There isn’t anyone that I would currently describe as my “idol” in the vegan community. But there are several people within the animal rights world who have inspired me in one way or another. I have to mention Gary Yourofsky, whose speech was a major influence on my ultimate decision to go vegan. I am actually not familiar with many other speakers who advocate that people go vegan; Gary is all I needed.
There are others who have shown that you can do far more to support animals than merely go vegan. For that I have to thank Ryan Shapiro and Will Potter. Shapiro is a PhD candidate at MIT who is researching the government’s use of the national security apparatus to silence and stifle the animal rights movement. He uses government documents to prove the use of anti-terrorism measures against nonviolent animal rights activists, and he’s inspired me to do some of the same.
In the past, he and others committed acts of civil disobedience by shutting down circuses and rescuing animals. One time, he and his sister rescued ducks from a foie gras farm in California, and produced a film of the action. Shortly after, foie gras was banned in California, which is still the case today.
Will Potter is the author of Green is the New Red, a book about the persecution of environmental and animal rights activists. His work and Shapiro’s overlap quite a bit, but his book is so well-written and gripping that it deserves an explicit mention.
These two have shown me that veganism is more than what you do at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Veganism is really something you can devote as much time to as you would like, whether you’re performing acts of civil disobedience or exposing the alignment of government and corporate interests in shutting you up. And if you’re effective, the returns can be remarkable.
I define vegan idols as individuals who advocate for or represent veganism in a positive, important, and unique way. There are three people who meet that definition: Earthling Ed, Melanie Joy, and Matt Ball. Each of these people lead different lives and have different approaches to framing and advocating for veganism, but their contribution and impact are powerful and commendable.
Earthling Ed is the best vegan advocate out there. He exemplifies what an advocate should be: a calm, patient, and caring demeanor; well-framed, factual, and direct arguments; clear, measured, and articulate rhetoric; and the willingness and openness to engage in respectful dialogue with others. I aspire to be more like him everyday. He is always prepared with the right argument for the person he’s speaking to and an effective counter-argument for anyone who tries to pushback against veganism. What I appreciate most from his advocacy is that he meets people where they are. This is a valued tagline of mine because it is at the core of persuasion and advocacy. Being able to tailor your message and efforts to the interests, values, and inclinations of those you’re engaging with is vital, and Earthling Ed models this perfectly.
Melanie Joy is a psychologist and author who conceived of the most profound and truly awesome concepts ever: Carnism. It is the framework by which we arbitrarily compartmentalize animals such that farm animals get no moral consideration and are thought of as feelingless vessels that are solely instruments to our food. When people get empathize with stray dogs and cats but don’t empathize with the countless cows, pigs, chickens, and fish (among other animals) that are senselessly brutalized and slaughtered – that’s Carnism. When people get repulsed at the notion of eating dogs and cats but not at the idea of eating cows, pigs, chickens and fish (among other animals) – that’s Carnism. It’s pervasive yet subtle, just like most psychological phenomena. This is probably the strongest idea supporting veganism because it explains so much about the irrational thinking behind how we think about animals and exposes how arbitrary it is. It’s something myself, Mike, and Evan have talked about as well in other pieces.
Last but not least (although maybe to some, haha), Matt Ball, a decades strong advocate who co-founded and led Vegan Outreach, a prominent and impactful organization, and co-founded another organization, One Step for Animals. In May 2017, he was the subject of controversy after a video he did on Vox about the case for not eating chicken. The video was titled “Want to save animal lives without going veg? Eat beef, not chicken.” – even though he never once argued that anyone should eat beef – and thus, the impression was made that he was arguing that people should eat beef instead of chicken. A number of vegans criticized him because they wrongly thought he was arguing people should eat beef instead of chicken when, again, he never said anything like that in the video. He also expressed a similar concern that that impression was made in an interview he did on the Animal Rights Zone podcast. The point he was really making was that there needs to be a new approach to reducing animal suffering and promoting a vegan diet. His prescription is that instead of advocating people go totally vegan overnight (which has been the more common approach), one can urge them to take one step for the animals by cutting out chicken. Right, wrong, or whatever, one thing that we can all agree on is that his divergent approach to advocacy reflects that fact that veganism represents diverse viewpoints, people, and approaches.
Unnatural Vegan is probably the most popular of all the vegan YouTubers. She is successful not only for her thoughtful, well-informed diet and lifestyle advice, but also for giving real insight into what life is like as a vegan. She normalizes the lifestyle. We want vegans to be seen as approachable, down-to-earth people, not blood-spattered, shouting activists.
Her approach has been a guiding light to my own approach in writing for this blog. She uses reason as her guiding light and is very careful about citing her sources and offering caveats that she is not a scientist of nutritionist.
She’s been involved in a fair amount of drama over the years. She takes an unusual approach in that she emphasizes the importance of policing the movement’s worst impulses. She has been uniquely forthright in calling out bullshit wherever she sees it. We cannot take an “ends justify the means” approach to activism by promoting—or even ignoring—bad arguments. She got a fair amount of flak for her criticism of “What the Health,” a documentary that has some merits, but also makes dubious health claims and promotes the idea of a grand conspiracy against veganism.
She’s also unique for her empathy for meat-eaters, trying to reach them through compassion and respect, rather than brow-beating. I share the contention that vegans attract more flies with honey than vinegar (even though that expression is non-vegan).
Secondly, Peter Singer has to be given credit as the godfather of veganism for his tireless efforts, beginning with the publication of his classic 1971 book Animal Liberation. Singer is a moral philosopher with a passion for real-world moral problems. I have enormous admiration for his desire to carefully construct a clear, consistent and well-reasoned moral philosophy and to try to live by that standard.
Animal Liberation taught me a lot about the pointless barbarism of animal testing. As an ardent admirer or science, it was shocking to me to see the moral confusion exhibited by leading researchers in conducting pointless and cruel experiments. Just as meat eaters are often Pollyannish about the conditions chickens, pigs and cows live under, I was optimistic that the suffering of animals was usually counterbalanced by gains in our understanding of how to maximize human well-being in medicine, psychology and consumer products. As old as the book is, it isn’t hard to find studies demonstrating that similar exercises in pointless cruelty persist today.