Many people like what I write. I’ve been getting lots of invitations to talk all over Europe and have been travelling quite frequently to spread a message of friendly and pragmatic vegan outreach.
From a few other people, I get criticism. Sometimes this criticism is constructive. Most of the time it is quite unfair and often it is very nasty.
It seems that activists who bring a different, less orthodox message than the vegan-is-the-moral-baseline one, are – at least to some people – fair game to be ridiculed, attacked, shamed and misrepresented. This is disconcerting and doesn’t bode well for our movement.
Just a few examples of the crap I’ve had to deal with lately – without naming any names. One person has published his own compilation of video fragments of my talks, with no sense of fairness, cutting off where he felt it was okay and interjecting the snippets with comments of his own. The same person has published his own secret recording of a podcast debate that the podcast organisers eventually decided not to publish. He has also secretly videotaped me answering his public demand for an apology, during a talk in Dublin, for using the words “crazy vegans”. He published his recording – in which I admitted to a few personal things, unaware of the fact that I was being recorded – on the web.
I recently left one forum, where I was continuously abused by some of the critics. The moderator couldn’t be bothered with interfering and has at times actually encouraged the bullying. I left the group. Since then, as people kept discussing and bashing me, a temporary cease-tobias-discussion was called for, but apparently to not much avail.
At a recent festival where I spoke, the organiser deemed it better to provide personal security for me (a bodyguard), which he now claims I asked for (when I asked if disruptions of talks, like what happened At the 2015 Luxemburg International Animal Right Conference, would be allowed). The organizer doesn’t agree with my views, but to his credit let me speak anyway. Since the talk though, the organizer – now very much influenced by “the abolitionist approach” – has behaved very unprofessionally towards me, saying I encourage people to exploit animals, and has stated he would no sooner invite me again as a speaker than someone from McDonald’s.
These people are supposed to care. They seem to want to phase out ableism, sexism, ageism etc, along with speciesism – which I support. But while doing that, they are behaving more unpleasantly than I imagine most ableists, sexists, racists or speciesists would behave. In any case, I can honestly say that in 17 years of activism, I never got this kind of nastiness from farmers or people in the animal abuse industry.
There is a person behind these blogs. A person who wants a vegan world (at least) as much as the next vegan. A person who at times feels hurt and sad at all these allegations and misrepresentations. I’ve had two serious burn-outs over the years, the last one quite recently. I guess I’m more resilient than most, and I can perfectly imagine that many committed people have given up on being active in the vegan movement after abuse like this. I’m afraid me giving up on activism is what these people are after. That is a very, very sad thought.
Frankly, I’m quite disgusted. I have blocked most of the people waging this vendetta against me, and though they keep popping up here and there, I am usually doing a pretty good job at ignoring them. I wrote this piece, and my response to their criticisms, as a way of explaining myself to people who might be tempted to believe any of their allegations.
If you appreciate what I do, you can help by sharing and promoting this blog, my Facebook page and video presentations. That way you can help me make up for some of the time I need to invest in replying to these ridiculous statements. And you can help bring more much needed pragmatism to our movement, and thus help animals. Thanks for your support! I’ll focus on the positive!
All that evil needs to win is that the good people do nothing, wrote Edmund Burke.
One way of describing the work of vegan activists is to say that we try to stop people from turning away. Stop them turning away from the injustice, the pain, the suffering, the killing.
Animals, if they could express their needs, would want us to look, to feel, to witness. To not turn away.
We hate it when we see people turn away. We want them to look. To face stuff. To bear witness to what is happening.
Sure, there are people who will be entirely indifferent to suffering. But I don’t believe that’s a majority, even though it may look like that.
What helps me deal with our whole society turning away is one realization: that for many people, their reason to turn away is not that they don’t care. The opposite is true: many turn away because they care.
Because they care, because they feel, because they empathize… they can’t keep watching.
Our task is not to call these people hypocrytical. Our task should be to kindle the flame of the compassion that they feel. Our task is to make sure that acting on their compassion becomes easier. That there is nothing in the way of acting on their compassion. We, as individuals as well as as a movement, should be facilitators of compassionate behaviour.
(trigger warning: contains interesting thought experiments! :-))
As readers of this blog may know, I like to challenge the cherished and well established vegan concept now and again. Why? Because 1) I think everything – everything – should be questioned, again and again, not for the sake of questioning itself, but to make our thinking, or ideologies, our dreams, our tactics better, sharper, and more effective. 2) Because I think there is so much more to helping animals than just being a consistent vegan.
