Celebrities: helpful or harmful?

At the London Vegfest (Oct 2015), I was in a panel during which we discussed whether celebrities who talk about animal suffering and vegetarian or vegan food, like Beyonce or Ricky Gervais, but also Ellen Degeneres or Paul McCartney, had a positive impact for the animals or are merely confusing their audiences about what vegan means.

I started by saying that I thought that anyone who believes that these celebrities are “confusing” the audience, are themselves maybe a bit confused about where exactly our society is at this point. That is a point where about 65 billion animals are killed every year. In a situation like that, I am not going to worry about whether people have or have not a perfect understanding of veganism (which, as my co-pannelist Dobrusia Gogloza pointed out, is a means and not an end) but I will celebrate and applaud everytime an influencer speaks positively about eating vegetarian or – even better – vegan food.

One has to realize that often, the veganism that the naysayers propose is quite demanding and specific. On social media, you can easily find complaints about any possible kind of vegan or near vegan celebrity. It seems they will never be vegan enough. Ellen Degeneres, who has reached millions of people with her vegan message, was not vegan enough (even before the shoe issue) because she was a cover girl of a magazine that was owned by Proctor & Gamble, which tests on animals. Not a vegan thing to do… Morrissey was attacked because he took too long to become a vegan (people should become vegan overnight, you know) and because he says some wrong things about vegans and veganism (making it seem difficult). One wonders what an “abolitionist-approved” celebrity would be able to say publicly – if anything at all.

Back to Beyonce, Ellen, Ricky etc. So what if these celebrities are not vegan or not perfect examples of veganism? Would it be better if they shut up altogether? I would assume that if only a tiny fraction of Beyonce’s or Ellen’s fans did a three week vegan experiment or went dietary vegan, that would just be wonderful, and we would still have opportunities enough to point out where they – both the celebs and their followers – could do better.

Should we, though? Should we always be so fast to point out where others may do better, just because we think we have achieved something by being vegan? I think it is, to put it mildly, somewhat arrogant to believe we can judge and condemn everyone who is not vegan, no matter what good they do. Paul McCartney, for instance, who is vegetarian but not a vegan, was accused of being damaging for animals – while we know that a vegetarian saves about 90% of the animals a vegan saves. If Macca has influenced millions of people with his pro veg message (and it’s not that he tells people to eat eggs and dairy, mind you), that has an impact. I shouldn’t even have to make that clear. Doubting that would be akin to doubting *any* kind of activism or outreach.

In any event, if we feel the need to inform celebrities about, let’s do it in a nice way, and not ad nauseam. Whenever a celebrity does or says something that’s even remotely related to animals rights or veganism, I’m always afraid a horde of vegans will descend on them and unleash a storm of tweets and Facebook comments which in the worst case will only serve to irritate the person in question. So far for “educating” them. Maybe it’s safer and smarter, sometimes, to trust people. To trust that they are on their way. And to look at the good things they do, and the strengths that they have. The main strength, in the case of celebrities, is their massive reach. I can only hope that those of them who care for animals or who see some benefits in eating less or no animal products, will use their channels to the best of their abilities, and that our movement will encourage them when they do so.

If you want to watch the whole debate:

Are you vegan enough?

I’ve written before that sometimes I have the impression that veganism was invented when someone wanted to found the world’s smallest club. It seems that some people (let us call them the real vegans here, for the sake of convenience – the term in itself is not used in a derogatory way) desperately want to keep out as many others as possible and keep the vegan movement small.

Whenever someone is discovered to do or to believe something “unorthodox”, the real vegans are quick to point it out, and to say that person x or y is clearly not a vegan. If the real vegans owned the copyrights for the terms “vegan” and “veganism”, they would forever forbid those unorthodox people from ever calling themselves vegan again. The real vegans seem to think that the biggest threat to animal rights is that the concept of veganism gets watered down.

Take what happened to Ellen Degeneres a few years ago, when she said something about her household getting their eggs from the neighbor’s chickens. Let’s forget for a moment that it wasn’t clear at all that Ellen herself was eating these eggs. The real vegan outcry over it was immediate. Look at this reaction, for instance, which denounces Ellen’s veganism rather bluntly, and says she was never a vegan in the first place.

