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

 

Recidivism Part 3: Be Honest and Thorough about Nutrition

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

Eating healthy whole foods is important—and so is paying attention to individual nutrients. Lately, though, that’s become an unpopular thing to say. It’s what food activists like Michael Pollan refer to as “nutritionism.” That is, he and others say we should stop worrying so much about nutrients and just eat food (or “real” food as they refer to it). As celebrity nutritionist Dr. David Katz says “If you eat whole foods, the nutrients sort themselves out.”

But this is not exactly a science-based observation; it’s an opinion or at best a hunch or casual observation of the world. Pithy observations like this make for engaging writing and perky sound bites, but not always great advice. It’s one of the reasons I’m not on the food celebrity bandwagon. After all, even Dr. Katz has been called out for defending quackery and for sharing a perspective that is not always evidence-based.

To be fair, though, unlike Pollan whose understanding of nutrition is practically non-existent and whose advice is sometimes complete nonsense, Dr. Katz frequently brings a balanced perspective to hot button nutrition issues. And it’s probably not entirely wrong that people should worry more about eating whole, nutritious foods and less about micromanaging their diets.

Or at least this is probably not wrong in the world that Michael Pollan and Dr. Katz inhabit. It might be wrong in mine, though. Because the plant-based, whole-food diet that Katz, Pollan and others are talking about includes a bunch of foods that you and I don’t eat. It includes—in moderate amounts—cheese and eggs and chicken and fish. So they aren’t really thinking about how we can achieve optimal intakes of omega-3s, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron on the kind of diet that I promote. The idea that the nutrients will “sort themselves out” doesn’t always hold up for vegans.

The diets that have long protected the health of people in Asia and southern Europe are based on whole plant foods, but they aren’t vegan. A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients in cultural plant-based diets. And, when people stop eating animal foods they need to know a few things about nutrients. For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids. They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body. They need to know which type of vitamin B12 supplement is the best and how much is required.

We vegans are sort of pioneers when it comes to ethical eating because a world that honors justice for animals is very different from the world that has existed up to now. We don’t have the history, so we must be guided by the science. Does it make it look like being vegan is hard? Does it sound like nutritionism? It doesn’t matter. Our job is to ensure that vegan diets can be a viable long-term choice for anyone who wants to be vegan. That requires solid, evidence-based vegan nutrition information. Attention to nutrients is critical for preventing ex-vegans. The animals can’t afford for us to take risks with fuzzy, unsupported advice about how whole foods automatically meet nutrient needs.

Recidivism Part 2: Why Feeling “Normal” Matters

We are reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s insights from her research on veg recidivism. This week, we feature “Why Feeling ‘Normal’ Matters.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

There are other important issues that we all know about—giving support, and especially sympathetic support when people are struggling with their veganism. Our community needs to provide a safe place for people to admit when they have made a mistake or a non-vegan choice. We need to honor effort and intention even when perfection (whatever that means) is elusive, to respect the challenges that some people face, and to let them proceed at their own pace.

But the last thing that I want to talk about actually covers a lot of ground in terms of encouraging a commitment to veganism. It’s the importance of making veganism feel “normal.”

A study from Cornell University titled “Who We Are and How We Eat: A Qualitative Study of Identities in Food Choice,” looked at this issue. The researchers found that many people (these were non-vegetarians) expressed a desire to view their food habits as “normal,” rather than “extreme.” This is important for our advocacy because surveys of ex-vegetarians found that many did not like feeling “conspicuous.”

We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to “normalize” veganism.

One way is to provide more vegan options that mimic usual eating patterns. The food industry has done a remarkable job of this and the choices are getting better and more diverse all of the time. Veggie cheeses and meats are much better today than they were ten years ago. It’s easier to find vegan options in mainstream eateries, too, and this is something that vegan activists should support.

I am frequently chastised for my stance on veggie meats—which is that it’s okay to eat them. Recently, a blog reader told me that they are “junk foods” that are “worse than meat” (as she had learned in an online course on plant-based nutrition).

I understand that avoiding these foods is an important part of some plant-based dietary philosophies. But nutrition isn’t a philosophy; it’s a science. I know of no evidence that a few servings of veggie meats per week will harm your health.

And it’s not just about convenience—although that is a big part of the benefit they bring to vegan diets. Just as importantly, these foods and others may make veganism more socially and psychologically comfortable for some people. They make it feel a little bit more like what some of us grew up with. They allow vegans to eat at restaurants with friends without having to ask the server to create something special for them—something that perhaps makes them feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.

We know that veganism isn’t about us. And a little discomfort on our part shouldn’t be a big deal given what the animals endure every day. But we also need to be realistic. Going vegan presents a huge challenge for many people. It’s not just about learning to like new foods and giving up old favorites. It’s about choosing a path that puts us out of step with much of society. Depending on who you are, where you live, and what your social circles are like, it can be alienating.

What we really want, of course, is for vegan to become the norm, not the fringe. But until that happens, making it look normal might be what is needed to help some people go and stay vegan.

Recidivism Part 1: The Power of Ethics

We will be reprinting some of Ginny Messina’s conclusions from her research on veg recidivism, starting with “The Power of Ethics.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to reprint.

