“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”, Oscar Wilde has one of his characters say in The Importance of Being Earnest. The same can be said about the motivations for our activism: rarely pure, and never simple. Those who think they do what they do for the animals only, should think again, or need to apply for sainthood or official enlightenment status.
All of us changemakers and do-gooders (vegans or otherwise) have motivations that go beyond just helping the beings we want to help. We are also in search of recognition. We want to feel meaningful, have a sense of belonging, be important maybe. We want to be seen. We want to feel like we are good people. We have a need to be consistent. Maybe we want to atone for something we think we did wrong. Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins put it very succinctly, and in my view very correctly. He says that all of us – in whatever culture – fear that we are not enough, and that we are afraid that if we’re not enough, then we won’t be loved. We’re on a quest for love, all of us. And we have different ways of trying to get that love we think we need.
These feelings and motivations are indeed very human and are nothing to be ashamed of. Yet it is good to be aware of them and not pretend that they don’t exist and that we do what we do for the animals (or other humans) only. Because through being aware of these “impure motivations”, we may, whenever necessary, at least partially filter them out and see clearer. Sometimes this is extra necessary, because sometimes these motivations can really prevent us from being the most effective we can be. There’s an old Platters song called Smoke gets in your eyes. These more personal motivations, just like smoke, can get in your eyes too, preventing us from seeing clearly.
With a general term, that shouldn’t be interpreted too negatively, we can call these motivations ego-centric. Let me be dead honest in this post and give you an illustration how ego-centric motivations can get into my own eyes. The other day, a friend told me she would be doing some research around an outreach strategy which I’m not particularly fond of. I caught myself thinking for a moment how I hoped her conclusion would be that this strategy is not effective. I hoped this because if it would turn out to be effective, it wouldn’t particularly fit within my theories and strategies. I am someone who has invested quite some time in thinking about strategy and developing strategies. So I would love it if my thinking is right and I don’t want it to be contradicted. Not only would much of my work appear to me as a waste of time, I would also lose face, both in my own eyes and in others’.
It goes without saying that such an attitude, a confirmation bias, can blind me to some important information, make my theories etc more incomplete and less correct than they could be, and thus harm my advocacy. Not a good thing for the beings I want to help. I’m sure you can imagine other people who are married to their theories and ideologies to such an extent that they have trouble accepting any evidence, indications or even suggestions of something that contradicts them. Similarly, activists like to think that the kind of actions they do and are investing time in, are effective. Indications to the contrary may be experienced as threatening. Still more general, as vegans we don’t want our veganism – an important part of our identity – to be criticized. Yet all this close-mindedness is not a good thing.
This quote by Leo Tolstoy comes to mind: “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they had proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life.”
Let me be honest on a meta-level too, about my motivation for writing this (this gets complicated!). Admitting to this, showing that I am aware of my own confirmation bias, is strategically a good thing to do. It may inspire confidence in others, who may think: this person tries to discover his own blind spots, and knows that he may be deluding himself. He is obviously trying to get to as much Truth as he can get. Maybe I’ll read some more of this guy. And this honesty may inspire even more confidence in you. And so on.
So two take aways from this post:
it’s good to be aware of our ego-centric motivations
showing our weaknesses, our awareness that we may have blind spots, our vulnerabilities, may inspire confidence in other people rather than the opposite.
Britain has a shadow environment secretary, Kerry McCarthy (Labour party), who is a vegan. Conservative media in the UK are not real fans of her or of Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader. I read a couple of articles in conservative newspapers about how Kerry McCarthy hates Christmas
McCarthy is described in Mail Online as “blasting her normal, nice and funny friends over meat”, as being afraid of getting too close to bits of dead animals. Express headlines that the “Labour environment hates Christmas… because she’s vegan.”
All that is of course not so good for the image of veganism. Not too many people (except for, admittedly, probably a fair share of vegans) hate Christmas and not too many people like party poopers, especially if they remind them of their own guilt, which often is the case and is part of the reason for the high resistance against veganism.
So McCarthy, with her statements, apparently didn’t do veganism a service. Still, let’s look at what she actually wrote. Was it that bad?
