Why Advocacy (and how we do it) Matters
Bad Experience at Vegan Club
Last month, I became interested in effective strategies for vegan advocacy after an uncomfortable meeting with a CU Boulder vegan club. My initial interest in the club, The Vegan Justice League, started over the summer when I was searching for clubs to join at CU. I was immediately excited about it because I had been vegan for the past year and strongly supported the moral, ethical, and environmental effects of the lifestyle. The first meeting of the year was a social for “Vegan, Vegetarian, and Veg-Curious”, which I thought was a brilliant idea that would allow people interested in plant based diets to learn more about them and potentially try them too. I brought my girlfriend, who had been vegetarian for the past year, to come check out the club with me. After the meeting, we both agreed that we did not want anything to do with the Vegan Justice League.
What made this meeting so uncomfortable was the approach to advocacy, both from other vegans and from the club itself. My girlfriend told me that during the social, every person she talked to negatively judged her for consuming eggs and dairy. All of the vegans she met tried to convince her to give up eggs and dairy. Some even tried to make her feel guilty about her diet. She said that she had never felt so judged in her life.
What made me uncomfortable about the meeting was the video they showed from a vegan activist organization, Direct Action Everywhere, which the Vegan Justice League supports and directs its members towards. The video showed vegan activists: running across baseball fields during a game, interrupting CU’s graduation ceremony, and protesting in grocery stores. One part of the video I found particularly disturbing was when the activists protesting in the grocery store put on pig masks and poured blood on themselves to disgust and scare customers. It was clear that any non-vegans at that meeting would have felt extremely uncomfortable, despite the club’s intention for it to be inclusive of vegetarians and veg-curious.
Why It Matters
Advocacy is essential for the goal of veganism, which is to end consumption of animal products. By encouraging people to reduce their animal product consumption, vegans can have a larger effect than they would cause through just their own diet. However, after this meeting I started wondering about the effectiveness of the methods of advocacy I saw at the Vegan Justice League. Is a judgmental attitude towards non-vegans the best approach to get people to understand, try, or maybe adopt a vegan lifestyle? Do negative protests blaming meat consumers for their behavior actually bring us closer to the goal of reducing animal product consumption? Is it not my responsibility as a vegan to use the best forms of advocacy in order to get more people to try a plant based diet?
After the meeting I asked my girlfriend if I have ever seemed judgmental of her egg and dairy consumption, to which she responded “only once or twice”. I was shocked that I had exhibited the kind of judgmental attitude that the Vegan Justice League demonstrated. Since then I have researched how to effectively advocate for a plant based diet and have been trying to implement them in a way that encourages acceptance of veganism and elicits a positive connotation with the word “vegan”.
Effective Form of Advocacy?
Here is a video by Direct Action Everywhere, the organization that the Vegan Justice League supports. The video shows activists interrupting a ribbon cutting ceremony at a Whole Foods.
How effective is this sort of advocacy? Is it likely that the people at Whole Foods that day went home and thought intensely about meat consumption? Judging by the boo-ing and certain hand gestures, I assume that the audience was more annoyed than inspired. Maybe I am wrong though, and this organization has had success in spreading veganism. Looking at their website, the only section that shows the results of their advocacy is a page of news articles that they have been featured in for their protests. However, their website shows nothing about how effective their protests were; it only shows the fact that they held protests.
I would even argue that Direct Action Everywhere’s activism is counter-productive in some cases. By holding these aggressive protests, many non-vegans may be dissuaded from considering veganism. This meme shows a common attitude that I have observed from non-vegans and demonstrates how poor advocacy can be detrimental to the overall goal of veganism: to
reduce animal product consumption.
The annoyance felt by non-vegans towards vegans extends beyond just Direct Action Everywhere. Vegans have often been stereotyped as being over-emotional, militant, and crazy. This is why vegan advocacy needs to be re-evaluated. In order to eliminate the negative connotations and spread acceptance of veganism, effective strategies for advocacy should be determined and utilized.
Psychology of Meat Consumption
The Meat Paradox
To develop better strategies for advocacy, it would be beneficial to look at what we know about human psychology and why animal products, particularly meat, are consumed regardless of the consumer’s knowledge of meat production or morality. Veganism should be a concept that is easy to sell in theory. It advocates for compassion towards animals and care for the environment (and more). I personally do not know anybody who says that they hate animals or the environment and I assume that most humans in general do not hate them either. So what is causing veganism to be so difficult to spread? Why do people paradoxically eat meat when they love animals?
