Slow opinion

You know all this talk about doing slowing down? I’m not really that much of a fan. At least not for changemakers, people who want to make the world a better place. They’re the people who need to be fast and productive. When we’re talking about commercial occupations, I’m all in favor of taking it slower. “Speed is irrelevant,” Gandhi said, “if you’re going in the wrong direction.” Good causes, non profit organisations, changemakers, however, are usually going in the right direction. So godspeed to them, and not too much of that slowing down stuff.

However, there’s one area where I usually believe that being fast is almost always wrong: forming opinions. Webforums, social media – where it takes a second to put a comment or a sneer – contribute to “fast opinion”. So it’s time for a new movement: after slow food and slow everything, allow me to introduce slow opinion.

Slow opinionists are aware of the complexity of life and today’s society. That’s why they refuse to form an opinion before they have thought things through and are well informed.

But slow opinion is about more than deep thinking and informing oneself. It’s also about empathy. Slow opinionists wonder: how would it be to be in that person’s shoes? What are the arguments that are important for them? In what position are they? Could they maybe have a good reason to say, write or do this? What, in this discussion do I not know?
An advantage of slow opinion – maybe the biggest one – is that the judging, condemning and offending of others is reduced to a minimum. Slow opinion is to be applied towards almost everything and everybody, including politicians and other celebrities. They are people too.

Slow opinion also implies that there can be respect for the fact that someone does not right away want to take a decision, because they lack information, or have not had time enough to think about the matter. Such a suspension of opinion should not be seen as dragging your feet, weakness or a lack of intelligence, but needs to be interpreted as some sort of maturation process that is necessary to come to a qualitative decision or a sound opinion. Neither can this slowness be seen as unjustified neutrality or the refusal to take a position (even though the latter can be honorable in itself). This also applies when we’re talking about apparently obvious topics. Everyone can think of examples for themselves, but in my circles, for instance, it is obvious to be anti-GMO, to condemn certain political parties and politicians, to be anti-religious, etc. Slow opinion applies to any question to which progressives believe they have already found the answer ages ago, and where it seems a taboo to even dare think about or doubt the question.

Slow opinion also does not equal some things. It’s not the same as endless talking and meeting. And it doesn’t need to be applied in all circumstances. There are moments when a fast opinion is crucial, and it’s the only thing we can do. And I understand there’s places where our passion or expertise will lead us to fast opinion.

Slow opinion has its downsides. The biggest danger is so-called analysis paralysis: thinking too hard, trying to take too many things into account and hence not coming to a conclusion, or only way too late. It’s a great way to annoy people, and it will block or delay every process.

But when slow opinion is done well, it’s great. Imagine that everyone, before saying or writing something, takes slow opinion to heart. Imagine people who, participating in discussions, would not say yes or no too fast. Imagine people who give their emotions the right place, who want to think rationally, objectively, logically before coming to a conclusion. People who want to be informed and who say: “let me think about that, I’ll get back to you”. People who ask: “do you have a good article about that which I can read first?” People who are honest towards themselves and who are willing to change their minds. People who don’t just posit things but also ask questions. And when they do posit things, it would be with an “in my humble opinion” here and there, which is just not for show but heartfelt.

I believe the vegan movement can benefit a lot from slow opinion and deep thinking. It would help us to be less judgmental, of people both on our side as well as the other side of the fence. And it would help avoid the dogma that’s inherent in a big part of our movement and help us be open to new ideas.

Eating meat for money, the sequel

My post “Would you eat a steak for a lot of money?” created quite some controversy on multiple Facebook walls and groups. Most people didn’t bother to read my text before answering the question, and were very proud to say things like “No! Never!” Most of those apparently didn’t consider the idea that you could do a lot of good with that money. I started to wonder if maybe thinking is not vegan?

The fact that many people wouldn’t eat a steak for even a million euro, which they could spend on saving many more animals, shows in my view that there’s something seriously weird about many people’s take on veganism/vegetarianism. It looks like being vegan-without-exceptions is for some people a dogma, and that following it has become much more important than what veganism actually stands for, which is reducing suffering. Matt Ball put it this way: “is veganism more important than helping animals?

