You know when you have held an idea for a long time and then discover there’s actually a term for it, that it’s “a thing”? It’s always exciting when that happens.
I have long been amazed at how otherwise very similar individuals and especially groups of people seem to take offense at tiny differences between them. In the animal rights/vegan movement too, all of us who are in it have so much in common, but sometimes we tend to get lost on the differences.
So anyway, there’s an expression for this, and it stems from – wait for it – Sigmund Freud. In his (quite interesting) Civilization and its Discontents, he called this “the narcissism of small differences“.
The question of course is: why? Why are groups of people that are so very similar, sometimes so hostile to each other because of the relatively minor stuff that they differ in? Why do vegans infight over feeding one’s cats meat, whether someone like me who indiscriminately drinks wine can call himself a vegan, or whether we should improve the lives of pigs by welfare reforms or not? If some of these things don’t seem small to you, I urge you to look at the bigger picture that we agree on: we all want an end to the suffering, use and killing of animals. At least compared to the general population who has no such ambitions at all, this is a huge point that we have in common. Yes, huge.
One possible explanation for the narcissism of small differences – and one that Freud himself offers – is our need for distinct identities. We may somehow, subconscioulsy, become hostile because our identity is threatened by others who are too much like us, so we overemphasize the (often tiny) differences.
Which brings me again to the vegan club vs vegan world topic. Maybe a club that gets too big is a threat to our identity too. Maybe after a while we are not feeling exclusive or special enough anymore, and that might be why we need to make sure entrance to our ingroup doesn’t become too easy. The membership fee, in this sense, has to be high enough. The vegan police is there to guard the door.
All this has to do with the different motivations we have as humans. All of us vegans and activists have a desire to make the world a better place. But most of us also have much more mundane and less lofty tendencies and aspirations. We also want to belong. We want to be with likeminded people. We want to feel at least a tiny bit important. These frailties will not help us in our cause, but they are all too human. It is good to be aware of them. Always.
PS I’m sure there are psychologists, sociologists and evolutioniary biologists who can speak about with much more expertise than I can. I welcome your input, links, studies…
Check this article for further reading, and part of the inspiration for this post
Matt Ball is a long time activist. In 1993, he cofounded Vegan Outreach, and led the organization as Executive Director for more than 20 years. Today, he is Director of Outreach for Farm Sanctuary. He’s the author of several books on activism, and blogs at MattBall.net. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the most thoughtful voices and best strategic thinkers in our movement. There’s no getting around him on a strategy blog, so I interviewed him about purity, effectiveness, definitions and dogma in the vegan movement. Sit down and enjoy another longread.
VS: How would you define a vegan? A vegan diet?
MB: Before considering this question, I think it is important to step back and consider what is happening in the real world. Hopefully, it could help put the focus on what really matters….
You could argue that Jane’s brothers had it better. Andy and Bruce and Gene and Martin were tossed into a bag, on top of hundreds of others. Over many agonizing minutes, they were crushed as more and more were added to the bag. With increasing panic, they struggled with all their might to move, to breathe, as their collective weight squeezed the air from their lungs. No matter how desperately they fought and gasped, they couldn’t get enough air, until finally, mercifully, they blacked out and eventually died.
Jane’s torments were just beginning, however. Her mouth was mutilated, leaving her in so much pain she couldn’t eat for several days. One of her sisters was unable to eat and starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn in a tiny wire cage. To call it a “prison” would be a gross understatement. They were crammed into the cage so tightly that the wires rubbed their skin raw. Their excrement mixed with that of thousands of others, and the horrible ammonia stench of the piles of feces burned their nostrils and lungs.
Struggling for freedom, Megan was eventually able to reach her head through the wires. But then she was trapped, unable to get back in. Over the next few days, she slowly, painfully died of dehydration.
After over a year of this torture, Jane’s feet became tangled in the wire mesh of the floor. Unable to move, she was beginning to dehydrate. But before death could end her pain, she was torn from the cage, her entangled toes left behind, ripped from her body. The brutality of her handler crushed many of her bones, and she was thrown into a truck. For the next 14 hours, she and hundreds of others were driven through the Iowa winter, without protection, food, or water. The cold numbed the pain of Jane’s mutilated feet, but not the acute agony of her shattered bones. She was then shackled upside down, and had her throat cut. That’s how her torment ended.
An unfathomable number of individuals have suffered and are suffering just as Jane did.
Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:
We can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.
Or we can focus our efforts entirely on actually ending the system that brutalizes individuals like Tracy and Gene.
If we take Jane’s plight seriously, the best thing most of us can do at the moment is help persuade more people to buy cruelty-free foods. As tempting as it is, we can’t just remain in our bubble, liking and retweeting what our fellow advocates say. We can’t be distracted by online debates. We can’t endlessly reevaluate every question and debate.
Instead, we have to focus on realistic strategies that start to create significant and lasting change with new people in the real world. As hard as it is, we absolutely must stop paying attention to people who want to create the world’s smallest club, and start paying attention to what actually creates real change with people who currently don’t know about Jane’s plight.
Questions like the above – about our definitions and opinions – seem harmless. But not only do they waste valuable time and resources, they reinforce the idea that our work is an academic exercise. It isn’t – the lives of individuals like Tracy and Andy depend on us actually doing constructive work in the real world. VS: Do you think it is useful for vegans to point it out when they see non-vegan behaviour of “vegans”?
Three things should guide our actions in any situation:
1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.
2. We have a realistic expectation that our actions will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.
3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.
It is hard to imagine anything we could do that that would have fewer real-world positive consequences for animals than spending our limited time and resources policing the world’s smallest club.
