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.

orthodoxy

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.

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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.*

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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? 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