On Vegans and Vegan Meals

More from our friend Tobias!

In the post “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan“, I wrote that some day “I might get so disappointed with vegans and veganism, that I (a vegan for the animals), would refrain from using it altogether.” That was in a reaction to an article in which the author suggested “health” vegans don’t call themselves vegan. In the meantime, the Bearded Vegan podcast had an episode on the question if we should stop using the word vegan.

Now, I still think the word vegan is useful, particularly in the sense that it is a name for a concept. When you’re in restaurant, or anywhere food is served to you, it is easy if you can just explain with one word what you want. The more people who know and understand the word, the easier it gets.

The word is less useful, more controversial, and more prone to cause discussions, disagreements and even nastiness, is when it is applied to people. It is much harder for a person to be vegan than for a product or a dish to be vegan. When a product doesn’t have unvegan ingredients, it is vegan. You might say: when a person doesn’t eat unvegan ingredients, they are vegan. But it’s not that simple (no, really). There’s apparently discussion about intentions, which have to be right too (otherwise you’re plant based, according to said article); there’s the matter of the tiny bits and micro-ingredients, there’s even ideological and political issues, etc.

So here’s a subtle yet important note about grammar and how it relates to what I think is the most efficient use of the word vegan. I believe that in the case of the V-word, the nouns (“veganism”, “vegans”) are more problematic than the adjective (as in “a vegan meal”). The words “a vegan/vegans” and “veganism” are black and white or binary terms: you are it, or you’re not (even though there can be discussions about how pure you need to be to carry the label). You may have no interest in going vegan all the way, so the noun may not appeal to you. Also, if you are a vegetarian, or a part time vegan or whatever, you may feel excluded by the noun vegan. You don’t belong to that group, and “veganism” doesn’t apply to you. The nouns are very “exclusive”, they exclude you (if you’re not vegan).

This is completely different from the use of vegan as an adjective in the words “vegan meals” or “vegan products.” If you suggest a that a person have a vegan meal or buy a vegan product, you are not asking them to “become a vegan.” Everybody can eat a vegan meal or buy a vegan product. You don’t need to be a vegan for that. It works much more inclusively, it includes non-vegans. Asking people to become a vegan is asking them, or is asking for what sounds like, a change of identity.

Bottom line, in our communication, let’s invite people to eat vegan, have vegan meals, try vegan products, rather than to become a vegan or adhere to veganism.

Yes, we CAN ask for less than “go vegan”

Another guest post from Tobias Leenaert.

An often heard crede – especially among so called “abolitionist” vegans – is that “veganism is the moral baseline”. It seems to mean that being vegan is the minimum we can do for the animals if we want to be moral creatures. Conversely, anything less than vegan is immoral behaviour. I don’t agree with that, and the way many activists use the sentence often seems quite ineffective and often condescending to me.

From idea that veganism is the moral baseline, it seems to follow (at least for those who adhere to the moral baseline motto) that our outreach towards omnivores can never be anything less than suggesting them to go vegan. Asking people to be reducetarians, for instance, would be an immoral demand, just like, believers hold, asking or demanding that a childbeater become a parttime childbeater rather than doing it every day (I have written about that before, here and here).

Let us assume for a minute that asking anything less than veganism is immoral (and that veganism is the moral baseline). Let us, however, at the same time assume – for the sake of the argument – that asking “things less than veganism” leads to a higher reduction of animal suffering and killing.What, in that case, should we prioritize: the morality of our outreach, or its impact? In other words, should we – again assuming for a minute that we know for sure – use a less effective message because we believe it to be a more moral one?

driving force

Those who would answer that the morality aspect is the most important, will often claim that the impact is actually on their side too, and that what is painted above is some kind of false dichotomy. I want to briefly examine here if that is true. In other words: is it possible that asking other things than “go vegan” is more effective in reducing animal suffering and killing?

People who follow this blog will know that my answer will be that that is definitely possible. I give three reasons why I think a smaller ask may (often) be more effective than the bigger, go vegan ask. I am not implying that everyone should do “reducitarian” outreach – more about that below.

One: bigger total impact
It seems to be common sense that when we ask people to do something easy, more of them will do it than when we ask them to do something hard. The difference between the small number of people doing the hard thing, and the higher number of people doing the easy thing is big enough, the people doing the easy thing may all together have a higher total impact. Say we ask one thousand people to go vegan and say we get ten of them to actually do so (it definitely is possible to go vegan overnight, no one is denying that). On the other hand, say that we ask another thousand people (our control group) to participate in Meatless Mondays, and say that 300 do so. You can do the math. One might object that the few people that were convinced become fulltime vegans might also become active in reaching out to others, but actually the same can be said about the meat reducers, who can also advocate for Meatless Monday.

Two: meat reducers may more easily become vegan
I believe our main challenge today is to get as many people as possible totake the first steps, to cross a certain treshold.That is in many cases one of the most important things we can help them do, because it is a lot easier to move up the vegan scale when you have made a first step. Being a reducetarian is not an end, but a beginning.

Three: meat reducers make veganism easier and may tip the system faster
Meat reducers are the driving force behind demand, and companies producing vegan products, do so in the first place for *them* and not for vegans. In other words, meat reducers help to make it easier for everyone to eat more and more vegan, or even to go vegan overnight.

These are three reasons – and in my upcoming book they will be better referenced – that could indicate that asking people to reduce might have a bigger impact than asking them to go vegan. One could argue that if this would be so, this demand would actually be the more moral one. After all,what’s moral about using a message that is less effective than one we know to be more effective?

Let me explicitly state my purpose in writing all this. I am not saying that our movement should never use the “go vegan” message. I *am* saying, conversely, that we are under no moral obligation to *always* use the “go vegan” message. And I am suggesting that those who think they should criticize people who do “less than vegan” outreach (be they vegans themselves or not) stop doing that.

Chanted Morals or Deep-Fried Tofu?

I received this question regarding Paul Shapiro’s Introduction to The Accidental Activist:

I found a particular passage here and would like your thoughts:
“In many ways, it boils down to this question: Do we want a social club, or do we want a social movement? If we want a social movement, we need to open our arms and have a big tent.”
This is interesting. I agree with you on inclusivity, certainly. But I’m not sure why we should be a movement “that welcomes people where they are, applauds them for taking the steps they’ve taken.” While I agree gains come from compromise, I can’t think of a single successful social movement that has taken this incremental, consumer-based approach. Can you? If not, why do you believe its the best way to effect change rather than following the successful movements of the past that focused their efforts on strong messages and systematic, moral change?

There are a number of things we can learn from earlier social justice movements, as discussed in Welfare and Liberation. But it is important to understand the significant differences between our work and previous campaigns.

In the end, we all want a world where animals are not exploited, but rather respected as individuals. Animal liberation, for short. The vast, vast majority of cruelty to animals comes from animal agriculture.

From Animal Charity Evaluators.

To a first approximation, animal liberation would be achieved when everyone stops eating animals. This won’t happen through societal-level changes: no law or amendment will abolish killing animals for food as long as the majority of those in power eat animals. Therefore, animal liberation will necessarily happen individual by individual; laws will follow behavior change, rather than create it.

The question then is: What is the fastest way to get people to stop eating animals?

Lessons from the Relevant Data

Since the determining factor is individuals making different choices, the relevant information comes from psychology, sociology, marketing, and economics, rather than politics or war. Why people do or don’t make cruelty-free choices is the central question, not how slavery was ended or how women won the vote. (And the animals are in deep trouble if it is going to take a civil war for animal liberation to occur.)

If we want to bring about animal liberation, we need to look at how and why people who currently aren’t eating animals got to that place, as well as understanding why other people don’t currently make compassionate choices.

Over the past quarter century, I’ve personally interacted with thousands of vegetarians, and heard from tens of thousands of others. Very, very few went right from a standard American diet to vegan upon being told, “Go vegan!” I know a handful who went vegan overnight and maintained that change. But I know many more who instantly went vegan and are no longer even vegetarian.

This isn’t a negligible problem. Some of the failed vegans I know were close friends. One was a founding Board member of a major vegan group; he now isn’t even close to vegetarian. He was driven away because of the self-righteousness of many vegans: “I grow weary of the term ‘vegan.’ It seems to become just a label for moral superiority.”

(Unfortunately, that is not an uncommon reaction. Obviously not all vegans are self-righteous, but veganism often attracts the self-righteous. And they tend to be loud.)

On the other hand, the people who have made the biggest difference for the animals  with their choices, their example, and their advocacy  are almost all individuals who have evolved incrementally over time. The lesson is clear: instead of insisting on the last step, we should celebrate every step anyone takes that helps animals.

We’re Already on the Same Page

One unique aspect of our work for animal liberation is that we actually don’t need to change people’s ethics, unlike the abolitionist or suffrage movements. The vast majority of people already oppose cruelty to animals. But we know, from everyday experience and through decades of research, that the vast majority of people simply don’t make decisions based on ethics. They make decisions based on habit, convenience, social norms. To quote Cleveland Amory, we have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something we want to eat.

Luckily, there is a great deal of psychological and sociological research into people’s choices. Specifically: how and why they change habits when they do, as well as why they don’t, even when they say they want to. This research, as it applies to helping animals, is discussed in The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Change of Heart, and in some of the essays in The Accidental Activist. (And new relevant articles are linked to on this blog.)

In short, we have four facts regarding the majority of the population (the people we need to reach):

  1. People already share our moral revulsion at cruelty to animals.
  2. People rarely act based on their ethics if it conflicts with habit and the norms of their friends and family.
  3. People who make real change and maintain that change do so incrementally.
  4. Animal liberation must necessarily be achieved from the ground up, person by person.

Given these facts, the movement for animal liberation is inherently an incremental, consumer-based campaign. And if we truly want to do our best for the animals, we must understand and work with the psychology of consumer choices.

For this reason, everyone is a potential ally. With allies, we work constructively. Together, we will continue to shift the consumer landscape such that it is easy for everyone to act on their ethics.

We know how to do this: through our person-to-person outreach, advocates drive increasing demand for cruelty-free options. This in turn improves the quality and availability of supply, which allows more people to get on board. Thus, we create the virtuous feedback loop that will bring about animal liberation.

As I’ve pointed out before, the vegan future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. Almost every vegan has heard, “If all vegan food was this good, I’d eat vegan all the time!” Or, as “a carnivore all the way” said about a vegan restaurant:

Wish they were in my neighborhood, ‘cause I’d be one happy fat vegan cat eating some deep fried tofu with their crazy good tartar sauce. Not kidding.

We will do this. Not kidding.

See also, One Possible Future

 

I’m going meat-free…How about you?

By Nick Cooney

April 3, 2012

“How I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say…You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.”

If you’re familiar with the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration,” you can thank Frank Luntz. You can also thank him for the powerful quote above.

Luntz is a Republican Party consultant who conducts polling to see which words and phrases resonate with the public. Luntz popularized the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration” after polling showed they were more effective in promoting Republican ideals than the original terms “estate tax” and “oil drilling.”

Whether or not you agree with Luntz’s politics, his point rings true: language matters. When making the case for vegan eating, the words we use matter too. Some phrases appeal to meat eaters, and some phrases will be more likely to turn them off.

Case in point: a study by British trade magazine The Grocer found that the public was more likely to embrace vegetarian meat products when the products were labeled “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian.” Over the past four years an increasing number of British supermarkets and vegetarian meat producers have switched labels from “vegetarian” to “meat-free,” and as a result they are seeing increased sales among meat-eaters.

On this side of the Atlantic, vegetarian meat producers are catching on. Pick up a bag of Gardein vegetarian meat, and you’ll see the label “I’m meat-free!” Even Lightlife is catching on, labeling their products “meat-free” or noting they are packed with “veggie protein.” Virtually none of their products still carry a prominent “vegetarian” label.

Why does “meat-free” seem to go over better than “vegetarian” with the general public? Industry experts think the term “vegetarian” has negative connotations for many people. Maybe some have had negative experiences with vegetarians. Perhaps, due to guilt, social norms, or other reasons, they simply look down on all things “vegetarian.” For those over 30 years old, the term might conjure up memories of a flavorless tofu burger they tried back in college.

(It’s possible that for those who are 21 and under, “vegetarian” does not have as negative a connotation. Higher percentages of those age groups consider themselves vegetarian, and they have grown up with a much tastier selection of vegetarian products.)

Using the word “vegetarian” also raises the sticky issue of self-identity. The public may see vegetarians as a distinct group of people quite different from the average American. Ditto for vegans. That’s why, when asked about my diet, I don’t say “I am a vegan” or “I am a vegetarian.” I say, “I don’t eat meat.”  I don’t want the people I’m speaking with to lump me into a box, as if who I am is determined by what I eat. More importantly, I don’t want them to think they need to take on a new identity – joining me in the box – in order to cut cruelty out of their diets.

For a funny parallel example, consider the following. Which of these statements sounds more palatable to you? “You should become a Canadian,” or “You should move to Canada.” The first statement focuses on identity, while the second focuses on action. The second statement is probably more palatable to most Americans.

The bottom line?

When we leave issues of self-identity off the table, we make it easier for our audience to hear our message.

When we use words that don’t have negative connotations in the minds of our audience, our audience will be more likely to listen.

At times “meat-free” can sound a bit awkward when you try to work it into conversation. But after learning what the research has to say on this issue, I’m planning to use “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian” whenever possible.

In other words, I’m going meat-free. How about you?

 

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