I recently shared the following experience on Facebook:
Vegan Education Moment of the Day
Whole Foods Checkout Person (WFCP) seeing my purchases: Are you vegetarian… or are you vegan? Me: Vegan. WFCP: How long? Me: 12 years-ish. WFCP: Why did you go vegan? Me: Ethical reasons. I don’t believe my life is more important than someone else’s and won’t participate in the enslavement, exploitation and execution of innocent beings just to satisfy my pleasure. Are you vegan? WFCP: No… I was pescetarian, then I was vegetarian. I was almost vegan, but then one Thanksgiving… Me: You decided that it was ok to have others die for you ? WFCP: Kind of. I feel guilty a lot of the time. Me: Of course you do. If you want to stop feeling guilty, you can make different choices and choose to live vegan.
Considering the short amount of time allowed in this situation, I felt this was a good way to answer her question and give her information. Shortly afterward, however, a sense of dissatisfaction began to creep in at how I handle such interactions generally and I began asking myself how I might better answer the often-asked question, “Why did you go vegan?” My usual impulse has been to make some grand proclamation and hope that it will somehow be relatable and make an impact on my interlocutor… but I’m rethinking this strategy.
Since I’m finding it very effective lately to use a version of the Socratic method (a dialogue technique that “uses creative questioning to dismantle and discard preexisting ideas and thereby allows the respondent to rethink the primary question under discussion”) in some areas of my vegan advocacy, I asked myself whether the same method might be equally effective here. The answer seems to be, it would. After all, human nature seems to dictate that people will believe the words coming out of their own mouths before trusting and believing information presented by strangers, especially when that information appears on the surface to run counter to their established beliefs. Consider this encounter I had a while back with a non-vegan who expressed all-too-familiar protein “concerns”:
Non-vegan: I could never be vegan – I need protein. Me: Where do you think you get your protein now? Non-vegan: [hesitatingly] Animals… Me: Right!!! Now, considering that the animals humans eat for protein are largely herbivores and exclusively eat plants, where do they get their protein? Non-vegan: [hesitatingly] Plants…? Me: Right!!! Soooooo… Non-vegan: I… could just eat… plants! Me: Right!!! You get your needs met and the best part is, no one has to die!
In the past, I would have heard the protein question and took it as an invitation to leap into a verbal dissertation involving everything I know about protein, amino acids and human health, which might serve to either educate or confuse the listener or, worse, trigger a defensive cognitive dissonance response since the barrage of information I’d be presenting would most likely fly in the face of everything they’d been taught by people and organizations they trust. In this case, instead, I chose to ask the questions that led my interlocutor to draw her own conclusions and find her own answers (which were, of course, the ones I’d hoped she’d come to!) and, once that had happened, I gave a brief Protein 101 discourse just to reinforce matters. As I strongly believe should be the case with every discussion about veganism, I brought the idea of ethics into the conversation to avoid reinforcing the erroneous idea that veganism is merely a diet as opposed to a fundamental matter of justice.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic book series was called “What If?” Each issue would present “…an event in the mainstream Marvel Universe, then introducing a point of divergence in that event and then describing the consequences of the divergence.” So, imagine if my interaction with the Whole Foods Checkout Person had gone like this:
WFCP: Why did you go vegan? Me: Great question! To best answer it, let me ask you three questions: do you believe it’s wrong to cause unnecessary harm and death to animals? WFCP: [likely response] Yes.* Me: Great! So do I. Did you know that eating and otherwise using animals and animal products causes unnecessary harm and death to animals? WFCP: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, that makes sense.* Me: And that’s why I’m vegan – because it’s wrong to enslave, exploit and execute vulnerable individuals, regardless of species membership, race, gender, age or any other arbitrary criterion, to satisfy human pleasure, comfort and convenience and all of that involves unnecessary harm. WFCP: Thanks! So, what’s the third question? Me: Glad you asked! Did you know that the answer you gave to the first question indicates you already agree with the principles of veganism? WFCP: Huh. I guess I do!*
*Of course, this is an oversimplified example showing the best possible responses to our questions and will not always be the ones given since people tend to want to debate these issues due to deeply held beliefs born of a lifetime of cultural indoctrination into speciesism. Vegan advocates should always be prepared to explore related topics that arise in conversation such as “How do you define ‘unnecessary‘?” and “What constitutes ‘harm‘?”. There are excellent and informative abolitionist vegan websites listed at the end of this essay (more can be found in the Online Vegan Resources section of our main website at www.VeganEducationGroup.com) that can help us educate ourselves and to which we can direct both non-vegans and vegans for solid, unequivocal vegan information.
(the questions in the above scenario were adapted from vegan advocate Chris Petty’s questionnaire shown below)
By going this route and asking specific questions, the non-vegans with whom I speak (and this includes vegetarians and other fill-in-the-blank-atarians) not only hear my reasoning for why I live vegan, but in the process also explore their own beliefs and come to understand that they, too, tend to agree with the ethical and moral principles of veganism. The idea that they are curious enough to ask such a question indicates a willingness to learn, at the very least, one person’s reason(s) for living vegan and, better yet, may indicate their own willingness to explore these ideas further and hopefully incorporate them into their lives by making the choice to live vegan.
Sadly, there is a plethora of individuals and groups that, intentionally or not, dilute and confuse the meaning of veganism to the point that it is often mistaken for a diet, a fad, a lifestyle or a trend. For those of us who take unequivocal vegan advocacy and education seriously, it is imperative that we properly define veganismfor those who don’t understand what it is, and it makes sense to keep questioning our advocacy methods and adapting where necessary to steadily evolve into the most effective agents of change we are capable of being.
[I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites. The podcasts and essays connected to those links will help to expand on the ideas presented here.]
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
To take a stand against one form of oppression while willingly participating in another shows a lack of integrity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. All one needs to do is engage in a little bit of critical thinking to see this.
It’s always sad to see the anger that comes out in people when their entrenched beliefs are challenged as their participation in the oppression of the mostvulnerable members of our global society — non-human animals — is exposed.
When one agrees to participate in the oppression and exploitation of one vulnerable group, it opens the door to further oppression and exploitation of other groups. The myth of human supremacy begets speciesism, which in turn begets racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism and the like. If one feels “superior” to a particular group and gives oneself permission to bully and oppress them at will (to the point of killing and eating them by the billions, in the case of non-human individuals), why should another group be expected not to do that to them? How is that fair in any way?
You can’t demand justice while committing injustices.
A non-vegan once asked me, “Isn’t it hard being vegan?”
OK, it wasn’t “once” and it wasn’t “a” non-vegan – I’ve been asked many times by many non-vegans, some out of well-meaning curiosity and some who were looking to poke holes in the foundation of my ethical stance to abstain, wherever possible, from meat, dairy, eggs, honey, leather, wool and all other products of animal exploitation. My answer always starts with “No”. Sometimes it ends there and we go our separate ways, but more often than not I will take the time to explain just how easy it was (and still is) for me to choose to live vegan once I understood the injustices involved in turning a cow into a steak, a chicken into a cutlet, a pig into bacon and a baby calf into a suede jacket, to list but a few examples of the tyrannies humans force on vulnerable individuals of other species.
A good question to ask non-vegans who believe living vegan is “hard” is, “Who told you that?” In my experience, it’s never a vegan who tells someone that living vegan is hard… because it isn’t. It’s usually someone or some company with a product to sell that counts on such misinformation to keep consumers from thinking critically about veganism and the moral obligation it entails. Stretching one’s arm 6 inches beyond the cow’s milk to reach the almond milk, for example, is not a difficulty – it’s a minor inconvenience and slight change in a habit pattern that will become a new habit when practiced for a short while. Shopping for affordable non-leather shoes may take a little more time that simply buying ones made from the skins of dead animals, but this is again only a minor inconvenience and one easily overcome. In my experience, this is true of nearly all shifts from using products of animal exploitation to living vegan and, once new habits are in place, everything is easy again.
If there is anything “hard” about living vegan, it’s dealing with the cognitive dissonance of non-vegans.
Non-vegans. They come one at a time. They come in groups. Sometimes I feel like Bruce Lee entering a room full of black belt warriors and having to defend myself against their simultaneous assaults. They come online, at work, at the grocery store, in restaurants… sometimes I’m surprised they don’t come knocking on my door when passing my house and spying the vegan bumper stickers on my car (usually, those random doorknockers are Jehovah’s Witnesses wanting to share their “good news” with me. Want to know my definition of fair trade? Graciously accepting some of their literature and handing them some clear, consistent vegan information in return after discussing why veganism needs to be the moral baseline for our treatment of all sentient beings. That’s the best news I know).
As a recovering non-vegan (more of an anti-vegan when I really think about it), I get it. I was the classic, stereotypical animal product consumer, waving hamburgers under my vegetarian friends’ noses, snarkily asking my PeTA-supporting former boss where the “People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans” pamphlets were and thinking up clever ways to derail their veg-trains. I understand where non-vegans are coming from and why many, but by no means all, behave as they do toward vegans:
I was unable to diagnose, recognize and deal with my fears back then. Instead, I acted out in denial and avoidance of those uncomfortable feelings. Somewhere inside, probably near the pounds of undigested red meat rotting in my intestines, I understood that every hamburger begins with a cow begging for her life. I knew something dreadfully awful was happening to veal calves and it wasn’t, as I so cleverly rationalized (and I’m not proud of this, though I was at the time), “the only life they know anyway so, since they have no frame of reference for what a happy life is, why does it matter? And if their lives are so bad, it’s actually merciful that we slaughter them so young and put them out of their misery. We’re doing them a favor!” I knew that chickens didn’t “sacrifice” themselves to become the nuggets I was eating twenty at a sitting. I knew… and I denied. And I defended. And I attacked. Those were the methods I employed to keep from hearing, understanding and – worse – feeling the truth about animal exploitation and my complicity in it. I kept the truth a comfortable distance away and drowned out the voice of my conscience with pseudo-intellectual rationalizations and justifications that, as I now know, were mere fabrications of my frightened ego.
When I deal with non-vegans now, especially in terms of vegan education, I try to meet them where they are, remembering that I once stood where they stand – blinded and misguided by a multi-billion dollar propaganda machine that would have us believe we need to eat animals to survive (false), that we would suffer and maybe die if we didn’t (false), that animals were put on Earth to serve us – the “superior race/top of the food chain/most advanced species” in the history of the planet (false) and on and on. I remember that I too was once afraid to take a stand for my ethical beliefs in a society that marginalizes, ridicules, bullies and berates those who swim against the current of cruelty and go against the grain of gluttony, afraid to be looked at as “abnormal”, afraid to no longer be accepted by those who engage in behaviors I now consider morally unacceptable…
So I do my best to let them know how it was for me, what happened to cause me to change and what it’s like for me now. I let them know that making the choice to live vegan is the single best choice I’ve ever made and that living vegan is the best action I’ve ever taken. I let them know that it’s best to follow one’s ethics instead of one’s palate. I let them know that veganism is not a diet, a fad, a lifestyle or a phase – it is one’s personal commitment to a social justice movement that seeks to dismantle speciesism, the most egregious and deadly form of oppression on the planet today. I let them know that every argument against veganism is an argument in favor of slavery, bullying, misery and horrible, needless death. I let them know that if they believe animals matter morally at all, then living vegan is the only rational response. I let them know that living vegan is as easy as making the decision to withdraw support from and cease complicity in a worldwide system of animal exploitation. I let them know that vegan food is nutritious, delicious and all one needs to survive and thrive in optimum health.
And I let them know that I, and millions of other vegans, are here to offer education, informationand supportif they are willing to put their fears aside and embrace that which they already believe in – justice for all.
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
I caught a bit of an interview with comedian Cameron Esposito on NPR in March 2016. I don’t know and therefore have no opinion on this person’s work, but something they said in relation to same-sex marriage really struck me. Here’s the quote:
“The thing that I protest against the most or that upsets me the most is people that are unable to change. I mean, we’re all just doing the best we can with the information we have up until that point, but when you’re given opposite information and you refuse to change or adjust, then I think that is a real problem… It infuriates me because I believe that adults should be able to look at evidence and adjust their perspective.”
I can relate to this on several levels. Here are two:
When I explain to non-vegans that there is no moral justification for using sentient individuals for reasons of pleasure, fashion, entertainment or other human conveniences and they proceed to either ignore the information, try to find holes in the logic or – worst of all – create bizarre counter-arguments to defend continuing their habits and traditions of unjustifiable animal exploitation, it is, to borrow Ms. Esposito’s phrase, “a real problem” and can at times be infuriating.
Similarly, in over 20 years of working professionally to help people who suffer from addictions understand the benefits of living a clean/sober/recovering life (as opposed to living a life wherein one descends into an ever-deeper and ever-darker hell of one’s own construction) and offering them the tools they’ll need to build such a life and instructing them in how to use those tools, it can be frustrating to see them choose to continue using their old tools rather than the new tools while knowing full well that their “best” thinking got them into the terrible trouble they’re now in and that to keep moving in that direction will have potentially deadly consequences. One of the most brilliant therapists I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, the late Angelo Castiglione, used to say, “Addiction is a disease that resists its own recovery”. Sadly, I’ve found this to be the truth.
