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Politics, Personal Conduct, and the Vegan Police

Published in the October 2012 issue of Animal People

Disponible en espaƱol

The Vegan Outreach Perspective

Having been prompted to do some broader thinking about the status of animal advocacy in the past year – including contrasting the AR2012 conference in Washington, D.C. with past AR conferences – I [currently] have a somewhat different perspective on [these] issues, compared to my concerns when we were starting Vegan Outreach in the 1990s.

As the Animal People cofounders and longtime readers will remember, when Jack Norris, Anne Green, and I started working together 20+ years ago, there was almost no strategic farmed animal advocacy or daily grassroots promotion of vegetarianism. More than 99% of animals who suffer harm from humans are killed to be eaten, but almost the only voices for them at the time were a relative handful of disconnected and usually isolated vegans. At the time, the vegan community was dominated – in volume if not numbers – by loud, judgmental vegan-police types. There was no strategic vision of how to create fundamental and growing change, and no dedication to, or even thought about, optimizing advocacy. Most efforts went into defending and glorifying veganism. “How to win an argument with a meat eater” was the rallying cry – not “How to end factory farming and create a vegan society.” This is why Vegan Outreach spent a fair amount of time addressing the vegan police problem back then.

However, from the Vegan Outreach perspective, the circumstances of those times do not prevail any longer. Farmed animal advocacy and vegetarian promotion is a central concern – and often the sole focus – of organizations from the smallest local groups all the way up to the Humane Society of the U.S.

The early years of Vegan Outreach were defined by trying to get people interested in strategic, constructive advocacy and outreach with the biggest possible impact for animals. Now, at the end of 2012, the most dynamic groups doing the most successful work in the U.S. are focused on farmed animal welfare and vegetarian promotion.

Vegan Outreach alone has literally thousands of otherwise unaffiliated volunteers who are active in exposing factory farms and promoting ethical eating – and doing so not in a dogmatic, arrogant manner, but in a pragmatic, psychologically sound fashion.

And now, we’re just one of a large number of groups dedicated to optimal advocacy, focused on bringing about real, lasting change for the 99% of people who are not vegans.

Another way to look at it: if you asked the average person on the street about vegans in 1995, that person would have mentioned their nephew’s crazy misanthropic friend. When asked about vegans now, people think of Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the latest athlete to go vegan.

Of course there are still screaming vegan police – still angry, and, basically, still impotent folks who focus not on cruelty to animals, but on hating vegans and vegetarians who have chosen to value pragmatism and results more than purity and exclusivity.

As Jack Norris put it long ago, we want a vegan world, not a vegan club. That’s what Vegan Outreach is all about. However, as we know, there still are – and will always be – those who draw self-worth from being apart from and superior to the rest, who want and need their exclusive vegan club.

Yet it is important to remember – and this is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years – that those people have little impact in the real world, except in feeding a negative stereotype and wasting the time of practical, forward-looking advocates.

An analogy can be made with leafleting. We often will come across a belligerent individual who wants to monopolize our time arguing. We can waste our time with this person, who will never change his or her mind and only seeks to undermine us. Or we can ignore that person and do the constructive and necessary work of reaching new people with the animals’ message.

There are two practical consequences to this. The first is to recognize that angry, obsessive vegans are prominent in society. Therefore, those of us focused on the animals must be the opposite of the stereotype that the angry and obsessive people create.

The second can be summarized as “don’t feed the trolls.” Vegan Outreach is often contacted by people who say we must condemn group X, or oppose proposition Y or bill Z, or attack us for not focusing on dairy, or want us to take a position on the latest controversy within the animal cause.

Instead of expending our limited time and resources on what history has shown to be endless and useless internecine debates, we simply wish everyone the best of luck in their efforts to help animals – and then we continue with the constructive, necessary work of exposing factory farms and promoting ethical eating to new people.