Three ideas to get vegan food into the mouths of unwilling people

If you look at indicators or metrics for success that the vegan movement might use, a very important one might be this one:

How many people did we provide with a great vegan taste experience?

When people get the idea that vegan food can be good, there is a lot of chance they will be more open to arguments for veganism or to the idea that farmed animals matter (I’ve written about this on many occasions).

Of course many people – vegans and non-vegans alike – buy vegan products in supermarkets or try vegan dishes in restaurants (or at home) every day. However, I’m talking about reaching the ones who are not prone to do this by themselves: people who might have prejudices against vegan food (that it’s boring, tasteless, too difficult to prepare etc). Given that they are not willing to spend money on veg products or dishes, how can we put something vegan in their hands and mouths?

One way is what I have called stealth veganism before: simply not mentioning that a product, a dish or even a restaurant, is vegan, so as to avoid the prejudice. But let’s look at other options.

Providing people with a bite of something vegan is, of course, logistically more complicated than giving them a flyer, sending them an email, or making them watch a one minute video (the usual ways in which vegans do advocacy). You need to invest in the food, get it to the people, prepare it, serve it (and then ideally follow up to estimate the impact, and help them take further steps). While we can’t force-feed anything to anyone, there are several ways in which we can shorten the distance between the unwilling customer and a (great tasting) vegan product.

If you look at it logistically, the easiest way, of course, is that the producers offer samples of their products themselves, on places where a lot of people come, shop or eat. That could be at a fair, a busy place in the city, or in restaurants and supermarkets themselves. A producer (or store) wants to sell as much product as possible, so it makes sense that they get as many people as possible to taste their products, trusting that sampling will lead to more sales.

All of this is very obvious, so let me offer you a couple of less obvious ideas for getting unwilling people to take a vegan bite.

1. Passing out vegan samples in cafetarias, of the food that is available there
I recently heard about what I suspect is a particularly efficient setup to hand out samples: imagine a company cafeteria (or other restaurant), where customers have (every day or on certain days) the option to put a vegan dish on their tray, rather than a meat dish. By default, sales of the meat dishes would be much higher than the vegan sales. But if there would be people passing out samples of the vegan dish (or just of the meat alternative from that dish – e.g. a veg nugget) at the entrance of the cafeteria, while customers are waiting in line, the percentage of vegan dishes sold could be increased dramatically. The person (a representative from a company producing meat alternatives) told me up till half of the customers chose the vegan dish!
Vegan advocates could do this work, but it could also be done by the people from the catering companies. The great thing is that if one or a couple of big catering companies (think Compass, Aramark, Eurest…) would roll out such campaigns, this would be a way to structurally cover a big part of the population. It could be done in schools as well as in company restaurants. On the meta-level, veg organizations lobbying with caterers to do this sort of thing, and maybe offering them a campaign framework like Meatless Monday or a meatless week or month, could potentially be quite impactful, especially if we’re talking to very large companies.

2. Promotions of “mixed brands”
I call a “mixed brand” here a brand or company that has both meat and veg products in their range. These companies have some means at their disposal to convince their own customers – who are already familiar with their brand – to try their new veg products. I’ve seen cases where the packaging of the meat product has an ad for a vegetarian variation, which you see when you remove the lid at home, like in this example, by the German company Rügenwalder.

the packaging of a rugenwalder meat product, showing an ad for the veg variation

But there are other possibilities. Check out these (and forgive me the crude, schematic drawings):

three drawings of combined veg/meat food products

These ideas may obviously require some logistical efforts, and it’s easy to see that they are not directed at vegans, but I think there is a big potential here to reach unwilling customers where it matters: in the stomach.

Companies might have very good reasons to try these tactics, as it becomes more and more important for them to gain a larger and larger foothold in the vegan market. An extra motivation might be that in some cases there could be a higher profit margin on the veg products.

Also, consider the added value of a big, trusted brand. When meat eaters see a vegetarian version of a product they know and trust, they might be more likely to buy it than when it’s from a brand they’ve never seen before. A graph by market research company GFK that I recently saw (and which I’m not putting here for proprietary reasons), showed the market penetration (i.e. how many people had actually tried the product) of vegetarian sandwich slices in Germany. For the veg variation by a well-known meat brand, this was no less than 48%, while for one of the more well-known vegetarian brands, it was a mere… two percent!

3. Vegan advocates as a food sampling army
There are many vegan advocates in the street spreading moral messages to passers-by, by means of videos, flyers, and conversations. That’s great, but I think these interactions would be a lot more powerful if there was also the component of food sampling. A vegan nugget (probably one of the most convenient savory products to distribute) can be a conversation starter, can make people less defensive about discussing animal suffering (as they realize there is not all that much to lose), etc.

I think that for the animal protection movement, there are possibilities to organize samplings on a much larger scale than we are doing today. Potentially, we could be giving out tens of thousands of vegan samples every day, in the street, at festivals and fairs, with or without any special occasion.

Kane Rogers and Mei Wong, two Australian activists, run the campaign “The food you choose” in Melbourne. This campaign focus heavily on trying to get people to taste vegan food. Kane and Mei have quite some experience with passing out samples. I asked them for their top tips for running great food sampling sessions. Here’s what they suggest:

Don’t tell them it’s vegan… at first.
As labeling a product as “vegan” for now still seems to be a turn-off for many, it’s better not to talk about it from the get-go. Some alternatives to put on your signs or banners could be “Free, Sustainable Food”, or “Cholesterol Free Food”. Adapt to your audience.
Once people have tried the food, you should ask them what they think of it. It’s important to get their reaction first, so they can’t change their mind later.

Do the big reveal
Let the person know they just ate a plant-based product. People don’t like to be duped, so make sure you don’t make them feel like they are fools who have been tricked. One way is to ask people “what do you think this was made from?”
People may be shocked, so tell them that most people can’t tell the difference. This will prevent them from getting upset, and reinforces the idea that vegan food can taste just as good as “normal food”.

Tell them where they can buy it
If you really want to make the biggest difference you can for animals or the planet, it’s important to help people buy the product for themselves. Keep your focus! You’re not talking about the benefits of veganism as a whole, or why someone should eat a plant-based diet in general (unless someone asks, of course). You’re just focussing on this one great product and why they should buy it.
For many people, this could be their very first experience with vegan food. It’s really important that this moment is a happy, positive one that makes them walk away with a great memory. If the person doesn’t like the product, or has strong feelings about vegan food or veganism in general, so be it! Don’t try to change their mind. Hopefully they’ll change their own, in due time.

There is great potential for structural partnerships with the producers of these products, where the vegan movement could become a structural partner for them, possibly even getting paid for the sampling services. Imagine how many vegan nuggets a group like Anonymous for the Voiceless, with many hundreds of chapters all over the world, could hand out!

drawing of Anonymous for the Voiceless activists, handing out food samples

Do you know of any other ideas to close the gap between vegan food and reluctant eaters? Let me know in the comments!

Unilever buys Vegetarian Butcher to make more money. That’s not a problem, but a good thing.

When Big Food companies get into the vegan market, they don’t do it for the animals or even the environment, but primarily to make money for their shareholders. Is that a problem?

The reason for asking this question is that Unilever just bought Dutch plant-based company The Vegetarian Butcher. In the online discussions that inevitably follow such news, the comment about idealism versus money-making is among the most read and liked critical arguments. Many vegans and fans of smaller companies are critical of the acquisition, believing the Vegetarian Butcher has “sold out”, and that ideals lost from – or had to make way for – profit.

Jaap Korteweg, founder of The Vegetarian Butcher

Being a good person
I find these discussions fascinating, because I’m fascinated with some of the philosophical issues that are implied in it. This is about the difference between intentions and results, and ultimately about what it means to be a good person, or live an ethical life. Is a good person someone who has every intention to do the right thing (but whose attempts may have little results)? Is it someone who has great results for other beings, but who doesn’t necessarily have the right intentions? Is it both? or Neither?

Intentions versus results
While I – as an eternal doubter and questioner – think that the answers to these questions are not entirely obvious, it seems that within idealistic movements (like the animal rights/vegan movement) – and judging from endless comments on social media – the answer is clear to many: intentions often seem to be more important than results. If you do something for the right reasons (because you want to help animals, for instance), that seems, for many, to be more important than actually having results – especially if those results are achieved for the “wrong” reasons (profit). A less strong way to put this may be that, in the eyes of many, good results become less valuable, or somehow “tainted”, when they were achieved with less than optimal intentions.

Now let’s look at the Unilever-acquires-Vegetarian-Butcher case.

Ideals versus money
Let’s assume that the Vegetarian Butcher’s first priority (their first intention) is to reduce the consumption of animal products, in order to alleviate animal suffering.
Let’s also assume that Unilever’s first priority is to make money for their shareholders. I think these are two assumptions that are quite safe to make, and they leave room for the fact that the Vegetarian Butcher also would like to make some money and that there are people at Unilever who also have certain values and care about e.g. sustainability (the company’s leadership has expressed high ambitions in this field (1)). But let’s just make abstraction of that right now, so that we only look at the noble intention of the VB and the more mundane intention of Unilever.

Now here’s a question: what do these two different priorities tell us about actual results with regard to reducing animal suffering? (the topic that will interest readers of this blog the most) Does a company who wants to reduce animal suffering, actually and necessarily reduce animal suffering more than a company whose first priority is to make money?

At first sight, that seems to some extent logical. If my priority is to help animals, I will not harm animals when harming animals is profitable. If my priority is to make money, I might do so even if that harms animals. Unilever obviously sells a lot of non-vegan products, which harm animals (just as they, like most companies, sell products that contain ingredients that may harm humans).

However when one can make money by saving animals (and this is the first time that the two priorities actually start coinciding) things may look very different. Unilever bought the Vegetarian Butcher because they can see that there is a growing demand for veg*n products. By selling more of these products, Unilever increases their bottom line: profit. BUT they also, at the same time, help animals by selling these products even if that is not their intention or bottom line.

In a case like this, it might be a good idea for vegans to get out of the way, and let companies like Unilever make money, even though that is not the objective or intention that vegans would like other people to have.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons
Insisting on others having the right intentions is not very productive for several reasons. A first one is that it is a waste of energy. Of course you can try to educate people – and we should! – but when people’s heart isn’t changed fast enough, and they can do good things for other reasons, let’s not waste too much time in convincing them that they should have other intentions than they have. Here is social activist Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals (recommended reading!)

“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”

The second reason why insisting on the right intentions is not productive, is that it may lead to… lower results (in the domain that we are interested in: reducing animal suffering).

