Domestic Animals and Us: What We Can Learn About Veganism From the Animals We Love

This is one of several articles that I wrote for Ecorazzi. You can find the original here

We looked for signs of hope in the swell of her abdomen that came with each breath, in how bright her eyes appeared, in the level of interest she displayed at our presence, in every single gram of food she ate. But beyond that hope lay the certainty of loss and the knowledge that we were powerless to change the course of events that left a spirited, loving cat to be picked up as a stray and to spend her dying days in our care.

Just under six weeks ago, Harriet was taken to a local rescue centre, desperately thin from malnutrition, riddled with parasites, and suffering from such horrendous dental decay that she needed a full-mouth extraction. Recovery was never going to be easy for her, but after almost three weeks of extensive veterinary treatment she finally came to her new home with us.

Harriet

As our love and hopes for her grew over the past three weeks, the diagnoses worsened: anaemia, jaundice, cancer. We watched her slowly improve a little and then regress quickly. She was determined and tenacious, and she battled hard. Despite a life filled with injury, neglect, starvation, and loneliness, this life was hers; she clearly valued it, and was not going to let it go without a fight. Yet, the various diseases that afflicted her were finally too much for her frail body, and she went to her final rest in our arms as we told her how much we adored her.

Peter Singer, taking his lead from Jeremy Bentham, insists that nonhuman animals do not value their lives in the same way that humans do, and claims that ethical issues surrounding our relationship with other species hinge on issues of treatment, rather than use. Most nonhumans, he believes, are not self-aware in the sense of having a consciousness of their own history and therefore, he concludes, they have no interest in continued existence.  He asserts:

“You could say it’s wrong to kill a being whenever a being is sentient or conscious. Then you would have to say it’s just as wrong to kill a chicken or mouse as it is to kill you or me. I can’t accept that idea. It may be just as wrong, but millions of chickens are killed every day. I can’t think of that as a tragedy on the same scale as millions of humans being killed. What is different about humans? Humans are forward-looking beings, and they have hopes and desires for the future. That seems a plausible answer to the question of why it’s so tragic when humans die.”

The core of speciesism can be felt acutely in such a statement: nonhumans are so often accorded value only in terms of how they compare to us, or in how we balance their interests against our own. Yet, comparing harms never leads us to any worthwhile conclusions about the moral wrongness of the harm in itself, and comparing the moral worth of sentient beings in order to rationalise whether we are justified in treating them as things is at best misguided and at worst oppressive. We may debate whether Harriet had hopes and desires for the future (and those of us with companion animals will be quite emphatic that our companions do, whether this is manifested in their marked excitement of the appearance of their food bowl or all in the signs of their anticipation of our return from a period of absence), but such a debate is ultimately futile when it comes to moral decision-making regarding whether we use nonhumans as a means to our ends.

 

 

It is their difference from us that causes us to erase their moral worth when it benefits us, even in the most trivial of ways: to ignore their interests, even though the fact that they possess such interests is of enormous moral significance. If we examine what makes us afford our moral concern to those we consider family, we should be able to see how that same concern ought to be extended to those of a different species whom we consume and otherwise exploit. It makes no difference to their moral worth if they can smell a thousand stories on the trunk of a tree or carry their own bodies high on the air with the power of their wings; if they prefer to eat kibble or grass or seeds; if they have paws rather than hooves or talons.

harriet 1

Harriet was given her name three weeks before her life ended. Before that, she was “vermin” straying into areas where she wasn’t welcome, rummaging through trash to acquire her next meal. But she didn’t change when she became a companion animal; she merely came to be viewed through a different lens. That lens doesn’t reflect the truth, however; it merely alters perspective. Seen through the same lens that allowed Harriet, previously considered a “pest”, to be rightly acknowledged as a member of the moral community, the animals whose body parts or secretions we consume or wear, or whom we treat as our resources become living, feeling beings whose interests are just as sacred to them as Harriet’s were to her and to us. Those without names—whom we force into being and separate from their families, whose bodies we work until exhausted, whose deaths we euphemise, whose corpses we desecrate—matter no more and no less than those whose lives we grieve so deeply when they pass.

It is only our perspective, and not any moral truth, that perpetuates the exploitation of other sentient beings. Yet, that flawed perspective cannot stand up to the weight of scrutiny; our nonhuman family members matter to us because we recognise their interests, but failing to recognise the interests of those we exploit places the blame for this dichotomy firmly with us. The only solution, of course, is to extend our moral concern for one or a few outwards to all of those who are, in all relevant ways, equivalent in moral value, and to be vegan.

