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.


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.



The fetish of being vegan

The longer I live in the vegan movement, the more I have the impression that most of us have a kind of vegan fetish, believing that eating one hundred percent vegan is more important than anything else, either in life in general, or in animal rights activism. It seems that many vegans, consciously or not, believe something like this:

A vegan can do nothing wrong, 
a non-vegan can do nothing right, 
and a vegan is always better than a non-vegan.

But of course, when you think about it, what you put in your mouth is of relatively minor importance compared to other things. And I’m not talking about children dying of hunger in Africa or whatever – let’s not have that argument. I’m talking about other things within the animal rights/vegan movement. 

First of all, any person can have a big impact on other people surrounding them, with their communication, their behaviour, their example, their cooking. This impact is much more important, because potentially much bigger, than what they eat themselves. Personally, when I believe I will have a bigger impact by making an exception, I will do so (unfortunately, I have limits, and I’m very easily put off and disgusted, so this only goes for microbits of animal foods).


Secondly, there’s not just communication, but there’s also the question what we do with our time, and with our money. Some non-vegans may donate a lot of money to animal rights causes, or may invest a lot of time in them. And of course they may invest time and money in other causes than animal rights. You can fault them for not being vegan if you want, but you have to realize that their impact might be way bigger than yours. 

By all means, be vegan (like I have been for 17 years), but let’s not make a fetish out of our personal consumption, at the cost of our attention to other things that may impact the lives of animals much, much more.

And no, of course it’s not an either/or thing, and we can be vegan consumers while doing all this other great stuff. But in practise, as we all know, a lot of energy – way too much of it – goes to that focus on personal consumption. We worry about micro-ingredients like e-numbers, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. We focus on these things for the sake of “guarding the line”, to protect ourselves and our movement against the great big scary nightmare of “sliding back” and watering down veganism. But that great big scary nightmare is a fiction, and is nothing that should concern us right now. If we ever get people to avoid meat, dairy and eggs (and we will), I’m sure we’ll also be able to outphase e-numbers, honey, and other bits of animal product from our food system.

Let’s focus on what’s really important. Let’s put the biggest part of our energy in where we can reduce the most suffering.

Could a non-vegan achieve more than a vegan? An interview with Brian Kateman

People who follow this blog may have noticed how sometimes I take a somewhat unorthodox approach to veganism. Being a vegan myself, I don’t believe that veganism is the be all and end all of everything. I believe it is a means and not a goal. The goals and the principle underlying it are compassion and more happiness/less suffering. I think when we are consistent, we should be especially consistent with that goal or principle, rather than with the definition of veganism itself. If all this sounds “anti-vegan”, so be it.

If I take this idea further, it makes me wonder if sometimes… being vegan is not always the best thing one can do for the animals. More concretely, I wonder if there might be people even, who could do more as non-vegans than as vegans. And maybe I found an example of this in the figure of Brian Kateman, the prime mover behind the “reducetarian” idea. I decided to ask him a couple of questions…

Brian, why reducetarianism?
The problem with many present-day conversations around meat consumption is that they have been dominated by an all-or-nothing premise: you are either a meat eater or a vegetarian/vegan. As a result of this false dichotomy, many people feel immobilized to make any changes to their diet. This sense of hopelessness is unfortunate, because two people eating half as much meat spares as many animals from a lifetime of misery as one vegetarian. It’s great that we are seeing an increase in the number of vegans, but the majority of people in the world still consume meat. To be effective in saving animals, we cannot preach to the choir – we must find ways to engage meat eaters, even, and especially those who have no intentions of becoming a vegan or vegetarian at this point in time. Reducetarianism unites the growing community of individuals who are committed to eating less meat and ends what can sometimes feel like a tiresome battle among vegans, vegetarians, and all those reducing their consumption of meat. This new perspective provides everyone with a platform – not just vegans and vegetarians – to make small choices to eat less meat in their own lives and collectively make a significant difference in the world.

Brian Kateman
Brian Kateman

Another consideration is that, when it comes to meat consumption, gradual, incremental changes in behavior may be more sustainable over the long term. As summarized by Mercy for Animals: “Surveys have repeatedly found that those who reduce their meat consumption are much more likely to go vegetarian, and that those who go vegetarian are much more likely to go vegan. This is consistent with hundreds of studies from the field of social psychology that have found people are much more likely to be persuaded to make a moderate change than they are to make a major change, and that once people make the moderate change they become more open to the larger change.”  (Admittedly, though, the goal of reducetarianism is not to solely increase the number of vegans but to decrease the overall amount of meat that our society consumes.)

What motivations do you emphasize?
It’s important to note that reducetarianism is also inclusive of motivations: it doesn’t matter whether a person is eating less meat to save money or to lose weight or to combat climate change or to spare farm animals from cruelty. Motivations aren’t important, certainly not to our health or the planet. There are some legitimate concerns that people who encounter reducetariansim will switch from beef to chicken and ultimately harm more animals, but we take extra precautions by raising the ethical implications of eating meat, and emphasizing the added value in eating fewer chickens and pigs, those most commonly abused on factory farms.

Ultimately, my goal with reducetarianism, in the spirit of effective altruism, is to provide as many people as possible with an entry point into eating less meat. As a college student, I personally was motivated to eat less beef and more poultry due to environmental concerns, and likely killed more animals than I would have otherwise in that period as a result. Gradually, though, I learned more about meat production and its harmful effects, particularly the suffering of animals (thanks to a classmate who encouraged me to read The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by my hero Peter Singer). I subsequently cut down on all forms of meat, and continue to spare farm animals from cruelty every day, usually three times per day, in fact.

What are your personal eating habits?
Today, my diet continues to evolve toward a more compassionate, healthy, and environmentally friendly one. I primarily eat fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. I eat poultry in one meal every three weeks and beef in one meal per month (usual small portions of both). Approximately half of my meals are vegan. I’ve completely cut out pork and seafood. One day, I’ll likely cut out all animal products. It’s a process, for me, and for many others – we have a long-term relationship with food.

Do you think you might be achieving more because you’re a non-vegan?
There’s no question that when it comes to meat consumption omnivores relate more easily to me, a meat-eater, than to a vegan. When a vegan with a “go-vegan” message approaches a hard-core meat eater, there is undoubtedly resistance. It reminds me of proposing marriage to someone on a first date – not the most effective strategy for entering into a relationship. Still, this likely isn’t true of children and teenagers who are generally more open minded than adults. I’ve often thought that the “go-vegan” message is probably most effective on young people, where as the “be a reducetarian and eat less meat” message is probably most effective on older people who have established habits and routines. In other words, admittingly in the spirit of Malcolm Gladwell, we have been looking for the perfect message, when we should be looking for the perfect messages. However, when a meat-eater approaches a meat-eater, even if the meat consumption is to varying degrees, there is mutual understanding and compatibility, even unconsciously. So, yes, I’m probably more credible and thus saving more animals than I would be if I were a vegan spokesperson for a reducetarian campaign. With that said, this is a highly unusual situation; in most cases, and certainly on a personal level in terms of impact, the less meat, the better. One day, I’ll likely be in position to save more animals by completely eliminating animal-products from my diet.

I think a more important take away is that animal advocates – vegans and non-vegans, can often be most effective by being compassionate to humans too, not only animals. In the words of Rob Greenfield, “We live in a messed up time and it’s very challenging to make ethical decisions. It’s not easy… to do the right thing. So much of mainstream society stacks the odds against us… So campaign hard and lead by example but remember that all people have feelings too and have their own challenging circumstances.”

Read more:

An interview with Melanie Joy, on communication and strategy

In 2013 I did this interview with Melanie Joy (it wasn’t published previously). The content is primarily intended for ambassadors of the vegetarian/vegan/animal rights message. I think it contains may wise words and ideas which may help us to be more effective activists and ambassadors for the animals and for veganism.

Vegetarians, vegans, activists in general often have high expectations of other people. They often demand consistency of others and would like them to go “all the way”. How do you think about that?
Melanie Joy: I see the perfect as the enemy of the good. Henry Spira, the late famous animal rights activist (who actually was born in Belgium) said: if you go in and ask for all or nothing, you’ll probably end up with nothing. Trying to be perfect often discourages us from even attempting to be good.
Our mentality can be rigid or liberatory. A rigid mentality lacks nuance, it’s black and white, it focuses on being right, being in control, winning. A liberatory consciousness is the opposite, it’s flexible, nuanced, it means we approach all situations with curiosity – an open mind – and compassion – an open heart. It’s not about good or bad, right or wrong, being perfect, it’s about being committed to living authentically and to practicing the core values and the very qualities that we need to cultivate, that we need in order to bring about a vegan, non-violent and just world. We have to be careful not to mirror the very system that we are trying to transform. The most important thing that we can do, is to practice embodied activism. It’s activism that lives in ourselves. We strive to embody the qualities and behaviours that we try to cultivate in the world. This is not theoretical or abstract, it’s a practice. When we practice what we preach we are much more effective at reaching others.

It’s a matter of focus?
Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying that goes something like this: “We all have within us the seeds of greed, hatred and desire. And we all have within us the seeds of love, compassion and empathy. Our job is to water the right seeds, in ourselves and others.” What we focus on grows. So we need to ask ourselves the question: what do we want to cultivate in other people? It’s really important for activists to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. We all look at ourselves through each other’s eyes. When the people we are advocating to look at themselves through our eyes, what do we want them to see? Do we want them to see someone who is selfish and apathetic, who lacks willpower and morality? What parts of themselves do we want them to connect with?

How can we express appreciation for the steps some people have already taken, while at the same time encouraging them to take further steps? For instance, how would you deal with someone who is only eating meat during the weekends, or who has already stopped eating cows and pigs but still eats chickens.
I ask them questions. People almost always answer their own questions. The answers are always inside. I never ask why people do eat meat. I ask why people reduced their meat consumption in the first place. I ask what motivated them to make the changes that I want to help encourage, not simply what is preventing them from making those kind of changes. I do this because I want to feed the positive motivation. I want to help them connect with their compassion, their commitment to health, their desire for well being in their bodies and in the world, that led them to that decision. It’s like what I say to ex-vegetarians. Not: “why did you stop being a vegetarian?”, but “why did you start being a vegetarian?”. And then I might ask the question about what got in the way.

What about people calling themselves vegetarian when they aren’t really vegetarians. How do you deal with that?
I would ask what it means for them to be a vegetarian and then I would just say that’s not the definition of vegetarianism that I learned. I would never ask someone not to call themselves a vegetarian. The fact that someone wants to be a vegetarian is great. And then I would have a conversation about veganism, because veganism is the moral baseline of animal liberation.

It seems many people fear that we confuse a lot of people around us, like in restaurants, when people that are not vegetarian call themselves vegetarian.
So what? If we get to a place where our biggest problem in the world is to teach people in restaurants that vegetarians don’t eat fish, then the world is a very different place and it means we have been very effective. I would never tell someone what they are and what they are not. I wouldn’t like anyone to say that to me. We have a right to self definition, to self identify. Whenever we try to define someone else’s identity, we are fundamentally disempowering them. People can call themselves whatever they want.
When we don’t allow others the right to self definition, that is problematic for a lot of reasons. The confusion caused by self definition of vegetarianism/veganism at this time in the history of our movement is, in my opinion, very insignificant. Is it really worth our time and energy to engage in that kind of conversation? The benefits of not turning people off by telling them they are wrong, are greater than the small problems caused by the confusion. But you can always use it as an opportunity to talk about it. When someone calls himself a vegetarian and eats fish, I will ask why he stopped eating meat. And then I’ll ask why he’s eating fish. And I will share my story. Moreover, I think it’s important to see veganism on a continuum, rather than in an “either/or” dichotomy.

You said vegetarians and vegans, when talking to people, need to appreciate the meaning of meat. What meaning does meat have for people?
It has so many meanings. It’s deeply symbolic. Meat represents tradition. Tradition is not always bad. Practices of traditions can be harmful, but traditions themselves are often reasons for people to celebrate, they are often ways that people come together and connect with each other and with themselves. Meat may symbolize family bonds. For some people the only connection they have with their family is through shared meals. Eating meat may represent being part of the majority, the dominant group and not being different. It represents masculinity to many people, and strength. Perhaps most importantly, meat represents power. What we have to do is to help demonstrate how veganism reflects and reinforces a healthy way of relating to power; instead of exercising our power over someone, we exercise our power to resist oppressive and repressive regimes or systems.

Could it be that vegetarianism/veganism is perceived as dangerous because it challenges power?
Yes, I think that’s true. Meat challenges privilege. And human privilege is very deeply entrenched, and very often not given up willingly. I think veganism and vegetarianism are perceived as dangerous for other reasons as well, such as their challenge to the economic status quo, and to to patriarchy, to name just a couple.

What’s the importance of taste?
We often underestimate the importance of comfort and convenience (taste being a part of these things), because we hold them up against the importance of life and death. In the light of that comparison, comfort and convenience are trivialized. But the problem is that, whether we find comfort and convenience to be trivial or not, those who we are reaching out to often think they are not.

Can they be made to see that they are trivial, at least compared to those life and death issues?
I think it’s difficult to get people to recognize that their comfort and convenience is trivial, because they are so removed from the problem. And it’s not trivial to them until they make a deep connection. Until they make that connection, we need to not dismiss the strong desire to maintain comfort and convenience.

You talk a lot about the disconnect between our values and our behaviour, and of disconnecting from reality. But isn’t this kind of disconnection to a certain extent necessary to survive, or at least to maintain our mental health?
We’re talking about psychic numbing, or numbing ourselves psychologically and emotionally to the truth of our experience. Psychic numbing can be adaptive or maladaptive. It’s adaptive when it helps us cope with violence or the potential threat of violence. We couldn’t get in an airplane or car if we didn’t use some psychic numbing. It’s maladaptive when it helps to enable violence, even if that violence is as far away as the factories where the animals are turned into food.

What about people not being alert, every second, that each day 25.000 people are dying from hunger or millions of animals are being killed? Isn’t that something we must do to protect ourselves?
Yes, then it helps you cope with violence, versus enabling violence. But it’s the motivation for the numbing that is important, that determines whether it is adaptive or maladaptive. If we use psychic numbing in order to cope with violence so that we can function in society, it’s very different than if we use it in order to participate in violence. It’s not the disconnect that matters, it’s how we relate to the disconnect. We have so many disconnections inside of us. How do we relate to our them? Are we committed to examining our choices?

Do you think some people, like vegetarians or vegans, might have use for some more psychic numbing?
Yes, I think some activists actually need to numb themselves more when it comes to animal suffering. It’s a matter of setting healthy psychological boundaries. Not being able to see the good things that are happening is often a hallmark of secondary traumatic stress — STS (or STSD), which is like PTSD except it affects witnesses to violence rather than the direct victims of violence.

When people become traumatized they develop a schema, a sort of paradigm, whatever you want to call it, where the word gets split in three categories: victims, heroes, perpetrators. When you look at the world through that lens, and you don’t see a lot of heroes, all you see is a world of victims and perpetrators, and it becomes very hard to maintain any sense of optimism. You may become very misanthropic, and you start to despair and feel burned out. Looking through the lens of trauma waters the seeds of anger and despair. People get stuck in it. Once you start looking at the world through a traumatic frame, it can get hard to step out of that. That’s the way schemas work. Schemas are mental frameworks, they are ways of viewing the world, and they have what we call “confirmation bias”: we only notice and remember things that confirm our existing schemas, the way we view the world. When we develop a schema, we may get stuck in it. When you see the world as a world of victims, heroes and perpetrators, anything that challenges that, gets resisted. For example, we can miss seeing the many positive things average people do every day, because all we see is their perpetration of animal exploitation through eating meat. This is a traumatic consciousness.

To offset the traumatic frame curiosity and compassion are extremely important. Preventing secondary traumatic stress is also a key reason why activists need to take care of themselves. Obviously people don’t want to be in that schema, but they may be stuck. Once the schema is developed it becomes more and more difficult to get out of it, because we start selectively noticing. All you see are victims and perpetrators, the people putting dead animals in their mouths. And you keep reinforcing this view that humanity sucks and that the world is a horrible place.

Is meat murder?
I don’t ever use loaded words like murder when I am talking about meat eating. The word hypocrite is another example. Hypocrite is not even an accurate word, because it suggests negative intentions. I would say that we are morally inconsistent, we are complicated. If there are hypocrites, we are all hypocrites, we’ve all inherited a messy world. Words create automatic reactions in people, whether we want them to or not. People have a lifetime of associations, psychological and emotional, with these particular words. When you use these words, you are calling forth all of these associations, and you are going to evoke an immediate and automatic emotional response from that person.

What about the shock value? Can we grab people’s attention, shake or wake them up with that kind of language?
Generally, people in shock are not receptive, all they want to do is get out of shock. The minute you use a word like murder, you are implying that the person who engages in the behavior that you are calling murder, is a murderer. If someone is calling you a murderer, you probably will not be very receptive to their message. You will feel judged and will feel you are being portrayed as the worst kind of human being that exists. If we use the word flesh, or hypocrite, these words have such a charge that it’s almost guaranteed that the listener is going to feel attacked, guilty. And remember that psychic numbing and carnistic defenses exist in order to protect a person from feeling guilt and so our loaded words can cause them to become more defensive. It’s like whenever someone is on the receiving end of being attacked, they will put up their hands to avoid being hit. When we use those loaded words, we make people put up psychological-emotional hands to prevent themselves from being hit, verbally, emotionally.

What about the shock of showing animal cruelty images?
When I show an animal cruelty in my presentation, it’s after having established a connection with my audience. I warn them, I tell them what I’m going to show them. I reassure them that my intention is not to make them suffer, but to empower them, and that I have been very thoughtful in selecting the material I have chosen. And I give them permission to turn away. In so doing the assumption is that if they bear witness, it’s because they choose to. Not because I shocked them. When you shock someone with graphic videos, the rage or pain they feel often gets projected onto you. They will get angry at you because they feel you tricked them into suffering. You don’t know what is going on in their life, whether they can handle seeing that or not.

So what about when people see animal rights videos on TV, in the news for instance? It’s not framed then, right?
As far as I’m concerned, that’s public domain. When people turn on the tv, they know they are not in control of what images are going to come across to them. When they are walking on the street, they know they are not in control. But when you jump in front of their face with something when they’re not expecting it, that’s different.

What about putting the images in leaflets and magazines?
I think in literature for the public there is some place for it. But it should be embedded into a broader whole. We should focus on the solution. We should only talk about the problem insofar as we are also talking about the solution. Otherwise people feel helpless. We’re talking about trauma here. Trauma creates a feeling of helplessness. One of the reasons that people don’t bear witness is because the problem is so big they feel like: what’s the point of opening up to this because there’s nothing I can do about it and then I’m just gonna feel like crap. So we should present this information in a way that doesn’t make them feel helpless and disempowered, and make it very clear that there is a solution, and that it’s a doable solution.

My impression is that including these images in your literature discredits you with some people, e.g. with people in power. They perceive us as emotional people, as an unprofessional, sentimental organisation.
That’s very possible. But on the other hand we have to be careful not to buy into the carnistic narrative that degrades anything that doesn’t support it. Others will indeed say it’s not professional and it’s too emotional. I think there may be a way to do it professionally. And also, we need to take back the right to be emotional. We should be emotional, and own it. Animal exploitation is an emotional issue — the world needs more emotion in this area, not less. But if our graphic imagery prevents others from listening, it’s not strategic.

How important is being right?
Whether we believe in something or not, is not the issue. The issue is what works. You can be right in a sense morally, but you may not be right strategically. The animals don’t need us to be morally perfectionistic; they need us to be effective.

There’s a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place. How do you decide on what to do and what not to do?
I ask myself two questions when I decide how to use my time or energy as an activist. One: is this action/project the most effective use of my time and energy? Two: is it in alignment with my core values — is it an expression not just of what I want but also of who I am? Am I embodying my activism by doing this? We need to do what we are good at, and what we enjoy, and also what is needed and effective.

We often hear that we need all kinds of strategies and approaches in the movement, that we need something of everything. But is it possible that some of the strategies are counterproductive, that some of these approaches turn off more people than they attract?
Yes, sure. I believe that we need many different forms of activism, but not all forms of activism are strategic. Property destruction for instance, is not strategic. My colleague James McWilliams says it as follows: 99% of society is deeply speciesist. So when you are destroying a form of property that is upholding a speciesist institution, how do you think the public is going to respond to that when they are looking at it through speciesist eyes? Also, property destruction is fundamentally unstrategic because it becomes an opportunity for the oppressor project their violence onto us, to make us look like the violent ones. Until a movement has reached popular support, property destruction is virtually always used against proponents of the movement.

What about stealing live animals? Do you think that’s effective?
I think open rescues can be effective. There are less problematic because there is transparency in them, and they don’t seem violent because you’re not destroying anything. You are saving lives. It’s constructive rather than destructive.

If you had ten million dollars, what would you do with them?
I think I’d use it to raise awareness of carnism. I truly believe that if carnism became recognized as an ideology in the mainstream, it would radically and forever change the way we think and talk about eating animals. Carnistic prejudice is the reason that it’s so hard to advocate. Prejudice is an illogical mindset. And oppression and discrimination are institutionalized prejudice. I think it’s virtually impossible to have an objective, truly productive public discussion about eating animals as long as there is limited awareness of carnism. Until we make this system visible, we are dealing with people who are deeply biased, believing themselves to be completely objective. That’s a difficult gap to bridge. That’s one of the reasons why we need to be so strategic all the time. Imagine if that bias were recognized.

Read more on the work of Melanie Joy and her team at

Yes, you can be a meat eating environmentalist

In the post being vegan doesn’t trump everything, I wrote that it’s not necessary to be vegan in order to do good for animals. In other words, you can be an animal activist (at least of sorts) without being vegan.

You can also be other things without being vegan:

You can be an animal lover without being vegan.
(I read somewhere: “The privilege of being able to identify oneself as an ”animal lover” belongs only to vegans.” Ouch.)

You can be an environmentalist without being vegan.
(I often read: “You can’t be a meat eating environmentalist.)

In fact, you can be a lot of things without being vegan.

Think about the absurdity of the last claim, for instance. Say a non vegan person consciously never takes a plane for environmental reasons. Compare them to a vegan who flies five times a year. The carbon footprint of the vegan will be a lot bigger (all else being equal). (One could comment here that “you can’t be a meat eating environmentalist” doesn’t imply that you are an environmentalist when you don’t eat meat, but this is often what is implicitly communicated or understood).

But I want to make a bigger point here. When people identify as something (an environmentalist, an animal lover, a vegan, a writer… whatever…) it is probably detrimental in most cases when someone else says they are NOT that. I get it, I get it: we can identify factual mistakes (they’re not a vegetarian if they eat fish, for instance). But mostly, by saying they are NOT this or that (while we ARE) we will often probably only widen the gap between them and us. It could very well alienate them from whatever we want to get them closer to. I’m especially talking about situations where a person identifies as a vegan, while we spot him eating or using this or that, which we consider or know is not vegan.

I have been considering myself a vegan since 17 years, but one thing I’m not picky about is wine. Usually I can’t find the needed information on the bottle, so in this case, I give that wine the benefit of the doubt and I drink it (also because, frankly, I think drinking wine as a vegan helps to dispel the austere image of veganism that some have). Now, if you, True Vegan, would tell me I’m not a real vegan because of that, it wouldn’t help anything, I think – even though I’m more prone to feelings of guilt than most people. It would alienate me from you and from part of the vegan movement, and I would probably be irritated with what I would perceive (maybe incorrectly) as a holier-than-thou attitude.

I think big factual mistakes (like fish eating vegetarianism) can be corrected, but it can always be done in a non confrontational way (and best in private).
Debunking non vegan animal activists, animal lovers or environmentalists (saying that they are a contradiction in terms) should, I think, be avoided, if only because these are unclear terms anyway for which we often have no waterproof definition.  Of course, subtle, gentle, humorous hints never harm anybody.

Being vegan doesn’t trump everything

It seems that many vegans/animal rights activists believe something like this:

non vegan animal activism, no matter how impactful, is always less valuable than the mere fact of being a vegan (even a non active one). 

Let me make it concrete: I often read criticism from vegans towards people who achieve a lot for animals, while they are not vegan (yet). Examples are people like Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), Peter Singer (father of the animal liberation movement), vegetarian (not vegan) Paul McCartney, or your average celebrity like Ricky Gervais, who is reaching millions of people with his anti-hunting / empathy for animals messages.

It seems that people who are not vegan, remain open to this kind of criticism, no matter how big their impact. Conversely, it seems like when you’re a vegan, you are beyond reproach, no matter how small your impact (indeed, your impact might even be negative if you’re a bad vegan ambassador).

What we see here is the dichtomoty between purity and impact. A big part of our movement seems to attach a big importance to purity. If you’re pure (that is, if you don’t consume animal products), you are sticking to the “moral baseline”. You’re ok. If you’re not, then, no matter what you do, your eating habits are blameful and won’t be redeemed by any pro animal action that you take.

I am of course of the opinion that impact is much more important than purity. As a vegan of more than fifteen years, I believe that being vegan is a clear statement and a sign of consistency. Being vegan helps to be credible when you spread a pro animal message. But it is not a requirement to do good for animals.

Many of us will be prone to tell these non vegan activists that they are inconsistent, or that they have a blind spot. This may be a good idea, but it has to be done carefully, and with tact. Otherwise it may not have the nice “introspection effect” that we hope it will have. Nor will engendering a feeling of guilt in them always work. Worst case scenario, pointing out inconsistencies (or worse: calling out hypocrisy) might alienate non vegan animal campaigners from our vegan movement.

One more thing: I’m not even going to say that ideally all people publicly campaigning for animals are vegan, because I think there’s a part of the population that will better identify with non vegans (and thus pick up their message) than with vegans.

So my suggestion is: when we see non vegans doing good things for animals, let’s mainly focus on the good they do. Let’s be open to the possibility that as non vegans they might even be having a higher impact than as vegans (at this point in the history of our movement). If we want to point out the inconsistency, let’s gently nudge them rather than calling them hypocrites. And let’s have some faith that they will see the light, rather than focussing on the fact that they are not “there” yet.

Veganer than thou

May I present to you: the superlocavore vegan (from locavore: eating locally; we will abbreaviate this to SV). This is a type of vegan who takes into account the fact that conventional plant agriculture entails a lot of dead animals too. In the harvesting of plants by machines, many small rodents, birds etc (not to talk about insects) are killed. That’s why the EV stick to the principle that they only eat what comes out of their own organic, manually labored garden. Nothing else.

The superlocavore vegan consider superlocavore veganism as the moral baseline. They consider it doable for everyone (those who don’t have a garden can find another vegan with a garden and live off their land) and thus a moral duty to eat as they eat. People who are merely vegan (and are thus consuming plant products that implied the avoidable suffering of said small rodents and birds) are, in their eyes, hypocrites.

The SV don’t really exist as such, though there are plenty of vegans doing their best to be as self sufficient as possible. In case it’s not clear, I want to make raise the following points or questions in bringing them up:

– Is veganism a black and white thing, or is it, to a certain extent, an arbitrary concept?  What about the so called “moral baseline”? What does it mean when some people go further than us?
– How, as a “normal” vegan, would you react to being called a hypocrite by an SV?
– What does all this say about us judging people not going as far as us (non vegans)

I’m sure that many people will try to point out the differences between veganism and superlocavore veganism, between cows and those rodents, between intentionally eating animals and eating plants the harvest of which unintentionally killed animals… but I’m not sure if there’s a true difference. At least, if there is, the difference is small enough to suspend your disbelief and go along for a moment in the above thought experiment.

Ricky Gervais is a hypocrite. So what?

The term hypocrisy is a moodkiller, yet we love to use it and accuse people of being hypocrites. The question is what that brings us. When we say someone is a hypocrite, we mean that they are not consistent in their behaviour, or that there is no consistency between their actions and their thoughts.

We consider people who recycle, but use the car, as hypocrites. People who never drive a car but fly to a faraway holiday destination are hypocrites. People who avoid flying airplanes for ecological reasons but who eat meat, are hypocrites. People who don’t eat meat but who wear leather shoes, are hypocrites. Etcetera. Hypocrites everywhere

The point I’m trying to make is that no one is consistent all across the board, and that everyone is at times (or often) a hypocrite in this sense of the word. Hypocrisy is not just a pretty meaningless term. It is also a damaging one.

The words hypocrite or hypocrisy are extremely charged and imply a strong value judgment. There are probably only few people who will start reflecting deeply when they’re being accused of hypocrisy. Most will feel attacked.

I know: at some or other intellectual-philosophical level, consistency sounds desirable and our demand for it sounds logical. But this very demand for consistency often gives people an excuse to do nothing. “The perfect is the enemy of good” wrote the French philosopher Voltaire. Personally, I chose people who act inconsistently good rather than consistently bad. I applaud people who are trying, who take little steps, and who, with an open mind and being honest towards themselves, look at what they can and cannot yet do.

A case in point is the British actor Ricky Gervais, who is often giving hunters and other animal abusers flack, and is asking us not to hurt animals. Now, vegans could (and often will) accuse him of being a hypocrite, and maybe one would be right. There’s definitely a lack of consistency there. But looking at Gervais’ thoughts and behaviour on Facebook, I can see that Gervais genuinely cares about animals. This caring can grow and grow when it is encouraged. When, on the other hand, we call out his beliefs and behavior as hypocritical, I think such progress would be far less likely.*


The main consequence of calling people hypocrites might be that people do nothing because they don’t want to be called that. What if Ricky stopped biting hunters asses because he would get tired of being called a hypocrite? The ever eloquent Jonathan Safran Foer puts it this way:

“We have to get away from the expectation of perfection because it really intimidates people who would otherwise make an effort. People use the fear of hypocrisy to justify total inaction. I wish I weren’t as hypocritical as I am but I think that’s just part of what it means to be a person.”

Let’s not give people an excuse to do nothing by calling them hypocrites. And let’s have a little more faith in humans. Because when positive evolution happens in the world, it starts with small steps taken by all those inconsistent but well-intentioned people.

Want to read more about the psychology of communication? Check out my new book, How to Create a Vegan World


Leaving room for doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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