Making compassion easier: new presentation

This is a greatly updated version of my presentation Making Compassion Easier: a strategy for achieving vegan critical mass. I gave it at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg, sept. 2015.

Keywords of this strategy are moral vs nonmoral, pragmatism, incrementalism, meat reduction.

Your comments are welcome. I’m continuously updating my thoughts, so this strategy is entirely a work in progress.

Thinking is vegan

Reading Facebook comments about Beyonce’s announcement about her food choices made me think that a big part of our movement has lost it. I read hundreds of vegans complaining about Beyonce and criticizing her. This great videoblog by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, in which she refutes the criticsm, makes you see the craziness with which some of us approach all things (non) vegan all the more clearly. I urge you to watch it. It’s a breath of fresh air.Thinking is vegan

I think some of us have stopped thinking. Having an ideology, even if it’s a nice one, can be damaging for one’s ability to think. Veganism seems pretty clear cut in many ways. It seems straightforward, there’s few real counterarguments one might bring in against it, it seems consistent, etcetera. So we’re tempted to think the thinking is done. That it has been done for us, already decades ago.

Maybe that’s the case. Maybe we have some sort of complete and clear definition of what is and what is not vegan, what is and what is not vegan, etcetera (even though I doubt it). But surely, we are not done thinking about the best way to bring veganism to the masses. The way we define veganism and the way we try to mainstream it are intertwined. We need to think about both. We need, above all, to be strategic and not dogmatic about being vegan and about communicating about veganism.

How what you eat determines what you think

In my post Let Beyonce be I wrote about how we forget that not only may attitude influence behavior, but behavior may also influence attitude. What this means is that the way we behave regarding something, influences our beliefs about it. These beliefs can then be seen as rationalisations of the behavior.

Here is what I think is an example of that. I’d welcome your input if you think I’m mistaken. Look at the picture below: a toreador on the left, a slaughterhouse worker on the right. Basically, these people do the same thing: their profession is killing cows. If you present this picture to a general (omnivore) audience and ask: which of these people do you resent the most, then you know the answer is going to be the toreador. But why?

butcher and toreador

When I ask this question in presentations, I get different answers, maybe the main one being that while the toreador kills animals for entertainment, the butcher is at least concerned with something essential like food. This may very well be the way people look at it, although I’d venture to say that eating meat is obviously not less trivial than an age old “tradition”. Another reason people give is that bullfighting is more like torture, while the slaughterer’s task is to provide a killing that is as quick and painless as possible. These and other explanations are certainly valid, but I think there’s a more important reason for the fact that people judge these two cases very differently:

Most people are not participating in bullfights in any way, so it’s easy for them to disapprove of the bullfighter. Most people are eating meat, so disapproving of the butcher is a lot harder. So I think this is a case of people’s behavior influencing their beliefs.

What this means is that if we want people’s beliefs about eating animals to change, it is very important that we, as a society, become less dependent on animals for meat. The newest generation of meat substitutes (in the US: Gardein, Beyond Meat etc) are doing a great job at that, and also in vitro meat could obviously be of incredible significance.

By all means, keep informing people about the negative aspects of meat, as with some that will change their behavior. But consider also that the other way around is important too. Help make sure they have tasty vegan food experiences.

Let Beyonce be. About the biggest oversight in our movement

While many vegans applaud the fact that Beyonce is so outspoken about vegan eating, many others are critical of it. Among others, some folks from Direct Action Everywhere movement (which I’m still investigating but so far have been underwhelmed by) claims that “Beyonce going vegan is bad for the animals.” Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Beyonce never said she was going vegan. We’ve heard it all before: Beyonce is not emphasising animal rights as the reason for her vegan efforts, but rather health. Many vegans demand that animals are always at the center of everything vegan. Health should have nothing to do with it. This is about morality, about ethics, about justice. Veganism can not be some fad or lifestyle thing. Right? Not really, I think. There is one thing that in my view is an enormous oversight in our movement, and its importance cannot be overstated. Here it comes: Behaviour change may precede attitude change. quote attitude behaviourRead it again, and try to let it sink in. We usually work like this: we give people all kinds of information, in the hope that attitude change (different beliefs about eating animals) will lead to behavior change (no longer eating animals). It surely can work like this, but we forget that it also works the other way round, and indeed, much research points to the fact that the other way round might be more effective. What does the other way round mean? It means that people may very well become open to animal rights arguments after changing their eating habbits. They might become “reducetarians” (or even vegans) for health reasons, for instance, or because it is a trendy thing to do. But the important thing is that once they are vegan, or partly vegan, it is much easier for them to listen to animal rights arguments. Why? Because they don’t need to be so defensive anymore. They already know they can eat tasty food, they know they don’t have so much to lose anymore, so their hearts and minds can be open. Attitude change follows behavior change, in this case. This means that in the end, we would all get in the same place, whether people start with animal rights, or not at all, like Beyonce does. It doesn’t matter all that much. A big part of the animal rights movement has  such an obsession with being vegan, and being vegan for the right reasons, that it blinds us to the fact that there are other ways to get where we want. Less direct ways perhaps, but therefore not less efficient ways. On the contrary, encouraging people to start out with whatever reasons they think are suitable, and encouraging them to moderate their consumption of animal products to whatever degree they think is doable, may be the fastest road forward. People might argue that those who become vegan for other than ethical reasons won’t stick to the diet. However, the reason why people don’t stick to the diet is mostly that it’s still not convenient enough (in several ways) to stick to it. As many more people eat more vegan meals (for whatever reason) sticking to it will become easier by the day. So bottom line: let Beyonce be. Let people have their own reasons for reducing or giving up animal products. They’ll be going along with animal rights arguments before you know it.

See also the follow post How what you eat determines what you think.

You might also be interested to check out Different approach, same results, with a sensible article, and also Colleen Patrick Goudreau’s videoblog on Beyonce.

What vegan can learn from glutenfree

The vegan movement can learn something from the glutenfree “movement” (obviously it’s not a movement, but for lack of a better word). It hit me when I saw a woman posting something on Facebook. She wrote that for her, being glutenfree is a matter of life and death (she suffers from celiac disease and even a gram of gluten can have serious consequences), while there’s all these people who kind of “pretend” they need to be glutenfree. This makes it difficult for her to make e.g. waiters in restaurants understand that they have to take her special diet request very seriously (because, you know, that last gluten free person didn’t mind a little bit of this or that in their dish – sounds familiar?). However, she said, it is thanks to all these would-be glutenfree intolerants that she now can choose among a wealth of food products, in both stores and restaurants – products which a couple of years ago were simply not available.


Maybe you can see the parallel (probably not 100% correct, as parallels usually aren’t) with our vegan movement: here too, we have a small group of genuine vegans on the one hand, for whom eating vegan is extremely important, and on the other hand, a much bigger group of people who like to eat vegetarian/vegan now and then (to different degrees). Lots of the “genuine” ones will complain about the “loose” types and call them hypocrites or fakers, but we have to face it: they are a larger group than the one (or two) percent vegans, and it is they who create demand.

Let me say this again, because it is important: it is the big group of meat reducers that is creating the demand for vegetarian products. Food producers mainly cater to this group when creating vegetarian products. The increased choice of products, however, makes it easier to become stricter and stricter, more and more vegan.

So instead of calling the meat reducers names, let’s keep in mind that is because of them that being vegan is now so much easier than it used to be.

I leave it to you to think about the strategy take aways 🙂

Professional is the new radical

Maybe you’ve read this anecdote somewhere (I’m not sure if it ever happened): there was this vegan speaker who asked his activist audience who was willing to devote their life to the animals. Everyone shouted yes. Who was willing to die for the animals? Again, all shouted yes. Then he asked: who is willing to shave and put on a suit for the animals? And everyone looked down at their feet and no one said anything.

Some activists pride themselves on things like how many times they’ve been arrested for the animals, or how poor they are because they don’t work and spend all their time on activism. While these may surely be signs of great commitment to the cause of animal liberation, they are not necessarily signs of actual effectiveness – and effectiveness is what animals need from the activists working for them.

Professionalism can mean many things. In this context, I’m interpreting it as making sure that you are being effective for the animals, that what you are doing has impact because it is action in a well chosen field, and/or meticulously, professionally carried out. An NGO can function on a scale from low to high professionalism. One aspect of professionalism is making sure that you look good to the serious people: the people in charge of things, the decision makers. If you need to dress up for that purpose to look more credible, so be it. I see values like “being yourself” or “sticking to who you are” or “speaking your truth at all times” as secondary to achieving impact. At least as long as animals are being killed in droves.

Fortunately, our movement is growing in professionalism, in different ways. The books of Nick Cooney, for instance, have been emphasizing the importance of trying to measure the results of our actions. Animal Charity Evaluators was set up to help people donate to the most effective organisations. The ideas of “effective altruism” are getting more and more traction in our movement. The Humane Research Fund, recently celebrating it’s 15th anniversary, is into getting evidence based data on what works and what doesn’t. Etcetera.

We are also seeing more vegans and animal rights people outside the movement, in strategic positions in society, where they can change things. Sometimes this was a conscious decision, like in the case of Josh Tetrick, who founded Hampton Creek to develop the best egg alternative. Sometimes entrepreneurs become interested in the plant based food topic only later in life, as in the case of Bill Gates. The website lists “numerous high-ranking management, finance, legal, marketing, IT and other office professionals who proudly endorse the vegan lifestyle.” A very hopeful sign that vegans are not just living in the margins of society anymore.

Our movement is definitely maturing, and it’s going fast. It is important to note that all this profesionalisation has nothing to do with selling out or not being true to our values, as some undoubtedly will think. On the contrary, it has everything to do with being the most efficient friends of animals we can be. The meat and dairy industry does not fear us as long as we’re shouting in the streets and playing the vegan police amongst each other. It will fear us all the more when we are as professional and effective as possible.

* this is not my phrase. If someone can tell me who said it first, I’ll credit that person 🙂

Peter Singer receives the award for “strategies to reduce animal suffering” in Berlin

I’m in Berlin right now, to give some seminars in an activist training course. Yesterday I attended an award ceremony for Peter Singer, who was the first recipient of the newly established Peter Singer award for strategies to reduce animal suffering. There had been a lot of rumour of big protests by organisations for the disabled and pro life organisations, but in the end that was all managable. Germany is notorious for anti Peter Singer sentiment.

IMG_20150526_170415 IMG_20150526_174725 IMG_20150526_194746

Peter Singer is one of my heroes, and one of the heroes of the animal rights movement, as well as a hero of shall we call it altruism in general. By the mere power of rational thinking, mixed with a healthy dose of compassion, this modest, soft spoken Australian has done more than almost anyone else to make the world think about not just animals, but what it means to lead a good, ethical life in general. I especially like that his theories about animal rights are only part of the bigger whole of ethical living in general – though of course it’s unfortunate that so many people are misinterpreting him, judge his views without reading him, or plainly don’t understand that it is almost the duty of a philosopher to think thoughts that may sometimes be disturbing to the mainstream.

Some things from the talks that Singer and others gave:

I was pleasantly suprised to hear Singer say (and confirm my own idea) that a vegan world is very well possible. He surprised me even more by saying it could take a very long time, like maybe fifty years. I wouldn’t consider that a very long time at all. He added that it might be less but he didn’t want to be so bold as to predict it would take less than 50 years.

About animal welfare versus animal rights, he said he believes it to be a false dichotomy. He said he doesn’t believe that reforms make meat more acceptable to people, and pointed out that it is *not* the case that people eat more meat in countries where there are more reforms. He says in such countries the problems of the industry have been more exposed and the awareness is bigger. I’m not entirely sure I follow this line of reasoning entirely, but I certainly do believe that animal welfare reforms are not in opposition to abolitionism.

Also present was in the line up of speakers before Singer (is it a German thing to have like eight speakers before the main event?) was Maneka Gandhi, lifelong animal activist and for the 7th time holding a minister position in the Indian government. A vegan herself, she stressed that whatever progress we are making in Western countries, they are making up for it in India: for every new vegan in Berlin there are a thousand vegetarians going back to meat in India. Still she is hopeful. She expects a lot especially from the research into and development of artificial meat, milk and eggs (she mentioned the new startup Muufri). I think she’s right and the importance of biotechnology for the vegan movement should not be underestimated).

European member of parliament Stephan Eck said he had learned from Singer to be bold sometimes and say things against everyone else. He told the audience that when representatives of the rabbit meat industry came to the European parliament, they complained that fourty percent of the businesses in their sector had already gone bankrupt. Stephan Eck, the spirit of Singer whispering in his ear, had taken the microphone and had said: “I promise you that I will do my utmost best to help bring down the remaining sixty percent.” We laughed as he said that there had been an applause at first, till what he had actually said had sunk in and one rabbit-farmer had called him a terrorist.

All in all, a good evening among like minded people. I am thankful for the likes of Peter Singer and others, who use their influence to make the world a better place for animals.

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

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.

On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues

VGKids Sticker TemplateVegans and animal rights activists often draw comparisons between the animal rights movement and other social justice movements, like the anti-slavery campaigns, women’s liberation etc.

While often these comparisons are good illustrations to make people see certain things or think about animals in a different light, I think at the same time we have to be careful with them and not only see the similarities, but also the differences.

I think there’s a particular problem when peoeple use the parallel with human causes to justify NOT fighting for incremental improvements.

This is how it goes:
A pragmatic activist says that he’s in favor of certain reform regulations, such as a ban on unanesthetized castration of piglets. Others (Francione and his “abolitionist” followers, for instance) might counter with something like this (this is an actual quote from someone):

Would anyone advocate for the regulation of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.

The same people may make arguments like: we would never campaign for “humane rape”, and: it’s not ok to just have wife beating-free wednesdays (referring to Meatless Mondays)

I think the comparison here is very shaky at best (and that is putting it mildly). Child sex slavery, rape, or beating your wife are things which 99% of people will disapprove of. Killing animals for food is something at most a few percentage of the population disapproves of and the rest not just condones but actually celebrates. Obviously, issues with such dramatically different public support require different strategies.

In general, I think we should be careful with drawing parallels between the animal issue and other (human) social struggles. Let’s not lose sight of the differences which are relevant. When we do lose sight of them, it may blind us and we may believe we could apply exactly the same tactics or communication style, while better ones may be available.