Obviously, not everyone appreciates this questioning of veganism, as a concept, as a practise, as a strategy. Many people believe they know exactly what veganism is, what role it plays, how necessary it is, and who is a vegan and who isn’t. For those people, everything is simple: veganism has been defined, some decades ago, by Donald Watson (as the avoidance of animal products in as far as practical and possible). You just do as he says. Never mind that that is quite a vague, subjective phrasing. Never mind that Watson and his friends at the early UK Vegan Society welcomed everyone who agreed with the objectives, independent of whether they practised veganism or not.
Like I have stated before, I have been vegan for 17 years, so my critical comments on vegans and veganism are to be read in a different way than those of your average omnivore. I make them, like I said, in the hope of making us more effective. What I want to do here is take a brief, closer look at why people are vegan, what the impact of it is, and what some of the issues that I have with it are.
Let’s start with a very simple question: Why do vegans eat only vegan food? Why, in other words, are they vegan?
Most of us vegans may think they have a definitive answer to this, but let’s investigate.
When we judge the morality of an action, we can judge it in terms of 1) its results and 2) whether it is right for wrong for a person to do that action. These are two different things. To see this more clearly, imagine that for every person who becomes vegan, an imaginary, quite mean omnivore commits to eating twice as many animal products, thus neutralizing any effect vegans may have. The vegans’ action thus has no results (point 1 above). Being vegan in this case seems to become much less important or urgent, but most of us – including myself – would still do it, simply because we find it wrong to eat animals (and there may also be disgust or health concerns, but these are another matter).
Reason number one (the results) is my main reason for being vegan. I believe that enough vegans, together with the bigger group of vegetarians and the much bigger group of reducetarians, are slowly but surely changing demand, and thus production (stimulating the development of good alternatives and lowering the demand for animal products). Thus, we save animals from a life of suffering (by them not needing to be born). When a life is more misery than happiness, it is better that that life was never there.
Reason number two, the morality of an act, is important to me but is secondary. If one agrees that eating animals is wrong, it seems that it is always a wrong thing to do, independent of the circumstances and consequences. It is easy to imagine situations where whether you eat or don’t eat a product with animal ingredients makes no difference whatsoever in terms of results. When something is offered to you (i.e. when you don’t intentionally buy a piece of meat, for instance) your refusal to eat that product will have no impact on demand itself. Of course, with your behavior you can still show others that you don’t eat animal products, which is about raising awareness. But let’s say that there is no such awareness-raising factor involved. Let’s say there’s some leftover piece of meat somewhere, and no one sees you eat it. What exactly is the problem with eating it? There’s no impact on anyone, and no impact on demand. It is a piece of meat that would be thrown away. Foods thrown away by supermarkets would be a case in point.
I am not saying there is nothing wrong with eating thrown away animal products, but if there is, it will not be in terms of results. In the above case, whether you are consistent or not is neutral in terms of results. I, for one, can imagine circumstances in which being consistent results in a net negative effect. I have previously posited the thought experiment of whether you would eat a steak that was about to be thrown away, if you were offered 100.000 dollars for it, given that you could help a lot of animals with that money. People who would say no to this money, are attaching a lot of importance to reason number two, more so than to reason number one. Or imagine that someone tells you they’ll go vegan if you eat a steak.
Of course you can just not play along and hate thought experiments like these (though I would have hoped you wouldn’t still be reading after the “trigger warning”). But if you take them seriously, as I think you should, you can see that consistency doesn’t automatically deliver the best results for animals.
Apparently – judging by some of the criticism I get for these posts – it is necessary for me to point out that I’m not advocating vegans to make exceptions for no reason. And if vegans don’t want to make any exception, in no matter what circumstances and for no matter what consequences, who am I to fault them for doing so? Maybe their 100% consistent behaviour has some possible benefits or consequences too. It’s just not the approach that I would choose. It would be nice though, if conversely, someone like me, making these pragmatic considerations for the benefit of animals, would not be accused of all kinds of things (like not being a vegan or even an anti-vegan – even though I’m only talking about micro-incredients, and not even about a small bite or slice of cheese).
I am not attacking people who want to be entirely consistent and pure (most people would call me pretty consistent and pure, by the way). What I am saying is that sometimes, in some situations, it is worth considering an alternative to being entirely consistent. Or rather, one can consider being consistent with the aim of veganism (reducing suffering) rather than the definition of veganism.
All of this may seem trivial and unimportant, but it’s not. What I’m talking about – and will write about more in the future – is the difference between ideology and concrete impact. Far too often, I think, we follow ideology for ideology’s sake, without having much attention for the actual effect of following that ideology. It is, in the end, results that we are about. Or at least, it is what I am about.
Last night, Jo-Anne McArthur stayed at our place while she was giving a talk in my hometown, Ghent. For those who don’t know her, Jo-Anne is an award-winning photojournalist and author, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for a decade. She’s the author of the book We Animals and the movie The Ghosts in our Machine is about her work.