Apart from being blunt, I find such an attitude stupendously unstrategic. Why on earth would someone alienate one of the world’s most outspoken supporters of veganism on the suspicion that she eats eggs from her neighbor’s happy* chickens?

I’ve had similar personal experiences. I have found my own veganism (or lack thereof, in real vegans‘ eyes) discredited after admitting that I am not picky about wine (giving wine the benefit of the doubt when the clarifying agent is not mentioned on the label). Also, stating that I hypothetically *would* eat a steak for million dollars, so that I could give that money to a vegan organisation, is enough to be not considered a vegan, apparently. I know active members in the vegan community who think like me, but who know that saying it out loud causes too many problems. Confessing one is only 99.9% vegan is enough to be enitirely discredited, apparently. The value of one’s opinions is then null and void in real vegans‘ eyes.

How big then, is the contrast between the castigation of Ellen and the openness of the original Vegan Society UK, where veganism was conceived! In the 1951 version of its rules, those vegan pioneers say:

(describing the people who will be most helpful in assisting the Society in achieving its objectives:) “An Associate makes no promise as to behaviour but declares himself in agreement with the object. The door is thus widely opened, and the Society welcomes all who feel able to support it.”

To focus on agreement with the objectives, rather than on strict adherence to the (dietary and other) prescriptions seems to me not an unwise move. Maybe we should shift our focus more on veganism as a tool for achieving the goal of improving the lives of animals and substantially reducing animal abuse & suffering. Not on veganism itself as a goal, but as a means to getting closer to the goal. 1951-style thinking seems to be much more sensible than a lot of today’s thinking and communication by real vegans.

What is behind veganism is compassion. If consistency is important, then surely the most important consistency is consistency with that very compassion that is veganism’s underlying principle.

If anyone is not a real vegan, maybe it is rather the real vegans uncompassionately calling out the vegans who in their view are not going far enough? In any case, I hope no vegan, who for pragmatic, compassionate reasons may think or do things that some consider unorthodox, will let themselves be bullied away from calling themselves vegan. The worst that could happen is that our vegan movement would in the end be represented only by those who believe purity is more important than effectiveness.

(this article has been slightly edited since the original version)

* I know the use of the word “happy” in this context is debatable, but I consciously chose not to put it in square quotes, as I think that sends a wrong message also.

On celebrity hate

I’m not really into celebrities, and sometimes I find myself quite disgusted at the worshipping of them. Especially when it’s about royalty or figures like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. Not that I want to necessarily call these people amoral, and I’m not one to judge people I know only from the media and not personally (see my article on Slow Opinion), but the worship seems so senseless. It seems to be a case, maybe, of “zeros as heroes“.


When, however, celebrities are being criticized when they are doing good things, as is the case in our movement when Ricky Gervais goes after hunters or when Beyonce advertises vegan eating or a vegan food business. The core of the allegations seems to be that these two people (and many others) are inconsistent in their behavior  (hypocrital) because they are not vegan. Beyonce, on top of that, still wears fur and has been called many unkind names for it.

I think accusing these people of hypocrisy for not being vegan is regrettable and unstrategic, and I think celebrities might do a lot of good also without being vegan, but I’ve written about that elsewhere (on Gervais and on Beyonce and also Being vegan doesn’t trump everything). Here I would just like to stop a brief moment to wonder if there’s anything more going on. That’s because I think inconsistency or even hypocrisy in and of itself doesn’t seem to warrant this much hate (if you think the word hate is an overstatement, just go visit some vegan/animal rights Facebook groups).

Apart from hate, what I seem to come across again and again is talk like “we don’t need celebrities” (“f*ck them”). DXE activist Wayne Hsiung, for instance, wrote an article on how celebrities are not as important as we think they are: Celebrity Vegans: what does the science say?

I’m not a doctor in psychology or something, but there does seem to be more going on here than a mere aversion to inconsistency or celebrities being useless to our cause (which I find extremely doubtful).

Clearly, many people don’t like celebrities in general, and Google turns up quite a lot of stuff when you enter the words celebrity and hate together. Again, sometimes the apparently disgusting behavior of celebrities makes it very easy to hate them: they can be overly concerned about their appearance, they may be greedy and extremely needy of attention, etcetera.

