Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Radical Pragmatism: A VO Manifesto

VO recently received an email from someone who refuses to use our advocacy booklets because they don't demand pure veganism. This was our reply:

Thanks so much for your email. You make a very, very important point:

"I became vegan as a result of being an animal liberation activist. I'm not a vegan activist."

That is Vegan Outreach's position, too. We don't seek to promote a particular diet. We are not slaves to a certain philosophy or dogma. We're only seeking to lessen the animals' suffering -- period. And in this -- recognizing the diversity of people and the frailties of human psychology in order to do our absolute best for the animals -- we are radical, hard-core pragmatists.

It is easy to think the only way to help the animals is solely to promote a pure, animal-exploitation-free existence. The obvious and straightforward rationalization is, "I'm vegan for the animals, therefore everyone should be vegan for the animals!"

And if everyone were as thoughtful, courageous, and dedicated as you, then of course VO's approach would be different -- and our task much, much easier!

But you know and I know that you are an outlier. Just go to the your schools' food court. Go to a football game. Head over to Disneyland -- there aren't bunches of people exactly like you. There are lots of good, ethical people around, but they aren't currently willing to stand out from the crowd, to go against their friends, their habits, etc. They aren't able to change their lives entirely and all at once based on our current personal philosophy.

And yet those are the people we have to reach, if we are to create a truly better world for the animals -- if, to use Jack Norris' phrase, we are going to create a vegan world, as opposed to protecting the purity of our vegan club.

It really is a problem for us vegans -- perhaps our biggest: we are often more concerned that our message meets our current personal standards and sounds good to us, rather than being the optimal message for having new people start to take action to help the animals. 

But if we think about it for just a second, having a "pure" message is far from the best thing we can do for the animals. 

I understand the urge, of course. I used to be driven by words and dogma; I used to think we couldn't give people an "out" or an "excuse" to eat animals by talking about anything other than absolute veganism. 

Really, though, my prior attitude is nearly laughable. People don't need an "out" to eat animals -- they already eat animals. 

Indeed, by presenting a seemingly unachievable standard, we actually give people an "out" to ignore the animals' plight outright.

In this way, insisting only on a message that conveys our current conscience can hurt the animals -- actively and significantly -- relative to a more realistic, step-wise approach. The psychological research shows this, but far more importantly, our experience of the past quarter century has shown the truth of this over and over again. 

You would be shocked -- truly amazed -- at how many people are suddenly interested when we -- Vegan Outreach activists -- admit that not all products or farms are equally cruel. People who had been entirely dismissive perk right up when we don't insist that everyone has to be vegan right now -- that everyone can help animals, even if they currently believe they can't be vegan. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of people who have changed from recent Vegan Outreach booklets have been those who started to evolve -- who took the first step -- because of our pragmatic and psychologically-sound approach -- our total focus on the animals, not a particular diet or dogma.

We know it is far easier to get ten people to eat only half as many animals, compared to convincing two people to go fully and immediately vegan. More importantly -- the animals are far, far better off in the former case, especially if we continue to provide realistic and pragmatic support so people can continue to evolve.

Again, this isn't conjecture. We constantly get feedback like what we just ran in the blog:

"I received Even if you like meat.... you can help end this cruelty from your organization (actually my daughter was given this book while on a college campus). I think so many people get discouraged because they have a hard time sticking with a vegan lifestyle, so I thought this book was very relevant because even if someone still eats some meat at least they could cut back, and then maybe eventually they would make the switch to a vegan lifestyle."

We can either dismiss people like this as weak, unworthy of our consideration. 

Or we can recognize they are the key to our progress towards animal liberation!

None of what I've said here is Vegan Outreach's dogma -- rules to which we've been wedded. These are all lessons we've learned over the years -- after endless mistakes that, in the end, failed the animals at the time. In the end, it took me quite a while to develop the courage to set aside my personal wants and demands, and instead pursue what is best for the animals, given the world as it is, and people as they are.

Indeed, we fail the animals when we refuse to learn from our past mistakes, when we fail to recognize that not everyone will go vegan perfectly and immediately. We can only do our best for the animals when we try to work with everyone where they are, and do our best to get them to take the first step.

That is Vegan Outreach's dogma.

Matt Ball
Executive Director, Vegan Outreach