Dr. Melanie Joy (left), professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, gives lectures on this topic. For the lecture I will discuss, you can watch it online here (1 hour 16 minutes) but I will summarize the main points.
Dr. Joy’s theory on the difficulty of vegan advocacy is that meat-eaters’ paradoxical behavior is due to a system she calls carnism, which is a cultural belief system that conditions people to eat meat. This belief system makes meat eating the social norm and meat consumption becomes no longer a choice, but an expectation. Carnism promotes the meat eating paradox by using defense mechanisms that block our sense of empathy for animals while we eat.
One defense of carnism is denial or invisibility. The process of meat production is so far removed from the consumer that the horrible environmental, moral and social implications are out of the mind of the consumer. Thus, the consumer cannot affirm that there is a problem. This creates a cognitive dissonance in which meat consumers act against their beliefs. Even though, the consumer may care about animals, the environment, etc. they do not view the meat they consume as an animal. Rather, they may view it simply as food and do not analyze it further.
The next defense of carnism is justification of meat consumption. People attempt to rationalize their behavior via the usual arguments that meat consumption is “natural, normal and necessary”. People often use the myths about meat consumption to justify their behavior such as “it is the only way to get enough protein in your diet” and thus it is necessary. The arguments that these myths provide are used by meat consumers to make their behaviors seem logical and vegan behavior to seem illogical.
The last defense Dr. Joy identifies is the cognitive distortion of perceptions about meat. Meat consumers attempt to make meat consumption more comfortable to their morality by learning to objectify animals. Meat eaters learn to call farm animals “it”, instead of “him or her”, in an attempt to deny the animals’ sentience and make them acceptable for the consumer to eat.
Dr. Joy uses the analogs of slavery, male dominance, and heterosexual supremacy to demonstrate how these psychological defense mechanisms have been used in a variety of ways that extend beyond carnism. Denial has been used by males to argue that that there is no patriarchy in our society. Justification by myths has been used to argue why homosexuality is not normal or natural. Cognitive distortions such as objectification have been used to dehumanize African Americans. These defenses clearly exist and place an impediment on any social change. So how do we overcome these defenses?
Overcoming Carnistic Defenses
More Info ≠ Better Advocacy
Many people expect the facts of veganism to sell the ideology. If people understood the environmental, social, and moral consequences of meat production, then they should become vegan right? This is not necessarily true. Facts and logic are not always the best way to advocate. An example of this can be seen in the DARE program. About 80% of students should remember participating in the DARE program (it was implemented into about 80% of elementary schools). The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program is intended to educate students about drug abuse and how to “say no to drugs”. Although this program aimed to reduce drug abuse through education, it failed to make any significant difference. Current systematic reviews (studies that analyze many other reliable studies) show that the DARE program failed to decrease drug use among students at all.
Despite the education about drugs that students receive, other factors like socioeconomic status and school dropout rates are more likely to be better indicators of student drug use. So how does this relate to vegan advocacy? I am sure any vegan can provide a wealth of evidence that meat consumption has serious consequences to the environment, meat industry workers, and human health. However, the facts of veganism will not make it more appealing to non-vegans. The carnistic defenses create an illogical system of meat consumption and trying to use logic or evidence to overcome them will not likely work. For example, if a vegan tells a non-vegan “Did you know that meat production is extremely resource intensive, and it takes about 460 gallons of water to produce a 1/4 pound of beef?” the non-vegan is unlikely to respond “Wow I did not know that! I am going vegan.” More information does not necessarily make the vegan argument more convincing.
Relate to the Audience
However, Dr. Joy describes ways in which the carnistic defenses may be overcome. First, she proposes that when people ask about veganism, we tell our story of transitioning to veganism and trying to relate to the emotions of non-vegans. By telling the story of how you once consumed animal products, the audience gets a sense that you are similar to them.
Dr. Joy encourages vegans to discuss how they might have had a disconnect between their morals and diet. Vegans should talk about how they once ate animal products, even when they knew the social, environmental and moral consequences of animal product production.
The stereotypes that non-vegans might have held about vegans starts to fall apart when they hear that vegans are normal humans too who understand what it is like to have a cognitive disconnect between beliefs and actions. Of course, vegans may not want to pick apart a non-vegan’s argument and call out their defenses. Vegans should not say “you have cognitive distortion and are objectifying animals despite your moral beliefs!” which may come off as hostile.
It may be that the more that vegans acknowledge their own previous carnistic defenses, the more legitimate their argument seems. If a vegan used to justify meat eating through illogical arguments such as “if we stop eating meat, farm animal populations will explode”, then he/she should acknowledge that previous behavior and discuss that. By doing so, non-vegans can see that they are normal to have the behaviors they have and a discussion with a vegan becomes less hostile.
