An interview with Melanie Joy, on communication and strategy

In 2013 I did this interview with Melanie Joy (it wasn’t published previously). The content is primarily intended for ambassadors of the vegetarian/vegan/animal rights message. I think it contains may wise words and ideas which may help us to be more effective activists and ambassadors for the animals and for veganism.

Vegetarians, vegans, activists in general often have high expectations of other people. They often demand consistency of others and would like them to go “all the way”. How do you think about that?
Melanie Joy: I see the perfect as the enemy of the good. Henry Spira, the late famous animal rights activist (who actually was born in Belgium) said: if you go in and ask for all or nothing, you’ll probably end up with nothing. Trying to be perfect often discourages us from even attempting to be good.
Our mentality can be rigid or liberatory. A rigid mentality lacks nuance, it’s black and white, it focuses on being right, being in control, winning. A liberatory consciousness is the opposite, it’s flexible, nuanced, it means we approach all situations with curiosity – an open mind – and compassion – an open heart. It’s not about good or bad, right or wrong, being perfect, it’s about being committed to living authentically and to practicing the core values and the very qualities that we need to cultivate, that we need in order to bring about a vegan, non-violent and just world. We have to be careful not to mirror the very system that we are trying to transform. The most important thing that we can do, is to practice embodied activism. It’s activism that lives in ourselves. We strive to embody the qualities and behaviours that we try to cultivate in the world. This is not theoretical or abstract, it’s a practice. When we practice what we preach we are much more effective at reaching others.

It’s a matter of focus?
Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like this: “We all have within us the seeds of greed, hatred and desire. And we all have within us the seeds of love, compassion and empathy. Our job is to water the right seeds, in ourselves and others.” What we focus on grows. So we need to ask ourselves the question: what do we want to cultivate in other people? It’s really important for activists to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. We all look at ourselves through each other’s eyes. When the people we are advocating to look at themselves through our eyes, what do we want them to see? Do we want them to see someone who is selfish and apathetic, who lacks willpower and morality? What parts of themselves do we want them to connect with?

How can we express appreciation for the steps some people have already taken, while at the same time encouraging them to take further steps? For instance, how would you deal with someone who is only eating meat during the weekends, or who has already stopped eating cows and pigs but still eats chickens.
I ask them questions. People almost always answer their own questions. The answers are always inside. I never ask why people do eat meat. I ask why people reduced their meat consumption in the first place. I ask what motivated them to make the changes that I want to help encourage, not simply what is preventing them from making those kind of changes. I do this because I want to feed the positive motivation. I want to help them connect with their compassion, their commitment to health, their desire for well being in their bodies and in the world, that led them to that decision. It’s like what I say to ex-vegetarians. Not: “why did you stop being a vegetarian?”, but “why did you start being a vegetarian?”. And then I might ask the question about what got in the way.

What about people calling themselves vegetarian when they aren’t really vegetarians. How do you deal with that?
I would ask what it means for them to be a vegetarian and then I would just say that’s not the definition of vegetarianism that I learned. I would never ask someone not to call themselves a vegetarian. The fact that someone wants to be a vegetarian is great. And then I would have a conversation about veganism, because veganism is the moral baseline of animal liberation.

It seems many people fear that we confuse a lot of people around us, like in restaurants, when people that are not vegetarian call themselves vegetarian.
So what? If we get to a place where our biggest problem in the world is to teach people in restaurants that vegetarians don’t eat fish, then the world is a very different place and it means we have been very effective. I would never tell someone what they are and what they are not. I wouldn’t like anyone to say that to me. We have a right to self definition, to self identify. Whenever we try to define someone else’s identity, we are fundamentally disempowering them. People can call themselves whatever they want.
When we don’t allow others the right to self definition, that is problematic for a lot of reasons. The confusion caused by self definition of vegetarianism/veganism at this time in the history of our movement is, in my opinion, very insignificant. Is it really worth our time and energy to engage in that kind of conversation? The benefits of not turning people off by telling them they are wrong, are greater than the small problems caused by the confusion. But you can always use it as an opportunity to talk about it. When someone calls himself a vegetarian and eats fish, I will ask why he stopped eating meat. And then I’ll ask why he’s eating fish. And I will share my story. Moreover, I think it’s important to see veganism on a continuum, rather than in an “either/or” dichotomy.

You said vegetarians and vegans, when talking to people, need to appreciate the meaning of meat. What meaning does meat have for people?
It has so many meanings. It’s deeply symbolic. Meat represents tradition. Tradition is not always bad. Practices of traditions can be harmful, but traditions themselves are often reasons for people to celebrate, they are often ways that people come together and connect with each other and with themselves. Meat may symbolize family bonds. For some people the only connection they have with their family is through shared meals. Eating meat may represent being part of the majority, the dominant group and not being different. It represents masculinity to many people, and strength. Perhaps most importantly, meat represents power. What we have to do is to help demonstrate how veganism reflects and reinforces a healthy way of relating to power; instead of exercising our power over someone, we exercise our power to resist oppressive and repressive regimes or systems.

