I was talking with a friend recently and we had begun talking about veganism and what he thought was wrong with it. Many of his issues with veganism were common complaints I’ve heard from other people: there is an inherent element of condescension associated with the label (which I’ve written about), it’s ascetic (which Mike F countered in a recent post), and animals aren’t conscious like humans are. These are all frequently espoused and easily refutable complaints, but then he made one argument that did affect me that I’ve been thinking about since our discussion. He basically argued that vegans don’t offer support for people who are simply reducing their consumption of meat and/or dairy products, and that they only offer it to those who are vegan or trying to be vegan. He told me that he thought I was acting that way by not supporting him in his own decision to reduce his own consumption of animals and animal byproducts.
To be clear, I did congratulate him for his reduction of animal products and byproducts; I told him it was a positive thing, but I also told him to keep eliminating those products from his life. He felt that my follow-up comment undercut my congratulations, and I can definitely see how it seemed that way. That was a shocking lesson that I am glad to learn from because I want to make sure I am advocating most effectively. Part of achieving that vision is making sure I tailor my message so that I am supporting nonvegans for making strides in reducing their consumption of these products because any step is a positive one. I apologized to him that he felt that I was shaming him rather than supporting him and while that wasn’t my intention, per se, I did feel an obligation to encourage him to continue towards a vegan life as the ultimate goal because it is the best. That kind of polite nudging is a common tact of mine: to walk the line between being open to nonvegans, especially those making ethical strides in their dietary choices, while also being explicit in encouraging them to become vegan. His feedback taught me that this might not be right and I might want to try a new approach. I am still doing my own analysis of this and I would appreciate any of your perspectives on this issue, too.
I don’t know how valid his belief that vegans aren’t support of reducetarian nonvegans, but if it is then it is definitely a serious problem for promoting veganism. And irrespective of whether or not it’s a real issue, it is certainly a perception held by that person, which is problematic in its own right. How we are perceived plays an integral role in how our message is received and how the person internalizes it. And that doesn’t just mean how we represent ourselves or engage with others, it also includes how we sound and seem. Even people’s subjective perceptions of us matter, like my friend’s perception that I was undermining his accomplishment. In fact, he’s the first person to express that complaint to me but I take it as seriously as if many people did (either he’s the only one who felt that way or everyone else was too polite to say anything). I am not going to change the way I advocate to everyone, just those who I suspect might feel offended at my insistence that they keep eliminating animal products and biproducts from their lives – this is what I mean when I discuss tailoring my message.
Focusing too much on supporting people like my friend leads to a slippery slope whereby people assume they are justified in ending where they are. In other words, support tends to imply reducing is an acceptable end-goal, rather than eliminating animal products and biproducts enitrely. If I told my friend “That’s great good for you!” or offered some other congratulations alone, he might feel satisfied enough that he can just stop there. Without nudging him to keep making progress it seems like I am saying it’s okay just to reduce, when the reality is that reducing should be the steps towards becoming vegan, rather than it being an end in itself. That is not the impression I want to give, so I have to craft the line to walk without falling down that slippery slope. I thought the line was support followed up with encouragement, but after that discussion I don’t know anymore.
What do you think? Should I concern myself with how my message is perceived or should I continue to encourage people to be vegan because it’s the right thing to do? Do you have a different technique for something like this? Do you try to walk that line or you just push veganism? Let me know if the comments.
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This is a very difficult and important question. My own approach is, I think, similar to yours, namely to point out that less animal products is clearly preferable to more animal products. However, I try to be very clear to people, as I’m sure you do as well, that purchasing Any animal products is morally indefensible, and that we really ought to be vegan.
Another thing that troubles me is that many vegans actually encourage people to think that being vegan is insanely difficult, which it really isn’t. It seems to me that we should always portray being vegan as something basically very easy, and something which can be effected overnight. To positively assert that it cannot be done overnight is, I think, counterproductive.
In general terms, of course, whatever strategy that results in more vegans and less participation in animal exploitation should be the one adopted. The real practical question is what in fact is the most effective path to take as far as motivating others, and I’m not sure of this myself. And of course, it almost certainly varies somewhat from one person to the next, which adds to the difficulty.