First of all, the blog posts (here and here) that the news sites refer to are from 2010. McCarthy wasn’t a shadow minister then, though she already was a member of parliament. Arguably, being an MP at that time, she might have been more careful, but obviously the newspapers were trying to dig up some dirt. They found that the only relevant thing they could say about McCarthy and Christmas was something she had written on her blog five years ago.
Reading McCarthy’s two blogposts on Christmas, one can’t find all that much wrong with it. She describes that for her, being around meat is not the norm. She isn’t used to it and for her it’s hard. She seems like the typical vegan: someone whose eyes and mind have opened up to the animal suffering implied in our food, but experiencing that everyone around her is still blind to the things she now abhorrs.
So for the most part, I would say that McCarthy was maliciously targeted by conservative media, who love to have a go at her. It’s not surprising that media affiliated with the opposite end of the political spectrum will not paint a fair representation of what people say or write, much less if they are not quality newspapers or sites. And like most other people, most journalists too will have a certain resistance against all things vegan and will be looking for excuses not have to get involved.
What does all of this mean? We can take different positions here. We can not care at all about how others are going to interpret and represent our opinions (in the media or otherwise). We can try to care but not go out of our way because we know we’re going to be misrepresented anyway. Or we can really go the extra mile to be supercareful and make sure we minimize statements that could be interpreted incorrectly or misquoted.
In the case of McCarthy’s blogposts (making abstraction of the fact that they were written five years ago), what would I have done differently if I knew I was in the public eye?
First of all, again, we have to realize that Christmas and parties are touchy subjects, where it is better to emphasize the alternative (the great food we can eat) rather than the vegan problems these situations create.
Secondly, I think this paragraph is the most problematic:
“I spent Christmas Day this year as usual with a bunch of meat-eaters: fussing over them to make sure they’re not using the same serving utensils for the vegetables and the meat, and that the vegetarian gravy hasn’t got muddled up with the ordinary gravy, and trying to help with the serving up and clearing away without having to get too up close and personal with bits of dead animals.”
“A bunch of meat-eaters” doesn’t sound too respectul of your friends or family, and the phrasing emphasizes the we-versus-them dichotomy. Never a good thing. Then there’s the fussing about the utensils: understandable (I hate it myself when utensils are used for both vegan and non vegan stuff) but not so much for said “meat-eaters”, who indeed think this testifies to unadmissable, neurotic, fanatic fussing. So, better not to write about it if you can avoid it. Same for cleaning up and doing the dishes: I hate it myself, but if we say that it’s hard for us to even throw leftover bits of meat in the trash, we may not be at our most credible.
McCarthy also adds she doesn’t drink wine. While I appreciate people being teetotallers, this serves to confirm the idea the “outside world” has of vegans: party poopers who can’t even enjoy a glass of alcohol. Again: not information we should volunteer, I think. Sometimes I joke that vegans are under a moral obligation to drink alcohol.
It’s also noteworthy that while McCarthy writes that she sometimes compromises (sipping from a cup of milky tea or eating around some diary bits), these small inconsistencies are not the things the newspapers pick up on (as opposed to what some vegans, I am sure, would fear).
Bottom line: there are situations where the cards are stacked against us and we can definitely never control the message one hundred percent. But it’s good to be aware of the fact that we are always communicating, that we are trying to sell something, and that as much as possible we should contribute to a positive image of vegans and veganism.
In any case, I wish Kerry McCarthy the best of luck with her political career.
Martin Smedjeback is a longtime nonviolence facilitator, peace activist and vegan from Sweden. He has held nonviolence workshops in Sudan, South Sudan, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, USA and Sweden, and also talks regularly on animal rights and veganism. I asked Martin a few questions about his project “a year for the animals”, where he gets himself crowdfunded so than he can be free to work for the animals for an entire year.
Vegan Strategist: for the second year, you are fundraising so you can afford to work one year for the animals fulltime. How much money are we talking about?
Martin Smedjeback: I’m looking to raise 8500 US $
Is that enough to live on in an expensive country like Sweden?
Yes, almost! I live in a community where we are five adults sharing a flat, and I live pretty frugally in my everyday life. I do hope to have a small income (around one thousand dollars) from presentations I give. Here’s my budget:
What about paying taxes on this? I checked with the Swedish tax revenue service and they told me I don’t have to pay taxes on gifts, only on the income I would get from my presentations.