What does a cow want?
Let’s look at this from the position of one of the real steakholders: a cow. Let’s suppose this cow can decide who she (together with all farmed animals) will give support to. She’s approached by two people: a highly idealistic vegan, who has set up a nice, small vegan business. And the CEO of a huge company, who wants to make a lot of money for his shareholders by selling alternatives to animal products.

Who is our cow going to trust most to make the biggest difference?

If I were the cow, I wouldn’t care why the CEO does what he does, and I’d invest in them, rather than in the idealist vegan small-time entrepreneur. Because I know the chances of impact would be a lot bigger.

You might say I’m creating a false dichotomy here, and to some extent you’d be right. It is possible to combine impact and idealism (although I wonder if for some people big might be inherently bad – see below). Let me tell you who I would trust most of all: I’d trust a person who’s highly motivated to make the world better for animals, but who is very aware of the importance of scaling his business. Hence, this person will know the importance of raising money, and they will know that not all the money that they raise will come from people who want to make the world better for animals. It will also come from people who want to… make more money. This is the situation the Vegetarian Butcher, who has the laudable ambition to be the biggest butcher in the world, finds itself in. There is a limit to what it can reach on its own, or at least, growth will go much faster with much more capital.

Increased impact with Unilever
The Vegetarian Butcher chose to be acquired by Unilever to realize its ambition, and I think that was a good call.

Here are some concrete arguments for why the impact of the Vegetarian Butcher might grow tremendously when they are a part of Unilever, and hence why our cow – and vegans – should get out of the way, and stop fretting over good intentions:

  1. Big companies have more money for advertising and will be able to sell their product to more people.
  2. Big companies have more money for research and development, and, together with their huge expertise (another asset) can make the acquired product better still in all the relevant ways.
  3. Big companies have lots of contracts and long standing relationships with retailers (supermarkets, big catering companies, etc), and can thus reach a lot more people. Unilever is networked in 190 countries.
  4. As soon as they have invested in plant-based products themselves, big companies will have less reason to antagonise or sabotage vegan growth. In the end, the only companies left sabotaging will be the ones that don’t have any share of the plant-based pie.
  5. The work of the Vegetarian Butcher goes on, but now, the people behind it have a lot of money (and time?) on their hands. Maybe they’ll use that to start another big project. Basically, founder Jaap Korteweg has partly made himself redundant for his company, so that he’s freed up to do other projects that maybe no one else would take on (but if he just wants to retire, I won’t blame him. He’s done a great tour of duty for the animals).

Systemic change
Not in every case is the main problem for the critics Unilever’s lack of idealism. There are lots of other concerns. Some fear the Vegetarian Butcher products’ quality will go down or that their reputation will be damaged. Some accept the acquisition by a Big Food company but… Unilever, really?
There is one other concern that keeps popping up in these situations, which I’ll briefly get into now but may do more extensively in another post: that more capitalism is not the solution, that this is not the systemic change that we (or some of us) want, and that all of this may solve one problem (reducing animal suffering) but create or increase other problems.

I agree with the aspiration to not solve or alleviate problems by creating or increasing other problems. If we help a group of individuals, or the environment by doing stuff that makes things worse for others, then that is not the ideal solution. But again, we’ve bumped into the issue of idealism.

What we have is a horrible system with many issues: call it the animal industry, or factory farming, whatever. This system creates massive environmental, animal welfare, public health and social justice problems. Is it fair to expect of alternatives to score better in all these fields at the same time? Does a plant-based company, brand or product line have to do better than animal products in terms of not just animal welfare but also environment, health, social justice?

To some extent, this is a matter of priorities. Avoiding extreme suffering is my own priority. Farmed animals unfortunately score extremely well in that field, so helping them should be, I think, quite high on the list. When big multinational companies create certain problems – like putting small companies out of business (think of Amazon) that can and should certainly be looked into and where necessary tackled, but the graveness of this problem should be compared with the graveness of the problem that is being addressed (animal suffering). In my view, making huge headway in terms of reducing extreme animal suffering is a bigger good than the disappearance of small, local businesses. To some extent this is an empirical question, and it’s possible that if one aggregates all the bad consequences of big multinationals, one would come to a different conclusion. Fact is, I do not think we should wait for ideal solutions or only support ideal solutions that solve all problems.

Is small beautiful?
Sometimes I have the impression that one of the characteristics of initiatives or ventures that are routinely praised for their systems-changing approach is that they are… small. Think about local initiatives, cozy social experiments with neighbors to improve the community, local farms… I can see their charm as well as their usefulness, but often they seem so small and unscalable to me. And also, conversely, I wonder: would these initiatives still be praised by anti-capitalists if they got a lot bigger? Scaling often means making some compromises and straying a little bit from the ideals. Conversely, if you want to stay really true to your ideals, it seems safest to stay small (and have less impact). It seems almost, then, as if being small is a necessary aspect of getting some people’s admiration or consent. It seems that for many, small and pure is better than big and compromising, no matter what the impact.

Again I’m sure some readers will think that I’m painting a false dichotomy here. Maybe they are right, but so far this is the impression I get.
To become the biggest butcher in the world is probably not something that can be done without big money, big investors, the help of big companies. However, more importantly, even if it could be done without that, would the a company that was the biggest in the world at anything be able to gain the praise of people with an anti-capitalist mindset?
To me, scale is not inherently bad, just like being small is not necessarily charming or noble. Sure, there are potential risks in being big, and being big may have – and at present usually has – serious detrimental effects. But we need to consider whether these effects are 1. unavoidable and 2. maybe worth it compared to the positive impact that is being created.

To many, the above will be enough for some to paint me squarely in the capitalist corner, so let me finish by saying that I’m with anti-capitalists in hoping that someday we can replace this system by something much better, even though I don’t know yet what exactly that would look like.

Some points to summarize

  1. Different people and different companies can obviously have very different priorities and intentions.
  2. This is not a black or white thing. Most companies need to make money for their investors or shareholders, but that doesn’t prevent them from caring about things other than money.
  3. Good intentions are neither necessary nor sufficient to have great results
  4. Bad intentions may be good enough
  5. The fact that today one can make money – and that many people want to make money – thanks to the plant based revolution is a great thing, not a sad thing.
  6. Though we should not choose for solutions that make matters worse for other issues, if you wait for ideal solutions that have an answer to every issue, you can wait a long time.

(1) How sustainable exactly Unilever is or wants to be is of course a thorny question. You can read about some of Unilever’s ambitions here and then see them criticized here.

What we can learn from 19th century slavery abolitionists. An interview with Dr. Wlodzimierz Gogloza.

Most “ethical vegans” (people who avoid animal products for moral reasons) would agree that the goal of the animal rights movement is the abolition of the use of animals for human purposes. In that sense, they are all “abolitionists”. The term abolitionist is derived from the people who advocated for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th century in North America and Britain. But to what extent can those who advocate the abolition of animal exploitation compare themselves to, and draw inspiration from, slavery abolitionists? Were the goals and tactics similar? Is there anything that can be learned from their failures and successes? I interviewed Dr. Wlodzimierz Gogloza to help us answers these questions. We’ll focus on the anti-slavery movement in NorthnAmerica.

Dr. Gogloza is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Maria Curie Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland, where he teaches classes and seminars in the history of ideas, the legal traditions of the world and management studies. He has co-authored one book, co-edited seven scholarly volumes and published dozens of academic papers on various subjects including the radical fringes of the American anti-slavery movement, the British individualist tradition, and early managerial and organizational thought. He also volunteers for Open Cages/Anima International as a legal advisor and a campaign coordinator.

Vegan Strategist: First of all, who were these nineteenth century slavery abolitionists? What actually defined them?

Wlodek Gogloza: The first thing to understand is that within the North American anti-slavery movement, the so-called abolitionists were a minority. No more than 300,000 people identified themselves as abolitionists before the Civil War. The population of the United States at that time was around 31 million. Moreover, the self-identified abolitionists were very scattered across the North: even in the northernmost states where the anti-slavery movement was strongest, there were just a few places where one in ten people were abolitionist.
Abolitionists were basically those who agreed with the three demands of the American Anti-Slavery Society (the main abolitionist group in the US). The first demand was immediate abolition of human bondage (sometimes called “immediatism”, as opposed to gradualism). The second: no compensation whatsoever for slave owners and no forced emigration (“expatriation”) of former slaves. The third demand was for all former slaves to be granted civil rights. These three goals carried the same weight, and if someone rejected even one of them, they would not be considered abolitionists.

Some of the most influential and best-known American abolitionists include William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, Joshua Leavitt, and Charles Sumner. They did not always see eye to eye on every question relating to abolition, especially on how the emancipation of the slaves should be achieved, but they all agreed that the three above mentioned demands were non-negotiable.

Those demands don’t seem too controversial in our present-day eyes…?

And yet they were extremely controversial at the time. It was especially the uncompromising anti-racist stance of their last demand that made the abolitionists seem like crazy fundamentalists.

Racism was much more widespread than it is today, and even among the anti-slavery activists, there were many people who harbored racist attitudes. The idea that the Afro-Americans should have the same rights as white citizens appalled even people who regarded slavery as an abomination.

President Lincoln, for instance, wanted to help slaves, but due to the stigma attached to the abolitionist movement, he tried hard to distance himself from the abolitionists. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist”.(1)

So within the broader anti-slavery movement, what would be the demands of those who didn’t belong to the abolitionist fraction?

Some people were in favor of some kind of compensation for slaveholders, others wanted to send the freed slaves back to Africa. Lincoln, for instance, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the seminal “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, were proponents of the latter idea, known as colonization. Others still wanted to get rid of slavery in a more gradual fashion.

Were there people who actually shared all the abolitionists’ ideas, but didn’t campaign for them for pragmatic reasons?

Many Quakers agreed with the abolitionists in principle, but refused to participate in the abolitionists’ activities, which they regarded as disruptive and unruly. Their stance was known as “Quietism”. There were also many people who were disturbed by some fringe views on government and organized religion that some very prominent members of the AASS held. William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters, known as Garrisonians who openly advocated for something approaching anarchism, had a particularly polarizing influence on the broader anti-slavery movement.

abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison

Some animal rights advocates, notably Gary Francione, who shaped the so-called “abolitionist approach”, and his followers, like to compare the fight for animal liberation to the fight of the slavery abolitionists, seeing themselves in a similar position. What is it that they find especially inspiring?

I believe the modern day animal rights abolitionists, in the sense of Gary Francione and others, like the uncompromising and unequivocal stance of the slavery abolitionists. They seem also to be very fond of two tactics that they closely associate with the Garrisonians and other 19th-century immediatists: abstention and moral suasion. Here, as an example, is a representative quote from Gary Francione:

Garrison was clear: If you oppose slavery, you stop participating in the institution. Period. You emancipate your slaves. You reject slavery and you aren’t ashamed of your opposition. You don’t try to hide it. You openly and sincerely, but nonviolently, express your “persistent, uncompromising moral opposition” to slavery, which is “a system of boundless immorality.”
Similarly, if you believe that animal exploitation is wrong, the solution is not to support “happy” exploitation. The solution is to go vegan, be clear about veganism as an unequivocal moral baseline, and to engage in creative, nonviolent vegan education to convince others not to participate in a system of “boundless immorality.”(2)

I strongly believe, however, that the parallels the animal rights abolitionists draw between their position and the position of 19th century slavery abolitionists are false, and are based on a very superficial understanding of the original abolitionist movement and the social and political reality in which it emerged.

Let’s look at this “moral suasion” first. How important was this tactic to slavery abolitionists?

Moral suasion was a tactic the American Anti-Slavery Society employed in the 1830s to end slavery by appealing to the Christian conscience of slave-owners and convincing them that slaveholding was a great sin, and should be immediately abandoned. It was a religious tactic employed by what, in essence, was a religious movement.

The AASS came into existence on the wave of the so-called Second Great Awakening – a Protestant religious revival that swept the US during the first half of the 19th century. People associated with the Great Awakening emphasized the power of an individual to renounce sin and encouraged their fellow Christians to strive for personal holiness.

Almost all early abolitionists came from this milieu. In fact, the AASS itself can be seen as a secular coalition of Quakers, Baptists, and Congregational revivalists, who wanted to inspire the slaveholders to renounce the sin of slavery and voluntarily free their slaves.

What shape did this moral suasion take, in practice?

The tactic was translated into a massive propaganda campaign. For almost two years, the AASS printed from twenty to fifty thousand anti-slavery pamphlets per week. They mailed these to slaveholders, state and federal government officials, politicians, newspaper editors, ministers, and preachers all over the country, but especially in the South. By the 1836, the abolitionists flooded the US with anti-slavery propaganda, sending more than one million pamphlets, posters, songbooks, and even readers for small children.

The abolitionists also sent their most engaging public speakers on lecture tours all around the North, held regular public meetings in major northern cities, and organized fairs, bazaars, and picnics, as well as vigils and prayer groups.

an abolitionist anti-slavery pamphlet

How successful were these efforts?

All this required huge resources and thousands of activists, but the results were quite discouraging. While some slave owners did free their slaves, the vast majority of the Southerners reacted to the abolitionists’ propaganda with extreme hostility, including mobs burning abolitionist mailings in post offices and violence against abolitionists that resulted in the death of several of them. In the end, the campaign proved to be counterproductive. It actually hardened the slave owners’ commitment to slavery.

How so?

After the Revolutionary War, many Southerners did believe that slavery was evil, though a necessary evil. By the early 1840, this changed, and to many Southerners slavery had become – to quote a speech by senator Albert Gallatin Brown from Mississippi – “a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the slave, and a blessing to the master”(3). When in an infamous speech, John C. Calhoun insisted that “slavery was a positive good”(4), this was a direct result of the abolitionists’ “postal campaign”.

Did the abolitionists realize that what they did wasn’t working?

They did. By the 1840’s, most of them had decided to abandon moral suasion as an outreach method. Two major tactics emerged at that time within the abolitionist movement. Some of the abolitionists started to focus on political campaigning, others on what modern scholars call “revolutionary abolitionism” – providing help to runaway slaves, disrupting the effectiveness of the Fugitive Slave Act, preparing for slave insurrection, etc.

The politically inclined abolitionists founded the Liberty Party, with the sole aim of making slavery illegal. The LP was not successful. Its best electoral outcome amounted to less than then 3% of the popular vote. But the abolitionist party later merged with the Free Soil Party, which quickly became a major political force in the North, and can be seen as a forerunner of Lincoln’s Republican Party.

Were all abolitionists on board with political campaigning?

No. The Garrisonians especially were hostile towards any form of government and found political engagement both useless and immoral. Instead, they advocated disunion, i.e., the secession of the northern free states from the US.

The masthead of The Liberator, which was the major press organ of the Garrisonians, contained the famous slogan “No Union with the Slaveholders”. This was obviously an extremely controversial position which could not attract major support.

But the Garrisonians were also involved in more pragmatic efforts – they helped to establish unsegregated schools, churches, libraries, etc., and successfully campaigned against segregation in carriages, trains, and steamboats.

What about abstention from slavery products? Did the 19th century abolitionists regard this as an unequivocal moral baseline and a true test of one’s commitment to the cause, as Gary Francione seems to imply?

The constitution of the AASS encouraged its members to give preference to products of free labor, but this doesn’t mean that the abolitionists saw abstention as a moral imperative.

Abstention was first used as a tactic by British abolitionists at the end of the 18th century. They used a minimalist “key-hole approach” to boycott, by focusing their efforts on a few carefully selected products. By boycotting slave-produced sugar and rum from the West Indies (the Caribbean islands), they wanted to put economic pressure on slave-dependent industries, and ultimately make slavery unprofitable. The economic goal was not achieved, but the boycott was instrumental in founding a mass movement of dedicated abolitionists who eventually brought slavery in Britain to an end.

While being inspired by the British example, the American abolitionists chose a more radical path. Starting in the 1830s, they set up dozens of organizations promoting abstention from all slave products. They also opened over 50 “free produce shops”, which sold products free of slave labor exclusively. Many of them were rather short lived, though.

How much traction did this abstention gain among the broader public in the US?

It never attracted a mass following, even among those with anti-slavery convictions. Complete avoidance of slave labor products was much more challenging than just boycotting sugar or rum (what the British did). The supply of free produce was not sufficient to satisfy even the smallest demand, and free-produce shops regularly had to cope with inventory shortages. And, quality of the products was usually low, while prices were too high for most whites and almost all free blacks.

In the end, the exclusive reliance on free produce required so much dedication to the cause that only the most committed abolitionists could maintain it, often to the detriment of focusing on other anti-slavery activities.(5)

It sounds like, much like in the vegan movement today, the impact and efficiency of personal purity was under discussion.

Exactly. The parallel goes even deeper. Abstention actually became a major issue of contention within the abolitionist movement. The Garrisonians, who had initially supported the free produce cause, later started to criticize it. They realized that, in practice, abstention diverted energy from the anti-slavery struggle by shifting the focus from activism to personal morality.

Analyzing the papers and newsletters produced by the advocates of abstention reveals the abstentionists’ growing focus on personal purity and on a “consciousness of sincerity and consistency, of possessing ‘clean hands,’ of having ‘no fellowship with the workers of iniquity’ ”.(6)

This obsession with “clean hands”, by the way, proved to be a major problem to the owners of the free-produce shops, who constantly had to reassure their clients that the products they were selling were free of slave labor.

receipt from a free produce purchase

That all sounds quite familiar…

It does, doesn’t it. Eventually, the self-righteousness of the “abstentionists” became unbearable even to deeply religious abolitionists, who like Garrison, were striving for holiness in their own private lives. By the late 1840s, virtually all major figures within the anti-slavery movement had come to oppose “abstention”, as a major tactics to create change. As a result, abstentionism in the 1850s came to be associated almost exclusively with a very small faction of Quakers.

So, contrary to what some modern day animal rights abolitionists seem to be implying, the abstention movement was very small, insignificant, and at odds with the broader anti-slavery movement.

Even at the anti-slavery fairs, not all of the products that were sold were free produce. The abolitionists justified their acts of buying and selling the products of slave labor with their commitment to the slaves’ cause. As William Lloyd Garrison explained during one debate with abstentionists, “who but the abolitionist is so well entitled to use the products of slave’s toil in whose behalf he is laboring?”(7)

So, if one were to interpret Garrison’s comments in the context of modern debates over veganism, his approach to abstention would be much closer to a position known as “moral offsetting” than to Francione’s “veganism as a moral imperative.”

What do you mean by “moral offsetting”?

It’s an idea popularized within the Effective Altruism community by Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex fame. The gist of it is that you can offset some of your “shortcomings” by doing an appropriate good deed. Let’s say, for example, that you feel a moral obligation to be a vegan, but for some reason you cannot fully commit to veganism. So, you offset your “milk chocolate addiction” with a donation to an animal rights organization, which then uses it to fund campaigns aimed at ending factory farming of dairy cows.

Note, I’m not saying that “moral offsetting” is a proper approach; it’s just that it is closer to what Garrison was advocating with regard to abstention, than a “moral baseline”.

As a vegan yourself, after having looked at the anti-slavery movement, in sum, what do you think are the major takeaways?

I’d say, first of all, make sure to really study the movements you claim to share affinity with and you think you’re taking advice from. The American abolitionist movement was not a monolith. It consisted of lot of different factions, which clashed almost constantly on both fundamental and minor issues pertaining to slavery and emancipation. There was no single one abolitionist tactic. The Garrisonians used one, the abstentionists another, and the political or constitutional abolitionists yet another. Sometimes, the factions did cooperate – for example on a petitioning campaign which however was quickly stifled by adoption of a gag rule by the US Congress – but it is inappropriate to talk about the abolitionist strategy or tactic.

Second, realize that the fact that a tactic worked at some point doesn’t imply universal applicability. The American abolitionists followed very closely in the footsteps of the British anti-slavery movement, and even though they tried similar approaches, they were not able to replicate British success, for a very obvious reason. The US was much more dependent on slavery than Britain, which meant that the American abolitionists operated in a different and much more challenging environment than the British ones.

Also, we should not become overly attached to one tactic, and be prepared to update our methods. The US anti-slavery movement was initially very attached to moral suasion, but then abandoned it and moved to institutional change. A similar thing happened with regard to the abstention. When the abolitionist realized that the meager results of the boycott were barely worth the effort, the vast majority of them switched to different tactics.

Last but not least, we should acknowledge the limits of inspirational stories and personalities. I deeply admire the American abolitionists. It’s hard not to be inspired by their incredible courage, life-long commitment to the slaves’ cause, and pure guts necessary to challenge an institution so deeply engraved into social, economic, and political system of their country. But, our heroes were not infallible (for example, the US abolitionists were an extremely quarrelsome bunch, and many of them were involved in bitter and prolonged personal feuds) and should not be expected to provide us with a blueprint to change the world, especially one which is so different from their own.