I’ve long noticed a correlation between the defense mechanisms used by addicts to protect their maladaptive behaviors (y’know, those quirky li’l behaviors they exhibit like, say, coping with “stress” by shooting heroin in their neck – that falls under “recreational use”, right? – or drinking three bottles of wine in one evening to “take the edge off” – believe me, somewhere in the middle of the first bottle, those edges are as smooth as a cue ball) and those used by non-vegans to protect their use of products of animal exploitation. These include, but are not limited to: rationalizing, justifying, minimizing, intellectualizing, blaming, shaming, deflecting, avoiding and the granddaddy of them all, DENIAL (here’s my favorite acronym for denial: Don’t Even Notice IAm Lying). I see them all used by members of both groups all the time. Am I saying that those who consume animals and their secretions are addicted to those substances? Not necessarily, as I don’t definitively know that to be the case, but when confronted with the idea that what they’ve been doing all their lives – engaging in behaviors taught to them by their well-meaning parents and viewed as “normal” (which we all know is just a setting on a washing machine) by the society in which they live – cannot be morally justified, their first instinctive response to the cognitive dissonance they now feel is to fight to protect themselves from what they perceive to be an attack on their character and an attempt to cause them shame and to… (gulp!) … change.
When I engage in vegan education, it is not my intention to shame anyone about their behavior. In my opinion, there should be no shame in engaging in behaviors one truly does not know are wrong or harmful to others or themselves. That is simple ignorance born of a lack of education in a particular area and aided by ongoing campaigns of targeted misinformation designed to maintain and deepen such ignorance on a mass scale. When this happens, one is, in a sense, a victim. However, when one engages in willful ignorance – learning the truth about one’s complicity in the exploitation of the vulnerable and purposely choosing to ignore it and take no meaningful action to change – I believe that a feeling of guilt is appropriate and necessary because, when one does this, one is indeed guilty of victimizing others. Brené Brown, Ph.D. and other psychologists have shown that feelings of guilt can and often do lead to positive changes in behaviors and attitudes and that guilt is actually a healthy emotion: “I now know I’ve been behaving in ways that conflict with my core values and beliefs and feel badly about my behavior. From now on, I will behave differently and live, as best I can, in congruence with my morals and ethics.” Cessation of guilt-inducing behavior leads to, as you might imagine, a reduction in guilt and, as an added bonus, increased self-esteem. Plus, to put it bluntly, when individuals start living vegan, they stop paying people to kill innocent beings. What could ease one’s guilt and restore one’s self-esteem better than ceasing to hire hit men to kill babies (yes, most of the animals used by humans for food are killed within the first months of their lives) and adults and entire families for no good reason?
The night I made the decision to start living vegan, I experienced that same moment of cognitive dissonance that others feel, and I chose what I felt, and still feel, is the only acceptable path. Here is an excerpt about that very moment from another essay of mine:
“At that moment, when my closed mind opened, the light inside turned on and my heart spoke louder than my stomach, I knew I had been changed forever and that I could no longer participate in the system I now understood for what it was. It was then that I began to live vegan – to eschew, wherever possible, the use of products of animal exploitation and to educate others where and when I could about how they too could stop promoting this injustice. I hadn’t known till then that there was another choice available – a choice to live a vegan life – and once I knew, I couldn’t un-know.”
Ms. Esposito said that what is most upsetting is “people that are unable to change”, however for me it is people who are unwilling to change. We all have the capacity to change; some of us simply refuse to do so, even when presented with evidence that change is, if not required, then certainly a really, really good idea. Changing from using vulnerable beings for one’s own selfish pleasures as a non-vegan to living vegan spares the lives of others, improves one’s own life and make the world in general a better place. These are not opinions – these are immutable facts that it makes no sense to deny. But, as is the case with addiction, denial is not about what makes sense. It is about what makes us comfortable, or at least not uncomfortable, and there is a sad comfort in that which we know and have gotten used to.
