Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Doing (More Than) the Bare Minimum

I read an article earlier this morning by Stephanie Ernst (
"A Vegan But Not an Activist? Sure. An Animal Lover But Not a Vegan? Nope.") which I'd like to bring to people's attention. Ernst writes about how people too often assume that being vegan means that one is also active in animal rights advocacy. Ernst describes how some people who may be uncomfortable advocating for causes, whose time is already gobbled up advocating for other causes or whose lives are just too busy to take on any additional responsibilities, sometimes shrug off going vegan because they think that the burden of activism comes with the label. She adds to this:

If you truly oppose something, you seek to not participate in it. If you believe in an ideal such as nonviolence, you don’t actively, daily make choices that stand in direct contrast to that belief. It’s not a choice of (a) devote yourself completely to activism against the injustice or (b) be a participant in the injustice. If you love animals, you don’t kill animals. If you respect animals, you don’t torment animals, emotionally, mentally, or physically. If you believe in nonviolence, you don’t engage in violence. And choosing to eat animals and animal products is to participate in torment, to participate in violence.
I agree with her that conflating veganism with animal rights activism seems a fairly lame excuse to not go vegan (although she expresses this much more diplomatically). I also agree wholeheartedly that it's completely nonsensical to call yourself an animal lover and to not go vegan.

I'll also admit, though, that
in all of my years as a vegetarian and then a vegan, I have never had anyone say to me that he or she did not want to go vegan because he or she didn't have the time/interest/inclination to be an animal rights activist. People generally say to me that they don't want to go vegan because it's "too hard" in terms of willpower or convenience, or they say that they're not convinced that the health arguments for it are sound. Sometimes they tell me, occasionally apologetically, that they don't want to be labeled "extremist". These are pretty lame excuses, as well, but they're the ones I hear most often. They're also pretty straightforward to address -- if one is willing to go the extra step. But you can't really alter people's misconceptions of veganism or correct the misinformation they have if you don't actually talk to people about veganism, right? This doesn't just apply to excuses people give you for why they wouldn't or "couldn't" go vegan, but it also applies to occasions where your own (or a fellow vegan's) choice to be a vegan is questioned or criticized, or where any aspect of the ethics of animal exploitation are brought up at all (and we all know that in this society, animal exploitation -- as an acceptable norm -- comes up in conversation constantly).

Ernst mentions that sometimes educating others about veganism becomes a "byproduct of the process — the more you learn, the more you want to share that information with those you care about, for their sake as well as for the sake of the fellow animals". She adds, however, that
even if that’s not you, even if you never write a letter to the editor or directly rescue an animal or hold up a sign or organize a boycott or even talk in much detail about your choices to your friends and family, you can do the bare minimum — you can remove yourself from the cycle.
I appreciate the spirit in which she asserts this -- particularly within the context of arguing that someone's shrugging off veganism for fear of feeling obligated to become an animal rights activist is no excuse to not go vegan. I also do indeed believe that veganism should be the moral baseline and that removing oneself from the cycle of violence is the very least -- the "bare minimum" -- someone can do.

The truth is that you can advocate for animals in all kinds of ways that need not fill up every second of your free time and that need not induce anxiety at the idea of speaking in front of a crowd. The stereotypical behaviours people often associate with animal rights activism--e.g. circulating petitions, holding demonstrations, organizing boycotts, et al.--are not only far from the only forms of activism in which animal advocates participate, but in many cases, activities like the aforementioned concern themselves with single-issue campaigns which end up presenting one single type of animal treatment or use, or the treatment or use of just one particular species of animal as having more importance than others. You can actually start advocating for animals today by just talking to people about veganism conversationally. You'd talk to people about your favourite television show or about your favourite hobby--why does it have to be so taboo to talk to them about why you choose not to use nonhuman animals as things?

Don't we owe animals more than just the bare minimum? What about our friends and families, or those who may in fact be open to veganism were it not for this or that obstacle they've (perhaps unwittingly) set up for themselves thanks to years of speciesist indoctrination or just plain old misinformation? Don't we owe
them more than just shutting up and letting them continue to participate in this needless cycle of violence? There are some who think that vegans should just shut up and embrace the status quo: I reject this and hope that anyone who takes seriously the interests of animals to not be used as things will also reject this.

So although I agree with Ernst that it's illogical to refuse to go vegan because one equates veganism with animal rights activism, I'd like to say that in light of the fact that there are over 10 billion animals killed for food in North America alone every single year, that I really hope that those who do make this very important decision to take that step -- to do the bare minimum and go vegan -- also come around to realizing that we owe animals so much more. I really hope that those who go vegan realize that there is no shame in talking to others about veganism. If we don't talk to others about the immorality of the exploitation and use of nonhuman animals, who will?

Go vegan. If you are vegan, please talk to others about going vegan.

For thoughts on creative vegan education, tips and resources, please check out my posts on what other abolitionist vegans have been doing, check out the vegan blogs and podcasts I've listed off on the side, and visit the following links:

From Gary L. Francione's Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach

What YOU Can Do to Help Achieve Abolition!
Some Thoughts on Vegan Education
Vegan Education Made Easy -- Part I
Vegan Education Made Easy -- Part 2
Vegan Education Made Easy -- Part 3: An Abolitionist Pamphlet
Abolitionist Vegan Literature
Making a Vegan Education Kiosk
A Smart Idea about Community Education

From Dan Cudahy's Unpopular Vegan Essays:

Vegan Education: A Background (Part 1 of 2)
Vegan Education: An Incremental Abolitionist Approach (Part 2 of 2)
Just Being Vegan (a gem!)
Abolitionist Vegan Education: The Vehicle of Progress
In Praise of Vegan Food Blogs

From Vincent Guihan's WOARadio podcast:

How to Answer a Question About Veganism

To talk to other abolitionist vegans about what you can do to educate others about veganism, visit the Animal Emancipation discussion forum:

Animal Emancipation Discussion Forum


Unknown said...

Hi Mylène, I'd like to suggest adding Vincent's podcast on answering vegan questions to this list as I found it hugely useful for my own advocacy, which is often initiated by someone asking just the sort of questions Vincent works through here:

M said...

Absolutely! The truth is that I could easily have added an extra 20+ links to the post dealing with vegan education -- there's a lot of information on it out there!

Dave Langlois said...

Interesting blog entry.

Quick question: do you think that the same (obligation to be vocal) holds with respect to every duty of the same general sort? So, for instance, I take it that we all have a duty not to support unfair labor practices, a duty to not to be complicit with heterosexism, a duty to not participate in classist behavior and social structuring, and so on, and so on. These are all examples of obligations that we have to not engage in ongoing, widely accepted, societal wrongdoings. Now, do you think that we are obligated to actively and vocally advocate against sweatshops and child labor, against heterosexist practices, against classist social structuring, and so on?

I'm not taking a position on this question, currently. But there is a concern here that this way of thinking appears to place an unsatisfiable demand on us. I am obligated to abstain from *countless* widespread social wrongdoings, but I simply cannot actively speak out against them all of them directly and in a meaningful way. (Of course, I can actively speak in favor of each of us taking morality seriously, and in favor of us doing what morality requires even when it is difficult, but this is quite different.)

Isn't anyone who isn't a full-time advocate forced to make choices about which impermissible activities to merely abstain from, and which impermissible activities to abstain from while actively and vocally opposing them publicly?

unpopular vegan essays said...

All other things equal, I don’t think we have any more obligation to educate and/or speak out on animal exploitation issues than other issues. However, there are two aspects of animal issues that might make a difference in how much we educate or speak out compared to other issues, whether or not obligated.

One is simply that, as vegans, our behavior is noticed far more than our behavior in avoiding other wrongs, so we’re often at least encouraged by nonvegans to explain, if not socially pressured to explain, why we are vegans. Perhaps that is what makes people uncomfortable: Veganism itself is a highly visible stance on an issue. Avoiding child sweatshop labor clothing is not so visible.

Two is that the scale of the atrocity and the prevalence of its acceptance seems to make this issue more severe than other social justice issues. The need for education on this issue, due to its sheer magnitude (e.g. tens of billions of victims annually), seems to transcend political opinions and other issues.

M said...


I did not (and very consciously so) state in my post that vegans have an "obligation" to be vocal activists over and above going vegan. I emphasized that I agreed with Stephanie Ernst's piece that veganism should be a moral baseline. However, I also emphasized that I hope that, at the very least, vegans would come around to seeing that there's so much more that can be done for non-human animals over and above not consuming / exploiting them, and that they'd consider educating other people about veganism (and I then included several links on the topic of vegan education, on the off chance that someone agreed that vegan education is a good idea).

