On Defining Veganism

Vegan Musings - defining veganism
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What is veganism?

A wise person once said, “It is what it is… and it’s not what it’s not.”  In the interest of dispelling some common myths and misconceptions, let’s begin with what veganism is not.

Veganism is not:

  •  a vague concept open to a vast array of interpretations that has “as many definitions as there are vegans”.
  • It is not a “diet”, a “lifestyle”, a “fad” or a “phase”.
  • It is not a lofty, seemingly unattainable goal at the end of a long and arduous “journey” (if veganism is any part of a journey, it’s the first step on the path toward living a life where justice is a priority and morals matter, not the last step).
  • It is not some “moral high ground” or a (faux) ivory tower from which one claims superiority over those who are non-vegan.
  • It is not a game where one makes up one’s own rules and “cheats” when the mood strikes.
  • It is not a “menu choice” or cuisine option.
  • Veganism is not the same as vegetarianism, which is the arbitrary exclusion of one or more animal products from one’s diet while continuing to consume other animal products and/or secretions  (thereby promoting some animal exploitation rather than all animal exploitation) and there is no such creature as a “vegan-vegetarian” or “vegetarian-vegan”.  To refer to oneself (or someone else, or a diet) as such would be like saying, “I flew here in an airplane-helicopter” or “Look at that beautiful elephant-walrus!”.  The fact that the two may have similarities does not make them synonymous or interchangeable.  Just ask any walrus who’s had an unwanted encounter with an overstimulated elephant…

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To treat veganism as anything other than the definition that follows is to confuse some very important matters and is a tremendous disservice to the non-human individuals whose lives depend on presenting and maintaining a clear, consistent vegan message.

Veganism is:

  • “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.  In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”Vegan Society 1979

Please note that, in the definition, the dietary aspect of veganism is mentioned secondary to the ethical aspect.  This is not an accident or an oversight.  It is intentional and for good reason.  While there is an obvious and important dietary component to living vegan, it goes much deeper than mere food choices.

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If we are to educate others about veganism, it’s incumbent upon us to not only have a clear understanding of what veganism is, but to make sure we’re able to convey that message clearly and consistently by not intentionally or tactily promoting what veganism is not.  We need to say what we mean and mean what we say (and not say it mean!) if people are to understand the information we’re trying to give them because, again, billions of innocent lives are at stake.

The simplest and most immediate action one can take to stop the violent oppression of the most vulnerable members of our global society – non-human individuals – is to start living vegan, as this is the primary means of dismantling speciesism and moves us toward achieving the abolition of animal enslavement and exploitation for human pleasure, tradition and convenience.  If you are already vegan, please educate others about veganism.  If you are not vegan and believe that animals matter morally, please consider living vegan as it is the choice that matches your morals.

I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites.

Live vegan.  Educate others.  Start now, here’s how:

An Open Letter to Sir Paul McCartney

Dear Sir Paul McCartney,

I’ve got a feeling my words have as much chance of reaching you directly as might a letter addressed to Santa Claus, but I thought I might try anyway…

As a lifelong fan of your work, I have found you to be an inspiration from as far back as I can remember.  Your words and music have provided the larger part of the soundtrack of my life, carrying me through all that I have experienced, and for this I am eternally grateful.

Having lived vegan since 2004, I would like to share something I find unsettling about a piece of your work, something that has the potential to live in people’s memories – and on YouTube – for years to come.

Upon watching a rebroadcast of your performance of “Scrambled Eggs” (above) with Jimmy Fallon from December 2010, I was struck with the following thoughts:

Part of the Fallon bit involved you taking a “vegetarian” stand against singing “chicken wings,” yet you appeared perfectly comfortable singing a song about scrambled eggs (and yes, I’m aware of the origin of that lyric and how it eventually became Yesterday.  The joke is not lost on me; I just don’t find allusions to animal exploitation funny).  Surely you’re aware of the horrible conditions and miserably short lives laying hens suffer through as they are forced to produce unnatural quantities of eggs for human consumption.  Statistically, chickens are the most exploited and abused animals on the planet, and the retirement plan for all these individuals  – and all non-humans used for their bodies and secretions to satisfy human pleasures and conveniences (be they “free range”, “cage-free”, “humanely”-raised, etc.) – is a trip to the slaughterhouse and a sharp blade across the throat.

