As far as vegan activism goes, I’ve been feeling uninspired for months. I’ve been distracted, tired, and honestly exhausted, feeling like I haven’t made any progress as far as enacting change. I stopped writing, I stopped arguing on Twitter, I even stopped trying to explain myself when anyone attempted what I call a ‘meat joke’ (being offered meat by those who know you’re vegan, someone saying “bacon tho”, and anything else that leaves the meat-eater laughing and the vegan staring blankly back at them). It’s easy to recite the happy mantra, “Veganism is on the rise!” when our social media platforms are comprised of like-minded individuals, or when we see the launch of amazing new plant-based meats like Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, but the thing is, I’ve felt like vegans are turning in circles. Sure we’re accomplishing great things like slowly ending Seaworld’s orca shows, banning battery cages, and exposing inherent cruelty even in ‘humane’ meat farms, but are we actually creating more vegans in the world? The worldwide percentage of vegetarians has always hovered between 2–3%, and even less for vegans. As many wins as we’ve had, we’re still sitting in the same percentage today. It feels like we’re making huge progress, but we’re really just seeing little victories. Don’t get me wrong, little victories are necessary and should be celebrated. But if we want to get that percentage up permanently, we need a new vision board.
This past Saturday, I saw Matt Ball (co-founder of Vegan Outreach and current Director of Engagement and Outreach for Farm Sanctuary) speak on what has proven to be the most effective vegan outreach (you can watch it, too!). Ball’s main point was that as vegans, our main focus has to be real-world results for animals. Anything else, he says, is a distraction. Any vegan who’s active on Twitter or Instagram will be able to admit that so often, we witness fights between fellow vegans over words, definitions, what is ‘vegan enough’, or as I’ve heard it described: purity politics. Vegans fight endlessly with carnists that we know aren’t willing to change their minds. On Twitter recently, a girl who said she wanted to slowly give up animal products was ridiculed by vegans for taking baby steps rather than going vegan overnight, and accused of making excuses for animal cruelty. Personally, I’ve become exhausted trying to word things perfectly on public forums so that I won’t get torn apart by my fellow vegans, even though my overall message is, of course, to end the suffering of animals. As much as we want to argue that our image to the public doesn’t matter, in reality, it does matter as far as results go.
Matt Ball helped to create the campaign One Step For Animals, which focuses not on the vegan message, but on getting non-vegans that already care about animal suffering to stop eating chicken. There’s good logic behind this. As far as farmed animals go, chickens are the most chronically in pain, and die in the hugest numbers. If ethical veganism is driven by the need to alleviate suffering, encouraging individuals to just stop eating chicken is the most logical first step in terms of number of animals suffering. The average American is responsible for the death of 24.4 animals per year for food; if an individual were to just cut out chicken from his/her diet, that number would drop to less than 1 animal death per year. Less than one — that’s a huge difference! If we’re thinking in terms of idealistic philosophy, we might think suggesting giving up just one species of animal doesn’t fit into our overall message. But if we focus on tangible results for animals, the numbers are really all that should matter.
Entire organizations exist that focus on the actual data of what makes effective vegan activism. Humane League Labs currently has 10 public reports focusing on various studies conducted to determine what most impacts non-vegans in terms of language, strategy, images, and more. They even have a 57 page PDF report available to the public about what influences diet change for various demographics. Faunalytics is entirely dedicated to conducting research to help activists become more effective to the general public. Time and time again, research shows that people who take smaller steps to transition to veganism due to ethical reasons will stay vegan, whereas people that jump into veganism straight away, or people that go vegan solely for health reasons usually go back to eating animal products. In fact, 4 out of 5 former vegans become spokespeople against our cause, because they felt they couldn’t be pure enough. It’s in the best interest of animals to foster lifelong vegans. So if small steps toward a vegan lifestyle are the most effective way to create life-long vegans, why do we insist on saying transitioning slowly isn’t good enough? Why do we shame ethical vegetarians when nearly 80% of us went through a period of time in which we identified as vegetarians ourselves?
The vegan movement needs an overhaul. Believe me, I understand the urge to fight against the reducetarian idea or scoff at people that decide to give up chicken but still eat pork. Sure, Meatless Monday seems like it’s condoning meat for the rest of the week. However, when the numbers show that these little steps actually, tangibly further our cause, we are only being dogmatic and ignorant in our approach if we discredit that. People that take small steps continue to take steps. They continue to progress. Small steps are much better than no steps. If vegans only care about ideals, and not about approach, or only care about purity, and not about results, we fall into a dangerous category of human history. If purity is important to you, then make purity a priority in your life; be as boldly vegan as you possibly can, but purity can’t be seen as a strategy for activism if you care about animal lives both in the long-term, and here and now.
In an interview with Vegan Strategist, Matt Ball said the following about what is important:
It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.
In the end, though, we have limited time and resources…I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people — people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.
I am not advocating that we drop our vegan values and start accepting ‘less meat’ as an end goal, but we have to accept steps along the way to bigger goals, and we have to focus on real-world results. The billions of farmed animals suffering are no better off when we strive for immediate purity; they are better off when we advocate for whatever change can be made here, now, by the people that are ready to make a change.