What did you do during your first crowdfunded year?
I took the initiative to form the open rescue group Empty Cages. The media covered our actions (in which we freed two pigs, eight hens and a fish) 23 three times, one of them being an interview on the most popular news program in Sweden. The videos from the action have been seen by tens of thousands of people. I did 31 lectures and workshops for a total of around 1200 people. I filmed 20 animal rights lectures and interviews with a total of around 10,000 views, wrote ten articles and letters to the editor, and leafletted 15 times. And I was among the organizers of a the “vegan challenge” in Sweden, where people went vegan for a month and got inspiration and guidance on how to live a vegan life. And I did many other things.
Impressive. What do you plan to do in A year for the animals 2016?
I plan to do lots of stuff! My hope is to show how many different things you can do for animal rights, so that others can pick up the activities that best fit them. I will focus especially on doing animal rights presentations in high schools. Readers can check my plans at my Indiegogo campaign page.
Do you think you are worth people’s investment?
Yes. I used to work full-time in a peace organization and I think it’s great that there are staff at organizations who do great work. But I also know that it’s really expensive to hire a person, pay taxes, office space and equipment. You can “hire” me for a fraction of that cost and because of my fifteen years of experience in working in peace and justice movements I think I can use my time and resources effectively.
What would you advise to people who want to do the same thing?
I would say go for it! The world definitively needs more full-time activists for the animals. If you haven’t been active for veganism or animal rights at all before, maybe you can take some time first to get to know the issues and the movement. When you know more about the issue and know more people in the movement you have a better chance of succeeding. I would also advise to ask someone who has done it or something similar before if you can find someone like that. In the beginning of the year I will have an intern with me for a week. I hope that she can learn enough to be able to do her own A year for the animals, and I also think I will learn a lot from her. Before I started this project, I tried to learn what is really effective for the animals. I read books like Veganomics of Nick Cooney and the Vegan strategist blog to find out how I could do the most difference for the animals. The animals wants us to be smart when we decide on what to do, how to do it and how we communicate.
Some vegans think that veganizing the world is as straightforward as telling people they should be vegan, one by one.
I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The road to a vegan or compassionate world may not be as obvious or straightforward as we think, or hope. It may also not be as direct as we would like. Maybe we need to make some detours to avoid certain barriers. Also, we may need to experiment, try new things, and turn back if we see it doesn’t work.
The struggle for animal liberation is the most difficult, most challenging struggle ever. It is to be expected that the solution is not simple and that we need to try many things.
That’s why in my new logo, you see a curved road towards the big V:
I think the above icon makes more sense than the one I originally had in mind, but which I eventually discarded:
I’m very grateful to Amy from Thrive Creative for designing my beautiful new logo. Thrive Creative wants to work with organizations and individuals who are passionate about creating a better world for us all.
A few days ago, I read this article about the meat industry’s search for ways to provide enough meat for the growing world population. The next day, I saw a response by fellow advocate Jay Shooster, which he had sent to the author of the piece. I told Jay I didn’t think his letter was very effective, and asked him if he would be okay with me writing a post about it. We agreed to see it as an exercise to make our activism better.
I’m not saying I’m the most diplomatic and effective communicator you can find, and I know I don’t always practise what I preach, but I would like to hold up Jay’s email as a kind of “clinic”, a piece that we can analyse and use to maybe become better at communicating. In that context, I welcome your comments.
Please read this, as you should read all my texts, as if there is one big IMHO (in my humble opinion) in front of it.
Here is Jay’s letter to the author:
Dear Mr. Bunge
I think you should be ashamed of your article “How to Satisfy the World’s Surging Appetite for Meat.” You should be ashamed for glorifying the selective breeding of chickesn that has been described as “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.” As a reporter of the Wall Street Journal, you have no excuse for rationalizing the industrialized abuse and slaughter of animals as a necessary or altruistic endeavor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your writing wholly ignores the perspective of the individuals who suffer in this machine of death. Your callous musings on their torture epitomizes the banality of evil. I hope that one day, you will redeem yourself by condemning this industry and role in promiting it. It’s never too late to do the right thing. History may yet remember you kindly.