I’ve actually found a pretty clear distinction between people whose primary concern is the purity and exclusivity of their club, vs those who are really working to change the world for animals. The former view everyone as the enemy. The latter view everyone as a (current or potential) ally.
Viewing everyone as an ally is not only necessary for truly helping individuals like Jane and Andy, but it is also much better for our mental health and the sustainability of our activism.
VS: What are some exceptions you would make? Is there non-vegan behaviour you indulge in?
In an interview many years ago, someone* was infuriated that I had once said I wouldn’t police what our daughter ate birthday parties. They justified their anger by saying it would send “mixed messages” if a four-year-old ate a piece of non-vetted cake. I replied that I never knew anyone who said, “Oh, I would have stopped eating animals, but then I saw this toddler having cake!”
You (Tobias) have wisely pointed out that what we personally consume is nowhere near as important as the influence we can have in the wider world. So I think our limited time is better spent figuring out how to be better examples and advocates, rather than trying to be ever more “pure.” And even if we don’t agree with that, the only way to be truly pure is to be dead. But really, is the best case scenario for the world one where I’m dead? Where you’re dead? It would be really sad if that were the case.
The evidence doesn’t support that, though. By being a thoughtful, realistic, positive, bottom-line focused advocate, we can have a significant impact beyond what we accomplish with our personal purchases.
There is so much each one of us can do to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, to expand our circle of compassion, to bend the arc of history toward justice.
But making the world a better place has to be our fundamental goal. We can’t be motivated to follow some dogma or comply with some definition. To create the change necessary to make the world a better place, we have to deal with others where they are. We have to be realistic about what change can happen and how it can most likely be brought about. We have to be pragmatic in evaluating our options and choosing the best course of action, given the variables and uncertainties inherent in the real world.
The best thing I can do in one situation (e.g., a child’s birthday party) might not be the best I can do in another situation (e.g., meeting with a group of new activists). And neither of these might be the best thing you could do in the opportunities you encounter. I can’t know for sure what the best thing to do is in any situations, but I do know it isn’t simple.
VS: To what extent should we use the word “vegan” in our outreach and to what extent other words? When? What words?
I stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy over a quarter century ago. At the time, and for years after, I was mindlessly pro-“vegan.” Not pro-animal, or pro-compassion, or pro-change. Pro-“vegan.” The word. The identity. The philosophy and “lifestyle.”
But in the real world, “vegan” is a stereotype, a punchline, an excuse. People say, “I could never be vegan,” and that is the end of the conversation – the end of any opportunity for constructive engagement, for steps taken that could have a real-world benefit for animals.
“Vegan” is an ego-boost, a divider, a distraction. It is too easy to simply judge things as “vegan / not vegan,” instead of focusing on cruelty to animals, working to end factory farms, and having any real impact in the real world.
When I focused on “vegan,” instead of how to bring about real change for animals in the real world, I was being both self-centered and lazy. I understand the desire to only care about “vegan,” of course. But at best, the word distracts from doing our best to help new people make compassionate choices that have real consequences for animals.
VS: You have said that the greatest hindrance to the spread of veganism … is vegans themselves. Can you elaborate?
I’ve seen the dynamic of “I could never be vegan” play out for years. As discussed in The Accidental Activist, bottom-line-oriented activists experience a huge increase in the quantity and quality of conversations when they changed their shirts (stickers, etc.) from “Ask me why I’m vegan” to “Ask me why I’m vegetarian.”
University of Arizona research in early 2015 bears this out: non-vegetarians see “vegan” as impossible, and “vegans” as angry, fanatical, and judgmental. I have known several individuals who have given up lucrative careers to dedicate themselves to farm animals, and yet been so put off by the actions of “vegans,” that they want to disassociate themselves from the word. This is depressing, but it’s reality. I believe it is better to face reality and adjust so we can really help animals in the real world.
VS: Do we need to guard a definition or some line? Is that important? Is there a danger of watering down the concept of “veganism”?
It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.
In the end, though, we have limited time and resources. We can, of course, spend this limited time trying to convince someone who has wedded their sense of self-worth to a specific position. But this is no more constructive than spending our time arguing with our Uncle Bob. I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people – people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.
As difficult as it is, it would be so amazing if everyone who reads your blog would stop engaging in internecine debates. Ignore the attacks. Ignore the name calling. Give up the fantasy of winning an argument. Give up any concern with words or dogma. It would be so incredible if we were to just focus on positive outreach to new people.
VS: For most of your career, you have mainly worked on person-to-person outreach, rather than institutional outreach. What is the reason behind that?
When I stopped eating animals back in the 1990s, there was really no consideration of doing institutional outreach regarding farm animals. Before I did a more utilitarian evaluation of my efforts, I did try to put pressure on Procter and Gamble to stop testing their products on animals, even going so far as to get arrested.
After that, though, I realized I needed to work where I could have the biggest impact in terms of reducing suffering. But I couldn’t just go to a restaurant or food service provider and ask them to add in more cruelty-free options. This is a capitalist society, and if the demand isn’t there, no company is going to create supply (this played out when some McDonald’s introduced a veggie burger years ago, and it failed). Similarly, I would have no impact as an individual in asking Smithfield or Tyson to stop using gestation crates or move to a less cruel slaughter method.
Things have changed significantly in the past three decades. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has gained significant political and market power, such that corporations are more likely to listen and cooperate. Demand for meat-free options has grown in breadth (if not depth) such that working with institutions can have a lasting impact and further drive the cruelty-free demand / supply cycle. There is so much potential – more than half of the people in the US are specifically concerned with the treatment of farm animals!
Some of the most important and consequential work being done right now is at the institutional level. e.g. banning the most barbaric practices from factory farms, increasing the availability of cruelty-free options, and building the companies that will create the products that will replace animal products.