I had met Jo-Anne a couple of times but it was good to spend a bit more time with her. Those who have met her will know that she’s one of the warmest people you can hope to encounter, and one thing struck me. Having gone around the world to document animal abuse on camera, you could arguably say that few people have seen more animal misery than her from close by. Yet at the same time, Jo-Anne has the most wonderful smile in the world and her face exudes happiness.
After her talk, someone asked her the question how she deals with all the misery, and Jo-Anne answered that she had been through some bad periods, but that she had learned to focus on the positive and to choose hope again and again.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
We each have the power, or at least can learn, to focus on the positive, the beautiful, the good. And if we want, we can find it, at the very least in small amounts, everywhere, at every moment.
Focussing on the positive helps us continue our work for a long time, and thus, helps the animals.
An often heard crede – especially among so called “abolitionist” vegans – is that “veganism is the moral baseline”. It seems to mean that being vegan is the minimum we can do for the animals if we want to be moral creatures. Conversely, anything less than vegan is immoral behaviour. I don’t agree with that, and the way many activists use the sentence often seems quite ineffective and often condescending to me.
From idea that veganism is the moral baseline, it seems to follow (at least for those who adhere to the moral baseline motto) that our outreach towards omnivores can never be anything less than suggesting them to go vegan. Asking people to be reducetarians, for instance, would be an immoral demand, just like, believers hold, asking or demanding that a childbeater become a parttime childbeater rather than doing it every day (I have written about that before, here and here).
Let us assume for a minute that asking anything less than veganism is immoral (and that veganism is the moral baseline). Let us, however, at the same time assume – for the sake of the argument – that asking “things less than veganism” leads to a higher reduction of animal suffering and killing. What, in that case, should weprioritize: themorality of our outreach, or its impact? In other words, should we – again assuming for a minute that we know for sure – use a less effective message because we believe it to be a more moral one?
Those who would answer that the morality aspect is the most important, will often claim that the impact is actually on their side too, and that what is painted above is some kind of false dichotomy. I want to briefly examine here if that is true. In other words: is it possible that asking other things than “go vegan” is more effective in reducing animal suffering and killing?
People who follow this blog will know that my answer will be that that is definitely possible. I give three reasons why I think a smaller ask may (often) be more effective than the bigger, go vegan ask. I am not implying that everyone should do “reducitarian” outreach – more about that below.
One: bigger total impact
It seems to be common sense that when we ask people to do something easy, more of them will do it than when we ask them to do something hard. The difference between the small number of people doing the hard thing, and the higher number of people doing the easy thing is big enough, the people doing the easy thing may all together have a higher total impact. Say we ask one thousand people to go vegan and say we get ten of them to actually do so (it definitely is possible to go vegan overnight, no one is denying that). On the other hand, say that we ask another thousand people (our control group) to participate in Meatless Mondays, and say that 300 do so. You can do the math. One might object that the few people that were convinced become fulltime vegans might also become active in reaching out to others, but actually the same can be said about the meat reducers, who can also advocate for Meatless Monday.
Two: meat reducers may more easily become vegan
I believe our main challenge today is to get as many people as possible to take the first steps, to cross a certain treshold.That is in many cases one of the most important things we can help them do, because it is a lot easier to move up the vegan scale when you have made a first step. Being a reducetarian is not an end, but a beginning.
Three: meat reducers make veganism easier and may tip the system faster
Meat reducers are the driving force behind demand, and companies producing vegan products, do so in the first place for *them* and not for vegans. In other words, meat reducers help to make it easier for everyone to eat more and more vegan, or even to go vegan overnight.
These are three reasons – and in my upcoming book they will be better referenced – that could indicate that asking people to reduce might have a bigger impact than asking them to go vegan. One could argue that if this would be so, this demand would actually be the more moral one. After all, what’s moral about using a message that is less effective than one we know to be more effective?
Let me explicitly state my purpose in writing all this. I am not saying that our movement should never use the “go vegan” message. I *am* saying, conversely, that we are under no moral obligation to *always* use the “go vegan” message. And I am suggesting that those who think they should criticize people who do “less than vegan” outreach (be they vegans themselves or not) stop doing that.
PS: some more information: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/v-word
At the London Vegfest (Oct 2015), I was in a panel during which we discussed whether celebrities who talk about animal suffering and vegetarian or vegan food, like Beyonce or Ricky Gervais, but also Ellen Degeneres or Paul McCartney, had a positive impact for the animals or are merely confusing their audiences about what vegan means.
I started by saying that I thought that anyone who believes that these celebrities are “confusing” the audience, are themselves maybe a bit confused about where exactly our society is at this point. That is a point where about 65 billion animals are killed every year. In a situation like that, I am not going to worry about whether people have or have not a perfect understanding of veganism (which, as my co-pannelist Dobrusia Gogloza pointed out, is a means and not an end) but I will celebrate and applaud everytime an influencer speaks positively about eating vegetarian or – even better – vegan food.
One has to realize that often, the veganism that the naysayers propose is quite demanding and specific. On social media, you can easily find complaints about any possible kind of vegan or near vegan celebrity. It seems they will never be vegan enough. Ellen Degeneres, who has reached millions of people with her vegan message, was not vegan enough (even before the shoe issue) because she was a cover girl of a magazine that was owned by Proctor & Gamble, which tests on animals. Not a vegan thing to do… Morrissey was attacked because he took too long to become a vegan (people should become vegan overnight, you know) and because he says some wrong things about vegans and veganism (making it seem difficult). One wonders what an “abolitionist-approved” celebrity would be able to say publicly – if anything at all.
Back to Beyonce, Ellen, Ricky etc. So what if these celebrities are not vegan or not perfect examples of veganism? Would it be better if they shut up altogether? I would assume that if only a tiny fraction of Beyonce’s or Ellen’s fans did a three week vegan experiment or went dietary vegan, that would just be wonderful, and we would still have opportunities enough to point out where they – both the celebs and their followers – could do better.
Should we, though? Should we always be so fast to point out where others may do better, just because we think we have achieved something by being vegan? I think it is, to put it mildly, somewhat arrogant to believe we can judge and condemn everyone who is not vegan, no matter what good they do. Paul McCartney, for instance, who is vegetarian but not a vegan, was accused of being damaging for animals – while we know that a vegetarian saves about 90% of the animals a vegan saves. If Macca has influenced millions of people with his pro veg message (and it’s not that he tells people to eat eggs and dairy, mind you), that has an impact. I shouldn’t even have to make that clear. Doubting that would be akin to doubting *any* kind of activism or outreach.
In any event, if we feel the need to inform celebrities about, let’s do it in a nice way, and not ad nauseam. Whenever a celebrity does or says something that’s even remotely related to animals rights or veganism, I’m always afraid a horde of vegans will descend on them and unleash a storm of tweets and Facebook comments which in the worst case will only serve to irritate the person in question. So far for “educating” them. Maybe it’s safer and smarter, sometimes, to trust people. To trust that they are on their way. And to look at the good things they do, and the strengths that they have. The main strength, in the case of celebrities, is their massive reach. I can only hope that those of them who care for animals or who see some benefits in eating less or no animal products, will use their channels to the best of their abilities, and that our movement will encourage them when they do so.
A question: do you think people should be allowed to kill animals for pleasure?
If you belong to the majority of the population, your answer would be: “No, of course not. Not for pleasure.” You’re thinking about bullfights, trophy hunting, or barbaric traditions with animals in other countries.
When I tell you that in this case you are probably also against the killing of animals for food, I assume that already you might be feeling feel a certain resistance. Possibly you may be aware of some defense mechanisms, and you may entertain certain thoughts about the writer of this piece. Still, I hope you read on.
Food, you say, is not just about pleasure. Food is necessary.
Yes, food certainly is necessary. But meat is not. Both scientific research as well as the practice of millions of vegetarians and vegans around the globe, have shown that Homo sapiens can perfectly do without meat – or any animal products. Anyone who still believes that they are necessary for health, should have his ears checked, or works in the meat sector.
One of the reasons why our society generally condemns the killing of animals for bullfighting or trophy hunting, but not the killing of animals for food, probably has a lot to do with fact that most of us are not involved in the former but we are in the latter. It doesn’t matter to most of us if bullfights and bullfighters are morally frowned upon or even outlawed – it doesn’t affect us because we’re not participating. It’s easy, in other words, to be against them. Eating meat, on the other hand, is something that most of us do any day. We are steakholders (pun intended).
Your steak, your pork chops, your chicken nugget, your sausages… there’s a lot at stake here. Your habits get in the way, and they prevent you from thinking straight about what you eat. However rationally and objectively you think you are considering all of this, the meat you love so much works a bit like alcohol: it has an inebriating effect on your reasoning powers. As a professor of mine once said: “One quick way to drive people furious and incapable of reasonable thought is to start a conversation about their habit of eating meat.”
Maybe that’s not the case for you. But still. Maybe you say the killing of animals is fine because in nature animals kill each other too (as if we are as limited in our choices as other animals are). Maybe you say that we have always eaten animals (as if that is a moral argument). Maybe you would suggest that animals can be killed because they have no idea of their own identity or their future (as if all people have that). Maybe you argue that many people would lose their job if we massively stopped eating meat (as if the economy always has to have the final word). Maybe you believe that our first concern should go be with human suffering (as if not eating meat would take away part of your attention or compassion for people). Maybe you only eat “humane meat” (as if such a thing exists). Maybe you say that nobody should tell you what to eat (as if in this you are not influenced by your parents, your culture, your housemates, advertisements, or the offer and discounts in your supermarket).
During the first half of my life, I loved to eat meat, and ate lots of it. From experience I know that quitting meat is not easy for most people – especially men. But I do believe that as a society we are moving in that direction. Our ethics evolve. Yesterday we did things that we don’t approve of today. Today we maintain practises that will be frowned upon tomorrow. This is the way it will go with killing animals for food. Till the day comes when psychologists and sociologists will try to explain in long papers how we could ever do to animals what we are doing today, for gustatory pleasure. They will wonder how it was possible at all that decent people, who sought to improve the world, who had the cognitive and moral apparatus to choose and to do the good – and who often did that – could just ignore who was on their dinner plate, and how he or she got there.
Because we want to keep eating meat, we refuse to seriously think about our steak, we avoid the confrontation and we make sure that the link between meat and the animal behind it is as vague as possible. I dare ask you to finally start taking animals seriously, and to begin to see animals as one of the many oppressed groups that we can still find in our society today. With more than 65 billion victims a year (sea animals not included), it is a very large group that deserves our attention and our compassion.
I dare to ask you to finally start to think about our relationship to farmed animals, in the same way as you think about other important issues: with your head instead of with your stomach.
Melanie Joy’s article on shaming was shared widely and several people have expressed interest in making their Facebook group (or organisation) a shame-free zone. To that aim, here’s a short text with some commitments , which people could paste in their group or on their wall. You also find the text itself below
This area is a shame-free zone. We:
do not presume knowing other people’s thoughts, feelings, or identity better than they do. Therefore, we do not argue about whether another is or is not a vegan, feminist, democrat, etc.
do not use degrading language or state judgments about others.
do not use hostile humor, including sarcasm.
aim to understand and be understood,
rather than “win” an argument.
are curious and open-minded.
try to stay connected to our empathy, considering
how the other feels hearing or reading our statements.
speak out with compassion when we see shaming behavior.
do not allow shaming comments on our pages, and do not “like”
or share them: we do not give a platform to those who shame.
This is a guest post by Dr. Melanie Joy, who is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism and is a Harvard-educated psychologist. In this article she talks about what she sees as a major problem in our movement: the shaming of vegans by other vegans. This is a longread, so sit back and take your time to digest the many important points she brings to the table.
(read this article in French or in Spanish)
At a recent conference for animal rights activists, an incident took place which left me disturbed, and concerned for our movement. A speaker and longtime vegan activist was giving a presentation on effective activism to an audience of approximately 300 when suddenly, two activists rushed onto the stage. One was carrying a dead chicken; the other was holding a sign claiming that the speaker’s organization was corrupt. The chicken activist then grabbed a microphone and proceeded to announce why he thought the speaker was a hypocrite who is responsible for extensive animal suffering and why he believed the speaker’s (vegan) organization actually benefits from animal exploitation. (Despite the fact that the organization in question has an outstanding track record of promoting veganism, their mainstream approach sometimes draws criticism from more radical groups.*) The next forty minutes or so were spent in an impromptu “debate” whereby the speaker — a passionate vegan who has dedicated his life to reducing animal suffering — was forced to spend his time explaining that he does, in fact, care about animals, instead of finishing his presentation that was designed to help activists more effectively save animals.
All the while, audience members cheered and hooted after each impassioned demand of the accusing activist; or, they cheered after the speaker successfully defended himself and his organization. At one point, audience members were offered the opportunity to participate, and, though plenty of them supported the speaker’s position, a number of them took up the torch and carried on something that rather resembled an inquisition. And this dynamic continued the following day, when the debate was again picked up. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned that an individual who had spent extensive time and energy preparing and delivering a talk had his presentation sabotaged — or that a human being, and committed vegan, was the subject of what I could only perceive as an attempted public shaming.
Shaming is, unfortunately, a widespread social behavior whose destruction remains unchecked largely because it is so normal as to be unremarkable. And public shaming is an increasingly popular spectacle, reminiscent of the Roman Games and arguably even more damaging. Thus, accepting and celebrating shaming behaviors is not unique to the vegan movement. However, the vegan movement is supposed to act as a counterpoint to those prevailing attitudes that cause, rather than alleviate, suffering. Clearly, the fact that an unjust behavior is socially acceptable is not an excuse for us to uncritically adopt it.
We shame others whenever we judge or degrade them, when we communicate that they are somehow inferior to ourselves or others. Shaming behaviors can be anything from a subtle eye roll when our non-vegan friend chooses a hamburger over a veggie burger to a verbal assault when a fellow vegan expresses an opinion we disagree with.
