Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.

Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot about animal agriculture
Pierce Morgan head to head with George Monbiot

It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.

Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.

Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!

But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.

First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”

Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.

How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.

Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.

It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)

Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.

The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.

We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.

I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.

Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?

Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.

Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.

8 thoughts on “Vegan, thou shalt be consistent! (On George Monbiot vs Piers Morgan)

  1. Thank you for this, and your comments. I, as a South African, was unaware of this, but what I’ve found is that it helps if I go on the attack (having been a conciliatory vegan for the first 17 years or so). In other words, something like: “How dare you accuse me of being inconsistent for wearing a leather watch strap. You’re akin to a mass murderer who tries to take the higher ground when he expresses disdain for a violent act by somebody who breaks a glass when putting it down too hard in a bit of temper.”

  2. Tobias, I think this is inherent whenever we go in to debate about veganism (our personal identity, choices, etc.), instead of the treatment of animals. If we can get past talking about ourselves and any “v” word, and only stay focused on the animals, then we can perhaps make progress. As soon as the word “vegan” becomes the topic, though, we have lost — and more importantly, the animals have, as well.

  3. Excellent topic – thank you. I love your comment about presenting veganism as aspirational. I’m not a vegan by strict standards, and I’ve often wondered if I’m harming the cause by occasionally wearing thrift-store wool and leather or other animal-derived items from my pre-veg days. On balance, I think non-vegans are more likely to come around to the side of veganism (or other forms of animal-friendly living) if they feel there’s some wiggle room. You’re certainly right that “[t]he ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.”

  4. Piers Morgan, Blowhard asshole desperately trying to keep his job by being agressive…
    The UK knows what a berk he is 😉

  5. It can be quite difficult to find the right degree of consistency – some people will use any kind of inconsistency to devalue vegan principles, on the other hand, people who are very consistent can be seen as “fundamentalists” or “extremists”.

    I think, however, that there are significant differences between the two examples that are mentioned, leather products on one hand and non-vegan wine on the other hand:
    – Most non-vegans are not aware than typically, animal products are used in the production of wine. A common reaction to the idea that there is vegan and non-vegan wine is that it is just grapes. This makes it unlikely that non-vegans examining vegans’ consistency will bring up the topic of non-vegan wine. Even if the topic comes up in the conversation or the non-vegan has found up about the topic by doing some research, the use of animal products in the production of wine is still something rather exotic to most people who neither have much experience with veganism nor with the actual production of wine that this is hardly something that will come up in discussions with non-vegans whether someone is a consistent vegan. It is likely to come up in discussions with other vegans – learning about animal products in the production of wine is one of these things that are usually involved when someone switches to veganism and learns about the details, and therefore, for some vegans who emphasize a high degree of consistency, this will be something they are particularly passionate about in order to show that they are “true vegans” -, but it is hardly a relevant topic for the vast majority of non-vegans. In contrast, everyone knows that leather is an animal product.
    – With leather, there is quite a common (though really plausible) idea that this is an animal product that is needed. What is then suggested in discussions is that even if people did not eat animal products any more, animals would still be killed for leather because people need shoes and leather. I doubt that many people will seriously argue this way, but I think that this idea somehow underpins frequent accusations that people who say they are vegans still use leather. I don’t know about the details of wine production, but I doubt many people think that the animal products used there are really essential. As long as they are there, they are used, but I don’t think many people would claim that it would be a problem for the wine business to do away with the use of animal products when animals are not slaughtered for food any more.

    For these reasons, in discussions with non-vegans accusations because of inconsistencies related to leather are frequent, while wine will hardly be a problem (the consistency in avoidance non-vegan wine practically is only sometimes a contentious topic among vegans).

    On the other hand, I also think that accusations that someone is too “fundamentalist” are not that common in relation to wine. Yes, in principle, these accusations are quite common when we deal with the avoidance of very small quantities of animal products, and they may even to some degree be right (the effort to further diminish the last few micrograms of animal products hardly pays off, it would probably be better to use that effort for more advocacy). But in the case of wine, it seems to be quite a common reaction among non-vegans that it is somehow “gross” that fish bladders or gelatin is used in the production of wine. I find it somehow strange – after all, these people consume animal products -, but the underlying principle seems to be that non-vegans accept that some products are made from animal products, but expect certain products to be purely plant-based, and wine is one of them for many people. Therefore, I suppose, it is probably also relatively rare among non-vegans that the avoidance of non-vegan wine is singled out as an important example about how “extreme” and “fundamentalist” vegans are.

    So, on the whole, I think the issue of wine, while it can be controversial among vegans, is not really problematic for advocacy directed towards non-vegans, but the question of leather is something that frequently comes up, and people should think about it beforehand.

    I think that this can be a somewhat complex question. On one hand, I clearly think that it is rather irrational if non-vegans make full consistency an important topic in discussions with vegans, and since small amounts of animal products are everywhere (and things that are not food usually don’t have good labels), 100% consistency would not be possible, anyway. So, it might be considered important to counter this line of attacks, and it can also make veganism look more appealing if the mostly non-vegan audience does not have the idea that they either have to switch fully and put a lot of effort in learning a lot about where small amounts of animal products could occur and how to avoid these products or they will be attacked as animal exploiters, but that the avoidance of animal products is an aspirational goal, and some people go further than others, and the main thing is that those things that really matter quantitatively are avoided. It can also be good to point out that it would not make sense to throw away non-vegan products someone had bought before becoming a vegan (one might argue that they should be given to non-vegans so that they will buy less non-vegan products, but not all old things are suitable presents for other people). But even if these are good arguments, I still think it is bad if the discussion takes such a detour and therefore it can be good to be careful not to use any leather products when appearing somewhere specifically as an advocat for animal rights and veganism (even if someone still has old leather shoes or belts, this is probably a good occasion for using new vegan products, the old ones can be worn on less sensitive occasions). Then, the argument that 100% consistency is not what matters most and that people should not be afraid to wear out their old leather shoes or belts can still be made (and make the vegan appear more tolerant), but by stating convincingly that in his or her case, this is not leather and that they were careful to buy a product without leather, even though they do not condemn people who use leather products they have received from someone, this question can more easily be brushed aside, so that it does not take up so much space and takes away valuable time for discussing really important arguments for veganism.

    I don’t know whether this is the best solution, but when I do vegan advocacy (e.g. distributing leaflets), I even avoid shoes that look like leather to make it less likely that this topic comes up (all my shoes are from Vegetarian Shoes, but some look like leather shoes, others don’t). This is not necessarily the most important consideration, I think it is generally important to adapt one’s clothing to the audience to make a better impression to them, and at a formal event it might therefore be better to use faux-leather shoes that fit a more formal attire (and to say that it is not really leather when someone asks), but in situations when informal clothing is appropriate, it could be better to use shoes that don’t even look like leather shoes.

  6. It should be “(though hardly plausible)” in the paragraph that starts with “With leather, there is quite a common”

  7. I am aware it’s an old post but nevertheless.

    I believe there are two points ethical vegans need to realise. First, a diet choice can’t possibly be a subject in a moral context because of the way life on this planet functions. Reality of life is in this case simply too overwhelming for a moral argument to be of any practical use.

    Second, ethical vegans need a reality check regarding their lifestyle choices. Fact is nobody becomes a vegan for the love of animals, that’s the basic delusion that necessarily leads to moral inconsistencies. Because the love for animals would never put a limit to itself. That’s the ultimate and impossible to resolve inconsistency or contradiction. You can’t love someone yet allow that someone to suffer when it so pleases you because this implies that your supposedly love is utterly selfish or egocentric and as such obviously not love at all.

    An easy way to understand the contradictory nature of the principle of ethical veganism is by showing you how things fail in a different context.

    Imagine a person who is only keen on consuming fish. Such a person would have no issues defending the right of all other animals to not be slaughtered for food because he has no interest in consuming them. And he could even claim that killing cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, ducks etc. for food was unethical and unnecessary. He could even go on claiming that farming of all other animals was unacceptable because of the negative impact it has on our environment and believe he’s doing all this for the love of cows, pigs, dogs, cats, camels… but not fish.

    But the problem is that all his arguments can be applied in the case of fish consumption as well. His position is clearly inconsistent and hypocritical. The problem ethical vegans have is they don’t realise they are acting by the same principles. They are making a choice when and how harming animals is still acceptable and when not based on their interests. Same as it is the case in the above example.

    Solution? Drop the moral nonsense and turn the argument from the “love for the animals” to the self-interest because that’s how things work for all human beings, including ethical vegans.

    I found myself gradually consuming less and less meat without the delusion that I am doing it because killing animals for food is wrong and because I want to save the planet and all that nonsense. I am doing it because it suits me. I am more and more enjoying eating vegetables and fruits and often consume dishes which are completely meat free and in the process I don’t feel any less or more moral than I used to be back in the days when I couldn’t imagine a meal without meat. And if one day I turn vegan then it surely won’t be because I would believe killing animals for food is wrong because it’s not, no matter how tragic our compassion can find it.

    Actually, killing animals for food is the only morally viable reason to cause harm to them. If you kill an animal because you want to eat it then it was first of all truly unavoidable and secondly the death of the animal serves a perfectly moral reason – your survival. When, for example, animals get killed as a side effect of food production, as it is the case with plant based food, then such deaths are morally much more questionable, because first of all they were not necessary and secondly they serve no purpose whatsoever. In other words, they get killed for nothing, so their deaths can’t possibly be morally justified. Also because we can survive by consuming animals. So, the irony is exactly that ethic vegans are trying to use a moral argument which is an argument that on top of being completely useless it actually makes them lose not win

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