But as long as people want to eat an animal’s flesh, animals will be treated like meat. Of course, this isn’t saying that all animal exploitation is equally bad, or that abolishing gestation crates or battery cages isn’t an important step forward.
What we do know, however, is that even in “humane” meat situations, there is suffering – often, egregious cruelty. We’ve seen this regularly, including PETA’s recent exposure of the horrors of Whole Foods “humane meat.”
The continuing necessity of work on the demand side, combined with my background and opportunities to date, leads me to conclude that at this moment, I can have the biggest impact on the advocacy side. I don’t know if this will continue to be the case, however. There is a ton of exciting work going on now that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago!
VS: What do you think of reducetarian outreach?
The reducetarian approach is rooted in one vitally important psychological insight: people are more likely to attempt and maintain a change that seems achievable, rather than something that seems far beyond where they are now. This has been shown over and over again – not only that the more realistic a change is, the more likely people are to attempt it, but also that the more stepwise a change, the more likely people are to maintain that change.
But as currently embodied, the reducetarian movement misses another important psychological truth (as discussed by Dr. Gordon Hodson): goals must be not only reasonable and achievable, but clear. “Eat less meat” is not a clear goal. Reach out to just about anyone considered to be a likely target for dietary change and ask them to “eat less meat,” and they will almost universally reply, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat.”
They often add, “Just chicken.” But of all the factory-farmed animals brutalized and killed for food, the vast majority are birds. Yes, nearly everyone cares more about mammals than birds. But as Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has noted, modern poultry production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animals.” Combine this with the fact that it takes more than 40 chickens to replace the meals produced by one pig, and more than 200 birds to replace one cow, everyone who “eats less [red] meat” and replaces even a little of it with birds is causing a lot more suffering.
Like doctors, our first duty as advocates should be to “do no harm.” The initial test we should run on any potential campaign or message is, “Is there any chance that my efforts will actually lead to more animals suffering in the real world?” Unfortunately, I think the “eat less meat” campaign might fail that test. VS: Speaking of chickens, you recently helped create One Step for Animals, which emphasizes decreasing chicken consumption. It’s clear that that would help save a lot of lives and suffering (as chickens are both such small animals and so intensively raised). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that this is speciesist, or that it encourages eating other animals?
Encouraging people to cut back on or not eat chickens is just that. It is in no way saying that people should eat cows, or pigs, or dogs, or chimpanzees.
One Step isn’t concerned with speciesism, but rather, realism. One Step takes starts with all the statistics and known psychological truths. Just as importantly, though, One Step refuses to be driven by definitions. One Step refuses to engage or appease the dogmatists. Rather, One Step for Animals is concerned only with results in the real world: reducing the most suffering possible. You can disagree that their approach is likely to do that, but “reducing suffering” is the only metric by which One Step (or any group) should be judged.
VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?
Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.
For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings:
If you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.
If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.
I think within our movement we so often forget we’re all working for the same things. There may be minor differences in the envisaged outcome, but basically the animal rights/vegan movement wants a world where animals are not being used or killed by humans.
The differences are about how to get to that situation. Having a clear and concrete objective doesn’t imply we also know how to make it a reality. On the contrary, sometimes having a clear objective can be misleading, in the sense that it makes us think the way to get there should just be based on our aim. If we want x, we ask for x. But that’s not necessarily the best, the easiest, the fastest way to arrive somewhere.
In the movie Lincoln, there’s a discussion between Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens about how to pass the amendment for the abolition of slavery. Stevens talks about our “inner compass”, which should point North (showing where to go, what is right, etc), but in many people doesn’t. Lincoln’s reply goes like this:
“A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and desert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?”
Vegan and animal rights activists come in different shapes and sizes, and there are several possible ways to categorize them. Let me suggest one way: we can distinguish between those who are working or volunteering for an organisation, and those who act individually.
I am aware that I am simplifying and generalizing, but bear with me for a moment, because I think what category one falls into, may often determine part of one one’s activist style and philosophy.
Faithful readers of this blog will know that I often make a distinction between pragmatic and more ideological activists or activism. Now the thing is that when you work or volunteer for a veg/animal rights organisation, you will often be a lot more pragmatic. You will have to be. This is because organisations tend to do different work than individuals. Organisations often became organisations (this is to say individuals joined together to form them) in order to have more influence and impact. Trying to establish alliances with institutional agents can increase this impact. So especially bigger groups often put a fair amount of resources into institutional change.
The institutions that animal rights/veg groups try to influence, can take many forms. They can be political: local, regional or national governments, political parties… They can be corporate: businesses in all shapes and sizes, from food producers to restaurant chains to any business with a restaurant in it… They can be other organisations in civil society: environmental or health organisations who may be natural allies and help spread a message. They can be academic: schools and universities. All these institutions can have a multiplicatory or leverage effect: if you can move them, they’ll move many other people for you.
It is definitely possible to move institutions from an individual or grassroots position, and in fact it probably happens all the time. Yet it is undoubtedly often easier to do so – and to do so at a bigger scale – from a position within an organisation – changing laws, for instance, is not something easily done as an individual.
There are several reasons for this. Organisations represent a group of people, and some institutions – especially political ones – will only be moved if they see the organisation speaks for or can influence a certain number of people. Organisations also often have several resources available that individual activists or smaller groups do not always have: the means to do research and show certain results to institutional partners, or an outreach channel of many thousands of followers. They can use these channels to advertise what the “partner” did – which is of course great to either put pressure or incentivize them. Organisations also have more money, which may be useful for certain purposes, like campaigning, lobbying, etc.