Initially, I found your performance delightful and, probably because of its charm, I nearly missed the subtext that it’s not ok to eat chickens but it is ok to enslave them and eat their eggs.  By extension, this message further implies that some forms of animal exploitation are acceptable while others are not.  I find this message baffling and inconsistent.

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To paraphrase Voltaire (by way of Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee above), “With great power comes great responsibility.”  I submit that your words and actions have the power to influence countless numbers of people worldwide for generations to come, and I respectfully ask that you be mindful and sing responsibly.

I once applauded your long-time commitment to vegetarianism and your work in bringing the idea of Meat Free Mondays to a world audience.  Today I fully understand that vegetarians, by abstaining from some arbitrarily-chosen animal products while continuing to consume others, remain complicit in all other forms of animal exploitation except the one or two they’ve given up.  I used to involve myself in “vegan” outreach in South Florida utilizing the Glass Walls video you narrate and handing out what I now know to be speciesist litter-ature to educate passersby as to the horrors of the animal agriculture industry and specifically factory farming.  Today I believe that, by failing to engage the public in true, unequivocal vegan education focusing on the idea that all animal use, no matter how much “cruelty” is involved, is morally unjustifiable, wrong and needs to be abolished, we did a great disservice to the animals we thought we were trying to help.  By focusing heavily on factory farms, we may well have been tacitly promoting small farms while the truth is that every animal on every farm, regardless of size (and this includes backyard animal exploiters), is treated as property, is denied the right to a free and autonomous life and will live and die solely for purposes deemed important and profitable by humans.  Slavery is always wrong, and even the “kindest” slave owner is still a slave owner.  This is the difference between promoting animal “welfare” and the abolition of animal use.

Sir Paul, I can’t help but wonder why, with the knowledge and resources at your disposal, you would remain vegetarian and welfarist all these years rather than taking a stand for social justice and animal rights by making the firm commitment to live vegan and eschewing the consumption of all products of animal exploitation.  Can you imagine the difference you would make by publicly taking that simple step and helping educate the world that veganism needs to be the moral baseline for our treatment of non-human individuals?  After all, it’s not how we use animals that’s at issue – it’s that we use them for our own gains in the first place.  There’s a paradigm waiting to be shifted, and this is the kind of action that can move that process along.

Vegetarianism is a journey going nowhere, man.  It’s a long and winding road that leads individuals of other species to the same place all non-vegan roads lead – the slaughterhouse door.

My hope is that my words reach you as yours have reached me, and that the ideas I’ve presented reach even further to your mind, your sense of justice and your heart.

Sir Paul, please please live vegan and use your voice to educate others.  Don’t let me – and the animals – down.

Wishing you peace, love and continued success,

Keith Berger

Co-founder, South Florida Vegan Education Group

Boca Raton, Florida, USA (phone number available upon request if you wanna ring me up!)

Live vegan.  Educate others.  Start now, here’s how:

www.BeFairBeVegan.com

Edited from an earlier version first published on Facebook on 9/9/2015

Carrying the Message

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A conversation starter!

 Mom Never Taught Me Not to Talk to Strangers

The t-shirt I wore recently when Elena and I were in Lake Worth sparked a nice conversation with a stranger.  As we passed a gentleman on the street, he smiled and commented, “Love your shirt!”.  I thanked him and we continued on.

On our way back, we decided to give him our Embracing Veganism pamphlet and our card.  We ended up talking with him and his companion about veganism for about 15 minutes.  As it turns out, our new friend Alex has been vegan for a year and is currently studying plant-based nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.  Although he said he’s vegan for ethical reasons and seems to understand the fundamental issues of justice involved, he stated, “Even if people reduce their meat consumption, that helps… although I hate even saying that.”  My reply was, “Then don’t say it!  When we make statements like that and encourage people to ‘reduce’, we’re tacitly implying that some animal exploitation is still acceptable.  Would you suggest to anyone that some use of child pornography is ok as long as they take weekends off and treat the kids ‘humanely’?”  He laughed and said, “No, of course not. Thanks, that makes so much sense!”

