Activism and Veganism Reconsidered
In the past twenty years, the animal rights (AR) movement has made the public aware of many issues concerning animals. During this time, unfortunately, per-capita meat consumption has risen, and the number of animals killed in the United States has increased by hundreds of millions each year. (2012 update -- consumption of animals in the US has declined over the past few years as more and more activists and groups have focused on farmed animal issues.)
The number of animals killed for fur in the United States each year is approximately equal to the human population of Illinois.
The number of animals killed in experimentation in the United States each year is approximately equal to the human population of Texas.
The number of mammals and birds farmed and slaughtered in the United States each year is approximately equal to one and two-thirds the entire human population of Earth.
About 99% of the animals killed in the United States each year die to be eaten. Everyone makes choices directly determining the fates of these animals when deciding what to eat each day.
Because most people eat animals, the commonplace view remains that animals are tools and commodities. There are a million symptoms of this view – small-scale yet highly visible abuses that always seem to demand our attention: canned hunts, circuses, cockfighting, fur, horse racing, etc. Many activists burn out because of the never-ending torrent of these “battles” around them and the difficulty in winning even the smallest “victory.”
This cycle will continue until there is a fundamental change in society. The only way to make this happen is by convincing people to stop eating animals.
We expect the general public to question everything they assume and have ever been told about food, traditions, health, etc. Given the enormity of the task at hand, the increase in the number of animals killed each year, and the relative paucity of our resources, I believe we too must constantly question everything we assume and have ever been told about our activism and veganism. My assumptions and ego have harmed the effectiveness of my advocacy in the past. I offer these lessons learned solely as considerations for improving advocacy, not as argument or judgement.
A basketball coach once told me: “Practice doesnt make perfect. Poorly planned and executed practice, no matter how hard you work, tends to just reinforce bad habits and will ultimately only make you a worse player.
"Only perfect practice makes perfect."
The same can be said about activism. No matter how angry we are, how much we believe in something, how hard we work, or how much we suffer, our activities can be useless or even counter-productive. We should always strive to think clearly, get good counsel, be willing to admit our mistakes, and change course in midstream if necessary (however ego-damaging this can be). If our efforts are not part of a well-defined and thought-through plan, we will spin our wheels.
During the time the AR movement has been visible in the United States (since ~1980), AR activists have stopped some abuses, received media attention, and become a fixture of pop culture. Yet after two decades, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent and possibly a similar number of hours of work devoted, almost twice as many animals will be killed in the United States this year as were killed in 1980.
Given the number of nonhuman animals suffering in the United States, the extent to which they are suffering, and the reason they are intentionally made to suffer, animal liberation must be seen as the moral imperative of our time. Our entire focus must be on ending the suffering as efficiently and quickly as possible.
I believe we have an ethical obligation to recognize and set aside all of our personal baggage and to perform an objective analysis of both the pros/cons and costs/benefits of our choice of focus, our choice of tactics, and the example we choose to present to the public.
Along with anger, guilt is a highly motivating emotion among activists. If we know of a highly visible case of animal exploitation, we feel that we must take action against it.
As much as we dont want to admit it, though, we cant do everything: when we choose to pursue one thing, we are choosing not to pursue others.
Compared to the public as a whole and the companies which exploit animals, AR activists have extremely limited resources: money, time, and emotional energy. Instead of reacting to whatever visible abuses that come up or following the leads of other activists, utilizing our limited resources so as to maximize their results should be our first priority.
There are a host of people out there who are open to our efforts, while those who profit from the industries that exploit animals are not. Shouldnt we gain strength in numbers by first focusing the bulk of our energies into persuading those people who are willing to listen to our message?
Some contend that small-scale, high-profile cases provide a hook to allow organizations to raise money and gain new members. Others argue that victories can help energize activists who would otherwise burn out on actions that dont have a tangible payoff. Although these are valid considerations, these potential positives must be weighed against other factors.
One example of our movements priorities is the Hegins pigeon shoot – one of the primary AR accomplishments of the 1990s. Immense amounts of money and human effort went into this campaign. Ending the Hegins pigeon shoot has saved ~5,000 animals each year – the number of animals that die in U.S slaughterhouses every 16 seconds.
In the future, we need to decide if the animals are best served by this type of allocation of resources. If we choose not to decide, we still have made a choice.
