Last night, Jo-Anne McArthur stayed at our place while she was giving a talk in my hometown, Ghent. For those who don’t know her, Jo-Anne is an award-winning photojournalist and author, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for a decade. She’s the author of the book We Animals and the movie The Ghosts in our Machine is about her work.
I had met Jo-Anne a couple of times but it was good to spend a bit more time with her. Those who have met her will know that she’s one of the warmest people you can hope to encounter, and one thing struck me. Having gone around the world to document animal abuse on camera, you could arguably say that few people have seen more animal misery than her from close by. Yet at the same time, Jo-Anne has the most wonderful smile in the world and her face exudes happiness.
After her talk, someone asked her the question how she deals with all the misery, and Jo-Anne answered that she had been through some bad periods, but that she had learned to focus on the positive and to choose hope again and again.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
We each have the power, or at least can learn, to focus on the positive, the beautiful, the good. And if we want, we can find it, at the very least in small amounts, everywhere, at every moment.
Focussing on the positive helps us continue our work for a long time, and thus, helps the animals.
This is a guest post by Dr. Melanie Joy, who is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism and is a Harvard-educated psychologist. In this article she talks about what she sees as a major problem in our movement: the shaming of vegans by other vegans. This is a longread, so sit back and take your time to digest the many important points she brings to the table.
(read this article in French or in Spanish)
At a recent conference for animal rights activists, an incident took place which left me disturbed, and concerned for our movement. A speaker and longtime vegan activist was giving a presentation on effective activism to an audience of approximately 300 when suddenly, two activists rushed onto the stage. One was carrying a dead chicken; the other was holding a sign claiming that the speaker’s organization was corrupt. The chicken activist then grabbed a microphone and proceeded to announce why he thought the speaker was a hypocrite who is responsible for extensive animal suffering and why he believed the speaker’s (vegan) organization actually benefits from animal exploitation. (Despite the fact that the organization in question has an outstanding track record of promoting veganism, their mainstream approach sometimes draws criticism from more radical groups.*) The next forty minutes or so were spent in an impromptu “debate” whereby the speaker — a passionate vegan who has dedicated his life to reducing animal suffering — was forced to spend his time explaining that he does, in fact, care about animals, instead of finishing his presentation that was designed to help activists more effectively save animals.
All the while, audience members cheered and hooted after each impassioned demand of the accusing activist; or, they cheered after the speaker successfully defended himself and his organization. At one point, audience members were offered the opportunity to participate, and, though plenty of them supported the speaker’s position, a number of them took up the torch and carried on something that rather resembled an inquisition. And this dynamic continued the following day, when the debate was again picked up. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned that an individual who had spent extensive time and energy preparing and delivering a talk had his presentation sabotaged — or that a human being, and committed vegan, was the subject of what I could only perceive as an attempted public shaming.
Shaming is, unfortunately, a widespread social behavior whose destruction remains unchecked largely because it is so normal as to be unremarkable. And public shaming is an increasingly popular spectacle, reminiscent of the Roman Games and arguably even more damaging. Thus, accepting and celebrating shaming behaviors is not unique to the vegan movement. However, the vegan movement is supposed to act as a counterpoint to those prevailing attitudes that cause, rather than alleviate, suffering. Clearly, the fact that an unjust behavior is socially acceptable is not an excuse for us to uncritically adopt it.
We shame others whenever we judge or degrade them, when we communicate that they are somehow inferior to ourselves or others. Shaming behaviors can be anything from a subtle eye roll when our non-vegan friend chooses a hamburger over a veggie burger to a verbal assault when a fellow vegan expresses an opinion we disagree with.
Shame is the emotion that results from bullying, abusive, or otherwise demeaning behavior. Shame is the feeling of being “less-than” others. We may feel less powerful, less moral, less attractive, less intelligent, etc. Ultimately, however, shame is the feeling of being less worthy than others. When we derive our sense of worth from our activism, attractiveness, intelligence, etc. — as most of us have learned to do — we inevitably feel shame when we are put down. And virtually all of us carry around a good deal of shame; it’s just a matter of how much shame each of us contends with. We have inherited a deeply problematic world with less-than-perfect role models; even those few of us who had emotionally healthy caregivers have been impacted by a popular culture in which competition, violence, and degradation — fear-inducing and shaming phenomena — are both normal and celebrated.
The flip side of shame is grandiosity, the feeling of being superior to, or “better than,” others. The inflated feeling of grandiosity, no matter how mild, can be seductive. When we are in a state of grandiosity, we are on a high that keeps us (largely) oblivious to the shame most of us spend our lives trying to deny, avoid, or otherwise cover up. So shaming others can be tempting, since making others inferior automatically props us up to a position of superiority. A common example of this dynamic among vegans is intellectual moral shaming – communicating that the other is less intelligent and less moral, often because she or he does not agree with one’s own views. The goal of intellectual moral shaming is to prove one’s position as “right” and the other as “wrong,” rather than to examine and objectively discuss differing perspectives.
Intellectual moral shaming can be particularly damaging, as it may be difficult to recognize and thus to respond to; shouts are far easier to identify than sneers. Often, intellectual moral shaming is obscured by cleverly articulated argumentation and eloquent prose. And when the beauty of well-chosen words is combined with zealous passion and steadfast self-righteousness, the result can be intoxicating. Well-intentioned vegans can become bedazzled by the brilliance of intellectual charisma, and unknowingly join in the stone-throwing at those whose ideas have been deemed “wrong,” and thus “immoral.” No matter how well educated, impassioned, or morally convinced one is, her or his ideas are not necessarily logical or accurate, and her or his manner is not necessarily ethical. We must always take a step back and ask, “Is this person referring to empirical data, or is she or he simply expressing an opinion? Is the argument logically sound?” And, “How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of such comments?”