I assured him we’re not in the habit of just handing literature to random people in the street and hoping something in the content will get them to make the connection that all animal use is morally unjustifiable and start living vegan, but that we had done quite a bit of that in the past in support of various animal welfare organizations and ultimately found it ineffective and counterproductive (especially considering such literature intentionally fails to focus on animal use as opposed to abuse).  I asked him to consider whether,  if I were an astrophysics professor who really wanted people to become astrophysicists, he felt it would be reasonable to expect that, by standing in the street and handing out astrophysics textbooks to passersby (“Go astrophysicist…?”), those people would go home, read the books, have epiphanies and suddenly decide to become astrophysicists.  Alex replied, “No”.  I said, “That’s why there are classes on that subject – because some things require education – and that’s why we created a vegan education group.”  He agreed and complimented me for “…not just randomly handing information to people, but having an educational platform to back it up.”

Choosing the Message We Carry, and Carrying the Message We Choose

I used to wear rock-n-roll t-shirts every chance I got and have always had a knack for picking out a shirt in the morning that would prompt a conversation sometime that day, so I would inevitably end up talking with people about Paul McCartney, or Elvis Costello, or Fountains of Wayne and so on… and as much as I love those shirts, I’ve retired them all to the closet.  Here’s why – while those conversations can be fun (“You like Utopia Parkway too?  Let’s chat!”), I’d much rather talk about, educate about and inspire veganism.  I still have that knack for picking the right shirt and the conversations still happen, only now they’re meaningful in a way that matters deeply to me and makes real change in the world.  Whenever I’m at a concert (and I am a confirmed concert junkie…), the people behind me will be seeing a vegan message for about three hours – rather than, say, a list of Counting Crows 2003 tour dates – and I’m more than willing to discuss their thoughts on it once the show’s over.  If that opportunity doesn’t present, at the very least I’ve given them something to think about.

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“Hey Elvis, you like Paul McCartney too?? Oh, right – you’ve worked with him numerous times… never mind.”

Similarly, since the subject in which I want to engage people is veganism, I no longer wear shirts that promote single-issue campaigns like circuses, rodeos, etc. or the animal welfare organizations behind such campaigns (I’ve donated quite a few to the homeless).  Also, I no longer wear shirts that talk about going “veg” or anything other than vegan, as such vague terminology leads us away from being clear and consistent in our efforts to end the injustice of animal exploitation.  As it’s been difficult to find shirts with uncompromising vegan messages (aside from the one pictured above), I’ve begun designing my own for personal use.  That way, I can be sure the message I carry is one in which I wholeheartedly believe.

The Theory of Positive, Neutral and Negative

I’ve found that when interacting with a stranger, the usual outcome falls into one of three categories:  Positive, Neutral and Negative.  Positive means that something positive transpires during or as a result of the interaction (i.e.; a friend or connection is made, pleasantries and/or ideas are exchanged); Neutral means nothing notable happens (though one never can tell how a seemingly random encounter may profoundly alter one’s life, which may indicate a 4th category – Neutral-Positive); Negative means something unpleasant resulted from the interaction (i.e.; harsh words are exchanged, disagreement or worse happens).  For me, this means there’s at least a 66% chance (2/3 or better) that speaking with a stranger will result in either a positive or neutral/neutral-positive outcome and only a 33% or less chance that it will result in a negative outcome.

Considering those odds, in the interest of engaging in and enjoying life – and creating opportunities for dismantling speciesism through vegan education – I’ll keep talking to strangers!

Live vegan.  Educate others.  Start now, here’s how:

Why “Every Little Bit Helps” Isn’t Helping A Bit

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If you’re vegan, chances are you can identify with the following statements:

“I find it frustrating that non-vegans are either unable or unwilling to understand and agree with the simple concept that, if one believes it’s wrong to harm and kill animals unnecessarily, then the only sensible solution is to start living vegan.  Logic proves this while profit-driven marketing propaganda claims there are ‘humane’ ways to exploit and kill innocent, vulnerable beings.  If only non-vegans would listen to the facts!”