Of course there’s all kinds of very principled arguments that people bring up to NOT eat the steak. It’s wrong. It could lead to corruption. Money can’t save the animals (huh?). People giving those kind of answers often are very impatient with utilitarian arguments and apparently consider them the root of all evil, if I read their posts. Anyway, I haven’t read any single deontological argument that seemed convincing to me (but am not a moral philosopher).

The very worst answer you can give to my dilemma, I think, is saying that the question is stupid. Sometimes I think the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who want and can take hypotheticals seriously, and those who can’t or won’t. The latter should really refrain, in my humble opinion, from discussing them.

To be fair, there were also quite a few more thoughtful replies. I was glad to see some people actually refer to webpages that try to calculate effectiveness. Someone pointed out, for instance, that according to this link, with 10.000 € you can save about 30.000 animals.

At the core of the discussion lies the question of what’s more important: purity or pragmatism. I plan to explore that question in other posts.

“Persuasion resistance”

Most people have built-in “persuasion resistance“, as salesmen call it. They don’t like to be convinced by others, they don’t like to be told what to do. Also concerning the food that’s on our plate, they’ll decide about that themselves. They need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to them about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, or how they should prepare it. They’ll make up their own minds about all that, thank you very much.

As changemakers, it is important to keep this in mind. All we can do is give people information, maybe show the flaws in their reasoning sometimes (when we’re talking to reasonable people), and let them work out the rest for themselves.

However, it may also be useful to point out to them that it is an illusion to think that they are entirely in control of their food choices. What most people eat is very heavily determined by agriculture and economy, culture and tradition, what our parents ate, and what commercial interests want us to eat.

As an illustration of this, check out the graphic from the counting animals website. The chart represents the US advertising budgets of different food cooperations, compared to those of animal interest groups. It would be interesting to compare this also with government budgets for healthy or sustainable eating.

On fishing and other invisible forms of injustice

Our society is getting more and more aware of the suffering of animals, and more and more practises with animals that have been considered “normal” for a long time, are now being questioned. There are some practises, however, which still strangely escape our (or at least society’s) scrutiny.

One of those is recreational fishing: your average joe sitting by a river with his spincast reel, trying to catch something. Most people still view this kind of fishing as not merely a harmless, but even a beneficial pastime. It is considered a great alternative to shopping or tweeting or any of those countless more stressful things we spend our days doing. And yes, in this sense, sitting by the water, concentrated on nothing much, has a certain appeal.

But we can of course only see it this way if we forget about the fish. Any relief of stress the fisher(wo)man may experience, goes at the cost of huge stress for the fish, obviously.

I find it strange that it takes us that long to see this. But it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Some things are so omnipresent and so generally tolerated (or even encouraged) that it gets hard to see them in another light.  Some forms of injustice are so widespread that they have become invisible.

This video with Evan McGregor captures tries to show things in another light. From the viewpoint of the fish. Well done.

Fishing hurts. Obviously.

On being right versus winning

People who want to make the world a better place and adhere to a certain ideology often tend to have a lot of (sometimes heated) discussions. Through discussions and arguments, they want to show the other party that they are wrong and should change their ways. Vegetarians/vegans/animal rights activists are particularly prone to do so.

I have always held that trying to convince another person of something is not a crime. It *is* however, an art. If you believe in something that something is good, and you have rational arguments to back it up, you have every right to try to make another person see your point of view and to try to change him or her in your direction (of course, we are not talking about coercion or manipulation). The core of the issue is doing it in an effective way.

I would like to touch on a distinction between three different things here: being right, winning an argument, and winning.

  • being right: this is when you either believe you are objectively right, or actually are objectively right – there’s not that much difference. Being right has no real effect in terms of what you want to achieve. I.e. you may be right in thinking that eating animals is murder, but if another person doesn’t agree, it doesn’t have much effect.
  • winning an argument happens when someone else says you are right. It may have an effect, but not necessarily so. Don’t think that when another person admits defeat in an argument, you are necessarily achieving something except an ego-boost. In fact, the opposite might be happening. An expression from sales is “win an argument, lose a customer”. Maybe the other person admits defeat, but it may make him even less sympathetic towards you or the cause you defend.
  • winning: winning happens when you are actually achieving the results you want to achieve. You may need to do some digging for that. You have to check whether the new behaviour of the other (which you have helped set in motion) is actually making a diffence, e.g. for animals. If that happens, then not just you but everyone wins.

Try not to be right, try not to win arguments. Just try to win!

Would you eat meat for a lot of money?

The other day I asked strict vegetarians/vegans the following question on my Facebook wall: if you would receive 10.000 €, would you eat a steak? With almost 200 replies, it was one of the most liveliest discussions on my otherwise pretty lively wall.

As could be expected, a lot of replies were along the lines of “never! for no money in the world!” I could feel the pride and the confidence in those answers. No, of course they would not sell out! Of course these people wouldn’t betray their principles for money! Fortunately, pretty early in the discussion was an in my view more thoughtful reply: someone found it worth considering, since she could use the money to save animals.

That was also my view, and honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m not vegan for the sake of being vegan. My main reason to be vegan is to help animals and do my thing to make the world a better place in general, for all beings. If someone offers me a good amount of money to eat a steak (which is not the same as offering me money to kill an animal, which I wouldn’t do), I would take it. More than that: I would feel guilty if I didn’t. I would not want to put my own ideological or physical purity above the practical implications of accepting that sum.

I kept the amount offered purposely low, because I thought that for say one million euros the question would definitely be a no-brainer. But even then, apparently, many people wouldn’t have a bite. To be honest, I have difficulty understanding this attitude. I value pragmatism and actual change above anything else, and certainly above dogmatic principles. If this means that, as someone put it “there is something wrong with my veganism”, then so be it. I believe the vegan movement, like many other ideological movements, suffers from too much ideology and is in more need of pragmatism.

Does it make a difference whether people, or maybe a mass audience, would know about my “betrayal”? I think it does. If I would need to do this on TV, I would think harder, but I’d probably do it. I think that giving the message in itself that not all veg*ns are dogmatic and impractical ideologists is valuable in itself. Many veg*ns and animal rights activists would of course say that the audience would value consistency more. Maybe that is so, but I worry that the concern for coherence and consistency lives much more in their minds than in the omnivore’s, and that the premium we put on our exceptionless consistency turns more people off than it turns on.

It’s not that I can’t understand any counterarguments at all, but I haven’t come across one that I personally find valid. Feel free to try to change my mind with your comment… And please vote 🙂

Also read the follow up: Eating meat for money, the sequel.

Letter to a new vegan

This is an entry I wrote for someone’s book project called Letters to a new vegan. In those letters, the writers tell new vegans the most important things they would have liked to know themselves as new vegans.

Dear new vegan,

Congratulations on your choice for compassion. In case you’re interested in some advice from a long time vegan, here’s a couple of things…

I’m assuming you haven’t made this choice just for yourself, but did it because you believe in a better world. And I think you already know that the big win for this world is not just you going vegan, but also how many other people you may be a shining example for. So that they in their turn will see that there are better ways of feeding ourselves than raising and killing animals. It’s all in the numbers, you know. Most people eat meat because most people eat meat. So the more there are of us, the easier it will be to get even more. It’s about critical mass. And it’s where you come in.

encourage not judge

You see, just you being a vegan is enough to make people in your presence uncomfortable. You don’t even have to open your mouth. If you want them to follow your example (and like I said, I’m assuming you do) then you have to – pardon the expression – walk on eggshells. You have to be very careful and diplomatic, because you don’t want to turn people off: you want to attract them.

So lead them gently. Smile, joke, cook, tell stories, be an example, and be sincere and honest about it all. Don’t preach (like I’m doing to you now), blame or judge, because for most people, that doesn’t help (even if it may have done something for you).

Do not expect anything from people, and certainly don’t expect them to go all the way, right away. Don’t expect them to also throw out all their leather shoes and belts, their woollen sweaters and whatnot. Allow them to have their own reasons for changing, don’t expect them to have the same reasons you have. And don’t – oh please don’t – tell them they can’t call themselves a vegan if they don’t stick to all the rules.

People may start out on the road to veganism and compassion for other reasons than veganism or compassion. They may start eating vegan because of peer pressure, because of health concerns, because of a loved one, because of no matter what. But the important thing is, once they are on that road, once they realize that eating vegan is tastier, easier, more doable than they thought it was, their defenses against the veganism start to crumble. Their hearts and minds open up to the ethical arguments, and they may, finally, get where you always wished they were.

Now, I think your part in this process is to encourage every step, no matter how small, no matter the reason. It is our encouragement and not our judgement that will help others go further. Hardly any one of us arrives at the end point with one single step. As vegans too, we still have an incredible lot to learn. Patience, understanding and compassion, both for others and for ourselves, will get us where we want the world to be.

So be patient, be compassionate, and have some faith in people. Trust that everyone will find their way. It is not easy today, and someone, like you, who goes vegan, still needs to have lots of motivation to go against the stream. But it will become easier and easier still, until veganism is the norm, until people will have no problem hearing and thinking about all these animal rights arguments. And then, before we know it, some day, researchers will write PhD’s wondering how our present treatment of animals could ever have been possible at all.

Till then, do your work.

All the best

The ethical dilemma of Frans De Waal

The other day I was in a discussion panel after a talk by world renowned primatologist Frans De Waal in Brussels. I have great respect for De Waal and his work. He has a positive view on humanity, and refuses to be overly afraid of anthropomorphizing when analyzing animal behavior. Moreover, he actively promotes his views among the masses in very popular books, rather than confining himself to the walls of his university or primate research center.
In preparing my contribution to the panel, I quickly checked if I could find anything related to his views on eating meat and vegetarianism. This is the only thing I found, on the online magazine Wonderlancer (source):

Wonderlancer: What are your views on eating animal meat? Is that natural in us and thus necessary and unavoidable, like in many other carnivorous species? How do we reconcile our carnivorous ways with the notion of animal conscience and emotion?

“Eating meat is as natural for our close relatives, the chimpanzees, as it is for us. In fact, hunting large game and sharing the pay-offs has probably played a major role in human evolution, resulting in reciprocity and cooperation at a level few other animals achieve. The mammals that do achieve high levels of cooperation are mostly carnivores, such as killer whales and wolves, and also chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys cooperate during hunts. So, meat has been very important to our lineage. Whether we need to eat meat is a separate question for me, since I think we are smart enough to find ways of obtaining the nutrients we need without meat. It doesn’t seem a strict necessity. I myself do like and eat meat, but the practices of the agricultural meat industry bother me for ethical reasons, and I would be very happy if we either could change those practices or raise meat in the absence of a central nervous system. What I mean is meat-growing plants where muscles are grown without growing the entire animal, so that suffering can be excluded. This possibility seems to be getting closer, and would remove the ethical dilemma for me.”

I’m happy of course that De Waal finds meat eating at least problematic, but I have two issues with his answer. First of all, if he uses the evolutionary role of eating meat (which as far as I know is not a proven fact but rather a theory, and a contested one at that) as a justification to keep doing it, this smacks of the naturalistic phallacy (which implies that we cannot derive values from facts; we cannot say that things are good or bad, on the basis of what happens in nature). De Waal is familiar with the the naturalistic fallacy of course, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he means something else, or maybe his words were changed a bit. Or maybe I’m just interpreting it incorrectly.

The second issue I have is with the term “ethical dilemma”, which is used twice in the excerpt. I can very well empathize with the fact that De Waal, caring about what happens to animals while at the same time liking the taste of meat, experiences this as a dilemma. However, I think it’s not right to call it an ethical dilemma. This is how wikipedia defines ethical dilemma: a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another. In the case of eating meat or not, there is no conflict between different moral (ethical) imperatives, there is only a conflict between taste (some people might erroneously also think health) on the one hand, and the suffering and death of animals on the other. The fact many people indeed would call this an ethical dilemma (or even merely a dilemma) at all, shows a lot about the value or weight we give to farm animals’ concerns.