Opening Doors

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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.

‘Invisible’ Advocacy

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Many vegans tell me that aligning their lifestyle with their ethics is only the beginning of what they feel is their responsibility to nonhumans. Yet while they often desire to advocate, some are lacking in self-confidence, others are unsure of how to deal with challenges, many are wary of confrontation or weighed down by the importance of their task. Even more discouraging than the perceived enormity of the process itself, perhaps, is the mistaken belief that advocacy is only successful if it results immediately in new vegans, and that a failed advocacy effort will entrench the interlocutor’s views permanently and unalterably.

The good news is that advocacy doesn’t have to be monumental. In fact, it doesn’t have to be very different from anything else you do on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be performative or dramatic. It doesn’t have to involve a prepared speech. It doesn’t compel you to set up a stall in the middle of a busy street and talk to strangers. It won’t necessarily result in a debate. Its success isn’t measured by the interlocutor immediately becoming vegan. Most importantly, it’s not a competition or a race, and if you advocate well and consistently, then your success may not even be capable of being measured.

There are many different forms of advocacy, and some are highly visible: tabling, the use of social media, and so on. All of these forms of advocacy are worthwhile, if they are approached with a solid theoretical foundation and with adequate preparation. Because of their visibility, they require a particular set of abilities that some people have in abundance: confidence, openness, adeptness at fielding debate. But what if I told you that you may already have the skills to advocate in a very powerful way, that you can do exactly what you do every day but help to make change happen, and that the only thing you’ll need is one word? That word is ‘vegan’. Do not underestimate its power.

You may be the kind of person who talks to cashiers in the supermarket as they’re ringing up your groceries. They look at your unusual assortment of vegetables and ask if you’ve got something special planned for dinner. You smile and say, ‘I’m vegan, so I’m making a vegetable lasagna’. You see an old friend who compliments you on something you’re wearing. You say ‘Thanks; it’s from a vegan shop’. You bring some food to a friend’s house, and you tell them it’s suitable for vegans. Anytime you use the word ‘vegan’, you’re doing some advocacy work. Write it, type it, say it, sign it; it doesn’t matter how you do it, but don’t underestimate the power of a simple word.

So, now you’re wondering how this could be of any benefit to nonhuman animals. Each time you use the word ‘vegan’ in this way, you’re normalising it; you’re removing any taboos, breaking down stereotypes, getting the word into public consciousness. Not being reticent about the word and letting people know that you are vegan is actually quite a powerful first step, and it will certainly help lay the foundation that will open up the conversation about the ethical principles, and may even steer people towards doing their own research into what being vegan means.

Grumpy Old Vegan
(Image shared with permission from Grumpy Old Vegan; the text on the image reads ‘How many seeds that we plant germinate and flourish without our knowledge? This is why vegan education is so important; tangible results never reveal the full picture of what we do.’)

There are other forms of quiet advocacy in which you can engage, like sharing recipes that are suitable for vegans to your social media site, posting pictures of your meals and treats on the same, cooking and sharing food, collaborating with others to use the talents that are unique to you (making posters for someone else’s outreach; baking cupcakes for a tabling event; proofreading the work of others). None of these things ought to be undervalued, because advocacy is not just about persuasion.

There will be benefits to you as a new advocate, too, from engaging in ‘invisible’ advocacy. Seeing that people don’t recoil in horror when you use the word ‘vegan’, and participating silently in the visible advocacy of others will probably increase your confidence and may lead you to seek out opportunities for discussion about your ethical stance, which will be the topic of the next blog post.

Why a Critical Approach to Advocacy Matters

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From conception to death, their lives are planned out. When they will feed, where they will go, how they will interact with others, how often they will reproduce, whether they will mate or be inseminated, how long they will spend with their children before separation, whether their illnesses are worth treating, how they will die: all of these details are contrived. They are born for a purpose, and that purpose is to be used by others. Each one has a price on his or her head, and each one is disposable. Each one has wants, interests, preferences, desires, and we systematically deny them — not for any reasons of necessity, but simply because we believe that our transitory experience of pleasure, or our reluctance to change our habits, outweighs their most basic rights.

