What is Real Courage?

Meat eaters love to change the subject and complain about vegans’ sense of smug superiority. But I can say it is very likely that I truly am superior to most everyone reading this: I have made more mistakes.

I stopped eating animals back in the 1980s. In the years after that, I made an absurd number of mistakes. Probably the main reason I wanted to publish The Animal Activist’s Handbook is to try to help others avoid at least some of the mistakes I made.

One of my biggest mistakes was lacking courage, but perhaps not in the way you think.

Over the years, people advised me to say I was vegan for my health. “That way,” I was told, “people won’t be threatened by you. Everyone cares about their health, so they won’t feel judged.”

Of course, I didn’t go along with that. I protested, “But I’m vegan for so many reasons! The Animals! The Earth! Human health!” Back then, our attitude was to “win an argument with a meat eater” (the title of a famous poster of the time). The approach was to try to overwhelm a meat eater with an endless list of what we believed were “facts,” which simplified to: all ills in the world, from impotence to hunger to ozone depletion to serial killings, were all because of meat.

Do you see the problem? It was all about me: Why I was vegan, how I was so right, how I needed to win an argument, because meat eaters were so very wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now, in sympathy with Young Matt and the rest of us back then, there really was no other example. We all spouted endless claims of water usage and declining fertility. No matter how absurd a claim, if something sounded even vaguely anti-meat or pro-vegetables, we parroted it like the indoctrinated missionaries we were.

On a basic human level, this is understandable. We were a tiny minority, surrounded by meat eaters – meat eaters who often mocked us. You can see why we were so eager, so desperate to justify ourselves, to strike back, to try to belittle those who belittled us, to win.

Of course, looking at it rationally today, each of us knows that any discomfort we experience is nothing compared to what farmed animals endure. But to be able to take the animals’ perspective would have required me to think beyond myself and my self-interest.

I regret my lack of courage, my inability to get past my need to justify myself, praise veganism, and blame meat eaters for every ill.

Of course, if you had pointed this out to me back then, I would have been outraged: “I am courageous! Do you know how hard it is to be vegan in the world? Look at this sheet of ‘facts’: meat eating is terrible!”

My interactions with meat eaters consisted of preaching an endless stream of horrors, pontificating: “You are causing all this! You need to be Just . . . Like . . . Me!” It was so important to chant, to insist, to promote and pursue purity – much more important than working constructively to bring about actual change.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that being vegan isn’t good or important. But however important our personal, day-to-day choices are, choosing effective advocacy for the animals is far, far more important. However much good we accomplish by being vegan every day of the rest of our entire lives . . . well, we can do more good than that in just an hour of honest, psychologically-sound activism – or in just a minute, by donating to effective advocacy.

To really accomplish good in the world, we can’t be like Young Matt. We can’t focus on what sounds good to us. We can’t just rattle off facts that we find compelling, repeat anything that seems to justify our veganism, latch on to the latest “study” that “proves” what we want to believe.

And we can’t just “do something, do anything.” Instead, we have to look at the overall, real-world impact of our advocacy, and compare those consequences to other alternatives we could pursue with our limited time and resources.

This isn’t easy, in part because it is just so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “People are selfish, I’ll appeal to self-interest!” Or taking anecdotes as data: “Marcie went vegan for reason X, so everyone must promote X!” Effective advocates look beyond what we think or what motivates us and those around us. We need to put aside what makes veganism sound good to us and focus on what will move non-vegetarians to take steps that actually end suffering.

For example, we can’t focus on something that seems non-controversial, something that seems to appeal to everyone, if doing so might encourage someone to stop eating big animals and instead eat more birds and fishes; anyone who just gives up red meat causes much, much more suffering.

In other words, we must consider all the actual consequences of our advocacy.

I don’t mean to preach. I wasted so many opportunities; turned off so many people. It took me years – and the help of truly courageous people – before I could set aside my insecurities and ego and personal needs, and focus instead on practical, realistic advocacy that actually helps animals.

Yet I don’t know what I could have said to Young Matt. Three decades ago, I was so angry, so filled with the odd combination of insecurity masked by self-righteousness.

It was an intoxicating siren song. It still is.

But let me leave you with a few decades of data: Since I came to the first March for the Animals in 1990, I have met hundreds of vegans who burned with an absolutist flame. Many of them loudly attacked other vegans as pathetic sell-outs, gutless compromisers, collaborating capitalists, and welfarists.

MattChicago2016Few of them are around today. There are, of course, new adherents, new screamers and chanters, new Young Matts. But if you look, you’ll actually see a number of truly courageous people, people who have put aside their ego and are focused on helping the animals as much as possible, every day.

I hope you have more courage than I did, and will join with those who go beyond self-interest. Instead, we can do the real, concrete work: day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is actually helping animals, literally changing the world.

-Matt Ball

Originally published in The Accidental Activist