Author and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was slammed by host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain for being a hypocrite (check out the shouting match here). Monbiot wanted to talk about the ethics of factory farming, but didn’t get much of a chance: Morgan called him out for wearing a leather watch strap.
It’s a scene all too familiar for many vegetarians and vegans: people focus on the bits where we’re inconsistent or not perfect (the medication, the plane rides, the leather belt…), and that seems to give them an excuse to not listen to anything interesting we may have to tell. In this post I briefly want to explore the topic of consistency: how consistent should we be? Is consistency necessarily the best thing? And should we give in to the demands for consistency (and perfection)?
For the sake of the argument, I will assume that what Monbiot chose to wear indeed suggests a certain degree of inconsistency. I’ll make abstraction of the fact that, as he later tweeted, his watch-strap may not have been real leather, and that both it and his shoes may have been bought before he went vegan (in my opinion it’s perfectly okay to wear out old leather clothing as a vegan). So, for the rest of this post, let’s just assume his shoes and watch strap are leather, and that we don’t know when he bought them.
Monbiot has come out as a vegan and has done a lot to raise awareness about the problems of animal products and the livestock industry. It’s true that he changed his mind a couple of times on these issues, but that’s one reason I appreciate him. Changing one’s mind in public requires courage, and there is, in my view, nothing admirable in sticking to one’s opinion when one actually doesn’t believe in it anymore.
Now, Monbiot, in talking about veganism while wearing leather, showed – it cannot be denied – a certain degree of inconsistency (again, we’re ignoring the idea that he might have bought it before he went vegan). Accusing someone else of inconsistency or hypocrisy is a favored way to discredit them or their views. Which is exactly why people who want to look convincing will try to avoid appearing inconsistent. Also in the vegan realm we spend a lot of effort in making sure no one can say “gotcha!” to us. Monbiot could have thought of this beforehand, and could have worn a stylish vegan watch and ditto shoes. Then, when asked the question by Morgan, he could have proudly talked about how yes, even his watch and shoes were free from animal products. Gotcha, Morgan! Problem avoided!
But is it that simple, really? I’m sure a lot of vegans think it is, but let me – as usual – play the devil’s advocate here.
First of all, one thing to keep in mind is that when people are out to find a reason to discredit us, they will find it. It’s like asking the vegan whether she kills mosquitoes. If she answers yes, the non-vegan will shout “aha! inconsistent!” But if she says no, she’ll hear “fundamentalist!” Monbiot might have fared better without the leather – and the headlines would be different – but Morgan probably would have invented something else to accuse his opponent of. He was clearly in attack mode, and wanted to find something to undermine Monbiot’s credibility. As Monbiot tweeted: “It goes to show – you can prepare your arguments to the last dot and comma, but if someone is out to get you, there’ll always be a way.”
Part of this desire to spot inconsistencies – which is a form of do-gooder derogation – is of course that people think it gives them a way out. If the vegan (or other do-gooder) can be depicted as a hypocrite, there is, they think, no reason for them to change their thoughts or behavior.
How do we win over the most people?
What I mainly want to address here is the question of whether being entirely consistent is always the best way to win hearts and minds. In Monbiot’s case, him explaining that yes, his watch and his shoes are actually vegan (which he didn’t do, to be clear) may have caused admiration for his consistency, but it may also have caused a feeling of: “whew, these people go very far!” The zeal with which vegans are vegan, may seem daunting and inimitable rather than admirable.
Of course, there are degrees in this. Consistency itself is relative. That may sound a bit like a paradox, but it isn’t. When I give examples of my own inconsistencies (drinking non-vegan wine when out of the house or not inquiring about the ingredients of bread in a restaurant), these may seem like grave crimes to some vegans (enough to call me a non-vegan), while most non-vegans will hardly see them as examples of inconsistencies in the first place. In Monbiot’s case, suppose he was sitting there pleading for an end to animal agriculture while eating a box of chicken nuggets (I know, but just suppose).That would be an extremely grave and blatant inconsistency that probably wouldn’t have led to anything good.
It’s about communication
So, the question I have is: what is the right degree of consistency? I’m ignoring the fact that no one can be entirely avoid animal products. If you think I’m wrong, check this TED talk about how pig parts can be found in no less than 185 non-food products. Here, I’m rather talking about what degree of consistency will garner the most goodwill from other people – goodwill in the sense that they will move closer to wanting to follow our example. It’s about finding the balance between the risk of seeming uncommitted, on the one hand, and appearing fundamentalist, on the other. That is probably why Monbiot said that he wasn’t “militant about it”. Not because of laziness or because, as the rude Morgan implied, because he loves his luxury products. But because he knows that appearing militant is not attractive for many people. Monbiot has called himself 97% vegan before, and for many people, that might be a much more appealing prospect than a 100% vegan. (Undoubtedly some vegans will sing the “there is no such thing as a 97% vegan” refrain now.)
Many vegans don’t see any dilemma here at all, and just state that we should be entirely consistent because animal products entail animal suffering – period. But, creating a negative impression can also create animal suffering, or at least prevent less suffering than a good image could. As I’ve written before, what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out of it. Your own consumption has an impact, but the impact of the way you advocate is potentially much, much bigger.
The answer to my question – about the right degree of consistency – is that I’m not sure. I would welcome research that tells us whether it is consistency or a certain flexibility that is most appealing to others. As far as I know, nothing much has been studied on the subject.
We don’t need to be perfect – nor should we pretend to be
For now, I’m trusting that decent and thinking people will be turned off not by Monbiot’s inconsistency but by Morgan’s calling him out for it. The ones that are calling Monbiot hypocritical are probably not ready to take any steps anyway.
I’m hoping that this episode won’t reaffirm vegans in their belief that they have to be perfect. I hope they won’t strive for consistency über alles, and won’t spend a disproportionate amount of attention on the tiny details, while losing the bigger picture. I’m hoping it won’t lead some of them to tell others that they cannot call themselves vegan if they still do eat or wear this or that, with the risk of alienating these people from veganism or the movement.
Maybe part of the solution lies in us not emphasizing our own consistency or perfection, and presenting veganism as an aspiration rather than something we are always achieving. If we don’t pretend it’s a black and white thing, maybe people will be less tempted to call vegans out when they spot an inconsistency. What if we said we’re 99% vegan?
Vegans are not perfect, and not perfectly consistent. And the fear of appearing inconsistent shouldn’t stop us from focusing on what’s really important, and that is reducing animal suffering, and communicating in a way that helps other people warm up to that idea. If a doofus like Pierce Morgan wants to attack, he will. People like him should not determine what our ideal course of action is.
Monbiot, in the meantime, is a great person to have in the vegan camp. No amount of leather on his body will efface the impact of his articulate writing on, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time.