These institutional allies will not always want to do exactly as the animal rights/veg groups suggest. They will not necessarily spread the message in the exact same way. This could because they don’t believe in it the same way we do, or because they think their own constituency is not ready for it. In my experience, for instance, when institutional partners want to do outreach about plant based food among their audience, they feel more confident emphasizing health and environmental reasons, than animal rights reasons.
When others don’t want to take on our exact message, we have the choice. The first option is to take an absolute stance and refuse to work with them. The second is to be strategic: we compromise and accept the way in which they will bring the message to their voters, members, employees etc. Of course, in our decision a lot will depend on the perceived gains and the perceived sacrifices. But the point I want to make is that generally, if we don’t want to be pragmatic and just stick to our strict ideology, have way less chances of starting alliances that may help influence big numbers of people. Don’t compromise, and you may end up working and preaching on an island.
The work that individuals (not affiliated with groups) do, is often more about reaching out one by one. It is easier there to be stricter and uncompromising: if a person doesn’t want to listen, one moves on to the next person. But the more one is out in the real world, away from the internet, partnering with other actors, the harder it becomes to maintain a strict ideology if one wants to have results.
I can understand that some activists do not want to be pragmatic. I understand they don’t want to advocate for meat reduction rather than full blown veganism, for instance, because they believe this can’t be reconciled with their views. That is fine. But at the very least, I hope those people can grant other people – and groups – a more pragmatic approach, without accusing them of betrayal or being greedy for funds, or whatever arguments animal rights groups get thrown at them these days.
Because there is no betrayal. I have said this before: we should be true not to our ideology and its rules (for instance veganism), but to the values and objectives below the ideology: decreasing animal abuse.
It is good to bear all this in mind when forming an opinion of (big) organisations. Also remember that you rarely have all the information about them (practise slow opinion). You probably don’t know their entire strategy. Just assume that their intentions are the same: putting an end to the use, suffering and killing of animals.
Of course organisations have their own challenges. They may evolve in a wrong direction, become less efficient, more wasteful, bloated etc. But that doesn’t mean this is a given, or that the net benefit of these organisations is not good. Just like individuals, organisations will probably never be perfect. But we need them. As a movement, we need their resources, their expertise, their experience, their outreach and their influence to make the difference we want to make for animals.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a spiritual teacher. Even if you raise your eyebrows at anything sounding like religion or spirituality, do continue reading.
In 1967 Martin Luther King strongly suggested Thich Nhat Hanh be given the nobel prize for peace, for his peace activism in Vietnam. He never received it because the situation was too policital. Had he received it, his name by now would be much more widely known still.
There is nothing particularly metaphysical, supernatural or religious about his teachings, which are about being present, meditation, or the value of compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh is vegan. The food that is served in the communities that he founded is vegan. Thus he inspires thousands of longer time residents as well as day visitors to a vegan lifestyle. He also talks and writes about eating animals and animal products in his books, which are full of compassion. If anyone is the embodiment of compassion and what veganism – or a vegan – should ideally be, it may very well be Thich Nath Hahn (though I am sure that, like the rest of us, he’s a mere human being with his own challenges).
Gary Francione, who is known to critize about any leading figure or organisation in the animal rights movement, recently also criticized Thich Nhat Hanh, writing the following:
Thich Nhat Hanh’s crime was saying this:
Thich Nhat Hanh probably understands that he’ll have much more impact among the wide population with a message like this than with a go vegan message. He probably understands that all people eating fifty percent less meat is probably enough to tip the system, so it can move further towards world veganism. Thich Nhat Hanh is not concerned with the purity of his ideology, but with the actual impact of his words on the reduction of suffering in the world.
Francione states that Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t understand the basics of non-violence. That is beyond ironic, coming from someone whose words about other activists and organisations can hardly be called non-violent. Someone like Thich Nhat Hanh can hardly be expected to take any lessons from someone like Gary Francione.
PS For those who think that whoever criticizes Francione is guilty of the same things the professor is, please read this.
This guest post is by Hillary Rettig. She is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way and other works, and a ten-year vegan and vegan activist. She is a cofounder of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of In Defense of Animals’ Sustainable Activism Council. The views expressed here are hers alone. Visit www.lifelongactivist.com and www.hillaryrettig.com for more on Hillary and her work, and she welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. In this article, Hillary examines the strategic value of approaches that call for reduction of the consumption of animal products, rather than their outright elimination, as a stepping stone on the way to abolition.
In 1806, British abolitionists faced a quandary.
For more than twenty years, they had been working to achieve a single overarching goal—to get Parliament to pass a bill outlawing the British slave trade—but had experienced defeat after defeat. Now, in the wake of several expensive and humiliating failed wars, including the U.S. Revolutionary War and Anglo-French War, as well as reports of France’s post-revolutionary Terror, the public and political mood had turned hostile. Even former supporters were now denouncing the abolitionists as “seditionists” and “Jacobins” (after the guillotine-wielding extremist French party).
The abolitionists were “deeply discouraged,” writes Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains, his terrific history of the movement. But right at that dark moment, abolitionist and naval law expert James Stephen came up with a novel idea: instead of introducing yet another doomed-to-fail abolitionist bill to Parliament, why not instead introduce one that merely made it illegal for British subjects to invest in, insure, supply or otherwise participate in slave trading by France and its allies, including notably the United States? And that legalized the seizure of French and allied slave ships by British navy vessels and privateers?
It was a genius idea for three reasons. First, it would play to post-war nationalist sentiments. Second, naval and maritime interests would love it, since the officers and crew of ships would be entitled by law to claim a percentage of the value of any illegal ship they captured. And third: what Stephen and the abolitionists knew—but what was generally not known by the British public and politicians—was that around two-thirds of British slave ships sailed under either the French or U.S. flag. So the bill, while seeming like an innocuous piece of patriotic fluff, would actually dismantle a huge percentage of Britain’s slave trade.
