Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Animals, Not Arguments


Following up on the point made in the Myth or Reality:

Many activists think, "If one argument for vegetarianism is good, then ten are better, and 100 are even better!"

But this is actually the opposite of how human psychology works. An argument for significant change isn't strengthened by volume. Rather, any case for change is a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Every additional argument offered to a non-vegetarian both dilutes and distracts from the strongest argument for making compassionate choices.

So instead of being left with the concrete, indisputable connection to cruelty, the case presented by many activists leaves meat-eaters thinking, "Yeah, maybe I should get a chicken sandwich instead of that burger;" "What I eat isn't really going to affect someone starving in Africa;" "What I eat isn't really going to affect global warming;" "This reminds me of that story explaining how chicken is so much more environmentally friendly than beef;" "Gawd, what a fanatic – like I'm gonna eat only unprocessed fruits and vegetables;" "They think animals are more important than people!"


I realize that it can be hard to be vegan in this society. For example, I recently heard one woman's story of being harassed at work by people deliberately eating meat right in front of her, sending crude anti-animal emails to her workgroup, etc. So I understand the desire to defend our personal veganism with an endless litany of arguments, so as to "win an argument with a meat-eater."

But again, defending ourselves / winning an argument is actually the opposite of how best to create real change for the animals in today's society. Any time we offer an argument that can be debated (caloric conversion ratios, water usage, mortality / disease rates, relative carbon footprints, etc.), the animals lose.


Whenever I argue that we must stay focused on the indisputable bottom line of cruelty to animals, some folks reply: "But my Uncle Bubba doesn't care about animals! I have to appeal to his self interest! Suzy at Meetup said she went veg for health reasons, so it obviously works!"

It is hard to accept, but in the best case scenario, Uncle Bubba is irrelevant to our current work for the animals – he will be long, long dead before he could possibly become the impediment to a vegetarian society.

But more likely, our insistence on searching for and promoting the "magic" argument that "appeals to everyone" will lead Uncle Bubba to eat many, many more animals, for "health" reasons (as well as reinforcing the idea that we should only do what we feel is in our best interest).


When I went veg, about five billion birds were killed in the US each year. Now it is almost ten billion – all because of "self interest." We advocates obsess over the fact that "the health argument" convinced raw foodist Suzy at Meetup, and we conveniently ignore our culpability for the near doubling of animals slaughtered for "healthy" food.


Let me emphasize again: I want to do whatever I can to reduce the number of animals suffering. I totally sympathize with the desire to find the perfect self-centered argument that will appeal to more people.

But in the end, I'm more interested in reality than my personal desires. How powerful an argument seems to me is irrelevant. Only by working in the real world and convincing more non-vegetarians to make positive change can we really help animals.


The facts are simple, stark, and indisputable:

1. At this time, there simply is no magic argument that will convince everyone – or even a majority – to go vegan;

2. The health argument, as it is actually interpreted and acted on in the real world by non-vegetarians, has killed many many more animals than it spared.

3. Every additional argument we present to meat-eaters gives them more distance between themselves and their real and immediate connection to the brutality on factory farms.


The question we must each ask is: Will we work for the animals in the world as it is, or live in the feel-good vegan echo chamber? Each of us can make a real, significant difference, if we don't make my past mistakes, if we focus on the animals instead of trying to win an argument.


-Matt