If you’re abolitionist vegan, chances are you can identify with the following statements:

“I find it frustrating that vegans who support animal welfare ideology are either unable or unwilling to understand and agree with the simple concept that welfarism – despite seeming to be well-intentioned – has not worked, is not working and will not work as a means of dismantling speciesism and ending the use of animals for the satisfaction of fleeting human pleasures and conveniences.  Empirical evidence proves this while self-serving pseudoscience claims the opposite is true.  If only welfarists would listen to the facts!”

[Note: identifying as an abolitionist vegan does not necessitate aligning oneself with, interacting with, promoting or otherwise supporting any particular individual, group, community, website or social media page(s).  SFVEG does, however, find great benefit in sharing ideas, advocacy strategies and support with other abolitionist vegans whose approaches and sensibilities resonate with our own.  Let’s talk!]

In both of the above cases, the innate human characteristics of selfishness (“What’s in it for me?”), laziness (“How much energy am I going to have to spend on this?”) and a desire to be right at all costs (“I’m right, you’re wrong… and I’m also right!”) set up stumbling blocks to accepting new and vital information.  The result is defensiveness born of cognitive dissonance (“If what you’re telling me is true, that means my firmly-held beliefs are wrong and I’ll need to make significant changes… and that can’t be simply because it can’t be, so clearly you’re wrong and I’m right because I believe I’m right!”) and an almost impenetrable wall of denial is immediately constructed.

What do we do when we encounter seemingly insurmountable resistance to our vegan message?  Do we tell ourselves the cause is lost, let it go and move on to someone more receptive to the message we’re carrying?  Sure, that’s tempting – we only have so many hours in the day, so many ways to say what we want to say and so much energy to put forth… or do we try to remember that, in both cases, the lives of vulnerable sentient beings hang in the balance and rise to this challenge by doing our level best to present our case, knowing that we must advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves just as we would want others to do for us were we in a similarly vulnerable position?  In each and every situation in which we have the opportunity to talk about veganism with others, we have a choice to make – educate or retreat.


As you listen to those who support animal welfare ideology, you will hear some frequently repeated phrases, all of which seem to have merit on the surface:

“It’s a start.”

“Every little bit helps.”

“It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we’re doing something.”

“We don’t have to use the word ‘vegan‘ to get a vegan message across.”

“If we ask people to go vegan, we’ll push them away.”

“We’re all abolitionists, but people won’t go vegan overnight.  Welfare will get us there faster.”

“The best way to get people to go vegan is to cook them a yummy vegan meal.  Don’t talk to them about the animals.”


Here is one generally accepted definition of the word “insanity”:

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.


Where do these ideas intersect?

Our Best Thinking Got Us Here

“It’s a start”, “Every little bit helps” and similar sentiments have been among the rallying cries of the animal welfare movement since it began over 200 years ago.  Despite recent pseudoscientific “studies” by welfare organizations that intentionally distort reality by skewing their own data to support their own specious claims that “X-million fewer animals were killed” and “suffering has been greatly reduced” by promoting Meatless Monday, distributing speciesist literature and other single-issue animal welfare campaigns or SICs (many of which are of their own creation), here is where the greatest minds and intentions of the “leaders” and “fathers” of the animal welfare movement have gotten us: today, an ever-increasing number of non-human individuals (now in the trillions each year) are being enslaved, exploited and executed for the satisfaction of human pleasure and convenience.

If it’s true that “every little bit helps”, shouldn’t that number be decreasing rather than increasing?  If fill-in-the-blank is a “start”, shouldn’t two centuries have been sufficient to see at least some forward movement rather than what appears to be momentum in the opposite direction?

Experience Counts

A decade of promoting, engaging in and supporting welfarist single-issue campaigns left me with me ten years’ worth of firsthand experience in just how ineffective and counterproductive they are – Lolita the killer whale is now in her 45th year of captivity, Ringling and other circuses continue to use animals (and pimp their enslaved elephants into medical “research” and zoo breeding programs), people still wear fur and buy puppies from puppy mills and grocery stores continue to sell live lobsters to people they know are going to brutally kill them.  These are just some of the failed campaigns to which I and numerous others devoted our time and energy.  I deeply regret not having allowed myself to realize sooner that this simply does not work.  The photo of me below neatly illustrates the ineffectiveness of such “advocacy” (see photo caption for details):

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Taken in 2009, Keith is pictured holding two signs that speak of animal *treatment*, rather than *use*, and promoting three welfarist organizations simultaneously. Note the two individuals walking past while Keith poses for his photo op rather than engaging with them. Also, note that not even a broken right hand could keep him from participating in one of his favorite speciesist events.