Nevertheless, the other abolitionists hesitated. Along with the moral question of whether it was right to settle for a partial solution to an absolute evil, there was the strategic question of whether the bill, by eliminating competition, might actually wind up strengthening the remaining slave trade. And there was also the public relations question of whether the public might perceive the abolitionists as implicitly endorsing slavery conducted under Britain’s own flag.
Fortunately, they decided to follow Stephen’s plan. After some adroit political maneuvering – nicely dramatized in the 2006 movie Amazing Grace – the Foreign Slave Trade Act was passed. It was, from an abolitionist standpoint, an outstanding success. As anticipated, it immediately knocked out a huge part of Britain’s slave trade—and, contrary to abolitionist fears, actually destabilized the rest. And it reinvigorated support for abolition.
Small wonder that, a scant year later, the long-sought-after abolitionist bill was finally passed.
This wasn’t the only tough compromise the abolitionists made, by the way. They had made an even tougher one nearly twenty years earlier, when, at one of their very first meetings, they voted to work only on shutting down the slave trade and not on freeing Britain’s (and its colonies’) slaves. They didn’t make that decision lightly—they knew it meant leaving more than half a million people enslaved, most in horrific circumstances in the Caribbean sugar fields. But they considered that battle unwinnable at that time. (They did hope that eliminating the slave trade would lay the foundation for future emancipation—which it did!)
The U.S. abolitionists made a similar compromise when, as depicted in the movie Lincoln, they agreed to give up their insistence on including language mandating full racial equality, so as not to jeopardize passage of the the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
And, about a hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., similarly compromised when, despite his hatred for poll taxes, he agreed to support the removal of a contentious poll tax ban from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so as not to compromise that bill’s passage.
More recently, we’ve seen progressives settle for the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., “Obamacare”) as a stepping stone to single-payer health insurance, and LGBT activists accepting civil unions en route to winning full marriage equality.
Every social justice movement compromises.
Now it’s the vegan and animal rights activists’ (hereafter referred to as “vegans”) turn. A group of activists have announced a new “Reducetarian” campaign designed to get people to, as the name implies, reduce their consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and other animal products (hereafter all referred to as “meat”) for reasons including animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. Although some vegans have always embraced the “reducetarian” approach–if not the actual name–the creation of a formal Reducetarian movement takes things to a new level, especially as its supporters include such non-vegan notables as legendary human rights activist Noam Chomsky, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and scientists and best-selling authors Birute Mary Galdikas, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. These are all people with enormous credibility and influence who, even if they don’t yet share our goal of global veganism, could do a lot to help the vegan movement.
That’s why many vegans, including myself, welcome the Reducetarian campaign. But others are like the 1806 abolitionists: deeply uncomfortable with a “partial solution” that asks people to reduce their meat consumption rather than eliminate it. These vegans typically refer to themselves as “abolitionists,” and I will use that name for them in this article, although it is important to note that the vast majority of vegans, including many pro-reducetarian vegans, share the goal of abolishing animal exploitation. While I think the abolitionists are well intentioned, I would respectfully ask them to consider these four points:
1) Compromise is Fundamental to Societal Change. As the above examples illustrate, the idea that compromise is complicity is ahistorical. It’s also illogical, since all solutions, to all problems, are partial. Plus, as Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “In the world as it is, the solution of each problem inevitably creates a new one.”
Alinsky also writes: “Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles… But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word… A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian.”
So, yeah: as beef consumption declined – due to public health concerns, E. coli scares, vegan activism, and other factors – chicken consumption increased. And we’re also seeing the growth of the “humanely raised” meat industry, which (as the abolitionists fear) is almost certainly helping some consumers rationalize their meat eating. Undesirable as these developments are, why would we expect any different? Power doesn’t give up without a struggle. These developments are not signs of failure, as some of the abolitionists seem to think, but of success. We’re changing consumer behaviors, and forcing the meat industries to react.
2) Change, in Humans, is a Process. Alinsky says an activist’s primary duty is to, “see the world as it is.” Reducetarian supporter Peter Singer, in his activist primer Ethics into Action, gives similar advice: “Above all, keep in touch with reality.” Well, here’s the reality about humans: We often learn, and change, slowly. We find it difficult to break bad habits. We crave. We lapse. We’re egocentric. We are susceptible to social pressure and corporate propaganda. And we often choose short-term gratification over a greater benefit delivered over the long term.
These are just some of many behaviors that most of us wish we, and others, weren’t susceptible to. (And they all have reasonable explanations, by the way: the short-term gratification thing—which psychologists call myopic discounting—makes sense given that, for much of our species’ six-million-year history, we lived in such dangerous circumstances that if you delayed a gratification you might not live to experience it.) Is there even one abolitionist who hasn’t committed every one of these regrettable behaviors in one realm or other of her life?
Moreover, the barriers to veganism are substantial and include not just the pervasiveness of animal exploitation in our culture and economy, and the resilience of animal agriculture as a capitalist system, but the central and intimate role that food plays in our lives. A few years back when I attended foster parent training, for instance, the teachers stressed how one of the most welcoming and comforting things you could do for a new foster child was to feed him foods he was used to. Abolitionists don’t want to hear any of that. Their mantra—“Go 100% vegan. Right now. It’s easy.”–reflects a stubborn unwillingness to accept the realities of human nature and the mechanisms of personal change. As Singer put it in his book: “Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They… lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change.”
Some abolitionists, it’s true, do acknowledge the reality that many people change in stages; only they argue that vegans should never actively promote the incremental steps. However, not providing support for the most common method people will use to attain your goal is a weak strategy. Also – as I hope this article will demonstrate – it’s not difficult to both applaud someone for taking an incremental step while also helping him keep his eye on the prize.
3) Let’s Skip the Whole Pointless Discussion of People’s Motives. Yeah, research shows that ethical vegans lapse less. That’s one data point among many that are relevant to promoting veganism, and it pertains to some people and situations but not others. (For more on this, see Tobias Leenaert’s excellent talk on why “compassion costs too much” for many people.) In any case, if our goal is truly to reduce animal consumption as quickly as possible, then the solution is to create a mass market for our ideas, similar to the way Apple or Coke or Disney creates a mass market for its products. By definition, that means welcoming people with diverse motives. Also, as Leenaert points out, ethics don’t just influence behavior, behavior can also influence ethics. We often see this when social justice-, public health-, and public safety-type laws are passed: people comply reluctantly at first, and then more willingly as their views change. Antidiscrimination laws and laws mandating seat belt use are two examples; and it’s also worth noting that the act of parenting itself is probably a universal application of this principle, since it often involves mandating behaviors with the hope that those behaviors will instill ethics.
Since behavior can influence ethics, we should be encouraging people to move toward veganism out of any and every possible motive. Which brings us to…
4) The Vegan Movement’s Immediate Goal Should Be To Create Billions of Reducetarians. A currently popular abolitionist-type graphic shows cows lined up waiting to be slaughtered, with the caption, “Baby steps are cool. We’ll just wait on this line until you embrace veganism.” The truth, however, is that reducetarianism actually offers the best hope of saving those cows. If everyone in the U.S. reduced their meat consumption by just the modest target of one meal per week—around 5%—that would save around 450 million cows and other animals each year in the U.S. alone. To achieve the same result, the abolitionists would have to convert approximately 4.5 million meat eaters to complete veganism (based on the oft-cited statistic that a vegan saves 100 animal lives/year). That number, incidentally, represents more than three times the current total of U.S. vegans.
If I were one of those poor cows, I’d totally support reducetarianism.
To get from the carnist world we’ve got now to the vegan world we want, there will have to be many intermediate steps. Our immediate goal should be to create billions of partial / lapsed / struggling / uncommitted vegans, a.k.a. reducetarians, because that will not only eliminate the most animal suffering the most quickly; it will also lay a strong foundation for future progress.
Yes, we’ll probably have to coax those reducetarians along step by step, probably rebutting loads of misinformation—not to mention, rationalizations and equivocations—along the way.
And, yes, we’ll also have to cope with ever more devious ploys from an animal agriculture industry desperate to maintain its profitability. (Beef fat-fueled airplanes, anyone?)
And, unfortunately yes, we’ll probably have to make some more difficult, and probably even tragic, compromises.
But that is the path we’re going to have to follow, because, contrary to abolitionist fantasies, there simply is no other.
To the Abolitionists: Have Faith
In their ignorance of, or disdain for, history, strategy, and psychology, abolitionists pursue ineffective strategies, the “baby step” graphic’s coercive shaming being one example. Here are two others:
*Glib Theorizing. “One of the deep flaws of [reducetarianism],” wrote one abolitionist on Facebook, “is that it approaches the problem only as if it were a question of quantity while it is a qualitative difference between not being vegan and being vegan… And nobody will have any idea of what animal rights are if animal rights activists engage in this confused talk of meat reduction as if they were not actually talking about suffering individuals.” This comment sounds compelling, and it got the most “likes” of any abolitionist comment in the discussion, but, like many abolitionist statements, it makes no sense. Is a life saved via reducetarianism “qualitatively” different than one saved by veganism?
Beyond that, the statement is factually wrong: the Reducetarian website not only explicitly discusses animal suffering, it lists it as the very first reason to reduce one’s meat consumption.
Another comment in the same thread compared the idea of meat-eating animal-rights advocates (the subject of an article by Reducetarianism campaign co-founder Brian Kateman) to “slave-holding black-rights advocates,” and concluded, “Nope, sorry.” But why would we turn away any ally to our cause, especially if their activism, aside from being useful on its own merits, could actually (as discussed above) bring them closer to becoming vegan? And when, once in a while, someone embedded in an oppressive system actually does make a valuable contribution? I’m guessing the commenter doesn’t know that British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recruited active slave-ship doctors and crew members as informants to aid in his organizing, or that it was the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson who abolished the U.S. Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Also, where do we draw the line? If someone eats honey once in a while, does that invalidate their credentials as a vegan advocate? How about white sugar (often processed using bone char) or the beetle-derived red food dye cochineal?
Should a pescatarian be prohibited from speaking out on the plight of chickens?
*Making Things Up. One abolitionist recently claimed—again on Facebook—that increased meat prices (a goal of humane reforms) don’t reduce meat consumption: “People will buy it if they want it regardless of price. People who smoke will bitch and moan about the cost of cigarettes….Yet they still smoke.” Leaving aside this person’s trivializing of the realities of tobacco addiction, a two-minute Google search would have showed that he was wrong about both cigarettesandanimal products.
Another recently wrote, “The science of habit formation speaks stronger for going vegan and getting used to it rather than keeping reducing meat.” I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and have read more than fifty books and countless articles on that subject, and I can promise you that NO reputable expert would say that. Most, in fact, would say the opposite: that trying to change everything in your diet all at once is a recipe for failure. For example, in Thin for Life, her comprehensive survey of weight loss research and strategies, author Anne Fletcher notes, “Many people…feel overwhelmed when they try to make multiple changes all at once.” For that reason, her recommended diet plan, “has you take things one food group at a time.”
