This is a transcript of a talk given at VegFest Scotland on 6th December, 2015.
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Aristotle’s words ring just as true today as they did in the third century BC. For, what is education but an opening up to a new way not only of doing but also of being? Behavioural changes, without attitudinal shifts, are hollow gestures, fleeting and fragile.
Those of us who are vegan will remember our own moment of metanoia, or change of mind, that led us to reject animal use; that caused us to unlearn what we had taken for granted, and to reassess the world. This was a shift not just in our actions but at the very core of ourselves. Before this shift, we called ourselves animal lovers while we tore at their dead bodies with our teeth or held our coins in pouches made from their skin. And, since being vegan, most of us have found that our concern about oppression and violence has extended outwards to all beings, transforming us into advocates for justice in a wider sense.
Veganism, as Gary L. Francione says, is a revolution of the heart. Our commitment to nonviolence comes to be so intrinsic that our ethical values become our identity, and vice versa. And this is why, when we hear of ex-vegans, we understand that they were never really vegan to begin with. For to be vegan is to embrace a reality so all-consuming that it shakes one’s very being out of complacency; in these ethical principles our perception of the world takes root.
For most of us, our role in society shifts and we come to be educators, helping to bring others to that same ethical awakening. We long for those around us to recognise the moral personhood of animals, to stop treating them as a means to our ends, to see them as beings rather than objects, and, ultimately, for the horror of animal exploitation to cease.
Although veganism is not about us, in a world beset by violence, injustice and exploitation it must stem from us, and it must inform our interactions with all other beings. And since veganism is a commitment to nonviolence, since it is an all-encompassing ethical system, we must never pretend that encouraging Alex or Jo to eat a little less meat will achieve the same ethically transformative ends.
We embrace veganism as an ethical principle that accepts no compromise. Those of us who stand by what veganism means would never dream of drinking an occasional glass of dairy milk or eating a slice of a turkey’s corpse at a festive dinner. We recognise that we can never justify participating in an action that we acknowledge to be morally wrong: none of us would beat a dog, nor would we advocate a reducetarian approach to those who beat dogs so that a few dogs may suffer a little less. Yet, even some of us who are ethically consistent in our own behaviour promote less than veganism as part of a strategy that’s purported to reduce suffering.
Advocates for reducetarianism claim to want to drive down consumption of animal flesh, rather than to change the perception of animals from things that exist for our use to beings who exist in their own right. The ultimate vision of the Reducetarian Foundation, headed by two nonvegans, is of a world where people eat less meat. Their goal is not a vegan world, and yet many vegans follow their approach with the untested and unproven assertion that it will help to shift the paradigm towards a world where animals are no longer used. The disingenuity of this claim is absolutely staggering. Casey Taft, in a recent blog post, demonstrates that these self-proclaimed “pragmatists” base their so-called strategy on foundationless pseudo-science that actually misinterprets some of the data on which they rely.
As long as vegans are promoting the reducetarian position, moral confusion will abound. Since reducetarianism is focussed on the flesh of dead animals, it creates an artificial moral distinction between this and the other products of animal exploitation. Yet, knowing, as we do, what animals used for other forms of industry have to endure, how can we, with conscience, exclude them from our advocacy? Why would we choose to advocate only for those who are fattened and killed to be eaten and pretend that those whose reproductive systems are co-opted and commodified, whose children are torn from them, who are recycled through systems that weaken and exhaust their subjugated bodies do not matter? Reducetarianism falls hopelessly short of what we, as vegans, know nonhuman animals deserve by right.
Vegans who promote reducetarianism often depict veganism as difficult, puritanical, elitist. Yet, what could make veganism appear more difficult than the insistence by vegans that it is so? What could be more puritanical than to portray being vegan as beyond the reach of most people? What could be more elitist than the view that one’s own ethical principles are not accessible to majority of the population?
Reducetarians are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By framing veganism as somehow ethically precious, they are perpetuating the normativity of animal exploitation. By advocating for reduced consumption of animal products, they are condoning the consumption of animal products. By shifting the focus away from the moral principles they accept in their own lives, they are doomed to perpetuate the paradigm that limits those principles to being part of a fringe philosophy.
The reducetarian strategy is designed to change behaviour, but not perception. Without an attitudinal shift of the kind that most of us have experienced, there’s no moral impetus to eliminate all animal use and to prevent backsliding. And if one can change people’s perception of the moral worth of nonhuman animals, then persuading them to align their behaviour accordingly is only a small step further.
Reducetarians argue that not everyone cares about animals, but the majority do, and our job is to focus on advocating veganism to them rather than to spend precious time promoting one less slice of flesh per week to those who don’t. They say that the world won’t go vegan overnight, and we recognise this to be true. However, the world won’t go vegan at all if we aren’t prepared to advocate for veganism.
With the animal movement in the mess that it’s currently in, promoting humane exploitation as a convenient moral salve, only clarity will help us treat the disease of animal use, rather than trying to tackle the symptoms of “suffering”. And despite what the reducetarian “strategists” would have us believe, this doesn’t mean taking an all-or-nothing approach; it doesn’t necessitate that we be hostile or unencouraging. What it does mean, however, is that we do not compromise on the ethical principles that are central to our own lives, and on which the lives of trillions upon trillions of nonhuman animals depend.
There are countless people in the world who are just like us before we became vegan, with deep moral concern for animals and who have not yet seen that that moral concern leads, by necessity, to opting out of using them. Let’s spend our time seeking them out and convincing them to join us in shaping a vegan world. Let those who are not vegan promote all the halfway measures on which they have settled themselves. As vegans, having undergone the education of the heart that we have, only we are uniquely placed to advocate for those ethical principles that we cherish and the individuals whose lives they seek to value. Let us, therefore, advocate with sincerity and conviction for our vegan world. In this deeply violent age, let us work towards bringing out the good in people; let’s help them embrace nonviolence towards all sentient beings rather than endorsing a little less harm. After all, if we, as vegans, won’t advocate for veganism, who will?
~ Frances McCormack and Alan O’Reilly