Sincerely, Jay Shooster.
This letter got a lot of likes on Jay’s wall, and many people expressed how “awesome” they thought it was. I certainly do appreciate Jay taking the effort to contact the author, but I wouldn’t call the content of the letter awesome.
First of all, I couldn’t see how the author was glorifying the meat industry. I agree that he could have been more critical. But even supposing Jay is right in his perception and the journalist did as Jay says, then still I think this wasn’t an effective way to make him see that.
Maybe we should back up a little and make sure that we have the same purpose when we write a letter like this. I would imagine that our (including Jay’s) purpose would be to do something good for the animals. In this context, I think that would translate to influencing the journalist in a positive way. This is important because he will write more articles about different topics in the future, and he reaches a big audience. More balanced articles, more critical of the meat industry, more pro animal, would be good for the animals.
There are other possible intentions in writing a response. One is to vent frustration, sadness, anger… That can be fruitful in and of itself, but it can also have negative effects, and I think venting is ideally not done in public, or is simulated somehow (maybe by beating your bed pillow). And of course there can be countless other motivations, like having a laugh, practising one’s writing skills, gathering Facebook followers etc. None of these are dishonorable in themselves, but they won’t help the animals much, in most cases – or at least the animals are not the focus of the writing.
So let’s assume that our intention is to open the journalist’s mind (and heart) to our arguments. Then I definitely wouldn’t start by saying he “should be ashamed”.
A captatio benevolentiae is a rethorical technique, and literally translates to “capturing goodwill”. It is something you may start a speech or a letter with, in order to make the reader or listener willing to listen. I think it’s usually good to have something like this in place when we criticize. But it shouldn’t sound fake. Most of the times the reader will know that after the positive intro, one or more “buts” will follow. That’s usually unavoidable. However, if the compliment is genuine and meaningful, the person should have warmed up a little and be more open.
In this case, I would, for instance, thank the person for writing the article and giving me some information I didn’t have yet. And I really mean this. This article gave me some new information, and made me realize that while our movement is investing more and more money in plant based solutions, the meat industry is doing their own research, is evolving, is regrouping, analyzing… The article was to me a good reminder that there will be resistance. So that’s something I can write.
Then to the criticism part. Like I said I found the original article rather one-sided. But I think it would be effective to be a lot more concrete rather than just saying the author should be ashamed. I would, for instance, mention that to me he seemed quite uncritical and brief about the need for animal protein. Here I might also anticipate on his answer. Maybe he calls on journalistic objectivity.
As I repeat in all my talks and often in my writings: maybe the most important skill of any changemaker is to imagine yourself in the position of the people they are trying to reach. Do the exercise: imagine you write an article and you get an email like Jay’s, saying that you should be ashamed. How do you feel? I can’t know how you would feel of course, so let me tell you how I would feel: I would be irritated if someone wrote to me like that. And I wouldn’t find them very credible. I feel the more objective a criticism is, the more intelligent and credible a person and their criticism will seem, and the more I will take it to heart. If I get criticism from people who do nothing but criticize, I am much more likely to throw it aside. I think it is also important to not come over as too “animal rights activisty”. We want to avoid the “oh no, another activist/vegan criticizing me – dismissed.”
As for the last paragraph, which talks about “redeeming”, “doing the right thing”, and history “remembering him kindly”: if we write like this, is it any wonder vegans are often described as judgmental and holier-than-thou?
Also, in case you believe that this style of rather blunt and harsh criticism would work for you, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have the same attitude regarding criticism, guilt, shaming… as other people. I think many of us in the animal rights movement are much more prone to feelings of guilt than the average population.
Someone commented that sometimes strong language is necessary. Someone else said that Jay’s purpose was to update the author’s views. Yes, I agree. But we need him to be receptive for that. He needs to be open hearted and open minded. And how do we get them in that state? I suggest it is not by saying he should be ashamed. Human psychology is a complicated thing.
Someone else thanked Jay for “boldly speaking his mind”. And I think here we touch the heart of the matter. People seem to find something of value in “boldly speaking one’s mind”. What is it exactly in that that is valuable or recommendable? Is boldness, or courage, something that is interesting in and of itself? To think about it like that seems to me something medieval, which I associate with brave nights, or Vikings, or maybe for war situations, where you have to be bold. And I can understand the value of boldness when speaking out against oppressed regimes etc. But what other than that, in our context, I don’t see that boldness, being straight to the point, saying stuff without any fear of being whatever’d, has value in and of itself. The value is rather in the possible effect this message, or this boldness, has.
Of course, people differ. What I’ve written here probably doesn’t apply to everybody. Different people will have different reactions to being shamed or guilt tripped. Some may be attracted by bolder and fiercer language. Still, my common sense and intuition (and I assume research too, although I haven’t looked into it) say that people will be more likely to take something to heartif you approach them in a nice way rather than an accusatory or shaming way.
So here is my suggestion.
Dear Mr Bunge,
I read your article “How to satisfy the world’s surging appetite for meat” with great interest and it contained valuable information about modern animal agricultural practices. I certainly do agree that a lot of research and innovation are in order if we want to keep feeding a growing population.
I have serious doubts, however, about achieving this by further intensification of animal farming, which I think raises a lot of ethical questions. To be honest, I think your article lacked that kind of perspective, and was a rather uncritical. We can ask the question if we have to, want to, and can satisfy the world’s growing appetite for meat. You hardly mentioned any alternatives, and also didn’t seem to think that alternatives to raising chickens or other animals for food are in order at all. You also hardly mentioned the living conditions of the chickens.
I can certainly understand that you are bound to upholding journalistic objectivity and not letting any personal value judgments slip into your writings. However, I it is not a judgment but a *fact* that chickens have quite miserable lives [I do not write about killing, a more difficult issue]. You can, if you want, leave it to your readers to judge to what extent we have to take their suffering into account, but I think it would have been pertinent to at least mention it.
I hope you will do an article about the other side of this interesting topic. It deserves to be treated from every possible angle.
Thanks for taking this into consideration
Again, your comments are welcome, as undoubtedly this can be much improved upon still. Or maybe you believe that shaming and angry letters can have some use too? Let me know in the comments.
Yesterday Teagan, from the blog Teagangoesvegan.com, had a chat with me. As Teagan put it, we talk about fetishizing dogmatic consistency, getting a whole city to recognize going veg one day a week, and why I believe a vegan world is possible.
This is a guest post by Toni Shephard. Toni has been an animal rights campaigner for more than 25 years and has worked for PETA, Animal Aid, Viva and the League Against Cruel Sports. In this posts she shares her “journey” towards veganism, which, incidentally, is similar to my own.
I grew up in northern Canada where the winters are so cold that icicles form in your nostrils when you step outdoors. My father was a butcher and eating meat was part of my daily life, as was the knowledge that meat comes from dead animals. Treading through puddles of blood amongst the pig, cow and chicken carcasses strung up in the butchering room was part of my childhood. I didn’t really give it a second thought.
That changed when I was about eight and visited a farm for the first time; I was traumatised. I couldn’t believe the animals I was feeding, cuddling and playing with were going to end up on someone’s plate, and it could even be mine. I cried as I told my mother I didn’t want to eat meat anymore, but she insisted that I would die if I didn’t. At eight, of course, I couldn’t know any different.
Eventually I discovered the truth. At 15, during a school nutrition class, I learned that it is perfectly possible – and in fact quite easy – to be healthy without meat. I swore off meat immediately, all meat: beef, pork, poultry and fish. I went vegetarian. This was a huge step as I didn’t know any other vegetarians – save for the elderly couple who ran a health food shop adorned with paintings of praying hands and the Ten Commandments. I didn’t really identify with them.
No one in my social circle was vegetarian or even sympathetic to the idea; in fact most of my friends mocked me for it. And family gatherings were incredibly difficult as no one knew what to cook for me; I was a burden. Needless to say my vegetarianism didn’t last long; within six months I started eating meat again. I felt bad about it at first, but after a few months eating meat was a normal part of my life again.
Fast forward a year or so and I happened upon a PETA magazine in the local record shop. Filled with images of factory farming it inspired me to give up meat once again, only this time I continued to eat fish. Not because I thought fish were inferior to land animals or incapable of feeling pain, but because I recognised that changing my diet in stages was more likely to produce lasting success. And it worked.
