The dark side of our movement – responses to criticism

Many people like what I write. I’ve been getting lots of invitations to talk all over Europe and have been travelling quite frequently to spread a message of friendly and pragmatic vegan outreach.

From a few other people, I get criticism. Sometimes this criticism is constructive. Most of the time it is quite unfair and often it is very nasty.
It seems that activists who bring a different, less orthodox message than the vegan-is-the-moral-baseline one, are – at least to some people – fair game to be ridiculed, attacked, shamed and misrepresented. This is disconcerting and doesn’t bode well for our movement.

Just a few examples of the crap I’ve had to deal with lately – without naming any names. One person has published his own compilation of video fragments of my talks, with no sense of fairness, cutting off where he felt it was okay and interjecting the snippets with comments of his own. The same person has published his own secret recording of a podcast debate that the podcast organisers eventually decided not to publish. He has also secretly videotaped me answering his public demand for an apology, during a talk in Dublin, for using the words “crazy vegans”. He published his recording – in which I admitted to a few personal things, unaware of the fact that I was being recorded – on the web.

I recently left one forum, where I was continuously abused by some of the critics. The moderator couldn’t be bothered with interfering and has at times actually encouraged the bullying. I left the group. Since then, as people kept discussing and bashing me, a temporary cease-tobias-discussion was called for, but apparently to not much avail.

At a recent festival where I spoke, the organiser deemed it better to provide personal security for me (a bodyguard), which he now claims I asked for (when I asked if disruptions of talks, like what happened At the 2015 Luxemburg International Animal Right Conference, would be allowed). The organizer doesn’t agree with my views, but to his credit let me speak anyway. Since the talk though, the organizer – now very much influenced by “the abolitionist approach” – has behaved very unprofessionally towards me, saying I encourage people to exploit animals, and has stated he would no sooner invite me again as a speaker than someone from McDonald’s.

These people are supposed to care. They seem to want to phase out ableism, sexism, ageism etc, along with speciesism – which I support. But while doing that, they are behaving more unpleasantly than I imagine most ableists, sexists, racists or speciesists would behave. In any case, I can honestly say that in 17 years of activism, I never got this kind of nastiness from farmers or people in the animal abuse industry.

There is a person behind these blogs. A person who wants a vegan world (at least) as much as the next vegan. A person who at times feels hurt and sad at all these allegations and misrepresentations. I’ve had two serious burn-outs over the years, the last one quite recently. I guess I’m more resilient than most, and I can perfectly imagine that many committed people have given up on being active in the vegan movement after abuse like this. I’m afraid me giving up on activism is what these people are after. That is a very, very sad thought.

Frankly, I’m quite disgusted. I have blocked most of the people waging this vendetta against me, and though they keep popping up here and there, I am usually doing a pretty good job at ignoring them. I wrote this piece, and my response to their criticisms, as a way of explaining myself to people who might be tempted to believe any of their allegations.

If you appreciate what I do, you can help by sharing and promoting this blog, my Facebook page and video presentations. That way you can help me make up for some of the time I need to invest in replying to these ridiculous statements. And you can help bring more much needed pragmatism to our movement, and thus help animals. Thanks for your support! I’ll focus on the positive!

And if you have questions, feel free to ask them!

Are you vegan enough?

I’ve written before that sometimes I have the impression that veganism was invented when someone wanted to found the world’s smallest club. It seems that some people (let us call them the real vegans here, for the sake of convenience – the term in itself is not used in a derogatory way) desperately want to keep out as many others as possible and keep the vegan movement small.

Whenever someone is discovered to do or to believe something “unorthodox”, the real vegans are quick to point it out, and to say that person x or y is clearly not a vegan. If the real vegans owned the copyrights for the terms “vegan” and “veganism”, they would forever forbid those unorthodox people from ever calling themselves vegan again. The real vegans seem to think that the biggest threat to animal rights is that the concept of veganism gets watered down.

Take what happened to Ellen Degeneres a few years ago, when she said something about her household getting their eggs from the neighbor’s chickens. Let’s forget for a moment that it wasn’t clear at all that Ellen herself was eating these eggs. The real vegan outcry over it was immediate. Look at this reaction, for instance, which denounces Ellen’s veganism rather bluntly, and says she was never a vegan in the first place.

Apart from being blunt, I find such an attitude stupendously unstrategic. Why on earth would someone alienate one of the world’s most outspoken supporters of veganism on the suspicion that she eats eggs from her neighbor’s happy* chickens?

I’ve had similar personal experiences. I have found my own veganism (or lack thereof, in real vegans‘ eyes) discredited after admitting that I am not picky about wine (giving wine the benefit of the doubt when the clarifying agent is not mentioned on the label). Also, stating that I hypothetically *would* eat a steak for million dollars, so that I could give that money to a vegan organisation, is enough to be not considered a vegan, apparently. I know active members in the vegan community who think like me, but who know that saying it out loud causes too many problems. Confessing one is only 99.9% vegan is enough to be enitirely discredited, apparently. The value of one’s opinions is then null and void in real vegans‘ eyes.

How big then, is the contrast between the castigation of Ellen and the openness of the original Vegan Society UK, where veganism was conceived! In the 1951 version of its rules, those vegan pioneers say:

(describing the people who will be most helpful in assisting the Society in achieving its objectives:) “An Associate makes no promise as to behaviour but declares himself in agreement with the object. The door is thus widely opened, and the Society welcomes all who feel able to support it.”

To focus on agreement with the objectives, rather than on strict adherence to the (dietary and other) prescriptions seems to me not an unwise move. Maybe we should shift our focus more on veganism as a tool for achieving the goal of improving the lives of animals and substantially reducing animal abuse & suffering. Not on veganism itself as a goal, but as a means to getting closer to the goal. 1951-style thinking seems to be much more sensible than a lot of today’s thinking and communication by real vegans.

What is behind veganism is compassion. If consistency is important, then surely the most important consistency is consistency with that very compassion that is veganism’s underlying principle.

If anyone is not a real vegan, maybe it is rather the real vegans uncompassionately calling out the vegans who in their view are not going far enough? In any case, I hope no vegan, who for pragmatic, compassionate reasons may think or do things that some consider unorthodox, will let themselves be bullied away from calling themselves vegan. The worst that could happen is that our vegan movement would in the end be represented only by those who believe purity is more important than effectiveness.

(this article has been slightly edited since the original version)

* I know the use of the word “happy” in this context is debatable, but I consciously chose not to put it in square quotes, as I think that sends a wrong message also.