Vegans Are Tools

Or at least that’s what Vegan Outreach (VO) and similar vegans think. A “tool to reduce suffering” is a mantra of theirs to guide their activism. In that vein they‘ve been criticized by other activists for violating their namesake and advocating for a mere reduction instead of outright veganism when necessary. They’ll take whatever they can get and that just aint vegan enough for some. But that whole deal is a bore, let’s move on from that. For now let’s just assume they want people to go vegan.

I can only imagine that Vegan Outreach has been the victim of it’s own mission and had to invent the “tool to reduce suffering” to justify their own vegan advocacy. When veganism becomes the goal the ideas of animal rights are left in the cold. To their credit they stick to the science and steer clear of the pseudoscience mumbo jumbo many vegans embrace but they also miss the target for their focus on veganism.

VO founder Jack Norris was kind enough to post a few comments but it was the same old tired arguments I’ve had with zealous followers of Vegan Outreach. Their approach sounds reasonable and rational but underlying it is a deep misanthropy and appeal to conformity that is a projection of the very attitudes they have deemed to fight.

Vegan Outreach was one of the first organizations to adopt the word “vegan” as their central tenets but at the same time denouncing vegan purity as their goal. The idea was to lower the bar rather than to set it so high as to make it difficult for people to eventually go vegan. The foot in the door approach is a valid way to get people to change behavior. They attempt to “meet people where they’re at” and that’s also a great way to advocate for something. But there are problems here even beyond advocating veganism as the end goal.

First, asking people to stop using animal products because they are cruel is not “meeting them where they’re at”. If VO is trying to reduce suffering and meeting people where they’re at they would fight for better welfare standards and help advertise those cruelty free products. As a VO leafletter myself it was common to hear people come back with “well what about humane alternatives” which left me hemming and hawing. It makes sense though right? Wouldn’t this be the most expedient way to reduce suffering for domesticated food animals? Most of the time the answer is ‘well we couldn’t farm animals in a humane way to meet the needs of the market’ but that’s a cop out. Currently maybe not but these are production problems technology could help overcome and we won’t start to work on them until we start to work on them.

Second, speaking of food animals, what about the other animals? Well fuck em, we’re at the damage control stage so let’s focus on the where the majority of the problem lies. Once I guess everybody stops eating meat we can start focusing on other animals like fur animals, entertainment, wild etc. There’s always this “the time aint right” excuse. If not now, when? Shouldn’t the highest priority issue would be to eliminate the enslavement of zoo animals? This concept alone that animals are playthings to showcase as we please is the most egregious example of animal rights violations, yet the numbers of animals suffering is tiny in comparison to farmed animals. Once people get this concept though it’s a solid foundation which upon lessening the use of animals can take hold. We need a cultural shift, a true dismantlement and not that quixotic fantasy Erik Marcus wages against the suppliers of animal products.

Thirdly and most important is the lack of animal rights focus in their literature. This concept is supposedly too hard for the public to adopt. Well, the idea of going vegan is a similarly hard concept for the public to adopt yet they’ve worked tirelessly to innovate on that message all these years. If the idea of animal liberation was important to them shouldn’t they work on trying to sell that idea, especially if it was “too hard”? Isn’t that where most of the work is then needed? It’s really not that hard, in fact it might be the simplest message of all just like PaleoVegan’s take:

it’s just plain mean to do this to animals when there’s no good reason.

Now there’s a good staring point. Shouldn’t we be attracting those people who are more receptive to the ideas of animal rights than those who are credulous?

Vegan Outreach will give lip service to animal rights but when it comes to public outreach they’ll hold their cards close to their chest and instead offer the vapid option of going vegan. Isn’t there something dishonest about that? How respectful is that toward the audience? Does veganism as a supply and demand tactic even make a difference anyway? This vegan lifestyle based solely on praxis is devoid of any real meaning so it’s no wonder people are grasping at straws of justification. When their only tool is the vegan hammer, every problem is a nail but without the blueprint of animal rights just what are they building?

And let’s talk about those poor saps who fall for the ruse and do go vegan? They are rendered vulnerable to suffer health problems for all the misinformation that is allowed to propagate. They struggle on their own in a society that’s unfriendly to vegans. If they decide not to leaflet every night on a cold dark corner, the same Vegan Outreach disciples that got them vegan in the first place will turn sour blaming them for “not doing more”. They are denigrated for seeking social support rather than dedicating their free time to save animals. They are not only criticized for doing anything for animals other than the preferred form leafletting but blamed for making the situation worse. Gahd forbid they actually do decide to make it out to the yearly Fur Free Friday protest without committing to ongoing participation. Give vegans an inch and they’ll want a mile because if you recognize the horrors animals go through then to not do everything you can to stop it makes you almost worse than the ignorant buffoons who chow on Big Macs.