Vegans recognise the injustice inherent in treating nonhuman animals as resources and so abstain from animal use (in as far as is possible in a nonvegan world), and their recognition of this injustice is often marked by a desire to lead others to the same awareness.

Most vegans once participated in the system of animal exploitation that they now renounce, and this fact often makes advocacy seem all the more urgent and all the more difficult. For many vegans, the cognitive shift that allows them to perceive the unfairness of animal use appears to be a sudden one (although they may have been moving towards it gradually through an accumulation of life experiences), and they often figure that shift as ‘a switch flicking’, ‘a lightbulb moment’ or ‘taking the red pill’. To acknowledge the wrongness of what is considered ‘normal’, and to reject the habits, customs, and traditions that centre on animal use, in what is typically a very short space of time, can create a sense of impatience in the vegan advocate and result in the adoption of a range of advocacy techniques that are neither carefully considered nor particularly productive.

Many vegans promote Meatless Mondays or fixed-period trials of plant-based eating in the hope that the experience of one part of living as a vegan will bring the participant to the recognition of the moral imperative. Quite a few advertise the health benefits of plant foods or demarcate particular instances of ‘cruel’ treatment while desiring that the person to whom they’re speaking will recognise that all animal use is wrong. Some proclaim the environmental benefits of boycotting animal agriculture. Others will adopt a range of measures designed to reduce consumption with the expectation that reduced consumption will mean reduced animal use.

The problems with such tactics are numerous. First, no one comes to the knowledge of what it really means to be a vegan by dining on a Portobello mushroom burger. What is more, the kind of person who follows health plans will be inclined to try several over the course of their lives, and so may embrace the health benefits of plant foods for brief period before moving on to the next fad. Second, highlighting instances of animal suffering may result in confusion about our obligations to animals and create the mistaken impression that there is a morally acceptable way to treat them as resources; let’s be clear: there’s not. Furthermore, the advocate who promotes half-measures risks making veganism seem difficult and alien. Third, if an individual reduces consumption in some areas of his or her life, this will not drive down demand in any meaningful way. Our power as consumers is a collective one, and depends upon our unreserved and lifelong commitment to abstaining from animal use. Fourth, shifting the focus away from the enormity of the harm we cause by treating others as resources is doing no service to the victims of injustice. Fifth, we risk spreading ourselves too thin, wasting time and energy by persuading people to remove some forms of animal use for what is (without a clear moral message) probably only a short period of time. Instead, we could use that time and energy to refine our arguments and to advocate with conviction and sincerity in order to achieve what it is that we really want: an end to animal use.

Many vegans adopt these problematic approaches to advocacy because they recognise the urgency of the problem and feel that they must do something for the current victims of the system. But the current victims will not be spared from their miserable lives and dreadful deaths by any approaches that we may take; they are already here to be used, and nothing we can do will save them (even liberating one will necessitate that another will have to take his or her place). Welfare reforms are counterproductive, because they make people more comfortable with using animals, and they increase the economic efficiency of animal exploitation by increasing profits (tied to people’s moral comfort with labels of ‘humane’ use, but they also protect the extrinsic value of animals-as-property (cf. the work of Gary Francione; this essay is an excellent starting point)), and therefore result in more animals being bred for exploitation.

To obtain justice for nonhumans, the world needs more vegans. In order to create more vegans we have to take responsibility, where we can, to educate people towards veganism. We can’t trick them into becoming vegan by promoting various modes of nonveganism (whether plant-based eating, vegetarianism, reduced consumption, or boycotting particular instances or animal use). We can’t expect someone to accept that we are sincere and trustworthy advocates when we fail to promote what we practise ourselves.

We can only normalise veganism by talking about it, and the only effective method of vegan advocacy is to present a clear and simple moral position that animal exploitation is wrong. It is only through unequivocal and unapologetic advocacy that we will change the way society regards animals and end the systematic and institutionalised exploitation of all nonhumans.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll post on a range of advocacy techniques from the effective use of language to raising moral concern, from the effectiveness of shock tactics to dealing with objections and logical fallacies, from finding opportunities for advocacy to dealing with apparent failure. I hope you’ll join me.

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