A Vegan’s Guide to Tackling Naysayers

This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com.

One of the skills required of an advocate for veganism is adaptability. Since no two advocacy conversations will ever be the same, it’s almost impossible to predict the trajectory of any such discussion. Although there are some good templates and guidelines (Francione’s and Charlton’s example of engaging moral concern and following it up with rational argument, demonstrated in its fullest form in Eat Like You Care, for instance), the details of these kinds of encounters will be determined by so many factors both in and out of the advocate’s control. We advocate in different spheres, online and off, and to people with whom we have varying levels of familiarity; the only constant is our message and, depending on nuances of our delivery and the attitude of the listener, sometimes things go wrong.

Now, I’m not talking about catastrophic results; in several years of advocacy, I’ve only had one discussion about veganism that turned sour, and I wrote about it here; interestingly, that was not an advocacy encounter that we sought out, and it was one in which our interlocutors had already, it seemed, planned the conversation as an intellectual contest (“you win,” they conceded to my bewilderment; I hadn’t realised it was a competition). But while such results (unfriendings, defensiveness, etc.) are extremely rare in my experience, I will not pretend that they won’t happen. If people can get into heated discussions over sports teams and toothpaste-tube lids (or their absence), then they can, and will, get into heated discussions over moral issues.

If you advocate, you have to be prepared that things won’t always turn out the way you planned and, dispiriting as this may be, it should not deter you. Let’s take a look at some of the things that could go wrong, and how you might address them.

The Unreceptive Listener

The person to whom you’re talking may not care about animals. They’ll usually signal this to you quite early on, either explicitly (by stating that they don’t care about animals) or implicitly (by not demonstrating any kind of empathy towards animals). These discussions are not necessarily fruitless; the moral principles of veganism can still be clear to those who think logically and can identify with the ideas of justice and fairness that underpin veganism. In this case, framing your argument in terms of the avoidance of causing unnecessary suffering may be useful; I also recommend asking questions of your interlocutor to draw out more information about their own moral system in order to give you a foundation on which to build your responses. At other times, however, you may find you’re your interlocutor is either devoid of empathy towards animals or cannot be convinced that moral principles of fairness can apply to nonhumans. If you are advocating offline and you feel there’s little point in continuing the discussion, you’re probably right: you won’t always be able to turn someone who is morally indifferent about animals into someone who recognises their moral worth, and there are plenty of people who do care and to whom you may be better spending your time advocating. In this case, withdraw from the discussion politely, and leave your interlocutor with something to think about. If you’re advocating online, though, there may be a benefit in continuing the discussion for a short while at least (if your interlocutor is willing) as there may be people reading silently who will take on board what you say.

The Perpetual Fault-Finder

You’ll invariably meet someone (if you advocate frequently enough) who has nothing but objections to make to your rational argument about why animals are not ours to use. Answers to the most common of these objections are found in Eat Like You Care, but be prepared to play several rounds of “Defensive Omnivore Bingo”. Some of these objections arise from genuine concern, curiosity, or even misconceptions, so always give your interlocutor the benefit of your intellectual generosity and answer questions that you may have heard a thousand times before (“where do you get your protein?”or “won’t cows’ udders explode if they aren’t milked?”) with courtesy and a genuine will to help. You will, however, occasionally encounter some questions that are too frivolous to be sincere (“why did God make animals out of meat if he didn’t intend us to eat them?”*). Such questions are usually asked with a self-satisfied and smug grin, and although you may find yourself clenching your teeth and losing patience, calmly bring the topic back to the central moral points that you wanted to make. Again, it’s useful to continue fruitless discussions longer online than you would in person for the benefit of any silent readers. Try to avoid resorting to the same kind of mockery that you feel your interlocutor is using; humour is okay, but always err on the side of magnanimity with those to whom you are speaking.

The Offended

You will occasionally meet people who react in a very negative way to the vegan message. Some of these will be people who consider themselves animal lovers but who are trying to reinterpret that perception of themselves in light of this new information. Again, always err on the side of patience and kindness. There may come a time, however, when it becomes counterproductive to continue the discussion with that person at that particular point in time if the conversation turns circular or becomes too heated, but ending a discussion about veganism does not necessarily mean that you can’t resume again at a later date. Always try to end on a positive note, pointing out any areas of common ground. If, however, you are feeling in any way threatened during a conversation about veganism (or anything else!), do trust your instincts and withdraw as soon as you can; your safety is important.

Our Own Worst Adversaries

Sometimes things can go wrong in vegan advocacy because we just can’t let the topic go. I’ve seen advocates online who make their point clearly, who present the moral message unequivocally, but who then feel that they have to have the last word and who keep the conversation going to the detriment of their own time and energy levels. Always question your own intention in continuing a discussion that seems to be going nowhere, and remember the value of a planted seed. There are millions of people out there who care about animals and who are ripe for conversations about veganism; focussing on winning the argument detracts from the real purpose of advocacy, which is to attempt to persuade people to align their behaviour towards animals with moral principles that they already hold.

Most of your advocacy encounters will take the form of interesting and enjoyable conversations. These conversations are important because the more of us there are talking about veganism as a moral imperative, the more we chip away at the societal attitudes to animals that keep people exploiting. Think of the conversations that don’t go so well as a planted seed for the listener and as an opportunity to practise, reflect, and hone your skills, and you won’t go too far wrong.


* The most bizarre objection to veganism ever heard by my partner when he once had such frivolous objections volleyed at him was “if humans weren’t supposed to eat meat, they wouldn’t have needed to invent [yes, invent!] fire to cook it.” I, on the other hand, once heard “in a vegan world we’d never have the chance to meet cows. If we didn’t meet cows, we’d never learn to care about them.”

Reducetarians, New Welfarists, Abolitionists: Do We All Want The Same Thing?

This essay was co-written with Alan O’Reilly and originally published on Ecorazzi.com


The Ethical Issues

Most people recognise that animals matter morally. Even nonvegans comprehend that a cow or a chicken has a moral worth where an inanimate object doesn’t. Yet, only vegans have followed through on our recognition that animals are harmed by our use of them by abstaining from treating them as a means to our ends.

Vegans avoid using animals because we recognise that all animal use is wrong. If we thought that better treatment of the animals used for food, clothing, or entertainment was the solution to the problem of exploitation we wouldn’t be vegan; if we believed that some harm were morally acceptable, we wouldn’t be vegan. Veganism stands for our recognition that nonhuman animals ought never be used as a means to our ends.

No one who accepts the moral principles of veganism would dream of drinking a glass of dairy milk or eating a slice of an animal’s flesh. 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 beating dogs less often (the reducetarian approach) or with smaller sticks (the welfarist approach). Yet, some among us who are ethically consistent in our own behaviour promote less than veganism as part of a strategy we claim will reduce suffering.


The Reducetarian Foundation, headed by two nonvegans, envisions a world where people eat less meat. This foundation doesn’t claim to advocate for a vegan world, yet many vegans promote their approach, asserting that it will help to shift the paradigm to a vegan planet. There is no evidence that suggests that this will be the case; in fact, the “research” on which many of the vegan proponents of reducetarianism base their claim is derived from market research and pseudo-science, and their data is often misinterpreted.

Since reducetarianism is focussed on decreasing consumption of animal flesh, it creates an artificial moral distinction between flesh and other products of animal exploitation. Yet, knowing what animals used for other forms of industry have to endure, we cannot, with conscience, exclude them from our advocacy. And so, to promote reducetarianism in the hope of bringing people to veganism is not only misguided, but also falls hopelessly short of what we know nonhuman animals deserve by right.

Those 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? What could be more puritanical than the depiction of veganism as beyond the moral scope of even those who care? What could be more elitist than believing that one’s own ethical principles are too lofty and idealistic for the majority?

New Welfarism

While reducetarianism aims to decrease the consumption of “meat,”New Welfarism seeks to make treatment more humane. Those vegans who promote it do so in the hopes that it will either encourage others to be vegan or improve the lives of animals suffering now.

To the first point, if we want to encourage others to be vegan, then surely the most logical way to do so would be to talk to them about veganism. Humane animal products make people more comfortable with consuming the products of exploitation by suggesting that they are somehow more “compassionate” for doing so. The burgeoning “happy exploitation” industry is surely proof positive of this.

To the latter point, the animals who are suffering under the current system of exploitation are rarely, if ever, helped by the reform campaigns started during their lifetimes. In 2008, Californian voters passed Proposition 2—a ballot measure requiring that farmed animals raised in California be able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs or wings. This measure was to be implemented by 2015, some 7 years later. Yet, there are many egg producers in California who have not converted their facilities to be compliant with thisminimal change in welfare standards (welfare reform measures can only ever be minimal in the immense scale of suffering that defines the life of a farmed animal) and so HSUS is now spearheading a campaign to try to persuade animal exploiters to adopt the reforms that they were required to adopt by law. In the meantime, energy and resources that could have been invested in promoting veganism have been squandered to promote changes that continue to facilitate the exploitation of animals.
Gary L. Francione demonstrates that most implemented welfare reforms address inefficiencies in the production process: the requirement that cows be stunned before slaughter, for instance, prevents worker injuries and carcass damage from unstunned, hoisted cows. Francione demonstrates that the vast majority of welfare reforms are not enforced, and that those that are benefit the exploiter by increasing productivity, yield, and therefore profits.

Most welfare reform campaigns are single-issue campaigns: they focus on one animal product such as fur, or one form of treatment such as veal crates, and they characterise these as worse than other products or forms of use. In doing so, they suggest that wearing leather, wool, or silk is morally better than wearing fur, or that eating veal from uncrated calves is morally better eating veal from crated calves, thereby providing a moral salve for participation in some forms of exploitation. Many campaigns characterise some animals as more morally valuable than others, or condemn the practices of another culture. The campaigns against the dog-meat trade in Asia do both.

The longest-running welfare reform campaign is the anti-vivisection campaign, started in the 19th century. After 200 years of campaigning, there are more animals being used in vivisection than at any other point in our history. After almost half a century of anti-fur campaigning by the animal organisations, the fur trade is bigger and more profitable than it has ever been. Welfare reform campaigns just do not work.


The New Welfarist and Reducetarian positions are designed to change modes of production or behaviour, but not perception. Without helping people to understand the consequences of their concern for our fellow animals, there is no impetus for them to become vegan and to remain that way. 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. Some advocates may claim 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 less (which necessarily involves promoting exploitation) to those who don’t. They say that the world won’t go vegan overnight, and we acknowledge the truth of this. However, the world won’t go vegan at all if we aren’t prepared to advocate for the end of animal use through veganism. How can we, as vegans, advocate for anything less than what our moral conviction dictates?

Reducetarians and welfarists are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By framing veganism as idealistic, they are perpetuating the normativity of animal exploitation. By promoting reduced consumption of animal products, they are condoning the consumption of some. By shifting the focus away from the moral principles they accept in their own lives, they are perpetuating the paradigm that limits those principles to being part of a fringe philosophy.

If we wish to end the social injustice inflicted on other sentient beings, we must shift the conversation away from regulation towards abolition, away from reduction towards elimination. Whatever time we have for advocacy, we can only use it once, and we must use it to advocate for the end of animal exploitation through unequivocal education. Because if we, as vegans, don’t do this, who on earth will?

We Need to Talk About Yulin

This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com.

Look, I get it: you hate the fact that dogs are killed so that people can eat their flesh. I’m with you; I hate it too.

But I also hate the fact that so many other animals are forced into existence so that we can wear their skins, eat their flesh, conduct experiments on them, consume their reproductive secretions, watch them perform for us ,or use them in any other way. I know you hate this too; that’s why we’re vegan, right? Because we recognise that all animals are more than just things that we can exploit and use, and then kill them and consume or discard their bodies.

And yet I see so many nonvegans morally outraged by Yulin, compartmentalizing this thing that they call “animal cruelty” and condemning those who participate in it. After all, it’s easier to condemn something when you can detach from it: not our nationality, not our class, not the animals we eat or wear back home.

I’ve been there. I signed petitions on a variety of single-issues; I objected to things that people in other countries did to animals that I thought we didn’t routinely exploit here. And in the evening, after sharing a petition on Facebook and feeling like I’d done something to make a difference for animals, I’d kick off my leather shoes, cook myself up some animal flesh, and wash it all down with a glass of dairy milk.

I wish someone had pointed out to me, then, that there was no moral difference between the forms of use I was opposing and what I was participating in myself. That would have saved me at least some of the years of being nonvegan that I regret so deeply.

If you’re a vegan who’s caught up in campaigning against Yulin and you’re not being clear that all forms of animal exploitation are equally morally wrong, I’ve put together a handy FAQ based on comments I’ve seen on a range of threads on the topic.

1. Isn’t the Yulin Dog-Meat Festival morally worse because of the way the dogs are treated before they’re killed?

No. We can’t say that we’re opposed to what happens in Yulin because of the way the animals suffer; because if we do we’re saying that some kinds of suffering and harm are okay. These qualitative judgements are not ours to make, because we’re not the ones enduring it, no more than we can deem mugging okay because we reckon murder is worse. What we really have to do is ask ourselves if it’s ever okay to treat another sentient being exclusively as a means to our ends. I hope we’ll always find that the answer is no.