Do I find this, as Ms. Esposito does, infuriating? I have, but it’s rare that I feel such exasperation these days. Instead, I make a point of remembering that I, too, have had plenty of personal experience with being unwilling to act appropriately on new information, which makes it difficult for me to resent others when they act as I did. I have at times been unwilling to change, but more than willing to keep myself in the dark and refuse to see the light for fear that facing the truth might hurt me in some way… because being non-vegan is “all about me” and living vegan is all about them, the non-human victims of human violence and oppression. Admitting to and reminding myself that I was among the unwilling allows me to remain (somewhat) calm and rational when discussing veganism with non-vegans, an approach I find to be much better received and far more effective than any vitriolic rant, verbal fisticuffs or fusillade of finger-pointing.
I’d like to say I wish everyone would live vegan, as I believe it’s the key to a better, healthier, more peaceful world, but wishing won’t get us there. As I first heard via Stephen King, “Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” On the other (non-shit-filled) hand, what willget us there is clear, consistent, unequiVOCAL vegan education.
Would those who argue against veganism (and therefore, by default, in favor of speciesism) be just as quick to argue in favor of racism, sexism, heterosexism or some other form of injustice involving human victims if perpetuating that particular form of injustice personally benefited them, as does continuing to consume products of animal exploitation?
Fighting against a moral and ethical stance that works toward ending the exploitation of a group, the abolition of which threatens one’s personal conveniences (said conveniences being always at the expense of the exploited group), exposes a perverse form of selfishness on the part of the defender(s) of the exploitation.
Cognitive dissonance(the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual when confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values) can make it difficult to accept certain truths, but denial of reality never actually changes reality. Rather, it creates a false premise upon which to predicate one’s behavior and takes one further from the truth of a situation, always with deleterious effects to oneself and others.
Personally, when I was presented with overwhelming evidence that my behavior as a non-vegan was directly contributing to a system of animal slavery, exploitation and needless death (in essence, an animal holocaust claiming billions, and possibly trillions, of sentient beings every year), I took an immediate and unequivocal stand against this injustice and started living vegan within the hour. It was the only direction that made sense to me, the only way of living I could live with and the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. The “transition” was fairly simple and living vegan quickly became, as vegan educator Elena Brodskaya put it, “…not second or third nature, but just Nature”.
It would take far less time and energy – and save countless lives – if those who oppose veganism would cease their mental and ethical gymnastics and stop trying to find, in the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca, “a right way to do the wrong thing”.
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
If you’re of the opinion that we need to hammer home the gruesome details of animal “cruelty” in order to be effective in our vegan advocacy, I’d like to offer a different opinion.
Taking the road less traveled
On August 14, 2016 at the Fort Lauderdale Animal Adoption Fair, a young man named Celso approached me at the SFVEG Vegan Education Station and asked,
“So, can you educate me?” I said, “Sure! What would you like me to educate you about?” He replied, “Dairy” and, rather than launching into a blood-and-guts crash course about the horrors of the dairy industry, I asked him, “Why don’t you tell me what you think you know about dairy production?” He began to explain to me, quite accurately, about some of those horrors, indicating he was already aware of the standard abuses inherent in dairy production and went on to tell me he was still unwilling to give up consuming dairy due to “personal pleasure preferences” (his term). This indicated to me that he was unmoved by what he already knew about the “cruelty” he was supporting and was able to compartmentalize this knowledge and justify that it wasn’t an important situation he needed to address and take a stand against – just as countless other non-vegans do every single day. Does this make him a “bad” person, a sociopath or a psychopath? No, at least not by that benchmark. This makes him “normal” by society’s standards… and it also makes him reachable.
This is the point in many conversations between vegans and non-vegans where vegans will dig their heels in and try to drive the “cruelty” argument deeper, sharing gory details and horrific stories, often backing these up with graphic images and terrifying videos while overlooking the reality that this person already knows and hasn’t stopped despitethat knowledge, so heading down that path will likely be ineffective. Many times in many conversations when I used the approach of, “I know you thinkyou know, but you really have no idea – here, let me show you what’s reallygoing on”, I’m met with a dismissive “I don’t wanna know” and it’s game over. It’s very hard to win someone back when they’ve been driven away, and I feel we need to engage, not outrage, those we wish to educate about veganism. Here’s how I reached Celso:
I validated that what he knew about dairy was accurate and briefly touched on a couple of pieces he didn’t know (the fate of dairy calves and their permanent separation from their mothers shortly after birth) but I quickly steered the conversation to animal userather than abuseto refocus on justice. I guided him to find his own answers by helping him make the ethical connection between veganism and fundamental justice. I could see the switches switch and the light go on when I pointed to a nearby person and asked Celso, “If that person had something you wanted because it would give you pleasure, would it be ok for you to just take it from her?” He answered, “No”. I asked whether it would be ok to take her children from her and he answered, “No” again. I explained that the only difference between the woman in question and a non-human individual is an arbitrary distinction based on species membership and that these situations represent equal injustices for both groups. By the end of our conversation (15 minutes or less), he had fist-bumped me twice and thanked me three times “for educating me and taking the time to give me information that is more valuable than I can tell you”. I gave him information to take with him that will help reinforce our conversation. Another new vegan is born through clear, consistent vegan education!
Changing the conversation
When we talk about “cruelty”, the conversation becomes about treatment and abuse, rather than use which ultimately is the issue that needs addressing. I stay away from the word “cruelty” in my vegan advocacy for the simple reason that people will define the word in whatever way they see fit in order to justify their continued use of products of animal exploitation. One person’s definition of “cruelty” often differs from the next, which leads to the ideas of “humane” treatment, “humane” slaughter, “free range” and other fantasies the animal agriculture marketing machine foists on the public as some sort of reality.
“We tend to only talk about ‘humane’ in relation to humans when we talk about imprisonment, euthanasia, solitary confinement, detention, or killing people. When we hear the word ‘humane’, we should expect that the outcome for those involved will, no matter what transpires, be less than desirable and will involve some suffering and injustice at best. In the case of sentient animals, our application of what we believe is ‘humane’ for them, if applied to humans, would be considered torture. In other words, any time that word humane is uttered, it’s almost always the case that something morally questionable and possibly unjust is going to follow, whether it’s execution, refugees, interrogation techniques, asylum seeker detention centres, industrial prisons, or in this case, the animal industry and regulation of animal exploitation. We know that it will ultimately mean suffering for someone.”
I can’t count the number of times people have said to me, “As long as the animals are slaughtered ‘humanely’, I have no problem eating them, but some of what I’ve seen in those videos is reallycruel, so we should at least stop that“, strongly indicating they believe there are acceptable levels of what some might call “cruelty”. This plays directly into animal welfare campaigns such as Whole Foods’ “5-STEP® ANIMAL WELFARE RATING – Your way of knowing how the animals were raised for the meat you are buying”, which reinforces the “acceptable cruelty” idea and the myth that there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter. When I make the statement to a non-vegan that it is morally unjustifiable to use any sentient individual, be they human or non-human, as a disposable, replaceable commodity/thing/resource for someone else’s pleasure, entertainment, comfort or convenience, (which covers about 99.9% of all animal use by humans) and demonstrate that this is analogous to racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in which one group dominates, devalues and disenfranchises another to the benefit of the victimizers and the detriment of the victims, they seem to grasp and understand the idea quickly and clearly. When I further explain to non-vegans that if they believe these forms of oppression are wrong and don’t support them when the victims are humans, they are demonstrating a lack of integrity – and engaging in speciesism – by supporting the same oppressions when the victims are non-human, they begin to understand that to live in integrity is to live vegan.
I believe the word “cruelty” is too broad and subjective a word to use in a vegan advocacy context and therefore causes unnecessary confusion. When lives are at stake, which they are here by the trillions, I feel we all need to be as clear and consistent as possible in conveying the message of veganism so we maximize the impact we desire to make while using the least amount of time, energy and resources as possible.
“Talking about cruelty in one’s advocacy is irrelevant because it is synced to emotion, a dangerous territory evoking words like ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ in its wake. An emotional approach has never helped the animals (nor people, for that matter) and never turned anyone vegan, including myself. Animal rights are about justice, not compassion. Compassionate people who oppose cruelty are the ones who will sooner donate to a welfare organization than make the connection and change their belief system. ‘Cruelty’ implies that we ‘need to do something’ to better the industry practices and not go vegan in order to abolish the industry altogether. Just yesterday I was witness to someone who said he will never, ever go vegan because it’s not a moral issue, however he agrees that we shouldn’t treat animals with cruelty. Such a backward stance in one’s morals indicates that as Animal Rights Advocates we are not focused on full abolition, but just on eliminating cruelty, thus subliminally giving a green light to everyone to still kill and eat flesh and rape juice. Abolition seeks to eliminate the use of animals, not to treat them nicely until they are killed.“
The operative words in unequivocal vegan advocacy should not be “cruel” and “cruelty” but “unjust” and “injustice”. Even if the non-consensual uses of vulnerable individuals in question were devoid of discomfort and injury, they remain unjust. This is why veganism is indeed a social justice movement and not, as it is often mislabeled, a diet, lifestyle, trend or cult.
Drawing from my own experiences, I will say that it was a combination of logic and emotion that compelled me to start living vegan: I saw horrific atrocities in a semi-graphic video depicting animal abuse on factory farms —> I realized my complicity in said atrocities —> I realized that I don’t support human slavery, so it makes no sense for me to continue supporting non-human slavery now that I know this is what I’m doing, and I began living vegan right then and there. The entire experience occurred over 70 minutes, but the logical piece took mere seconds: “This is slavery… I don’t support slavery… I’m done.”
From there, I firmly believed that any and every person to whom I showed the same video would begin living vegan immediately afterward, just as I had, because they would have the same emotional/logical response to the information that I’d had. I mean, how couldn’tthey, right?
Here’s the empirical evidence from my experience: not oneperson I showed the video to (without any accompanying education) decided to live vegan. Not one. In fact, to my knowledge, none of them have changed anythingabout their attitudes and habits when it comes to animal exploitation. The appeal to emotion simply didn’t cut it, as each person comes from their own perspective on what’s “cruel” and what’s “not so bad”, and what’s unacceptable to one person is acceptable to another.
[A brief side note on the use of graphic imagery in vegan advocacy: “Cruelty” videos and images are certainly compelling and can drive people to action, but humans have built-in forgetters for trauma, so those images and the feelings they elicit in those moments can and often do fade… and when they fade, there’s not much to stop them from going back to consuming non-human animals and their secretions unless they’ve come to believe that it is fundamentally morally unjust to use non-human animals for one’s pleasure. Once a person understands that it’s our moral obligation to not treat individuals of other species as human property and that to do so is to engage in and support slavery, there’s an internal shift that generally doesn’t un-shift. Conversely, when people convince themselves that somehow, somewhere, things in the animal agriculture industry are nicer than the graphic images they’ve been shown (which they may believe are anomalies at the extreme end of the “cruelty spectrum”), they will seek out “humane” animal products. “The reason that cruelty videos can be detrimental to an animal rights organization’s mission is that such videos inherently focus on treatment, not use, even though the cruel treatment is an inevitable symptom of the disease of use. By focusing on treatment, such videos do not suggest that use ought to end, but that use ought to be regulated.” – UVE Archives, On Cruelty Videos]
In my experience, the logical appeal is a different story with a different ending . Most people have at least a rudimentary understanding (if not more) that something horrific has to happen for a vibrant, living individual to end up drained of blood and life and cut into pieces to be eaten, and yet they continue to consume these individuals with no apparent emotional distress (when confronted with this in my pre-vegan days, I used to rationalize “This cow’s already dead, so what’s the problem?” and devour my steak, etc.). When individuals are presented with the simple, logical question “Do you believe it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering and death to animals for reasons of pleasure, entertainment, comfort or convenience?” (almost all will agree that this is wrong) and then informed that these uses, which are tantamount to slavery (something they would never support were the enslaved individuals human), account for nearly 100% of our society’s animal use, they get the point fairly quickly and start to understand the issue on a level deeper than fleeting emotion.
One need only look at the past 200+ years of animal welfare and the infinitesimal “gains” that have been made at that glacial pace (if the fact that more animals are dying in more horrific ways at the hands of humans than ever before in human history can be called a “gain”) to see that the welfare approach to harm reduction simply isn’t going to achieve the goal of ending animal use. One need only look at the large, donation-based animal welfare organizations and the verbiage they use, even in their names – mercy, compassion, treatment, cruelty, humane – to see how such words again lead down the road to welfare and harm reduction rather than to justice and an end to use.
All of these organizations appeal to emotions with undercover videos, exposés of “cruelty” and so on, and claim “victory” whenever they and some animal exploiters join forces to compromise on a supposed “improvement” in conditions for those they enslave, i.e.: going “cage-free” nine years down the road. That may arguably reduce the “cruelty”, but it doesn’t lead toward the necessary paradigm shift to abolish the property status of animals. Rather, the idea that it’s ok to use animals so long as it’s done “less cruelly” is reinforced and driven deeper into the public psyche.
