Tuesday, April 06, 2010

To call yourself vegetarian or vegan -- that is the question

(I took this from the Vegan Outreach blog -- whyveganoutreach.blogspot.com. The text in bold is from the blog, and below it is my own personal experience),

Bruce Friedrich, coauthor with Matt Ball on The Animal Activist’s Handbook and VP of PETA, has had personal interactions with literally thousands of individuals over the years (quite possibly, he has had more one-on-one conversations about animal issues than anyone else in the U.S.). He recently wrote:
I actually think that using the word “vegan” (other than perhaps with youth) may be counterproductive to helping animals, relative to using the word “vegetarian.” As a species, we are given to seeing things as “all or nothing," and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had discussions with people who write off making any changes because they believe they can’t go vegan.

That’s why I no longer wear my “Ask me why I’m vegan” shirts – I wear the vegetarian ones, and the conversations have gotten SO MUCH BETTER. Where people used to be all about what vegan means and how hard it is to give up dairy (which saves 1/10 of an animal/year), now we talk about fish and chickens (saving many dozens of animals/year). I used to hear stories about dour and angry vegans; now I hear stories about daughters and cousins who are vegetarian.

This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s not theoretical – this is real-world and OVERWHELMING. I have FAR more people respond to my shirt now and approach me to ask questions. Before, I generally talked about what vegan means and the evils of dairy (still good, of course, but not nearly as valuable in helping animals). Now, I often have people tell me on the basis of one conversation that they will go vegetarian.

My long experience shows the word vegan scares many people, but the word vegetarian interests them (we also see this overwhelmingly when leafleting – people want vegetarian information far more than vegan information). Ironically, I’ll bet we get far fewer vegans by using the word vegan, since many vegetarians do go vegan, once they see how easy it is and start down the path of compassionate eating.
This is from this interview; more on this later in the week.

I read this a few weeks ago and have been experimenting with it lately, and I think it's a small tip for activists that goes a long way. For 2.5 years I had been telling people I was vegan if the subject came up. Now if people ask I say I'm vegetarian, and it makes a world of a difference. When I used to say I was vegan, people would immediately say some kind of variation of, "That's awesome, but I could never do that myself." Now when I say I'm vegetarian, people become more open and tell me about other vegetarians they know, vegetarian foods they've tried, how they've considered going vegetarian, or they had been vegetarian in the past and want to get back into it.

Whenever I met a vegetarian while leafleting, I used to say, "Have you considered veganism?" The situation would immediately turn a bit sour. For a split second they saw me as someone they had much in common with, and after asking if they've considered veganism, they see me as someone telling them to do more -- that their vegetarianism is not enough. Out of the number of vegetarians I had met and responded to like this, not a single one responded positively -- none said, "Why yes, I have been considering veganism lately!" All of them said a variation of, "Well, veganism seems like a good thing, but it's just too much for me." No matter how much cajoling, they wouldn't budge. The funny thing about this is that when I was a vegetarian I was the same way toward vegans. This is something important to remember. I didn't go vegan because another vegan was telling me to, or even telling me about it... I did it on my own after thinking about it and researching it for several months.

Now while leafleting, I give words of encouragement to vegetarians I meet. I tell them how awesome it is that they're vegetarian, to keep it up, I say "Aw, you're the best," I give them literature that has recipes and nutritional information. This makes a huge difference! They feel encouraged to do more, rather than being told to. They may not feel as alone in their choice if they meet another "vegetarian" that is also an activist and is thanking them.

Although our initial reaction is to identify as a vegan or to convince vegetarians to go vegan, 9 times out of 10 it doesn't turn anyone on to veganism -- it only makes them feel like they're being judged, as if their lifestyle choice to eschew all meat products was worth nothing. I'm not saying this is a fool-proof guide to live by and of course there are instances where it's important to say you're vegan, or if a vegetarian wants more information about going vegan, then by all means, hand out vegan literature and share your experiences as a vegan.

Although I was first skeptical of Friedrich's tip, I experimented with it and found it to be a much better approach toward turning more people on to a vegetarian lifestyle. I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this and if you try it out, let me know how it goes.

There are a lot of other great essays, articles and interviews here: http://www.veganoutreach.org/advocacy/index.html

The next article I write for this blog will be a general why and how-to on leafleting for Vegan Outreach and what I've learned from it.


  1. "Please sir, give up murder. You may still rape since it's not quite as bad, but just don't murder. You're the best for not murdering!"

