Image by Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals
A comment on a recent essay said that with regards to vegan advocacy, ‘people don’t respond positively to aggression, blame and guilt but rather to encouragement, praise and education’. I have to say that I do agree with the principles of this, but with certain qualifications as I’ll explain.
Lessons from our past
At the risk of repeating myself, each of us needs to remember where we came from, needs to remember how we were raised; needs to remember what and how we used to think. We can never afford to forget what we did and how we used to justify it in those days before we opened our eyes to the reality of what our species inflicts on every other. Knowing and constantly remembering how I used to be, helps me try to understand and to reach those who are just like I was. This mindfulness is the reason why it would never occur to me to use insulting, offensive and vitriolic language directed towards those who are not vegan – not even for the shock value. It wouldn’t have worked on me when I wasn’t vegan and I’ve no reason to suppose it will work on anyone else.
So what works?
I know it’s true that many who read my words will never open their minds to see the injustice of their actions as people who are not vegan. Others may simply lack the empathy that would allow them to see their behaviour from the perspective of their victims. Yet more readers may be so firmly entrenched in the lies about animal use that surround us all, that for them, the clarion ring of truth will be drowned out by the myths of childhood, and by the insecurities exploited by those who trade in lives, in body parts and forced service while relying on the ignorance of consumers to part them from their cash.
But there are others. From time to time, I’ll get a message, see a post, or come across a comment that tells me that my words have helped encourage someone to become vegan or have provided them with encouragement to begin their own advocacy. These are very good days – not in a personal sense – but for the animals.
For all our victims of every species, each new vegan is one fewer consumer demanding the devastating harm that is the inevitable consequence of every position that falls short of veganism. For all our victims of every species, each new vegan is one more human who, with every choice they make, every single day for the rest of their life, will do their absolute best to create no victims.
Praise where it’s due?
However I’m fairly sure that this is not what the person who commented was intending to convey. By no means the first to express a comment about aggression, blame and guilt, I suspect they meant the words more as an accusation than a general observation. Those who represent themselves as ‘pragmatic’ frequently condemn the providing of factual information as an ‘all or nothing approach to veganism’, and are frequently hostile towards those who present veganism as a simple ‘harm/don’t harm’ choice.
Any post stating that the only way we can stop causing unnecessary harm to members of other species, is by being vegan, is frequently a target. There are many who will condemn such posts as ‘unrealistic’ or even ‘aggressive’. While claiming to represent animal interests, they will then heap praise and encouragement on others for ‘cutting down’ their consumption of animal flesh, eggs, milk, or one of the many substances that are derived from our pitiless use of their lives and reproductive processes.
Now encouragement is a great thing – as long as we are encouraging our peers to be vegan. If we are not promoting veganism, then it’s a betrayal of the victims that are continuing to be tormented and killed. In a way it’s a double betrayal, firstly by those who claim to know better, and secondly because those who have been encouraged by them, will now feel reassured and may never again have the chance to realise that they are still harming and killing vulnerable innocents.
The truth and the telling of it
There are some who will call out, ‘aggression’, ‘negativity’, ‘guilt tripper’ etc about any information, regardless of how factual it is, if it makes readers uncomfortable in any way. And this is where I need to make something absolutely clear:
- There is a huge difference between expressing truth, and being aggressive, negative and blaming;
- But there is likewise a huge difference between encouragement, praise and education, and betraying someone who is relying on us to defend them from injustice.
And that difference – the chasm between praise and betrayal – is where I start to have a problem.
What truth isn’t
The truth is just that. The truth. For example, like almost everyone I know, I have been through the trauma of the breakup of a long-term relationship from both sides; as the one who wanted the relationship to end, and as the one who didn’t even see it coming. At some point in the sad decline that preceded the actual end, came the conversation where one person had to say to the other that the feeling had gone and the relationship was over. It was heartbreaking, hurtful and distressing. But it was the truth and no matter how hard anyone tries to make it not hurt, it just does. We’ve all seen situations where attempts to ‘let someone down gently’ have only made things worse in the end. The truth is not automatically an act of aggression, no matter how much it hurts.
Telling the truth is not a negative act. A negative act is one that is intended to cause distress and sometimes needlessly at that. The truth isn’t like that; when expressed in the form of facts, it is simply what IS. That’s not to say it won’t hurt, but there is no automatic intent to cause any particular reaction, either positive or negative.