Shame is the emotion that results from bullying, abusive, or otherwise demeaning behavior. Shame is the feeling of being “less-than” others. We may feel less powerful, less moral, less attractive, less intelligent, etc. Ultimately, however, shame is the feeling of being less worthy than others. When we derive our sense of worth from our activism, attractiveness, intelligence, etc. — as most of us have learned to do — we inevitably feel shame when we are put down. And virtually all of us carry around a good deal of shame; it’s just a matter of how much shame each of us contends with. We have inherited a deeply problematic world with less-than-perfect role models; even those few of us who had emotionally healthy caregivers have been impacted by a popular culture in which competition, violence, and degradation — fear-inducing and shaming phenomena — are both normal and celebrated.
The flip side of shame is grandiosity, the feeling of being superior to, or “better than,” others. The inflated feeling of grandiosity, no matter how mild, can be seductive. When we are in a state of grandiosity, we are on a high that keeps us (largely) oblivious to the shame most of us spend our lives trying to deny, avoid, or otherwise cover up. So shaming others can be tempting, since making others inferior automatically props us up to a position of superiority. A common example of this dynamic among vegans is intellectual moral shaming – communicating that the other is less intelligent and less moral, often because she or he does not agree with one’s own views. The goal of intellectual moral shaming is to prove one’s position as “right” and the other as “wrong,” rather than to examine and objectively discuss differing perspectives.
Intellectual moral shaming can be particularly damaging, as it may be difficult to recognize and thus to respond to; shouts are far easier to identify than sneers. Often, intellectual moral shaming is obscured by cleverly articulated argumentation and eloquent prose. And when the beauty of well-chosen words is combined with zealous passion and steadfast self-righteousness, the result can be intoxicating. Well-intentioned vegans can become bedazzled by the brilliance of intellectual charisma, and unknowingly join in the stone-throwing at those whose ideas have been deemed “wrong,” and thus “immoral.” No matter how well educated, impassioned, or morally convinced one is, her or his ideas are not necessarily logical or accurate, and her or his manner is not necessarily ethical. We must always take a step back and ask, “Is this person referring to empirical data, or is she or he simply expressing an opinion? Is the argument logically sound?” And, “How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of such comments?”
Of course, not all shaming behaviors are attempts to boost our own egos; sometimes we shame others simply because we are attempting to get them to do something we want them to do – and we don’t realize that what we are doing is harmful.
Grandiosity and Entitlement
Entitlement is the belief that we deserve special privileges that are denied to others, and it is a natural consequence of being in a state of grandiosity. When we feel entitled, we feel we have the right to do to others what would be unacceptable for them to do to us.
For example, recently a (vegan) colleague of mine was questioned by another vegan about his approach to animal liberation. My colleague replied that he was a staunch proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. Yet when my colleague added that he supported a different strategy toward abolition than did the questioner, the other vegan – who was a veritable stranger to my colleague – insisted that my colleague didn’t “really care” about ending animal suffering and that he was not, in fact, a proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. The vegan felt entitled to define my colleague’s identity for him. He felt entitled to claim that my colleague’s self-assessment was wrong — that he knew better than my colleague what my colleague’s own personal philosophy and goals were.
Moral Might Makes Right
At the conference, though I was disturbed by the the accusing activist’s behavior, I was far more concerned by the fact that he was able to carry out his acts of sabotage and shaming because others gave him the platform on which to do so — because so many activists apparently shared his belief that “moral might makes right.” In other words, they believed that it is acceptable to bully, shame, or otherwise violate another as long as the attack stems from a sense of moral righteousness. When I asked the activist, for example, why he felt entitled to violate a speaker’s space, and potentially traumatize him (and onlookers) by forcibly exposing him to someone’s corpse – behaviors that are frighteningly reminiscent of animal abusers – he replied that it was because “the speaker crossed an ethical line,” a statement to which the crowd cheered.
Psychotherapist Terrence Real, who specializes in abusive relationships, calls this kind of behavior “offending from the victim position.” All abusers, Real points out, feel a sense of righteousness and believe they are defending themselves (or, in the case of animal rights activists, that they are defending others) when they are carrying out abusive behaviors. A batterer, for example, almost always says he hit his partner because she did something to hurt him: “She knows I can’t stand it when she complains about the way I treat the kids, but she just couldn’t keep her mouth shut.” In the abuser’s mind, his partner crossed a line – a subjective line that he constructed and that he decided would mark the boundary of justifiable violence toward her.
