Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.



Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy