Yes, “Cruelty” is the Problem, But Not In the Way You Might Be Thinking

[Updated 8/8/2017]

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.

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SFVEG Vegan Education Station – Fort Lauderdale Animal Adoption Fair 8/14/16

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 despite that knowledge, so heading down that path will likely be ineffective.  Many times in many conversations when I used the approach of, “I know you think you know, but you really have no idea – here, let me show you what’s really going 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 use rather than abuse to 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.

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HowToGoVegan.org – A Comprehensive Vegan Podcast

From the episode entitled “Humane”: What’s In a Word? on the excellent podcast site How To Go Vegan:

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 really cruel, 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.

A word from our President

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Elena Brodskaya, co-founder and President of South Florida Vegan Education Group says:

“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.

Experience matters

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’t they, right?

Wrong.

Here’s the empirical evidence from my experience: not one person 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 anything about 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.

For the next ten years, fueled mainly by my emotional response to what I’d seen, the focus of my advocacy efforts was on anti-cruelty campaigns and I missed many opportunities to engage the public in direct, honest, unequivocal vegan education because such campaigns, by their very design, avoid focusing on veganism.  When I finally came to understand how ineffective, counterproductive and speciesist these campaigns and the organizations that create them are, my focus shifted to where it would have been best all along.

[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 ]

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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.

When we focus on specific cruelties and treatment, this leads to more campaigns for animal welfare rather than the abolition of animal use and a call to justice.

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.

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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.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

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 all forms 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.

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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 all animal 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.

[I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites.  Also, please read our Disclaimer regarding external sites, organizations, individuals, etc.]

Keith Berger and Elena Brodskaya – co-founders, SFVEG

***A note from Keith and Elena – before you go, please consider making a safe, secure tax-deductible donation via our YouCaring page (<—simply click this link to be directed to our fundraising page) to support South Florida Vegan Education Group’s advocacy efforts.  Contributions of any amount are received with equal gratitude and go directly to fund our vegan public education work.  And whether or not you can contribute, please share our fundraising campaign with friends and associates!  Thank you!

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The legal stuff:

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