2. Well, what about the fact that many of these dogs are someone’s companions?

You think that makes a difference to the dogs when they’re being killed? Do you think that a companion animal’s interests are morally more valuable than those of a stray? We assign greater moral worth to companion animals, not for their own sake but for the sake of the humans to whom they matter, and that’s speciesism.

3. How can campaigning against Yulin be a bad thing? Surely every little step helps.

Campaigning against Yulin achieves a number of ends that you probably didn’t plan for and wouldn’t want:

  1. It implies that there’s a moral difference between these dogs and the other nonhumans we routinely use.
  2. It implies that there is a moral distinction between animal use abroad and at home.
  3. As a result of point 2, this and similar campaigns often become platforms for xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and racism.
  4. Because if the festival were to end (and this is highly unlikely, since people have been campaigning against it for years), the people participating in it would merely consume other animals instead. Banning dog meat doesn’t lead to veganism; only vegan education does that.
  5. Because it’s wasted effort. There are so few vegans, and we have limited time and energy. When we campaign for less than veganism, we throw away valuable advocacy opportunities.

4. So, what do I do instead?

Talk to your nonvegan friends about the outrage they feel, and make them see how that leads them to veganism. Talk to other vegans about why campaigns like those against Yulin are counterproductive and why they promote xenophobia and speciesism. And use your precious time and resources wisely by promoting veganism and an end to all animal use instead.

This is Why New Welfarists Should Stop Equivocating on Moral Principles Concerning Animals: A Response to Mercy For Animals

This essay was originally published on www.abolitionistapproach.com and shared on Ecorazzi.com. Introduction below by Eva Lampert of Ecorazzi.com.

Mercy for Animals has posted a rather breathtaking essay entitled, This Is Why Vegans Should Stop Being Mean to Vegetarians, in which MFA characterizes as “mean” those who promote veganism as a moral baseline or imperative. Here is a response from Dr. Frances McCormack, who is also one-half of the Grumpy Old Vegans. In order to get the full impact of this essay, you should brace yourself and read the MFA essay first.


This is Why New Welfarists Should Stop Equivocating on Moral Principles Concerning Animals: A Response to Mercy For Animals

We Abolitionists are very thankful for all the engagement we get from followers on our social media. And our followers are an eclectic bunch: vegans, nonvegans and…well, any other distinctions are ludicrous.

While positive feedback and conversation on social media is essential to raising awareness and bringing about change, there’s a trend we’d like to address that we feel is very unfortunate: New Welfarists equivocating or being downright disingenuous when dealing with vegetarians.

First of all, really? I mean, really? We don’t condone being nasty to anyone (and framing vegan advocacy in that way is an utter misrepresentation), but why on earth would we not make the point that there’s no distinction between meat and other animal products to people who already care enough to eliminate one form of animal use from their lives?

Currently 99 percent of Americans still use animals. Yeah, you read that right. That means that vegans are a very small (but thankfully steadily growing) segment of the population. Instead of watering down the moral message, we should be supportive, kind, and helpful by encouraging more people to be vegan.

Yes, of course all animal use is sickening. Yes, of course we should raise awareness about it for people who may not know. And claims that we are attacking those who are most likely already open to that information is just ridiculous. Instead of telling people they’re doing enough by reducing consumption or being vegetarian, how about giving them the information on why and how to be vegan?

And one more thing: We should always remember who we were before we went vegan. Most of us grew up eating meat. For a majority of us, going vegan was a gradual process. But if we’d received a clear moral message, we’d have been vegan sooner, and there’s not one of us who wouldn’t wish that that had happened. Today’s Meatless Monday enthusiast could very well be tomorrow’s vegan activist, so talk to that person about veganism, rather than encouraging them to stick with the baby-step nonsense about which the animal orgs have got them to feel good. People will transition how they will, but as vegans we ought not promote anything less than the principles that we claim to embrace in our own lives.

OK, we’ve said our piece.

However you like to categorise your nonveganism—meat reducer, vegetarian, or anything else—please be vegan. All animal use is morally wrong. And remember, if you want to stand up, stand up. There’s no point doing what MFA asks: to take a stand every time you sit down to eat. All that up-and-down and you might hit yourself in the bellybutton with your fork.

Why Body-Shaming Has No Place in Animal Advocacy (Or Anywhere Else)

This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com

For two years, my friend Clare* attended fortnightly vegan potlucks in her town. She had felt welcomed when she first attended, and she became actively involved in her local vegan community as a result: baking for tabling events, helping to organise talks and to arrange meet-ups. After a while, though, things started to get a little uncomfortable: her friends weren’t as warm as they once were; little by little she stopped receiving invitations to events; eventually, she sensed she was being talked about. Then, at one potluck, she overheard a purported friend remark with astonishment that, since Clare had been vegan for so long and hadn’t lost weight, she must be consuming animal products in secret.

Clare avoids all vegan events now. She doesn’t attend the small, local vegan fair; she avoids potlucks and meet-ups; and as much as she’d like to advocate face-to-face, all of her advocacy is now online. This is not because she’s reluctant to meet the people who treated her so cruelly; rather, as she puts it herself, she worries that other people will see her as a “bad ambassador for veganism.” She, an articulate, thoughtful, reflective activist, is avoiding something at which she excels—engaging people in conversation about veganism—as a result of the implication by other vegans that, because of her body composition, she is a less worthy vegan than they.

There is a factor at play here that seems to be specific to veganism: Clare’s body was marked as a site of immorality that goes beyond the usual discrimination and oppression that we see outside of vegan culture. Her body was labelled a non-vegan body: a body that others deemed to be evidence of her participation in animal exploitation, and it became a weapon to exclude her from vegan circles.

Body-shaming, for those who are unacquainted with the concept, involves remarking on or assessing the body of another person with the intention of making them feel ashamed, or to denigrate or humiliate them. It involves making aesthetic judgements on someone else’s appearance, making jokes about their size or shape, or relating their bodies to their moral worth.

This kind of body-shaming discourse echoes through many pages dedicated to specific modes of plant-based eating, and it permeates PETA’s glorification of the thin, white, able-bodied lettuce lady and its use of fat-shaming to promote a “vegetarian” diet. Similarly, a number of well-known raw food bloggers use discriminatory language to promote their diets, depicting people without thigh gaps, concave stomachs, or protruding clavicles as unworthy and flawed.

At the same time, many doctors and advocates who promote a whole foods plant-based diet refer to its health benefits generally, and do discuss health and weight as causally linked; this does not constitute shaming per se, any more than does a discussion of the connection between health and any other lifestyle factors. 

Here, though, is an example of how discussions of weight ought not be conducted. Dr John McDougall, in a 2008 newsletter, writes in an essay called “The Fat Vegan”:

“You may consider this title an oxymoron—a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms, but in real life this concurrence is all too common. You may also think the title is offensive. My intention is to help, not to provoke anger. […] Fat vegans […] have failed one important animal: themselves. Furthermore, their audience of meat-eaters and animal-abusers may be so distracted by their appearance that they cannot hear the vital issues of animal rights and the environment; resulting in an unacknowledged setback for a fat vegan’s hard work for change.”

Not only does McDougall pass moral judgement on the individual (“failure”), he also employs many oppressive tropes from the object-of-spectacle trope to the bad ambassador trope. He concludes his essay with the following statement:

“Obviously vegans are exceptional people. With this one simple shift to a starch-based diet the word ‘vegan’ will become synonymous with terms like healthy, trim, active, young, strong, and energetic, and finally the most important adjective, earth-changing.”

Here, McDougall conflates efficacy in advocacy and appearance, and confuses reception of a moral message with arbitrary facts about the person who delivers it. Surely, where those like McDougall see fit to discus issues of weight as a matter in terms of plant-based eating, they ought to strive to do so without objectifying individuals and passing moral judgements upon them.

The prevalence of passing body-shaming in vegan circles as either a purported motivator for becoming vegan or as a way of seeking to diminish the contribution of other advocates is not only incredibly harmful to other humans, it is also doing nonhuman animals a disservice. We all associate diets with deprivation. Diets are punitive, and we adopt them as temporary measures, enthusiastic at first about whatever promises they make, and then eager for them to end so that we can resume our old behaviours. Portraying veganism as a diet not only excludes some nonhuman animals (those not used for food) from the circle of our concern, but it also creates negative connotations around veganism itself.

The idea that one’s physical appearance has anything to do with our moral obligations to nonhuman animals is a misdirection of the most harmful sort, as is the discriminatory view that one’s physical self can be in any way read as representative of one’s ethical stance or commitment to justice. Nor is one’s body size or shape in any way related to one’s worth. Those ‘vegans’ who participate in body-shaming directly, or who make the vegans who don’t conform to their ideal body image invisible by portraying veganism as a weight-loss plan, are alienating both fellow vegans and potential vegans. Using one form of discrimination to try to end another should never be a tactic that we employ.

I have Clare’s permission to share her story. Her name has been changed at her request.