Of course, not all shaming behaviors are attempts to boost our own egos; sometimes we shame others simply because we are attempting to get them to do something we want them to do – and we don’t realize that what we are doing is harmful.
Grandiosity and Entitlement
Entitlement is the belief that we deserve special privileges that are denied to others, and it is a natural consequence of being in a state of grandiosity. When we feel entitled, we feel we have the right to do to others what would be unacceptable for them to do to us.
For example, recently a (vegan) colleague of mine was questioned by another vegan about his approach to animal liberation. My colleague replied that he was a staunch proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. Yet when my colleague added that he supported a different strategy toward abolition than did the questioner, the other vegan – who was a veritable stranger to my colleague – insisted that my colleague didn’t “really care” about ending animal suffering and that he was not, in fact, a proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. The vegan felt entitled to define my colleague’s identity for him. He felt entitled to claim that my colleague’s self-assessment was wrong — that he knew better than my colleague what my colleague’s own personal philosophy and goals were.
Moral Might Makes Right
At the conference, though I was disturbed by the the accusing activist’s behavior, I was far more concerned by the fact that he was able to carry out his acts of sabotage and shaming because others gave him the platform on which to do so — because so many activists apparently shared his belief that “moral might makes right.” In other words, they believed that it is acceptable to bully, shame, or otherwise violate another as long as the attack stems from a sense of moral righteousness. When I asked the activist, for example, why he felt entitled to violate a speaker’s space, and potentially traumatize him (and onlookers) by forcibly exposing him to someone’s corpse – behaviors that are frighteningly reminiscent of animal abusers – he replied that it was because “the speaker crossed an ethical line,” a statement to which the crowd cheered.
Psychotherapist Terrence Real, who specializes in abusive relationships, calls this kind of behavior “offending from the victim position.” All abusers, Real points out, feel a sense of righteousness and believe they are defending themselves (or, in the case of animal rights activists, that they are defending others) when they are carrying out abusive behaviors. A batterer, for example, almost always says he hit his partner because she did something to hurt him: “She knows I can’t stand it when she complains about the way I treat the kids, but she just couldn’t keep her mouth shut.” In the abuser’s mind, his partner crossed a line – a subjective line that he constructed and that he decided would mark the boundary of justifiable violence toward her.
In the moral might-makes-right paradigm, abuse is not abuse if the behavior stems from a valid moral grievance. And of course, the person who decides whether the grievance is valid is the one acting out the behavior. Just consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the many American school shootings, violent acts committed in the name of moral righteousness. While these examples are obviously far more violent than the vegan who publicly shames other vegans (or non-vegans), the underlying mentality is similar; the difference is simply a matter of degree.
Shaming Vegans is Unstrategic
Most people would agree that practicing integrity precludes shaming. Integrity is the integration of values (such as compassion and justice) and practices, and when we shame others, we violate such values. So, shaming others — vegans and non-vegans alike — is simply unethical.
But even if we care little for the ethical consequences of shaming, such behavior has practical consequences as well. Shaming among vegans is inherently unstrategic; it turns off non-vegans whose support we need if our movement is to succeed, it disempowers vegans, and it causes a tremendous waste of time and energy that could be directed instead toward effective vegan activism.
When we shame another, we increase the likelihood that she or he will withdraw or attack in self-defense. Shamed people may fail to act on their own or others’ behalf because they don’t feel they have the power to bring about change. Consider the young woman who witnesses the horrors of factory farming, wants to stop eating animals, but cannot withstand the peer pressure to conform to the carnistic norm when she is called “radical” by her peers. Sometimes shamed people attack rather than withdraw, and they shame others as a way of (temporarily) building themselves up. Consider the boy who falls and scrapes his knee on the playground, starts crying, and is immediately teased by his peers for being a “girl” (unfortunately, calling one a female is among the most offensive of slurs). He pulls himself up, puffs out his chest in an “I’ll show you!” stance, and attempts to bully and shame the others.
Psychologists have long known that shaming behaviors are inherently abusive, and that shaming others is the best way to bring about the very opposite of what we desire (unless we are cult leaders, guards of political prisoners, or otherwise seek to disempower and “break” the other).
Because shame is so personally and socially debilitating, it is the emotion the dominant culture instills in those who challenge its oppressive practices, effectively silencing dissident voices (how many times have those of us who are vegans bitten our tongues for fear of being told we are “overly sensitive,” “extreme,” “irrational,” or “morally misguided”?). Vegans are no strangers to shame; we must struggle against it every day as we swim against the tide of the dominant culture.
Vegan Shaming in the Dominant Culture: Vegans as Too Visible or Invisible
Often, vegan shaming in the dominant culture is expressed in two ways: vegans are either too visible, or invisible. When we are too visible, our attitudes and behaviors are scrutinized and cross-examined, leaving us little room to be the fallible humans that we are and causing us to adopt a sort of “toxic perfectionism.” When we are invisible, our efforts are denied, invalidated, or otherwise obscured. When vegans shame each other, they reinforce these shaming, extremely damaging attitudes.
Too-Visible Vegans: Toxic Perfectionism
Vegans are often held to impossible standards by the dominant culture: we are expected to be paragons of virtue (we’re hypocrites if we wear silk, extremists if we don’t), models of health (if we should happen to fall ill, our entire ideology comes into question), and experts on everything (we aren’t allowed to advocate veganism unless we have all the answers to the problem of carnism – which, of course, we cannot).
