“You’re vegan?,” he asked, glancing at my t-shirt. My affirmative response was met with a catalogue of the vegetarians he knows, and of how he used to shoot rabbits but stopped after merely injuring one and not being able to “put them out of their misery.”
Ignoring the list of vegetarian friends for now, I probed about the rabbits. “But why?” “What was the difference between killing them and merely wounding them?”
As usual in my advocacy efforts, I led with questions, transporting the practitioner back to the emotions he felt at the time and compelling him to recall his thoughts and feelings when he decided that rabbits have enough moral value for him not to want them to suffer at his hand.
As he talked, he became more and more affected by his own story, and he seemed to make the connection to the t-shirt that started the conversation. “I know,” he said, unprompted, and he shook his head. But apart from asking questions, I didn’t have to say a word.
I was being treated for an injury, and I had a fixed appointment duration that didn’t require me to do more than just sit there and engage in conversation (well, punctuated by occasional yelps of discomfort–thankfully mine, and not resulting from the conversation).
And the cue came for me to do the thing that makes me nervous and self-conscious, but which I feel bound to do for the trillions who are killed each year for our trivial whims: I had to show him how his obvious and heartfelt moral concern for those rabbits compelled him to be vegan. It’s never easy deliver that message. It’s necessary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like the enormous responsibility that it is. Nor am I sufficiently self-assured to always be able to easily bat away the feelings of self-doubt or concerns about “messing up” that precede it.
But as always, gently and firmly, I explained that the distinction he was making between the animals he had killed with his own hands and those whose deaths he participated in by proxy was entirely arbitrary.
“I know! I know!,” he repeated in response, and he turned away from me, suggesting that he’d shut down to further discussion. And the appointment was over.
The next week, when I returned, the office looked a little different: the plaque that bore a joke about fishing was no longer there. The conversation came around to animal use again and again, but although the doctor claimed to agree with everything that I said about veganism, he was stuck at the point of knowing that he should become vegan but not allowing himself move beyond that. And every point I raised was met with “I know.”
This was one of the hardest advocacy encounters I’d ever experienced. I move on from people who don’t care, but this was a clear-cut case of cognitive dissonance in someone who understood and claimed to accept the moral worth of animals. Yet he was the one who kept bringing the conversation back to animals and who seemed to seek out my advocacy.
Eventually, in another session, the doctor turned his back to me and mumbled that he had reduced his meat consumption. Of course, I can never condone meat reduction. To reduce animal use is still to still participate in animal use. Furthermore, if someone cares enough to reduce, then they most likely care enough to be vegan, and I explained those facts.
But still the doctor struggled with his own cognitive dissonance, admitting that he knew what he was doing wasn’t aligned with his own moral code yet responding to any moral message I conveyed with “I know!” I paused and responded, “if you know, why don’t you do something about it? Either you don’t care or you don’t really know! Which is it?”
“I should. I should do something about it” he mumbled. And finally, we got to where I wanted us to be.
Luckily, this time I was able to avail of repeat visits to gauge what the obstacles to embracing veganism were and to figure out how to address them. But, sadly, advocacy doesn’t come with a rulebook. Every conversation is unique, and every interlocutor’s thinking around animals can either be compounded or clarified through discussion. Sadly, it’s impossible to predict where these conversations will lead at the outset or what will be the triggers that facilitate our interlocutor’s adoption of veganism.
Given the precarious nature of advocacy, many advocates will settle at the stage of accepting any change from their interlocutor in terms of their behaviour towards animals. Advocacy isn’t always a speedy process, and sometimes it can be quite challenging, but it’s never worth selling out the interests of animals in order to make ourselves feel successful. No matter how much or how little time we have with our interlocutor in order to engage with the ideas that underpin veganism, we, as vegans, are the only ones who can promote it. Sometimes we’ll succeed; sometimes we won’t. But our interlocutors are capable of making up their own minds on how our conversations around animal use will guide their behaviour; let’s endeavour to direct them towards abstaining from all use.