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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