Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Great Debate: To call yourself a vegetarian or vegan – PART II

As the co-moderator of this blog, nothing makes me happier than to see posts explode into lively, fiery debates. When I say fiery, however, I’m talking about igniting debate, not burning those who disagree with you. So I’m both thrilled to see that Kenny Torrella’s post yesterday set off a heated exchange and disappointed to see that some readers – on both sides of the issue – responded with bitter sarcasm.

Blog readers have every right to be pissed off by any view they disagree with, but there’s a big difference between being respectfully pissed and just plain out pissing on somebody else’s opinions. All I’m saying is be respectful, be civil, and most importantly, keep it real!

With that in mind, I’d like to extend an invitation to any interested readers to participate in this discussion. If you’re not a contributor on “Animal Writes,” but would like to weigh in by posting a guest entry, shoot me an email at

Now, moderator business aside, I’d like to take off my referee shirt and jump into the fighting ring with the understanding that everything I say is my personal opinion as an activist and not as the blog moderator. At the same time, I’d like to see if there’s any room for reconciliation between the sparring viewpoints.

To summarize, Kenny, a vegan farm animal activist (and a friend of mine, for full disclosure) argued from experience that labeling himself as vegetarian rather than vegan is more effective in outreach. He echoes the insights of Bruce Friedrich, who has found that talking about veganism right off the bat tends to overwhelm and turn away folks from engaging with the issue. Some readers retorted that a vegan who labels himself as vegetarian is dishonest and has sold out by neglecting animals that are exploited for dairy and eggs.

I agree with some of the commenters that there is profound inconsistency in ethically motivated lacto-ovo vegetarianism, since, for example, more animals are slaughtered in the egg industry than in the beef industry. However, for anyone doing veg outreach, the vital and never-ceasing question must be: how can I have the greatest impact for farm animals? In Bruce and Kenny’s experience, explicitly advocating veganism turns a slight fraction of people vegan at best, while advocating vegetarianism leads many down a path that often leads to veganism.

As Kenny notes, Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, has talked about the importance of asking people to take the first step rather than the last step. If Joe Shmoe takes the first step and sees how easy it is, he’s likely to take the next step. But if you ask Joe to leap to the finish line, he’s likely to walk away – probably in the opposite direction.

Imposing a moral baseline seems to me not only counterproductive, since it often turns people off from opening up to the issues, but also disingenuous, since nobody consumes a 100% cruelty-free diet. No vegan I know, myself included, eats in a way that causes zero harm to animals, farmers, laborers, or the environment. So holding up veganism as a moral ideal, even with the best of intentions, is misguided. The question is how to minimize our harm. Veganism is a huge step in that direction, but it is not the endpoint, and treating it as such tempts the language of self-righteousness and absolutism.

The comments on Kenny’s post reflect a broader rift in the animal rights community between so-called abolitionists and so-called welfarists. Abolitionists advocate an uncompromising pro-vegan stance and tend to oppose any incremental welfare reforms for farm animals, since they believe such reforms only reinforce the legitimacy of using animals for food. Welfarists, in contrast, believe that incremental steps forward for animal welfare are important and can be advanced in tandem with a non-exploitation ethic.

My sense is that these diverging viewpoints are rooted in deep convictions. To make a sweeping generalization, I think abolitionists place higher value on honesty, purity and idealism, while welfarists value efficacy, practicality, and nuance. Now, I bet that few welfarists or abolitionists would actually accept this categorization. A welfarist might believe that she is acting with more integrity, since in her view, renouncing efforts to improve welfare standards is doing a disservice to animals. An abolitionist might believe that he is acting with more efficacy, since welfare reforms, in his view, will turn away many potential vegetarians. My point is simply that where one falls on the abolitionist-welfarist spectrum is most often the product of underlying values (and formative experiences) and is unlikely to be swayed by means of debate.

Any conversation on effective outreach runs the risk of universalizing the matter and suggesting that some tactics are all-around superior to others. While some tactics will have greater success in some or most cases, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for outreach. So it’s conceivable that while some or most vegans may be more effective talking about vegetarianism, other vegans, given their temperament or their convictions or who they’re talking to, may have more success talking about veganism.

At the end of the day, you won’t find the answers on how to do effective outreach in a book or on a blog; you’ll find them on the street where you can put different tactics and styles to the test. So the best advice I can offer is this: get out and find what works for you!


  1. The animal rights movement is a social change movement. You can't change the unjust relationship of humans over other animals without challenging speciesist views and practices. To the extent that veganism is seen as "extreme" by the not-yet-vegan public (and unfortunately some vegan advocates) is due to psychological and material self-interest in speciesism, notably pleasure, amusement, and convenience. Rather than flee from challenging entrenched speciesist ideology (and the exploitation of other animals it legitimates), we ought to confront it head-on by promoting a clear, unequivocal, vegan message. This doesn't mean "all or nothing" or "obsession with purity" and the like; it means doing what we can within the practical confines of today's society- such as not buying animal flesh, milk, eggs, skin, hair, and other products directly linked to suffering and death. Let's strike the root through vegan advocacy and build the critical mass of supporters who truly want justice for all.