Family gatherings were easier because the host could serve familiar seafood dishes. Debates with my friends were easier because I could point to the atrocities of factory farming in defence of my diet and few could disagree. And if I’m honest it made the transition easier for me – I loved meat and giving it up left a huge hole on my plate. Eating seafood filled that hole while I learned how to cook with lentils, chickpeas and tofu.
I always knew my pescetarian stage was temporary, the first step on my way to vegetarianism, and after a year or so I was ready to stop eating aquatic animals too. I’ve never looked back. Two years later I went vegan, or rather took the first step towards veganism by deciding not to have dairy or eggs at home. Being vegan when out and about was more difficult and it took another year for me to reach that goal. That was 25 years ago and I am still a happy, healthy vegan today.
My story is not unique; all of my vegan friends (bar one) started out as meat eaters and transitioned to veganism gradually. The only exception is a friend who was raised vegetarian; no one I know went straight from meat-eating to veganism, at least no one who is still vegan. Like any lifestyle change, it is easier to do it in stages. And if it’s easier people are more likely to stick with it.
I am not ashamed of my pescetarian past. Although I can never know if I might have stuck with vegetarianism the second time round even without the preceding fish stage, I know it would have been more difficult for me and those around me. Instead I believe my journey made the change look easy and ‘do-able’, and I have two vegan sisters plus two vegan nieces to prove it!
The moral of my story is that reducetarianism, pescetarianism and vegetarianism are all useful steps on the road to veganism – if we vegans allow them to be. I’ve spent the last 25years fighting for animals and believe I have helped many, but if someone had told the 16 year old me that being pescetarian was a cop out, a waste of time, or hypocritical, my good deeds might have stopped there. So I’m glad there were no judgemental vegans in my northern Canadian town back then; I hope there never is.
I’m moving this blog to another host, which will allow me more flexibility in the layout etc. I’m trying to move the collection wordpress followers too, but just in case that wouldn’t work and you wouldn’t receive updates anymore, you may need to click the follow button again after this weekend, when the site will be moved.
Email subscribers should experience no problem.
Thanks for your understanding.
And btw, if you’re not following my FB page yet, it’s here.
Now and then it’s quite interesting to read some stuff written by our “opposition”: the meat industry. It can be quite insightful to learn what they think about the animal rights/vegan movement and how they perceive us.
From what I have read, I feel they are the most afraid of the “moderates”. The animal abuse industry is the least at ease when our movement, our groups, our activists are smart, strategic and realistic. They are not afraid of the more “radical” part of our movement. They are afraid of the groups and activists who voice reasonable demands which the public might be open to and act on.
Here’s an article from Pork Network. It’s about our movement’s outreach (especially in the US) towards religious groups, but I found this passage particularly interesting:
Activist groups realize that a simple “go vegan” message does not resonate with the average consumer. To achieve their goal, they instead “scale back” their demands – rather than pushing people to abandon eating meat altogether, animal rights activist groups portray themselves as focused on animal welfare and advocate for changes that they deem to be “more humane” in how meat and poultry are produced. Of course, the intent is to make livestock production increasingly more difficult and expensive. These groups will continue to move the goal post of what they consider to be acceptable until animal agriculture is no longer sustainable.
Of course, we are not deceiftul like the author portrays us here. Framing a message, adapting to our audience, thinking up smart baselines and campaigns are things that any movement and any commercial company have to do. And we usually are clear about our end goal – at least when people ask for it. For the rest, this analysis is I think quite on point.
Another interesting article is one about the meat industry’s infiltration (in the form of two interns) at the 2015 Animal Rights congres in Washington DC (we may safely assume they do this every year). In a similar vein as the commentary above, the author writes:
Another encouraged activists to look at every action as a stepping stone, to scale back their initial demands to something acceptable and then build on each small victory toward the end goal. (…) This strategy really hit home to me as I scanned through the report, as we’ve had a few fresh examples of its success hitting the news wires.
It seems that the meat industry itself confirms that incremental action works and is dangerous for their livelihood. Learn from them 🙂