When the term “speciesism” gets overused

I think most of us are attracted to the term speciesism. It seems such an elegant concept. And it’s a strong one. In many cases, when you use it correctly and cleverly, it’s a prety nice argument that makes sense. Especially when you talk to progressive minded people. They see that you have a point, and that there is an analogy with racism etc.

What is speciesism about? It’s about discrimination solely on the basis of species, just like racism is discrimination solely on the basis of “race”.  I remember reading the following illustration or explanation of speciesism (I think it was in James Rachels’ Created form Animals). If you test cosmetics on the eyes of rabbits, you need to ask: why don’t we do this on people? The first answer would be: we don’t do this on people because people’s eyes would hurt. Then we ask: is this different in the case of rabbits? If no (if rabbits experience the same discomfort), then we are being speciesist if we test on rabbits but not on humans. The species, in this case, is the only reason for the difference, and that’s not right. If, on the other hand, we could say something like: because rabbits don’t experience pain in their eyes (which is not true), our acting wouldn’t be speciesist but would be inspired by a morally relevant criterium.


Like I said, I think that’s a good argument. The way I use it in discussions is that say: “If you do x to animals but not to people, you have to give me a morally relevant reason.”

I don’t think there are many good arguments against speciesism. Some people would suggest that people have a different moral standing, were created with souls, or whatever, but these things are not convincing to me.

Now, because speciesism is such an elegant concept, we tend to use it in all kinds of circumstances, and that is where, in my humble opinion, we may err. I’m talking (among other things) about where we apply the speciesism-argument to outreach and communication, within the animal rights movement.

I have heard it a thousand times, and every time I hear it, I inwardly sigh in furstration. The argument takes the same shape: you can’t do x regarding animals, because it would be immoral if we did it regarding people. In this case x is about a certain way of communication, a certain argument, a campaign… Again, it sounds good at first sight, but let me fill it in with some concrete examples

  • When I recommend meat reduction or Meatless Mondays, I get to hear that that is speciesist, because we wouldn’t approve of something like Child Abuse Free Mondays in the case of humans.
  • When I recommend that we should encourage people when they have taken steps to reduce their meat consumption, some people will reply that’s speciesist because we wouldn’t praise a murderer or abuser who is presently murdering or abusing less people.
  • When I advocate that we should try to be gentle and sensible and patient etc when talking about animal suffering and veganism, I get to her that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”
  • Another quote in the same vein: “Would anyone advocate for the abolition, or the regulation, of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.”

I think you get the picture. In my humble opinion, the speciesist argument the way it is used in the above cases is false. We are in no way talking about the same things. We are talking about practises in society that are seen entirely, fundamentally different. If you want to keep saying that it is the same thing, you can of course say it, but it won’t be effective.

Moreover, if in our activism and outreach we should only say or advise things regarding animals that we also feel we can advise regarding humans, there would be a lot of stuff we shouldn’t say (which of course is exactly what a part of the animal rights movement believes). We couldn’t encourage or praise people for doing anything less than veganism; we couldn’t tell people to try out a vegan challenge like Veganuary (you can’t tell rapists to try to stop raping for a month!); we can’t just give leaflets to people in supermarkets because we wouldn’t give leaflets to rapists; we couldn’t support any government’s initiative to encourage people to eat less meat because a government wouldn’t encourage people to abuse children a bit less.

And so on, and so forth. The more of these examples I write down, the more absurd the argument gets. The deplorable thing is that all these recommendations that some people in the movement would not have us make, are the claims that psychological and sociological research shows work best: small steps, small wins, rather than big challenges.

As I have written before, you can be truthful to your own rules about what to say and what not (ignoring all the research, and no matter how many times you hit a wall), or you can look for what actually helps people be open and change.

Let’s use the term speciesism cleverly, in the right context.




License to influence (but do it right)

I believe that trying to make another person change their beliefs and behaviour is not a crime. If you believe in something, and you start from empathy, and you have rational arguments to back it up, then you have every right to try to make another person see your point of view and to try to sway them in your direction.

Don’t let anyone tell you that what people eat is just their own business. As long as they are eating animals or the products of animals, it’s not just their business. This doesn’t mean we should force them to think or do anything, but it does mean that you don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed about wanting to change people’s hearts and minds. Moreover, everyone tries to do that, all the time. Everyone making a sale, every mom or dad, every child, every husband, every wife… is trying to influence others all the time – often for much less noble objectives than ours.


People will tell you that they will decide what they eat for themselves. If only that were true. If only they weren’t so influenced by what supermarkets, producers and restaurants were trying to make them eat. If only they weren’t so affected by prices and promotions. If only they could choose what was on their plate independently of what their parents and grandparents or the other people in their nation or culture eat… No, most people are only under the illusion that they are free to eat what they want. Your voice won’t limit them any further. Rather, it can liberate them.

So just like the media, like their family or their peers, we too will influence people. We can not not influence. We can, however, avoid being coercive or manipulative. Trying to influence another person of something is not a crime, but it is an art. It starts with not thinking in terms of convincing people, but rather in terms of helping them to open up. It starts with behaving not like moral crusaders, judges, or the police, but rather, like supporters. 

Sugarcoating, straight up or… adaptive?

My last post (you are not your audience) was about trying to get to know your audience, and adapting your message to what you know is interesting to them. Some people interpret this as me saying you should always be very gentle and even kind of sugarcoat your message. One person replied to the post as follows:

“Personally I prefer a Yourofsky-esque method. Be bluntly honest, do not fluff it up. Some people won’t like it but those generally will be the people coming in to it with a closed mind.”


This comment got a lot of likes. A lot of people, I think, love to be blunt (and hate sugarcoating). That’s an interesting phenomenon that I’d like to investigate at some point, but right now, I want to talk about something else: my point is not that people make a once-and-forever choice between a gentle approach and an in your face approach. Rather, I suggest that you are adaptive: you have the ability to change your approach according to what you think your audience likes.

When you don’t know what your audience likes, or when your audience is so big that there might be many different sorts of people (I call it broadcasting, as opposed to one on one or little group conversations), then I think it is good to use the approach that we have reason to believe works for the biggest number of people. You have to look for the lowest common denominator, as it were. For that we have to look at research. I’ll give an overview in a future post – for now I can recommend chapters 14 and 15 in Nick Cooney’s Veganomics. But I’m pretty confident that in general, when you go in blind and have to choose between a gentle (even sugarcoating) or an in your face message, the soft approach is the safer and more effective option. You have to take into account that you are bringing a very uncomfortable story, that has big consequences if people take it serously. Read more about a very recent study explaining how people just don’t want to know.

So: if you know enough about the person or people you are talking to, adapt your approach to what you know is a fit for them. If you don’t know, and/or if the audience is heterogeneous, I believe it’s best to err on the side of caution.



You are not your audience

In much of my writings, posts and memes, I suggest that we “tread lightly” when we approach other people about animal rights, going vegan etc. We should not overload them with information, we should check what they are interested in, etc.

Many people seem to understand this, but often (like the other day) I’ll get reactions like this:

“Oh, so we have to give them candy and massage for them to listen to reason? Fuck it, I’ll keep telling them what they need to know no matter how hard they cover their ears.”

It is ironic that this person writes about “what they need to know“, while she seems to be talking more about “what she wants to tell.” I would call this ego-centric communication.


Do we think that continuing to ramble to people while they (literally or figuratively) cover their ears, helps? Maybe sometimes something sticks. But chances are that in the best case we are wasting our breath and our precious time because the person is really not hearing us. In the worst case, our rambling is actually counterproductive.

We need more audience-centered communication. “What they need to hear” is not as important as “what they are open to hear”. I call this principle YANYA, or You Are Not Your Audience. You are not the same as the people you want to reach. Like a car salesman, you have to adapt your message to what you think people like, are interested in, are open to, are ready for.

“Telling them what they need to know” is equal to the car salesman talking endlessly about a car’s horsepower or technical abilities (because that is what fascinates him) to a young parent who is only interested in the safety aspects.

“Telling them what they need to know” may sound noble and courageous and right, but it’s not necessarily what helps animals.

It’s about your audience’s needs. Not your own.