In the moral might-makes-right paradigm, abuse is not abuse if the behavior stems from a valid moral grievance. And of course, the person who decides whether the grievance is valid is the one acting out the behavior. Just consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the many American school shootings, violent acts committed in the name of moral righteousness. While these examples are obviously far more violent than the vegan who publicly shames other vegans (or non-vegans), the underlying mentality is similar; the difference is simply a matter of degree.
Shaming Vegans is Unstrategic
Most people would agree that practicing integrity precludes shaming. Integrity is the integration of values (such as compassion and justice) and practices, and when we shame others, we violate such values. So, shaming others — vegans and non-vegans alike — is simply unethical.
But even if we care little for the ethical consequences of shaming, such behavior has practical consequences as well. Shaming among vegans is inherently unstrategic; it turns off non-vegans whose support we need if our movement is to succeed, it disempowers vegans, and it causes a tremendous waste of time and energy that could be directed instead toward effective vegan activism.
When we shame another, we increase the likelihood that she or he will withdraw or attack in self-defense. Shamed people may fail to act on their own or others’ behalf because they don’t feel they have the power to bring about change. Consider the young woman who witnesses the horrors of factory farming, wants to stop eating animals, but cannot withstand the peer pressure to conform to the carnistic norm when she is called “radical” by her peers. Sometimes shamed people attack rather than withdraw, and they shame others as a way of (temporarily) building themselves up. Consider the boy who falls and scrapes his knee on the playground, starts crying, and is immediately teased by his peers for being a “girl” (unfortunately, calling one a female is among the most offensive of slurs). He pulls himself up, puffs out his chest in an “I’ll show you!” stance, and attempts to bully and shame the others.
Psychologists have long known that shaming behaviors are inherently abusive, and that shaming others is the best way to bring about the very opposite of what we desire (unless we are cult leaders, guards of political prisoners, or otherwise seek to disempower and “break” the other).
Because shame is so personally and socially debilitating, it is the emotion the dominant culture instills in those who challenge its oppressive practices, effectively silencing dissident voices (how many times have those of us who are vegans bitten our tongues for fear of being told we are “overly sensitive,” “extreme,” “irrational,” or “morally misguided”?). Vegans are no strangers to shame; we must struggle against it every day as we swim against the tide of the dominant culture.
Vegan Shaming in the Dominant Culture: Vegans as Too Visible or Invisible
Often, vegan shaming in the dominant culture is expressed in two ways: vegans are either too visible, or invisible. When we are too visible, our attitudes and behaviors are scrutinized and cross-examined, leaving us little room to be the fallible humans that we are and causing us to adopt a sort of “toxic perfectionism.” When we are invisible, our efforts are denied, invalidated, or otherwise obscured. When vegans shame each other, they reinforce these shaming, extremely damaging attitudes.
Too-Visible Vegans: Toxic Perfectionism
Vegans are often held to impossible standards by the dominant culture: we are expected to be paragons of virtue (we’re hypocrites if we wear silk, extremists if we don’t), models of health (if we should happen to fall ill, our entire ideology comes into question), and experts on everything (we aren’t allowed to advocate veganism unless we have all the answers to the problem of carnism – which, of course, we cannot).
Also, many vegans are highly sensitized to the idea that they could cause harm, be immoral, or not be “good enough,” and they have internalized the dominant culture’s message that they need to be perfect in order to be worthy. They struggle to accept that their efforts are sufficient, and often do not succeed. So toxic perfectionism is, not surprisingly, a common cause of depression and burnout among vegans. When other vegans reinforce toxic perfectionism, then, the results can be devastating. A common example is insisting that if one ingests even a trace of an animal product, such as drinking “non-vegan” wine or eating soy cheese that contains casein, she or he is “not a real vegan,” and is by extension an animal exploiter (an attitude that no doubt also scares many new vegans and potential vegans off).
Toxic perfectionism also causes us to reduce the individual we are judging to nothing more than the “shameful” behaviors for which we are judging her or him. We fail to appreciate the other as a whole individual, as we erase any parts or her or his activism or life that contradict our judgment. For example, one controversial campaign of an organization that’s done tremendous good for animals can lead to it being criticized as a “sell-out” or a colluder with the oppressor. Even when the numbers objectively don’t add up — when the individual or organization has statistically done far more “good” than potential “harm” — toxic perfectionism causes us to mentally invalidate such data.
When vegans promote toxic perfectionism, they can create an excessive fear in other vegans (and themselves) of making mistakes. One slipup, one admittance of not being “pure” enough, can lead to being shamed. People who fear making mistakes are often people who end up doing nothing.
Invisible Vegans: Ingratitude
Ours is a thankless job. As vegan activists, we often work tirelessly, for no money or for far less than we would otherwise earn, and we do so for no reason other than that we care. The animals cannot thank us, and never will. Our efforts are frequently invisible, ridiculed, or even fought against by the dominant culture, sometimes even by those with whom we are in the closest relationships.
