Celebrities: helpful or harmful?

At the London Vegfest (Oct 2015), I was in a panel during which we discussed whether celebrities who talk about animal suffering and vegetarian or vegan food, like Beyonce or Ricky Gervais, but also Ellen Degeneres or Paul McCartney, had a positive impact for the animals or are merely confusing their audiences about what vegan means.

I started by saying that I thought that anyone who believes that these celebrities are “confusing” the audience, are themselves maybe a bit confused about where exactly our society is at this point. That is a point where about 65 billion animals are killed every year. In a situation like that, I am not going to worry about whether people have or have not a perfect understanding of veganism (which, as my co-pannelist Dobrusia Gogloza pointed out, is a means and not an end) but I will celebrate and applaud everytime an influencer speaks positively about eating vegetarian or – even better – vegan food.

One has to realize that often, the veganism that the naysayers propose is quite demanding and specific. On social media, you can easily find complaints about any possible kind of vegan or near vegan celebrity. It seems they will never be vegan enough. Ellen Degeneres, who has reached millions of people with her vegan message, was not vegan enough (even before the shoe issue) because she was a cover girl of a magazine that was owned by Proctor & Gamble, which tests on animals. Not a vegan thing to do… Morrissey was attacked because he took too long to become a vegan (people should become vegan overnight, you know) and because he says some wrong things about vegans and veganism (making it seem difficult). One wonders what an “abolitionist-approved” celebrity would be able to say publicly – if anything at all.

Back to Beyonce, Ellen, Ricky etc. So what if these celebrities are not vegan or not perfect examples of veganism? Would it be better if they shut up altogether? I would assume that if only a tiny fraction of Beyonce’s or Ellen’s fans did a three week vegan experiment or went dietary vegan, that would just be wonderful, and we would still have opportunities enough to point out where they – both the celebs and their followers – could do better.

Should we, though? Should we always be so fast to point out where others may do better, just because we think we have achieved something by being vegan? I think it is, to put it mildly, somewhat arrogant to believe we can judge and condemn everyone who is not vegan, no matter what good they do. Paul McCartney, for instance, who is vegetarian but not a vegan, was accused of being damaging for animals – while we know that a vegetarian saves about 90% of the animals a vegan saves. If Macca has influenced millions of people with his pro veg message (and it’s not that he tells people to eat eggs and dairy, mind you), that has an impact. I shouldn’t even have to make that clear. Doubting that would be akin to doubting *any* kind of activism or outreach.

In any event, if we feel the need to inform celebrities about, let’s do it in a nice way, and not ad nauseam. Whenever a celebrity does or says something that’s even remotely related to animals rights or veganism, I’m always afraid a horde of vegans will descend on them and unleash a storm of tweets and Facebook comments which in the worst case will only serve to irritate the person in question. So far for “educating” them. Maybe it’s safer and smarter, sometimes, to trust people. To trust that they are on their way. And to look at the good things they do, and the strengths that they have. The main strength, in the case of celebrities, is their massive reach. I can only hope that those of them who care for animals or who see some benefits in eating less or no animal products, will use their channels to the best of their abilities, and that our movement will encourage them when they do so.

If you want to watch the whole debate:

19 thoughts on “Celebrities: helpful or harmful?

  1. This is great stuff. I went vegan, from being a lifelong veggie, about 6 months ago, and soon after that I found your blog. I’ve read every post since and so far you seem to be the vegan writer I have the most common opinions with. Couldn’t agree more with this one as well.

    One question though. You say: “while we know that a vegetarian saves about 90% of the animals a vegan saves”. That seems too high to me. Surely with the number of male animal death caused by eggs and dairy it should be less? I would have assumed it’s actually more like 30-40%, although I have nothing to back that up. Do you have any data on that?

    1. Each year someone who eats dairy is responsible for about 1/10th of a dairy cow and even less of the offspring (a dairy cow is milked for multiple years after giving birth). Someone who eats eggs is responsible for fewer than one layer hen, and thus fewer than one male chick killed. According to Harish at Counting Animals, about 25 land animals are factory farmed every year per non-vegetarian; at most, going vegan saves <2 more than being vegetarian (and although the death of the male chick is horrific, at least they don't have to live their life on a factory farm).
      If you can convince someone to give up just eating birds, they go from being responsible for about two dozen animals being factory farmed to about 1.

      1. Thank you, thanks really interesting. Is there a list available anywhere ranking the animals and animal products that are “best” to cut out first, if there were take one at a time? I wonder how that would change for environmental reasons, or if you could quantify suffering in some way…

  2. Yep, I’m with you on that 100%.

    Again, it’s maybe an internet thing. Vegans mix with non-vegans all day, every day in the real world (mostly) without shouting at them every time they speak.

    So why do it on the internet? 🙂

  3. Tobias, you talk about how we can best reduce the numbers of animals being slaughtered. But what about those of us who don’t care how much suffering there is, and only care about the purity of our Vegan club!?!? It is important that everyone else knows just how flawed they are, and how totally superior the few of us who are really Vegan are!

  4. Spread the word, be it vegetarian or vegan. We take what we can get. Celebrities should be applauded not ridiculed.

  5. I am all for giving credit to celebrities who advocate for animals, but it is frustrating to see them so passionately defend a select few while ignoring others (primarily farm animals). I also don’t think that protesting trophy hunting, for example, will necessarily translate into giving up eating meat. Omnivores do not see that all animals warrant moral consideration, so a paradigm shift must occur; unfortunately this means discussing unpleasant topics that some will perceive as ‘preachy’. So when I see someone like Ricky Gervais advocating on behalf of exotic creatures, yet never mentioning farm animals, I feel compelled to point out that there is no fundamental difference between a lion and a pig that warrants differential treatment. If we never talk about it out of fear of offending others, how will things begin to change? We need to take the conversation out into the public realm and out of our vegan forum comfort zone. Of course this should be done in the most respectful manner, but it should be done.

    1. First of all, welcome back, Tobias! 🙂

      As far as this celebrity issue…I think something that tends to get lost in the shuffle is the fact that we sadly can’t depend upon people to do something simply because it’s right or moral.

      We may have morality on our side…we may have righteousness on our side…but if others don’t join us on that side, nothing changes.

      If someone who would otherwise turn a deaf ear to a vegan or vegetarian message now listens because it’s presented to them wrapped up in a pretty bow emitting from Beyonce’s mouth, then I’ll take it. And I’m sure the animals would, too.

    2. I think you are right, Dan. We shouldn’t be silent, and we need to talk about these things. I think the key is as you mentioned, that this should be done in a respectful manner.

      I think our job might be a lot easier if don’t lose track of the fact that humans are animals, too…just as it’s much easier and more effective to train a dog using positive reinforcement, it’s the same with humans. In some ways, expecting people to respond to the call of morals alone is giving the human race too much credit.

      In some ways it’s funny because of all the people who you’d think would understand that, it would be vegans. 🙂

  6. Just a correction here that Ellen DeGeneres was not on a cover of a magazine owned by Proctor & Gamble but a spokesperson for Cover Girl makeup, which is owned by the animal testing P & G. This may seem like a minor quibble but it is not. There are other things to comment to but I will wait until I have more time to read this. Thank you.

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