I shouldn’t have to write this: on Veganuary-bashing

I’m going to do something stupid in this post, maybe. I’m going to give more exposure to an article that should never have been written.

The article is titled The Annual Veganuary Fail (you can find it with Google, unfortunately). It criticizes (an understatement) the wonderful Veganuary campaign. Veganuary, as you may know, is about getting people to try vegan for a month, and see where that takes them.

The article is the stuff that I usually try to ignore. However, it contains so many arguments that pop up again and again especially among newly minted vegans who believe in Gary Francione’s “abolitionist approach”, and the Unified Theory of Everything that I thought it was valuable to share some thoughts. Furthermore, I know the Veganuary organizers personally. They’re great people, and I think it’s good to speak up when great people are attacked or misrepresented (and I think we’re not standing up enough against this kind of bashing).

The original text is in bold, while my brief thoughts (I’m being selective and I’m trying to stay polite) are below it. Here and there, I will link to other posts of mine, in case you’re interested in reading more thoughts. Oh, and you may notice how I get a bit exasperated and exhausted near the end.

So, take a deep breath; here we go.

pig veganuary

 

The Annual Veganuary Fail

Original article: It’s getting to the time of year again when Veganuary start their fundraising campaign for January. If you’re unaware of who Veganuary are, the quick explanation is that they’re a charity that fundraises off the back of trying to get people to go vegan – for a month.

My comments: Now this is a pretty bad start. It is a very uncharitable and disingenuous description of Veganuary. If we differ in opinion about tactics, I suggest that we at least start from the idea that we have the same intentions and ambitions. We all want to help animals. There’s no need to imply that people who use tactics we don’t agree with are money-grabbers.

You may be thinking “great, an organisation that takes veganism seriously for once.” I hate to burst your bubble but, if that’s what you’re thinking – you would be wrong.

Telling people they are wrong – especially with this much conviction when we’re certain of so little – is rarely the most productive way of advancing mutual understanding. 

On a fundamental level, the mere concept of Veganuary itself is a rejection of fundamental nonhuman rights.

Note how the word “fundamental” occurs twice in one sentence…

Think about it for a second. They’re not informing people about why as a matter of fundamental morality we need to be vegan, they’re asking people to make what is nothing more than a personal choice decision.

First of all, I’m not sure how the author arrives at this impression from the Veganuary campaign. If you go to the “why” section on the Veganuary website, the first reason listed is “animals”: “Animals are able to perceive and feel, and experience pain and happiness just as we do. Production of food and clothing causes them to suffer in innumerable ways.” I’m hard put to see this as presenting people with “nothing more than a personal choice decision.

Secondly: whatever works. It’s a very common theme among some animal advocates to insist on the moral argument, and on being “crystal clear” that others have an ethical duty, a moral obligation, to go vegan. Even if that were true, presenting things as an obligation, and telling people they have to do things for the reasons that we want them to have is a recipe for failure. People don’t like obligations. They’re very unattractive. Presenting something as a moral duty is the kind of preaching that many people are allergic to. Presenting things as a choice is much more appealing. The Veganuary people know this, and are applying that knowledge. They are only bound by what works (even if it’s not always easy to find out what that is).

It’s a gimmick and an insult to the vulnerable victims of non-veganism. It’s the animal equivalent of “Movember” where some men decide to grow a moustache to help people with certain forms of cancer or mental health issues. The difference is that the latter doesn’t involve fundamental rights violations and so therefore will not be harmed by gimmicks; the former does involve fundamental rights violations – via our treating sentient beings as resources – and so relegating the issue to one of personal choice in the form of a 1-month trial is a denial of the very real exploitation that occurs on account of non-veganism.

Why would Veganuary be an insult to the animals? Why would it involve “fundamental [here we go again] rights violations”? Just because Veganuary doesn’t play the moral obligation card enough? Enough with the demagoguery already!

If you’re not with me so far…

I’m afraid I’m not. But let’s continue anyway, for the heck of it.

… consider how you might feel if we relegated other forms of fundamental rights violations to 1-month a year gimmicks. What about “Feminibruary,” where for the month of February we ask rapists to make the personal choice to stop raping women for that month? Outrageous! Preposterous!… you may think – but it’s okay. If we steal Veganuary’s logic, we’ll have “reduced the suffering” of women by “inspiring and supporting people across the globe” to not rape in February. Wonderful! We’ve provided absolutely no information about why people shouldn’t rape in the first place, but we’ve made a lot of money off the back of fundraising, and made the rapists feel better in that month for “reducing the suffering” of women.

What’s outrageous and preposterous is this eternal and absurd comparison of eating animal products with rape. It doesn’t make any sense to compare something which 99% of the population condemns (rape) with something which 99% of the population actively celebrates (eating animal products). Even if you think that something isn’t any less wrong when everyone does it, at least you may want to consider that such completely different situations may require different strategies and ways of communicating about them.
It’s amazing how often I see this argument turn up, with the people explaining it believing they are so, so right, while I think they are so, so… misguided. (Posts that I have written about this topic: On comparing animal rights with other social justice causes and Is asking for baby steps speciesist? and Slavery Free Mondays.)

To the extent that Veganuary would find my “Feminibruary” idea offensive but think that Veganuary as a concept is just dandy – they engage in outright speciesism. By portraying veganism as some month-long trial, a personal choice, a way to “reduce suffering” (hello welfarists, I’m looking at you), they effectively deny the existence of fundamental nonhuman interests in life and serve to perpetuate the very same speciesism that feeds non-veganism in the first place.

First of all, it’s so easy to throw the accusation of speciesism out there. Following the author here – and continuing with his analogy – it would seem that it would be speciesist to not physically attack people in slaughterhouses, supermarkets or restaurants for processing, buying or eating meat, because if we saw a rape happening, we’d also jump up and try to stop it and beat up or punish the rapists, right? (See my post When the term “speciesism” gets overused.)

Furthermore, I’m not sure how anyone can say that Veganuary “effectively denies the existence of nonhuman interests.” Veganuary is a campaign by a couple of people who care a lot about animals and who have even invested a lot of their own resources in this project. They do that exactly because they believe animals have interests. They do what they do to get as many people on the vegan wagon, through whatever arguments and tactics work. They use a proven and psychologically sound strategy: trying on something for size, without any commitment for the long term, is something way less scary for people than a lifetime commitment, which as we know, most people don’t want to make right away (see Why Veganuary is a great campaign and The imperfect veganism of Erza Klein).

We are offended by a concept such as “Feminibruary” because it is relegating the fundamental rights of women – to bodily integrity, to not be made to suffer, to not have their interest in life denied, to not be used as a resource – to nothing more than a month-long personal choice for those who readily engage in the exploitation of women. It is saying that the personal choices of those who engage in that exploitation matter more than the rights of the victims. It’s saying that the exploitation of women is not a fundamental matter of morality.

So again, what the author seems to be saying is that we have to tell people that they are under an obligation to feel and do as we vegans do; otherwise, they are fundamentally infringing on animals’ rights. I don’t think such a message works very well, but if you want to try it, go ahead, but at least don’t attack other people for using another message. And maybe stop ranting at campaigners like the Veganuary folks about how they are just into raising money, as well as being unethical for other reasons. 

Veganuary is no different in concept to my “Feminibruary” idea. Animals too, are sentient beings, with fundamental interests in not suffering and continuing to live. Their exploitation is every bit a matter of fundamental morality as the exploitation of any other sentient being with those similar interests. It makes no difference whether they’re human or nonhuman – all sentient beings are equal when it comes to being used as resources. The existence of Veganuary as a concept alone, is a denial of this, and so before we even consider the content of their fundraising, they’re perpetuating speciesism.

I think the author, me, the readers, and the Veganuary people all agree about the exploitation of animals being a matter of “fundamental morality.” Again, that is exactly what Veganuary is all about. As the stakes are very high, and as we understand the incredible suffering and injustice that is happening, we need to do something about it. And what we do should be based on what we believe or know works, not just on a theory or an approach invented by some professor or other. Veganuary isn’t a denial of anything. Or maybe it’s a denial of the dogma that we have an ethical obligation to present veganism as an ethical obligation, instead of doing what works.

Things get even more messy when we delve into the actual content. They claim to want to “reduce the suffering of animals while making veganism more appealing to the mainstream.” By focusing on “reducing suffering” alone they are embracing welfarist ideology. Most likely that of “the father,” Peter Singer, who maintains that because the animals we exploit lack more sophisticated human-like cognition, they don’t have an
interest in continuing to live – they only have an interest in not suffering.

Reducing suffering is a different approach from asking for animal rights. Both approaches may have their strong points, and this is an area where we could be open and curious about each other’s viewpoints and philosophy, rather than just saying the other side is wrong. Both a consequentialist and a deontological view can be respectable (although my money is on the former). What’s not respectable is to be dogmatic about what ideology we should use. And yes, while we’re at it, why not bash Peter Singer a bit: a man who has done more than almost anyone in the world to raise awareness about animal ethics. Makes a lot of sense.

The perpetuation of this false ideology is just another string to the bow of speciesism that Veganuary have aimed at the non-vegan public. They intend to let their arrows of confusion fly around the London underground this year where they aim to have 50,000 people partake in not raping… whoops, sorry, thought I was talking about Feminibruary again for a moment. Ahem – where they aim to have 50,000 people being “vegan” – for a month. No education as to why people should be vegan for life, just like we should always respect the fundamental rights of other humans and, you know, not rape them… ever. Just asking people to be vegan for a month for no apparent reason other than to “reduce suffering,” and they believe this will somehow make veganism “more mainstream.” Because, of course, as you know, animals don’t care that we’re killing them by the trillions every year for no good reason.

Someone fills the London underground with vegan posters, and we’re gonna complain and compare this to an appeal to temporarily stop raping. I leave it to you to assess the absurdity here for yourself.

Of course, Veganuary can help make veganism more mainstream. There is no evidence that telling people that they HAVE TO BE VEGAN FOR LIFE! works better than an approach where you tell them to try it out for a month and guide them along with daily mails, recipes, etc. But of course, there is the dogma: the “abolitionists” appear to believe that even if something else would work better, they still wouldn’t be ethically allowed to campaign that way. Following Francione-dogma trumps achieving results, apparently.

Animals just want to suffer a little bit less in January. That’s all they want – how silly of me to think they need more from us than that. My bad, Veganuary. But hey, it’s cool if you don’t want to go vegan in January anyway – It’s your personal choice to decide whether you want to engage in rights violations that month, right?

Pleeeeease, you’re killing me…

I mean, you’ve been given no real reason to take it seriously. Those rights violations would need to be made more “mainstream” in order for you to take them seriously, right? Whether or not you choose to observe a woman’s right not to be used as a resource in February is no different to whether or not you decide to give up drinking in October – damn it, I did it again didn’t I? Let me start over. Whether or not you choose rape women in February is no more a matter of your moral concern than whether you decide to go alcohol- free in October to “reduce the suffering” of your liver, right? – wait, I know. I know. I’ve done it again. I’ve confused one gimmick concerning the fundamental rights of a sentient being for another.

So many disingenuous, strawman arguments and so much absurdity here that I’ll leave this paragraph to you.

Obviously, I’m being facetious. What can I say? I’m sorry. I have a habit for doing that. What I really want to say is – Veganuary. Cut the crap.

I agree with “Cut the crap.”

Take the fundamental rights of animals seriously and use the zillions you’ve raised through fundraising over the years to actually do some real vegan education and educate – yourselves for starters – and then the non-vegan public. Educate about why we need to go vegan and stay vegan in recognition of the fundamental right all sentient beings possess not to be used as a resource. Educate about the nonhuman interest in continuing to live that we deny even exists through our “personal choice” to exploit them.

Zillions through fundraising. Sure. Let’s get more concrete. I checked with the Veganuary team. The campaign has been run for 12 months on around £70,000. The London Underground campaign was crowdfunded and raised around £30K more. Matthew and Jane, the initiators, work for free and told me they will never earn an income from Veganuary – in fact, they’ve put in around £200K of their own money since the start, and live in a small rented home. There are three other members of staff who are now paid very humble salaries – far less than they could earn outside of animal advocacy.

And we must recognize this, not just for January (what kind of insult is that anyway?) – but for life. That is the very least we owe animals. Just as recognition of fundamental rights is the very least we owe other humans.

Again, good luck telling people they have to go vegan for life. Again: is it more important to stick to one’s rules and ideology than to have actual results for animals? I know, I’m starting to repeat myself…

But wait – I’m getting carried away again aren’t I. You’re not going to do that, because you can’t fundraise as effectively from the truth as opposed to something as ambiguous as “reducing suffering.” You won’t make as much cash. It’s not “mainstream” enough – how very sad.

And once again, here’s the nasty implication that the Veganuary people are in it for the money. Deplorable. Really.

I can hear the protests already – “we’re effective, that’s all that matters!”
Effective at what? Perpetuating the age-old idea that animals don’t care about continuing to live? Perpetuating the idea that concern for the rights of animals is not a matter of fundamental morality but a matter of personal choice? A gimmick that one can partake in over a trial period with no real idea as to why? Yeah. Congratulations – I’m setting off party poppers right now in celebration.

If people try Veganuary for a month, many of them will get familiarized with the ethical problems of eating animal products. Moreover, they hopefully will have experienced that vegan food can be tasty, doable, affordable and convenient. That may make their hearts and minds more open to the ethical arguments. Attitude change often follows behavior change rather than preceding it. (See also Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement.)

Lets raise a glass and toast Veganuary for never failing to hit the final nail in the river-coffin that sends every animal down the waterfall and into the hands of corporate welfarism. Lets toast the perpetuation of denied personhood in favour of human supremacy and personal choice.

Oh boy. Can we finish already? I can’t take this anymore.

Way to go. This has to stop.

I’d love it if some things would stop. What has to stop is cruelty to animals, animal suffering, killing animals, injustice. Whatever you want to call it. We’re all in the same boat and on the same page here, I think. But what I’d love to stop also are articles like this, criticizing well-meaning, smart, committed and authentic advocates.

Articles like this are what following Francione-dogma leads to. If you believe you’re influenced by the theories of Gary Francione, think about them again. Keep an open mind. Know that nothing in life is black and white. Follow the evidence where it goes instead of just accepting and repeating the dogma. Know that our work is not about building and following a consistent grand theory of everything, but about having a positive impact for animals in the real world.

p.s. – Inevitably some people will tell me either that I’m wasting my time, or that I’m just continuing the bashing, or that I’m giving more attention to something that shouldn’t get any attention. You can read my motivation for speaking out here.

Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

In the vegan movement, there is a big difference of opinion regarding the ideal message we put in front of people. Some of use believe the only thing we can ask of people is that they “go vegan.” Others believe that – at least in certain cases – it is better to ask people to take certain, easier steps. Such steps could be to participate in Meatless Monday, to become a reducetarian, or to commit to being vegan for a certain amount of time (e.g. during “Veganuary”) and see where it takes them.

steps

 

Those in favor of an “incremental” approach support it because they believe it’s more effective, as a lot of research shows that change happens in small steps. Those against the incremental approach oppose it because they consider it basically speciesist: we would find it immoral – their reasoning goes – to use the same messaging in the case of people. We would, for instance, never ask a child abuser not to abuse children just on Monday. Neither would we support him if he committed to not abuse children for a month.

As I have written before, the logic of the critics of the incremental approach is hard to follow, for me personally. I believe we are comparing apples and oranges. While eating animals is not just condoned but is actively celebrated by say 97% of the population, child abuse and rape are illegal. Such different situations call for different strategies. I have spelled out this argument more in the posts Slavery Free Mondays and On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues.

Now here’s another argument for incrementalism: we actually at times do apply it in the case of people, and it does not seem to be unethical. Let me take you to Boston in 2006. In an effort to reduce the appallingly high homicide rate among gangs, reverend Jeffrey Brown developed “Operation Ceasefire,” which resulted in a drastic decrease in casualties. Brown’s strategy entailed working together with pivotal gang members, and confronting them with very concrete consequences, both positive and negative, of what they allow to occur. But there is one other thing that is of particular interest here. When Brown talked to a gang member about ceasing the gunfights and the violence, he got an interesting reaction: 

… “what the youth said in response to that was that you’re not going to be able to get us to do that cold turkey,” Jeffrey said. “So why don’t you start with a period of time, like a ceasefire? So we created that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and we called it season of peace. They gave us the directions for what to do, you know?
“I had them in a room, and I made the pitch for the season of peace and asked for their approval. And that’s when I got my first indication that this might work, because a young guy gets up, and he says, ‘All right, so do we stop shooting at midnight on Wednesday night? Or do we stop on Thanksgiving morning? And do we start shooting again on December thirty-first or on January first?’
“And it was a conflict for me,” Jeffrey said, “because I was like, ‘I don’t want you to start shooting at all.’ But I said, ‘Okay, you stop shooting Wednesday night and you can start again after New Year’s Day.’ Now, you know, ethically I was like, ‘I can’t believe you told them they could start shooting after the first of the year.’ (…)*

Guess what: it worked. What Brown, despite his hesitation, was trying to do was “to get them to establish peace and give them a sense of what it’s like to be able to go into a neighborhood and not have to look over your shoulder every five seconds.” In other words, Brown wanted people to have a certain positive experience, which might motivate them to continue it.

The same thing apparently happened during the Olympic Games in ancient Greece: the olympic truce meant that war was temporarily suspended for the duration of the Games, a practice that was taken over by the modern Olympics.

It’s easy to see the pragmatic value of working with incremental messages and small asks: people find it easier to take small steps than big ones. If, however, you object against incrementalism on principled grounds (and I repeat that I think comparisons with human situations are often unproductive and should be made carefully), you may want to think about Jeffrey Brown and his experiment with gangs. Brown’s experiment shows that we use incremental approaches in the case of human violence too. Was Brown’s strategy immoral? I, for one, don’t think so.

* from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges – Amy Cuddy