And telling the truth is not an act of blaming. Like so many of my fellow advocates, as someone who was not always vegan, how could I possibly ‘blame’ anyone for being the same as I used to be? That would simply make no sense.
So when we’re talking about animals
When we are talking about animal use, and the defence of their rights as individuals who deserve to live unharmed and unmolested for the trivial and unnecessary whims of our violent species, the truth is unpleasant, even when expressed in the most matter-of fact terms. Representing the rights of our victims necessarily means that we must point out that using them is not necessary. Representing the rights of our victims means that we are duty bound to explain the ways in which they are harmed by our use. To present this information is to provide the opportunity for others to become educated about the real consequences of the behaviour that we are all taught to overlook and excuse from our earliest years.
I have yet to discover a way that expresses the truth about the horror of our use of all other species, that does not make those who have been participating in it feel bad about their actions to some extent. I’d even go so far as to suggest that such a way does not and cannot exist.
The reality for which our species is responsible is no less than an atrocity, the scale of which is a VERY unpleasant truth, and it’s the internalising of that realisation that provides us with the ‘light bulb moment’ that I’ve mentioned before. That ‘light bulb moment’ is the one that breaks through the complacent shell that every single one of us used to have before we became vegan, and through making us realise the direct consequences of our actions as consumers, compels us to change our behaviour.
Another way to look at things
So here I’d like to present my take on the notion of limiting the amount of information that we provide to someone who is not vegan, so as to not make them feel uncomfortable about their behaviour.
Like many others, however, I could definitely find words that make them feel good. Words like ‘every little bit helps’, ‘making a difference’, ‘reducing suffering’, ‘making kinder choices’, ‘be compassionate’. Oh yes, I can regurgitate all the words that make people feel great about their actions. I know for a fact that they work, because there are many money-making businesses that claim to represent animal interests yet scoop in millions of whatever currency we care to mention by using these very same words. They work really well. I fell for the buzz words for many years, reassured of my ethical awareness while obediently donating at regular intervals.
So yes, withholding information to illustrate how all animal use is a violation of the rights of other individuals who value their lives and is automatically putting our completely non-essential convenience before their right to live unharmed, might make those who are not vegan feel great – noble, ethical, moral with a rosy glow of self-satisfaction – at least it did for me.
But it was a lie; a comfortable one, but still a lie. Because the word veganism was never mentioned.
What you know and who you know
Like anyone who writes, one of the first pieces of advice you come across, is ‘write about what you know’. So here’s a general thing I know about myself; I hate being lied to. Because I loathe it so much, lying to someone else would be about the most disrespectful thing I could think of to do to them. From what I’ve had directed at me as criticism, particularly of areas such as vegetarianism and egg and dairy consumption where myths of ‘humane use’ run strong, it seems that perhaps some people would be content with that; they truly think that people who are not vegan would be more encouraged to hear a ‘watered down’ version of the truth. Or in other words, a lie.
But I’m trying to reach people like me. And people like me don’t like being lied to. If and when they find out that they’ve been lied to, it makes them very angry with those who told the lies, and it makes them very angry with themselves for believing the lies, however comfortable they felt at the time.
A life worth living
As vegan advocates, truth is our most powerful ally. The honesty, the sincerity, and the passion that is conveyed by someone who tells the truth is very hard to miss. I have always said that I wish that someone had been honest with me decades ago. Given that it would have hurt like hell, why on earth do I feel this way?
Because this life that I’m still clinging to, is my only life. We all know there is more to our own life than just a succession of days that we cross off on a calendar. For many, if not most of us, it matters to each of us to be the best person that we can manage to be during that life. We have standards that we set for ourselves and we try very hard to live up to them.
It causes me so much distress every day to know that I heard only the comfortable lies that made me feel ethical and conscientious, while for decades I donated to those who were paying their mortgages rather than telling the truth and defending my victims. It upsets me to think that there may have been people that I knew, vegans, who actually knew the facts about all our use of members of other species, but didn’t tell me because they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it. And because of those who heaped false praise on me and exercised their own judgement, whatever their reasons, on how much truth I could take, I was denied the chance to become the person I thought I was all along until the day of the light-bulb moment when I realised that it was essential for me to be vegan.
We owe the truth to everyone.
We owe it to our victims who have no one but us to fight for them. And we owe it to members of our own species too, whether they are vegan or not. Because everyone deserves truth. What we then do with the truth, is up to each of us.