Given the wide range of animal abuses and the various situations in which activists find themselves, I believe it is not possible to make a blanket statement that a specific tactic is unquestionably positive or always harmful. For example, a certain type of demonstration, when run in a relevant situation and with a respectful, clear message, can possibly raise the publics awareness, receive fair media coverage, and encourage some activists. The same type of demonstration, run under different circumstances and with an outrageous message made through chants, shouts, and/or stunts, can serve to harm the progression of animal liberation by alienating the public and frustrating thoughtful activists.
Like deciding where to focus our limited resources, decisions about tactics must be made in the larger context of our goals. Why are we doing this (e.g., is it because of anger and guilt, or because it is a strategic step that serves our larger goal)? What is the most probable outcome? What effect will it have on the public? On other activists? What other activities could we do with the same time and resources, and would one of those options have a greater effect overall? Again, I believe that we have an obligation to ask these questions.
Many activists feel that the worth of their activism or event is based on how much media coverage they receive. It is not necessary, however, to focus ones activism on getting media attention.
Trying to use the media has a number of drawbacks. There is rarely enough time to present a full and compelling case for veganism. Nor is there time enough to get into important nutritional aspects that need attention in order to follow a vegan diet successfully. Furthermore, the media makes opponents aware of our efforts. This enables animal exploiters to mobilize against us, as well as providing them with a free venue in which to disagree with us, since reports invariably give them equal or better airtime. Many in the media will only air something if they feel they are able to make us look silly, or like vandals and terrorists. Others make the entire issue of animal liberation (regardless of whether it was originally about fur, meat, or hunting) into “your baby or your dog.”
All of the above drawbacks can be avoided by handing out detailed and accurate information about veganism in one-on-one situations. You might reach fewer people, but you will be providing them with thorough information, versus a sound bite that is easy to dismiss or forget.
Spreading information about how veganism prevents animal suffering helps to move individuals (and thus society) away from relying on animal exploitation for a fundamental, daily activity – eating. Once individuals have broken their attachment to a daily reliance on animal exploitation, it is much easier for them to reject all animal exploitation, rather than just the high-profile abuses committed by others. As more people understand and act by the tenets of veganism, it will be significantly easier for others to join them. This will bring pressure to bear on other animal issues, and achievement of our goals will be accelerated.
But we dont need a majority in order to make a huge reduction in animal suffering by spreading veganism: if 5% of Americans were to stop eating animals, more suffering would be prevented than if we completely abolished every other form of animal exploitation in the United States.
Promoting veganism brings about the fundamental change that is needed. Done at a reasonable pace, it can sustain activists who would otherwise burn out in the face of endless “battles.” It can be hard to put fundamental change ahead of expressing our anger in small battles, but it is necessary if progress is to be made towards animal liberation.
As Donna Maurer concluded in her dissertation (1997) about the vegetarian movement in North America, “the strategies that vegetarian groups enact to promote healthy diets for each individuals personal benefit inhibit people from adopting a collective vegetarian identity based on moral concern regarding human/animal relationships; without commitment to this moral concern, being a vegetarian is a lifestyle vulnerable to changing personal and cultural tastes.”
Many activists believe the health argument to be the most effective for promoting vegetarianism because it is the least threatening and appeals to peoples self-interest. We question whether this is really the best tactic for the following reasons:
Even if ethics is not as effective as the health argument at initially persuading some people, those who are motivated to change based on ethics will be better spokespersons for veganism. In the promotion of animal liberation, each individuals example and actions as a spokesperson are at least as important as the economic impact their individual choices have. Promoting a "plant-based" diet for health reasons feeds our societys focus on selfishness by implying that animal suffering is not worthy of peoples concern. It delays the time when we, as a society, will come to terms with our treatment of animals.
Diets based on health claims are subject to further change based on new, low-fat animal products and fad diets (The Zone, Eat Right for Your Type, etc.). People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet to feel healthier will resume consuming animal products if they feel no improvement. Because they do not necessarily have their hearts into being vegetarian or vegan, they often will not experiment with it long enough to find a way of eating that makes them feel healthy. This can have far-reaching, negative effects as they go on to tell others how unhealthy they felt when they were veg.
In the past twenty years, the number of animals killed has skyrocketed because of the move toward eating more chickens and fish, brought about in part because of people trying to eat less red meat for health reasons.
Health claims regarding the benefits of vegetarianism can often be exaggerated and/or incomplete. Because so many people have health questions regarding a vegetarian diet, all activists should honestly educate themselves with current and complete nutritional information. When people ask about health, we can confidently state that a vegan diet can be healthy and explain which nutrients might be of concern. (For the information Vegan Outreach considers the most up-to-date and scientifically thorough, please see: VeganHealth.org)
In general, people do not want to believe that they are supporting cruelty by eating animal products. They dont want to give up convenience and their favorite foods, and they dont want to separate themselves from their friends and family. So it is unlikely that people will even listen to our message – let alone think about changing – if they perceive vegans as joyless misanthropes.
There often appears to be a contest among vegans for discovering new connections to animal exploitation (of course, links can be found everywhere if one looks hard enough). This attitude makes us appear fanatical and gives many people an excuse to ignore our message.
Some vegans claim sugar (and products containing sugar, like Tofutti) isnt vegan because some sugar processing uses bone char as a whitening agent. Bone char is also used as a source of activated carbon in some water filters and by some municipal water treatment plants. (These plants also use tests that involve animal products, and water itself has been tested on animals.) So should we say water isnt “vegan”?
The vast majority of people in our society have no problem gnawing on an actual chicken leg. Yet we make an issue of honey, despite the fact that insects and other animals are killed in the process of planting, raising, harvesting, and transporting our vegan food. It is no wonder that many people dismiss us as unreasonable and irrational when they are told (or when it is implied by our actions) that they must not eat veggie burgers cooked on the same grill with meat, drink wine, take photographs, use medications, etc.; some vegans even tack on other political or religious ideologies.
It is imperative for us to realize that if our veganism is a statement for animal liberation, veganism cannot be an exclusive, ego-boosting club. Rather, we must become the mainstream. Fostering the impression that “its so hard to be vegan – animal products are in everything,” and emphasizing animal products where the connection to animal suffering is tenuous, works against this by allowing most to ignore us and causing others to give up the whole process out of frustration.
The way veganism is presented to a potential vegan is of major importance. The attractive idea behind being a “vegan” is reducing ones contribution to animal exploitation. Buying meat, eggs, and/or dairy creates animal suffering – animals will be raised and slaughtered specifically for these products. But if the by-products are not sold, they will be thrown out or given away. As more people stop eating animals, the by-products will naturally fade, so there is no real reason to force other people to worry about them in order to call themselves “vegan.”
We want a vegan world, not a vegan club.
Most vegans have multiple motivations, but primary motivations often distinguish vegans, such as “health vegans” or “spiritual/religious vegans.” I see another type of distinction as being useful: “practical vegans” and “symbolic vegans.” Practical vegans avoid the specific products for which animals are bred, raised, and eventually slaughtered. Every product they choose to avoid can be directly and causally linked to animal suffering. Symbolic vegans, in addition to avoiding those products, go beyond this to some level (e.g., avoiding sugar but not water) so as to be able to make a statement (about solidarity with the animals, personal purity, etc.).
The gelatin in many medicines makes many vegans uncomfortable. However, drug and supplement companies wont use something more expensive because of this discomfort. As long as animals are slaughtered for their flesh, gelatin will remain a dirt-cheap by-product. This wont change because of a relatively few symbolic vegans. It will change, however, as the number of practical vegans expands and there isnt an endless string of animals being slaughtered for food, making a substitute necessary.
In dealing with others, practical vegans can explain: “I dont buy products that directly cause animal suffering – things for which animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered.” A symbolic vegan could add: “Personally, I choose to go further and avoid gelcaps [sugar, etc.] as a symbolic gesture.”
Once the demand for primary animal products shrinks and the by-products are no longer so cheap, companies will find new filtering methods, new ways to cure concrete, new means of producing steel and rubber, new blood-test methods, etc. As more people are concerned with animals, farming practices will be altered so fewer animals are harmed and killed during planting and harvesting of vegan food.
We need an articulated and actionable plan for bringing about animal liberation. In the current view, we spend our resources and energy “fighting battles,” where they occur and on the exploiters terms. We need to move beyond this war imagery to a constructive approach.
No matter how many chants we shout, no matter how many sound bites we gain, no matter how many labs we vandalize or “enemies” we defeat, animal liberation will not occur until we join with everyone in a vegan world. If there is to be a fundamental change in the manner in which other animals are viewed – if there is to be animal liberation – there can be no “us and them.”
There is hope for animal liberation if and only if we learn how to help people get past their wall of denial and manifest their latent compassion. To succeed, our interactions with others must be rooted in empathy and understanding – working with and from a persons motivations, fears, desires, and shortcomings. Instead of approaching with a “fighting” mindset, which necessarily makes people defensive and closed to new ideas, we should provide people with information that they can digest on their own time and act upon at a sustainable pace. Only then will real progress be made.