Also, many vegans are highly sensitized to the idea that they could cause harm, be immoral, or not be “good enough,” and they have internalized the dominant culture’s message that they need to be perfect in order to be worthy. They struggle to accept that their efforts are sufficient, and often do not succeed. So toxic perfectionism is, not surprisingly, a common cause of depression and burnout among vegans. When other vegans reinforce toxic perfectionism, then, the results can be devastating. A common example is insisting that if one ingests even a trace of an animal product, such as drinking “non-vegan” wine or eating soy cheese that contains casein, she or he is “not a real vegan,” and is by extension an animal exploiter (an attitude that no doubt also scares many new vegans and potential vegans off).
Toxic perfectionism also causes us to reduce the individual we are judging to nothing more than the “shameful” behaviors for which we are judging her or him. We fail to appreciate the other as a whole individual, as we erase any parts or her or his activism or life that contradict our judgment. For example, one controversial campaign of an organization that’s done tremendous good for animals can lead to it being criticized as a “sell-out” or a colluder with the oppressor. Even when the numbers objectively don’t add up — when the individual or organization has statistically done far more “good” than potential “harm” — toxic perfectionism causes us to mentally invalidate such data.
When vegans promote toxic perfectionism, they can create an excessive fear in other vegans (and themselves) of making mistakes. One slipup, one admittance of not being “pure” enough, can lead to being shamed. People who fear making mistakes are often people who end up doing nothing.
Invisible Vegans: Ingratitude
Ours is a thankless job. As vegan activists, we often work tirelessly, for no money or for far less than we would otherwise earn, and we do so for no reason other than that we care. The animals cannot thank us, and never will. Our efforts are frequently invisible, ridiculed, or even fought against by the dominant culture, sometimes even by those with whom we are in the closest relationships.
So when our fellow activists, the only people in the world who truly “get” what it means to be a vegan in an animal-eating world, do to us the very things the dominant culture does — calling us hypocrites, ridiculing us, and attacking us — we can become demoralized. Clearly, we feel assaulted by attacks. But perhaps an even more insidious feeling is that of being deeply unappreciated, a feeling that can lead to despair. A desire for appreciation is not selfish or egotistical. It is a basic human need which, when not met, saps us of our motivation and inspiration. If you doubt this just think of how you feel when your partner fails to acknowledge that you’ve been the one cleaning the house since you moved in together.
From Shame to Empowerment
It would be tragic if vegans agreed on everything. Our diversity is our beauty, and our strength. However, the the way we disagree matters. It matters very much. When we come together to discuss, rather than dispute, our differing ideas, we can enrich ourselves and our movement. In such a situation, we approach our disagreements with curiosity and compassion. We are open to learning from one another, and, even when we feel strongly about an issue, we don’t shame or violate the other. We empower, rather than disempower, ourselves and our movement. Empowerment is the opposite of shame.
Communicating with Empathy
We can reduce the likelihood that we will shame another if, before we communicate, we stop and ask ourselves, “Am I connected to my empathy right now? Am I truly considering how the world looks through the other’s eyes — how my words or actions will feel to her or him?” Or, “How would I feel and how would I react if someone said this to me?” These questions are particularly important if we feel angry or morally righteous, and/or if the other is a leader or organization, whereby it’s easier to view them as simply a symbol, rather than as a human being or an institution made up of human beings. Often we forget that underneath the role of CEO, author, speaker, etc. there is a person with feelings, wants, and needs, a person who will be impacted by our words. And we forget that our organizations are made up of activists who are people who care very much about the cause and the impact of the work they are doing.
And before we communicate we can also ask ourselves, “What is the goal of my communication? What impact on animals do I hope this communication will have?” Many of the vegans who shame other vegans do so from a place of genuine concern, believing that the other’s approach to reducing animal suffering actually harms animals. Some strategic approaches are no doubt better than others, and without solid data (which, when it comes to broad strategies for animal liberation, we simply do not have) it’s difficult if not impossible to know what approach is most effective. So we need to continue talking, discussing, analyzing, and learning. But one thing is for sure: shaming or bullying other vegans does not help the animals, as it erodes morale, disempowers activists, and weakens the entire movement. If you want to do what’s best for the animals, stop shaming.
Creating Shame-Free Zones
The most important way we can create a shame-free culture is to do everything in our power to take away the platform of those who shame. Shamers would not have the impact they do if they didn’t have an audience.
It is my hope that vegans will choose to become allies in creating a more compassionate and thus more powerful movement — to commit to creating a culture that is inoculated against shaming (of non-vegans and vegans alike). To do this, we can create shame-free zones everywhere in our power: in our conversations and organizations, at our conferences and gatherings, and perhaps most importantly, on our social media pages, since social media is often the most prevalent source of widespread shaming. Rather than “call out” shamers, which would reinforce the reactive mentality of call-out culture, I suggest that we “call for” compassion — that we take an active role in ensuring that we do not ignore or pass along shaming comments. We can make a statement on our social media pages that we are committed to shame-free communicating, and then, non-judgmentally, if someone shares a hostile or demeaning remark, we can request that they share their concerns more compassionately and, if they do not, we can delete the post. We can also speak to our conference organizers, meetup hosts, or organizational leaders when we notice shaming behavior being tolerated or encouraged. Most important is that we are not a bystander to harm. As Edmund Burke so aptly stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
The majority of vegans are highly conscious, compassionate individuals who are deeply committed to personal integrity and social transformation. It is likely that our movement has gotten to the point where shaming is a problem partly because we have uncritically accepted the “moral might makes right” myth, and largely because those of us who do not shame have not paid the phenomenon much attention. So we have ended up as inadvertent bystanders, enabling a problem simply by not addressing it.
Shaming damages our movement. As vegans, we do not have the luxury of oblivion; we cannot afford to simply gloss over hostile statements or ignore demeaning comments. We must do what we do best: act as critical consumers and encourage others to do the same. We must examine not only that which we put into or on our bodies, but that which we take into our hearts and minds, and promote compassion over cruelty.
*Of course, different ideological approaches can raise legitimate questions, from both sides. However, the focus of this article is on the way we approach such questions, not the questions themselves.
This is a guest blog by a friend. I think it contains valuable insights in the process vegan/animal rights activists go through in terms of their emotions, their relationships with omnivores and other vegans. The author prefers not to be named, but is prepared to answer feedback in the comments section.
I have always despised the word ‘journey’ when discussing veganism; that and ‘baby steps’ have been the bane of my life over the last year or so since I began identifying as an ‘abolitionist vegan’. It seems ironic, therefore, that I now find myself on my own ‘vegan journey’.
Let me take you back to my first year as a vegan. Luckily for me, I found all of the aspects of veganism very easy to adapt to; I had been vegetarian for quite some time before that and had ‘flirted’ on and off with veganism over the years. I was, however, always a vegan at heart. From a young age I hated cruelty towards animals and often felt more affinity towards my cats and other animals than I did with my own friends. It seemed logical therefore that I became vegan and avoided all animal use.
Going back to my first year, despite finding many aspects of being vegan easy, I began to get more and more depressed. I became addicted to Facebook and joined every vegan group I could find. I signed petition after petition and tortured myself with graphic images. I began to feel nothing but animosity towards non vegans and I was an angry and volatile person when discussing veganism. I shared post after post, day after day, accusing non vegans of being barbaric and murderers; they were even ‘rapists’ for consuming dairy products. I did actually ‘make’ a few new vegans this way. However, many blocked me and probably thought of me as another ‘vegan lunatic’.
When I started familiarising myself with the abolitionist approach, it all started to make sense. I loved the straightforwardness and the ‘no bullshit’ approach adopted by the likes of Gary Francione. I felt that finally I had one simple answer and an effective way to advocate. It was also comforting to see that abolitionists didn’t advocate petitions or the sharing of graphic images. I finally felt content. I became a better advocate both online and in person in many respects; I was calmer and more confident. Few people could argue with me, such was the strength of my conviction.
After a while, I noticed that I began to feel unhappy again. My disdain for non vegans had been replaced by disdain for other vegans. Ironically, I began to feel more comfortable around non vegans than vegans who didn’t share my abolitionist views. Indeed, I felt that if someone wasn’t an abolitionist, they weren’t ‘truly vegan’. My posts promoting veganism on my facebook page had started to become diluted with posts critiquing other organisations who weren’t ‘vegan enough’. I started to delete friends who promoted single issues such as anti fur campaigns and God help anyone who shared a petition to my page. Vegans started to be separated into ‘abs’(abolitionists) or ‘wellies’ (welfarists). If they weren’t in the former camp, they weren’t people I really wanted to associate with.
When I saw criticisms of the abolitionist approach, I and my ‘colleagues’ would come down on them like a ton of bricks; they were welfarists, they didn’t care about animals truly etc. Oh and of course, the most popular slur; they were ‘speciesist’. Any critique of the abolitionist approach automatically meant you were welfarist or speciesist. We would all respond in tandem, that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’ and accompanied with that would be an analogy of the holocaust or slavery(this isn’t just an abolitionist trait.
I see this amongst all vegans). I think few of us used our own words or analogies after a while; we would simply churn out the same rhetoric used by Gary et al. Whilst all of that was going on, I honestly felt like I was doing the right thing for the animals. If we had all these ‘fake vegans’ in our midst, how were we ever going to change the world? It didn’t cross my mind that the world certainly wasn’t going to change whilst we constantly bickered with one another.
Recently I took a break from vegan advocacy to gather my thoughts and started reading various different articles, webpages etc. I was shocked to see how much animosity there was to Gary and his ‘clan’, I felt part of that clan to a certain extent but also understood the criticism as I read his page and saw nothing but argument after argument. I felt drained reading it, I had always defended Gary’s need to block so many people as ‘It’s an abolitionist page and if people don’t agree with him, then tough, they should be blocked’.
However, seeing it with fresh eyes, I just felt despondent and sad. On one day he had managed to write about four status updates- each one fiercely criticising other organisations (from DXE to Vegan Outreach) (Whilst I’m not a fan of the former, I went on the Vegan Outreach website to see if it was true that they were ‘absolutely hostile to the idea of veganism’ and noticed they must have said vegan about 5 times in just a few paragraphs). I simply didn’t/don’t want to be a part of this hatred anymore and I started to panic; what if these organisations I have mocked actually do mean well?!!!
So where am I now you may ask? Well currently I am terrified of being called all of those things I called others. I’m certain the abs would be calling me a welfarist for daring to criticize the dogma if they read this. It’s horrible to think that I can’t even have a change of heart for fear of criticism. And what’s worse, is that the criticism will be that I don’t care about the animals enough- something that couldn’t be further from the truth. I have also started to admire other prominent vegans who certainly do not fall into the abolitionist category but who are passionate about ending all animal use; they just go about it a different way. Bearing in mind, I am not an economist, nor can I see into the future, I don’t actually know the best way of advocating anymore. As an abolitionist, I was certain it was telling everyone that ‘veganism was the moral baseline’. As for vegetarians and meat reducers, I found them despicable- the ultimate traitors to the cause. Now I feel happy that they are doing something (the dreaded ‘baby steps’) and I will, where possible always encourage and support these people to do more and become vegan. What I now refuse to do is to put them down, or compare their reduction of animal products to a ‘rape free Monday’. I’m sorry but that analogy never has nor never will work as we simply don’t view rape or murder the way we view consuming animal products as a society. Just because I see what we are doing to animals as the greatest atrocity of all, it doesn’t mean I will win over others by making comparisons that will simply get their back up.
In conclusion, what has changed? I am even more passionate about vegan advocacy than ever before; I absolutely believe that animals are not our property and are not ours to be used. I want the world to go vegan more than I can possibly convey. I cannot stress this enough. But what has changed is that I now believe we have to adapt our approach to suit the audience if we want to make a real change. It’s not about speaking the truth all the time and I think we forget that. We may feel that if we don’t say the absolute truth that we are being immoral and that we are letting the animals down. Well maybe, just maybe, we are letting the animals down by being so dogmatic in our approach, the use of our words and our tone. Sometimes, we need to bite our tongue when someone says they are making steps towards veganism for example. Yes, it’s frustrating that they’re not there already and yes they are continuing to cause harm by their purchases but let’s see what happens if we congratulate them and be more encouraging (I’m not suggesting that all abolitionists adopt this ‘all or nothing’ approach but it is undoubtedly very prevalent). Finally, I think we should concentrate on our own advocacy methods and stop focusing on other organisations and how ‘evil’ they are. Maybe they are trying a different tactic too. Let’s stop thinking the worst of one another and let’s start thinking for ourselves.
The longer I live in the vegan movement, the more I have the impression that most of us have a kind of vegan fetish, believing that eating one hundred percent vegan is more important than anything else, either in life in general, or in animal rights activism. It seems that many vegans, consciously or not, believe something like this:
A vegan can do nothing wrong, a non-vegan can do nothing right, and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan.
But of course, when you think about it, what you put in your mouth is of relatively minor importance compared to other things. And I’m not talking about children dying of hunger in Africa or whatever – let’s not have that argument. I’m talking about other things within the animal rights/vegan movement.
First of all, any person can have a big impact on other people surrounding them, with their communication, their behaviour, their example, their cooking. This impact is much more important, because potentially much bigger, than what they eat themselves. Personally, when I believe I will have a bigger impact by making an exception, I will do so (unfortunately, I have limits, and I’m very easily put off and disgusted, so this only goes for microbits of animal foods).
Secondly, there’s not just communication, but there’s also the question what we do with our time, and with our money. Some non-vegans may donate a lot of money to animal rights causes, or may invest a lot of time in them. And of course they may invest time and money in other causes than animal rights. You can fault them for not being vegan if you want, but you have to realize that their impact might be way bigger than yours.
By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years), but let’s not make a fetish out of our personal consumption, at the cost of our attention to other things that may impact the lives of animals much, much more.
And no, of course it’s not an either/or thing, and we can be vegan consumers while doing all this other great stuff. But in practise, as we all know, a lot of energy – way too much of it – goes to thatfocus on personal consumption. We worry about micro-ingredients like e-numbers, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We focus on these things for the sake of “guarding the line”, to protect ourselves and our movement against the great big scary nightmare of “sliding back” and watering down veganism. But that great big scary nightmare is a fiction, and is nothing that should concern us right now. If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.
Let’s focus on what’s really important. Let’s put the biggest part of our energy in where we can reduce the most suffering.
There is unfortunately too much suffering on this planet, and not enough people who really care. This is not a judgment about people (I’m usually not cynical about people at all). It’s more meant as a neutral statement. An annoying one, though.
Let me tell you something about my girlfriend.
She’s called Melanie, and we’ve been together for over seven years (we met a long time ago, when she sat across from me on the train and asked me about the book on vegetarianism that I was reading). Because animals and animal rights are my passion, I meet a lot of people who are really devoted to animals, and are really committed to helping them and making things better for them. Melanie is one of the most committed of them all.
Melanie works for EVA, the Belgian vegetarian/vegan organisation I founded and recently left, as a campaign manager. In her spare time, she also works for a cat rescue organisation. Apart from two dogs and six cats that are permanent residents of our home, there’s also a constant coming and going of stray cats, who are here temporarily till my girlfriend finds a new forever home for them. The current tally is 17 cats present in our home.
The thing is, cats (and other animals) in need of help keep finding Melanie all the time. She can spot a hurt animal from miles away and seems to be able to sniff them out (ok, I’m exaggerating a bit). And many people have her phone number or email/facebook address, and she’s their go-to person when they found or heard of an animal in need. When she’s not cleaning out litterboxes, Melanie is calling with or receiving potential new adoptants, or she’s out on the road to find an animal someone said was somewhere, or is taking cats to the vet and back for spaying/neutering, surgery, inoculations etc.
The result is, she’s practically constantly at work. You see, she’s one of the people who can’t ever close her eyes to an animal in need. Most people can. At worst, when people see an abandoned and/or hurt animal, they ignore them. At best, they call people like my girlfriend (okay, there are some who will try to take care of the animal themselves, but they are exceptions).
So the people who care, the people who can’t say no, have hardly any spare time. When my girlfriend is overworked and stressed (it happens sometimes), there is no easy way to take a break, because the animals keep coming, and coming: the reservoir of animals in dire situations is constant and infinite. You can imagine that it is very hard for her, and to people like her, to just not mind, to say that there is no more room or time or energy or money for that particular animal, knowing that they will suffer and die from lack of food, alone, maybe in the cold.
It’s obvious that this kind of care is draining, both mentally and physically. I don’t see any easy short term solution. Of course the long time solution is that we structurally change things. But long term plans, even if we have good hopes that they will work out, don’t help the animals that are in need right now, and they don’t help the people who can’t say no to their suffering.
So in the meantime, maybe we should distribute the work a little bit more. Maybe each of us who cares has to take some responsibility. Everyone can do something. You can adopt an animal, you can pay for vet costs, if you’re a vet you can do some volunteer work to make the cost for spaying/neutering or healing these strays (which society rather any individual should pay for) lower. And if you find a wounded animal, you can probably take it to the vet yourself (if you can catch it), rather than calling an overworked person who can’t say no and expect him or her to do it for you. So I guess my message is: if you care, then care.
And maybe then, if we all do our little bit of real, actual care, we can spread the work more evenly, and everybody gets to relax just a little bit, so that all of our care is more sustainable and we can keep on caring.
In 2013 I did this interview with Melanie Joy (it wasn’t published previously). The content is primarily intended for ambassadors of the vegetarian/vegan/animal rights message. I think it contains may wise words and ideas which may help us to be more effective activists and ambassadors for the animals and for veganism.
Vegetarians, vegans, activists in general often have high expectations of other people. They often demand consistency of others and would like them to go “all the way”. How do you think about that?
Melanie Joy: I see the perfect as the enemy of the good. Henry Spira, the late famous animal rights activist (who actually was born in Belgium) said: if you go in and ask for all or nothing, you’ll probably end up with nothing. Trying to be perfect often discourages us from even attempting to be good.
Our mentality can be rigid or liberatory. A rigid mentality lacks nuance, it’s black and white, it focuses on being right, being in control, winning. A liberatory consciousness is the opposite, it’s flexible, nuanced, it means we approach all situations with curiosity – an open mind – and compassion – an open heart. It’s not about good or bad, right or wrong, being perfect, it’s about being committed to living authentically and to practicing the core values and the very qualities that we need to cultivate, that we need in order to bring about a vegan, non-violent and just world. We have to be careful not to mirror the very system that we are trying to transform. The most important thing that we can do, is to practice embodied activism. It’s activism that lives in ourselves. We strive to embody the qualities and behaviours that we try to cultivate in the world. This is not theoretical or abstract, it’s a practice. When we practice what we preach we are much more effective at reaching others.
It’s a matter of focus?
Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like this: “We all have within us the seeds of greed, hatred and desire. And we all have within us the seeds of love, compassion and empathy. Our job is to water the right seeds, in ourselves and others.” What we focus on grows. So we need to ask ourselves the question: what do we want to cultivate in other people? It’s really important for activists to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. We all look at ourselves through each other’s eyes. When the people we are advocating to look at themselves through our eyes, what do we want them to see? Do we want them to see someone who is selfish and apathetic, who lacks willpower and morality? What parts of themselves do we want them to connect with?
How can we express appreciation for the steps some people have already taken, while at the same time encouraging them to take further steps? For instance, how would you deal with someone who is only eating meat during the weekends, or who has already stopped eating cows and pigs but still eats chickens.
I ask them questions. People almost always answer their own questions. The answers are always inside. I never ask why people do eat meat. I ask why people reduced their meat consumption in the first place. I ask what motivated them to make the changes that I want to help encourage, not simply what is preventing them from making those kind of changes. I do this because I want to feed the positive motivation. I want to help them connect with their compassion, their commitment to health, their desire for well being in their bodies and in the world, that led them to that decision. It’s like what I say to ex-vegetarians. Not: “why did you stop being a vegetarian?”, but “why did you start being a vegetarian?”. And then I might ask the question about what got in the way.
What about people calling themselves vegetarian when they aren’t really vegetarians. How do you deal with that?
I would ask what it means for them to be a vegetarian and then I would just say that’s not the definition of vegetarianism that I learned. I would never ask someone not to call themselves a vegetarian. The fact that someone wants to be a vegetarian is great. And then I would have a conversation about veganism, because veganism is the moral baseline of animal liberation.
It seems many people fear that we confuse a lot of people around us, like in restaurants, when people that are not vegetarian call themselves vegetarian.
So what? If we get to a place where our biggest problem in the world is to teach people in restaurants that vegetarians don’t eat fish, then the world is a very different place and it means we have been very effective. I would never tell someone what they are and what they are not. I wouldn’t like anyone to say that to me. We have a right to self definition, to self identify. Whenever we try to define someone else’s identity, we are fundamentally disempowering them. People can call themselves whatever they want.
When we don’t allow others the right to self definition, that is problematic for a lot of reasons. The confusion caused by self definition of vegetarianism/veganism at this time in the history of our movement is, in my opinion, very insignificant. Is it really worth our time and energy to engage in that kind of conversation? The benefits of not turning people off by telling them they are wrong, are greater than the small problems caused by the confusion. But you can always use it as an opportunity to talk about it. When someone calls himself a vegetarian and eats fish, I will ask why he stopped eating meat. And then I’ll ask why he’s eating fish. And I will share my story. Moreover, I think it’s important to see veganism on a continuum, rather than in an “either/or” dichotomy.
You said vegetarians and vegans, when talking to people, need to appreciate the meaning of meat. What meaning does meat have for people?
It has so many meanings. It’s deeply symbolic. Meat represents tradition. Tradition is not always bad. Practices of traditions can be harmful, but traditions themselves are often reasons for people to celebrate, they are often ways that people come together and connect with each other and with themselves. Meat may symbolize family bonds. For some people the only connection they have with their family is through shared meals. Eating meat may represent being part of the majority, the dominant group and not being different. It represents masculinity to many people, and strength. Perhaps most importantly, meat represents power. What we have to do is to help demonstrate how veganism reflects and reinforces a healthy way of relating to power; instead of exercising our power over someone, we exercise our power to resist oppressive and repressive regimes or systems.
Could it be that vegetarianism/veganism is perceived as dangerous because it challenges power?
Yes, I think that’s true. Meat challenges privilege. And human privilege is very deeply entrenched, and very often not given up willingly. I think veganism and vegetarianism are perceived as dangerous for other reasons as well, such as their challenge to the economic status quo, and to to patriarchy, to name just a couple.
What’s the importance of taste?
We often underestimate the importance of comfort and convenience (taste being a part of these things), because we hold them up against the importance of life and death. In the light of that comparison, comfort and convenience are trivialized. But the problem is that, whether we find comfort and convenience to be trivial or not, those who we are reaching out to often think they are not.
Can they be made to see that they are trivial, at least compared to those life and death issues?
I think it’s difficult to get people to recognize that their comfort and convenience is trivial, because they are so removed from the problem. And it’s not trivial to them until they make a deep connection. Until they make that connection, we need to not dismiss the strong desire to maintain comfort and convenience.
You talk a lot about the disconnect between our values and our behaviour, and of disconnecting from reality. But isn’t this kind of disconnection to a certain extent necessary to survive, or at least to maintain our mental health?
We’re talking about psychic numbing, or numbing ourselves psychologically and emotionally to the truth of our experience. Psychic numbing can be adaptive or maladaptive. It’s adaptive when it helps us cope with violence or the potential threat of violence. We couldn’t get in an airplane or car if we didn’t use some psychic numbing. It’s maladaptive when it helps to enable violence, even if that violence is as far away as the factories where the animals are turned into food.
What about people not being alert, every second, that each day 25.000 people are dying from hunger or millions of animals are being killed? Isn’t that something we must do to protect ourselves?
Yes, then it helps you cope with violence, versus enabling violence. But it’s the motivation for the numbing that is important, that determines whether it is adaptive or maladaptive. If we use psychic numbing in order to cope with violence so that we can function in society, it’s very different than if we use it in order to participate in violence. It’s not the disconnect that matters, it’s how we relate to the disconnect. We have so many disconnections inside of us. How do we relate to our them? Are we committed to examining our choices?
Do you think some people, like vegetarians or vegans, might have use for some more psychic numbing?
Yes, I think some activists actually need to numb themselves more when it comes to animal suffering. It’s a matter of setting healthy psychological boundaries. Not being able to see the good things that are happening is often a hallmark of secondary traumatic stress — STS (or STSD), which is like PTSD except it affects witnesses to violence rather than the direct victims of violence.
When people become traumatized they develop a schema, a sort of paradigm, whatever you want to call it, where the word gets split in three categories: victims, heroes, perpetrators. When you look at the world through that lens, and you don’t see a lot of heroes, all you see is a world of victims and perpetrators, and it becomes very hard to maintain any sense of optimism. You may become very misanthropic, and you start to despair and feel burned out. Looking through the lens of trauma waters the seeds of anger and despair. People get stuck in it. Once you start looking at the world through a traumatic frame, it can get hard to step out of that. That’s the way schemas work. Schemas are mental frameworks, they are ways of viewing the world, and they have what we call “confirmation bias”: we only notice and remember things that confirm our existing schemas, the way we view the world. When we develop a schema, we may get stuck in it. When you see the world as a world of victims, heroes and perpetrators, anything that challenges that, gets resisted. For example, we can miss seeing the many positive things average people do every day, because all we see is their perpetration of animal exploitation through eating meat. This is a traumatic consciousness.
To offset the traumatic frame curiosity and compassion are extremely important. Preventing secondary traumatic stress is also a key reason why activists need to take care of themselves. Obviously people don’t want to be in that schema, but they may be stuck. Once the schema is developed it becomes more and more difficult to get out of it, because we start selectively noticing. All you see are victims and perpetrators, the people putting dead animals in their mouths. And you keep reinforcing this view that humanity sucks and that the world is a horrible place.
Is meat murder?
I don’t ever use loaded words like murder when I am talking about meat eating. The word hypocrite is another example. Hypocrite is not even an accurate word, because it suggests negative intentions. I would say that we are morally inconsistent, we are complicated. If there are hypocrites, we are all hypocrites, we’ve all inherited a messy world. Words create automatic reactions in people, whether we want them to or not. People have a lifetime of associations, psychological and emotional, with these particular words. When you use these words, you are calling forth all of these associations, and you are going to evoke an immediate and automatic emotional response from that person.
What about the shock value? Can we grab people’s attention, shake or wake them up with that kind of language?
Generally, people in shock are not receptive, all they want to do is get out of shock. The minute you use a word like murder, you are implying that the person who engages in the behavior that you are calling murder, is a murderer. If someone is calling you a murderer, you probably will not be very receptive to their message. You will feel judged and will feel you are being portrayed as the worst kind of human being that exists. If we use the word flesh, or hypocrite, these words have such a charge that it’s almost guaranteed that the listener is going to feel attacked, guilty. And remember that psychic numbing and carnistic defenses exist in order to protect a person from feeling guilt and so our loaded words can cause them to become more defensive. It’s like whenever someone is on the receiving end of being attacked, they will put up their hands to avoid being hit. When we use those loaded words, we make people put up psychological-emotional hands to prevent themselves from being hit, verbally, emotionally.
What about the shock of showing animal cruelty images?
When I show an animal cruelty in my presentation, it’s after having established a connection with my audience. I warn them, I tell them what I’m going to show them. I reassure them that my intention is not to make them suffer, but to empower them, and that I have been very thoughtful in selecting the material I have chosen. And I give them permission to turn away. In so doing the assumption is that if they bear witness, it’s because they choose to. Not because I shocked them. When you shock someone with graphic videos, the rage or pain they feel often gets projected onto you. They will get angry at you because they feel you tricked them into suffering. You don’t know what is going on in their life, whether they can handle seeing that or not.
So what about when people see animal rights videos on TV, in the news for instance? It’s not framed then, right?
As far as I’m concerned, that’s public domain. When people turn on the tv, they know they are not in control of what images are going to come across to them. When they are walking on the street, they know they are not in control. But when you jump in front of their face with something when they’re not expecting it, that’s different.