But this is nothing that “normal” humans don’t do. Probably many people, in case they would suddenly be propelled to celebrity status, might exhibit the same kinds of behavior. Still, we love to hate celebrities for their all too human flaws. Maybe we’re jealous? Maybe saying celebrities are evil or ridiculous is a way to deal with our frustration of not having what they have? Or maybe we, as activists, get jealous because while we have been working so hard to get attention for the cause, famous people only have to sneeze to create massive media coverage. It’s a bit irrational, as we should be happy with every attention our cause gets, but I guess it’s all too human too.

Or maybe what’s behind celebrity hatred (or irritation) is not jealousy but a desire for fairness. Maybe we just don’t like it that there are people out there earning so much more money than the average citizen, getting so much more attention, having, maybe, so much more power… Maybe we dislike celebrities because we want to live in a world where all people are equal, and celebrities are very much an illustration of how that is not the case.

I don’t know if there’s any truth in my guesses, but I think that when we judge or critize celebritities, it’s good to be aware of our motivations.  Knowing which role celebrities actually play in social change is definitely important, but we need to be careful not to get carried away by anti-celebrity bias when trying to establish that role.

While I can understand celebrity hate, I believe it’s good to remember that they are people too, with their frailties, sensibilities, desires and emotions. More importantly, I think that the moment when these famous people are actually something good (be it inconsistently) is, in my humble opinion, not the best time to express celebrity hate.

Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement

While many vegans applaud the fact that Beyonce is so outspoken about vegan eating, many others are critical of it. Among others, some folks from Direct Action Everywhere movement (which I’m still investigating but so far have been underwhelmed by) claims that “Beyonce going vegan is bad for the animals.” Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Beyonce never said she was going vegan. We’ve heard it all before: Beyonce is not emphasising animal rights as the reason for her vegan efforts, but rather health. Many vegans demand that animals are always at the center of everything vegan. Health should have nothing to do with it. This is about morality, about ethics, about justice. Veganism can not be some fad or lifestyle thing. Right? Not really, I think. There is one thing that in my view is an enormous oversight in our movement, and its importance cannot be overstated. Here it comes: Behaviour change may precede attitude change. quote attitude behaviourRead it again, and try to let it sink in. We usually work like this: we give people all kinds of information, in the hope that attitude change (different beliefs about eating animals) will lead to behavior change (no longer eating animals). It surely can work like this, but we forget that it also works the other way round, and indeed, much research points to the fact that the other way round might be more effective. What does the other way round mean? It means that people may very well become open to animal rights arguments after changing their eating habbits. They might become “reducetarians” (or even vegans) for health reasons, for instance, or because it is a trendy thing to do. But the important thing is that once they are vegan, or partly vegan, it is much easier for them to listen to animal rights arguments. Why? Because they don’t need to be so defensive anymore. They already know they can eat tasty food, they know they don’t have so much to lose anymore, so their hearts and minds can be open. Attitude change follows behavior change, in this case. This means that in the end, we would all get in the same place, whether people start with animal rights, or not at all, like Beyonce does. It doesn’t matter all that much. A big part of the animal rights movement has  such an obsession with being vegan, and being vegan for the right reasons, that it blinds us to the fact that there are other ways to get where we want. Less direct ways perhaps, but therefore not less efficient ways. On the contrary, encouraging people to start out with whatever reasons they think are suitable, and encouraging them to moderate their consumption of animal products to whatever degree they think is doable, may be the fastest road forward. People might argue that those who become vegan for other than ethical reasons won’t stick to the diet. However, the reason why people don’t stick to the diet is mostly that it’s still not convenient enough (in several ways) to stick to it. As many more people eat more vegan meals (for whatever reason) sticking to it will become easier by the day. So bottom line: let Beyonce be. Let people have their own reasons for reducing or giving up animal products. They’ll be going along with animal rights arguments before you know it.

See also the follow post How what you eat determines what you think.

You might also be interested to check out Different approach, same results, with a sensible article, and also Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s videoblog on Beyonce.