Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.

Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot about animal agriculture
Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot

It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.

Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.

Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!

But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.

First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”

Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.

How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.

Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.

It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)

Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.

The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.

We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.

I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.

Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?

Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.

Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.

When people say: “I just can’t give up meatballs”

Imagine. A person says to you:

– “I respect what you do, and I can almost see myself being a vegan, but I just can’t give up meatballs [or fill in animal based dish or product]”.

What’s your answer?

My answer previously would have been a combination of the following arguments:

– “Do you know how these meatballs [or x] are produced? Do you understand the suffering involved?”
– “If you would stop eating this and that and that, why wouldn’t you also stop eating meatballs?”
– “Is the pleasure you get from eating meatballs really more important than the animal suffering?”
– “It’s easy. If I did it, so can you.”

Etcetera. You get the idea.

My reaction today would be different. First I would tell them about vegan meatballs. But that’s not the point I want to make. I want you to imagine there isn’t a decent plant based alternative for whatever it is the person wants to keep eating. They won’t be fooled or forced into eating an alternative for their favorite dish. Let’s just assume that. So in that case, my answer would be:

Then just eat your meatballs and avoid all other animal products. That would be so awesome!

I think my opinion here boils down to this: if you ask for all or nothing, you usually and up with nothing. Especially, when in this case, the person already stated he doesn’t want or can’t do everything. We can deplore that fact and think or tell them they are selfish, but what is that going to help?

If that person becomes a “meatball-vegan”, that would reduce (assuming that they eat meatballs like once a month) 99% of their “animal suffering footprint”. That is brilliant. Besides, there’s a good chance that if they do this, they will at some point conclude they don’t need those meatballs anyway and that eating them doesn’t feel right anymore. Or maybe they’ll stop when the ideal “fake” meatballs (cheapier, healthier, even tastier) are available on the market.

A variation could be that the person says: “I can go vegan but I can’t stop eating the signature dish my grandmother prepares for me twice a year. She’s ninety and she won’t live much longer.” We could call out bullshit, we can say there’s got to be a way to explain one’s views to the grandmother in a way she gets it, etc. But it might be just better to “give permission” to this person to do what they think best, for now.


I know all this goes against “vegan orthodoxy”. Some people will say that this would be speciesist/condoning animal suffering/inconsistent/”un-vegan”… and that we can’t behave like that.

Am I being an apologist here? Am I going for something less than a vegan world? Am I saying the animals that were killed for those meatballs are less important than the other animals that person will avoid? Of course not. I’m just trying to adopt an approach I think will have real results, and for an attitude and a style of communication that will, in my opinion, get us to our vegan world the fastest way possible. It’s easy to make an elegant theory or a waterproof philosophy. But that doesn’t always help the animals. 

The animals don’t care about our orthodoxy, our sticking to the rules of our little philosophical systems. They need us to go for what helps them. 

On the Yulin dogs, hypocrisy and racism

Many people are outraged at what happens to dogs at the “Yulin dog meat festival“. I’m talking here about people who are not really concerned about raising and killing farmed animals and eat them every day. I’ve seen a lot of veg*ns calling it hypocritical and/or racist of westerners to cry out over what happens to those dogs in China, while having no problem eating cows, pigs or chickens at home.


I have some difficulty with this attitude, for several reasons.

For one thing, I’m glad there is at least some animal suffering people are shocked by. It happens now and then. To call these people hypocritical doesn’t exactly kindle the flame of the compassion they are showing. It is rather saying to them that that compassion is misplaced. That is unfortunate, and alienates these people further from vegans and animal rights activists.

Obviously, with some people there is quite some racism involved (many posts are clearly racist), and a general upheaval towards what happens at the Yulin festival could encourage even more racism. Yet, it’s too easy to say, and dangerous to say too quickly, that what is below a person’s outrage is racism when it is not expressed as such.

It may not be very rational, but it is very understandable that people cry out over the eating of animals they themselves consider to be companion animals. Irrational though the difference we make between pigs and dogs might be, it is a reality right now, and it would be silly not to take that even into account. Moreover, there is a difference between the way these dogs are slaughtered on the one hand, and the way cows are slaughtered on the other hand. Though it is admittedly a small difference, those who think stunning doesn’t make any difference at all may try to imagine what it would be like to be killed with or without stunning. I’m unwilling to deny or downplay that difference, just like I’m unwilling, as a 17 year long vegan and “abolitionist”, to deny the difference welfare reforms make.

All this is obviously not to say that western nations are “better” than the Chinese: indeed, people in the US or Western Europe generally still eat much more meat than the Chinese do. Moreover, animal activism is popping up in China too. There is compassion everywhere. It is hard to point the finger at other nations. Yet that shouldn’t mean omnivores’ compassion for the dogs in China is misplaced.

So what is a good way to address omnivores who are outraged over the Yulin festival in China? I think first of all we should give everyone the benefit of the doubt and recognize their outrage as a sign of compassion, not racism, not hypocrisy. That is a good basis to make a connection. We can show we appreciate that compassion, and say that the same compassion is the reason we don’t eat animals at all, as pigs and chickens and cows in the most relevant ways are equal to dogs and cats. We can try to point out the arbitrariness of our food choices.

We can then hope that some of these outraged people might want to put their beliefs about meat eating in line with their beliefs about dogs and cats. What happens in China is an excellent way to help people think about our consumption of animals in general. But it can be done encouragingly, not deterringly.

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.

We consider people who recycle, but use the car, as 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. Hypocrites everywhere

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. “The 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 is the British actor Ricky Gervais, who is often giving hunters and other animal abusers flack, and is asking us not to hurt animals. Now, vegans could (and often will) 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 see that Gervais genuinely cares about animals. This caring can grow and grow when it is encouraged. When, on the other hand, we call out his beliefs and behavior as hypocritical, I think such progress would be far less likely.*


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? The ever eloquent 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.

Want to read more about the psychology of communication? Check out my new book, How to Create a Vegan World