  2. It is incredibly easy to be a vegan and is a much clearer message than vegetarian. Taking the easy way is not the best way. If you believe in being vegan, then share why. It is better for health, for the planet, for the animals, for peace, for climate change, for cholesterol, for world hunger, etc. ad infinitum. There is more cruelty in a glass of milk than a pound of meat. Stay clear, espouse veganism, please!

  3. Oh, Kenny -- you seem to think that reaching new people and getting them to consider changing is what matters. You are so wrong! All that matters is passing judgment on people, to criticize them if they don't live up to my current definition of purity!
    Making a difference doesn't matter. My Glorious Veganism is all that matters!! Get with the program or be excommunicated!!

  4. Hey Barbara and Anonymous, thanks for the comments. From this blog I only know Alene and Ben personally but I'd like to know more that post here, and am completely open to criticism and people challenging my ideas. If anyone wants to talk, it's easier to have a conversation through phone -- my number is 240 678 0815. I mean it -- give me a call! I don't want to get too self-indulgent with this response, but it's unavoidable because I'm talking from my experience -- though I'd love to hear everyone's experiences.

    I knew this post would upset most people, but I truly think Friedrich's tips can do (and have done) a lot of good for animal advocates. It's probably important here to note that I live in Tennessee and I've also leafleted in Mississippi and Alabama. This is the perspective I'm coming from -- most people don't even know what veganism is, let alone being open-minded to vegetarianism. When I first became vegan I was very fundamentalist in my beliefs, but after a number of conversations with people here, in the south, in the "bible belt of America," I realized that "sugarcoating" the message wasn't selling out, it was a necessity to having my voice be heard and to building a community.

    Our student group started growing rapidly after we softened our message. We invited meat-eaters and vegetarians to every potluck and event, and thoroughly heard out their stories. And instead of talking about veganism, we talked about eating less meat or trying vegetarianism, or the difficulties they faced from being a vegetarian in this part of the country. And I can't tell you how many people became vegetarian, or how many vegetarians became vegan, as a result of not even talking about veganism (unless asked). On the contrary, before when I was fundamentalist in my approach, not one single person became vegan as a result of my talking with them. Not one -- after talking with people almost daily about veganism for several months.

    People want to do things on their own accord, not be told to do things. They want to feel they've discovered something on their own and that the choices they make are of their own doing. And as Jonathan Safran Foer said in Eating Animals, "We need to ask people to take the first step, not the last." This is important to remember when talking with non-vegetarians... Asking them to "Take the first step, not the last." And in my experience, asking vegetarians to take the last step (to veganism) has never caused someone to go vegan, it's only caused them to defend their vegetarianism and say that veganism is too hard. This is certainly how I was when I was a vegetarian.

    I see where you're both coming from and I do feel weird saying I'm vegetarian and not telling others about veganism (unless they ask). But through experience, not only from mine (which is quite limited -- only 2 years) but from people whose experience in activism goes 10, 20, 30 years back, such as Friedrich and other effective advocates that use this approach, this is what works. It may not be very glamorous or morally "pure" to lie or soften a message, but we have to focus on what works and what yields real results. The animals don't have time for us to worry about whether we're sugarcoating the message or not being 100% morally pure. I'm not saying go out and be a vegetarian -- vegans are beautiful people and I hope that everyone stays vegan for the rest of their life -- but if in my own experience and others who are more experienced find such a positive difference simply by changing their wording, then I'm going to change my wording, because it saves animals, which is the bottom line.

    Feel free to respond to this but like I said in the beginning, if anyone wants to have a conversation on this just give me a call.

  5. I've had overwhelmingly positive results using the word "vegan" and promoting veganism to others (especially college students) across the state of NC. The public is ready for the vegan message - we're selling them short by believing they can't handle a message of justice for nonhuman animals. If you're friendly and advocate with a smile, you can effectively reach even the most die-hard speciesists. Don't give up!

  6. To add to my last post:

    Even if the public wasn't ready to hear the vegan message (which I strongly deny!), it is our job as advocates for nonhuman animals to ripen them up to the message. If we want to shift the paradigm away from speciesist exploitation (the cause of suffering and death) and toward animal rights (in custom and law) we need to promote a clear, honest, and truthful message. Rather than continue to taboo the word "vegan," let's be happy and proud vegans advocating veganism.

  7. Hi Kenny!
    I appreciate the tone of your writing and response. I would love to call and talk, just let me know when you are available.

  8. You can reach me at babs@animail.com.

  9. If we continue to treat veganism as something that is "elitist" people will continue to see it that way. Avoiding wearing shirt with vegan messages or proudly proclaiming your veganism because you're afraid of other's reacting negatively is only encouraging the negative connotations so many have.

    I am a proud, compassionate, vegan. I love being a vegan, and I enjoy sharing my compassion with others.

  10. How are people ever going to *stop* responding hostilely to the word "vegan" if we never use it? I agree that "vegetarianism" is much more accepted in mainstream culture, but resigning ourselves to that fact will only ensure that it never changes.

    I think people's responses have a lot more to do with our attitude and demeanor than with the exact word we choose to use. I have never had a problem talking about veganism with someone as long as I approached the subject in a polite, respectful way. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to offend someone in the name of vegetarianism. So if we agree that veganism is the ideal, we should be open and honest about that.

  11. I think veganism is a higher level than vegetarianism. It's the difference between animal welfare (which allows exploitation) and animal rights (which does not allow exploitation). We need to encourage people to move forward, we should not allow them to make us move backwards.

  12. No surprise here. PeTA or as a friend likes to call them PITA (People for the Immoral Treatment of Animals) are one of the leaders of the "happy meat" movement. They do not promote veganism as a moral baseline. They are partners in exploitation.

    PETA: A Corporate Tangle of Contradictions

    PETA’s Undercover Investigations: Another Example of the Welfarist Business Cycle

    PETA and Euthanasia

  13. I think that if you are a vegan then it is dishonest to call yourself a vegetarian and the only purpose that i can see to label yourself incorrectly is to avoid confrontation.
    If you think that vegans have a bad image problem then it is your obligation to show the world what you think a vegan is and should be.
    People are more likely to be affected by honesty than a compromising lie, even if you don't see the results directly.

  14. I believe animal exploitation is wrong, I believe that using animals as a tool is wrong, I believe that being vegetarian will still lead to animals being used as a tool, exploited and killed when the do not have to be. No matter how humane an animal is treated when they are grass fed, free range and killed humanely he or she is not ours to use. They have their own interests. When a calf is taken from their mother they feel immense emotional pain. The animal agriculture industry is a humane centered industry and it's main goal is to develop a profit because it is a business. When you talk about vegetarianism you may get people who are more familiar with the word. You may get people who are willing to turn vegetarian but in the end using animal products will still promote everything that I stand against. Why should we chose the word vegetarian like it is something more acceptable when our core beliefs are to end animal exploitation, use, their status as property? To me this seems like an oxy-moron.

  15. Spelling error in my post, sorry about that. It should say "The animal agriculture industry is a human centered industry"

  16. Also, if veganism is so scary to people why don't we work at making it not so scary? Every vegan bake sale, potluck etc that you partake in is a way to show people that taking out animal products from your life is not so hard. You would learn a new way of cooking if you needed to eat healthy for yourself such as if you got cancer. Changing your eating habits when you become vegan is the same principal but it is something you are not doing purely for yourself.

    The word vegan is only scary because that is what people keep believing and if we treat it that way then we are falling into the same stereotype. Challenge stereotypes. That is the way for change. Ask people why they think it is so strange to remove animal products from their lives? Ask them to really think about it. Is it because that is what they grew up with? People find things that they grew up with familiar so it is not so scary. But by inviting them into your home, having a neighborhood potluck, talking about veganism in a non confrontational way it can be something not so different.

  17. I had been a vegetarian for ten years, living with the contradictions that being one entails. When I finally gave full consideration to the moral argument for veganism, I realized that that path was the only one that would bring my actions into accord with my convictions. Since becoming a vegan less than 3 months ago, many of friends and family have been much more receptive to the idea of change in their own lives. They see in me a consistency of thought and of purpose which was not present before and my argument now carries substantially more moral weight. I cannot argue with your personal experience and I have no reason to doubt you, but for me, there is a simple truth that is the basis for a vegan lifestyle, and I find that truth easy to live and to tell.

  18. I can't express enough how INCREDIBLY harmful I think this sort of attitude is. Shame on you.

    The truth is that if somebody cares enough about the situation to abstain from eating flesh, then they will listen to what we have to say as vegans. Of course we're not going to change the minds of everybody, and that is fine... but that doesn't mean we have to dumb-down our message and start congratulating people for continuing to consume dairy and eggs. Would we congratulate a racist person on abstaining from racism against only certain types of people, and COMPLETELY IGNORE the fact that they are STILL RACIST?

    You may not convince a vegetarian to go vegan right away ... but that doesn't mean you shouldn't engage them in conversation about something they obviously already understand. If somebody isn't going to go vegan, they can do that ALL ON THEY'RE OWN... you dont have to tell them to not go vegan. But you do have a moral responsibility as a vegan to tell them the TRUTH, instead of letting them think that they are doing something incredible and that there are no further steps are required.

    You are reinforcing the idea that there is a moral distinction between flesh and eggs/dairy products.

    Be a REAL vegan... and start telling the TRUTH!

  19. The idea that we must promote vegetarianism as opposed to veganism is pernicious nonsense promoted by corporate organizations who profit thereby endorsed by advocates who are lead astray by the seduction of "leaders" - Singer, Pacelle, Friedrich, Newkirk, Marcus - into false beliefs about why veganism is perceived by the public as "extreme" and even "fanatical."

    It is perceived in these pejorative terms precisely *because* those "leaders" have not sought to make veganism the normal, default position of anyone who takes animals seriously (Francione). On the contrary: they have knowingly and deliberately made "happy" meat the baseline position while maligning veganism as an eccentric ethic for saints and heroes.

    Yet these "leaders" claim with shameless impudence that we must promote "happy" meat and vegetarianism because the public is unreceptive to veganism, when in fact, it is their welfarism (in the form of "happy" meat, vegetarianism, regulationist reforms) which causes that unreceptivity. In so claiming, they decadently make a means of self-confirmation out of a problem that they themselves define and create.

    We must recognize that the new welfarism movement, with its welfarism and gaudy self-serving stunts, its "leaders" who rake in six figure salaries "for the animals," its bloated organizational structures, is designed to feed on itself forever - and will do so unless or until we recognize that animal rights imperatively compels us to make veganism the moral baseline, the minimum standard of decency, for animal rights advocacy

  20. My husband and I are both vegans who went straight from omnivore to vegan. Vegetarianism, as it's normally presented (i.e. non-vegan), never made much sense to us. If buying leather was o.k., and eating eggs was o.k., why not eating meat, too? If it's just a matter of degrees, then it's too easy to draw the line wherever you want it and call yourself a "flexitarian" because you sometimes don't eat meat. Yeah, it's easier. But is it very meaningful?

    Fortunately, we started to learn about veganism through (mostly online) friends and it was harder to dismiss because it was much more logically consistent. Sure, it seemed extreme and hard at first, but we found vegans willing to step up and show us what it meant and how easy it could be. We might not have even found them had they just called themselves vegetarians.

    Also, in the area we live in and especially where we grew up, veganism isn't something that is talked about much. Many people are unfamiliar with the term. That gives us an opportunity that vegetarianism doesn't -- to explain to curious people what it is about.

    Furthermore, I agree with Shannon. Instead of leaving the word "vegan" to those that reinforce the stereotypes, let's embrace it and prove those stereotypes wrong. I hate when I hear stuff like, "I don't call myself vegan because I don't want to be associated with THOSE people." Well, people like that are what help reinforce the idea that vegans are just "THOSE people".

    Bottom line, though, I wear the word vegan as a badge of pride and a reminder of my responsibilities to other animals because I know what veganism is about. It's not just about what I eat or where, it's a philosophy about refusing to exploit animals because it's wrong. It's not a popular label here, but neither is saying that one is a feminist or even against racism. My dad was both and he got a cross burned in his yard and his brakes cut. But, like him, I'm not going to back down and redefine myself to make people who are sexist or racist more comfortable. So why should I redefine myself as just a vegetarian and ignore all the other things that I stand for as a vegan?

  21. Rape is ok for your then. Personally, as a woman I would rather be murdered than rape, and we already know that animals used for eggs and dairy suffer 2x as much, for longer and end up being killed anyway. not to mention that they have their children and milk stolen from them. Your blog is a total lie. People are very open to veganism. Maybe you just have had a bad attitude about it in the past.

  22. "Please sir, give up murder. You may still rape since it's not quite as bad, but just don't murder. You're the best for not murdering!"

    But in a world in which many millions of people are murdering every day and many millions of people are raping every day, I think getting those who are murdering to STOP would be a good start!

    I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, but I think the blog writer makes a good point. If people are not willing to go straight to vegan, help them along. No you are not diluting the standard, you are taking them where they are at.

    If someone wants to become a Christian, I don't tell them to give up everything go hard core the first day...I teach them to love God, to pray, to read the bible...these are of primary concern. Once they get on the basics, they move on.

    When someone wants to learn math (which I teach), we don't expect them to work in infinite dimensional vector spaces the first day! We ease them in to it. Teach them a little bit and build them up as they go.

    If you want to help someone become a vegan, take them where they are at. Never dilute the standard you believe, and make it very clear that you do believe this, but if they are not ready to become vegan (or don't see the need), isn't it better they become vegetarian than not? Then as they grow in their conviction that eating animals is murder, help them to see that taking their eggs / milk is "rape"? Help them and move them ahead.

    Again, I am a meat eater, but just my 2 cents.

  23. I think this is an interesting post and it actually falls in line with many of my own that I've written on choosing a label (vegetarian or vegan) at my blog www.vegblogger.com. Although I follow a "vegan" lifestyle as much as one can, I still prefer to use the term vegetarian when describing myself. So I can relate to the information in this post.

  24. @Robert

    But, using your analogy, it would be more like a Christian telling someone to become a Jew because that's "where they are at", or a Buddhist telling someone to become a Hindu. Yes, there are some similarities because the latter developed from the former in these cases, but the newer religions wouldn't be here if the founders didn't think there was something wrong or at least very incomplete about the former religions.

    Vegetarianism isn't veganism lite. In many cases, people's decision to be vegetarian has nothing even to do with the principles of veganism. The "basics" and "primary concern" of veganism is that animal exploitation is wrong and that we should avoid it as much as we can, period. That may seem extreme and difficult to some, but for someone that believes animal exploitation is wrong, it's the MINIMUM one should try to do, not an end goal.

    And personally, not only do I believe that drinking milk is just as wrong as eating meat, but that it actually causes MORE suffering per ounce. It's not just murder versus rape, if we're going to make that sort of analogy -- it's murder versus ongoing rape and suffering and kidnapping and multiple murders, of offspring and finally mother, too. So, while I may be able to see the good in someone eating/using fewer animal products overall, I would never promote lacto-ovo vegetarianism as it sends the message that it's somehow better to eat Y than Z when Y is probably even worse.

  25. In reply to Robert Borgersen's comment:

    "But in a world in which many millions of people are murdering every day and many millions of people are raping every day, I think getting those who are murdering to STOP would be a good start!"

    If you're talking about murder and rape as separate entities, then yes, this makes sense. There is nothing wrong with campaigning against murder and not rape. Just because we campaign against one and not the other, it doesn't mean that we are condoning the other. This is specifically because we humans understand that murder and rape are both immoral.

    However, this is not the case with animal rights issues. Because 99.9% of humans see consuming animal products as natural as breathing air, when we turn our focus to one particular issue (in this case, abstaining from consuming flesh while ignoring other animal products) we are explicitly sending the message that consuming other animal products like dairy and eggs is morally justified.

    "If you want to help someone become a vegan, take them where they are at. Never dilute the standard you believe, and make it very clear that you do believe this, but if they are not ready to become vegan (or don't see the need), isn't it better they become vegetarian than not?"

    Yes, i suppose its "better" for someone to be vegetarian rather than not, just as it is "better" that a slave owner doesn't beat his slaves in addition to enslaving them. But this doesn't justify slavery.

    The truth is that i can't make everybody go vegan... and I agree whole heartidly with what you say about "never dilut[ing] the standard." But the author of this post is not only "diluting the standard" but failing to even bring it up.... and posing as a vegetarian simply to avoid conflict.

  26. [quote]The truth is that i can't make everybody go vegan... and I agree whole heartidly with what you say about "never dilut[ing] the standard." But the author of this post is not only "diluting the standard" but failing to even bring it up.... and posing as a vegetarian simply to avoid conflict.[/quote]

    Reading the article again, I can see this. Where the author says:

    [quote]Now while leafleting, I give words of encouragement to vegetarians I meet. I tell them how awesome it is that they're vegetarian, to keep it up, I say "Aw, you're the best,"[/quote]

    I didn't notice it before, but yes, this is totally diluting the standard. I don't want to ever give the impression to someone that I think they are all right with God if they are not, or that I think they know calculus when they don't.

    Truth is truth, whether someone likes it or not, and if you are going to choose to believe something is truth, then really live like it is truth. Failing to do so is the cause of so much (human and animal) pain in this world.

  27. Truth may be truth, but by itself it does not help free any animals. Insistence on truth is a highly ineffective way to get people to change. Oh sure it works occasionally. But not often enough to make a real difference. The majority of people resist change using a vast armory of unconscious defenses.

    If you want people to change you must speak to them where they currently are and bring them along one step at a time. Get them to agree on one small thing and build on that. Any good salesman knows this, and that’s what we need to be: good salesmen.

    Effective salesmen use whatever works to move people towards the position they are selling. We are selling social change, so for us “whatever works” means whatever has the maximum overall effect on society (ie over as many people as possible).

    We cannot make effective social change just by adding a few select members to the exclusive vegan club.

    We need to change a lot of people’s attitudes in society, not just a few. Social change happens faster when a lot of people make small changes that don’t unduly alarm the majority than when a few people make big changes that the majority can dismiss as extremist.