The right strategy at the right time

Red and White target with three arrowThere are endless discussions about which strategies (actions, approaches) are the best for animal liberation (as well as for any other social issue). Many people answer the question as follows: we need a bit of everything. That’s certainly true to a certain extent. Different individuals and different groups of people may require separate approaches. Still, it is not an excuse to avoid the strategy debate altogether. As we have limited means, it is worth trying to find the most efficient strategy. Also, while some strategies may be succesful in attracting certain people, we always need to take into account the amount of people the strategy might possibly turn off.

The point I want to make here though, is that which strategies to use is also a matter of timing. I mean: the time in the history of our movement. I can very well imagine that any strategy may be the best strategy at some point in time. Let me make this more concrete. I do not think this is the best time to go out and shout “meat is murder” and accuse people who eat meat and make them feel guilty. But at some point in the future, when vegetarian eating is much closer to being the norm, it might very well be. Just like today everyone should feel comfortable in calling out racism when they see it.

We’re not there yet. Too many people are still eating animals for society to support true radicalism (let’s not bickle about how we will define the term). We are still too dependent on our use of animals. That’s why I think a good strategy in this phase of our movement is to try to decrease our dependence on animals. A great example is what Hampton Creek foods does in coming up with substitutes for eggs and egg products. They are close to developping the perfect product, marketable because it’s cheaper, healthier, more convenenient than chicken eggs. Imagine how, at that point when there’s no longer much interest in using real eggs, the openness to talk about the rights of chickens – now to most still an absurdity – would grow.

It’s easy to be a philosopher and say true things about the rights of animals. It’s much harder to do the right things at the right time and to truly make a difference. That, indeed, is the art of activsm.

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.

Why I’m openly criticizing Francione (final post)

Some people asked me why I’m criticizing Francione (and the franciobots) like this, and are telling me I’m making the same mistake he does: going against people who basically have the same purpose.  Or they are saying that it is a waste of time and energy. In part, these are sound objections, and I’m sure part of me is driven by some amount of frustration – rarely a productive emotion – by what I see happening.

You see, I feel it had to be done.

I feel that there is not enough criticism of Francione’s approach and his behaviour out there. Maybe it is because the organisations and individuals he targets are more civilized than he is (and than I am, apparently). Maybe they don’t want the movement to seem even more divided than it already is. And undoubtedly, they are investing their time in things that are more effective.

But I feel that especially new activists, when falling for Francione’s tirades about how awful and ineffective animal rights organisations are, should be able to hear some other voices too. These few posts are my modest contribution to the body of material critical of Francione and those who mindlessly follow him in his negativiy. And if especially the post on the Rise of the franciobots may be seen as slighly rude towards some people, I hope it gives those same people an impression of what it is to be on the receiving end of criticism.

I do not think that Francione is all bad. Like I said, his books have their merits, and if put to good use, he has the charisma and eloquence to do real good in this world. And personally I support his stance against violent tactics. But there’s so many buts. The way he maintains and widely publishes that organisations are counterproductive and that their staff have sold out, the way he opposes all welfare reforms, the way he personally attacks people and groups, the way he has everyone blocked from his Facebook who disagrees with him (go ahead, try!), the way he even tries to block speakers from conferences… Those are all things that I think cannot and should not be condoned. I feel I should not tolerate that kind of intolerance.

Anyway, I’m finishing this series of posts here, because indeed, there are more productive and peaceful things to focus on. But I’ll finish with expressing some hopes…

mapI hope that activists can see that rather than betraying the vegan message and selling out to the industry, most organisations are pragmatic and strategic (rather than overly ideological and purist, like Francione is), and this is nothing to blame them for. Quite the contrary. Maybe the animal industry’s response to, for instance, HSUS is an indication. Francione, on the other hand, does not even feature on this map the meat industry puts together.

I hope that activists can take note of how damaging the divisive attitude of Francione is, and how the industry profits from it.

I hope we can all believe in each other’s good intentions, in spite of differences in approach.

I hope that, even when people don’t actively support them, they at least stop opposing welfare reforms

And I hope, most of all, that someday we can be the united, undivided movement that the animals need and deserve.


In case you want to read more, here’s just a small selection of resources critical of Francione:

On the road to liberation: scroll down to the very bottom, to the related posts

Suppremacy Myth

Ok then, Francione (see also the links under the article)

Science weighs in at last (by the late Norm Phelps)

Banned by fellow vegans

Vegan activism and the effectiveness of the abolitionist approach

Or read how Francione even fights with The Abolitionist Vegan Society here and here

I used to be a Francione fan (on Gary Francione and “abolitionists”, part 2)

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

Though Gary Francione has written a few books – which have their merits – he has mainly made a name for himself by criticizing animal rights organisations. Virtually no organisation, in his eyes, seems to deliver a net benefit for the animals. One could wonder: where is the appeal in this kind of message?

GLF list

Actually, I do understand the appeal of Francione’s message. More than that: I used to be a fan, back in 1997, when I first started with animal rights activism. I was writing my thesis about the human-animal relationship and got really enthusiastic about Francione’s book Rain without Thunder. And I was shocked: wow, this guy was the real deal, and lots of other public animal rights activists and organisations were actually betraying the cause of abolitionism, right? Now here was a man whose message was pure; here was somebody with a clear aim, who wouldn’t take anything less than total animal liberation for an answer. Yes, this was going to be a message that a lot of people wouldn’t want to hear, but… you can’t have rain without thunder, right?

I remember bringing this book up, very enthusiasticallly, to a leader of the animal rights movement in my country, Belgium. He didn’t react very positively to my enthusiasm. At that moment I wondered why, but I forgot about it. For some time, I remained under the illusion that Francione was right, and that all the others were selling out, leading us astray from our true cause.

It seems to be how today’s Francione fans think and act. They are raging against all kinds of groups, uncritically taking Francione’s words for true, believing that PETA, FARM, Mercy For Animals, the Vegan Society in the UK… have all sold out.

To those who believe that, I would say: talk to the really dedicated people in these organisations. Is it credible that those who put their lives in the service of the animals, some of whom started decades ago, and who have not eaten animal products for ages, and who have had a huge impact in creating awareness about veganism and animal rights… is it credible that those people have actually sold out? Is it credible that all of a sudden they have all become reformists or welfarists? Is it credible that they’re actually not thinking about strategy? Is it credible that they’re all less intelligent than you and Gary Francione?

So that’s the conclusion I reached myself, after a while. I talked to people in the movement. I started to see things from the perspective of the people we want to reach, instead of just adhering to dogma I heard again and again. So I no longer went along with Francione. I try not to doubt people’s good intentions, so although it requires quite a stretch for me, I try to still assume Francione is doing what he’s doing with the best intentions, out of compassion for animals, and that he actually believes what he says and preaches. And I want to believe the same about the people who follow him.

But I have moved on, and I hope my posts on this topic can help some followers of Francione to start thinking critically about his approach. 

Basically, if you’re an animal rights activist, this is a trajectory you might go through:

Phase 1: you discover animal rights, maybe through one of the organisations. You get into it deeper.
Phase 2: you discover Francione or the abolitionist approach. You think you’d do better to be very critical of the organisations you thought were good and interesting and effective.
Phase 3: you get over Francione and the abolitionist approach, see it for what it is, and you know that by supporting the work of most animal rights organisations, you are indeed contributing to abolitionism, only in a much more pragmatic and effective way than by adhering to Francionite dogma.

Back to Rain without thunder
Think about that title for a minute, and think of how often you see rain without thunder…?

Right: all the time.

Thinking is vegan. It’s allowed, you know.

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.

On being right versus winning

People who want to make the world a better place and adhere to a certain ideology often tend to have a lot of (sometimes heated) discussions. Through discussions and arguments, they want to show the other party that they are wrong and should change their ways. Vegetarians/vegans/animal rights activists are particularly prone to do so.

I have always held that trying to convince another person of something is not a crime. It *is* however, an art. If you believe in something that something is good, and you have rational arguments to back it up, you have every right to try to make another person see your point of view and to try to change him or her in your direction (of course, we are not talking about coercion or manipulation). The core of the issue is doing it in an effective way.

I would like to touch on a distinction between three different things here: being right, winning an argument, and winning.

  • being right: this is when you either believe you are objectively right, or actually are objectively right – there’s not that much difference. Being right has no real effect in terms of what you want to achieve. I.e. you may be right in thinking that eating animals is murder, but if another person doesn’t agree, it doesn’t have much effect.
  • winning an argument happens when someone else says you are right. It may have an effect, but not necessarily so. Don’t think that when another person admits defeat in an argument, you are necessarily achieving something except an ego-boost. In fact, the opposite might be happening. An expression from sales is “win an argument, lose a customer”. Maybe the other person admits defeat, but it may make him even less sympathetic towards you or the cause you defend.
  • winning: winning happens when you are actually achieving the results you want to achieve. You may need to do some digging for that. You have to check whether the new behaviour of the other (which you have helped set in motion) is actually making a diffence, e.g. for animals. If that happens, then not just you but everyone wins.

Try not to be right, try not to win arguments. Just try to win!

Letter to a new vegan

This is an entry I wrote for someone’s book project called Letters to a new vegan. In those letters, the writers tell new vegans the most important things they would have liked to know themselves as new vegans.

Dear new vegan,

Congratulations on your choice for compassion. In case you’re interested in some advice from a long time vegan, here’s a couple of things…

I’m assuming you haven’t made this choice just for yourself, but did it because you believe in a better world. And I think you already know that the big win for this world is not just you going vegan, but also how many other people you may be a shining example for. So that they in their turn will see that there are better ways of feeding ourselves than raising and killing animals. It’s all in the numbers, you know. Most people eat meat because most people eat meat. So the more there are of us, the easier it will be to get even more. It’s about critical mass. And it’s where you come in.

encourage not judge

You see, just you being a vegan is enough to make people in your presence uncomfortable. You don’t even have to open your mouth. If you want them to follow your example (and like I said, I’m assuming you do) then you have to – pardon the expression – walk on eggshells. You have to be very careful and diplomatic, because you don’t want to turn people off: you want to attract them.

So lead them gently. Smile, joke, cook, tell stories, be an example, and be sincere and honest about it all. Don’t preach (like I’m doing to you now), blame or judge, because for most people, that doesn’t help (even if it may have done something for you).

Do not expect anything from people, and certainly don’t expect them to go all the way, right away. Don’t expect them to also throw out all their leather shoes and belts, their woollen sweaters and whatnot. Allow them to have their own reasons for changing, don’t expect them to have the same reasons you have. And don’t – oh please don’t – tell them they can’t call themselves a vegan if they don’t stick to all the rules.

People may start out on the road to veganism and compassion for other reasons than veganism or compassion. They may start eating vegan because of peer pressure, because of health concerns, because of a loved one, because of no matter what. But the important thing is, once they are on that road, once they realize that eating vegan is tastier, easier, more doable than they thought it was, their defenses against the veganism start to crumble. Their hearts and minds open up to the ethical arguments, and they may, finally, get where you always wished they were.

Now, I think your part in this process is to encourage every step, no matter how small, no matter the reason. It is our encouragement and not our judgement that will help others go further. Hardly any one of us arrives at the end point with one single step. As vegans too, we still have an incredible lot to learn. Patience, understanding and compassion, both for others and for ourselves, will get us where we want the world to be.

So be patient, be compassionate, and have some faith in people. Trust that everyone will find their way. It is not easy today, and someone, like you, who goes vegan, still needs to have lots of motivation to go against the stream. But it will become easier and easier still, until veganism is the norm, until people will have no problem hearing and thinking about all these animal rights arguments. And then, before we know it, some day, researchers will write PhD’s wondering how our present treatment of animals could ever have been possible at all.

Till then, do your work.

All the best