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.

2015 Something Better Now Available!

somethingbettercoverWe are very excited to announce the availability of the 2015 edition of our advocacy booklet, Something Better.

If you’ve never distributed copies before, you can see a pdf here. You can also head over to the CCC website and learn about leafleting, and get other ideas about booklet distribution. (If you’ve never spent time going through the Compassionate Communities Campaign website, there is a lot of great information all throughout!)

Contact us at [email protected] to learn how you can distribute copies in your area.

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


Best advice for animal activists – part one

July 30, 2012

Farm Sanctuary’s Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives Bruce Friedrich was recently asked to share his “top three pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow activists to become more effective.” His response will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Compassion by Ben Davidow.

Matt Ball and I wrote a book about how advocates can be maximally effective for animals, The Animal Activist’s Handbook. Peter Singer says about the book: “Rarely have so few pages contained so much intelligence and good advice. Get it, read it, and act on it. Now.” Taken from our book, my top three recommendations are:

1. Remember the multiplier

If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you’re saving dozens of land animals and even more sea animals every single year. That’s something to be proud of, and it’s a deeply powerful statement in support of compassion and mercy and against cruelty and misery. Amazingly, if you convince one more person to adopt a vegetarian diet, in that moment you’ve doubled your lifetime effect as a vegetarian. So we should all be doing what we can to influence others to adopt a vegetarian diet, including little things like wearing vegetarian T-shirts and putting “Happy Vegetarian” bumper stickers on our cars and laptops, and bigger things like getting active through Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College campaign or Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign.

2. Pretend you’re Socrates

Socrates asked questions of those with whom he was engaged to help others see that their current moral paradigms supported his position. We should also do precisely that. No one wants to support cruelty to animals, and yet anyone who is eating meat is supporting egregious abuse. So our best way of engaging with people is to help them question how, when eating meat, their values and actions are not in alignment. All other arguments are a diversion from this central and winning argument—which should be framed as a discussion, not a diatribe.

3. Don’t get discouraged

As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s remarkable to think that for most of human history, humans have considered it acceptable for some humans to hold others as slaves, and for women to be—for all intents and purposes—the property of their husbands. Think for a moment about how quickly that understanding has completely changed in the developed world—in just a few generations. There’s so much animal suffering that it’s easy to get discouraged, but we shouldn’t: We have science, logic, and morality on our side; it’s only a matter of time before we win.


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Best advice for animal activists – part two

July 30, 2012

Farm Sanctuary’s Compassionate Communities Campaign Manager Nick Cooney was recently asked to share his “top three pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow activists to help them become more effective” in 400 words. The following is his advice, which will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Compassion by Ben Davidow.

1. Think like a businessperson

It is wonderful to care about animals.  And, if we do care, we certainly want to be maximally effective with our advocacy efforts.  That means we should focus on the activities that help as many animals as possible.  So, we need to think like businesspeople. Companies have a financial bottom line, and every decision they make is based on whether it’s good or bad for that bottom line. We need to be just as calculating in our work. We need to look at the different advocacy programs out there and decide which of them will allow us to help the greatest number of animals possible and reduce the greatest amount of suffering possible.

2. Ask, “How many animals did I help?”

An easy way to see how effective we’ve been is to ask ourselves (perhaps each month), “How many animals did I help this month?” You might not know an exact number, but you can get a decent sense. If you’ve passed out a couple hundred leaflets to college students you’ve probably gotten one person to go veg and spared 30 animals a year a life of misery. If you’ve shown a video on animal cruelty to 100 people, probably one has gone veg and you’ve also spared 30 animals. These are complete ballpark estimates, but it’s clear that the end result of either of these activities (or similar veg advocacy work) is dramatically higher than many other forms of animal activism. The next important question to ask yourself is, “How can I help a greater number of animals next month?”

3. Be more like your audience

People are more likely to listen to you, and be persuaded by you to care about farm animals, if you look, talk, act, and interact like them. No matter how you may be in your regular life, the more you can look and act like your audience when doing veg advocacy the more effective you will be and the more animals you will spare. Consider it like wearing a uniform to work: uncomfortable, but important to success. And it is doubly important for us because lives are on the line.


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