Vegan Outreach assumes the worst of people and the best of their own conclusions. While all the infighting continues over welfare and abolition everybody still assumes veganism is somehow the answer. What if it actually wasn’t? I know, that’s a mind-boggling thought but should animal rights activists boycott veganism? Give people the the idea of what to build and they’ll bring their own innovative approaches and tools. We need more of this instead of a stagnant obsession with the elimination of animal products. If it were just a matter of tactics I’d be fine with it but the end goal is different and that should be recognized. On top of that morally questionable means justified by whatever end goal shouldn’t be so easily tolerated.

I think animal rights will proceed in spite of veganism but it will probably move further away. While the word “vegan” is useful to describe an animal free product reasonable people will be less likely to align themselves as vegan and we’ll need to invent a new word or just move everybody forward with us with no special word needed. I can’t predict what that will look like but what I can do is openly and honestly talk about animal rights with other humans and do my part with respect and without shame, apology or deception. How’s that for a good place to meet people?

8 comments to Vegans Are Tools

  • I like “it’s just plain mean to do this to animals when there’s no good reason,” but I wouldn’t consider that an animal rights message.

    If I were to say, “Dave D is a terrible blogger” (something I would say only for the purpose of this example, as I rather enjoy reading your blog), that would certainly be mean. I wouldn’t call it a violation of your rights or even consider it unethical on my part, though.

    The rights position, in my view, argues more than it needs to, and thus has the potential to let people off easy. To defeat the rights argument, one has to construct an argument that eating animals is morally justifiable. Most of us aspire to behave in ways that are better than just “not unethical,” though. For example, we probably don’t go around insulting people for no reason, even if we can ethically justify doing so (and even if we would never see the people again and didn’t have to worry about social repercussions). That would be mean.

    I think that, even if one doesn’t accept the idea that animals have rights, there’s a strong argument to be made that eating animals is, in most cases, at least as unnecessarily mean as various things that we wouldn’t dream of doing to each other.

  • Hey Adam,

    I’m using “animal rights” loosely and looking for a softer approach. The strict rights approach might be fine in debate but we should try to use it in outreach. That will require some compelling and easy to digest language. PaleoVegan’s example might not be a true rights argument but it’s a starting point for arguing on behalf of animal interests and that’s what I think is missing in a lot of outreach. In fact I think even the phrasing “animal rights” already has so much negative baggage we might want to avoid that anyway.

  • Hi Dave,

    I agree with pretty much everything you say in your comment. I guess my point is that I like the idea of talking about the interests of animals and communicating that there is something inherently better about not using animals, but I prefer not to use the language of rights, or even of morality/ethics more generally. Aside from the baggage you mention, I think it’s generally best to avoid judgmental language, and then there’s the problem of morality having cultural ties.

  • Hmm interesting…so what do you mean about “inherently better about not using animals”?

  • That was perhaps not stated very well. I think the better way to say it is that in the vast majority of cases, nonuse of animals is consistent with the values that people tend to hold.

    Consider again the example of insulting people without cause. We tend to try to avoid that behavior even if it isn’t unethical. Part of that is that is a social taboo, but I think that most people would genuinely prefer to avoid causing the sort of emotional anguish that it might cause. Of course, this isn’t entirely universal, which is why we have internet trolls and the like, but I think that that respect for others’ interests provides a compelling reason to be nice to animals.

    I’ll focus on the issue of whether to eat them, but one could make similar arguments about keeping them in zoos and many other instances of animal use. Animals don’t experience things exactly the way we do, but we have reason to believe that they have some things in common. To eat an animal, we have to first kill it, thus disregarding the totality of its interests. While those interests aren’t exactly the same as our interests, I think they’re at least as compelling as the relatively small bit of human interest that is usually disrespected by a stray insult. Of course this last bit is something with which some people might disagree.

    Anyway, this isn’t the most developed argument, and I haven’t field tested it much at all.

  • Ah yes, no I like your approach and this is good! It’s messy but we gotta start somewhere and while I’m sure we’re not groundbreaking here it’s worth another attempt. Could an argument be made that does not have the opportunity to slide into a ploy for self interest? I see veganism as a problem because it often correlated with things other than animal rights (like health and environment) and ultimately is a futile endeavor.

  • Well, in general, any argument along these lines isn’t going to appeal to everybody. For instance, the sociopath who insults everybody at every opportunity isn’t going find the example I used compelling. But that’s probably not somebody who is going to be convinced to respect animals by any means. One might be able to find examples that will work better, though.

    What’s been absent from my comments so far is any mention of what a person gains from disregarding the interests of the human or animal other. Most of us don’t insult people for enjoyment, but we probably would insult somebody in a contrived scenario where somebody threatened to torture us otherwise. Most people would put probably say that everyday meat-eating is a more significant benefit than that of insulting somebody for fun but less so than avoiding torture. (Then again, insulting people isn’t really that much fun, so this was probably a bad example.) So in this line of argument, we do have to weigh personal interests against animal interests.

  • […] disregardful for the people they exploit. This is what vegan utilitarianism can get you. It turns vegans into tools and condones exchanging oppression of one for another. If vegans would like to maintain their […]

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