Learning from Past Mistakes
Meat-eaters love to change the subject and complain about vegans’ sense of smug superiority. But I can say it is very likely that I am superior to most of you – I have made more mistakes.
I stopped eating animals back in the 1980s. Since then, I made an absurd number of mistakes. Probably the main reason I wanted to publish The Animal Activist’s Handbook is to try to help others avoid at least some of the mistakes I made.
One of my biggest mistakes was lacking courage – but perhaps not in the way you think.
Over the years, people advised me to say I was vegan for my health. “That way,” I was told, “people won’t be threatened by you. Everyone cares about their health, so they won’t feel judged.”
Of course, I didn’t go along with that. I protested, “But I’m vegan for so many reasons! The animals! The Earth! Health!” Back then, our attitude was to “win an argument with a meat eater” (the title of a famous poster of the time). The approach was to try to overwhelm a meat-eater with an endless list of what we believed were “facts” – which simplified to: all ills in the world – from impotence to hunger to ozone depletion to serial killings – were all because of meat.
Do you see the problem? It was all about me – why I was vegan, how I was so right, how I wanted to win an argument … because meat eaters were so very wrong wrong wrong!
Now, in sympathy with Young Matt and the rest of us back then, there really was no other example. We all spouted endless claims of water usage and declining fertility. No matter how absurd a claim, if something sounded even vaguely anti-meat or pro-vegetables, we parroted it like the indoctrinated missionaries we were.
On a basic human level, this is understandable. We were a tiny minority, surrounded by meat eaters – meat eaters who often mocked us. You can see why we were so eager, so desperate to justify ourselves, to strike back, to try to belittle those who belittled us, to win.
Of course, looking at it rationally today, we know any discomfort we experience is nothing compared to what farmed animals experience. But this perspective would have required me to think beyond myself and my self-interest.
So I regret my lack of courage, my inability to get past my need to justify myself, praise veganism, and blame meat eaters for every ill.
Now of course, if you had pointed this out to me back then, I would have been outraged: “I am courageous! Do you know how hard it is to be vegan in the world? Look at this sheet of ‘facts’ – meat-eating is terrible! Veganism is the only way!”
Indeed, 25 years ago, I would have joined the many people who attack Vegan Outreach. VO has been called pro-vivisection, because we point out that we each have limited time and resources, and thus should focus our advocacy where we can have the biggest impact. We’ve been called pro-egg, because we believe honesty best serves the animals, and thus point out all studies related to diet and disease, not just cherry-picked ones that seem to support veganism. We’ve been condemned as anti-vegan, because we admit that not every animal product causes the same amount of suffering. And we’re called “anti-human,” because, for example, we don’t loudly claim milk ‘causes’ Crohn’s disease (this one is especially ironic, given that I developed Crohn’s disease years after going vegan).
Finally, Vegan Outreach is hated for ignoring philosophy and intra-vegan debates, and for not promoting only pure, absolutist veganism.
25 years ago, I would have been disgusted by Vegan Outreach: “How can they sleep at night??”
I assume you’re smarter than I was, and again see the flaw: this is still all about me, my veganism, my philosophy, my ‘consistency,’ my demands. “What do we want? Animal Rights! When do we want it? NOW!”
My interactions with meat eaters consisted of preaching an endless stream of horrors, pontificating “You are causing all this! You need to be just like me!” It was so important to chant, to insist, to pursue purity; much more important than working constructively to bring about actual change.
I only realized later that the truly courageous path is to set aside anything about me, and see what can be done to reduce the amount of real suffering in the world. Courage requires working to lessen suffering as much as possible as quickly as possible, regardless of what we want, what sounds good to us, what seems to justify our lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying being vegan isn’t good or important. But however important our personal, day-to-day choices are, choosing effective advocacy for the animals is far, far more important. However much good you accomplish by being vegan every day of the rest of your entire life … well, you can do more good than that in just an hour or two of honest, psychologically-sound activism – or in just a minute, by donating to effective advocacy.
However, to do this, we can’t be like Young Matt – we can’t focus on what sounds good to us. We can’t just rattle off facts that we find compelling, anything that seems to justify our veganism. And we can’t just “do something, do anything.” Instead, we have to look at the overall, real-world impact of our advocacy, and compare those consequences to other alternatives we could pursue with our limited time and resources.
This isn’t easy, in part because it is often quite outside the norm of advocacy. It is just so easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “People are selfish, I’ll appeal to self-interest!” Or taking anecdotes as data: “Marcie went vegan for reason X, so everyone must promote X!” Effective advocates looks beyond what we think, or what motivates us and those around us. We need to put aside what makes veganism sound good and focus on what will move non-vegetarians to take steps that actually reduce suffering.
For example, we can’t focus on something that seems non-controversial, something that seems to appeal to everyone, if doing so might support a move to stop eating big animals, and instead eat more birds and fishes; someone who just gives up red meat causes much, much more suffering.
In other words, we must consider all the actual consequences of our advocacy.
I don’t mean to preach. I wasted so many opportunities, turned off so many people, because I was all about “Don’t you see this list of ‘facts’? Vegan first! Vegan only!” It took me years – and the help of truly courageous people like Jack Norris, Anne Green, Paul Shapiro, Bruce Friedrich, JGM, and others – before I could set aside my insecurities and ego and personal needs, and focus instead on practical, realistic advocacy that actually helps animals.
Yet I don’t know what I could have said to Young Matt – I was so angry, so filled with the odd combination of insecurity masked by self-righteousness. It sounded so compelling back then: We had to document how every problem in the universe came from our exploitation of animals! We had to defend the integrity of veganism! We had to be pure and consistent in our insistence on everything we wanted right now!
Veganism! Abolition! No compromise!
It is an intoxicating siren song.
But let me leave you with a few decades of data:
Since I came to the first March for the Animals in 1991, Jack, Anne, and I have met literally thousands and thousands of vegans who burned with an absolutist flame. Many loudly attacked Vegan Outreach as pathetic sell-outs, gutless compromisers, collaborating capitalists and welfarists.
Basically none of them are around today. There are, of course, new adherents, new Young Matts. But if you look around today, you’ll actually see a number of truly courageous people, people who have put aside their ego and are focused on helping the animals as much as possible, every day. People like Jon Camp, John Oberg, Vic Sjodin, Dawn Ratcliffe, Steve Erlsten, Lisa Drapkin, Lana Smithson, David Coman-Hidy, Ethan Dussault, Kassie Ortega, Rachel Atcheson, Ali Pester, Rob Gilbride, Casey Constable, Karen James, Ben Sylvester, Shura Hammond, Rachel Shippee, Kitty Jones, Cobie deLespinasse, Yuri Mitzkewich, Tamara Hubbard, Nettie Schwager, Diane Gandee Sorbi, Aaron Ross, Kate St. John, Mikael Nielsen, Leslie Patterson, Joe Espinosa, and many others.
And if you remember only one actual fact, remember this: now, the number of animals slaughtered in the US is declining.
For decades, people gave up red meat for self-centered health and environmental reasons, and this led to a vast increase in the number of chickens and fishes butchered every year. But now, since 2006, the number of animals suffering and dying in the US has been going down. Interestingly – to me at least! – 2006 was also the first year Vegan Outreach distributed more than a million booklets.
I hope you have more courage than I did, and will join with those who go beyond self interest, who put aside the pursuit of philosophy and personal purity. Instead we can do the real, concrete work: day-to-day, person-to-person outreach that is actually helping animals, literally changing the world. Thank you.