An interview with Melanie Joy, on communication and strategy

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

Yes, you can be a meat eating environmentalist

In the post being vegan doesn’t trump everything, I wrote that it’s not necessary to be vegan in order to do good for animals. In other words, you can be an animal activist (at least of sorts) without being vegan.

You can also be other things without being vegan:

You can be an animal lover without being vegan.
(I read somewhere: “The privilege of being able to identify oneself as an ”animal lover” belongs only to vegans.” Ouch.)

You can be an environmentalist without being vegan.
(I often read: “You can’t be a meat eating environmentalist.)

In fact, you can be a lot of things without being vegan.

Think about the absurdity of the last claim, for instance. Say a non vegan person consciously never takes a plane for environmental reasons. Compare them to a vegan who flies five times a year. The carbon footprint of the vegan will be a lot bigger (all else being equal). (One could comment here that “you can’t be a meat eating environmentalist” doesn’t imply that you are an environmentalist when you don’t eat meat, but this is often what is implicitly communicated or understood).

But I want to make a bigger point here. When people identify as something (an environmentalist, an animal lover, a vegan, a writer… whatever…) it is probably detrimental in most cases when someone else says they are NOT that. I get it, I get it: we can identify factual mistakes (they’re not a vegetarian if they eat fish, for instance). But mostly, by saying they are NOT this or that (while we ARE) we will often probably only widen the gap between them and us. It could very well alienate them from whatever we want to get them closer to. I’m especially talking about situations where a person identifies as a vegan, while we spot him eating or using this or that, which we consider or know is not vegan.

I have been considering myself a vegan since 17 years, but one thing I’m not picky about is wine. Usually I can’t find the needed information on the bottle, so in this case, I give that wine the benefit of the doubt and I drink it (also because, frankly, I think drinking wine as a vegan helps to dispel the austere image of veganism that some have). Now, if you, True Vegan, would tell me I’m not a real vegan because of that, it wouldn’t help anything, I think – even though I’m more prone to feelings of guilt than most people. It would alienate me from you and from part of the vegan movement, and I would probably be irritated with what I would perceive (maybe incorrectly) as a holier-than-thou attitude.

I think big factual mistakes (like fish eating vegetarianism) can be corrected, but it can always be done in a non confrontational way (and best in private).
Debunking non vegan animal activists, animal lovers or environmentalists (saying that they are a contradiction in terms) should, I think, be avoided, if only because these are unclear terms anyway for which we often have no waterproof definition.  Of course, subtle, gentle, humorous hints never harm anybody.

Being vegan doesn’t trump everything

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.

Veganer than thou

May I present to you: the superlocavore vegan (from locavore: eating locally; we will abbreaviate this to SV). This is a type of vegan who takes into account the fact that conventional plant agriculture entails a lot of dead animals too. In the harvesting of plants by machines, many small rodents, birds etc (not to talk about insects) are killed. That’s why the EV stick to the principle that they only eat what comes out of their own organic, manually labored garden. Nothing else.

The superlocavore vegan consider superlocavore veganism as the moral baseline. They consider it doable for everyone (those who don’t have a garden can find another vegan with a garden and live off their land) and thus a moral duty to eat as they eat. People who are merely vegan (and are thus consuming plant products that implied the avoidable suffering of said small rodents and birds) are, in their eyes, hypocrites.

The SV don’t really exist as such, though there are plenty of vegans doing their best to be as self sufficient as possible. In case it’s not clear, I want to make raise the following points or questions in bringing them up:

– Is veganism a black and white thing, or is it, to a certain extent, an arbitrary concept?  What about the so called “moral baseline”? What does it mean when some people go further than us?
– How, as a “normal” vegan, would you react to being called a hypocrite by an SV?
– What does all this say about us judging people not going as far as us (non vegans)

I’m sure that many people will try to point out the differences between veganism and superlocavore veganism, between cows and those rodents, between intentionally eating animals and eating plants the harvest of which unintentionally killed animals… but I’m not sure if there’s a true difference. At least, if there is, the difference is small enough to suspend your disbelief and go along for a moment in the above thought experiment.

Ricky Gervais is a hypocrite. So what?

The term hypocrisy is a moodkiller, yet we love to use it and accuse people of being hypocrites. The question is what that brings us. When we say someone is a hypocrite, we mean that they are not consistent in their behaviour, or that there is no consistency between their actions and their thoughts.

People who recycle, but use the car, are hypocrites. People who never drive a car but fly to a faraway holiday destination are hypocrites. People who avoid flying airplanes for ecological reasons but who eat meat, are hypocrites. People who don’t eat meat but who wear leather shoes, are hypocrites. Etcetera.

The point I’m trying to make is that no one is consistent all across the board, and that everyone is at times (or often) a hypocrite in this sense of the word. Hypocrisy is not just a pretty meaningless term, it is also a damaging one.

The words hypocrite or hypocrisy are extremely charged and imply a strong value judgment. There are probably only few people who will start reflecting deeply when they’re being accused of hypocrisy. Most will feel attacked.

I know: at some or other intellectual-philosophical level, consistency sounds desirable and our demand for it sounds logical. But this very demand for consistency often gives people an excuse to do nothing. “Perfect is the enemy of good” wrote the French philosopher Voltaire. Personally, I chose people who act inconsistently good rather than consistently bad. I applaud people who are trying, who take little steps, and who, with an open mind and being honest towards themselves, look at what they can and cannot yet do.

A case in point, these days, is the British actor Ricky Gervais, who is giving hunters a lot of flack and is asking us not to hurt animals, while he is not a vegan. As a vegan, one could accuse him of being a hypocrite, and maybe one would be right. There’s definitely a lack of consistency there. But looking at Gervais’ thoughts and behaviour on Facebook, I can definitely see the beginning of something. A beginning that can only grow when we encourage it, and that will be suffocated rather than helped when we ridicule it or call it hypocritical.*

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The main consequence of calling people hypocrites might be that people do nothing because they don’t want to be called that. What if Ricky stopped biting hunters asses because he would get tired of being called a hypocrite? Jonathan Safran Foer puts it this way:

“We have to get away from the expectation of perfection because it really intimidates people who would otherwise make an effort. People use the fear of hypocrisy to justify total inaction. I wish I weren’t as hypocritical as I am but I think that’s just part of what it means to be a person.”

Let’s not give people an excuse to do nothing by calling them hypocrites. And let’s have a little more faith in humans. Because when positive evolution happens in the world, it starts with small steps taken by all those inconsistent but well-intentioned people.

* And here I’m not even talking about the arrogance of people calling Gervais a hypocrite because he’s not vegan, as if vegan is the be-all and end-all of everything. I wonder when the last time was that these critics spread a pro-animal message to millions of people around the world?

Leaving room for doubt

It’s good to have a passion. It allows you to enthuse, to motivate, to change, to move others. But sometimes there’s too much passion. And I think sometimes it’s like this: the more convinced you seem, the less convincing you are.

What I’m talking about is this: when you are defending a cause and you think or pretend to have all the answers, when you leave no room for any grey areas or doubt, when you don’t concede any points, when you don’t admit there’s any questions left unanswered… people will trust you less than if you do.

Intelligent people know that the world today, with all the knowledge we have, is just too complex for simple black and white answers.

Regarding the animal rights and vegan issue, these are some points I think we might concede are open for discussion:

  • using animals for medical research is a much more difficult point than using animals for food
  • it’s not easy for everyone to go vegan
  • questions of overpopulation of animals and invasive species are not always easy to tackle
  • a world without animal farming is not obviously the most ecological world there is (though it can be the least cruel one)
  • it’s definitely possible to be unhealthy on a vegan diet
  • there may be some reasons why you or some people would ever eat meat (even if it’s just this one)
  • for each of us, there are differences among animals and the rights they should have. There are grey areas and line-drawing issues (think of some sea animals, insects, including mosquitos…)

Whether it’s during public speaking or in individual dialogue, my advice is to not pretend you have all the answers. And if you don’t know the answer, say so. Concede some points. If something is not proven or not conclusive, admit it. People will be more inclined to listen to you and to trust you.

“I don’t care what others think of me”

I come across it again and again: vegans who say they don’t care how they appear to other people. They say they don’t give a rat’s ass about what people think about them or their opinions and habits. The argument goes like this: the only thing that counts is that meat eating is wrong, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it. We should speak our truth, no matter if it hurts or isn’t comfortable or pallatable.

I think this argument is mistaken about the reasons why one could be gentle and compassionate. Yes, of course some people are afraid to hurt other people’s feelings etc (not that an attitude like that would be entirely without merit) and therefore are not very outspoken about the injustices they see. But other than that, being gentle, softspoken, non-judging and subtle, rather than being angry and explicit, can also be strategicAlienating other people doesn’t serve anyone, including the animals, because once people stop listening to you (and most will, if you ramble on too much or if they start feeling too guilty) they are outside of your sphere of influence.

So I would say: please, care about what others think of you and your message. It has nothing to do with vanity, or softness, or whatever. On the contrary, taking into account how you and your message are percieved is a requirement for changing hearts and minds.

Vegans: the world’s smallest club?

Sometimes, when I hear or read some vegans, it sounds as if they want the club of vegans to be the smallest and most exclusive club in the world. I imagine the following could be a possible history of veganism.

Some time ago, two men had an idea:

–  “I want to found a very, very exclusive club of morally good people. Something so exclusive that only the very best people can participate. I’m thinking about the rules for membership. Any ideas?”
–  “Hmmm. Oh! What about this? What if we made a group for all the people who eat no animal products. Nothing from animals whatsoever.”
–  “Wow, that’s brilliant! That will exclude like 99.99% of the population!”

After a while, the club got a little bigger. The founders had a problem.

– “We’re getting too numerous,” the one said to the other. How will we make sure our club stays small enough?”
–  “Mmm, we make it really difficult to stick to the rules. You can only call yourself one of us if you follow ALL the rules. If you never ever eat anything wrong. And not only can you not eat animal products, you can’t wear them either. Let’s make it about lifestyle, not just about diet. That will cut out a lot of people!”
–  “Great! What else?”
–  “We can include like the smallest of ingredients in the definition. Additives, emulgators, aromas…”
–  “Sounds good! More?”
–  “Let’s see… The people joining us have to do it for the right reasons! For our reasons. If they do it for any other reason, they’re not part of our group! As our group is for morally excellent people, everyone has to have ethical motivations.”
–  “Good! Anything else?”
–  “Maybe we could include completely different criteria too. Like, people who are sexist, racist, classist, ableist, ageist… they can’t be part either. And obviously they need to agree with us on GMOs and abortion.
–  “Great ideas! Maybe we should include some of those concerns in the definition.”
–  “Oh wait, and food products from companies that also make meat products: we can’t consider them vegan. So club members can’t eat those.”
–  “What if the people working in the factories that make the products wear leather shoes?”
–  “Hmm, interesting idea… Maybe…”

And so it went on.

I hope my point is clear. Let’s not make veganism even more difficult than it is (because yes, for most people it is). When people want to take the leap, let’s welcome them instead of turning them away with too many rules and criteria.

On Gary Francione and the “abolitionists” (1)

(note: you may want to read Why I’m openly criticizing Francione first) 

People and organisations who work for a better world for animals may have different objectives. Perhaps the most common way of categorising these people and organisations is according to whether or not they want to stop all animals being used for food, clothing, experimenting etc, or whether they want to keep those practises but improve the living conditions for the animals in question. The first group wants to abolish, the second wants to reform. Hence: abolitionists versus reformers, or animal rights versus animal welfare.

However, this simple categorisation has been muddled. A group of people, led by professor Gary Francione, call only themselves the “abolitionists”, and consider many or most other groups and people (who are really abolitionist in their objectives) welfarists or “new welfarists”. Francione and his followers only consider abolitionists those who also follow their way of communicating about abolitionism. Hence, today, if you read about “abolitionists”, it usually refers to Francione and his followers.

Let’s take an organisation like PETA as an example. You can think of PETA what you want (you may consider them sexist, sensationalist etc), but their aim is clearly abolitionist, in the sense that most people and most animal advocates understand the term. PETA wants to abolish all use of animals by humans. Look at PETA’s baseline: animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment. Unlike most people though, Francione calls PETA a “new welfare” organization – despite the fact that their clear stated goal has always been to abolish the use of animals. Francione’s justification for this twisting of language is that some of PETA’s individual campaigns are reformist: they would improve the lives of animals but in themselves are not about the abolition of animals abuse. How valuable reformist campaigns are is not the point here. What is the point is that the objective still is abolitionist. Accusing PETA the way Francione does is much like accusing Amnesty International of being a pro-political imprisonment organization because – although their goal is to have political prisoners freed – they also campaign to improve the treatment of political prisoners.

The sad result of all of this is that many activists who follow Francione in the fake divide he has created, are now very critical and often openly hostile towards groups and people they do not consider “abolitionists” in their sense. They rant and rage against any organisation who, while believing in abolitionism, for strategic reasons doesn’t necessarily ask people to go vegan, who use the word vegetarian instead of vegan, who support Meatless Mondays, who support (or even who don’t condemn) reforms in animal treatment, etc. Thus, these otherwise well meaning activists partially undermine the work of many animal rights or vegetarian/vegan organisations, believing these do not want the end of all animal use and abuse. Many abolitionists go so far as to say that many or most organisations and tactics actually do more harm than good.

Allow me to illustrate Francione’s perception of and communication about the groups that he targets, with a post from his Facebook page.

AR conference

To say that hard working, well intentioned, and usually much more results-oriented activists and groups participating in the Animal Rights conference – which I have attended three times – have sold out to the industry, and to compare them with the Ku Klux Klan is not just beyond decency, it is unintelligent, it is immature, and it is, above all, false.

I sincerely hope “abolitionist” activists will start to examine Francione’s approach as critically as they examine others’.

I will follow up this part on Francione and “abolitionism” in another post.

“Persuasion resistance”

Most people have built-in “persuasion resistance“, as salesmen call it. They don’t like to be convinced by others, they don’t like to be told what to do. Also concerning the food that’s on our plate, they’ll decide about that themselves. They need no government regulations or animal rights or vegetarian groups preaching to them about what to eat, and what not, how much of it, or how they should prepare it. They’ll make up their own minds about all that, thank you very much.

As changemakers, it is important to keep this in mind. All we can do is give people information, maybe show the flaws in their reasoning sometimes (when we’re talking to reasonable people), and let them work out the rest for themselves.

However, it may also be useful to point out to them that it is an illusion to think that they are entirely in control of their food choices. What most people eat is very heavily determined by agriculture and economy, culture and tradition, what our parents ate, and what commercial interests want us to eat.

As an illustration of this, check out the graphic from the counting animals website. The chart represents the US advertising budgets of different food cooperations, compared to those of animal interest groups. It would be interesting to compare this also with government budgets for healthy or sustainable eating.