 

 

Harriet 3

The Power of Discomfort

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My partner and I sat opposite two acquaintances and Facebook friends, enjoying pleasant company and discussing travel, cats, and work. And then, the demeanour of one of our companions changed as he asked “What made you vegan?”

The question seemed to have been brewing in the air all evening, as it often does, but we were happy to answer, each with our personal narratives of the moment when we decided we couldn’t justify using animals anymore.

After we had each replied, the conversation took a turn that I have only seen in online interactions: we were interrogated (the next question came before we had the opportunity to answer the last) about plant sentience, about why vegans think animals are more important than humans (let me be clear: those who follow the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights don’t think that at all), about tradition, and various other objections to veganism with which most experienced advocates will be familiar. Our interlocutor showed no sign, at this point, of considering, or wanting to respond substantively to, our position.

It was clear that our acquaintance had planned to ask us about veganism in advance of our meeting, as he lined up, with some prompting from his wife (who otherwise remained silent), which question to ask us next. We were eager to dispel any myths about veganism and to help them understand, so we explained our position. Yet, for answering the questions that were put to us, we were derided as religious zealots, and made to feel like we were on trial. This was not an advocacy opportunity; this was an insistence that we defend our ethical standpoint. And although we were polite, and although the conversation took a different trajectory after a while, and although the evening ended amicably, we returned home to discover that we had been unfriended on Facebook.

For those who are new to advocacy, let me reassure you that such situations are extremely rare. Most conversations about veganism–especially those started by nonvegans–arise from genuine curiosity and interest, and the interlocutor will most often end the conversation by acknowledging that the information they sought has been provided, or by asking for some material they can peruse in their own time.

As with every discussion I have about veganism, I reflected on the process, and asked myself what we could have done differently, but eventually concluded that whatever we had done, the situation would have ended up with the same result. We tried asking questions instead of repeatedly defending our position in order to elicit some understanding of our interlocutor’s view of animals, but he was not interested in answering; the purpose of the exercise, it seemed, was to try to find some hole in our ethical position, and when that couldn’t be found, our interlocutor exclaimed “you win”, as though this had been a competition rather than a discussion of ethical issues.

And this discussion, strange though it was, confirmed for me how powerful vegan advocacy can be, even when it is polarising, or when it is uncomfortable for our interlocutor.

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When we, as vegans, talk about veganism, we generally have a number of goals in mind: to attempt to persuade others, to effect change, to advocate for justice and fairness. But we tend to focus on these as our end goals and forget the transformative power of the vegan message as an end in itself.

When we talk about veganism, our conversation points to seldom-aired issues about our relationship with our fellow animals, about the chasm between our moral intuition about animals and how we treat them, about the nature of speciesism. It makes the often-ignored victims of our participation in animal use present merely by speaking of them as beings rather than disembodied objects. Not only are we questioning the status quo, but we are demonstrating that the alternative is better for all concerned, and, most importantly, the only manifestation of justice for other animals.

Being vegan is disruptive. Speaking the word “vegan” is disruptive. Advocating veganism is disruptive. To create something new, we have to deconstruct the old; this will invariably cause discomfort to some, and at times it may even cause discomfort to us.  But, since we are not the victims of the injustice inflicted on our fellow animals, we must accept, if we commit to advocacy, that this occasional discomfort is part of the process of speaking for those who are.

As for our acquaintance, even though it seems as though he has retreated from our discussion of veganism by his unfriending, our conversation will not be so easy for him to shake off. He may remember that encounter with irritation, but his emotions will be accompanied by the triggers for those emotions–points of the discussion that particularly irked him. If something reminds him of us, or if our names are mentioned, that conversation will return. And he may reflect on his own defensiveness and work through his thinking about animals. But even if he doesn’t, as my partner notes, he cannot unlearn what he has learned. We have, nonviolently, disrupted his thinking about animals, and we cannot tell where that will lead.

As long as we talk to others about veganism in a nonviolent way, and without equivocation, no advocacy encounter is ever wasted. There will always be those few who respond unfavourably to our message, but we can never tell what happens as they process it. The stakes are so high for nonhuman animals if we don’t advocate for veganism that to do anything else is just unthinkable.

Should vegans promote reducetarianism?

Grumpy Reducetarianism

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

Learning from Teaching I: Reflective Practice and Advocacy

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Reflective practice is essential to good teaching: it is based on the premise that if what we do matters to us, we should learn from it and improve. By creating self-awareness around our participation in a process, we gain insight into our investment in that process and can therefore be become more self-critical, self-assured and effective.

I won’t rehearse the topic of reflective practice as it appears in the literature on learning at teaching just yet. Instead, I want to leave you with a set of questions that you might find helpful when thinking about your advocacy encounters.  You should, of course, adapt these questions; they are merely a template to set the wheels in motion.

