From conception to death, their lives are planned out. When they will feed, where they will go, how they will interact with others, how often they will reproduce, whether they will mate or be inseminated, how long they will spend with their children before separation, whether their illnesses are worth treating, how they will die: all of these details are contrived. They are born for a purpose, and that purpose is to be used by others. Each one has a price on his or her head, and each one is disposable. Each one has wants, interests, preferences, desires, and we systematically deny them — not for any reasons of necessity, but simply because we believe that our transitory experience of pleasure, or our reluctance to change our habits, outweighs their most basic rights.
Vegans recognise the injustice inherent in treating nonhuman animals as resources and so abstain from animal use (in as far as is possible in a nonvegan world), and their recognition of this injustice is often marked by a desire to lead others to the same awareness.
Most vegans once participated in the system of animal exploitation that they now renounce, and this fact often makes advocacy seem all the more urgent and all the more difficult. For many vegans, the cognitive shift that allows them to perceive the unfairness of animal use appears to be a sudden one (although they may have been moving towards it gradually through an accumulation of life experiences), and they often figure that shift as ‘a switch flicking’, ‘a lightbulb moment’ or ‘taking the red pill’. To acknowledge the wrongness of what is considered ‘normal’, and to reject the habits, customs, and traditions that centre on animal use, in what is typically a very short space of time, can create a sense of impatience in the vegan advocate and result in the adoption of a range of advocacy techniques that are neither carefully considered nor particularly productive.
Many vegans promote Meatless Mondays or fixed-period trials of plant-based eating in the hope that the experience of one part of living as a vegan will bring the participant to the recognition of the moral imperative. Quite a few advertise the health benefits of plant foods or demarcate particular instances of ‘cruel’ treatment while desiring that the person to whom they’re speaking will recognise that all animal use is wrong. Some proclaim the environmental benefits of boycotting animal agriculture. Others will adopt a range of measures designed to reduce consumption with the expectation that reduced consumption will mean reduced animal use.
The problems with such tactics are numerous. First, no one comes to the knowledge of what it really means to be a vegan by dining on a Portobello mushroom burger. What is more, the kind of person who follows health plans will be inclined to try several over the course of their lives, and so may embrace the health benefits of plant foods for brief period before moving on to the next fad. Second, highlighting instances of animal suffering may result in confusion about our obligations to animals and create the mistaken impression that there is a morally acceptable way to treat them as resources; let’s be clear: there’s not. Furthermore, the advocate who promotes half-measures risks making veganism seem difficult and alien. Third, if an individual reduces consumption in some areas of his or her life, this will not drive down demand in any meaningful way. Our power as consumers is a collective one, and depends upon our unreserved and lifelong commitment to abstaining from animal use. Fourth, shifting the focus away from the enormity of the harm we cause by treating others as resources is doing no service to the victims of injustice. Fifth, we risk spreading ourselves too thin, wasting time and energy by persuading people to remove some forms of animal use for what is (without a clear moral message) probably only a short period of time. Instead, we could use that time and energy to refine our arguments and to advocate with conviction and sincerity in order to achieve what it is that we really want: an end to animal use.
Many vegans adopt these problematic approaches to advocacy because they recognise the urgency of the problem and feel that they must do something for the current victims of the system. But the current victims will not be spared from their miserable lives and dreadful deaths by any approaches that we may take; they are already here to be used, and nothing we can do will save them (even liberating one will necessitate that another will have to take his or her place). Welfare reforms are counterproductive, because they make people more comfortable with using animals, and they increase the economic efficiency of animal exploitation by increasing profits (tied to people’s moral comfort with labels of ‘humane’ use, but they also protect the extrinsic value of animals-as-property (cf. the work of Gary Francione; this essay is an excellent starting point)), and therefore result in more animals being bred for exploitation.
To obtain justice for nonhumans, the world needs more vegans. In order to create more vegans we have to take responsibility, where we can, to educate people towards veganism. We can’t trick them into becoming vegan by promoting various modes of nonveganism (whether plant-based eating, vegetarianism, reduced consumption, or boycotting particular instances or animal use). We can’t expect someone to accept that we are sincere and trustworthy advocates when we fail to promote what we practise ourselves.
We can only normalise veganism by talking about it, and the only effective method of vegan advocacy is to present a clear and simple moral position that animal exploitation is wrong. It is only through unequivocal and unapologetic advocacy that we will change the way society regards animals and end the systematic and institutionalised exploitation of all nonhumans.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll post on a range of advocacy techniques from the effective use of language to raising moral concern, from the effectiveness of shock tactics to dealing with objections and logical fallacies, from finding opportunities for advocacy to dealing with apparent failure. I hope you’ll join me.