Vegans or not, we all turn away from suffering at times

Vegans often talk about how non-vegans shut themselves off from animal suffering. Those non-vegans know – it is assumed – certain facts about animals, but choose to block them out. When they have a chance to find something out about animal suffering (like watching a YouTube video), they often won’t take the opportunity because they’re afraid they won’t like what they see.

I think all of this is often wrongly interpreted as indifference. It is exactly because most people are not indifferent to suffering that they will try to turn away and try not to feel what’s going on. When they don’t want to know, they are, of course, also choosing for their own convenience: they want to avoid having to change and losing their piece of meat. But the fact that they believe they should change something, and therefore avoid the confrontation, indicates, in itself, that they care, on some level.

This avoidance and turning away is a pity, of course, but maybe rather than being too judgmental about this behavior, it might be good to realize that all of us do it, all the time, to some extent. Whether we are vegan or non-vegan, at some point we all need to say no, close our ears and our eyes and even our hearts. Otherwise, life is, unfortunately, not livable.

Let me illustrate this with a situation from my own life. Apart from her job in a veg organization, my girlfriend rescues cats. We have six rescued cats and two dogs living permanently in our home, but apart from these animals, there’s always a variable amount of cats “in transition”, waiting for another home. They were picked up from the street, abandoned by their “owners”, or whatnot.

Whenever my girlfriend gets notified about animals in need – they might be sick, blind, full of fleas or other parasites, etc. – she tries to find a solution. She’ll be on Facebook and email to find temporary housing for the animal, so that he or she can heal, be sterilized and vaccinated, before a forever home is found.

There seem to be, however, always more animals in need than people to care for them. So open goes our own door, and yet another animal comes in. Yes, there may be room for one more. And one more. And one more. But at some point, there’s a limit. At some point, we have to say no. And even if my girlfriend manages to find some kind of a solution most of the time, we know that there are cats out there who are suffering and need care. It doesn’t stop at cats, by the way. She gets calls about all kinds of animals.

Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.
Our car, loaded up with two rescued sheep being transported to their new home.

Because of course, there are many more animals out there, other than cats, that we could help. Many animal advocates get bombarded with notifications and pleas and pictures and petitions about animals who need our attention or our donation. And it never stops.

Obviously we can go beyond animals: there’s a refugee crisis in Europe and most people reading this probably have the opportunity to create some room in their homes to temporarily house one or more refugees. But hardly anyone (including me) does that. Likewise, we all could give more money to help these people, or to other causes that we deem worthy and effective, but there’s always a limit we set to our donations (and for most people it’s a rather low one).

Of course, saying that there is always a limit, and that all of us turn away or close our hearts at some point, doesn’t mean we need to do nothing. I agree that some things require less personal effort than others. Going vegan is, at least after awhile, probably easier than giving away significant donations every year (though we can ask the question about whether it is as effective). But the thing is, we can always find people who are doing more than others: people who are more vegan, who rescue and feed more animals, who donate more.

In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.

But of course, reasoning like this, and experiencing the world like this, is no way to live. It is a recipe for burnout and depression. There will be huge and extreme suffering for quite some time on this planet (I’m an optimist, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be here forever), so those of us who are really sensitive to it, need to find a way to deal with it.

So maybe some takeaways from these rambling thoughts:

  • rather than labeling others as indifferent, we can remember that turning away is a matter of degree and that we all do it
  • we can set an example for others to follow, and help “normalize” doing good
  • as the suffering is endless right now and our resources are insufficient, it’s important to do good effectively. If you are not yet, familiarize yourself with the philosophy of Effective Altruism.
  • be sustainable in your activism. Know that you cannot avoid turning away now and then. Paradoxically, you are probably a better friend to the animals by not witnessing and worrying about their suffering all of the time.

 

 

Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

[This article is based on the presentation I gave on Facebook communication at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the presentation here.]

Communication is difficult. We learned to speak a couple of languages, we maybe learned some public speaking. But most of us never learned to really emphatically and effectively communicate with others.

Online communication is even more difficult. There are screens between you and me. When we communicate on social media, we only have our words and our smileys to convey our actual feelings and attitudes – and not the body language that we can use in real life. So yes, it’s hard.

A discussion on Facebook can be a friendly exchange of thoughts. It can also be a little bit more aggressive, but still a “sportive” boxing match. Or it can be a downright mean and nasty shouting match. That is the dark side. It is very easy to get to the dark side on Facebook, and very damaging. When a discussion turns nasty, nobody wins: not us, not the other people participating in or reading the discussion, and not the animals.

When we see a conversation turn nasty – or when we think a conversation might turn nasty (given the subject or our own sensitivity about the subject), we have three options:

facebook light flight fight

Choosing Fight means going into the discussion head on, not caring much about civility or friendliness. It means letting your feelings (anger, aggression, irritation) speak the way you feel them. It usually doesn’t result in anything good.

Choosing Flight is ignoring the comment or the entire discussion. You just leave, maybe because you think it’s useless, or because you want to avoid nastiness.

Choosing Light means retaining your self-control, and – in spite of potential nastiness from the other side – remaining friendly, empathic, and rational. It’s often very hard to do.

My suggestions are:

  1. stay in the light as much as you can (unless it’s a time-waster)
  2. if you can’t, choose flight
  3. but don’t fight

Here are ten things you can do (you don’t have any control over what others do) to help keep the conversation on the light side, and not trigger others:

  1. be aware that how you say it trumps what you say
  2. be nice
  3. have a sense of humor, no matter how serious the topic is
  4. listen
  5. be open-minded
  6. use phrases like “in my opinion,” “I believe,” “I think,” rather than sounding like you’re stating everything as facts
  7. think about the other people as human beings with actual needs
  8. take your time to reply. Facebook allows for this.
  9. avoid judging, shaming and guilt tripping
  10. avoid sarcasm. it’s fun, but it doesn’t help

When a conversation turns sour, that may be (partly) because of you, but there are also situations where even when we try to stay in the light with all our might, other people will continue to behave downright nasty (yes, it does happen). In that case, don’t forget your options to unfriend, unsubscribe, unfollow, and if all else fails, just block the person so they stop existing for you.

Here is the full presentation

 

 

 

 

Vegans: you can’t do this alone

[This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the full presentation here.]

It used to be that the main force driving the world towards a (more) vegan world was us: the animal rights/vegan movement. We’ve been around for a couple of decades, we’ve been committed, caring and compassionate, and we’re still here, fighting this good fight.

But today there are allies. At least, they are allies if we let them be allies. If we form alliances with them. And we should.

Now when I say we need to form alliances with other sectors, movements, forces, domains… many people will say “Yes! Yes!”, thinking about alliances with movements that try to lift the oppression of other groups: black, women or gay liberation movements for instance.

I support these alliances, of course, but I’m talking about maybe less obvious kind of partnerships. Here I’m focusing on alliances with 1. the health/environmental movement and 2. the business sector. 

I feel I have to point out the value of getting in bed, so to speak, with at least part of the health/environmental and corporate world, because I see a lot of black and white thinking about them, as if these forces could never ever be our partners. As if we could do it without them. I don’t think we can. Or at least, not as fast.

While the vegan movement helps to spread the idea (the fact) that eating animals is ethically problematic, the health/environmental movement contributes to the idea that that animal products are unsustainable (for both health and our planet). The business sector, in turn, helps make the production of animal products redundant. Here’s the picture:

We need to work in unison with other forces that can bring us closer to a vegan world.

Of course there are big differences, different interests, different demands (the ask) and different arguments (reasons for avoiding animal products). A simple overview:

allies-matrix
Even though they use different arguments and have different demands, other forces may lead us in the same direction.

Regarding the health/environmental movement, they are an ally even if they (at best) go for a “less animal products” message rather than our own “no animal products”, and even if the animal argument is entirely left out of the picture. I have explained before (in this presentation, for instance) why a reducetarian message, for whatever reason, is a necessary strategy to lead us to a vegan world. Briefly: the more reducers, the bigger the demand, the bigger the offer. The bigger the offer, the easier it becomes for everyone to be entirely vegan.

Regarding the domain of business, here we’re talking about an incredible financial injection into our cause. In the last few years, a handful of companies that produce or want to produce alternatives for animal products, have raised (on a quick count) about 350 million dollars. I don’t know the total yearly budget of our movement, but it might be less than that. These companies make or will make products that will facilitate people’s shifting away from meat, dairy and eggs.

Yes, it’s capitalism. But it might very well be the best capitalism has to offer, and we shouldn’t say no to it (just like we shouldn’t say no to more money). You can be anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, anti-corporate all you want, but I would suggest you direct your protests at the producers of entirely useless things, and not at the companies that are our allies.

In order to form the best alliances with these different sectors, we need to be open to the fact that they will not spread the exact message that we want. We need to be open minded and non-dogmatic. And we need to be credible for them to want to partner up with us.

The world can be a much better place for animals. But not – or not so fast – if we go at it alone. We need to form strategic partnerships and alliances with all the domains, institutions, businesses etc. that can help us move forward.

This post is a summary of the presentation “Why the world is vegan”, which I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. Here is the presentation.

 

Learning, discussing, and recharging at the International Animal Rights Conference

I just got back from Luxembourg (it’s a three hour car trip for me) where I participated in and spoke at the International Animal Rights conference (IARC). I’ll write about what I talked about in other posts, but here I just wanted to give you an idea of what the conference was like.

In general, it’s always wonderful – even for just a few days – to be immersed in a bubble of likeminded people, enjoy vegan food, learn a lot of new things during the talks, or discuss strategies and tactics with other activists. I would recommend that every activist go and recharge their batteries at such a conference every once in a while.

I was impressed with so many of the participants I met. Seeing people, often still in school, spending a weekend to learn about new ways to save animals never fails to move me. I’m touched by their caring and their commitment. I’m touched by the idea that they are everywhere, in every part of the world. I’m touched by how they get inspired, and are inspiring others to change things.

All the people I talked to were both rational and compassionate. They clearly focused on getting the best results for animals, and weren’t afraid to discuss difficult topics. Year after year, it seems to me that this movement, and the people in it, are becoming more thoughtful, more strategic, more impactful.

A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016
A group photo of the participants of the IARC 2016

Even though more and more speakers at this conference focus on effectiveness, pragmatism and results, one thing the IARC always delivers is a variety of viewpoints. Other speakers represented views and domains as varied as civil disobedience, ecofeminism, intersectionality, meta-strategies, spirituality, and others. Speakers came from all over, and reported on campaigns in their countries.  There were talks about psychology, reaching children, sanctuaries, clean meat, economy, and more. This variety of viewpoints is a good way to help guard us from losing track of potentially important approaches or neglected issues.

The most challenging and – to many – new topic, I think, was the one of wild animal suffering, which was addressed in the talks of Stijn Bruers and Stefan Torges (I wrote this post about it before). The topic was heavily discussed during the breaks, and its most vocal proponent was probably long time Austrian activist Martin Balluch, who is of the opinion that freedom and autonomy are more important values than the absence of suffering. It led to interesting debates between him and proponents of interference in nature. It was inspiring  to see how – even if probably few minds were changed – these debates were civil and friendly, as this whole conference was.

The practical organization was great. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who made this possible: organizers, volunteers (preparing food, doing dishes, introducing speakers and so on), speakers, participants, sponsors, and canine friends present.

Now it’s back to the real world, until we meet again next year!

 

 

 

 

Setting an example for others: how ambitious should we be?

Recently, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris did an interview on his Waking Up podcast (my favorite online thing to follow) with William MacAskill, the founder and face of the Effective Altruism movement. The whole two hour dialogue is worth listening to, but at one point, Harris asks MacAskill how much of our income we should give to charity. MacAskill gives his answer, after which Harris asks (without judgment, he says) why he shouldn’t give away even more.

MacAskill’s answer is interesting: what is important, he says, is not just the impact of what  you do yourself, but also to what extent your behavior inspires others to do the same. If you convince one other person to give away ten percent of their income, you have doubled your impact. So, we should consider, in this case, setting an example that is doable for others to imitate. If you manage to give away 95% of your income, but if that leaves others uninspired because it is way too ambitious to ever serve as an example for them, that may not be the best outcome you can have.

attainable example

Of course, this got me thinking about vegan advocacy. One might say that, given the fact that the number of vegans has not really been growing spectacularly (we’re still at one percent), the example vegans set for others could be too ambitious. It is a fact that even staying vegan is hard, given that 75% of vegetarians and vegans fall off the wagon at some point (and no, that’s not just the health vegans).

Of course, this goes against vegan orthodoxy, and some people won’t like to hear this. They will claim that we should only show to others the behaviors we would like them to adopt themselves.  According to this view, we can only, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. It’s the default way of looking at things, and I’m sure there’s a lot of validity to it.

But the thing is, of course, that moving towards veganism from a vegetarian position is a lot easier than going from omnivore to vegan. The fear that people will stop at taking the steps we ask them to take, and then do nothing after that is, I think, ungrounded. A much bigger concern is that people won’t take any step because the whole thing seems too daunting.

However, even if I knew that being a vegetarian was more effective in terms of being an example for others, I don’t think I could bring myself to go back to being more flexible and eat eggs and dairy products on a regular basis. But it does mean that I’m not going to overemphasize to others the small bits (the honey, the little bit of whey in this or that), and that I will do my best to set an attainable example.

Of course – and this wasn’t discussed in the above mentioned podcast – one could do one thing and show people another thing. If you feel that certain behaviors are too hard to be inspiring, maybe it’s good to come across as less strict than you really are. Maybe some vegan or near vegan celebrities have this idea in mind when in the media they say they make an exception now and then. This is something that they would be criticized for by many vegans, but which might actually be a good thing. Who knows?

In any case, the idea of setting an attainable example means that I’m not gonna fret that some people are not vegan but vegetarian, or close to vegetarian. I’m certainly not going to tell vegetarians that they aren’t making any difference (as some others may do). I think there’s a distinct possibility that in certain (or even many) cases, they may –  at this moment in time – actually have more impact on others than the average vegan.

Blasphemy, I know.