Advocacy: Reflective Practice

Pre-Advocacy Phase

  1. What are my advocacy goals?
  2. What will successful advocacy look like for me?
  3. How will I monitor that success?
  4. How can I best prepare for advocacy encounters?
  5. What questions do I have about advocacy, and where can I find the answers to them?
  6. Where can I find support if I want to discuss my advocacy with others?
  7. What are the things I need to do if I want to advocate successfully?
  8. What resources would be useful for me in my advocacy?
  9. If I’ve done something like this before, how do I make sure I do a better job this time?
  10. What strategies will I use?
  11. Which of my skills and talents can I bring to bear on advocacy encounters?
  12. What concerns me about advocating? How will I get around this?
  13. What aspects of my advocacy would I like to develop? How will I do that?

Post-Advocacy Phase

  1. What did I find challenging about that particular advocacy encounter?
  2. Could I have handled that challenge more effectively?
  3. What did I do well?
  4. What, if anything, didn’t work as well as I would have liked?
  5. How did this advocacy encounter match up to previous encounters? Am I learning more?
  6. Do I have new questions related to advocacy? If so, where can I find the answers?
  7. Would it be useful for me to talk my experience over with another advocate friend?
  8. Did I use resources appropriately? If not, why not?
  9. What areas of knowledge do I need to work on?
  10. What do I feel particularly comfortable with or adept at?
  11. How will this encounter inform my next one?
  12. What advice would I give to an advocate friend based on what I learned from this experience?

By asking ourselves these questions regularly, we can help to sharpen our own awareness of the kinds of conversations that are involved in advocacy, and, most importantly, make us cognisant of our own strengths and limitations so that we can tailor advocacy encounters in such a way as to make the most of our skills.

Veganism and the Squiggly Red Line: What’s in a Word?

Recently, while working on another blog post, I noticed that the word ‘veganism’ was not recognised by my word processor’s spell-check feature. Although included in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, my computer doesn’t recognise its existence. Therefore, whenever I type the word I am confronted by the squiggly red line that I can only interpret a sign that we need to advocate harder and more coherently for veganism, in order that the word itself enters into mainstream discourse.  If we want to create dialogue around our unjust use of nonhuman animals, then we cannot (and should not attempt to) disassociate ourselves from using the word that succinctly points to the philosophy on which the rejection of that use–our recognition of the moral worth of those animals–is based.

Animal rights advocates complain about the misappropriation of the term ‘vegan’ by plant-based dieters, and rightly so. The word ‘vegan’ passes the spell-check test but, according to most large dictionaries, that word describes someone who merely rejects a range of products,*  and ‘vegan’ has, therefore, come to be divorced from its moral and philosophical roots, both in common parlance as well as in the reference tools of computer software.

Those who reject the use of the word ‘vegan’ in their advocacy are not without culpability for this detachment, which goes far beyond the computer screen (how many of you have asked for a vegan menu in a restaurant only to be told about the gluten-free options?). Talking about our moral obligations to nonhuman animals without placing veganism front and centre is as much of a misdirection as speaking of veganism while obscuring its connection to animal rights. As long as we are not clear in our advocacy that moral regard for nonhuman animals necessitates veganism, and vice versa, we will continue to be confronted by that squiggly red line that treats a moral system based on fundamental justice as a non-issue.

Squiggly.

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*Merriam-Webster Online defines ‘vegan’ as ‘a person who does not eat any food that comes from animals and who often also does not use animal products (such as leather)’; interestingly, this dictionary provides no definition for ‘veganism’. The OED Online gives us ‘a person who abstains from all food of animal origin and avoids the use of animal products in other forms.’

Polly and Molly: A Tale of Two Hens

I wrote this poem for a friend who was trying to explain to her son why he couldn’t participate in collecting the eggs laid by the hens kept at his school. I thought it might be useful to someone somewhere. If, however, it offends your literary sensibilities, I apologise profusely.

Polly and Molly: A Tale of Two Hens
Polly and Molly

Polly and Molly

Polly’s a hen and she lives in the wood.
She likes bathing in dust piles; thinks digging is good.
She has three other friends who will join her to chat
And they cluck and they chirrup of this and of that.

Molly, her cousin, lived down on the farm
Where the foxes and ferrets could do her no harm
And though she had friends there just like you and me
She often felt sad that she could not be free.

While Polly and her friends can go where they please
And sit by the river or walk near the trees
Poor Molly saw fences and cages and bars
And at night was locked up–couldn’t look at the stars.

