This is a guest post by Hillary Rettig. Hillary is author of The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006) and other works. She has been a vegan and vegan activist since 2004, and is currently organizer of Vegan Kalamazoo and a member of IDA’s Sustainable Activism Council. She will be speaking on joyful and effective vegan activism at VegFest Colorado.
The myth of the overnight vegan conversion
In 2004, I “instantly” became vegan at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C. It was my first-ever animal rights event; I can’t remember my exact motivation for going, except that I was a lifelong animal lover who was looking to create some change in my life.
Needless to say, it was a mind- (and heart-) opening experience that culminated for me during a screening of Tribe of Heart’s classic Peaceable Kingdom. Like many others, when I saw the scenes of brutalized animals and dehumanized laborers, I wanted nothing to do with any of it—and so, within literally seconds of the movie’s end, I called my then-husband and told him I was vegan.
So, instant conversion.
Or, maybe not.
My conversion actually came after a lifetime of a profound love for animals, and decades of on-and-off vegetarianism.
It was also built on a foundation of a decades-long commitment to social justice.
And the conference itself—an intensive, immersive multiday investigation into, and celebration of, all things animal rights and vegan—was an incredible kickstarter for my new ethic and life. I learned lots, and met amazing people who, more than a decade later, continue to be friends and mentors.
So I was primed, as the psychologists say, for conversion and success. I’m guessing that most so-called “instant conversions” are similar—meaning that they’re not really instant. Moreover, I didn’t even become “fully vegan” at that time. Probably more like 99%. For years afterwards, despite my best intentions, I would, about once a month, feel compelled to eat a nonvegan candy bar or dish of comfort food. This mainly happened during times of stress and was part of an emotional eating problem I’ve struggled with my whole life.
I’m happy to report, though, that that phase passed. Now I’m probably a 99.9% vegan.
I’m not claiming to be a moral exemplar. Perhaps there are people who do, indeed, switch from carnism to to 99.9%, or even 99.99%, veganism overnight. If there are, however, I’m guessing the number is pretty small. And does anyone ever really make it to 100%? I’m not sure that’s even possible, given the pervasiveness of animal-derived products in our food, medical, household, and other spheres.
Some vegans don’t see it that way. They demand instant and eternal perfection of all vegans. I’m guessing they see themselves as maintaining the standard, which I do think is a valuable role. I also imagine they’re afraid that people, if “permitted” to take baby steps or “allowed” the occasional lapse, will grow complacent and continue (or restart) eating animal products. However, psychological research actually indicates that, in diet and other areas, it’s the people who try to make too many changes at once who are more likely to backslide or even give up entirely. 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.” She recommends dieters, “…take things one food group at a time.”
It’s pretty universally accepted that, if your goal is to motivate people, demanding perfection is a dead end. As the late renowned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “I did talk about perfection [to my players]. I said it was not possible. But I said it’s not impossible to try for it. That’s what we did in every practice and game.” (I’m also guessing he didn’t expect senior-level performance from his freshman, but worked with them to achieve gradual improvement via the baby steps.). Some research among vegetarians and vegans also seems to indicate that the people who don’t change overnight, tend to stick to it longer.*
Overnight conversions are highly meaningful from the standpoint of the animals saved, but useless as moral exemplars for a few reasons. First, it’s pretty clear that the ability to easily change one’s diet is uncommon. That’s why there’s a $65 billion weight loss industry in the U.S. and a global obesity epidemic. Forget about asking many of these people to go vegan (or more vegan) to save animals’ lives; they can’t do it even to save their own life.
Moreover, people struggle with their food for many reasons, some of which are evolutionary, genetic, and societal, and thus largely outside their individual control. (I’m currently writing a book on weight loss and the chapter on barriers is forty pages long.)
In other words, those who are able to convert quickly are not just virtuous but also lucky—and perhaps luck is the more relevant characteristic.
And then we come to the perfection-seekers’ main tactics: guilt-trips and shaming. Think about it: if those truly worked, wouldn’t there be a lot more thin people? And vegans? Many overweight people, and probably some imperfect or lapsed vegans, lay a lot of shame and guilt on themselves every day. (And the fat shaming that one occasionally sees in the vegan community is not just a disgrace and a violation of ahimsa (nonharm), but is also counterproductive.)
None of the above should be construed to mean that we shouldn’t, like Wooden’s players, aim for perfection, and support others in their quest for it. Like all human endeavors, however, veganism will inevitably always be both a shining model of what is possible and a daily practice at which fallible humans in challenging circumstances inevitably fall short. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
And I’ll leave you with a final quote from Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
* see also Haverstock and Forgays, “To eat or not to eat. A comparison of current and former animal product limiters.” Appetite 58, 2012.