  2. Well-put, Brandon. I'm with you on just about everything. I agree that we ought to do everything possible to bring veganism into the mainstream and bury the myth that it is somehow extreme. The question is how. It seems to me that sometimes softening the message does not equal compromising the message, since people will be more apt to listen if the message is accessible to them. Most vegans I know made the step to vegetarianism first and only a few made the direct leap from omnivore to vegan. If Bruce and Kenny's observations are accurate that more people eventually become vegan when vegetarianism as opposed to veganism is stressed in outreach, then bringing veganism straight into the discussion would be ultimately less effective in moving the public to embrace veganism.

  3. I'm pretty much echoing what Ben said... the more accessible it is to them, the more they will give it a chance. Even people open-minded to a number of issues think that veganism goes "too far," no matter how articulate I am. I always hear "veganism would be too hard, but I could maybe be a vegetarian." I hear this all the time. This is even with people that have seen Earthlings!

    It's about what works in the real world, not what sounds good on paper. In my experience, what I wrote in my entry is what works in the real world, for me. For others, it may NOT work for them! And that's OK with me. I simply just wanted to share my experience in the hopes that it could helps others with their outreach. It'd be cool if others wrote their experiences as a blog post or specifics of what has worked for them because we all have something to learn from one another. Of course it's not flawless, but nothing's flawless. But that approach has turned so many people onto vegetarianism, and not talking about veganism directly has turned many vegetarians onto veganism.

    But the discussion shouldn't be about abolition vs. welfare -- this just polarizes all of us. Every successful social justice movement thrived because of a diversity of tactics. Labeling ourselves as "abolitionists" or "welfarists" stifles conversation and stifles true change. Let's all work together and encourage each other. We all have similar goals, just different ideas of how to get there. That shouldn't make us have to choose sides or point fingers.

    I think Mercy for Animals is a great example of a diversity of tactics. They support welfare measures yet are also one of, if not the most effective vegan group out there. They're an example that it's not about sides, it's simply about doing what brings about change.

  4. By refusing to call ourselves "vegan" if we're vegan, and promote veganism if we want others to be vegan, why would anyone else want to become vegan if we ourselves seem ashamed of our ethics?

    I've had overwhelming success advocating veganism to others in a friendly, positive, and affirming way. Since it's true that most transition to veganism over time, by promoting veganism others are less likely to stop at just eating less flesh or no flesh, but will instead see being vegan as the baseline, however long it takes them to get there. That way, we haven't set up lacto-ovo "vegetarianism" as a morally acceptable solution since veganism (starting in diet, but includes other choices) is the least we can do for other animals if we say their lives truly matter. This not only aligns theory with practice in a logical and morally consistent way, but helps build an effective movement against exploiting other animals for food, clothing, and all other purposes, hastening the day of liberation.

    Regarding the abolition/regulation debate, here are my two favorite articles on the topic:

    "Animal Rights 'Welfarists': An Oxymoron"

    "Moving From Abstraction to Veganism: Advocating Alternatives to Exploitation, Not Alternative Exploitation"

  5. I just want to emphasize futher- friendliness is key to activism.

    If others see you as shining example of a happy and joyful vegan, confindent with yourself and your ethics, it will work wonders in getting the message of compassion and justice across.

    As vegans we are already being the change, now we must work for change. The suffering and dying animals in slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and other places of abuse are counting on us to end the atrocities and help them win freedom. We can do it!

  6. It looks like we're kinda going in circles here... Different things will work for different people, but we can agree that we all have similar goals, just slightly different ways of achieving those goals. You're mistaking shame for what I think just works better. Of course I'm not ashamed of being vegan, I've just found that this different approach brings about more tangible change, in my experience.

    When I read either side about the abolition vs. welfare debate it feels like I'm just listening to talk radio. It's 2-sided (when there are much, much more than 2 sides), it polarizes people that have more in common than they don't have in common, and is a barrier to real change. Could you imagine what kind of power the AR movement would have if there wasn't so much infighting? It's sad. There's not enough time to argue with each other -- we have so much in common yet we focus on tiny little differences. Both sides would be much better off if they realized that most veg*ns fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and every situation should be approached differently with what will work best.

  7. Here's what I wrote recently on the topic of conflict within the movement:
    There's nothing wrong with constructive criticism, but we need to stay focused on justice for all animals.

    We shouldn't argue over insignificant things when countless billions of nonhuman animals are being slaughtered for their flesh, enslaved for their secretions, vivisected in laboratories, imprisoned in cages or trapped in nature for their pelts, ripped from the sea and suffocated, confined in zoos and aquaprisons, forced to do tricks in land and marine circuses, and endure other speciesist oppression.

    Let's stand together to transform society and build the movement to abolish the property status of other animals and secure their rights as persons in custom and law. Solidarity!

  8. Interesting discussion.

    Ben, I think your summary is spot on.

    Kenny, you say, "When I read either side about the abolition vs. welfare debate it feels like I'm just listening to talk radio." That's interesting; most of what I've read on the welfare side seems evenhanded (but since I'm on that side, I suppose I would think that). It feels a lot like the health care debate to me: One side attacks, and the other side tries to defend.

    Does the welfare side really seem like we're attacking the other side? The two things I tend to send out on the issue,


    don't seem at all talk radio to me. Again, I am VERY aware that I'm invested in the discussion, so am not the best judge.



  9. Maybe talk radio wasn't the right analogy, the debates aren't that bad, thankfully... But it is indeed mostly one attacking and one defending. I don't think I've ever read an "anti-abolitionist" article, but I've read many "anti-welfare" articles. I guess something I was confused about is that sometimes the debate can sound worded as if those who work on welfare measures aren't abolition-minded at all, when they are. Just different approaches. Bruce -- I think those are good pieces and I've read a lot of VO essays that I generally agree with (where I found the quote from you in the first place) so I think we're on the same page, I just didn't word it too eloquently. But I think that's very important to point out that it's mostly one attacking and one defending, which I hadn't thought of before.

  10. Both of those articles are great, Bruce. I actually like the talk radio analogy, not in that the conversation isn't even-handed. but that it is so needlessly polarizing and two-sided that nobody really ever comes to reconcile or resolve their differences but only to reinforce them.

    I think, to be fair, insofar as the anti-welfarist side is doing more of the attacking, it is because their views are sort of on the fringe and they are up against the mainstream animal protection "establishment." In contrast, more mainstream voices have the privilege to be more silent or soft-spoken on the issue without betraying their convictions. I'm doing a more in-depth post on this divide and how I think we can deal constructively with it within the next couple days, so stay tuned!

  11. Since Bruce posted a link to his article with Peter Singer, I think it's fair to post a link to this response by Gary Francione:

    "Abolition of Animal Exploitation: The Journey Will Not Begin While We Are Walking Backwards"

    My support for the abolitionist tactical position came after much reading and reflection on the abolition/regulation debate. I encourage everyone to read all sides and think critically about what is the best way forward. We owe it to nonhuman animals to be the most effective advocates for their liberation.

  12. Brandon, this is very nicely said, I think:

    I encourage everyone to read all sides and think critically about what is the best way forward. We owe it to nonhuman animals to be the most effective advocates for their liberation.

    Ben, I hear what you're saying on the abolition and welfare debate, that those of us on the welfare side are "mainstream" and thus can be less vocal, but I do wonder:

    It seems to me that if I wasn't being yelled at and called anti-animal, I might feel more open to the arguments. I HOPE that I can hear the arguments, despite the level of vitriol, but I have to admit that being called nothing more than a pimp for the corporate animal abusers (literally) does cause me to find listening to the rest of the argument a bit difficult!

    I can't recall anyone from the pro-welfare side casting doubt on the motivation of the abolition only side. On the other hand, the abolition side often claims that the welfare side only wants to make money, celebrates non-victories, and so on. That seems dishonest to me, in a way that is similar to the right's attack on the left over health care.

    Someone said, "You're entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts." It is simply dishonest (imho) to claim that Wayne or HSUS, or PETA or Ingrid or I, or Matt and Jack and Vegan Outreach, of Gene and Farm Sanctuary, are disingenuous or have bad motivation, no matter how much you might disagree with us. We all have myriad other things we could be doing with our lives and time if we were less than totally committed to animal liberation.

    I am impressed by the civility of this discourse, btw.

  13. Bruce, can you honestly claim that HSUS is "totally committed to animal liberation"? I see no evidence of this whatsoever in their campaigns, and their official stated positions on their website also contradict this claim. Industry likes to position HSUS as "radicals" with a hidden agenda, but this is a calculated political move to manage the movement, so that the real radicals (abolitionists) with a liberationist/rights philosophy are marginalized.

  14. Fair point: What I meant to contest is the unkind rhetoric.

    They are motivated by concern for animals, obviously I think, even if one disagrees with their tactics (and for the record, I wholly support their tactics).

    It's the dishonesty of questioning motivation that I was attempting to address. I hope that makes sense.

    Cheers, Bruce

  15. Here is a good article that makes it clear why it is important to be honest and clear about who you are: