There’s nothing wrong about being a “vegan apologist”

You may have heard the term “apologist vegan” or “vegan apologist”. Maybe you’ve even been called that. But what is it, exactly?

I googled around a bit in search of descriptions of definitions, and the gist of it seems that a vegan apologist is a vegan who caters too much about how non-vegans feel, and who is able to apologize their non-vegan behavior, by coming up with reasons non-apologist vegans (I’ll call them “hardliners” in this post) do not find convincing. Another telltale sign of being an apologist, apparently, is to apologize for the behavior of some other vegans to meat eaters. For instance, an apologist vegan would explain that some vegans are really too militant or intolerant. This, again, is a no go for hardliners. In the eyes of the hardliners, there is no excuse for animal abuse, no excuse for not going vegan right now, no excuse for any exception. No excuse for excuses. The hardliners believe, I think, that it is only they who unconditionally take the side of the animals, and that apologists tolerate behavior of others that should not be tolerated.

As a vegan, should you always reject and refute the reasons other people give for not being (entirely) vegan?  I think not.

I think “making apologies” – the thing so frowned upon by hardliners – is often a good thing. There are two reasons for that, one is about process, one is about content.

The process reason for taking seriously other people’s reasons for not being vegan, understanding them, sometimes accepting them, is that an attitude where you understand where people are coming from and are not demanding something they seem to think is impossible, is much more likely to get them to be open and listen to you. Hardline vegans seem to think that apologist vegans care all too much about not hurting other people’s feelings. I understand that sentiment, and I think that sometimes we go too far in the direction of not trying to offend. But that’s not (only) what this is about. This is also about effectiveness. If you tell a person they have to do something, that there is no excuse for them not to change, that all their reasons are bullshit… well, in many or most cases you’ll just alienate that person.

The content reason for being an apologist vegan, so to speak, is that people may have (at the very least in their own perception) valid reasons not to be vegan (and certainly, not entirely vegan). To understand some of the arguments the “apologist vegans” use to excuse non-vegans, take a look at the bingo meme below. For a selection of these “apologist arguments”, I did the following: between brackets I made the objection a little bit clearer, where necessary (just in case the few words on the card are not clear enough to you). Then I briefly wrote out what I call the “hardline vegan argument” (HVA). This is what I think the maker of the bingo card (obviously a non-apologist) had in mind. Then I’ll spell out what I call the “apologist vegan argument” (AVA), which indeed explains why this particular objection against (fully consistent) veganism may hold some water.

vegan apologist bingo

As you will see, the hardline vegan argument usually is very binary and black and white in nature. If something is derived from animals or involves animal use, it is not vegan, period. The apologist vegan argument is more nuanced.

Here we go.

Backyard eggs (“It’s fine if people eat vegan except for eggs from chickens from their own backyard.”)
Hardline vegan argument (HVA): eggs are animal products. Vegans don’t eat animal products. No exceptions.
Apologist vegan argument (AVA): while there certainly may entail some problems, backyard eggs may be the single least problematic animal product, and conceding that they are often not very problematic at all, may increase the credibility of our position towards non-vegans, as well as making the transition a bit easier for them.

Part time vegan (“Part time vegans are taking steps, and are helpful for the animals.”)
HVA: there’s no such thing as a part time vegan. You’re vegan or you’re not. When people still eat non-vegan meals, they are still part of the problem and still contributing to animal suffering.
AVA: a part time vegan is part of the solution, by having a lower suffering footprint, and by helping to push demand for vegan products, thus helping to make going vegan easier for everyone (due to increased availability). Moreover, part time vegans are much closer to going vegan than omnivores. They should be stimulated and encouraged.
Note that these arguments also work for the “baby steps” objection (which apparently the maker of the bingo card finds so objectionable that they put it in the center)

Service dogs (“Vegans shouldn’t be against stuff like dogs that help the blind.”)
HVA: using an animal is not vegan.
AVA: these dogs are very helpful for blind people, and it’s certainly not obvious that they are mistreated and/or suffering. This should not be a priority. Speaking out against service dogs may easily come over as very harsh, and does not contribute to a positive image of vegans and veganism.

Oysters are vegan (“Oysters aren’t really animals, we can eat them.”)
HVA: oysters are animals. Not vegan.
AVA: there seem to be reasonable arguments to claim that oysters are not sentient, and in this sense are more like plants than animals. Conceding this point, or leaving this question open, may help us come across as reasonable, open-minded, non-dogmatic people. If we are reasonable and open-minded, many others will be much more likely to actually have a conversation with us.

Personal choice (“People still have the freedom to eat what they want. We shouldn’t push our beliefs on them.”)
HVA: our actions are not a personal choice when other beings are involved and suffer because of your choices.
AVA: it’s good to explain that eating animal products or not is definitely not a choice on the level of choosing the color of your wallpaper: shall or shall we not eat animal products, is not the same as shall we paint the living room blue or yellow. However, people are indeed free to eat what they want to eat. I think that by seeing things like this, our communication towards non-vegans may be less pushy, judgmental or restrictive, so that there is more chance they have the mental space to freely consider these serious issues.

Everyone can’t be vegan (“We can’t expect the whole world to go vegan.”)
HVA: there is no excuse not to go vegan, everyone can do it.
AVA: while many people in the west are in a perfect position to go vegan, it may be good to realize – and to show that we understand – that there are people for whom going vegan is less easy than for others. Some people are way less privileged than others, coping with financial problems, family issues, health issues, allergies, cultural issues, food deserts… While these may not make it strictly impossible to go vegan, they may at least make it (much) more difficult.

Humans are oppressed too (“Animals are not the only issue, let’s not lose sight of other issues.”)
OVA: human suffering pales in comparison with what we are doing to animals
AVA: the scale at which animals suffer and die at human hands is indeed massive and incredible. But that can never justify that anyone would ignore human suffering, or prioritize animal suffering at the cost of everything else.

Lab created meat is vegan (“Clean meat, created from animal cells, does not entail suffering.”)
HVA: it’s not vegan, because it’s an animal product. Not only does the production of clean meat require a biopsy from an animal, it also requires an animal growth medium. Moreover, we don’t need clean meat, as there are so great meat and dairy alternatives these days.
AVA: The biopsy is pretty much harmless. Moreover, if in the future we are more accepting of GMO technology in this, we can make eternally self-replicating cells, so that we only need to take the biopsy once. As for the medium, we are developping – and will use in the future – animal free growth mediums. In any case, clean meat has the potential to prevent massive amounts of animal suffering. As for not needing it: if plant based foods are sufficient, then why is not everyone vegan yet? Apparently there are still holes and lacks, and we should try everything to fill these up.

Honey is vegan (“Let’s not mention honey and consider it vegan, rather than talking about details.”)
HVA: honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan.
AVA: technically honey is not a vegan product, but focusing on this will make veganism seem less credible (it’s such a natural and healthy product in most people’s eyes) and more difficult. It’s good to a least not always volunteer the “honey is not vegan” information.

Don’t say rape when referring to animals (“The word rape in the context of dairy is a turn-off”)
HVA: but dairy IS rape.
AVA: dairy may indeed be similar to rape in non-trivial ways, but a farmer artificially inseminating a cow has a completely different intention than a rapist. Also, public acceptance of rape and artificial insemination of animals is completely different. Therefore it is not strategic to compare the one with the other. This kind of comparison will often alienate non-vegans. It is, however, useful in many situations to point out to people that cows don’t get pregnant every year without human interference.

Vegetarian is better than omnivore (“We should applaud people becoming vegetarian.”)
HVA: a vegetarian is still part of the problem. There is so much suffering involved in the production and consumption of eggs and dairy.
AVA: eggs and dairy certainly are problematic on different fronts, but vegetarians are doing most of the work, having a much lower suffering footprint, and helping to increase demand for and supply of meat alternatives. Besides, they might be well on the way to going vegan.

This is why people hate vegans (“Vegans shouldn’t do this or say this, it makes people dislike us.”)
HVA: vegans shouldn’t be critized for the way they communicate or for the methods they use. We’re pointing out very serious stuff. Anything goes, basically.
AVA: conceding the point that there certainly are vegans who are communicating in a less than optimal manner, or that there are methods that might be counterproductive, may again lead the non-vegan to take you a bit more seriously and close the gap between us and them. If you just sanction anything vegans do, you may be considered to be “one of those”, and the other party will not be willing to keep the dialogue open.

Only eat animal products from dumpster (“I’m vegan except when I find free animal products in the trash”.)
HVA: not vegan.
AVA: Freegans are not contributing to demand. They may have their own convictions for being freegan – like not wasting food. They’re a part of the solution, not the problem.

I hope you can see that the apologist vegan arguments do hold water, both in terms of content and in terms of process. Even if “apologist” is used as a term of abuse, I definitely won’t shy away from trying to find truth and valid arguments – wherever I may find them – in non-vegans’ claims. That’s because I want to build rapport with them, in the hope I can somehow help them make better choices. And because, frankly, sometimes they do have a point.

And sure, we should not find excuses for everything, or be too tolerant of wrong things. But we should always take into account where people are coming from, what time they are living in, what the norms of the day are, before we judge and condemn others. If we do that, we will see quite easily why not everyone is doing what we are doing. Yet.

What’s it like to be a meat eater? (on “confirmation bias cheering”)

We believe that by being vegan, we’re doing a good thing. We’d like others to do the same good thing. But we can’t force others to do as we do. There is no way to make the consumption of animal products illegal at this point, and even if some president or dictator would abolish animal consumption in some country, the time is not ripe for that and soon such a law would be reversed again.

So one of the things we need to do (apart from creating alternatives!) is to change hearts and minds. To do that, we need to understand others, know where they come from, listen to them, and know what attracts them and turns them off. In other words, we have to be able to take their perspective. I have called this idea YANYA before, or You Are Not Your Audience.

When a tiny percentage of the population goes against the tide of the other 98%, it must be that this minority somehow has more motivation. We are, to some extent, different from other people.

One problem is that what many vegans like to hear is not what the general audience likes or needs to hear. Vegans who serve their non-vegan audiences the truth “straight up” (in a video, interview or whatnot) often get cheered by other vegans. This is what I would call Confirmation Bias Cheering (when you suffer from confirmation bias, it means that you favor information that confirms your own beliefs and opinions). You cheer because your own opinion gets confirmed, exactly without taking into account the reaction of the people you actually, ideally want to reach.

confirmation bias
how confirmation bias works

Let me give you some examples to make this concrete. Recently a video did the rounds of an activist who said something that many or most of us want to say – at least sometimes – to meat eaters: yes, we are judging you, because your choices cause so much suffering, and you could easily choose something else. Line by line, many vegans’ initial response is: “exactly!” “spot on!” And we give thumbs up, and we comment, and we share…

The same goes for memes that ridicule non-vegans and their often crazily irrational reactions. We may find them funny and recognizable. That’s why we often share them and make fun of non-vegans’ reactions together with our fellow vegans. And having some fun is… fun. And necessary. But it’s good to consider the effect of memes like these on non-vegans.

I once did a prime-time TV debate with the president of the farmer’s union in Belgium. What I said was, I think, balanced, gentle, and reasonable. But what I heard from some vegans was: “why didn’t you just say it like it is? Why didn’t you tell him that raising animals for food is criminal and that eating meat is a crime?” I can imagine I would have received cheers from vegans, but I would have alienated my general audience – the people I actually want to reach.

Likewise, I recently did a couple of interviews, based on the recent publication on my book, with mainstream media in Belgium and the Netherlands. I know that the overwhelming majority of the readers of these interviews will be non-vegans. I mentioned how fundamentalism does exist in the vegan movement, but that it expresses itself not in terms of behavior (being vegan is not fundamentalist in itself) but possibly in our communication and the way we relate to other people. I said that we can either communicate compassionately, or like an asshole. The editor in chief of one newspaper made a clickbait headline out of that: “To radical vegans I say: don’t be an asshole”.

Now here again, vegans may not like that statements like these may contribute to the image of a divided movement with some internal differences. But there’s a way to think differently about this, from the audience’s perspective: any non-vegan who ever had to deal with an annoying, aggressive vegan (you know they are out there) may very well find it a relief to read that not all vegans agree with that approach.

To some vegans, I seem too tolerant, too pragmatic, too forgiving. And yet today, as a reaction to the same interview, in which I plead for a more tolerant approach, I received a letter from a non-vegan, from which I can derive that, in spite of my plea for tolerance and open-mindedness, I still come across as intolerant and dogmatic. And no, her letter was not at all unreasonable or unkind.

Another thing: to make veganism seem less rigid and dogmatic, I sometimes describe the exceptions I make. Mentioning that I don’t examine wine and bread when out of the house, makes me a target for some vegans who think I shouldn’t even call myself a vegan. Yet to non-vegans (again, the people we actually want to reach) these exceptions don’t even count as exceptions, and may just confirm how strict we really are.

Expressing your opinions with your audience in mind has nothing to do with pandering to their views and desires. Some vegans will say: yes, of course non-vegans like a gentle, incremental approach, because you give them a way out, an excuse. Of course they like it when you don’t tell them they are under a moral obligation to go vegan (I’m not a fan of “moral baselines”).

But it’s not about telling people what they want to hear because it is comfortable. It’s about telling them what is useful for them to hear so that some change will happen (in their attitude and/or behavior). If that change is not yet the full monty, then so be it.

So one important message here is: if you read something by a vegan in a mainstream channel and you don’t like it, think first about how the larger audience would react to this. Would they get as angry as you are? Or would it actually be something that brings them closer, even if it’s not conforming to your ideal? The reactions that matter are not those from vegans, but those from the non-vegan audience. If vegans could keep this in mind, vegan spokespeople wouldn’t be held back by the potential backlash by some vegans, and could more freely speak in a way that appeals to the widest possible audience.

You may disagree with all of this, and you may believe that speaking your truth, the way you feel it, always and forever, in every circumstance, is the most important thing for you. But if we take seriously the often heard creed “it’s not about us, it’s about the animals”, then I believe we should consider voicing our truth not as the priority, but the real-world effect we have with our words.

 

The rise of the stealth vegan business

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

We vegans love to get the word vegan out. We like to see it on products and restaurant menus. Just getting the word out there not only makes it easier for us vegans to identify things to eat, but should also increase awareness about veganism in general. However, what if not using the word vegan… sells more vegan stuff?