References

  1. O.L. Jackson, The Colonel’s Diary, Ohio 1922, p. 34.
  2. G.L. Francione, The Abolitionist-Regulationist Debate From Another Era: Sound Familiar?, https://www.abolitionistapproach.com/the-abolitionist-regulationist-debate-from-another-era-sound-familiar/
  3. Quoted in J.M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. The American Civil War, New York 1990, p. 56
  4. Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, February, 1837, in J.C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time, New York 1843, p. 225
  5. See R.K. Nuermberger, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery, Durham 1942.
  6. E. Heyrick, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition: or, An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery, 2nd ed., Boston 1838, p. 35.
  7. R.K. Nuermberger, op. cit., p. 102.

Selected literature:

M. Sinha, The Slave’s Cause. A History of Abolition, Yale University Press 2016.
J.B. Stewart, Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War, The University of Massachusetts Press 2008.
A.S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism. Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850, Pantheon Books 1967.
R.K. Nuermberger, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery, Duke University Press 1942.
L.B. Glickman, Buy for the Sake of the Slave: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism, “American Quarterly”, Volume 56, Number 4, December 2004, pp. 889-912.
H. Mayer, All on Fire. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, W.W. Norton & Company 1998.
J.R. Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism. Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement, The University of North Carolina Press 1998.
L. Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought, Cornell University Press, 1973.

For a critical overview of the modern animal rights abolitionism see L.E. Chiesa, Animal Rights Unraveled: Why Abolitionism Collapses into Welfarism and What It Means for Animal Ethics, “Georgetown Environmental Law Review”, Vol 28, 2016, pp. 557-587, available online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2905054

Make sure to read Henry Mayer’s “All on Fire. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery”. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and I read intellectual biographies for a living.

Seven possible responses of meat and dairy companies to vegan growth

Ben & Jerry's vegan flavors

Vegan products are quickly gaining in popularity. The biggest driver of this growth comes not from the vegans, but from people who like to buy and taste plant-based products now and then, for whatever reason (health, animals, environment, variety… or just because they’re there and they taste good). Companies that are producing meat and dairy products and are not offering vegan products can respond to the growth of the vegan market (and possibly the decline of the meat and dairy market) in several ways. Below, I briefly go over these different types of responses, starting with conservative and defensive ones, and moving to more progressive and radical ones.

1. ignore the whole thing

There are still quite a few companies – though less and less of them – that believe the vegan trend is just a hype, which will blow by. Others do realize that the growth of meat and dairy may be permanently stagnating and may decline further in the western world, but hope to profit from growing demand for their products in developing countries. Indeed, as pro capita income in China, India and other countries in Asia as well as Latin America is increasing, demand for animal products, according to the business as usual scenario, is expected to rise dramatically (indeed to double by 2050). Meat and dairy companies hope to cater to this growing international demand. These opportunities for export, however, are not a given. Awareness of the issues is growing in these countries, and new technology like clean meat may throw a wrench in the machine. Also, in the future many of these countries will probably cater more and more to their own needs and acquire the necessary expertise, rather than importing meat and dairy products from the west.

2. try to slow it down or stop it

Some companies are proactively fighting or trying to sabotage the growing interest in plant-based foods or, for that matter, the growing awareness around animal welfare and animal rights issues. One obvious example is how the meat and dairy industry in Europe and the US have been lobbying to ban the use of meat- and dairy-style names (words like “hamburger” or “cheese”) for plant based products. In Europe, this lobbying has actually been successful and led tot he fact that soymilk or oatmilk can no longer be called “milk” but should carry other names (like “drink”). In France the same already goes for meat products, so a vegetarian or vegan hamburger can no longer be called that. In the US, similar initiatives have so far been unsuccessful, but on the other hand we have seen so called “ag-gag” laws (agriculture gagging) in many states. These laws prohibit things like taking pictures of factory farms, in an attempt to limit animal activists from making undercover footage. Similar repressive measures have been taken in particular in Austria.

3. “traditional innovation”

To keep selling enough products, many companies need to constantly innovate. “Traditional innovation” – the term is sort of an intentional oxymoron – is what I mean with meat and dairy companies creating innovative products that still involve animal products. An example of this is lactose free milk – a dairy product which the dairy sector wants to sell to those who are lactose intolerant – or milk with certain flavors.
Much more innovative – I’m still placing it here but it could also be under the next point – are hybrid products (see my interview with Jos Hugense of Meatless). These products are made up of both animal and plant products. Imagine “milk” that is partly cow’s milk and partly oat milk, or a sausage that is 70 percent meat and 30 percent wheat – both product categories that actually exist.

4. developping alternatives for meat and dairy products

More and more companies are taking an even bolder step, and are launching animal free alternatives of the animal products that they are already offering. Both the Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs icecream brands, for instance, have launched vegan flavors. In Germany the long standing meat company Ruggenwalder Muhle has launched many vegetarian or vegan products.

Ben & Jerry's vegan flavors
Ben & Jerry’s vegan flavors

5. venture investments in plant-based companies

Some companies are hedging against or preparing for the decline of demand for animal products by investing in other companies that produce alternatives. Tyson Food‘s venture fund has famously bought a  stake in the vegan company Beyond Meat and has also invested in startups trying to bring clean meat to market. General Mills has invested in Kite Hill (which offers plant based cheeses), as well as in Beyond Meat. And both Cargill and Tysyon foods have invested in Memphis Meat, a Californian start up trying to bring clean meat to market, and having already produced prototypes of clean meatballs and clean duck.

6 . acquiring a plant-based company

Meat and dairy companies also have to option of not just buying a stake in a plant-based company, but completely acquiring it. This can be a good idea when the meat or dairy company doesn’t have the expertise or the ambition to bring their own alternative products to market quickly enough. French dairy giant Danone bought Whitewave foods, which owns brands like Silk, Alpro (a European nondairy company), as well as some organic dairy brands. Danone paid upwards of 11 billion dollars for the acquisition, but it allows the company to make an entrance into the US market – where it was weak – as well as in the plant-based and organic market. There are many other examples of similar acquisitions, like Finish dairy company Valio acquiring Swedish oatmilk company Oddlygood, Canadian Saputo acquiring Morningstar, etc. Famous vegan cheesemaker Daiya was acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka.

For vegans who dislike that meat companies are getting involved in vegan companies, it’s important to be aware of the fact that through their venture investments or acquisitions, the investing or new parent company can support the further growth of the vegan company. Apart from cash for further product development or advertising budgets, an investing or parent company can also provide their expertise in research and development to make a product better. An Alpro exectutive for instance, talked about how their new parent company Danone’s expertise in fermenting would be very useful to further improve the quality of Alpro’s yoghurts. Other assets that a parent company can provide are all their contracts with supermarket (or maybe even restaurant) chains to help improve the distribution of these products. Also important to note is that very probably, a meat or dairy company will be much less likely to try to sabotage vegan growth (option two above) if they are already profiting from it.

7. completely transforming into a plant-based company

Finally, a meat or dairy company can transition into a vegan company. This is at this point a very rare phenomenon, but it does happen, and one can only hope it will happen more and more. An example is the traditional New York dairy company Elmhurst, which is now a plant-based company. It continues to sell milk, but switched from cows to nuts for their sourcing.

If we want the vegan lifestyle to spread further, it is necessary that traditional companies can jump on board somehow, and that they have a wider variety of options than just go bankrupt or to turn vegan overnight – both of which are very rare occurences.

Do you see any responses that I missed? Let me know.

There’s nothing wrong about being a “vegan apologist”

You may have heard the term “apologist vegan” or “vegan apologist”. Maybe you’ve even been called that. But what is it, exactly?

I googled around a bit in search of descriptions of definitions, and the gist of it seems that a vegan apologist is a vegan who caters too much about how non-vegans feel, and who is able to apologize their non-vegan behavior, by coming up with reasons non-apologist vegans (I’ll call them “hardliners” in this post) do not find convincing. Another telltale sign of being an apologist, apparently, is to apologize for the behavior of some other vegans to meat eaters. For instance, an apologist vegan would explain that some vegans are really too militant or intolerant. This, again, is a no go for hardliners. In the eyes of the hardliners, there is no excuse for animal abuse, no excuse for not going vegan right now, no excuse for any exception. No excuse for excuses. The hardliners believe, I think, that it is only they who unconditionally take the side of the animals, and that apologists tolerate behavior of others that should not be tolerated.

As a vegan, should you always reject and refute the reasons other people give for not being (entirely) vegan?  I think not.

I think “making apologies” – the thing so frowned upon by hardliners – is often a good thing. There are two reasons for that, one is about process, one is about content.

The process reason for taking seriously other people’s reasons for not being vegan, understanding them, sometimes accepting them, is that an attitude where you understand where people are coming from and are not demanding something they seem to think is impossible, is much more likely to get them to be open and listen to you. Hardline vegans seem to think that apologist vegans care all too much about not hurting other people’s feelings. I understand that sentiment, and I think that sometimes we go too far in the direction of not trying to offend. But that’s not (only) what this is about. This is also about effectiveness. If you tell a person they have to do something, that there is no excuse for them not to change, that all their reasons are bullshit… well, in many or most cases you’ll just alienate that person.

The content reason for being an apologist vegan, so to speak, is that people may have (at the very least in their own perception) valid reasons not to be vegan (and certainly, not entirely vegan). To understand some of the arguments the “apologist vegans” use to excuse non-vegans, take a look at the bingo meme below. For a selection of these “apologist arguments”, I did the following: between brackets I made the objection a little bit clearer, where necessary (just in case the few words on the card are not clear enough to you). Then I briefly wrote out what I call the “hardline vegan argument” (HVA). This is what I think the maker of the bingo card (obviously a non-apologist) had in mind. Then I’ll spell out what I call the “apologist vegan argument” (AVA), which indeed explains why this particular objection against (fully consistent) veganism may hold some water.

vegan apologist bingo

As you will see, the hardline vegan argument usually is very binary and black and white in nature. If something is derived from animals or involves animal use, it is not vegan, period. The apologist vegan argument is more nuanced.

Here we go.

Backyard eggs (“It’s fine if people eat vegan except for eggs from chickens from their own backyard.”)
Hardline vegan argument (HVA): eggs are animal products. Vegans don’t eat animal products. No exceptions.
Apologist vegan argument (AVA): while there certainly may entail some problems, backyard eggs may be the single least problematic animal product, and conceding that they are often not very problematic at all, may increase the credibility of our position towards non-vegans, as well as making the transition a bit easier for them.

Part time vegan (“Part time vegans are taking steps, and are helpful for the animals.”)
HVA: there’s no such thing as a part time vegan. You’re vegan or you’re not. When people still eat non-vegan meals, they are still part of the problem and still contributing to animal suffering.
AVA: a part time vegan is part of the solution, by having a lower suffering footprint, and by helping to push demand for vegan products, thus helping to make going vegan easier for everyone (due to increased availability). Moreover, part time vegans are much closer to going vegan than omnivores. They should be stimulated and encouraged.
Note that these arguments also work for the “baby steps” objection (which apparently the maker of the bingo card finds so objectionable that they put it in the center)

Service dogs (“Vegans shouldn’t be against stuff like dogs that help the blind.”)
HVA: using an animal is not vegan.
AVA: these dogs are very helpful for blind people, and it’s certainly not obvious that they are mistreated and/or suffering. This should not be a priority. Speaking out against service dogs may easily come over as very harsh, and does not contribute to a positive image of vegans and veganism.

Oysters are vegan (“Oysters aren’t really animals, we can eat them.”)
HVA: oysters are animals. Not vegan.
AVA: there seem to be reasonable arguments to claim that oysters are not sentient, and in this sense are more like plants than animals. Conceding this point, or leaving this question open, may help us come across as reasonable, open-minded, non-dogmatic people. If we are reasonable and open-minded, many others will be much more likely to actually have a conversation with us.

Personal choice (“People still have the freedom to eat what they want. We shouldn’t push our beliefs on them.”)
HVA: our actions are not a personal choice when other beings are involved and suffer because of your choices.
AVA: it’s good to explain that eating animal products or not is definitely not a choice on the level of choosing the color of your wallpaper: shall or shall we not eat animal products, is not the same as shall we paint the living room blue or yellow. However, people are indeed free to eat what they want to eat. I think that by seeing things like this, our communication towards non-vegans may be less pushy, judgmental or restrictive, so that there is more chance they have the mental space to freely consider these serious issues.

Everyone can’t be vegan (“We can’t expect the whole world to go vegan.”)
HVA: there is no excuse not to go vegan, everyone can do it.
AVA: while many people in the west are in a perfect position to go vegan, it may be good to realize – and to show that we understand – that there are people for whom going vegan is less easy than for others. Some people are way less privileged than others, coping with financial problems, family issues, health issues, allergies, cultural issues, food deserts… While these may not make it strictly impossible to go vegan, they may at least make it (much) more difficult.

Humans are oppressed too (“Animals are not the only issue, let’s not lose sight of other issues.”)
OVA: human suffering pales in comparison with what we are doing to animals
AVA: the scale at which animals suffer and die at human hands is indeed massive and incredible. But that can never justify that anyone would ignore human suffering, or prioritize animal suffering at the cost of everything else.

Lab created meat is vegan (“Clean meat, created from animal cells, does not entail suffering.”)
HVA: it’s not vegan, because it’s an animal product. Not only does the production of clean meat require a biopsy from an animal, it also requires an animal growth medium. Moreover, we don’t need clean meat, as there are so great meat and dairy alternatives these days.
AVA: The biopsy is pretty much harmless. Moreover, if in the future we are more accepting of GMO technology in this, we can make eternally self-replicating cells, so that we only need to take the biopsy once. As for the medium, we are developping – and will use in the future – animal free growth mediums. In any case, clean meat has the potential to prevent massive amounts of animal suffering. As for not needing it: if plant based foods are sufficient, then why is not everyone vegan yet? Apparently there are still holes and lacks, and we should try everything to fill these up.

Honey is vegan (“Let’s not mention honey and consider it vegan, rather than talking about details.”)
HVA: honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan.
AVA: technically honey is not a vegan product, but focusing on this will make veganism seem less credible (it’s such a natural and healthy product in most people’s eyes) and more difficult. It’s good to a least not always volunteer the “honey is not vegan” information.

Don’t say rape when referring to animals (“The word rape in the context of dairy is a turn-off”)
HVA: but dairy IS rape.
AVA: dairy may indeed be similar to rape in non-trivial ways, but a farmer artificially inseminating a cow has a completely different intention than a rapist. Also, public acceptance of rape and artificial insemination of animals is completely different. Therefore it is not strategic to compare the one with the other. This kind of comparison will often alienate non-vegans. It is, however, useful in many situations to point out to people that cows don’t get pregnant every year without human interference.

Vegetarian is better than omnivore (“We should applaud people becoming vegetarian.”)
HVA: a vegetarian is still part of the problem. There is so much suffering involved in the production and consumption of eggs and dairy.
AVA: eggs and dairy certainly are problematic on different fronts, but vegetarians are doing most of the work, having a much lower suffering footprint, and helping to increase demand for and supply of meat alternatives. Besides, they might be well on the way to going vegan.

This is why people hate vegans (“Vegans shouldn’t do this or say this, it makes people dislike us.”)
HVA: vegans shouldn’t be critized for the way they communicate or for the methods they use. We’re pointing out very serious stuff. Anything goes, basically.
AVA: conceding the point that there certainly are vegans who are communicating in a less than optimal manner, or that there are methods that might be counterproductive, may again lead the non-vegan to take you a bit more seriously and close the gap between us and them. If you just sanction anything vegans do, you may be considered to be “one of those”, and the other party will not be willing to keep the dialogue open.

Only eat animal products from dumpster (“I’m vegan except when I find free animal products in the trash”.)
HVA: not vegan.
AVA: Freegans are not contributing to demand. They may have their own convictions for being freegan – like not wasting food. They’re a part of the solution, not the problem.

I hope you can see that the apologist vegan arguments do hold water, both in terms of content and in terms of process. Even if “apologist” is used as a term of abuse, I definitely won’t shy away from trying to find truth and valid arguments – wherever I may find them – in non-vegans’ claims. That’s because I want to build rapport with them, in the hope I can somehow help them make better choices. And because, frankly, sometimes they do have a point.

And sure, we should not find excuses for everything, or be too tolerant of wrong things. But we should always take into account where people are coming from, what time they are living in, what the norms of the day are, before we judge and condemn others. If we do that, we will see quite easily why not everyone is doing what we are doing. Yet.

Thoughts on the “Cube of Truth” and Anonymous for the Voiceless

Given that I write and comment about strategies and communication styles within the vegan/animal rights movement, people often ask me about my views on certain tactics and approaches. One of the questions I get most often is what my view is on the “Cube of Truth” street actions by the group Anonymous for the voiceless. In this post I’ll briefly share some some thoughts on this particular form of action.

To help form my opinion, I attended one cube of truth in Berlin, somewhere in Spring of this year (2018). I didn’t actively participate, but was there as an observer. My thoughts and impressions are mainly based on this one instance, and also on my impressions of online videos, and feedback by other vegans. This still gives a very incomplete picture, so I’ll consider my opinion as preliminary. Judging from what I hear, while the structure of the Cube of Truth is always more or less the same, the way passers-by are approached and talked to seems to differ much among cubes or groups.

For those who are not familiar with the concept: a certain number of activists are standing in a busy area. They are arranged in a square, all facing outwards. They hold signs (displaying messages like “truth” or “watch to see why we are here”) and laptops showing graphic images of animal cruelty. They wear Guy Fawkes masks. Passers-by who stop to watch the footage will be addressed by other activists, who are not in the Cube, but who are outreachers. These activists will ask the onlookers what they think of the images, inform them further, and try to get a commitment to change (see below).

anonymous for the voiceless demo

This concept has become very popular, and has spread all over the world since its conceptualization in April 2016 by Paul Bashir and Asal Alamdari in Australia. Together with DXE and the Save Movement, the Cube/Anonymous represent today’s most popular street actions. At the moment of writing, there have been 4000 demonstrations in 650 cities worldwide, allegedly convincing 215.000 bystanders to take veganism seriously.

My experience
My impressions of the one Cube I attended in Berlin were largely positive. I was rather impressed with how I heard the outreachers talk to the onlookers. Most were not pushy. They were asking questions and listening, rather than just blurting out all the facts and numbers on animal suffering they had. I was told that outreachers only approach people who have been watching for a while, and will not bother with those who just walk by and seem not to be open for any conversation.
Outreachers seem to ask people to go vegan or to try Challenge 22 (a vegan challenge of 22 days). From what I read and hear, there’s no desire to ask for “steps” or reduction, possibly because this is not considered an ethical ask (I’ll get back to this).
I did one little test with a couple of onlookers who had been addressed by an outreacher and asked them about their experience of the conversation. They answered that it had been positive. They were not ready to go vegan, but they had definitely received food for thought. I’m not sure whether this couple was checked as a success (“will take veganism seriously”) or not by the outreachers.

It was moving to watch the audience being moved (see if you are moved by that yourself, here)

I can definitely see some very positive aspects to this kind of activism. First of all, it seems to be very successful in attracting new activists. It’s easy to imagine that standing there, trying to reach people, together with other activists, gives one a satisfying feeling – a feeling of actually contributing to the movement and helping animals. No matter how big the actual impact is, this is valuable in itself. The movement needs as many active people as possible (something I consider more important than being “very very vegan”). I can see that many of these people could transition to other kinds of activism (which would be especially important if some day we’d conclude that this form of activism is not sufficiently effective – a conclusion I’m not able to make at this moment).
It’s easy to see that this form of joint activism is more attractive to many vegans than just standing in the street (with leaflets or a sign) by oneself, and that doing things in group provides a sense of community and mutual support (after a Cube, activists often get together for a meal or a drink).

Some possible concerns

The masks
There are concerns about the masks as well. Some people I talked to seem to find them off putting. I do understand the purpose of using masks in general: they make it clear to people who are walking by from afar that something is going on there, and this could motivate them to come closer and check things out. Of course, if they find the masks scary, or too alternative looking, they might not.
A second purpose of the masks is that a person with a mask looks more like a kind of statue, and that may make it easier for people to come closer and to watch the computer screens for a while. One doesn’t feel one is being watched. Of course, you could ask the question why the laptops aren’t just put on some kind of stand, without any people having to carry them. Presumably that might take away from the visual spectacle.
As to this particular mask: I’m less sure of the choice. I don’t think many people know or care about the symbolism behind it. And if it would be a bit scary to a sufficient percentage of onlookers, it might be interesting to think about other masks.

Graphic images
The day of the demo was bright and sunny, and that meant that it was hard to see the computer screens. To me, that seemed kind of an advantage. Showing graphic images to unsuspicious onlookers is probably the most controversial part of this form of activism. It’s especially concerning when there are children among the audience. Seeing very graphic images may trigger or traumatize some people. Keep in mind that people have not given their consent and have not been warned about what they are going to see. They just approach the screens, not knowing what to expect, and may suddenly find themselves staring – with their small children – at blood and gore.
This is not to say I believe that negative footage should never be shown. But there is a difference between very bloody and gory footage (animals’ throats being cut in slaughterhouses for instance) and other images that may also very well pull heartstrings, but are not as shocking. Apparently images from this latter category are also used – like this video of a mother cow running after her calves that are being taken away… Stuff like this is not traumatizing or gory, but could very well stay on one’s mind for a long time (subtitles could be added to make more clear what is happening).

Impact?
I wonder to what extent tests and polls are being done in general, and to what extent Anonymous is confident about results and impact. It seems that as a metric they use the number of “conversions”. Outreachers check a conversion when a person verbally commits to one of three things: 1. Going vegan. 2. Doing the vegan22 challenge. 3. Watching one or some of the vegan documentaries with the intention of learning more about veganism. Outreachers are generally asked to be conservative in their decisions as to whether or not to count an interaction as successful.
Obviously the impact has a lot to do with how many people-hours go into to an action like this, versus how many people are actually being reached. If you stand there for three hours and only reach a dozen people, it seems not the best use of one’s time. I don’t have an idea of the average number of people reached though, and I guess one event will inevitably be better and bigger than another.

Conclusion and some suggestions

Like I wrote at the beginning, my impression is based on limited experience and information. But from what I can see, if you want to do one-to-one outreach (rather than more institutional outreach) and if you want to talk about moral arguments (rather than health, or rather than working with food), then Anonymous and their Cube of truth seem to offer an appealing way of doing activism for many vegans.
Based on what I wrote above, here are some suggestions that Anonymous could possibly consider:

  • Check the efficacy of the masks, and use different ones if these don’t seem to be the best ones. Maybe make the whole thing visually a bit more cheerful and attractive
  • Consider keeping outright gory images to a minimum and replace them by other coverage that may be more effective and less off-putting
  • Do more research about impact in general. Maybe use something like “mystery shoppers”: people from the movement who walk in on the outreachers and pretend they are non-vegans, maybe playing devil’s advocate at times. Other activists could have “meta-conversations”: conversations with people who were approached by outreachers
  • Put sufficient efforts in training people in good communication skills. I’ve learned that Anonymous is launching a global online education initiative called “AV Academy”.
  • Consider using a wider variety of asks and drop the dogma that we can only ask for veganism/vegan challenges or nothing. Many more people might be open to doing Meatless Monday or seriously reducing their consumption (for some of my criticism of “abolitionism” and the way this term is used, see this piece)
  • If at all possible, consider using food. I’m a big believer in food outreach. I realize handing out food makes the logistics a lot heavier, but it would contribute to a friendlier image and combine the head and the stomach. Maybe handing out coupons for nearby vegan restaurants could be interesting.

I may update this article in the future when I get new insights or information.

 

 

Collaborating to change the world’s diet – a report from the 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit in Berlin

The 50by40 Corporate Outreach Summit, organized by ProVeg International and the Humane Society of the US, took place April 27-29 2018 in Berlin. I consider it a milestone for the vegan movement. In this post, I’ll briefly sum up some of the things I learned, or remembered, or that I just want to share.

Participants at this conference were united by the “50by40” objective, which is the global ambition to reduce the production of animal products internationally by 50% by the year 2040. This goal is quite in line with (though slightly more ambitious than) the goals of organizations like Greenpeace, WWF and Compassion in World Farming, who have similar objectives. The summit was organized to get a big group of organizations in the vegan and animal rights movement together, and to build an international alliance to collaborate around achieving this goal. The motto of the conference was, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

This conference was probably the most international  vegan or animal rights conference I have ever attended, with people from over thirty different countries and six continents. Attendees were mostly staff members or core volunteers from organizations in their respective countries, with some academics thrown into the mix. While the groups present were mostly from the animal and vegan space (there were some environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, as well), the idea would be to create a broader platform in the future. There is a virtually unlimited number of players that could get behind the 50% reduction by 2040 objective, including health and environmental organizations, businesses and governments.

To me, this conference was in many ways a testament to our growing up and maturing as a movement. The people who were there, and the content of our talks, testified to an increasing professionalism, a focus on institutional impact, the development of our skills and expertise, and even on a growing awareness of turning inward and mastering our own inner demons (I’ll get back to this).

I started my own talk by telling the audience about an incident at a vegetarian conference in the (I think) eighties, where the vegetarian delegates got sick from eating undercooked beans and had to be carried off to the hospital. This little anecdote was meant to show how far we have come. There was a time when we couldn’t even get the food right at our own parties, and now some of us are showing the way to the Sodexos and Compasses and Aramark’s of this world! Which brings me to…

Caterers

This conference was indeed all about institutional change, about doing things with a big impact by reaching out to the right people. Some very impressive examples of this were given by Kristie Middleton and Ken Botts, both of HSUS. HSUS’ Forward Food program has by now trained 4000 culinary professionals, including people at some of the most prestigious schools. The program has helped switch over 350 million meals from animal-based to plant based, saving over 140 million animals.

Ken Botts is responsible for the first all vegan cafeteria in the US (possibly in the world), in a place no other than the University of North Texas! Building on that success, HSUS is now working together with Aramark and Compass, and will later also collaborate with Sodexo. This collaboration and training is not just happening in the US; HSUS is connecting their US contacts at each of these caterers with key employees from these companies in other countries. The program went from just US to international in merely one year. Ken Botts knew that having one local success story would allow them to work their way up the chain.

From Portugal and Nuno Alvim came another great example of institutional change. The Portuguese Vegetarian Society successfully lobbied for a law that makes a vegan option mandatory in all public cafeterias. Right now, fourteen percent of the meals consumed in hospitals, for instance, are plant based.

And then, there is Brazil. As if the Brazilians’ success with the Meatless Monday program (through which millions and millions of vegan meals are offered annually) is not enough – shoutout to Guilherme Carvalho from the Brazilian Vegetarian Society –  HSI (Humane Society International) has collaborated with a Bahia district public prosecutor to make sure that by 2019, the schools in four cities will be entirely plant based! Sandra Lopes from HSI Brazil told us that this collaboration will result in 23 million vegan meals a year, for 33.000 students, in 137 schools and daycare centers!

There were other examples and testimonials by Kristin Höhlig, Katleen Haefele and Paula Rassman about Proveg Germany reaching out to food services and schools, as well as by Mercy For Animals’ Alan Darer and Charlie Huson from HSI UK. Most of these speakers explicitly mentioned that the word ‘vegan’ is still scary or unattractive for their institutional partners, and that you can’t approach them with an animal rights message. It’s better to talk about plant based, plant protein or conscious eating…

Supermarkets and Restaurants

Institutional change is obviously not just about reaching out to the big catering companies. Mahi Klosterhalfen from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation in Germany told us about their ranking system for supermarkets, and how it helps to increase companies’ ambition by creating healthy competition among them. Melanie Jaecques from EVA in Belgium provided interesting figures from large scale research about meat consumption in Belgium, and presented a graph showing how meat consumption in Belgium seems to be dropping significantly faster than in other European countries (one of the not so many Belgian things I can be proud of).

Alison Rabschnuk from the Good Food Institute (US) talked about restaurant rankings. GFI’s observation is that there is tremendous opportunity in the out of home market to provide plant based foods. These efforts could be particularly rewarding as 33% of all sales in this market are realized by just the top one hundred restaurants. Alison emphasized that GFI is not mainly about making things easier for vegans (though that should be the eventual effect), but rather providing options for flexitarians. Actually, in their Good Food Scorecard, restaurants get extra points if they do not use words like vegan, vegetarian, or meatless (plant based is ok)! They recommend restaurants be as subtle as possible in their labeling.

Some caveats

We should not kid ourselves. The challenge is still enormous, and it’s not all rainbows and butterflies from here on. Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming USA warned us about so-called false wins. More plant based food doesn’t necessarily mean less animal foods. Since their introduction of the vegan meatball, meat consumption in Ikea restaurants, for instance, has gone up. Reduction is not simple for companies. The most often heard objections from their side are that there is a lack of demand and that the products are still way too expensive. According to Leah, if we want to succeed, we’re going to have to be open to all kinds of solutions, including some we don’t like, like blended products (see this interview with Meatless’ Jos Hugense)

While Nathalie Rolland (Maastricht University) can mainly see benefits in clean meat, Arianna Ferrari took the devil’s advocate position on this topic. She said we have a tendency to overestimate the environmental advantages of clean meat and that life cycle analysis studies show a more modest picture. Neither should we fetishize technological progress, which has a long history of failures. And, we shouldn’t lose sight of the dangers and downsides of monopolies, patents, issues of distributive justice and access to innovations. Arianna also had questions about animal suffering and clean meat. Is a biopsy necessarily cruelty free? Could clean meat perpetuate the asymmetry between humans and non-humans? Her arguments didn’t entirely convince me, but it is good to have someone take a critical position on this important topic.

Rising in the East

I was very impressed by the presence of so many people and groups from East Asia, and I was moved by what is going on in that far-away corner of the world. Frando Hakuryu and Haruko Kawano talked about their work with Vege Project in Japan, and Mavis Chang and Charlene Yeh spoke about the veg outreach of the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, who were hosts of a CEVA Vegan Advocacy training that Melanie Joy and I did in Taiwan recently. We also heard about Goal Blue in China, and we had heard of several other East Asian groups the night before the conference. Hazel Zhang impressed me with her for-profit Veg Planet in China, which already has about fifteen paid staff and reaches a lot of people. The movement in East Asia is young, but it’s moving and growing. It’s also inspiring to see that more and more American or European groups are realizing the importance of working there, and are lending their support. What happens in the East won’t stay in the East; it will affect the entire world.

Who is the enemy?

Sebastian Joy, CEO of ProVeg International, spoke about “collective impact” and what is necessary for a successful alliance: a backbone organization providing the coordination; a common agenda; shared measurements; mutually reinforcing activities; and open and continuous communication.

Aaron Ross, who is coordinating the Open Wing Alliance (an international coalition working for better living conditions for chickens), talked about the challenges of working together within our movement. Vegans don’t seem to eat only plants, he said; they sometimes also end up eating themselves. Among the difficulties we have to overcome in working with other groups, Aaron mentioned logistics (coordination of resources and communication across the globe over many different time zones), ideology (what we define as vegan, what we accept from a company…), interpersonal differences (the chances of us not liking each other seems to increase over time), difficult personalities, or a lack of cohesion (too many cooks in the kitchen).

In my own talk, I explained that we can work together with basically anyone and that maybe our biggest enemy is… bad vegan food (thanks for that answer, Eve!). However, Aaron Ross gave a deeper and more interesting answer to the question “who is the enemy?”. The enemy, he said, is within. The enemy is our ego that makes it difficult for us, sometimes, to share victories or to credit each other. Sometimes, said Aaron, we seem to care more about our reputation than about helping animals.

Long time supporter and funder of the movement Ari Nessel gave the same answer to the enemy question. The enemy, as well as the solution, is us! In order to succeed, Ari said, it’s not enough to reach out; we also have to reach inside, and develop our heart and mind. Before and during the conference, Ari led several meditation sessions for participants. Even though I completely suck at meditation, I can see its usefulness for both personal and organizational development, and I’m really happy that he and other people are introducing this idea into our movement. We will, indeed, only be able to successfully work together on so huge an issue as ours if we become self-aware of our own less effective tendencies. And, more than that, maybe we can learn to see those who we think of as our enemies, as our allies. As people who, in the end, are in the same human boat.

Other interesting talks were given by Jimmy Pierson from ProVeg UK, explaining a new “Peak Meat” campaign, Jasmijn De Boo from Proveg International showing how many acquisitions of veg companies by meat companies we’ve seen in the last year or so, and why that is not necessarily a problem. Researcher Helen Harwatt explained a new accreditation scheme for companies that would take into account health, environment and animals. Pablo Moleman and Alexandra Kirsch from ProVeg spoke about lobbying companies to remove small problematic ingredients from their products, which could save a lot of animals. Matthias Rohra, ProVeg’s COO, is a man who has made the jump from the profit sector (he used to work at Coca Cola) to the non profit. We were all happy to see quite a few more people like him in the audience. Indeed, having people on board who know from experience how to speak the language of businesspeople is crucially important.

This conference felt like a beginning. A beginning of something new, something more powerful and stronger than we ever had before. I think that if the animals could see us, they would be proud and hopeful. And, I was glad to be part of this, and thank ProVeg and the Humane Society, and especially David Pedersen and Kristie Middleton, for making this possible.

It seems we have decided to go far by going together…

The vegan burger that isn’t vegan

impossible burger

The Luna Grill, a restaurant in San Diego, is serving the vegan Beyond Burger (yeay!). Only, they serve it with feta cheese, on a non vegan bun.

impossible burger

At first sight, this is seems a bit of an absurdity, and one can easily understand tweeter Vanilla Bean’s frustration here:

twitter quote about vegan being frustratedApparently, at least some meat eaters share this idea: “Nonsensical as vegan replacements might seem to some, refusing to serve them in a vegan-friendly way is irrefutably more so” – writes The Independent.

These reactions make some sense. And yet, I think both vegan Vanilla Bean, and The Independent’s meat-eating (we assume) journalist are revealing that they are starting out from the erroneous idea that vegan products are only for vegans.

Of course, vegans love vegan products, and they will eat them and rave about them on social media and be their prime customers (at least if there’s no problematic mother company involved – see Why vegans shouldn’t boycott Daiya cheese). But, it’s actually not they in the first place who need vegan products. Nor are they the main customer segment, or the main people to be reached. Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, or Hampton Creek – all of them largely mission driven enterprises –  understand this. They want the non-vegans to turn to vegan products and have them eat more and more of them. If you can get non-vegans to eat your products, you have more impact and a bigger customer potential at the same time. Two vegan sausages with one stone, as they say.

Of course, this Luna Grill restaurant could (probably) easily be more sympathetic to vegan requests and make their burger without that damn feta, and on a vegan bun (although I don’t encourage people to get too nervous about microingredients out of the house – heresy, I know). I do hope Luna Grill and all other non-vegan restaurants will be more forthcoming in the future, and I hope we will see more and more vegans requesting vegan products, so that there’s more and more menu options that are entirely vegan, and by default. Luna Grill here may offer shitty service to vegans, and may not be worth visiting. But that isn’t the point here.

If we want non-vegans to taste, eat, buy… vegan products, and if we want these products to spread widely, we shouldn’t get nervous about them turning up in non-vegan dishes. Indeed, ever more frequently, we find vegan products, like Daiya cheese or Just Mayo, in non-vegan dishes – for allergy, price, or other reasons – and indeed, it would be our loss if that weren’t the case. It’s probably not all that different for meat substitutes. If we want these products to be appreciated as products in their own right, they will need to be integrated by enthusiastic non-vegans in non-vegan meals.

The good thing is, of course, that eating these products, whenever they are encountered, helps people shift more and more in the right direction along the plant-based spectrum. And, in and of themselves, vegan patties obviously represent animals being spared, whether or not the patties are served on a vegan bun.

Thus, we should welcome vegan products in non-vegan dishes, just as we should applaud non-vegans eating vegan products. It’s the fastest way forward to a vegan world.

Eating Animals – a review of the documentary

I had the chance to see an early screening of Eating Animals, the documentary after the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. Apparently, Natalie Portman, who is the narrator of the documentary, turned vegan after reading Foer’s book. Together, they approached filmmaker Christopher Quinn, whose work they liked, and asked him to turn the book into a movie. Eating Animals will be out in theatres in North America in June, and later on Hulu; so, it seems that it could reach a pretty large audience. That would be well-deserved, as it is a beautiful movie. 

eating animals documentary

I think Eating Animals is one of the best food documentaries I’ve seen so far. As a seasoned vegan who is quite familiar with the issues, I had not expected to see or hear much that was new. But the documentary managed to surprise me, and offers more than just another catalogue of animal agriculture-related problems. For one thing, it gives us some history of how intensive animal farming came into existence and explains how corporations like Tyson came to be. And, it also tells us stories of people caring – in different ways – for and about animals. It tells these stories very well, and with a lot of heart.

One of these is the story of veterinarian and scientist James Keen, who worked at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), a huge livestock research facility in Nebraska, and became a whistle-blower after witnessing practices with animals he could not condone. Keen leaked the information to a journalist, which resulted in a long New York Times expose, which in turn led to a federal investigation, bills, and reforms. Eating Animals makes it very clear that all that Keen did he did at great expense to his own life and happiness. Keen had to move, and eventually saw his marriage break down under the pressure his whistle-blowing had created. It is hard not to admire the man for his courage and for following his conscience.

There’s also the story of a contracted chicken farmer and his family. He testifies about how difficult that kind of life was, and how he felt a slave to the corporation that contracted him. We see him move through a huge barn of chickens, picking up the dead ones and showing to the camera the health problems they suffer from. While this man is or was instrumental in exploiting chickens, he was himself exploited. It is hard not to feel compassion towards him.

Finally, there’s turkey farmer Frank Reese, who already featured in Foer’s book. Frank tells us a lot about turkeys. He talks about how breeding and selecting the traditional Thanksgiving turkeys for meat has made them “stupider”, and how his breed of turkeys is a lot smarter. Actually, his goal is to keep certain old breeds of turkeys alive. And, if you want to keep them in existence, they have to be part of the food chain, he says.
Now, me and most other vegans will not agree to this, obviously. First of all, I do think that, if we deem this important, we can keep breeds alive without the animals necessarily having to have a certain economic or food value (apart from animals in sanctuaries, there probably will have to be some value, but this value can be in terms of companionship or aesthetics). Secondly, why would one insist on keeping certain breeds alive in the first place? The extinction of a species can obviously have negative ecological consequences, and it may somehow look sad when a species goes extinct (particularly if it’s humans’ fault), but to me it is the individual welfare that matters, not the value of the species. Which is why I don’t always understand well-meaning efforts to reintroduce certain species of wildlife in an area, unless this would increase overall happiness and well being.

The eventual fate of Frank’s turkeys is the same as all other turkeys: they end up in the slaughterhouse. It seems undeniable, however, that these birds have a much better life than the average turkey, and very probably also a better life than many or most animals in the wild. To many vegans these may seem like “welfarist” non-arguments. Any of these vegans, however, would, any day, choose to be a turkey with Frank above being your average turkey, and one has to be blind not to appreciate the difference this kind of life makes. More philosophically, I have lately started to think more and more about the question of whether being killed by humans negates all the happiness of an animal’s life that came before that moment. I know this is vegan heresy (but, then, I’m some sort of vegan heretic), and I plan to explore this question more in depth in another post.
I don’t know the man personally, but it seems clear that Frank Reese cares for his turkeys (though not enough not to kill them – vegans might quickly add). I had the chance to have a drink with the director after the screening of the movie, and he told me that Frank finds the whole transportation and slaughtering process horrible, and is a great proponent of developing more humane ways of slaughter.

You may get the impression from all this that the movie advocates happy meat. Certainly, it is not as unequivocally vegan or abolitionist as say Earthlings or Forks over Knives, but at no time did I get the impression that people would come away with the idea that it’s just a matter of switching to better meat, and that this better meat can be found in every supermarket. Indeed, the director told me that Frank’s turkeys cost 150 dollars per bird. The way Frank Reese raises his turkeys is exceptional, which is one of the reasons why Foer picked him out.
Also, the film includes several appearances by long time vegan activist Bruce Friedrich, presently CEO of the Good Food Institute. Bruce openly asks the question of whether we need to eat animals at all.

The movie has some beautiful cinematography, with wonderful shots of agricultural landscapes and farms, and the scenes with Frank and his turkey’s are amazing – especially the final one. On the other hand, there’s a significant amount of graphic footage (most of it archival images) to swallow; so, be warned.

I’ll finish with the beginning of the movie, which consists of a few harrowing lines spoken in Natalie Portman’s beautiful voice. I asked the director whose words they were, and he said they were his own, based on conversations he had had during his research into animal suffering. This is not an exact quote (I didn’t write it down), but it should be pretty close:

If animals don’t dwell on the past or ponder the future, they have only the present. And, if their circumstances brought them to a present in which they suffer, then suffering is the totality of their existence.

Animal liberation, human liberation: one struggle, one fight? An interview with Dr. Kristof Dhont

human fist and animal paw

Animal advocates are often prone to compare the struggle for animal rights with other social justice issues. We love to explain the parallels between sexism and speciecism, or compare animal farming with slavery. To what extent are these issues connected, and if they are, how do we bring this up in a way that is convincing rather than alienating? 

Dr. Kristof Dhont
Dr. Kristof Dhont

I spoke about this topic with Dr Kristof Dhont, a lecturer at the University of Kent, UK. Kristof’s research focuses mainly on the role of personality and situational factors in human intergroup and human-animal relations. He investigates, among other topics, the psychological underpinnings and ideological roots of speciesism, and the motivations of eating and exploiting animals. In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Personality, Kristof and his colleagues investigated the common ideological roots of speciesism and ethnic prejudice. In this interview, we’ll look for those common roots, but we’ll also wonder about the implications for strategy and communication. We also talk about animal rights being mainly a liberal/leftist thing, and why the Christmas meal is possibly the worst time to bring up the plight of animals.

Vegan Strategist: Kristof, what prompted you to do research on the common roots of attitudes towards animals and towards human groups? Can you tell us a bit more about this line of research?
Kristof Dhont: My interest in the assumed interconnectedness of speciesism and prejudices towards human groups (such as racism and sexism) was triggered by slogans like “speciesism = racism = sexism” and pictures of chained animals next to pictures of chained human slaves. Influential philosophers like Peter Singer have written about the parallels between how members from disadvantaged groups are (or have been) treated and the way people treat and think about non-human animals.
From numerous psychological studies, we already knew that people who dislike or express prejudice toward one outgroup (e.g. homosexuals) also tend to dislike a range of other social groups to which they don’t belong (e.g. Blacks, Latinos, poor people, immigrants, Muslims, Jews,… typically groups lower in status or power in a given context), a phenomenon termed “generalized prejudice”. Thus, for instance, people who endorse racist views are more likely to also endorse sexist views. This idea can be broadened to include attitudes towards animals.

human fist and animal paw
one struggle, one fight?

And this is something you went on to test yourself?
Yes, as a first step, my colleagues and I wanted to extend this idea by investigating whether those who express more negative and prejudiced views toward ethnic and religious outgroups would also more strongly endorse exploitative attitudes toward animals (speciesist attitudes). This is exactly what we found, first in a study conducted in Canada and subsequently also in a series of studies conducted in Belgium, the UK and the USA (1). People who expressed greater ethnic prejudice also expressed greater support for a range of practices of animal exploitation such as hunting, factory farming, meat consumption, animal testing, whaling and using animals for human entertainment in for instance circuses or rodeos. In a new set of studies conducted with my graduate student Alina Salmen, we also found consistent support for the links between speciesism and sexism. Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford replicated these findings with a newly developed scale of speciesism.

Do you have an idea as to why this connection would exist?
That’s indeed what we wanted to find out, although we acknowledge that a variety of factors are involved, which we weren’t all able to study together. From the perspective of a psychological scientist, we looked specifically at the role of general ideological beliefs and motives. Our expectation was that desires for dominance and inequality between social groups would play an important role here. More specifically, people differ from each other in the degree to which they prefer a society characterised by a strong hierarchy and inequality between social groups, as opposed to a society characterised by more egalitarian intergroup relationships. This general social orientation or trait is known as social dominance orientation. Our studies showed that a desire for group-based dominance showed substantial associations with both ethnic prejudice and speciesism, and represents a key ideological factor explaining why ethnic prejudice is associated with speciesism.
Related to preferences for hierarchical intergroup relations, also the belief that humans are meant to dominate over animals and the natural environment appeared to be important, not just as predictor of attitudes towards animals, but, for instance, also in predicting attitudes towards women. This shows that the way people think about animals (and about the status of animals) has implications for the way we think about human groups.

Would you call what you are doing “intersectional” research?
Perhaps it depends on how you would define intersectionality. This term seems to be used in different ways, and I haven’t used it in any of my own work yet. Historically, this concept originates from feminist and critical race theories arguing that it doesn’t make much sense to consider social categories such as gender, race, sexual orientation and class in isolation from each other to address discrimination, social inequality and disadvantage in society. Members of disadvantaged social groups often belong to multiple low-status groups (e.g. working-class Black women) and thus experience multiple dimensions of discrimination simultaneously. Not considering these different interwoven (or “intersecting”) statuses is by definition inadequate or at least incomplete according to intersectionality theory. This framework has largely been focusing on the viewpoint of those who experience the disadvantage and, although important, I haven’t done much work from the disadvantaged group perspective.
On a broader level, intersectionality also refers to the idea that different systemic (and institutionalised) forms of oppression such as racism, sexism and homophobia are not just related to each other but are closely intertwined and thus dynamically interconnected. This is more what I have been focusing on in my research, but from a psychological perspective, investigating attitudes, beliefs and behaviour of people, rather than a sociological one. In this sense, I would say that our findings largely support the idea of intersectionality on the individual level. But note that, to date, the term “intersectionality” is still rarely used in mainstream psychological research (and outside specialised fields such as gender studies or ethnic and racial studies).

Back to your findings then, which suggest that the slogans you referred to in the beginning are true to some extent. How helpful do you think these or similar (often more extreme) slogans are for changing people’s ideas about animals?
From the viewpoint of a vegan or animal rights activist, these slogans make total sense and can also stimulate interesting debates and empirical research. Yet for most people it is rather unlikely that they will have the desired impact – perhaps even the contrary. First of all, slogans comparing animal exploitation or meat production to the exploitation of humans, for instance by referring to slavery, the holocaust, oppression of women, only make sense to people if they already accept the underlying presumption that the life or the suffering of human and non-human animals are of equal value. We know that many people and especially meat eaters disagree with this idea and value human life more than the life of an animal, especially of farm animals. For them, such slogans are perceived as irrational, and therefore further ignored at best.

Thought-provoking, or alienating?

I can think of at least three unintended, harmful consequences of using these comparisons. A first possible reaction is that people may not only feel being judged and criticised for eating meat, they may also think that you are calling them a Nazi, racist, sexist and so on, depending on the specific comparison. Rather than raising awareness about animal suffering, your audience will likely be offended and upset because of being accused of something which they (in the majority of cases) are certain that they are not. As a result, people will likely perceive the messenger (the organisation or movement) as more negative and hostile than before, and will be turned off.
A second reaction is that the message comes across as an attempt to downplay or trivialize the severity of the atrocious historical events or social injustice you are using in the comparison. Needless to say, these are extremely sensitive issues and by mentioning for instance the holocaust or slavery you shift attention from the suffering of animals (a topic people care less about) to a topic they care very deeply about and people may find it repulsive that you use others’ suffering for your “own” cause.

muzzled dog, muzzled black slave
Is comparing human and animal slavery persuasive, or mostly offensive?

Finally, imagine the possible reaction of someone who belongs to the minority or historically disadvantaged group that is directly or indirectly compared to animals. How do they feel when activists (most likely white middle class people) compare them – in a way – to animals? Rather than thinking that you value the life of an animal as much as you value human life, they may actually think that you find black people or Jews as no better than animals. There is thus a chance that they feel dehumanised or are perceived as less than human. We know from psychological research that people who feel dehumanised by a certain group will in turn show a strong negative reaction and reciprocal dehumanization toward that group. Again, not the reaction you were hoping for, but quite the opposite.

Can we learn anything from interventions against racism to reduce speciesism or even reduce meat consumption?
It is too early to make strong claims about what works and what doesn’t. There is simply not enough solid research that has addressed this question. One important consideration however, is that what helps to reduce speciesism or improve attitudes toward animals, will not necessarily affect meat consumption. Even though our findings show that people who strongly endorse speciesist beliefs also tend to consume more meat, we also know that people are very good in dissociating meat from animals. This means that many omnivores do care about animals to some extent, but paradoxically have no problem with eating meat. And there are many other motivational, social and external obstacles that prevent people to stop or reduce meat consumption (see the interview with Jared Piazza on this blog).

Overall, however, I do think there is plenty to learn from research on prejudice reduction. I particularly see a lot of promise in interventions focusing on creating opportunities for positive and meaningful interactions between humans and farm animals. Extensive empirical evidence has confirmed that favourable contact between members of different religious or ethnic groups reduces prejudice and improves intergroup relations. Intergroup contact stimulates empathising and taking the perspective of the opposing group, which lead to better mutual understanding and more positive attitudes toward each other. There are good reasons and plenty of anecdotal evidence to expect that having personal contact with farm animals increases empathy toward them, which in turn increases opposition to animal exploitation. This is already possible by visiting farm sanctuaries. Of course, getting people to visit farm sanctuaries in the first place and letting them build a connection with animals, would be another challenge to overcome. Schools and youth or community organisations could play a meaningful role here to make this happen.
Also, other intervention techniques that increase perspective taking, for instance through media, storytelling, virtual reality, or mental simulations, may work in similar ways. Note that such interventions do not actively try to convince people about what is right or wrong, but allow them to experience something and consequently make up their own minds, avoiding the problem of persuasion resistance.

Another conclusion from your research is that people on the right/conservative side of the political spectrum on average more strongly support animal exploitation and typically consume more meat. Is there any way to make use of this finding in our animal advocacy?
Obviously, you don’t need to be a scientist to know or notice that animal rights and vegetarianism/veganism receive more support by progressives/liberals than by conservatives. Many vegans or animal advocates consider themselves liberal or left-wing. By emphasising principles of equality and advocating for social change, animal rights seems to belong inherently in the left-wing corner. But labeling these topics as liberal or left-wing may also further increase the ideological divide between left- and right-leaning people and groups, and thus lead to even more political polarization on this topic. It is not because conservatives are less likely to support animal rights or less willing to reduce their meat consumption, that calling conservatives animal exploiters and liberals animal lovers will help the animals. Such messages may even encourage conservatives to eat more meat and take pride in it, if it’s seen as a conservative thing to do. And in the end, also the vast majority of liberals still eats meat. At the same time, many people on both sides of the political spectrum are against animal cruelty.

How can we move away from the political polarization of animal rights and veganism?
By being more mindful of the values of people across the political spectrum, and especially by being mindful of the values that conservatives find important. Framing the case for animal rights in terms of equality values (or egalitarianism) and social change/justice values will turn off conservatives, given that these are values that they find either not important or even in contradiction to their own values. Conservatives tend to resist social change and care deeply about family and cultural traditions, which in many cases involve meaty meals or other kinds of animal exploitation. It is hard to overestimate the importance of such traditions for people’s identity and moral framework. They bring family and community members together, are a source of intense gustatory pleasure, and ultimately provide a sense of social cohesion, stability and collective security. They are the social glue of the family or community. Bluntly criticizing some of the core aspects of these traditions – such as the meal – will likely come across as an attack on the values and traditions themselves, and will be met with resentment and defensiveness. Left-wing animal advocates likely consider such traditions as irrelevant and unimportant for their own moral choices, yet they should acknowledge the central role they play in many other people’s lives, particularly of conservatives. In this sense, perhaps one of the worst moments to start discussing veganism is during the Christmas or Thanksgiving meal. The real challenge here is taking animal exploitation out of the tradition without ending the traditions themselves, and providing adequate alternatives.
Also important is that across the ideological spectrum, people are sensitive to suffering and harm, and value caring for those who are suffering. Compassion is thus not a partisan issue and appeals to people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In sum, when it comes down to moral arguments, the most important idea behind animal ethics, the principle of “do no harm” resonates with the moral values of both liberals/progressives and conservatives. Further avoiding the emphasis on principles that are only valued by the left and being mindful of some moral principles valued by conservatives like traditions, could go a long way in avoiding the ideological polarisation of animal rights.

(1) Dhont, Hodson, Costello, & MacInnis, 2014; Dhont, Hodson, & Leite, 2016