And societal change also happens gradually! Citing evidence from the civil rights and gay rights struggles, Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book The Power of Habit, says that “small wins,” as he calls them, tend to synergize and wind up having, “an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”
Although abolitionists are quick to accuse others of speciesism, in my view the willingness to dismiss—especially on such flimsy grounds—tactics that demonstrably save nonhuman lives smacks of human privilege. So does their dismissal of welfarist strategies, like the elimination of battery cages and gestation crates, that have the potential to greatly reduce nonhuman suffering. “Suffering matters,” as the late animal activist Norm Phelps said.
What these examples also demonstrate is how much the abolitionists fear and distrust not just non-vegans—which, besides being unfortunate on its own merits, will make it hard for them to influence anyone—but the process of activism itself.
I urge them to be more optimistic. Dr. King’s arc of history bends towards justice not just because most people’s hearts incline toward justice, but because the fight for justice has always attracted the best—smartest, wisest, most creative, most passionate, and most persevering—people. We also have the advantage of (as Harry Potter reminded his friends during the darkest hours of their fight) “something worth fighting for.”
Moreover, we’ve inherited, from prior generations of activists, a set of best practices—including compromise, inclusiveness, and eyes-on-the-prize pragmatism–that, if followed, will guarantee a win. It won’t be a “complete” win, because that never happens. (There is still human slavery even today.) And it won’t happen as quickly as we would like—it never does. But probably, especially if we all work together, it will happen faster and more thoroughly than now seems possible.
To the Reducetarians: Go Further
At the end of his monumental history of the decline of violence in human societies, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Reducetarian campaign supporter Steven Pinker writes, “To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness….It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred.”
So, to Pinker and all the other Reducetarian supporters, I say the following, with the greatest possible respect:
You have done a wonderful thing by publicly advocating for people to reduce their meat consumption.
However, now that you’re on record as understanding that animal agriculture is cruel and wrong, I urge you to go vegan as quickly as you can, and to encourage other reducetarians to do the same.
Some might argue that because life itself is a series of moral compromises—we’re culpable every time we drive, fly, pay taxes that fund warmongers, or buy any non-organic or non-fair-trade item—occasional meat-eating is acceptable. But it’s likely that eating animals is by far the cruelest and most destructive behavior you directly engage in.
Besides, for every bite of meat you give up, you’ll gain something infinitely more profound and satisfying: the knowledge that you’re not just listening to your better angels, but are, once more, on the right side of history.
 Per Asher, Green et al., vegans currently represent about .5% of the U.S.’s population of 320 million, or approximately 1.6 million persons.  http://ps.oxfordjournals.org/content/90/1/229.full. “In most cases, egg production has decreased in European countries like Germany that have enacted stricter housing standards or banned cages altogether…Egg production in Germany declined by approximately 13% from 2000 to 2007.”
This is our challenge: we need to get all remaining non vegans (red) – about 99% of the population – to go vegan (green).
One way to do this is by trying to convince them one by one. It has been and will be a very slow process.
The one-by-one approach should be combined with a reducetarian approach: we can ask people to reduce. Many more people will respond positively to this ask.
A combination of a small amount of vegans, together with a much bigger, critical mass of enough meat reducers, will tip the system much faster. Demand drives supply, society becomes much more accomodating, norms change, going vegan becomes a lot easier.
Most people can understand why some people are vegetarian; even though they eat meat themselves, they are often able to appreciate the simple idea that vegetarians don’t want to contribute to the killing of animals for food, or clothing. Veganism, on the other hand, can seem way over the top and many people simply aren’t sympathetic to the cause.
In practise, a vegan lifestyle boils down to paying a lot of attention to what you eat. In many restaurants you may not find something suitable; you will probably be an expert label reader in supermarkets, and when you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, you may need to explain what you eat and don’t eat. And it’s not just about eggs and dairy, but also about products containing them.
As a vegan, you get used to all this quite easily, but the perception of the omnivorous population is that this it is too “extreme.” Veganism is extreme. Vegans are extremists. And extremism is never okay. That’s the way the argument goes.
Most people use words like “extreme” or “radical” to indicate something negative. What they mean is: too much. Too far, too different. People are usually more fond of the truth that is “somewhere in the middle”.
But when can we call something really, truly extreme? When something deviates too far from what most people do – the ‘norm’ – it is usually considered, almost automatically and by definition, as negative and undesirable, just because it deviates so much. But – and this is my point – there’s nothing that says that this norm itself is okay. The norm, in other words, is not necessarily a point of reference.
Back to milk, eggs and veganism. Current agricultural practises seem hard to reconcile with the values we cherish. Yearly, billions of male chicks are killed right after birth because they can’t lay eggs. Layer hens are debeaked without anesthesia, with a glowing hot knife. The efficiency of the egg industry is of an almost demonic level. Animals are packed as tightly as possible in order to save space. In hardly any cases do they get to see daylight and artificial lighting is used to manipulate their laying cycles and production. Regarding milk, just like with humans, a cow doesn’t give milk – at least not enough – when she’s not pregnant or has young. Artificially impregnating cows and relying on them giving birth every year is hence a necessity for sufficient milk production. As for the males, the calf will end up as beef. This is equally true in the case of organic products. What happens is that animals are treated like things, with which we can do what we want, because they aren’t people, not for some morally relevant reason. We engineer everything in a way that ensures the animals get as big as possible, as fast as possible, and to give us as much product as possible – whether it is meat, eggs or dairy.
Is it reasonable to say that whoever doesn’t want to cooperate with or support these practises and this attitude towards animals, that whoever wants to give animals a different position in our culture, and wants to boycott these products in hope of reducing demand for them and finally abolishing them… is it reasonable to say that such a person is extreme? Only in the sense that their behaviour (especially in terms of buying and eating) really deviates from the norm. But does this mean it has to be appraised negatively? Maybe the central question is: can a culture, a society, a nation or maybe even the world be totally, incredibly wrong about something? Could it be that the norm is so thoroughly wrong that seriously deviating from it is maybe the only right position?
Of course, anyone can claim a certain norm is wrong, and that entire countries or cultures do wrong things. Thoughts like these may lead to people bombing buildings and other forms of terror. But in the case of protesting the abuse and use of animals, this protest is based on two fundamental things; it is based on empathy, or compassion, with living beings, stemming from the realisation that they can feel and suffer. And secondly, we can build a rational case showing why the norm is, to put it mildly, problematic.
No one who makes the minimal effort to investigate the implications of egg and dairy consumption can easily dismiss the motivations of vegans as extreme, ridiculous or unimportant. Of course the tactics and strategies used by individuals and groups to achieve their goals can be radical or extreme, independent of the objective, but that is another discussion.
I believe an attitude or behaviour that really deviates from the norm can be perfectly okay and may at times theoretically be the only morally right position, if one has a good argument and if it is rooted in empathy.
Is this a plea for radical viewpoints and behaviour? Not necessarily. It is a plea to be critical about concepts like radical and extreme. It is an appeal to avoid clichés, to not take the middle of the road by default, and to really examine how far exactly we need to go to reach the good, the true and the beautiful.
This is the second part of my repsonse to criticism (for the ones who didn’t click through yesterday). This text also temporarily appears as a fixed page in the menu.
After this, I’ll stop waisting time on the critics. For now, here goes…
Some people love my views, talks and writings, while other people… not so much. Some people in the movement criticize me, not always fairly. Here are some criticisms and their honest answers. If you’re a rational person who has read my work or watched me speak, you might be amazed at these – but I can assure you each of them is real and gets thrown at me repeatedly.
Tobias is not a vegan First off, I find it pretty horrible that part of our movement seems to feel a person is entirely discredited, their opinion worth null and void, if we can just show they are not vegan or as vegan as they “should” be.
That being said, I became a vegan in 1998. See next question for the things that don’t make me vegan in some people’s eyes. I believe the fact that some in our movement would reject me as a vegan, is very illustrative in itself of some problems in this movement.
Tobias encourages the exploitation of animals This wilful and quite nasty misrepresentation is problably based on the fact that I think our results are more important than our rules, and that effects are more important than personal purity. This means, for myself:
– that I would eat a steak for a 100.000$, using that money to help animals (particularly if that steak is going to be thrown away anyway)
– that I would make small pragmatic exceptions if I think it would positively influence people’s perception of vegans and veganism. I feel I should sacrifice a minimum of personal purity if it can help animals.
– that I consider myself vegan even while giving wine the benefit of the doubt (if it doesn’t say it’s not vegan on the bottle, I’ll drink it)
Tobias tries to redefine veganism
I think there is value in having a clear and generally accepted definition of something, but I definitely think that the way some people try to define veganism (conveniently forgetting the room for some “flexibility” that the original definition offers) is extremely ineffective (unless you want a vegan club rather than a vegan world).
Tobias is paid by the government to say the things he says. Of course I shouldn’t take this seriously at all, but well…
I’m quite proud of having co-founded and led, for a long time, the world’s first partially government funded organisation to promote vegan food (EVA, in Belgium). Right now, I have left EVA to work on my own, but EVA still gets about 30% of its funds from the government. It shows that EVA was able to demonstrate that we had a socially relevant mission. Never has our funding had any influence on our philosophy or approaches (although there are of course criteria for funding, like we have to be in adult education, have to be active nationwide and not just locally, etc).
Tobias uses ableist language This refers to me having called some vegans crazy. When I used it, it is mostly in the sense of omnivores perceiving us as crazy.
It is typical of today’s social movements to try to accuse people we don’t agree with by finding things that we believe discredit them. Among a part of the audience, a person will be discredited if one can demonstrate that this person is “immoral” in the sense that they might have done or said something that is ableist, sexist, racist etc. For this reason, some critics will always be on the lookout for indications of said behaviour. I’ll just let this one pass. If people take offense at me having called vegans crazy then so be it. At no point was it my intention to make fun of people with a mental disability.
Tobias is a careerist
In the fifteen years since I co-founded the organisation I used to work for, I have worked for it more than fulltime for about ten years, while I have had a full time salary for exactly three months (some years I was paid 40 %; many years I worked entirely as a volunteer). Right now, I’m travelling all over Europe and writing without getting any money from that (although my travel costs are mostly reimbursed).
An example of a criticism: ““This seems like more in the long line of “look at me” self promotion from this reducetarian. It’s disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent “animal people” don’t see the emphasis this reducetarian has on self promotion in the lead up to his book being published. It’s always disappointing to see “animal people” using the movement to further their career and agendas with so little regard to the damage being done.”
Tobias doesn’t want a vegan world Oh yes I do. I just believe there is room for different strategies, and that some strategies may be more effective than the ones that are used by some. I believe that getting as many people as possible to reduce is a faster way to tip the system than getting a small percent of the population to go vegan. To learn more about my views, watch this video.
Tobias criticizes other activists himself I do, but 1. I try to be constructive in my criticism and 2. I mostly criticize people for criticizing others (like. e.g. Gary Francione does all the time), which doesn’t, in my view, put me on the same level. I try to speak out against the bullies – something that is really not done enough in our movement, because we are afraid of appearing divisive. But we should stand up to bullies.
In general though, I try to be really slow and thoughtful when I criticize people, and I’m in favour of slow opinion.