Thursday, March 14, 2013

Finding Common Ground in Rejection of Cruelty

Kelley asks:
We all know our adversaries are going to ask, "Well, what if we could raise the animals "humanely" with kindness until the day they are killed for food....for example, what if I raised chickens in my backyard and they never suffered? If it's not "cruel," then I can eat them, right?" What are we to say to that?

Thanks so much for writing, Kelley. I think there are three points we can make here:

1. The most important thing is to acknowledge the common ground we have with people. That is, instead of railing against "free range" / "humane" as equally evil to factory farms (which reveals our position as dogma, rather than related to the real world), we should start by saying it is great that people are rejecting and boycotting factory farms by not contributing to the incredible brutality of modern agribusiness.

If we start with this common ground, we are in a much better position to go forward in a constructive conversation. (The same goes for discussions with hunters....)

In short: we shouldn't be trying to preach our "truth" / offer our personal condemnation of everything. Rather, we can start with people where they are and get them to want to open their hearts and minds so they take the next step toward compassion. Our anger and judgement doesn't help animals -- only getting new people to move forward can help animals.

2. If we have more time, there are two points we can make:

A. We can't trust the claims of people who profit from selling animal corpses for profit. If we want to make choices true to our ethics, we have to visit (unannounced) farms and slaughterhouses, to see if the animals are truly living and dying in a manner we are willing to support. (For more, see the second half of this article.)

B. Tell the story of how we, personally, came to the decision to no longer eat animals. In this particular case, we make it about ourselves, our personal evolution, not preaching how terrible it is that anyone does this.

3. As advocates, we worry way, way too much about this topic, to the significant detriment of effective advocacy. Here is an exchange I had during an online chat with the crew at AR Zone:

In my experience, the typical response to the horrors of factory farming is to pursue Reform (happy meat) rather than Elimination (veganism). Companies are capitalizing on this and the "humane" sector is rapidly growing. Does VO have plans to modify its booklets to more aggressively address so-called "humane" animal products?


Great questions, Ben! The first aspect of this is "happy meat." Obviously, there are people who do stop supporting factory farms and eat "sustainable" meat. But many vegans read too much into this.

We suffer from "availability bias*." "Happy meat" is an absolutely miniscule market for rich, over-educated folks. Sadly, rich, over-educated people are vastly, vastly overrepresented in the media! And people who excuse eating animals, at any level, are given even more endless media coverage by their fellow elites. [Telling people what they want to hear is the surest path to fame. It also works for vegan advocates speaking to vegans as well.]

I understand the extreme frustration of seeing all this glorification of eating animals. In general, though, we vegans vastly overreact to it, spending an extremely disproportionate amount of our limited time and our limited emotional resources arguing with and being angry at people eating / promoting "happy meat." There are better uses of our limited time and resources.

Of course it is disappointing when people stop being vegetarian and eat animals again. But let me tell you from long experience -- this isn't because of the presence of "happy meat." There have been failed vegetarians ever since there have been vegetarians. One survey showed more former vegetarians in the UK than actual vegetarians [and in the US].

Similarly, when he spent two years leafleting across the country nearly 20 years ago, Jack met more former vegetarians than current vegetarians. It wasn't because of Pollan or Bittman or Polyface or Whole Foods. It was because the failed vegetarians hadn't felt healthy as a vegetarian. This trend continues today -- just Google "failed vegetarian" or "failed vegan." The internet gives these people a loud megaphone, and meat-eaters give them endless attention. So we again suffer from availability bias regarding the prevalence of failed vegetarians.

But it is a real problem: many buy into the vegan propaganda and don't learn honest and thorough nutrition. That's why Jack went back to school to be an RD, and why he created -- we can do better. And if we really care about the animals, rather than glorifying our personal veganism -- we must do better!

(*Availability bias also occurs in the vegan community, too, where the loudest, most outspoken (or obnoxious) person seems to represent all vegans. And, of course, the meat-eating media love to promote the angriest, most extreme vegan as the community's voice. [I was once quoted in a WSJ article that featured a vegan who complained about the violence of cutting tomatoes. I kid you not.] We should be aware of this, and try to counter it as we can.)

The other aspect of your question, Ben, is the nature of change, in both an individual and in society. Real change is rarely quick or linear. Or, to paraphrase Marting Luther King Jr, the arc of history is long and jagged, but ultimately bends towards justice. We should, I think, spend more of our limited time doing the work of bending, rather than despairing over the hiccups.