So when our fellow activists, the only people in the world who truly “get” what it means to be a vegan in an animal-eating world, do to us the very things the dominant culture does — calling us hypocrites, ridiculing us, and attacking us — we can become demoralized. Clearly, we feel assaulted by attacks. But perhaps an even more insidious feeling is that of being deeply unappreciated, a feeling that can lead to despair. A desire for appreciation is not selfish or egotistical. It is a basic human need which, when not met, saps us of our motivation and inspiration. If you doubt this just think of how you feel when your partner fails to acknowledge that you’ve been the one cleaning the house since you moved in together.
From Shame to Empowerment
It would be tragic if vegans agreed on everything. Our diversity is our beauty, and our strength. However, the the way we disagree matters. It matters very much. When we come together to discuss, rather than dispute, our differing ideas, we can enrich ourselves and our movement. In such a situation, we approach our disagreements with curiosity and compassion. We are open to learning from one another, and, even when we feel strongly about an issue, we don’t shame or violate the other. We empower, rather than disempower, ourselves and our movement. Empowerment is the opposite of shame.
Communicating with Empathy
We can reduce the likelihood that we will shame another if, before we communicate, we stop and ask ourselves, “Am I connected to my empathy right now? Am I truly considering how the world looks through the other’s eyes — how my words or actions will feel to her or him?” Or, “How would I feel and how would I react if someone said this to me?” These questions are particularly important if we feel angry or morally righteous, and/or if the other is a leader or organization, whereby it’s easier to view them as simply a symbol, rather than as a human being or an institution made up of human beings. Often we forget that underneath the role of CEO, author, speaker, etc. there is a person with feelings, wants, and needs, a person who will be impacted by our words. And we forget that our organizations are made up of activists who are people who care very much about the cause and the impact of the work they are doing.
And before we communicate we can also ask ourselves, “What is the goal of my communication? What impact on animals do I hope this communication will have?” Many of the vegans who shame other vegans do so from a place of genuine concern, believing that the other’s approach to reducing animal suffering actually harms animals. Some strategic approaches are no doubt better than others, and without solid data (which, when it comes to broad strategies for animal liberation, we simply do not have) it’s difficult if not impossible to know what approach is most effective. So we need to continue talking, discussing, analyzing, and learning. But one thing is for sure: shaming or bullying other vegans does not help the animals, as it erodes morale, disempowers activists, and weakens the entire movement. If you want to do what’s best for the animals, stop shaming.
Creating Shame-Free Zones
The most important way we can create a shame-free culture is to do everything in our power to take away the platform of those who shame. Shamers would not have the impact they do if they didn’t have an audience.
It is my hope that vegans will choose to become allies in creating a more compassionate and thus more powerful movement — to commit to creating a culture that is inoculated against shaming (of non-vegans and vegans alike). To do this, we can create shame-free zones everywhere in our power: in our conversations and organizations, at our conferences and gatherings, and perhaps most importantly, on our social media pages, since social media is often the most prevalent source of widespread shaming. Rather than “call out” shamers, which would reinforce the reactive mentality of call-out culture, I suggest that we “call for” compassion — that we take an active role in ensuring that we do not ignore or pass along shaming comments. We can make a statement on our social media pages that we are committed to shame-free communicating, and then, non-judgmentally, if someone shares a hostile or demeaning remark, we can request that they share their concerns more compassionately and, if they do not, we can delete the post. We can also speak to our conference organizers, meetup hosts, or organizational leaders when we notice shaming behavior being tolerated or encouraged. Most important is that we are not a bystander to harm. As Edmund Burke so aptly stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
The majority of vegans are highly conscious, compassionate individuals who are deeply committed to personal integrity and social transformation. It is likely that our movement has gotten to the point where shaming is a problem partly because we have uncritically accepted the “moral might makes right” myth, and largely because those of us who do not shame have not paid the phenomenon much attention. So we have ended up as inadvertent bystanders, enabling a problem simply by not addressing it.
Shaming damages our movement. As vegans, we do not have the luxury of oblivion; we cannot afford to simply gloss over hostile statements or ignore demeaning comments. We must do what we do best: act as critical consumers and encourage others to do the same. We must examine not only that which we put into or on our bodies, but that which we take into our hearts and minds, and promote compassion over cruelty.
*Of course, different ideological approaches can raise legitimate questions, from both sides. However, the focus of this article is on the way we approach such questions, not the questions themselves.
October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury – mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries – while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.
Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.
You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.
We are empathic beings – at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch – perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability – and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and – for many of us – probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Jonathan Saffran Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one’s meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.
What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.
Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.
More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: all of these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.
After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi. Yet.