The first time I heard something like this was years ago, in a Whole Foods supermarket somewhere in California. They were supposed to have a vegan cake there. I didn’t find it, and asked the person behind the counter where it was. She showed me the cake, and said it no longer was marked vegan. She said it sold three times better since they removed the label.

More recently, I’ve seen more and more entire places that are what I call “stealth vegan”, meaning that the fact that they are vegan is communicated only very subtly, or not at all. Let me give you two examples that I recently came across.

In Melbourne (and I believe other cities in Australia), there is the Lord of the Fries chain. Lord of the Fries looks like a classic fast food place, with the usual burgers and shakes, but it is vegetarian and vegan. It is communicated, if you look well, but friends of mine estimated that not only is the majority of their clientele not vegetarian or vegan: they don’t even know they are not eating meat! I was told sometimes people only find out after months of going there.

The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia
The menu at Lord of the Fries, Melbourne, Australia

Another example is the small ice cream chain Gela in Israel. The place where I went had a small “vegan friendly” sticker on the counter, which is actually given to them by an Israeli non-profit. I asked the person behind the counter – since I don’t read Hebrew – if there’s any other communication in the store that everything is vegan. She told me that no, most people entering don’t know that it’s all vegan.

Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.
Gela in Israel only has a vegan friendly sticker, but everything is vegan.

One more example is Ronald’s Donuts, a hole-in-the-wall donut place in Las Vegas. Nothing on the building betrays there’s anything vegan inside, and if you want to know which donuts are vegan, you have to ask.

Why are these places – and many others – so modest about the fact that they are all vegetarian or all vegan? It’s obviously not because they are embarrassed to use the word. Rather, it’s because they know that at this moment, the words turn more people off than they attract. Vegetarian and vegan, to most people, don’t indicate added value, they indicate subtracted value. To get a sense of what’s happening, compare this with your own reaction to an all gluten-free restaurant. If you don’t do the gluten-free thing, you’ll probably think something like me: that those dishes won’t be as good as regular dishes. Something was taken out of them (taste, perhaps?). Whether the food in such a gluten-free restaurant is actually not up to a par with regular food or not is irrelevant; the fact is that the prejudice is there.

You may think: but aren’t they missing clients? A vegan will just walk by and never know, right? Well, they may miss some, but they probably win more. Besides, vegetarians and vegans will find their way to meatfree places anyway, by means of word of mouth, the Happy Cow app, or whatever. There is no need to put VEGAN in big letters on the storefront.

All this will change as the general population’s appreciation of vegan stuff grows. And one way to make it grow is to let them eat vegan food, without telling them so. If they find out after they have it eaten it (and liked it), then all the better.

And just in case you didn’t realize: what makes stealth vegan business possible at all is the fact that by now, we have such amazing alternatives for many things that it has become possible to actually trick people. That’s progress!

Why changing (our) minds is so hard

Our ability to change our mind is a beautiful thing. Of course, sometimes minds are too easily changed: people can be under the sway of dictators, gurus, marketeers and just buy whatever those people are selling, without any critical thinking. But for many other people, changing their mind is a lot harder, especially when we’re talking about deeply held and cherished beliefs. These can be moral in nature (questions about whether GMOs, eating meat, spending a lot of money on going to other planets… are ok or not…), or factual (whether eating meat is healthy or not, whether there’s alien life on other planets, etc).

I love it when people, after having given an issue or question their consideration, suddenly say that they have changed their mind about it and now hold a completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinion on it. In this post I wanted to give you my thoughts on why this is actually rare. I will touch on three issues involved in changing minds (ours or other people’s):

1. changing our mind about something is hard
2. we don’t like other people to change our mind
3. we don’t like to admit we changed our mind, and we definitely don’t like to admit that it was other people who changed our mind

(c) thebigriddle.com
(c) thebigriddle.com


Changing our mind about something is hard

Why is that? Basically, we like to see confirmed the opinions and ideas that we already have. We want to justify what we are already thinking, and we don’t like any information that contradicts what we believe. Therefore we will be much more open to even notice information that confirms our ideas and opinions (this is called confirmation bias). Put simply, if you believe A rather than B, you’ll be more likely to seek out and find and believe stuff that confirms A. It goes without saying that this confirmation bias makes it a lot more difficult to change your mind. Just do the experiment: how likely are you (as a vegetarian or vegan) to read (and seriously consider) an article called “Three arguments against veganism”. Maybe you say you won’t read it because you know what is in there and because in the case of veganism there are no good arguments against it. But that would exactly prove your confirmation bias, I’m afraid.