Focus on the Process, NOT the Objective
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who’s goal was to convince you of something? It is extremely annoying and causes the audience to put up psychological barriers or argue with everything the speaker says. That is why it is important for vegans
to not focus on the goal of conversion when talking with a non-vegan. If the vegan actively tries to convince the non-vegan to change their behavior, the carnistic defenses will
surface and no progress can be made. Instead, the focus should be on the process of the conversation. It may be better for vegans to focus on talking about the non-vegan’s concerns about veganism and share each other’s perspectives. This way, vegans may be able to come off as more understandable and rational.
What Becoming Vegan Requires
Speaking from personal experience, it can be easy for vegans to make reductive judgments about meat eaters. It can be easy to assume that meat eaters are less moral than people on plant based diets. But this judgment is not productive and encourages hostility between vegans and non-vegans. Dr. Joy’s theory of carnism tells us that vegans should acknowledge that meat eating really is not about moral choices. Meat eaters are victims of a society that promotes meat consumption to the point where people are expected to eat meat. Although most people love animals, they are under the pressure of societal expectations and social norms to consume meat.
It Is Hard
It is also important to understand what it requires for a person to become vegan. It is not simply a change in behavior, but a change in the way a person thinks about animal products and their production. It is much more difficult to change a way of thinking than it is to change a behavior. Vegans may benefit in their advocacy by acknowledging that taking the step to vegan is not easy at all. In fact, if a meat eater makes a dramatic change to veganism all at once, it may be too difficult for them and they would become discouraged and give up on being vegan. Instead it may be better to encourage smaller transitions such as becoming vegetarian or even just reducing their daily meat consumption.
Strategies for Selling Veganism
One of the possible reasons that veganism is not widely accepted could be that it is not common to be vegan. Again, society’s carnistic values make veganism difficult. So how can the tables be turned to make veganism normal?
During a presentation of the Science of Animal Advocacy, Nick Cooney (Founder of the Humane League, left) presented research on how research on human psychology can be used to advocate for veganism.(49 minutes)
Some of the research he presented showed how people care more about social pressures than environmental, economic or communal reasons when it comes to conserving energy. When energy conservation was seen as the normal behavior, people significantly reduced their energy consumption. The environmental, economic and communal benefits of saving energy had little to no influence on peoples’ conservation.
Cooney argues that when vegans talk with non-vegans, it should be a goal to have the non-vegan “walk away thinking ‘you know, that person is just like me, but they don’t eat animals'”. Vegans should make it a goal to relate to non-vegans and make it seem like veganism is normal. The more people that walk away thinking that, the more likely it is that more behavior will be changed.
Foot in the Door
Cooney also presented research that showed how requests for small initial favors led to an increased acceptance of larger favors. This research analyzed how people were more likely to put a sign in their yard that said “Drive Safely” if they were initially asked to put a sticker with the same message on their rear car window. Since the small favor was much easier than the larger favor, more people were willing to put the sticker in the window of their car. Additionally, after those people put the sticker in their car, they began to associate themselves as someone who promotes safe driving. Because of this, they were more likely to put the large sign in their yard a few weeks later.
This could mean that by encouraging small requests, such as eating less meat, we can introduce more people to veganism rather than turning them away. So instead of requesting that people give up all animal products entirely, we could ask smaller requests like eat less meat per meal or avoid eating beef due to its large carbon footprint. By making small requests, we can encourage positive action towards the goal of veganism, while dissuading less people.
The world will not become vegan overnight. To approach the fragile discussions with non-vegans, it may be better to have small goals in mind and create a positive connotation of vegans. In this way, vegans will be able to make veganism normal and have an easier time spreading it to more people. Any amount of progress towards more mindful consumers is beneficial for the vegan movement. But vegans need to critically assess how their activism affects others and their overall goal. I would encourage vegans to analyze what form of activism works best for them, quite possibly one that I did not mention, and stick with that. I personally will be working on adjusting my attitude and critiquing how I approach conversations with non-vegans in order to benefit the movement.
Veganism is a delicate topic that has many obstacles around it due to society’s values around animal product consumption. In order to get around these obstacles, vegans should be aware of the psychology of animal product consumption and have an empathetic perspective when talking about veganism. Then vegans should pursue activism in the way that works best for them. I have discussed a couple strategies above, but these are by no means the only effective strategies. Overall, I ask vegans to analyze their activism and adjust their own approach to advocacy in order to benefit the vegan movement.