Veganism Is Not A “Goal” To Be Reached – It’s The Starting Point Of A New Life

Convincing a non-vegan to choose a vegan option (garden salad vs. cottage cheese, for example) is not a “start” – it’s a momentary food choice that makes zero impact in how that person views the exploitation of non-human animals.  It moves them no closer to wanting an end to speciesist injustices than does taking a chicken wing out of their hand and replacing it with an apple (because it does not explain anything about the underlying issues), nor does it instill in them the idea that “Vegan food is awesome – I probably could do this vegan thing after all!”  Like nearly everyone, they’ve been eating “vegan” (in reality, “plant-based” is the more accurate term) food their whole lives – fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, etc. – and yet remain non-vegan because they’ve yet to be educated about the moral and ethical reasons for living vegan.

“It’s a start” gets us nowhere.  Getting in a car and turning the key in the ignition is a “start”, but unless one has a clear direction and goal, the car and those in it go nowhere or, at best, end up driving around aimlessly.  If we were to put all the large animal welfare/protection corporations in a bus and then told them the destination is “the end of animal use” (one they would hopefully, but not definitely, all agree on), each of them would suggest a different route to get there, and each of them would want to drive their way based on their belief that theirs is the best and fastest route… and the one that brings each of their organizations the most donations.

Like It Or Not, Animal Welfare Ideologies Reinforce Speciesism

When the victims of a particular injustice are non-human individuals, speciesism is usually the unconscious default position.  For those unfamiliar with the word, here’s a definition:

Speciesism (spe·cies·ism) – noun – by analogy with racism and sexism, an unjust double standard placing higher moral value on some individual animals over others, based solely on the morally irrelevant criterion of species membership.

Second only to non-humans, children are the most vulnerable societal group.  Even though many people may be uncomfortable with the idea of equating humans and non-humans in any way, drawing parallels here is appropriate and necessary to the discussion.  That very discomfort alone exposes the speciesism pervasive in our society, just as discomfort with equating white people and people of color would expose underlying racism.

Knowing that the creation, possession, use and other consumption of child pornography is always wrong, morally unacceptable and represents a grievous oppressive injustice toward a vulnerable group (except, of course, in the minds of those who benefit either personally or professionally from it), we would NEVER take the position that child pornography creators, purveyors or consumers should “cut back” on their consumption, create/sell/purchase/obtain “less” of it, use “less explicit” images/videos, consume it only 6 days a week instead of 7, only view images and videos of certain races, ages or genders of children rather than all or engage in some but not all consumption of it on one’s “journey” to becoming ready to make a full commitment to stopping.  We would NEVER petition for more “humane” working conditions for the child victims of the pornography industry, thereby making a concession that supports the continuation of the oppression as long as it’s done “humanely”.  And we would NEVER display child pornography in public places, on the street or post it on social media in order to show people just how horrible it is… [Warning – Speciesism Ahead!]…

…and yet, because this is animal exploitation and not human exploitation, we set up different sets of standards and engage in everything we would find unacceptable if the victims were human, conveniently overlooking the fact that exploitation is exploitation irrespective of species and that, in the interests of fairness and justice, the same standards ought to apply.

Why Not Apply Animal Welfare Ideologies To Racism?

Speciesism, rooted in the myth of human superiority, begets racism (and other forms of oppression).  Imagine how one might react to the following line of thinking:

“Yes, we believe that all racial discrimination is wrong, but let’s just start with helping end injustices toward African-Americans since they are, in our opinion, the ‘most oppressed’ [insert “facts” and “figures” to support this argument].  We’ll obviously mention Asians, Latinos and other oppressed groups so they’re not entirely left out of the conversation, but we won’t focus on them right now because it’s ‘asking too much’ and we don’t want to push people away by being too ‘demanding’ and asking for an end to all racial discrimination.   Remember, every little bit helps.”