Helping people go vegan is great. But it’s meaningless if we can’t help them stay vegan. [I have written] about how overhyping the benefits of a vegan diet can result in ex-vegans. One of the reasons people abandon vegan diets is that they lose faith in its benefits. That’s more likely to happen if the claims are far-fetched.

We also run the risk of losing vegans (and vegetarians) when we skip over discussions about ethics. While health may motivate many people to go vegan or vegetarian, ethics seems to be more “sticky.”

As I’ve been delving into this issue of preventing recidivism, I’ve looked at quite a bit of data including:

  • Surveys of ex-vegetarians (from Faunalytics, the Toronto Vegetarian Association, and psychologists Childers and Herzog)
  • Research on successful dietary behavior change in general
  • Research on dietary behavior of current and former vegans and vegetarians

The findings are relatively consistent regarding the power of ethics in helping people stay vegan or vegetarian.

For example, the Faunalytics Survey found that health was the only motivation for going vegetarian cited by a majority of ex-vegetarians. A study from Winthrop University in South Carolina also found that vegetarians who are motivated by ethics “demonstrated stronger feelings of conviction.” They ate fewer animal products, and were less likely to lapse (1).

Interestingly, a study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey in the UK found that ethics was a stronger motivator than health for long term successful dietary change in general (2). The researchers said “…if an intervention could encourage individuals to be motivated by factors other than health (such as ethics)… such an approach would be more predictive of positive outcomes.”

So why is it that people who go vegan or vegetarian for the animals are more likely to stick with it? I can think of three possible reasons.

A vegan ethic is unique

The Toronto Vegetarian Society survey found that many ex-vegetarians believed that they could achieve the same benefits from a diet that included meat. And they are probably right

We can (and should) tell people that a vegan diet is a good choice for healthful eating; we just can’t tell them that it’s the only choice. Plant-based diets that include small amounts of animal foods are likely to be as good.

But the ethics of veganism? Once you embrace them, there is no alternative way of living and eating. This seems to be especially true for those who embrace an animal rights ethic (3). If you agree that animals are not here for us to use under any circumstances, veganism is really your only option.

Health motivated vegans may consume more restrictive/less optimal diets

Ethically-motivated vegans might enjoy a more relaxed approach to food choices that makes a vegan diet easier and makes it easier to meet nutrient needs. (4,5). Health-motivated vegans may also be less likely to take appropriate supplements (5). One group of researchers said that “It is possible that health vegans, in pursuit of better health from food sources may have eschewed supplement intake, believing that plant foods were a better source of essential nutrients.” If that’s true, it places health-motivated vegans at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies.

Ethics is a part of who we are

In a study titled “Moralization and Becoming a Vegetarian,” researchers noted that “Moral values are often referred to as internalized, that is, as a part of the self (6).”

That’s important because many ex-vegetarians say that they didn’t feel like their diet was a part of their “identity.” Maybe if they made the moral connection—the connection to their “internalized values” –more people would see that veganism is much more a part of their identity than they realize.

One theory is that those who go vegan for health will eventually embrace the ethical considerations, hopefully moving on to adopting other lifestyle changes that reflect a vegan ethic. Maybe. But—possibly because ethical reasons for vegetarianism become so deeply internalized—it seems that ethical vegetarians are the ones more likely to find new reasons to stay vegetarian (6).

Vegan Advocacy: Put Ethics First

The problem of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians is a serious one. When people say “I used to be vegan, but…” it perpetuates the idea that vegan diets are difficult or unhealthy. Also, it’s possible that ex-vegetarians consume more chickens than people who were never vegetarian—which isn’t surprising if ex-vegetarians were motivated by health (7). This is something that can clearly cause more animal suffering.

I promote vegan diets for ethical reasons only because I have no choice. It’s not possible to make the case that all animal foods are dangerous without resorting to cherry-picked data. And I can’t do that and then promote myself as “evidence-based.” Fortunately, it appears that ethics is a more powerful long-term motivator for vegan and vegetarian diets, anyway.

With limited resources, it seems better to focus on efforts that are more likely to create vegans who actually stay vegan. And so however you approach your own activism, consider including the ethics of animal use as at least part of your message.

Hoffman SR, Stallings SF, Bessinger RC, Brooks GT. Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. Strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence. Appetite 2013;65:139-44.

Ogden J, Karim L, Choudry A, Brown K. Understanding successful behaviour change: the role of intentions, attitudes to the target and motivations and the example of diet. Health Educ Res 2007;22:397-405.

Menzies K, Sheeshka J. The process of exiting vegetarianism: an exploratory study. Can J Diet Pract Res 2012;73:163-8.

Dyett PA, Sabate J, Haddad E, Rajaram S, Shavlik D. Vegan lifestyle behaviors: an exploration of congruence with health-related beliefs and assessed health indices. Appetite 2013;67:119-24.

Radnitz C, Beezhold B, DiMatteo J. Investigation of lifestyle choices of individuals following a vegan diet for health and ethical reasons. Appetite 2015;90:31-6.

Rozin P MM, Stoess C. . Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science 1997;8:67-73.

Barr SI, Chapman GE. Perceptions and practices of self-defined current vegetarian, former vegetarian, and nonvegetarian women. J Am Diet Assoc 2002;102:354-60.