What about putting the images in leaflets and magazines?
I think in literature for the public there is some place for it. But it should be embedded into a broader whole. We should focus on the solution. We should only talk about the problem insofar as we are also talking about the solution. Otherwise people feel helpless. We’re talking about trauma here. Trauma creates a feeling of helplessness. One of the reasons that people don’t bear witness is because the problem is so big they feel like: what’s the point of opening up to this because there’s nothing I can do about it and then I’m just gonna feel like crap. So we should present this information in a way that doesn’t make them feel helpless and disempowered, and make it very clear that there is a solution, and that it’s a doable solution.
My impression is that including these images in your literature discredits you with some people, e.g. with people in power. They perceive us as emotional people, as an unprofessional, sentimental organisation.
That’s very possible. But on the other hand we have to be careful not to buy into the carnistic narrative that degrades anything that doesn’t support it. Others will indeed say it’s not professional and it’s too emotional. I think there may be a way to do it professionally. And also, we need to take back the right to be emotional. We should be emotional, and own it. Animal exploitation is an emotional issue — the world needs more emotion in this area, not less. But if our graphic imagery prevents others from listening, it’s not strategic.
How important is being right?
Whether we believe in something or not, is not the issue. The issue is what works. You can be right in a sense morally, but you may not be right strategically. The animals don’t need us to be morally perfectionistic; they need us to be effective.
There’s a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place. How do you decide on what to do and what not to do?
I ask myself two questions when I decide how to use my time or energy as an activist. One: is this action/project the most effective use of my time and energy? Two: is it in alignment with my core values — is it an expression not just of what I want but also of who I am? Am I embodying my activism by doing this? We need to do what we are good at, and what we enjoy, and also what is needed and effective.
We often hear that we need all kinds of strategies and approaches in the movement, that we need something of everything. But is it possible that some of the strategies are counterproductive, that some of these approaches turn off more people than they attract?
Yes, sure. I believe that we need many different forms of activism, but not all forms of activism are strategic. Property destruction for instance, is not strategic. My colleague James McWilliams says it as follows: 99% of society is deeply speciesist. So when you are destroying a form of property that is upholding a speciesist institution, how do you think the public is going to respond to that when they are looking at it through speciesist eyes? Also, property destruction is fundamentally unstrategic because it becomes an opportunity for the oppressor project their violence onto us, to make us look like the violent ones. Until a movement has reached popular support, property destruction is virtually always used against proponents of the movement.
What about stealing live animals? Do you think that’s effective?
I think open rescues can be effective. There are less problematic because there is transparency in them, and they don’t seem violent because you’re not destroying anything. You are saving lives. It’s constructive rather than destructive.
If you had ten million dollars, what would you do with them?
I think I’d use it to raise awareness of carnism. I truly believe that if carnism became recognized as an ideology in the mainstream, it would radically and forever change the way we think and talk about eating animals. Carnistic prejudice is the reason that it’s so hard to advocate. Prejudice is an illogical mindset. And oppression and discrimination are institutionalized prejudice. I think it’s virtually impossible to have an objective, truly productive public discussion about eating animals as long as there is limited awareness of carnism. Until we make this system visible, we are dealing with people who are deeply biased, believing themselves to be completely objective. That’s a difficult gap to bridge. That’s one of the reasons why we need to be so strategic all the time. Imagine if that bias were recognized.
Read more on the work of Melanie Joy and her team at carnism.org
It seems that many vegans/animal rights activists believe something like this:
non vegan animal activism, no matter how impactful, is always less valuable than the mere fact of being a vegan (even a non active one).
Let me make it concrete: I often read criticism from vegans towards people who achieve a lot for animals, while they are not vegan (yet). Examples are people like Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), Peter Singer (father of the animal liberation movement), vegetarian (not vegan) Paul McCartney, or your average celebrity like Ricky Gervais, who is reaching millions of people with his anti-hunting / empathy for animals messages.
It seems that people who are not vegan, remain open to this kind of criticism, no matter how big their impact. Conversely, it seems like when you’re a vegan, you are beyond reproach, no matter how small your impact (indeed, your impact might even be negative if you’re a bad vegan ambassador).
What we see here is the dichtomoty between purity and impact. A big part of our movement seems to attach a big importance to purity. If you’re pure (that is, if you don’t consume animal products), you are sticking to the “moral baseline”. You’re ok. If you’re not, then, no matter what you do, your eating habits are blameful and won’t be redeemed by any pro animal action that you take.
I am of course of the opinion that impact is much more important than purity. As a vegan of more than fifteen years, I believe that being vegan is a clear statement and a sign of consistency. Being vegan helps to be credible when you spread a pro animal message. But it is not a requirement to do good for animals.
Many of us will be prone to tell these non vegan activists that they are inconsistent, or that they have a blind spot. This may be a good idea, but it has to be done carefully, and with tact. Otherwise it may not have the nice “introspection effect” that we hope it will have. Nor will engendering a feeling of guilt in them always work. Worst case scenario, pointing out inconsistencies (or worse: calling out hypocrisy) might alienate non vegan animal campaigners from our vegan movement.
One more thing: I’m not even going to say that ideally all people publicly campaigning for animals are vegan, because I think there’s a part of the population that will better identify with non vegans (and thus pick up their message) than with vegans.
So my suggestion is: when we see non vegans doing good things for animals, let’s mainly focus on the good they do. Let’s be open to the possibility that as non vegans they might even be having a higher impact than as vegans (at this point in the history of our movement). If we want to point out the inconsistency, let’s gently nudge them rather than calling them hypocrites. And let’s have some faith that they will see the light, rather than focussing on the fact that they are not “there” yet.