What are vegans so afraid of?

I thought my previous piece, Why being vegan is not an all or nothing thing, was a pretty straightforward, rational and compassionately written article. I wrote it from the same angle from which I write everything: to get as many people as possible to join us in the direction of a more compassionate world.

Still (apart from the many positive comments and shares), the article managed to arouse a lot of anger in certain vegans – to an extent that was surprising and even shocking to me. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I’ve been called quite some names (some examples here, in case you don’t believe me).

Apart from finding all of this quite sad, I also find it fascinating. How can people on the same side fight so much and so intensely? How can some people so easily find proof of betrayal in other people who share their cause?


So I tried to put myself in these angry vegans’ shoes and tried to imagine what it could be that angered them so much in what I wrote.

First of all, it seems some people misunderstand my intentions. Like I said, I always write with the purpose to help this movement be more effective at reaching its aim of “animal liberation” (or however you want to define the goal). I may fail at this, but at least this remains my intention. My first concern is definitely not to spare omnivores’ feelings, or to give people reasons or excuses to continue using animal products. Nor would I ever be happy with partial animal liberation or partial veganism (on the contrary: I want to go much further than most vegans want to go, and I’m also concerned, for instance, about the suffering of animals in the wild – suffering is suffering, whether inflicted by humans or not).

Now, here are some of the fears that I notice in people’s reactions to my suggestion to be pragmatic and a bit flexible in our defining of the term vegan.

1. The fear that the concept of veganism will be watered down.
Vegans understandably wouldn’t want to undermine the idea of “being vegan” or “veganism.” They wouldn’t want it to mean anything else than what it means (or what they believe it means): products, food, consumption, a lifestyle… without the involvement of animals. I think the fear is to end up with a watered down version of this concept, where vegan would mean something like “almost free of animal use or suffering.”
Two answers to this. First of all, like I wrote, it is an illusion to think that a vegan lifestyle is a lifestyle that doesn’t inflict any suffering on human or non-human animals (that this argument is also used by meat eaters against vegans doesn’t make it any less true). Secondly, we have to help people take the first step, rather than the last. The last steps, the details, will be taken care of automatically, as a consequence of animal byproducts becoming more and more expensive and hard to come by. If we get to a 95% (or even a 75%) vegan society, then there is no reason we can not bridge the remaining gap. It is not productive to worry about the tiny bits now and make it all too difficult, because that may easily prevent people from moving at all.

2. The fear that people may get confused about what is vegan and what is not, or who is vegan and who isn’t.
If a vegan makes an exception (e.g. eats a non-vegan cookie), they are making other people – so the argument goes – confused and these people will end up not knowing what veganism is. Or they will – God forbid – serve us something non-vegan! All I can say is that if this is what we worry about at this stage of the movement, when 65 billion land animals are killed for food yearly, then we have to re-check our priorities. We have to think a lot more strategically than this.

3. The fear that vegans will be seen as inconsistent if they ever do an unvegan thing.
When I make e.g. my lasagne argument, saying that in order to make the idea of veganism more accessible I would make tiny exceptions here and there in special cases, some vegans think this will be interpreted as inconsistency (worst case: hypocrisy). Let me tell you: the concern for inconsistency is mainly in our own heads, not in the meat-eaters’. What other people see is something that is really really difficult. Showing that in, whatever special cases, exceptions can be made, would make us and veganism seem more attractive rather than less. Consistency is, in my humble opinion, often overrated. That doesn’t mean we should just do whatever. But 99% consistency will be perfectly fine.

The question is whether fears like these are enough to explain the angry reactions to the post. I feel there’s something much more threatening going on for some vegans when the definition of vegan is being questioned. What I feel is going on is that on some level, some people experience that a very important part of their identity is being questioned. I’ll write about that some other time.

What was also quite interesting to notice was how people, who kept repeating “you are either vegan or you’re not!”, referred to other domains, issues, identities, personas… that were supposedly also black or white. In every single case though, I could see a lot of gray. One person said a Christian or a Muslim is not like 95% Christian or Muslim. My thought was exactly the opposite: both in terms of their (mental) faith and their (outward) behavior, people have different degrees of being religious. The same for having racist thoughts or exhibiting racist behavior: we seem to all do it to some extent.

The often mean reactions made me realize more than ever that being vegan is not an end point, and that as vegans we generally should not claim to be better than others. All of us can still grow in compassion. If we can’t open our minds to ideas that don’t coincide with our own, if we can’t even listen, read, talk or discuss compassionately, then there’s still a long way to go.
And rest assured, I count myself among the ones who still have a lot to learn.

Let’s keep an open mind and believe in each other’s good intentions.


On veggie burgers and thought experiments

Several people commented how the answer to my thought experiment about the yummy veggie burger and the dreadful vegan burger was very obvious: they would recommend that our friend order the veggie burger.

However, to others, this doesn’t appear obvious at all. More than that, some people seem not to understand the value of thought experiments, or what I’m trying to do with them. I’ll use some examples of reactions on a Facebook group to give my view on a couple of things. I’m under no illusion that any of my responses will sway the people who wrote these things, but it may help others to recognize bad arguments when they see them.

So let’s analyse a couple of reactions and see what arguments are being used. I’ll keep the reactions anonymous, as it is not my intention to smear anyone, rather just to get some clarity (I love clarity, I wish there was more of it in my mind.)

I grouped reactions according to the kinds of arguments I see in them, but some reactions could be classified under more than one heading (sadly). I put my comments below each reaction.

Honest reactions (but which express, in my view, bad arguments)

These reactions are correct in the sense that they are to-the-point, and don’t try to change the premises of the thought experiment, are not ad hominem, and so on.

“My objective is not to promote vegan food, my objective is to promote the idea that using animal products is morally wrong. I cannot offer anything that contains animal products by pointing that it does not contain meat, it would be supporting the wrong idea that there is a moral difference between using meat and using other animal products. It is confusing for the nonvegan person and it is counterproductive for the animal rights movement.”

VS: If this person really doesn’t want to recommend anything that’s non-vegan because they believe it’s confusing and counterproductive, and this is his honest view of things, that’s perfectly fine by me. (Even though I don’t think this is a particularly strategic view, in the sense that I explained in the article).

“The idea that ends justifies means is one of the worst ideas in the history, it is not only counterproductive for nonhuman rights, it is counterproductive for all justice movements. It is not morally right to offer or promote a nonvegan burger, even with good intentions.”

VS: The same person abhors the idea of the end justifying the means, and I can understand that. But I would say it’s a moot saying, and I would quote Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals: “That perennial question, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means?’

Questioning the assumptions in the thought experiment

Many people try to change the premise of the thought experiment. For instance, this person wonders why we need to assume the vegan burger is bad (as if there is no such thing in the universe):

“I would like to order the delicious vegan burger. Why does Tobias assume it’s the vegan one that tastes bad anyhow?”

VS: Ehm, that’s just the assumption that we posit, in order to have something to think about…? Of course vegan burgers are not necessarily bad. I don’t need to explain this one to you I assume.
A thought experiment is meant to create some clarity on one’s assumptions, on the values one finds important, on what one prioritizes. If you go along with the experiment, you can possibly discover interesting ideas. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t change the premise because then the experiment becomes meaningless.

Assuming bad intentions behind my thought experiments

Some people believe I develop these thought experiments to show we don’t have to be vegan, or that being vegan is bad, or whatever. I’ve even been called a troll because indeed these thought experiments may sound like the arguments from meat eaters who try to put us on the spot (which is why some call my thought experiments “gotchas”):

“All his thought experiments are designed to have non-veganism as the optimal outcome.”

“The game is rigged so the best outcome is buying or eating animal products for ‘long term’ gain. Why does he never offer vegan solutions to these problems? This is ridiculous.

VS: My intention is to show there is more to vegan advocacy than just following the vegan orthodoxy, and that results (also long time results) are at this point in time more important than rules. If you want to hear more on this, watch the first video here.

Lennaert [sic] acts like an industry shill.

VS: No comment.

Misrepresenting and misinterpreting my conclusions or recommendations

“I can’t stand to the nonstop nonsense they post on this terrible so-called vegan strategist blog. So according to this blog post, it’s a good vegan strategy to tell our nonvegan friends to eat a nonvegan burger to satisfy their palate pleasure. No, thank you.”

“Seems like he is always trying to undermine a vegan solution. Why does he want vegans to endorse eating or using animals? I’m astonished at vegans promoting this.”

“If vegans always compromise and order an option containing eggs/cheese, or don’t even bother to ask if an item is vegan for fear of making a fuss, then the availability of vegan options will remain poor. ”

I hope I don’t need to show you why these are simplifications and generalizations of my recommendations. I trust that if you read the text, you see that my point is not to never be consistent or demand vegan products (indeed I think opening our mouths and insisting on a vegan option is very important and fruitful). Neither do I want “vegans to endorse eating or using animals”.

Discrediting the person

This is the well known ad hominem or “poisoning the well” argument.

“Tobias is not a moral philosopher by any stretch of the imagination!”

“When will these people who refer to themselves as “vegan” stop referring to other animals as nothing more than recipe ingredients? The lack of respect shown toward other animals, and the message that “our movement is about food” is really depressing.”

This last one I find particularly pernicious and dishonest. It’s something we see a lot these days: the attempt (often while knowing better) to show how a person whose argument we don’t agree with, is not a good person, lacks respect, is a speciesist, etc.

Why the resistance?
The poor quality of most of these arguments, and some people’s inability to deal with the thought experiments, makes me suspect that they really have a problem accepting the logical outcome of the experiment: namely that it IS not always beneficial to stick to your moral philosophy and orthodoxy for the full hundred percent. People seem to want to avoid this in their eyes horrible conclusion at all costs. Maybe the idea that a moral system or a strategy should not always be followed to the letter is scary to some, because it takes away something that gave them security and structure? I’m just guessing.

Anyway, I don’t think that admitting that there maybe exceptions, that not everything is black and white… should be so horrible. I try to show that sometimes the easier way, is the more effective way. What’s so bad about that?

Finally, here’s an argument I can see no logical problems in 🙂

one does not.jpg

I might make my own version though, saying:

“One does not have a big impact on animals simply by becoming vegan.”


The art of constructive criticism

A few days ago, I read this article about the meat industry’s search for ways to provide enough meat for the growing world population. The next day, I saw a response by fellow advocate Jay Shooster, which he had sent to the author of the piece. I told Jay I didn’t think his letter was very effective, and asked him if he would be okay with me writing a post about it. We agreed to see it as an exercise to make our activism better.

I’m not saying I’m the most diplomatic and effective communicator you can find, and I know I don’t always practise what I preach, but I would like to hold up Jay’s email as a kind of “clinic”, a piece that we can analyse and use to maybe become better at communicating. In that context, I welcome your comments.

Please read this, as you should read all my texts, as if there is one big IMHO (in my humble opinion) in front of it.


Here is Jay’s letter to the author:

Dear Mr. Bunge

I think you should be ashamed of your article “How to Satisfy the World’s Surging Appetite for Meat.”
You should be ashamed for glorifying the selective breeding of chickesn that has been described as “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
As a reporter of the Wall Street Journal, you have no excuse for rationalizing the industrialized abuse and slaughter of animals as a necessary or altruistic endeavor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Your writing wholly ignores the perspective of the individuals who suffer in this machine of death. Your callous musings on their torture epitomizes the banality of evil.
I hope that one day, you will redeem yourself by condemning this industry and role in promiting it. It’s never too late to do the right thing. History may yet remember you kindly.

Jay Shooster.

This letter got a lot of likes on Jay’s wall, and many people expressed how “awesome” they thought it was. I certainly do appreciate Jay taking the effort to contact the author, but I wouldn’t call the content of the letter awesome.

First of all, I couldn’t see how the author was glorifying the meat industry. I agree that he could have been more critical. But even supposing Jay is right in his perception and the journalist did as Jay says, then still I think this wasn’t an effective way to make him see that.

Maybe we should back up a little and make sure that we have the same purpose when we write a letter like this. I would imagine that our (including Jay’s) purpose would be to do something good for the animals. In this context, I think that would translate to influencing the journalist in a positive way. This is important because he will write more articles about different topics in the future, and he reaches a big audience. More balanced articles, more critical of the meat industry, more pro animal, would be good for the animals.

