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?
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):
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!”
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:
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how: