Opening Doors


Quite a while ago, a woman called to my house seeking donations for a dog shelter. She told me some stories about how badly companion animals are treated, and then she said sadly of the ‘carers’ who exploit, abuse or abandon them, ‘they claim to love them, but they treat them like they’re just things.’

I’d never been particularly confident about face-to-face advocacy, and had never attempted to start such a conversation with a stranger before, but I felt a compulsion to lead this discussion to veganism. I knew that if our meeting ended without me trying to make her see the connection between the dogs by whose stories she felt so moved and the animals that we use for food, clothing, entertainment, etc., I’d be weighed down by guilt and regret. So, I took a deep breath and pushed through the fear.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few strangers about veganism face-to-face (not all of these conversations have been as immediately or patently successful, but that’s for another post), I look back on this one as the easiest. The reason for that is simple: I was pushing at an open door. It was this woman’s concern for nonhumans (albeit of one species) that led her to my house, and the only ‘work’ I had to do was to help her extend that sense of duty to all other nonhumans.

In fact, many of my experiences of advocacy with strangers have followed a similar pattern: conversations about beloved companion animals or animals who have been mistreated lead on to discussions about all sentient nonhumans. But what makes this kind of advocacy a lot easier than it initially appears is that most people enjoy talking about particular species of nonhumans, and once that conversation has begun, it can flow very naturally towards a discussion of their rights.

Gary Francione analyses what makes this kind of advocacy effective here:

As long as there is moral concern and the moral impulse to want to do the right thing by animals, we can use rationality to demonstrate why this moral concern should extend to all animals and why abolition and veganism are the logically appropriate responses to the felt recognition,whatever its source, that animals are members of the moral community.

But in the absence of wanting to do the right thing, it will make no sense to discuss what logic identifies as the right thing to do.

So, raising moral concern is essential to effective advocacy, but it is not the only prerequisite. Only a rational demonstration of how veganism is the logical response to that experience of moral concern will lead to the conclusion for which you hope (if you don’t already own a copy of Francione’s and Charlton’s Eat Like You Care, add it to your library immediately; it’s a useful primer on the kind of content that our advocacy should involve, and it provides unassailable responses to all of the objections that you might encounter).

One important thing to remember, though, is that you will not be able to lead everyone you meet to veganism, and it would be discouraging for you if you were to expect all of your advocacy efforts to do so. But no exchange that explains, unequivocally, the rights of nonhumans not to be treated as resources can ever be a wasted one. At the very least, you will expose someone to an idea or a perspective that they hadn’t considered before, and we can never tell what kinds of cognitive processes these ideas can put in motion.

With people you meet regularly, your approach can (and perhaps should) be a very different one. Chances are that they will already know that you’re vegan, and conversations around that topic might happen in a fitful and fragmented way, and from other starting points. Again, don’t expect immediate results (in the near future we’ll examine some pedagogic research to see how conceptual change takes place and how we can best effect it), but know that every conversation you have, if you are informed and unambiguous, will either correct people’s misconceptions about veganism, make them rethink our relationship with nonhumans, or help them to understand the foundation of your ethical standpoint.

It may take some time for people to be persuaded. Don’t get angry or frustrated, and remind yourself that you’re not responsible for the moral decisions of your loved ones. Advocate calmly, and without impatience, frustration or anger, and don’t be afraid to step back from discussions to allow the other person time to process what you’ve explored together. Treat every question as though it’s a genuine request for further information, but don’t allow the conversation to be derailed away from the fact that we don’t need to use animals in order to live healthy and happy lives, and are therefore unjustified in treating them as resources. We’ll have a guest post soon on ways in which conversations can get derailed and how to deal with this.

There are opportunities for advocacy everywhere, and they don’t have to be forced. If you’ve been liberally using the word ‘vegan’ (as I recommended last week) you’ll have noticed that some people respond with curiosity. Use those opportunities to elicit the moral concern they already have for some nonhumans, and attempt to show them that this concern leads them to veganism. Remember that the more of these kinds of conversations you have, the easier they will become. Reflect on what you’ve done well and what you’d like to do differently. Read as many abolitionist essays and books as you can lay your hands on. Talk to others about what works for them, ask for tips, and never stop learning. Most importantly, walk away from every abolitionist advocacy attempt (whatever the result) feeling positive, because as long as we’re opening up the conversation we’re making a difference.

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