What can we learn from research on ex-vegetarians?

Recent, extensive research by the Faunalytics (they are celebrating 15 years, go support them!) has indicated that in the US, only one in five new vegetarians or vegans maintains the diet. Put another way, 84% of vegetarians/vegans revert back to eating meat or other animal products.

First of all, while this may seem appalling news at first sight, I think it is actually not. It means that there is a much bigger potential for veg*ism than the few percentages we have right now. It means that so many more people have considered or may consider going veg*n. It means that if we manage to take some barriers away, there is enormous growth potential for the movement. Look at it like this: if all people who started on a veg*n diet, stuck to it, we would already have the necessary critical mass!

Secondly, about motivations.The fact that current vegetarians check “animal protection” as reason to be vegetarian a lot more than ex-vegetarians (68% vs 27%) makes some people (among whom Matt Ball) conclude that “altruistic” reasons provide the most “staying power”. Health as motivator in particular, according to this interpretation, would hence not be a good argument to communicate about in our outreach. I think this is might be a wrong conclusion to take away from the research. At the very least, I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation.

If we want veg*ism to have more staying power, it is undoubtedly beneficial to make sure people have solid motivations, which make them less likely to stray from their vegan path. Ethical motivations, in that sense, seem more solid. And virtually the only reason to consistently stick to a vegetarian/vegan diet, is because one believes animals shouldn’t be eaten (any other argument would have no problem with at least a very low consumption of animal products). However, there are different ways of making it easier for veg*ns to stay veg*n. One of them is increasing their motivation, another one is tackling the environment in which they move. Sure, if we can add one or two veg*ns in their environment (especially in their family or among their colleagues) that will help. But making the environment generally more understanding and more accommodating to veg*ns doesn’t require that they become veg*n themselves, and is probably a much faster way. And for that – to make veg*ism more mainstream –  health seems to be a motivator that can convince more people.

Some other doubts I have about the interpretation that HRC research tells us we should focus on ethical motivations, particularly animals:

  • if I’m correct, we cannot interpret from the data what people’s initial motivation was for going veg, vs. what their present motivation is. It may very well be (as indeed some research seems to indicate) that many people evolve from health motivations to ethical motivations. What if health motivations and health communication would be more suitable to attract people initially? If this were the case, the argument for focusing on animals in all our communication doesn’t hold up. On the contrary.
  • there may be a kind of self selection in the respondents at work, where ethically (esp. animal rights) motivated people are more easily drawn to respond, and where they might be more prone to give certain answers
  • we need also to take into account if recidivists go back to eating meat like before, or whether they may be still mostly veg*n, say eating veg like 6 days a week. Big masses of people like that make a big difference. Even if health vegetarians wouldn’t stick to their diet consistently but stuck mostly to it, and we could easily “make” more health vegetarians, this would be an argument in favor of health communication. Likewise, to get a good idea of everything, we would need the years that people have been veg*n into account.
  • a real cause for concern would be, however, that ex veg*ns become bad spokespeople for veg*ism

It’s all good and well to say that people should be motivated by ethical reasons, but that doesn’t mean they easily will be. It seems to me common sense – and is repeated in much of the change literature I come across – that it is more productive to formulate our message in a way that it connects to values that people already have (health, environment), instead of trying to get them adopt the values we would like them to have. We will make faster progress mainstreaming the veg*n idea, without necessarily bumping up the number of vegans, but drastically reducing meat consumption and increasing veg*n offers in restaurants and stores. The change in society this will cause will make it easier for everyone to be a full time veg*n.

One of the things I see being repeated again, and which I think is a big mistake, is the emphasis on the number of veg*ns, rather than on the number of veg*n meals being eaten. The second is a lot more important than the former, not only because in absolute numbers it can have a bigger effect on animal suffering, but also because in this stage in the history of our movement –  it is probably both easier and more beneficial to rapidly increase the number of veg*n meals being eaten than the number of veg*ns. This is the incrementalism that HRC also stresses in their conclusions: “the latest findings once again show that a message focused on reduction instead of elimination of animal products may be more effective to create an overall decline in animal product consumption.”

Something else I was very happy to read in HRC’s conclusions was the importance of our attention to the how. I think veg activism should focus on facilitation and lowering the barriers, rather than on convincing people why they should be veg*n.

Another lesson, in my humble opinion is: preaching to the choir is not to be underestimated. Organizing potlucks among vegans is sometimes frowned upon by ‘real’ activists who are out there in the streets. I think these results indicate something else. Giving each other support is majorly important.

In any case, we can not be in denial. I’ve seen animal rights activists be very quick to respond with statements like: we know better, for us it’s not a phase. Of course it’s not a phase for some, but apparently for a majority, it is. Let’s take away the barriers.

On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues

VGKids Sticker TemplateVegans and animal rights activists often draw comparisons between the animal rights movement and other social justice movements, like the anti-slavery campaigns, women’s liberation etc.

While often these comparisons are good illustrations to make people see certain things or think about animals in a different light, I think at the same time we have to be careful with them and not only see the similarities, but also the differences.

I think there’s a particular problem when peoeple use the parallel with human causes to justify NOT fighting for incremental improvements.

This is how it goes:
A pragmatic activist says that he’s in favor of certain reform regulations, such as a ban on unanesthetized castration of piglets. Others (Francione and his “abolitionist” followers, for instance) might counter with something like this (this is an actual quote from someone):

Would anyone advocate for the regulation of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.

The same people may make arguments like: we would never campaign for “humane rape”, and: it’s not ok to just have wife beating-free wednesdays (referring to Meatless Mondays)

I think the comparison here is very shaky at best (and that is putting it mildly). Child sex slavery, rape, or beating your wife are things which 99% of people will disapprove of. Killing animals for food is something at most a few percentage of the population disapproves of and the rest not just condones but actually celebrates. Obviously, issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies.

In general, I think we should be careful with drawing parallels between the animal issue and other (human) social struggles. Let’s not lose sight of the differences which are relevant. When we do lose sight of them, it may blind us and we may believe we could apply exactly the same tactics or communication style, while better ones may be available.

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.

Leaving room for doubt

It’s good to have a passion. It allows you to enthuse, to motivate, to change, to move others. But sometimes there’s too much passion. And I think sometimes it’s like this: the more convinced you seem, the less convincing you are.

What I’m talking about is this: when you are defending a cause and you think or pretend to have all the answers, when you leave no room for any grey areas or doubt, when you don’t concede any points, when you don’t admit there’s any questions left unanswered… people will trust you less than if you do.

Intelligent people know that the world today, with all the knowledge we have, is just too complex for simple black and white answers.

Regarding the animal rights and vegan issue, these are some points I think we might concede are open for discussion:

  • using animals for medical research is a much more difficult point than using animals for food
  • it’s not easy for everyone to go vegan
  • questions of overpopulation of animals and invasive species are not always easy to tackle
  • a world without animal farming is not obviously the most ecological world there is (though it can be the least cruel one)
  • it’s definitely possible to be unhealthy on a vegan diet
  • there may be some reasons why you or some people would ever eat meat (even if it’s just this one)
  • for each of us, there are differences among animals and the rights they should have. There are grey areas and line-drawing issues (think of some sea animals, insects, including mosquitos…)

Whether it’s during public speaking or in individual dialogue, my advice is to not pretend you have all the answers. And if you don’t know the answer, say so. Concede some points. If something is not proven or not conclusive, admit it. People will be more inclined to listen to you and to trust you.

“I don’t care what others think of me”

I come across it again and again: vegans who say they don’t care how they appear to other people. They say they don’t give a rat’s ass about what people think about them or their opinions and habits. The argument goes like this: the only thing that counts is that meat eating is wrong, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it. We should speak our truth, no matter if it hurts or isn’t comfortable or pallatable.

I think this argument is mistaken about the reasons why one could be gentle and compassionate. Yes, of course some people are afraid to hurt other people’s feelings etc (not that an attitude like that would be entirely without merit) and therefore are not very outspoken about the injustices they see. But other than that, being gentle, softspoken, non-judging and subtle, rather than being angry and explicit, can also be strategicAlienating other people doesn’t serve anyone, including the animals, because once people stop listening to you (and most will, if you ramble on too much or if they start feeling too guilty) they are outside of your sphere of influence.

So I would say: please, care about what others think of you and your message. It has nothing to do with vanity, or softness, or whatever. On the contrary, taking into account how you and your message are percieved is a requirement for changing hearts and minds.

People are beautiful

How we experience the world, and whether it’s good or bad, whether people are good or bad, is often mainly a matter of focus. It’s a matter of what we want to look at, and how we interpret things.

Yes, people are responsible for a huge amount of horrible stuff. Among those horrors is the way we raise and eat animals, sixty billion of them every year. So it’s easy to condemn Homo sapiens and consider us an utterly depraved species.

But let’s try to see things in another light here, for a second. We’re an animal, just like other animals. The primitive parts of our brain are still there, and they’re active. They haven’t been selected out. Our biology is bound to make it difficult for us now and then, certainly when it’s combined with our tool-making intelligence. But in spite of this, for the first time in the history of our planet, an ever bigger number of people is consciously saying no to eating animals. For the first time ever, a species is actively defending another species.

This is special. It moves me. And I get a warm feeling when I see people get together, speaking up for those who can’t. When they do it with patience, with love, with compassion for everyone who is not yet there, who is still learning about kinder solutions… then all the better.

Maybe I’m not making my feelings entirely clear. Watching this beautiful video, which inspired me to write this post, may make them clearer:

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.