There are other possible intentions in writing a response. One is to vent frustration, sadness, anger… That can be fruitful in and of itself, but it can also have negative effects, and I think venting is ideally not done in public, or is simulated somehow (maybe by beating your bed pillow). And of course there can be countless other motivations, like having a laugh, practising one’s writing skills, gathering Facebook followers etc. None of these are dishonorable in themselves, but they won’t help the animals much, in most cases – or at least the animals are not the focus of the writing.

So let’s assume that our intention is to open the journalist’s mind (and heart) to our arguments. Then I definitely wouldn’t start by saying he “should be ashamed”.
A captatio benevolentiae is a rethorical technique, and literally translates to “capturing goodwill”. It is something you may start a speech or a letter with, in order to make the reader or listener willing to listen. I think it’s usually good to have something like this in place when we criticize. But it shouldn’t sound fake. Most of the times the reader will know that after the positive intro, one or more “buts” will follow. That’s usually unavoidable. However, if the compliment is genuine and meaningful, the person should have warmed up a little and be more open.

In this case, I would, for instance, thank the person for writing the article and giving me some information I didn’t have yet. And I really mean this. This article gave me some new information, and made me realize that while our movement is investing more and more money in plant based solutions, the meat industry is doing their own research, is evolving, is regrouping, analyzing… The article was to me a good reminder that there will be resistance. So that’s something I can write.

Then to the criticism part. Like I said I found the original article rather one-sided. But I think it would be effective to be a lot more concrete rather than just saying the author should be ashamed. I would, for instance, mention that to me he seemed quite uncritical and brief about the need for animal protein. Here I might also anticipate on his answer. Maybe he calls on journalistic objectivity.

As I repeat in all my talks and often in my writings: maybe the most important skill of any changemaker is to imagine yourself in the position of the people they are trying to reach. Do the exercise: imagine you write an article and you get an email like Jay’s, saying that you should be ashamed. How do you feel? I can’t know how you would feel of course, so let me tell you how I would feel: I would be irritated if someone wrote to me like that. And I wouldn’t find them very credible. I feel the more objective a criticism is, the more intelligent and credible a person and their criticism will seem, and the more I will take it to heart. If I get criticism from people who do nothing but criticize, I am much more likely to throw it aside. I think it is also important to not come over as too “animal rights activisty”. We want to avoid the “oh no, another activist/vegan criticizing me – dismissed.”

As for the last paragraph, which talks about “redeeming”, “doing the right thing”, and history “remembering him kindly”: if we write like this, is it any wonder vegans are often described as judgmental and holier-than-thou?

Also, in case you believe that this style of rather blunt and harsh criticism would work for you, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have the same attitude regarding criticism, guilt, shaming… as other people. I think many of us in the animal rights movement are much more prone to feelings of guilt than the average population.

Someone commented that sometimes strong language is necessary. Someone else said that Jay’s purpose was to update the author’s views. Yes, I agree. But we need him to be receptive for that. He needs to be open hearted and open minded. And how do we get them in that state? I suggest it is not by saying he should be ashamed. Human psychology is a complicated thing.

Someone else thanked Jay for “boldly speaking his mind”. And I think here we touch the heart of the matter. People seem to find something of value in “boldly speaking one’s mind”. What is it exactly in that that is valuable or recommendable? Is boldness, or courage, something that is interesting in and of itself? To think about it like that seems to me something medieval, which I associate with brave nights, or Vikings, or maybe for war situations, where you have to be bold. And I can understand the value of boldness when speaking out against oppressed regimes etc. But what other than that, in our context, I don’t see that boldness, being straight to the point, saying stuff without any fear of being whatever’d, has value in and of itself. The value is rather in the possible effect this message, or this boldness, has.

Of course, people differ. What I’ve written here probably doesn’t apply to everybody. Different people will have different reactions to being shamed or guilt tripped. Some may be attracted by bolder and fiercer language. Still, my common sense and intuition (and I assume research too, although I haven’t looked into it) say that people will be more likely to take something to heartif you approach them in a nice way rather than an accusatory or shaming way.

So here is my suggestion.

Dear Mr Bunge,

I read your article “How to satisfy the world’s surging appetite for meat” with great interest and it contained valuable information about modern animal agricultural practices. I certainly do agree that a lot of research and innovation are in order if we want to keep feeding a growing population.

I have serious doubts, however, about achieving this by further intensification of animal farming, which I think raises a lot of ethical questions. To be honest, I think your article lacked that kind of perspective, and was a rather uncritical. We can ask the question if we have to, want to, and can satisfy the world’s growing appetite for meat. You hardly mentioned any alternatives, and also didn’t seem to think that alternatives to raising chickens or other animals for food are in order at all. You also hardly mentioned the living conditions of the chickens.

I can certainly understand that you are bound to upholding journalistic objectivity and not letting any personal value judgments slip into your writings. However, I it is not a judgment but a *fact* that chickens have quite miserable lives [I do not write about killing, a more difficult issue]. You can, if you want, leave it to your readers to judge to what extent we have to take their suffering into account, but I think it would have been pertinent to at least mention it.

I hope you will do an article about the other side of this interesting topic. It deserves to be treated from every possible angle.

Thanks for taking this into consideration

Tobias Leenaert

Again, your comments are welcome, as undoubtedly this can be much improved upon still. Or maybe you believe that shaming and angry letters can have some use too? Let me know in the comments.

PS If you want to read an imho more interesting text by Jay, read Standing up to the Left on Animal Rights.

Bullshit revisited (second and last part of response to criticism)

This is the second part of my repsonse to criticism (for the ones who didn’t click through yesterday). This text also temporarily appears as a fixed page in the menu.
After this, I’ll stop waisting time on the critics. For now, here goes…

Some people love my views, talks and writings, while other people… not so much. Some people in the movement criticize me, not always fairly. Here are some criticisms and their honest answers. If you’re a rational person who has read my work or watched me speak, you might be amazed at these – but I can assure you each of them is real and gets thrown at me repeatedly.

Tobias is not a vegan
First off, I find it pretty horrible that part of our movement seems to feel a person is entirely discredited, their opinion worth null and void, if we can just show they are not vegan or as vegan as they “should” be.
That being said, I became a vegan in 1998. See next question for the things that don’t make me vegan in some people’s eyes. I believe the fact that some in our movement would reject me as a vegan, is very illustrative in itself of some problems in this movement.

Tobias encourages the exploitation of animals
This wilful and quite nasty misrepresentation is problably based on the fact that I think our results are more important than our rules, and that effects are more important than personal purity. This means, for myself:
– that I would eat a steak for a 100.000$, using that money to help animals (particularly if that steak is going to be thrown away anyway)
– that I would make small pragmatic exceptions if I think it would positively influence people’s perception of vegans and veganism. I feel I should sacrifice a minimum of personal purity if it can help animals.
– that I consider myself vegan even while giving wine the benefit of the doubt (if it doesn’t say it’s not vegan on the bottle, I’ll drink it)

Tobias tries to redefine veganism
I think there is value in having a clear and generally accepted definition of something, but I definitely think that the way some people try to define veganism (conveniently forgetting the room for some “flexibility” that the original definition offers) is extremely ineffective (unless you want a vegan club rather than a vegan world).

Tobias is paid by the government to say the things he says.
Of course I shouldn’t take this seriously at all, but well…
I’m quite proud of having co-founded and led, for a long time, the world’s first partially government funded organisation to promote vegan food (EVA, in Belgium). Right now, I have left EVA to work on my own, but EVA still gets about 30% of its funds from the government. It shows that EVA was able to demonstrate that we had a socially relevant mission. Never has our funding had any influence on our philosophy or approaches (although there are of course criteria for funding, like we have to be in adult education, have to be active nationwide and not just locally, etc).

Tobias uses ableist language
This refers to me having called some vegans crazy. When I used it, it is mostly in the sense of omnivores perceiving us as crazy.
It is typical of today’s social movements to try to accuse people we don’t agree with by finding things that we believe discredit them. Among a part of the audience, a person will be discredited if one can demonstrate that this person is “immoral” in the sense that they might have done or said something that is ableist, sexist, racist etc. For this reason, some critics will always be on the lookout for indications of said behaviour. I’ll just let this one pass. If people take offense at me having called vegans crazy then so be it. At no point was it my intention to make fun of people with a mental disability.

Tobias is a careerist
In the fifteen years since I co-founded the organisation I used to work for, I have worked for it more than fulltime for about ten years, while I have had a full time salary for exactly three months (some years I was paid 40 %; many years I worked entirely as a volunteer). Right now, I’m travelling all over Europe and writing without getting any money from that (although my travel costs are mostly reimbursed).
An example of a criticism:
““This seems like more in the long line of “look at me” self promotion from this reducetarian. It’s disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent “animal people” don’t see the emphasis this reducetarian has on self promotion in the lead up to his book being published. It’s always disappointing to see “animal people” using the movement to further their career and agendas with so little regard to the damage being done.”

Tobias doesn’t want a vegan world
Oh yes I do. I just believe there is room for different strategies, and that some strategies may be more effective than the ones that are used by some. I believe that getting as many people as possible to reduce is a faster way to tip the system than getting a small percent of the population to go vegan. To learn more about my views, watch this video.

Tobias criticizes other activists himself
I do, but 1. I try to be constructive in my criticism and 2. I mostly criticize people for criticizing others (like. e.g. Gary Francione does all the time), which doesn’t, in my view, put me on the same level. I try to speak out against the bullies – something that is really not done enough in our movement, because we are afraid of appearing divisive. But we should stand up to bullies.
In general though, I try to be really slow and thoughtful when I criticize people, and I’m in favour of slow opinion.

The dark side of our movement – responses to criticism

Many people like what I write. I’ve been getting lots of invitations to talk all over Europe and have been travelling quite frequently to spread a message of friendly and pragmatic vegan outreach.

From a few other people, I get criticism. Sometimes this criticism is constructive. Most of the time it is quite unfair and often it is very nasty.
It seems that activists who bring a different, less orthodox message than the vegan-is-the-moral-baseline one, are – at least to some people – fair game to be ridiculed, attacked, shamed and misrepresented. This is disconcerting and doesn’t bode well for our movement.

Just a few examples of the crap I’ve had to deal with lately – without naming any names. One person has published his own compilation of video fragments of my talks, with no sense of fairness, cutting off where he felt it was okay and interjecting the snippets with comments of his own. The same person has published his own secret recording of a podcast debate that the podcast organisers eventually decided not to publish. He has also secretly videotaped me answering his public demand for an apology, during a talk in Dublin, for using the words “crazy vegans”. He published his recording – in which I admitted to a few personal things, unaware of the fact that I was being recorded – on the web.

I recently left one forum, where I was continuously abused by some of the critics. The moderator couldn’t be bothered with interfering and has at times actually encouraged the bullying. I left the group. Since then, as people kept discussing and bashing me, a temporary cease-tobias-discussion was called for, but apparently to not much avail.

At a recent festival where I spoke, the organiser deemed it better to provide personal security for me (a bodyguard), which he now claims I asked for (when I asked if disruptions of talks, like what happened At the 2015 Luxemburg International Animal Right Conference, would be allowed). The organizer doesn’t agree with my views, but to his credit let me speak anyway. Since the talk though, the organizer – now very much influenced by “the abolitionist approach” – has behaved very unprofessionally towards me, saying I encourage people to exploit animals, and has stated he would no sooner invite me again as a speaker than someone from McDonald’s.

These people are supposed to care. They seem to want to phase out ableism, sexism, ageism etc, along with speciesism – which I support. But while doing that, they are behaving more unpleasantly than I imagine most ableists, sexists, racists or speciesists would behave. In any case, I can honestly say that in 17 years of activism, I never got this kind of nastiness from farmers or people in the animal abuse industry.

There is a person behind these blogs. A person who wants a vegan world (at least) as much as the next vegan. A person who at times feels hurt and sad at all these allegations and misrepresentations. I’ve had two serious burn-outs over the years, the last one quite recently. I guess I’m more resilient than most, and I can perfectly imagine that many committed people have given up on being active in the vegan movement after abuse like this. I’m afraid me giving up on activism is what these people are after. That is a very, very sad thought.

Frankly, I’m quite disgusted. I have blocked most of the people waging this vendetta against me, and though they keep popping up here and there, I am usually doing a pretty good job at ignoring them. I wrote this piece, and my response to their criticisms, as a way of explaining myself to people who might be tempted to believe any of their allegations.

If you appreciate what I do, you can help by sharing and promoting this blog, my Facebook page and video presentations. That way you can help me make up for some of the time I need to invest in replying to these ridiculous statements. And you can help bring more much needed pragmatism to our movement, and thus help animals. Thanks for your support! I’ll focus on the positive!

And if you have questions, feel free to ask them!

On criticizing other activists and organisations

It is true that different people or audiences will be touched by different things, and that hence we do need different approaches. Yet this is no excuse not to try to find out which approaches are better than others. Not all strategies, actions, communication styles… are equally effective. Also, because some approaches or actions may theoretically have a net negative effect for the animals (turning more people off than on, for instance), it should be totally okay to discuss strategies and look for the best ones. We have, as a movement, limited resources, and if we want to be effective for the animals, we need to do our best to find out what works well and what works less well. We should then invest most of our efforts in what works well.


That being said, when we discuss strategies, actions etc, I think it is good to keep some things in mind, so that when we talk about other people or groups, we are being constructive, even when we are critical. Here are some of the things that I think are important when discussing and criticizing each other’s work (note: I am not claiming I always stick to these principles – sometimes I get carried away).

Be aware that there are real people behind whatever you are criticizing
No matter how much you hate a certain opinion, campaign or whatever… the people behind it are probably well meaning individuals whose main concern is helping the animals. Even if that’s not always true, it is probably better to assume it is. People can be hurt. Especially criticism from people who are on your side of the fence (working also to save animals) can be painful. I am sure criticism can contribute to burnout, and we definitely don’t want people to burn out and leave the movement.

Be a slow opinionist
I’m in favor of slow opinion. It means trying to be thorough before you come to a conclusion. It means being aware of the fact that you never have all the information and that you don’t know everything. It means being aware of the fact that you may have (indeed probably have) some blind spots. Slow opinion also means that you can have no opinion on something for a while, or even forever. Slow opinion obviously also means that you do your research and read and try to get to know the other person’s or organisation’s stance before you criticize them. You may want to ask about it in private first. Slow opinion means that questions are better than statements.

Think twice before criticizing organizations
Animal rights organizations get a lot of flack especially from the “grassroots” part of our movement. Organizations should definitely be examined critically, but don’t be too fast. It’s always good to realize that organizations might have different concerns than individuals: they need to keep more stakeholders in mind, they need to be concerned (yes, they do) about their public image, about relationships with all kinds of partners including businesses, other NGOs and governments. Know that your information on why they do what they do may still be incomplete. Maybe they can’t communicate everything they believe or know, for strategic reasons.

Be civil
Being civil is not just a matter of being respectful to people, but also of being effective. Whatever is not voiced in a calm, polite, reasonable way has a lot more chance of falling on deaf ears. That’s not productive. It’s a waste of time. Being civil helps us make progress faster.
Being civil also includes being honest. Don’t say things that you know are not true, don’t change words, make stuff up or exaggerate things.

Be aware of the medium you are using
If you write on social media (which most of us do nowadays) be aware of the limits of the medium. Watch out for your own biases, prejudices, projections etc. that might influence the way you read what other people write. Often they are not as angry or mean as you are imagining. It’s always a good idea to take a few deep breaths, or wait a while before you respond to a post on social media.

Don’t be afraid of changing your opinion or position
It’s ok to change your view as you are thinking things through or new information becomes available to you. Don’t be stubborn. It’s not about being right, it’s about finding out what works. Don’t be afraid to admit when you were wrong.

Only criticize in public when it has added value
Real criticism is best done in private. It is not automatically wrong to express critical views in public, but be aware of the risks. You might be helping the spreading of rumors or things that are simply not true.

Keep in mind that criticism often just does not work
In his timeless classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie warns us to be very careful with criticism. Let’s finish with a quote by him:

“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Any other points? Let me know…