Essays and Musings on Animals and Society

Monday, March 12, 2007

We May Get Lots of Vegan Converts Here, But is That Currently the Best Measure of Advocacy Success? 

Tonight I was talking on the phone to someone I knew previously only from email. He's active in companion animal issues. We got to discussing diet. I mentioned I was vegan. He responded that he didn't eat much meat and tries to buy free-range. The conversation had progressed to the point where I felt comfortable in saying, "You know that 'free range' is mostly a crock, right?" He answered, "I know," in sort of a resigned tone. We proceeded to discuss various meat alternatives and it was all really productive.

Here's my point: The "Yeah, I know..." mini-admission...In my experience, that's typical of "progressives" buying free-range. Not too many levels down, they know they're playing a little pretend and wishful thinking. I find sometimes that they almost want that kick in the pants to get them off free-range hamburgers (often made from worn out dairy cows killed at five years old ) and onto homemade veggie burgers or LightLife Smart BBQ. There's a defeatist belief among some animal activists that once people go to free-range, they're stuck, they think "now I'm being humane, game over." But what I find overwhelmingly is something more like this: they opened their eyes briefly, what they saw was painful and disturbing, they shut their eyes again; they started something but are stalemated. They're more forthcoming, more knowledgeable, a little more honest than when they mindlessly bought whichever meat, eggs, and dairy were cheapest. And they're more amenable to vegan outreach. Perhaps they've already got momentum: they're already independent-minded enough to question the mainstream, they're already taking action in which they sacrifice for a greater good. It probably doesn't hurt that they may likely have some skepticism about corporate PR.

I've seen this phenomenon repeatedly at Green Festivals, companion animal group get-togethers, Sierra Club "True Cost of Food" dinners, and other gatherings of progressives.

Even in cases where ignorance, denial, and deceptive advertising about "happy cows" and the like conspire to perpetuate exploitative and environmentally destructive omnivorism, I find in general that the belief in bucolic pastures where farm animals bask in the sunshine and are treated like pets doesn't have a very deep hold and is easily displaced by a dose of reality — two-day old calves stolen from their mothers, male calves sold at auctions and butchered, females impregnated every year practically from childhood and forced to put out so much milk that their udders become infected and their bones become brittle, sometimes to the point where the cows can no longer stand up; newborn chicks ground up; piglets "culled" by bludgeoning — knocks off the fantasy in a hurry, and the progressive or self-styled "ethical eater" realizes that the meat, dairy, and egg industries are lethal and cruel, and often ecologically disastrous — and anything but ethical.

Environmentalists, animal shelter volunteers, "Move On" members, human rights activists, anti-war protesters, Unitarians, anarchists — these demographics present excellent activism opportunities. The politics and agendas of the individuals who comprise them very often overlap with the interests of many animal advocates, and it is very likely that from these groups that we'll get the next wave of new vegans.

There's a counterpoint to all this. Though it may be gratifying to convert someone to veganism, and while more vegans certainly help to mainstream the concept, at this still-early stage in the movement, more may be accomplished by doing outreach to the relatively intractable masses that are more wedded to meat, dairy, and eggs. Go for the difficult targets and get them to start the process rather than nudging along people who are already making changes on their own and have made some progress along the omnivore-to-vegan path. It may be more productive to get "the average American" (or Canadian, or whomever) to go from step 0 to step 1 than to persuade a progressive environmentalist / shelter volunteer to go from almost-vegan to vegan – even though you'll have no "converted to vegan" notches in your belt, so to speak.

To get your chicken-every-other-night, "animals were put here for us to use" churchgoers to try veggie chicken nuggets and have them say "Hey, this isn't bad" may represent a more fundamental transition than getting a couple of near-vegans to give up their occasional cheese pizza and honey in their tea. Even if your dubious advocacy targets hem and haw, and are so stuck in their current pattern that they don't go out and buy the veggie meat or tofu or exchange the meat sauce for marinara right away, you've got them to thinking. Changes in attitude are precursors to changes in behavior. They may start off by buying "free-range" or making some other "toe-in-the-water" compromises—but that's something, it's a change from total mindlessness. Habits—especially ones that you've done since before you can remember, that make you feel part of the crowd, that are easy, that give you comfort, to which you have emotional ties, and that are heavily promoted and "enabled" by society—are tough to break. But by dislodging these folks—which I submit make up the bulk of the populace—from their automatic, "pick up boneless skinless chicken breasts without even thinking about what they're doing" daily routines, to start them considering the ethics and arbitrariness of their diet, to engender some concern for animals, to inform them of standard farm cruelties, to educate them on non-animal alternatives, and to inspire them to begin for the first time in their lives to ask questions about the moral consequences of their food choices – that may be more profound than the talking a lacto-ovo vegetarian into giving up the once-a-month ice cream cone. You'll pave the way for some activist down the road, probably one you'll never meet, to claim one day "Hey, I converted another person to veganism."



Addendum

I mentoned above that there seems to be a fear among some activists that if people buy cage-free eggs and, in general, less cruel forms of meat and eggs (though all entail some cruelty), they'll become complacent and resistant to the vegan option. But as I alluded to in this and previous posts, there are far more people buying eggs from battery cage hens and meat from the most reprehensible, barbaric factory farms who are just as complacent if not more so. They feel no need to make even the smallest concessions to farm animals. As one person told me, "an egg is an egg." If we can't convince more conscientous consumers who are already avoiding some forms of animal cruelty to go vegan, how are we ever going to sell veganism to those who give no consideration whatsoever to farm animals' interests?

As I discuss in this current series of posts, we can and should leverage people's newfound awareness of animals' interests and humans' obligations to respect them, as we explain how all animal agriculture, including that which produced the slick package of "certified humane" eggs, violates animals' most basic interests, often violently, blatantly, and en masse. If someone is bothered by the unnecessary infliction of pain and suffering on farm animals, that greatly helps us make the case that it's all unnecessary and unjustified unless done out of compassion to help an animal or, perhaps, in self-defense.

Our ability to advocate on behalf of animals and to inspire a change in consciousness and, consequently, behavior need not and should not depend on animals remaining in the most heinous and unbearable conditions.

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Comments:
Gary, very enlightening post (as always, but this one particularly struck me). Thanks...
 
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