Changing one’s mind about whether it’s right or wrong to eat animal products is especially challenging, because this is an issue with concrete, real world consequences (not everything is: we may never be confronted with an issue like abortion, for instance). Suppose we’re omnivores, who suddenly come to the conclusion that eating animals is wrong (i.e. we just changed our minds). We are then suddenly experiencing that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs. The friction that we feel as a result of this is called cognitive dissonance, and the theory of cognitive dissonance says that we will try to resolve this “dissonance” (it’s not a nice experience). There are two ways to do this: 1. we follow up on our new belief and reconcile our behavior with it (we become vegan). Or 2. we don’t want to go vegan (we like meat), so we adapt our belief so that it matches with our behavior. We say things like: eating animal products is not that bad, animals are raised for this, the meat I eat comes from animals that didn’t suffer, etc. People who want to avoid going vegan would do best to ignore all the pro-vegan information altogether. This way they can avoid to change their mind and their behavior. So, another answer to the question why changing our mind is so hard is: we often have an active interest (a stake, or a steak!) in not doing so.

Let me offer one suggested solution to this quandary: we must make it easier for people to change their minds by making sure the negative consequences of changing one’s mind are as small as possible (see my talk Making Compassion Easier). In other words, we’ll need to provide people with great alternatives to animal products, which are available everywhere, at competitive prices.

We don’t like other people to change our mind

All of us like to think of ourselves as adult, mature individuals, who can make up our own mind about things. We do not like anyone to tell us how to think, and value our – real or perceived – autonomy. I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and pointing to a book that I thought he should read. He picked it up and when he read on the cover “this book can change your life”, he snorted, said “I”ll change my own life, thank you very much”, and put the book down.

Already 350 years ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. You may have experienced that when you tried to influence or convince someone of something that you believe in, they just dig in their heels even deeper, and the distance between you and them only becomes bigger.

Our task, then, would be to help people discover the arguments to change their minds by themselves, rather than us offering them those arguments (and telling them their opinion or arguments are incorrect). One way to do this is by mainly asking them questions, as is done with the so-called Socratic method. Socrates, in his dialogues with others (as written out by Plato), didn’t offer his discussion partners his own opinion, but teased out their own arguments, doubts, assumptions etc. by asking them questions. When someone defends eating meat on the basis that it’s what predators do in the wild too, rather than telling them that these predators don’t have the moral apparatus or the alternative in terms of veggie burgers to help them behave differently, we could ask something like: can you see any difference between humans and lions in this respect?

We don’t like to admit that we changed our mind

I started this post by saying how I admire when people change their minds. I admire it also when they can publicly acknowledge this. However, the latter is very hard to do for most people. We believe that showing that we changed our mind is the same as admitting that we made a mistake, and that this makes us look weak, stupid, or whatever. This is a matter of self-preservation and saving face.

How often do you hear a public figure, like a politician, say that they changed their mind? They have good reason to avoid saying that, because their audience tends to think of politicians who change their mind as wishy-washy people with wishy-washy, unstable opinions (if this person changed their mind about this today, will they not change his mind again tomorrow, about the same thing or another thing?). We expect people like politicians to be well-informed from the start and to never change course once they have chosen one (though of course we will be happy if they change their minds in a direction that we applaud). The result is that people will rather hold on to an opinion, long after they’ve been convinced it’s not a correct one. This goes for politicians as well as in our own relationship disputes.

Suggested solution: given that it’s hard for people to admit that they changed their mind, we can try to avoid them having to admit it. What I mean is that, if we would love a person to change their mind from x to y, it is good not to have them defend x too much. As soon as we start a discussion with them about x or y, and they defend x, the more difficult it will be for them later to choose y. And if we present ourselves all the more as champions of y, it becomes even more difficult for them to change, as y will be associated with someone else. It will be the opinion of someone else that they copied (the second issue I discussed above). What’s happening is known as polarization: two parties having opposing viewpoints, just getting even more opposed, digging their heels in. The more one party defends their position, the more difficult it will be for them to change their mind. I think this dynamic will be the most explicit where two people already have some kind of competition going on: siblings, roommates, partners… who debate a lot.

Basically the other should have the idea that once they change their mind, we won’t be there to tease them with things like “See! See now that you were wrong before?!” or “ha, finally you listened to me (and allowed me to influence you)!”. Try to help make sure that the other person will not lose face. Try to make sure they don’t have to admit defeat because there was no battle to begin with. This means trying to not present an issue as a conflict of arguments, as two different positions being opposed to each other. Show how it’s not a black and white matter, how the other party already shares some of your opinions and how you already share some of theirs. This way once a party changes their mind, it will not seem as if they switched camp (and should therefore be afraid of losing face) but just integrated some of your arguments and are now seeing things differently.

Another thing that can help people avoid losing face when changing their mind is when there is another factor (which is not you) that they can attribute their change to. People might be wary of changing as long as they fear having to acknowledge your influence on them, but they might more easily do so if they can attribute it to for instance a change in their health situation (the doctor told them something), or because there’s now an organic store nearby, or they discovered they are allergic to dairy… All of these and many more factors can offer good reasons or excuses (it doesn’t matter) to change their mind. If you discover that there might be such a reason, by all means, let them use it, and don’t insist that it was *you* who was the determining factor in changing their mind.

Needless to say, the ability and readiness to change one’s mind will vary a lot among individuals. Some people may be extremely stubborn. Or people may be able to easily change their mind in some domains, but not in others. Some people will be good at changing their mind across the board. These people are 1. very rational or 2. very mature, or both. The rational people just go for anything that seems correct to them. They are to a large extent aware of their possible biases, and they know that it’s not because *you* gave them some arguments that these arguments are not true and that they shouldn’t carefully evaluate them. Maturity helps them to acknowledge your influence without feeling in any way humiliated or inferior. Mature people are not afraid of looking weak.

In general, it is safe to assume that on big issues like eating meat, changing minds is not easy. Still, it is possible. I think our role is ideally the one of a kind of coach that helps tease out arguments and ideas that others already believe, rather then telling them how to think.

Facebook communication: fight, flight, or light?

[This article is based on the presentation I gave on Facebook communication at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg. You can watch the presentation here.]

Communication is difficult. We learned to speak a couple of languages, we maybe learned some public speaking. But most of us never learned to really emphatically and effectively communicate with others.

Online communication is even more difficult. There are screens between you and me. When we communicate on social media, we only have our words and our smileys to convey our actual feelings and attitudes – and not the body language that we can use in real life. So yes, it’s hard.

A discussion on Facebook can be a friendly exchange of thoughts. It can also be a little bit more aggressive, but still a “sportive” boxing match. Or it can be a downright mean and nasty shouting match. That is the dark side. It is very easy to get to the dark side on Facebook, and very damaging. When a discussion turns nasty, nobody wins: not us, not the other people participating in or reading the discussion, and not the animals.

When we see a conversation turn nasty – or when we think a conversation might turn nasty (given the subject or our own sensitivity about the subject), we have three options:

facebook light flight fight

Choosing Fight means going into the discussion head on, not caring much about civility or friendliness. It means letting your feelings (anger, aggression, irritation) speak the way you feel them. It usually doesn’t result in anything good.

Choosing Flight is ignoring the comment or the entire discussion. You just leave, maybe because you think it’s useless, or because you want to avoid nastiness.

Choosing Light means retaining your self-control, and – in spite of potential nastiness from the other side – remaining friendly, empathic, and rational. It’s often very hard to do.

My suggestions are:

  1. stay in the light as much as you can (unless it’s a time-waster)
  2. if you can’t, choose flight
  3. but don’t fight

Here are ten things you can do (you don’t have any control over what others do) to help keep the conversation on the light side, and not trigger others:

  1. be aware that how you say it trumps what you say
  2. be nice
  3. have a sense of humor, no matter how serious the topic is
  4. listen
  5. be open-minded
  6. use phrases like “in my opinion,” “I believe,” “I think,” rather than sounding like you’re stating everything as facts
  7. think about the other people as human beings with actual needs
  8. take your time to reply. Facebook allows for this.
  9. avoid judging, shaming and guilt tripping
  10. avoid sarcasm. it’s fun, but it doesn’t help

When a conversation turns sour, that may be (partly) because of you, but there are also situations where even when we try to stay in the light with all our might, other people will continue to behave downright nasty (yes, it does happen). In that case, don’t forget your options to unfriend, unsubscribe, unfollow, and if all else fails, just block the person so they stop existing for you.

Here is the full presentation

 

 

 

 

 

Vegalomania: the belief that veganism can solve everything

Sometimes us vegans, in all our enthusiasm, get a little carried away, and present veganism as a solution to all the world’s problems. There are two issues with this. Firstly, and obviously, it is not correct. Veganism – whether you see it as a philosophy or just as a behavior – is definitely a partial solution for many big problems, from animal suffering to environmental, health and global hunger problems. Yet veganism can obviously not solve all the world’s problems. Neither can it solve any of these problems entirely on its own.

The second issue with presenting veganism as something that can save the world, is about credibility. Both our messages, and we ourselves, the messengers, will sound less credible if if we talk like devout evangelists, than if we act like rational, reasonable soft spoken advocates. Paradoxically, when you show you don’t know everything, when you show you are aware of the possible shortcomings of your theories and the flaws in your arguments, you will be more convincing rather than less. To put this another way: if you seem more convinced, you will often be less convincing.

credibility

Here’s an example (found on Facebook) of what I call vegalomania, or vegan megalomania. Note how vegans are represented as the saviors of the planet (and the known universe).

“The planet is dying, the animals are dying, the wildlife is dying, the seas are on their last legs due to overfishing and the pollution from the livestock industry (reference Cowspiracy) – we have the answers to many if not all of the human and and ecological problems and to me, we are under an imperative to share it loudly and clearly, looked at this way – we are doing people a favour when we advocate strongly and urge them to go vegan now – it’s actually an act of great kindness and generosity on our part.”

As always, we need to take our audience into account, and this audience may vary. What works for some audiences may not work for other audiences. I can imagine that groups of adolescents might be more easily swayed by a more radical message than one that is too diluted with caveats. Conversely, when we want to reach critical university students, we would do well adding a pinch of self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong: again, I think there are few things people or society as a whole can do that are better than moving towards a diet or lifestyle without animal foods, and a totally different relationship with animals. Thus, the vegan message is definitely a message worth spreading. But always and everywhere suggesting that veganism is what will ultimately save the world is probably a bit too much. Let’s see if we can spread our message in a reasonable way, that can convince the outsiders rather than turn them off.

 

 

 

How to be a non-judgmental vegan

Vegans often get told they are judgmental. Judging others is a very human thing, and for mere mortals, it is probably more or less impossible to be non-judgmental all of the time. So yes, just like anyone else, vegans too can be judgmental. And given how passionate we are about the idea that using animals for food and other purposes is wrong, we may very well be more judgmental than the average person.

However, vegans may also come over as more judgmental to people than we actually are. That’s because many people feel guilty about consuming products they know are not in accordance with their values. The judgment they feel coming from vegans, may be their own judgment of themselves. That’s why they will often be on the defensive when talking with vegans (or even being in their presence).

But whether we are judgmental, or just appear judgmental, we’ve got a bit of a problem in both cases.
Why is being or being seen as judgmental a problem? Simply because most people who feel judged will probably be less likely to listen to you and change. No one (or virtually no one) likes a “judger”.  When someone is passing judgment (or appearing to pass judgment), people hear or read this as “what you are doing is not okay”. This for most of us is annoying enough in itself (we don’t like to be told what to do – we’re adults, you know), but even worse: in our poor, insecure minds it is often easily translated to “you are not okay”.
You may object: “But my mom changed after I told her she was this or that”. Maybe, but my guess is that means that she already had the seeds of change inside her. It’s most unlikely that it was your judging attitude that made her change.
You may think: “But eating meat IS not okay, is it? So I should be allowed to pass judgment on it. I have to speak out about it…”
I definitely understand. We really are convinced that eating animal products is not okay. Should we pretend that it is? I’m not saying we should. But again, sounding judgmental will probably not be very helpful in opening people’s hearts and minds to change.
Trying to not come over as judgmental is not hypocritical or dishonest, by the way. We (or at least I) have hundreds of thoughts every day that I am not expressing to other people. I’m sure it wouldn’t be beneficial if everyone could hear all of them.
So I think we are on safe grounds when we assume that a judgmental attitude is not helpful. Assuming we want to help animals, we need to open hearts and minds, and judgments tend to do the opposite. So: how do we avoid being judgmental? It’s not easy, because judgments are thoughts and feelings, and we have only limited control over those (much less than over our actions and behavior). But here are some things to try.
  1. Grow your self-awareness. Try to catch yourself when you are being judgmental. This takes practice, but it’s worth it, because self-awareness is very useful in general. Being aware of our own shortcomings, catching ourselves when we do stuff we don’t want to be doing is really important for… well, for world peace, you know.
  2. Realize that you don’t know people or their situation. A good exercise is to try to think of something the people you are judging, might be experiencing. Realizing they might have a good reason to do what they do or to be how they are, can make you milder in an instant. If you’re irritated with someone who bumps into you while rushing through the street, you could think of the many possible valid reasons why they are really in a hurry.
  3. Realize that everyone is different. We were raised in different ways, have a different genetic makeup, had different lives. Because of all this, some people may need more time than others, or will do things in different ways. You could try to imagine one or more reasons people could have for not being like you, yet.
  4. Realize that you’re not perfect. It’s not because you’re a vegan that you’re awesome in all respects of your life. This again comes down to self awareness. And it comes down the old saying: may he (or she) who is without sin, cast the first stone. In other words: who are you to judge?
  5. Remember that you (probably) were a meat eater once. You’ve done the same things. And if you think you went vegan from the moment someone told you it was wrong to eat animals, read the myth of the overnight vegan conversion.
  6. Realize that people who are not vegan may be doing other great things, which you might not be doing. They may be helping in a shelter, they may be volunteering for some human relief organization, they may donate a lot of money to good causes, or whatever. And know that the impact they have with that may even be bigger than the impact you have with just avoiding animal products (see The fetish of being vegan)
  7. Turn it around: think of a situation where someone judges you for stuff you’re doing wrong. Someone who’s more vegan than you, maybe. Think of how you react to that. Try to be honest: you may think you are Ms or Mr Rational, who will admit to being wrong and changing your behavior whenever you are wrong. That may be true, but it probably isn’t.
  8. Realize that trying to be non-judgmental is a matter of effectiveness, and that if you can suspend judgment, this will be better the animals, for the person you would be judging, and even for you.
I wish you (and myself) good luck in trying to be less judgmental!

Should we present eating vegan as a choice or a necessity?

The take away of my previous post, “on vegans and vegan meals“, was that it might be more efficient to tell people to eat vegan, try vegan meals or products, rather than to tell them to go vegan, be a vegan, adhere to veganism…

This message is controversial (or even “morally corrupt”, I kid you not) to some people, who insist that going vegan is the only ethical option, and that we should tell people so in as many words, always and everywhere. Here’s a comment one of my more respectful critics made:
“The problem with the above strategy is that it gives the impression that being vegan is a choice, not a necessity. (…) By the above post you are creating a situation, where non-vegans are quite happy for veganism to be a choice … the live & let live scenario … except the animals themselves do not have a say in this choice.”
Of course I agree that in principle not consuming animal products is the most just way to relate to animals, and the closest to a guarantee that they won’t suffer and be killed. But my agreeing with this idea does not necessarily mean that I have to tell people that they have to be vegan. I prefer telling people things that I think are effective, rather than “right”.
In my opinion, suggesting that people have to do something, is not very effective. think it’s much better to communicate to people that they have a choice, a choice for which there are much better arguments than for eating meat. This, I think, is much more productive than saying they have no choice, and that they should follow some moral imperative that we impose upon them (at least that will be their impression).

I already wrote about persuasion resistance
Do you like to be told what to do? Do you like to be told by someone that you have to be something or someone? Do you like it when people give you the impression you are not up to their standards if you don’t do as they do? Most people don’t like any of these things. By not telling people what to do, we may actually get more people to do it.
I thought the following applies to telling people what to do in general:

calming down

Another argument against presenting something as a necessity is that it sounds much less attractive. When you present something as a necessity, there’s a connotation of sacrifice (you have to do this and you can’t do that), and that is exactly what we want to avoid. It’s challenging to combine the ideas that something is wonderful and a moral imperative at the same time.
So, again, we can tell ourselves that, because veganism and animal suffering are matters of life and death, we have to tell others that they are morally obliged to go vegan. Or we can imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, and formulate or message in a way that appeals to them and actually makes them act on it. 

Sugarcoating, straight up or… adaptive?

My last post (you are not your audience) was about trying to get to know your audience, and adapting your message to what you know is interesting to them. Some people interpret this as me saying you should always be very gentle and even kind of sugarcoat your message. One person replied to the post as follows:

“Personally I prefer a Yourofsky-esque method. Be bluntly honest, do not fluff it up. Some people won’t like it but those generally will be the people coming in to it with a closed mind.”

sugar-coating.png

This comment got a lot of likes. A lot of people, I think, love to be blunt (and hate sugarcoating). That’s an interesting phenomenon that I’d like to investigate at some point, but right now, I want to talk about something else: my point is not that people make a once-and-forever choice between a gentle approach and an in your face approach. Rather, I suggest that you are adaptive: you have the ability to change your approach according to what you think your audience likes.

When you don’t know what your audience likes, or when your audience is so big that there might be many different sorts of people (I call it broadcasting, as opposed to one on one or little group conversations), then I think it is good to use the approach that we have reason to believe works for the biggest number of people. You have to look for the lowest common denominator, as it were. For that we have to look at research. I’ll give an overview in a future post – for now I can recommend chapters 14 and 15 in Nick Cooney’s Veganomics. But I’m pretty confident that in general, when you go in blind and have to choose between a gentle (even sugarcoating) or an in your face message, the soft approach is the safer and more effective option. You have to take into account that you are bringing a very uncomfortable story, that has big consequences if people take it serously. Read more about a very recent study explaining how people just don’t want to know.

So: if you know enough about the person or people you are talking to, adapt your approach to what you know is a fit for them. If you don’t know, and/or if the audience is heterogeneous, I believe it’s best to err on the side of caution.

 

 

You are not your audience

In much of my writings, posts and memes, I suggest that we “tread lightly” when we approach other people about animal rights, going vegan etc. We should not overload them with information, we should check what they are interested in, etc.

Many people seem to understand this, but often (like the other day) I’ll get reactions like this:

“Oh, so we have to give them candy and massage for them to listen to reason? Fuck it, I’ll keep telling them what they need to know no matter how hard they cover their ears.”

It is ironic that this person writes about “what they need to know“, while she seems to be talking more about “what she wants to tell.” I would call this ego-centric communication.

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Do we think that continuing to ramble to people while they (literally or figuratively) cover their ears, helps? Maybe sometimes something sticks. But chances are that in the best case we are wasting our breath and our precious time because the person is really not hearing us. In the worst case, our rambling is actually counterproductive.

We need more audience-centered communication. “What they need to hear” is not as important as “what they are open to hear”. I call this principle YANYA, or You Are Not Your Audience. You are not the same as the people you want to reach. Like a car salesman, you have to adapt your message to what you think people like, are interested in, are open to, are ready for.

“Telling them what they need to know” is equal to the car salesman talking endlessly about a car’s horsepower or technical abilities (because that is what fascinates him) to a young parent who is only interested in the safety aspects.

“Telling them what they need to know” may sound noble and courageous and right, but it’s not necessarily what helps animals.

It’s about your audience’s needs. Not your own.