If you think this sounds unacceptable (which it is), consider this statement from animal “protection” group Mercy for Animals from July 2016:

“Because chickens are much smaller than pigs or cows, many more of them need to be killed to get the same poundage of meat.  Comprising 95 percent of the land animals raised and killed for food in the U.S., chickens also lead some of the most miserable lives of all farmed animals.

But that’s just the beginning.”

Interestingly, the last phrase bears a striking resemblance to “It’s a start”.

The MFA Vegetarian Starter Guide (why would an organization that wants people to live vegan put out anything but a vegan starter guide?) states that “The truly humane choice is to cut out or cut back on (italics added for emphasis) chicken, fish, and other animal products”, fostering the idea that some animal use is ok as long as one “cuts back”.  It goes on: “Start by cutting out the foods that harm the most animals… By simply replacing chicken, eggs, and fish with other options (like beef, pork, turkey and lamb?  You didn’t specify “plant-based” options), you can prevent a tremendous amount of animal abuse.”  MFA also makes the following encouraging statements:  “If you give in to a craving for meat, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Remember that perfection isn’t the goal here—none of us is perfect.  It’s far better to eat mostly vegetarian [<—how is “mostly vegetarian” defined?  Perhaps the publication should be retitled “Mostly Vegetarian Starter Guide”] than to do nothing at all.  Show yourself compassion if you have a setback…”  This guide is one of the most speciesist pieces of litter-ature I’ve ever had the displeasure to read and, as such, I will not link to it here.

Would anyone support such a stance if the victims of one’s cravings-induced “setback” were human?  Consider:

“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Serial Killer.  After all, you used to kill 12 people per year at a rate of one per month and now you’ve nearly ditched killing altogether since you only kill one person every three months!  Quarterly killing is far more acceptable than monthly killing, and we all know just how difficult those cravings to kill can be, so go easy on yourself.  It’s progress, not perfection!”

Our Responsibility

If we claim to work for social justice but refuse to use clear and morally consistent messaging to indicate we want a full end to the oppression of non-humans, our lack of clarity becomes a tacit (and sometimes overt) message that some oppression is acceptable while some is not, and the failure of others to hear a clear, consistent, honest message becomes our responsibility because we are choosing not to provide one.  Hence, the continuation of animal exploitation becomes our responsibility since we’re essentially giving people permission to continue oppressing the vulnerable rather than seizing the opportunity to make our case clear from the outset and ongoing that all animal use is wrong and all animal use needs to end.  Delivering a deliberately dishonest message brings one’s integrity into question and runs parallel to the dishonest marketing messages used by animal agriculture and other oppressive industries, which puts one squarely on the same level as them.  I can’t imagine any vegan advocate wants that.

What We’re Doing Matters

Finally, remember this statement from the beginning of the essay?

“It doesn’t matter what we do as long as we’re doing something.”

What we do as vegan advocates matters a great deal, as it is an indicator of who we are.  If we choose to engage in animal welfare campaigns – or promote and support the groups who design them – that are speciesist, racist, sexist, misogynist, xenophobic, ableist, heterosexist, classist, body-shaming, violent, disrespectful to the victims of oppression, misinforming, misleading or blatantly dishonest because we feel the end (abolition of animal use) justifies the means (anything goes as long as we get there), then we are supporting one or more forms of oppression while advocating against another, and that calls into question the integrity of those who do so.  This weakens our power to effect change and reinforces the mythology that vegans are unreasonable, fanatical extremists who should be either avoided at all costs or mercilessly mocked.  When this happens, the message is lost.

“It’s a start” gets us nowhere.  If animal welfare were the Olympics, these million false starts would result in disqualifications, and they have gotten us no closer to the finish line of abolishing animal use.  If you want to be an effective vegan advocate, there is only one truly effective start:

Start engaging in clear, consistent, unequivocal vegan education to dismantle speciesism and abolish animal use, and don’t stop.

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Live vegan.  Educate others.  Start now, here’s how: