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.



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


14 thoughts on “Is asking for baby steps “speciesist”?

  1. With child abuse and animal agriculture the best approach is the same approach: do the best you can to defend the victims. With child abuse, the tools available are prison, registering as offenders, not letting them live near schools or playgrounds etc. We don’t have those tools for animal agriculture. We can’t jail people for eating meat or stop them from living near grocery stores and restaurants. But we still take the same approach: do whatever defends the victims best. Incrementalism is the most effective tool we have. Always use your most effective tool.

  2. Here here, I agree. I also think that vegan food must be available easily and everywhere, in the supermarkets, gas stations, fast foods etc as people are use to being able to eat when they want and what they want.

  3. What is the problem ? There are two vegan groups,
    one group – wants to stop the killing of animals and is happy if people make a move to vegan side , an office I know used to order chicken each friday now they order vegetarian pizza.

    group two – “the higher level vegans” the judges stifle and turn off everybody
    – ok your vegan but are you fighting trump ? What do you mean you are not fighting to support bernie?
    Or being told that eating a veggie burger makes you no better than meat eaters

    How is this approach working for us ?

    I feel we have to think in the other persons interest.

    When asked why I do not eat meat I say for selfish reasons , I do not want to be sick and I want to lose weight
    Maybe a lot of people would go vegan to lose weight and be healthy ?

  4. The comparison, while always made, is just silly…..but follows from the misleading language vegans use. Vegans “save animals” (no they don’t), a vegan lifestyle is cruelty free (no it isn’t), etc….when frame matters like this its only natural for people to make comparisons to rape, etc……..the solution is to frame matters accurately. The issues that surround our use of animals are systematic in nature and in cases like this there isn’t a direct relationship between one’s actions and societal outcomes… either move society as a whole or your actions are largely pointless. Of course….this entirely undermines any sort of focus on veganism.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  5. I think the main point that many animal rights/vegan advocates fail to recognize or acknowledge is that this is not simply an ethical question. We are engaged in the realm of behavior modification. MAJOR behavior modification… something that the 97% or more of people who still consume animals are engaged in many times a day. As anyone who has tried to change a major behavior or habit in their lives knows, it’s rarely done ‘cold turkey’, or overnight, and when it is, there is often recidivism. Thus the presence of so many 12-step programs, smoking cessation aids, and so forth. That small percentage of the population who can go vegan, or make any other major change, ‘overnight’, are in a small minority, and expecting others to be able to act and succeed in exactly the same way is going to result in failed advocacy most of the time. We need to support and encourage change at the rate that others are willing or eager to change IF we want to help the animals as best we can. It’s far better to help get someone to veganism over the course of weeks or months than to have them not get there at all.

  6. One comparison I often encounter is about slaves. We didn’t end slavery overnight. We are still working to provide truly equal rights to all citizens. It’s been a long road but it’s working.

  7. Tobias, you wrote “Guess what: it worked”. So I understand the first step worked, there was a ceasefire for a brief time. Do you have any idea if this has led to some next steps as well? I think that would/should be the next question of a “critic of the incremental approach”.

  8. Hey I’m a vegan advocating for the “babysteps first approach.” However, I was wondering whether you could delve deeper into the problems that might emerge from this approach? Is it really that effective? What do the numbers say? Just some ideas!

  9. Far more potent harm reduction than advocating a reduction in meat consumption is asking people to avoid the animal products that cause the most suffering and death per pound, bird flesh. The average meat eater who avoids bird flesh, even if they replace that spot on their plate with the same amount of pig and cow flesh, would move from eating over 24 farmed land animals a year to less than 1.

  10. Hi Tobias,

    Thanks for this post! I’m glad to know about Jeffrey Brown’s Operation Ceasefire.

    One thing I want to point out is that I’ve seen the term “baby steps” used to mean two somewhat different things in the context of animal advocacy. I know that many of Gary Francione’s followers criticize “baby steps” taken by individuals toward vegan living—the sense I think you’re writing about in this post. And yet the “baby steps” I’ve seen him rail against are the welfare regulations that he argues will not bring us closer to abolition of use. Maybe I’ve missed where *he* has used the term in the first sense—and if anyone can point me to examples, I don’t mind being corrected! But if you watch this interview with him, from 14:25 to 14:38:, you’ll hear him describe his incremental breakfast-lunch-dinner approach. It’s something I have heard him describe numerous times (on his podcast, in talks, and in this interview).

    I think many of his supporters don’t realize their own hero actually endorses an incremental approach for those who aren’t willing/able to go vegan overnight (and when it comes up, I’ve been happy to provide them with the evidence that he does).

    1. hi jennifer, thanks for your input. this piece was mainly written as a reaction to the numerous people using arguments like:
      – if it’s ok to be “vegan before 6” (mark bittman), then it’s ok to be racist before 6
      – meatless monday = slavery free tuesday
      – etc

      so it’s basically about the argument

      i am somewhat confused about francione’s stance myself, cause i’ve seen what you mention by him. but on other occasions he seems to show opposite behavior. Not that he’s important 🙂

      personally, if we talk about baby steps and incrementalism, i feel more comfortable with the “less meat” approach then with the “better meat” approach. I don’t think i agree with orgs telling people to eat humane meat (something that i have rarely seen at all), but i will not oppose welfare reforms.

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