One morning when both hens had opened their eyes
They found that their nests held a lovely surprise.
Each climbed from her bed to stretch wing and stretch leg
And saw that her nest was now holding an egg.

‘My goodness’, thought Molly, ‘can this really be
Is it true that this egg here belongs just to me?’
And she danced and squawked and she kicked up some dust
And she clucked at the egg and she preened and she fussed.

‘It might be a toy, or it might be to eat,
But whatever it’s for it’s a very nice treat’.
So she tapped with her beak and she chirped and she cooed
And she thought that the egg would make excellent food.

Now, Polly was happy as happy can be
For she’d laid her own egg in the shade of a tree.
She pranced and she scratched—it was such a big deal
To have this new gift. Could it truly be real?

Both Polly and Molly were filled with such joy.
Both hens were proud of their latest new toy.
They rolled them and tapped them and licked them, you see:
They would play with them first and then eat them for tea.

But as Molly was singing, the farmer came by
With a basket, and poor Molly shouted ‘Oh my!
He’ll take my new egg and then I’ll have none
And I’ll miss it! Oh dear! This isn’t such fun!’

So she clucked out a warning and hoped he could hear:
‘Please, farmer, don’t take it. Oh, just leave it here.
I want it, you see, and I thought it divine.
But to steal it’s not good, for this egg here is mine!’

But the farmer heard nothing but ‘cluck cluck cluck cluck’
And so poor old Molly had very bad luck.
The egg that she loved was soon taken away
And she cried and she moped and she sighed with dismay.

Her dear cousin Polly could do what she cared.
Her eggs in the forest were safe, they were spared.
She rolled them around and she had so much fun
And then she could eat them when playtime was done.

So while Polly was happy, poor Molly was sad.
The egg was her own and to steal it was bad.
She was vexed with the farmer and said ‘it’s not right
To take this wee thing that gave me such delight’.

Molly’s friends all came by to ask what was wrong
And she talked to them sadly and sang them a song
About how she had wanted that egg for her own
And had wished that this farmer would leave it alone.

But one of her friends had a bit of advice:
‘Molly, just lay another. The farmer is nice.
He has taken one egg; he won’t want any more
And you can have yours like you did once before.’

She then laid a brown egg the very next day,
But the same fate befell: it was taken away.
She sat in her nest, her head under her wing
For she couldn’t believe such a terrible thing.

And every new day, this unfairness befell:
She laid a fresh egg; each was taken as well.
Though the farmer was kind to her he couldn’t see
That her eggs are for her, not for him, you or me.

One day the Jones family happened to pass
And saw Molly digging for worms in the grass
And they noticed a sign on the side of her pen
saying ‘Please give a home to this weary old hen’.

They talked to the farmer and asked what was wrong
And he said that poor Molly just didn’t belong.
She didn’t lay eggs now as much as she could;
She was getting too old; her work was no good.

The Joneses brought poor Molly back to their farm
And they told her that she had no need for alarm
As all of the hens who now lived there were free
To use their own eggs; they would just let them be.

And Molly had dust baths and played in the sand
And made lots of friends on that day like she’d planned.
And the very next morning she got out of bed
And laid a white egg at the side of the shed.

The children approached with a basket that day
So she left her new egg and she wandered away.
She knew what had happened to all eggs before
So she left it there lying beside the shed door.

The children then laughed and they called out her name
And she walked back towards them and heard them exclaim
‘Oh, Molly, don’t worry. We’ve brought you a treat:
Some corn and some carrots and pieces of wheat’.

They petted and scratched her and fed her that day
Then took up the basket and went on their way
And left her the egg! How she strutted and played.
She had been so concerned; she had been so afraid.

But these children were vegan: they knew it’s not right
To take what’s not yours. So Molly, that night,
After playing around with her egg all the day
Cracked the shell with her beak and she feasted away.

Now Molly is pleased she can keep what she owns
And she’s happy to live with the family Jones.
For they talk to her sweetly and pet her with care
And every new egg is just left for her there.

We should always be thoughtful and always be kind
And always remember that we all would mind
If the things that we loved could be taken away.
Deal justly with others. It’s the only way.

Go vegan today and please show that you care;
To take what is not ours is really not fair.
Our animal friends are not things we can use:
They have minds and can think; they prefer and they choose.

To be vegan’s to say ‘they’re not mine; they’re their own.
I respect them and I want to leave them alone.’
Remember these words, and note that they’re true:
They live for themselves, just like you live for you.

