part of the health/environmental and corporate world, because I see a lot of black and white thinking about them, as if these forces could never ever be our partners. As if we could do it without them. I don’t think we can. Or at least, not as fast.

While the vegan movement helps to spread the idea (the fact) that eating animals is ethically problematic, the health/environmental movement contributes to the idea that that animal products are unsustainable (for both health and our planet). The business sector, in turn, helps make the production of animal products redundant. Here’s the picture:

We need to work in unison with other forces that can bring us closer to a vegan world.

Of course there are big differences, different interests, different demands (the ask) and different arguments (reasons for avoiding animal products). A simple overview:

Even though they use different arguments and have different demands, other forces may lead us in the same direction.

Regarding the health/environmental movement, they are an ally even if they (at best) go for a “less animal products” message rather than our own “no animal products”, and even if the animal argument is entirely left out of the picture. I have explained before (in this presentation, for instance) why a reducetarian message, for whatever reason, is a necessary strategy to lead us to a vegan world. Briefly: the more reducers, the bigger the demand, the bigger the offer. The bigger the offer, the easier it becomes for everyone to be entirely vegan.

Regarding the domain of business, here we’re talking about an incredible financial injection into our cause. In the last few years, a handful of companies that produce or want to produce alternatives for animal products, have raised (on a quick count) about 350 million dollars. I don’t know the total yearly budget of our movement, but it might be less than that. These companies make or will make products that will facilitate people’s shifting away from meat, dairy and eggs.

Yes, it’s capitalism. But it might very well be the best capitalism has to offer, and we shouldn’t say no to it (just like we shouldn’t say no to more money). You can be anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, anti-corporate all you want, but I would suggest you direct your protests at the producers of entirely useless things, and not at the companies that are our allies.

In order to form the best alliances with these different sectors, we need to be open to the fact that they will not spread the exact message that we want. We need to be open minded and non-dogmatic. And we need to be credible for them to want to partner up with us.

The world can be a much better place for animals. But not – or not so fast – if we go at it alone. We need to form strategic partnerships and alliances with all the domains, institutions, businesses etc. that can help us move forward.

This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. Here is the presentation.


Learning, discussing, and recharging at the International Animal Rights Conference

I just got back from Luxembourg (it’s a three hour car trip for me) where I participated in and spoke at the International Animal Rights conference (IARC). I’ll write about what I talked about in other posts, but here I just wanted to give you an idea of what the conference was like.

In general, it’s always wonderful – even for just a few days – to be immersed in a bubble of likeminded people, enjoy vegan food, learn a lot of new things during the talks, or discuss strategies and tactics with other activists. I would recommend that every activist go and recharge their batteries at such a conference every once in a while.

I was impressed with so many of the participants I met. Seeing people, often still in school, spending a weekend to learn about new ways to save animals never fails to move me. I’m touched by their caring and their commitment. I’m touched by the idea that they are everywhere, in every part of the world. I’m touched by how they get inspired, and are inspiring others to change things.

All the people I talked to were both rational and compassionate. They clearly focused on getting the best results for animals, and weren’t afraid to discuss difficult topics. Year after year, it seems to me that this movement, and the people in it, are becoming more thoughtful, more strategic, more impactful.

A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016
A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016

Even though more and more speakers at this conference focus on effectiveness, pragmatism and results, one thing the IARC always delivers is a variety of viewpoints. Other speakers represented views and domains as varied as civil disobedience, ecofeminism, intersectionality, meta-strategies, spirituality, and others. Speakers came from all over, and reported on campaigns in their countries.  There were talks about psychology, reaching children, sanctuaries, clean meat, economy, and more. This variety of viewpoints is a good way to help guard us from losing track of potentially important approaches or neglected issues.

The most challenging and – to many – new topic, I think, was the one of wild animal suffering, which was addressed in the talks of Stijn Bruers and Stefan Torges (I wrote this post about it before). The topic was heavily discussed during the breaks, and its most vocal proponent was probably long time Austrian activist Martin Balluch, who is of the opinion that freedom and autonomy are more important values than the absence of suffering. It led to interesting debates between him and proponents of interference in nature. It was inspiring  to see how – even if probably few minds were changed – these debates were civil and friendly, as this whole conference was.

The practical organization was great. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who made this possible: organizers, volunteers (preparing food, doing dishes, introducing speakers and so on), speakers, participants, sponsors, and canine friends present.

Now it’s back to the real world, until we meet again next year!





Setting an example for others: how ambitious should we be?

Recently, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris did an interview on his Waking Up podcast (my favorite online thing to follow) with William MacAskill, the founder and face of the Effective Altruism movement. The whole two hour dialogue is worth listening to, but at one point, Harris asks MacAskill how much of our income we should give to charity. MacAskill gives his answer, after which Harris asks (without judgment, he says) why he shouldn’t give away even more.

MacAskill’s answer is interesting: what is important, he says, is not just the impact of what  you do yourself, but also to what extent your behavior inspires others to do the same. If you convince one other person to give away ten percent of their income, you have doubled your impact. So, we should consider, in this case, setting an example that is doable for others to imitate. If you manage to give away 95% of your income, but if that leaves others uninspired because it is way too ambitious to ever serve as an example for them, that may not be the best outcome you can have.

attainable example

Of course, this got me thinking about vegan advocacy. One might say that, given the fact that the number of vegans has not really been growing spectacularly (we’re still at one percent), the example vegans set for others could be too ambitious. It is a fact that even staying vegan is hard, given that 75% of vegetarians and vegans fall off the wagon at some point (and no, that’s not just the health vegans).

Of course, this goes against vegan orthodoxy, and some people won’t like to hear this. They will claim that we should only show to others the behaviors we would like them to adopt themselves.  According to this view, we can only, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. It’s the default way of looking at things, and I’m sure there’s a lot of validity to it.

But the thing is, of course, that moving towards veganism from a vegetarian position is a lot easier than going from omnivore to vegan. The fear that people will stop at taking the steps we ask them to take, and then do nothing after that is, I think, ungrounded. A much bigger concern is that people won’t take any step because the whole thing seems too daunting.

However, even if I knew that being a vegetarian was more effective in terms of being an example for others, I don’t think I could bring myself to go back to being more flexible and eat eggs and dairy products on a regular basis. But it does mean that I’m not going to overemphasize to others the small bits (the honey, the little bit of whey in this or that), and that I will do my best to set an attainable example.

Of course – and this wasn’t discussed in the above mentioned podcast – one could do one thing and show people another thing. If you feel that certain behaviors are too hard to be inspiring, maybe it’s good to come across as less strict than you really are. Maybe some vegan or near vegan celebrities have this idea in mind when in the media they say they make an exception now and then. This is something that they would be criticized for by many vegans, but which might actually be a good thing. Who knows?

In any case, the idea of setting an attainable example means that I’m not gonna fret that some people are not vegan but vegetarian, or close to vegetarian. I’m certainly not going to tell vegetarians that they aren’t making any difference (as some others may do). I think there’s a distinct possibility that in certain (or even many) cases, they may –  at this moment in time – actually have more impact on others than the average vegan.

Blasphemy, I know.





angryism (1)
Vegans, let’s talk about our anger. 

Most of us vegans are pretty angry and upset at what’s happening to animals, and we have good reasons to be. We have reason to be angry at the indifference that most people display towards the billions of creatures that suffer at human hands. We especially have reason to be angry because we believe that most people by now should know better.

You might say about anger that it’s a positive, constructive, mobilizing emotion, an emotion that can get people to take to the streets, organize protests and dissent, and consequently, Change.

I’m agnostic about whether feeling angry is a good or a bad thing, or an essential part of a social movement, though my sense is that it’s definitely bad for a person to feel angry all the time. But what I want to talk most about here is expressing or showing this anger. Because, even if anger can help us get going and get organized, I believe acting in an angry way towards people, showing our anger, is probably not a good thing in most cases.

So when I feel anger myself (and I do sometimes), I try to transform it into something productive. And I try not to come across as angry. I try to not blame and criticize and guilt-trip people. I basically try – I don’t always succeed – to be nice to everyone, even if I think they are participating in or doing things that are, at bottom, pretty horrible. What helps me is realizing that, even though I may boycott animal products myself, I am not without sin. And therefore I feel wary of casting stones and being angry at others’ behavior.

Yet around me, I do see so much anger being expressed, in the vegan and in other social justice movements. It is very visible anger, and I think it is anger that alienates, anger that closes hearts rather than opening them.

And I see vegans not just being angry at non-vegans, but also at fellow vegans and animal advocates. Maybe those vegans are angry because they believe other vegans are not angry enough. In the eyes of the angry vegans, the nice vegans are pussy-footing their way around the sensitivities of those who eat animal products. The angry vegans would rather, from a place of passion and emotion, serve meat-eaters the truth, straight up. And they get impatient with advocates who don’t, and who suggest that we are a bit more considerate with omnivores, not just out of compassion, but also because of effectiveness.

I also see many vegans being angry with fellow advocates because they’re not heeding all the issues that they themselves find so important. Some angry vegans will not stop being outraged at how other advocates’ communication is, in their eyes, sexist, racist, classist, ableist, consumerist, or even speciesist. The angry vegans think that the others don’t get the interconnectedness, don’t get how all things are related, and are sacrificing one social justice cause for another. Maybe the angry vegans think their fellow vegans are not abolitionist, not intersectionalist, not anti-system enough. And maybe they’re right; most if not all of us still have blind spots (oops, an ableist term) for some or many of the issues that are important.

But here’s the thing, if we want to, we will always be able to find reasons to be angry. We can become addicted to outrage. I suggest that in the case of people who seem to be constantly finding reasons to be angry, their anger has more to do with themselves than with the righteousness of the cause they are fighting for. It’s probably not a very good idea to use advocacy as an outlet for your anger. Then, veganism, or feminism, or any other social justice movement just becomes… angry-ism.

angryism (1)

For myself, I know that anger doesn’t give me peace of mind. I’m not really enjoying myself or my day when I’m angry. I also don’t feel I’m getting better results when I’m angry. And I know that when I see an angry person or meet them online, I will do my best to avoid them, make a detour not to bump into them (or even block them online). I don’t find them entertaining, I don’t find them credible, and I don’t listen to them more than I listen to a person who manages to be nice and calm (and who could be equally passionate about their cause).

By speaking out against expressing anger all the time, I am by no means advocating that we just be silent, sitting in our room, careful not to step on anyone’s toes. I suggest we be out there, making a difference in the things that matter to us and to others. But we can do that, I think, with less anger, and more understanding. We can choose to trust people. Trust that they will see what is the most compassionate thing to do, some day – maybe not right away. We can see others as potential allies rather than opponents, or even traitors.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all in the business of selling something – our message of compassion – and I don’t think a car salesperson ever sold a car being angry at their customers.

Maybe there will come a time when massively showing our anger will be a productive thing to do. That will be when there are enough of us to make a difference that way. That time is, I think, not yet here. Right now is the time to turn our anger into a productive way of interacting with others, so that, rather than making them turn away even more,  we can open their hearts and minds.