If the change we wish to see is merely harm reduction, then appeals to emotion will certainly achieve that limited goal, as history has taught us since this has been the case for as long as animal welfare campaigns have been happening (two centuries and counting is a long time to keep advocating for incremental changes).
If our goal is to change the current paradigm so that non-humans cease to be treated as disposable objects for humans to use, then we must appeal to people’s sense of justice through clear, consistent education focusing on veganism as the moral baseline for our treatment of individuals of other species.
Tugging at heartstrings, while effective on some levels, is ultimately a manipulative device. Solid, direct vegan education is a much more honest approach that leads to a deep and lasting change.
The bottom line needs to be that if we believe it’s wrong/morally unjustifiable to cause unnecessary suffering and death to non-humans for reasons of pleasure, entertainment, comfort and convenience (I frequently remind non-vegans that even the “kindest” slave owner is still a slave owner), then the right thing to do – the morally just thing to do – is to start living vegan and stop being complicit in allforms of animal exploitation, not just the ones some people define as “cruel”. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes cruelty and many people see it as a matter of degrees (horribly cruel, really cruel, somewhat cruel, kinda cruel, not all that cruel so therefore acceptable), and this leads to “humane” this and “cage-free” that and we’re right back to the oumoded, counterproductive 19th-century animal welfare model.
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn off and/or compartmentalize their emotions whenever those emotions run counter to them getting their desires met, whether it be in the consumption of animal products, or rape, or war, or most any violent act. Unless one is socio- or psychopathic (or severely cognitively impaired), everyone knows all those acts of violence constitute “cruelty”, and yet they continue to happen because humans find ways to minimize, justify, rationalize and deny the consequences of their actions to suit their perceived “needs”.
Logic over emotion
Here’s an unflinchingly honest account of one person’s commitment to the ethical principles of veganism, from my friend and fellow vegan advocate Andy Williams:
“Emotions are fickle things. If one bases their actions on an emotion, those actions will change when the the emotion fades. Think back to your first love. Think of how strong those emotions were. Are you still in love with that person? How many people stay with their first love their entire lives?
Sadly, I’ve seen so many people enter into the world of veganism all fired up and filled with enthusiasm. These people had a true feeling of concern, based on their emotional reaction to the plight of animals. They were charged up. They were going to change the world! However, once the practical implications set in, many found it difficult to maintain their original vigor. Eventually, one discovers that you actually have to exert a small amount of effort in the process of obtaining your daily food. One discovers that you can no longer purchase your favorite and familiar products. One discovers that friends and family will do everything possible to shun you and discourage your actions. These setbacks have an enormous emotional impact, and many times this is where the cracks start to form.
A person beset with a whirlwind of mixed emotion has no choice but to start bargaining. Something inevitably has to go. Will it be the comfort of friends and family? Will it be the convenience of brain-dead living? Or will it be this new flame? In far too many cases, I’ve seen an untempered leap into veganism eventually melt into mere welfarism. “I really care about these animals, so I’m only going to eat cage free eggs” and “it’s a step in the right direction at least”, and all of the other rationalizations that I’m sure you’ve heard countless times. People can satisfy their cloying emotional states by taking actions that offer little to no material relief to the animals that they claim to carry so much concern for.
Without the clear understanding of basic concepts like justice and autonomy, then anything goes. Conversely, when one internalizes the fact that any and all use of animals by humans is wrong, then nothing can shake that foundation.
I myself suffered enormously when first going vegan. I was still living at home. My parents saw my decision as a fundamental attack against everything they believed in. One day, I came home to find the locks changed and all of my possessions on the porch. I was shocked. I really had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to store my belongings. I lost everything. I had to drop out of school. I became homeless. This was an extremely emotionally devastating experience, but even then, I knew that our actions toward non-human animals should not be based on emotion, but on logical principles. Animals deserve justice regardless of how it affects us emotionally, and regardless of how difficult it may be. I was looking at death straight in the face and never compromised an inch. I can’t say the same for all the sad souls who have come and gone because they did not understand that all use is abuse and our own personal circumstances should not dictate our actions toward animals.”
Like it or not, each of us has a finite amount of time, energy and resources to spend on our advocacy efforts. Let’s employ those resources in the most effective way we can by engaging in direct, honest vegan education focusing on the fact that allanimal use for human gain is exploitative no matter the perceived level of “cruelty” in any particular form of use. Let’s stay away from confusing words like “cruelty”, “humane”, “treatment” and “abuse” and remember that what we’re working for are justice and an end to use.
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