Using Social Networking Services to Advocate: Part I

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This week, in a small Facebook group that I manage, I asked a straightforward question.  The first person to respond misread my post and answered the question she thought I was asking rather than the one I had actually asked. Another commenter followed suit, so I edited the question, changing the wording, and even adding caps and asterisks for emphasis. Fifteen comments later, all but one participant in the conversation followed the lead of the first or subsequent misreaders. I was amused, but my question remained mostly unaddressed, and the comment thread cemented my view that, even when used for very basic communication, online interaction can be eminently unreliable.

Social networking services allow us to communicate instantly, widely, and powerfully. With so many different abolitionist vegan voices to inspire us or support us, with the potential to reach a wide audience, and with the backing of a community of like-minded people who are constantly connected it can facilitate particularly effective advocacy (I’ll discuss this in further detail in the next post).

But where much of our communication in face-to-face encounters is aided by nonverbal communication (tone, pitch, intonation, volume and speed of voice, gestures, proximity, facial expressions and even touch) all of this is lost from online interactions and this makes the transmission and reception of a message unreliable and potentially problematic. Messages spread rapidly, words stay around longer to be analysed, re-analysed, overanalysed. Our interactions lack the complexity and forgiveness of face-to-face encounters. We construct personae: versions of ourselves that can’t be probed by those without access to our nonverbal idiom, and we form images of our interlocutors based solely upon their words. Social networking services also create intensely competitive environments, with likes, comments and re-shares often connected to our sense of self-worth. We scan and glance rather than considering and engaging, participating in several conversations at once and not giving any the kind of attention that we would invest in an offline interaction.

Sometimes it feels like we’re shouting over walls at each other, our ideas being carried away on the wind and resulting in misunderstandings, impatience, hostility, disillusionment. We write an advocacy post and it gets no response, so it seems as though our efforts have been in vain (although we can never account for the impact of a post that seems to us as though it is invisible to others). Misreadings are interpreted as a wilful failure to engage. Assumptions are made about our interlocutor’s knowledge and experience, and frustration often results on both sides. Utterances become our primary focus, and we lose sight of the person who articulated them.

At other times we become attuned to the negativity of these kinds of interactions and become less conscious of the progress that we’re making and the community that we’re fostering: the moments of kindness and generosity, the teamwork, the expansion of our networks, the possibility of engaging in transformational pedagogic experiences–learning from others and teaching them in return. Online social networking is one of the greatest tools at our disposal in its ability to amplify our message, yet it is this amplification that can make it seem so diffused, illimitable, impersonal.  To counter these problems, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Stay away from those areas of online social networks that you find toxic or unproductive, and focus your energy on places where you can make a difference.
  • Remember that the people with whom you will be holding discussions are probably as passionate about the issues as you. Respect them and their views, and engage with these views, where appropriate, rather than dismissing out of hand.
  • Take time to pause before responding to anything contentious: walk away from the computer, engage with the ‘real world’ for a while, evaluate whether a response would be useful, and, if so, construct one that is as clear as possible.
  • Ensure that you understand the meaning of that to which you’re responding. Ask questions, summarise, and, before responding to the point being made, attempt to elicit the kind of clarity that would otherwise be aided by nonverbal communication in a face-to-face encounter.
  • Don’t interpret lack of knowledge as wilful ignorance. Err on the side of generosity with your interlocutor, and always be prepared to educate and be educated.
  • Interrogate attitudes rather than making assumptions about the person uttering them. If your initial feeling is right, then at least you have a more solid foundation on which to progress with the discussion.
  • Recognise the educational value of dialogue, but know when to step away.
  • Remember that abolitionist vegans aren’t homogenous: we all have different life experiences, attitudes, expectations, skills, abilities to process new information. If we see our interlocutors as projections of ourselves (with similar backgrounds, abilities, preconceptions, beliefs, understanding), we will never progress with any discussion.
  • Treat all online discourse as though it’s public and permanently visible, but be cognisant that others may not have the same realisation when posting, so respect the assumptions they may have about the visibility of their posts.
  • Be aware that because our sense of self-worth is often tied to metrics in social networking, it can be useful to take important conversations to private message rather than continuing them in a public forum where people (including you) might be less inclined to concede. Before doing so, make sure that you have the express approval, on the thread, of your interlocutor, to avoid this technique being misconstrued as a personal attack.
  • Most importantly, try to connect with abolitionist vegans offline to create a more personalised network of support. If this is not possible, use face-to-face social networking tools, or at least a telephone, to create more reliable bonds with those to whom you feel a particular connection.

Communicating by online social media will inevitably present us with challenges, but it will also help to foster friendships and a sense of belonging. Manage all interactions as you would offline, but be cognisant of the differences between the two forms. To prevent frustration and disillusionment, build several independent networks of support and try to meet fellow abolitionist vegans offline too.