Could it be that vegetarianism/veganism is perceived as dangerous because it challenges power?
Yes, I think that’s true. Meat challenges privilege. And human privilege is very deeply entrenched, and very often not given up willingly. I think veganism and vegetarianism are perceived as dangerous for other reasons as well, such as their challenge to the economic status quo, and to to patriarchy, to name just a couple.

What’s the importance of taste?
We often underestimate the importance of comfort and convenience (taste being a part of these things), because we hold them up against the importance of life and death. In the light of that comparison, comfort and convenience are trivialized. But the problem is that, whether we find comfort and convenience to be trivial or not, those who we are reaching out to often think they are not.

Can they be made to see that they are trivial, at least compared to those life and death issues?
I think it’s difficult to get people to recognize that their comfort and convenience is trivial, because they are so removed from the problem. And it’s not trivial to them until they make a deep connection. Until they make that connection, we need to not dismiss the strong desire to maintain comfort and convenience.

You talk a lot about the disconnect between our values and our behaviour, and of disconnecting from reality. But isn’t this kind of disconnection to a certain extent necessary to survive, or at least to maintain our mental health?
We’re talking about psychic numbing, or numbing ourselves psychologically and emotionally to the truth of our experience. Psychic numbing can be adaptive or maladaptive. It’s adaptive when it helps us cope with violence or the potential threat of violence. We couldn’t get in an airplane or car if we didn’t use some psychic numbing. It’s maladaptive when it helps to enable violence, even if that violence is as far away as the factories where the animals are turned into food.

What about people not being alert, every second, that each day 25.000 people are dying from hunger or millions of animals are being killed? Isn’t that something we must do to protect ourselves?
Yes, then it helps you cope with violence, versus enabling violence. But it’s the motivation for the numbing that is important, that determines whether it is adaptive or maladaptive. If we use psychic numbing in order to cope with violence so that we can function in society, it’s very different than if we use it in order to participate in violence. It’s not the disconnect that matters, it’s how we relate to the disconnect. We have so many disconnections inside of us. How do we relate to our them? Are we committed to examining our choices?

Do you think some people, like vegetarians or vegans, might have use for some more psychic numbing?
Yes, I think some activists actually need to numb themselves more when it comes to animal suffering. It’s a matter of setting healthy psychological boundaries. Not being able to see the good things that are happening is often a hallmark of secondary traumatic stress — STS (or STSD), which is like PTSD except it affects witnesses to violence rather than the direct victims of violence.

When people become traumatized they develop a schema, a sort of paradigm, whatever you want to call it, where the word gets split in three categories: victims, heroes, perpetrators. When you look at the world through that lens, and you don’t see a lot of heroes, all you see is a world of victims and perpetrators, and it becomes very hard to maintain any sense of optimism. You may become very misanthropic, and you start to despair and feel burned out. Looking through the lens of trauma waters the seeds of anger and despair. People get stuck in it. Once you start looking at the world through a traumatic frame, it can get hard to step out of that. That’s the way schemas work. Schemas are mental frameworks, they are ways of viewing the world, and they have what we call “confirmation bias”: we only notice and remember things that confirm our existing schemas, the way we view the world. When we develop a schema, we may get stuck in it. When you see the world as a world of victims, heroes and perpetrators, anything that challenges that, gets resisted. For example, we can miss seeing the many positive things average people do every day, because all we see is their perpetration of animal exploitation through eating meat. This is a traumatic consciousness.

To offset the traumatic frame curiosity and compassion are extremely important. Preventing secondary traumatic stress is also a key reason why activists need to take care of themselves. Obviously people don’t want to be in that schema, but they may be stuck. Once the schema is developed it becomes more and more difficult to get out of it, because we start selectively noticing. All you see are victims and perpetrators, the people putting dead animals in their mouths. And you keep reinforcing this view that humanity sucks and that the world is a horrible place.

Is meat murder?
I don’t ever use loaded words like murder when I am talking about meat eating. The word hypocrite is another example. Hypocrite is not even an accurate word, because it suggests negative intentions. I would say that we are morally inconsistent, we are complicated. If there are hypocrites, we are all hypocrites, we’ve all inherited a messy world. Words create automatic reactions in people, whether we want them to or not. People have a lifetime of associations, psychological and emotional, with these particular words. When you use these words, you are calling forth all of these associations, and you are going to evoke an immediate and automatic emotional response from that person.

What about the shock value? Can we grab people’s attention, shake or wake them up with that kind of language?
Generally, people in shock are not receptive, all they want to do is get out of shock. The minute you use a word like murder, you are implying that the person who engages in the behavior that you are calling murder, is a murderer. If someone is calling you a murderer, you probably will not be very receptive to their message. You will feel judged and will feel you are being portrayed as the worst kind of human being that exists. If we use the word flesh, or hypocrite, these words have such a charge that it’s almost guaranteed that the listener is going to feel attacked, guilty. And remember that psychic numbing and carnistic defenses exist in order to protect a person from feeling guilt and so our loaded words can cause them to become more defensive. It’s like whenever someone is on the receiving end of being attacked, they will put up their hands to avoid being hit. When we use those loaded words, we make people put up psychological-emotional hands to prevent themselves from being hit, verbally, emotionally.

What about the shock of showing animal cruelty images?
When I show an animal cruelty in my presentation, it’s after having established a connection with my audience. I warn them, I tell them what I’m going to show them. I reassure them that my intention is not to make them suffer, but to empower them, and that I have been very thoughtful in selecting the material I have chosen. And I give them permission to turn away. In so doing the assumption is that if they bear witness, it’s because they choose to. Not because I shocked them. When you shock someone with graphic videos, the rage or pain they feel often gets projected onto you. They will get angry at you because they feel you tricked them into suffering. You don’t know what is going on in their life, whether they can handle seeing that or not.

So what about when people see animal rights videos on TV, in the news for instance? It’s not framed then, right?
As far as I’m concerned, that’s public domain. When people turn on the tv, they know they are not in control of what images are going to come across to them. When they are walking on the street, they know they are not in control. But when you jump in front of their face with something when they’re not expecting it, that’s different.

What about putting the images in leaflets and magazines?
I think in literature for the public there is some place for it. But it should be embedded into a broader whole. We should focus on the solution. We should only talk about the problem insofar as we are also talking about the solution. Otherwise people feel helpless. We’re talking about trauma here. Trauma creates a feeling of helplessness. One of the reasons that people don’t bear witness is because the problem is so big they feel like: what’s the point of opening up to this because there’s nothing I can do about it and then I’m just gonna feel like crap. So we should present this information in a way that doesn’t make them feel helpless and disempowered, and make it very clear that there is a solution, and that it’s a doable solution.

My impression is that including these images in your literature discredits you with some people, e.g. with people in power. They perceive us as emotional people, as an unprofessional, sentimental organisation.
That’s very possible. But on the other hand we have to be careful not to buy into the carnistic narrative that degrades anything that doesn’t support it. Others will indeed say it’s not professional and it’s too emotional. I think there may be a way to do it professionally. And also, we need to take back the right to be emotional. We should be emotional, and own it. Animal exploitation is an emotional issue — the world needs more emotion in this area, not less. But if our graphic imagery prevents others from listening, it’s not strategic.

How important is being right?
Whether we believe in something or not, is not the issue. The issue is what works. You can be right in a sense morally, but you may not be right strategically. The animals don’t need us to be morally perfectionistic; they need us to be effective.

There’s a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place. How do you decide on what to do and what not to do?
I ask myself two questions when I decide how to use my time or energy as an activist. One: is this action/project the most effective use of my time and energy? Two: is it in alignment with my core values — is it an expression not just of what I want but also of who I am? Am I embodying my activism by doing this? We need to do what we are good at, and what we enjoy, and also what is needed and effective.

We often hear that we need all kinds of strategies and approaches in the movement, that we need something of everything. But is it possible that some of the strategies are counterproductive, that some of these approaches turn off more people than they attract?
Yes, sure. I believe that we need many different forms of activism, but not all forms of activism are strategic. Property destruction for instance, is not strategic. My colleague James McWilliams says it as follows: 99% of society is deeply speciesist. So when you are destroying a form of property that is upholding a speciesist institution, how do you think the public is going to respond to that when they are looking at it through speciesist eyes? Also, property destruction is fundamentally unstrategic because it becomes an opportunity for the oppressor project their violence onto us, to make us look like the violent ones. Until a movement has reached popular support, property destruction is virtually always used against proponents of the movement.

What about stealing live animals? Do you think that’s effective?
I think open rescues can be effective. There are less problematic because there is transparency in them, and they don’t seem violent because you’re not destroying anything. You are saving lives. It’s constructive rather than destructive.

If you had ten million dollars, what would you do with them?
I think I’d use it to raise awareness of carnism. I truly believe that if carnism became recognized as an ideology in the mainstream, it would radically and forever change the way we think and talk about eating animals. Carnistic prejudice is the reason that it’s so hard to advocate. Prejudice is an illogical mindset. And oppression and discrimination are institutionalized prejudice. I think it’s virtually impossible to have an objective, truly productive public discussion about eating animals as long as there is limited awareness of carnism. Until we make this system visible, we are dealing with people who are deeply biased, believing themselves to be completely objective. That’s a difficult gap to bridge. That’s one of the reasons why we need to be so strategic all the time. Imagine if that bias were recognized.

Read more on the work of Melanie Joy and her team at

4 thoughts on “An interview with Melanie Joy, on communication and strategy

  1. Great Interview. Thank you for sharing this!

    Melanie has some real words of wisdom of how to speak about veganism is a way that can be received. What she said about “We have to be careful not to mirror the very system that we are trying to transform” to be so true. In trying to advocate for compassion and empathy for non-human animals we can sometimes forget to have compassion and empathy for human animals. I know that I can be guilty of this sometimes.

    One suggestion: I find the use of the word “stealing” in “What about stealing live animals” to be problematic. It supports the dominate ideology of animals as property and that they do not have the inherent right to their own life. Maybe the use of the word rescue might be a better choice.

  2. Brilliant. I love the phrase “The animals don’t need us to be morally perfectionistic; they need us to be effective.”

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