Veganism in and of itself -- making the decision to refrain from using animals as things and incorporating that decision into your daily activities -- is a form of activism. Going vegan is the single most important thing anyone can do to help non-human animals. I try to communicate that here as often as I can.

Isn't anyone who isn't a full-time advocate forced to make choices about which impermissible activities to merely abstain from, and which impermissible activities to abstain from while actively and vocally opposing them publicly?

I was going to respond to this last night and Dan beat me to it and stated what I think and feel more eloquently than I would have. I'll just add to it that:

1) Considering that there are over 10 billion animals per year in North America alone killed each year for food and that my going vegan means that there are a mere 30-50 animals per year who don't get factored into that number, and

2) considering that over 96% (higher, likely -- I figure 96%+ is at least good ballpark figure) of the people around me continue to contribute to the enslavement of animals in the numbers reflected in that 10+ billion figure,

I surely hope that anyone who comes to the conclusion that veganism is right also feels the overwhelming magnitude of what's going on and makes the decision to talk to others about going vegan. Do I think they have an obligation or a moral duty to do this? Of course not. I'm grateful that they've made the decision to at least go vegan. Anything they choose to do over and above that is just a bonus for non-human animals.

As an abolitionist, I don't see how we're going to make any headway without talking to others about going vegan -- dispelling the myths holding them back, removing the layers of assumptions and misguided givens that are the swaddling of this speciesist society. I just hope that other vegans connect those dots, as well, is all.

As you know, I'm no scholar. I'm neither a PhD, nor is it likely that I'll ever see the gates to an Ivy League campus except in the quickest of drive-by glances. I can certainly understand how you might spot inconsistencies in my thinking and I'm grateful for your having asked so that I could clarify what I was trying to communicate. I hope that I've accomplished that. I try to keep things simple, since I'm not an academic; if what I write is unclear, I'm always grateful to have someone who is more knowledgeable take the time to point it out.

Dave Langlois said...

Not quite the reply I was expecting, but thanks for writing all of that up!

For the record I *do* think that we each have an obligation to do be vocal advocates. (More generally, we have a wide duty to be moral educators. We may not have a separate sub-duty for every possible topic of moral education.) You can check out some of my Twitlonger posts from today to see how I think it works.

Yesterday, in my post, I was simply 'setting up the problem', so to speak, and mentioned that I wasn't taking a position on it. But my position (which may surprise you, if you didn't take my I'm-not-taking-a-position remark seriously) is that we *do* have an obligation.

So, originally, I'd certainly not thought that I'd found any "inconsistencies" in your writing, or anything like that. I was just raising a possible problem for the position which I believed (falsely, I guess) you were putting forward. But now I'm a bit surprised that you disagree with me!

I know that you say: "I did not (and very consciously so) state in my post that vegans have an "obligation" to be vocal activists over and above going vegan.". But yesterday you asked "Don't we owe animals more than just the bare minimum?" The use of 'owe' here (which has ties to duty and obligation, and is an etymological cognate of 'ought') led me to believe that you do think we have an obligation of the relevant sort. I thought it was pretty clear. But perhaps I read your question in the wrong way. :-)

In any case, maybe you'll let me know what you think about my Twitlonger comments. (In them, I'm mostly just riffing on a caricature of the wide/narrow duty distinction, from Kant. But you might find it interesting.)


M said...

I know that you say: "I did not (and very consciously so) state in my post that vegans have an "obligation" to be vocal activists over and above going vegan.". But yesterday you asked "Don't we owe animals more than just the bare minimum?" The use of 'owe' here (which has ties to duty and obligation, and is an etymological cognate of 'ought') led me to believe that you do think we have an obligation of the relevant sort. I thought it was pretty clear. But perhaps I read your question in the wrong way.

Ha! Thus the relevance of my stating that I can see how you'd find inconsistencies in my writing.

My quick response? Intuitively, I've sussed out that I owe animals more than just going vegan. I want to do more. I can do more. I'd love it if other vegans came around to this, so I'm not opposed to trying to tease it out of them, but I'm not altogether sure that I would be correct in telling them that they are obligated to take their activism further than going vegan.

I'll certainly check out your tweets and comment more later. I've never read Kant. Most of my studies in ethics have (sadly) involved utilitarian theory, thanks to my tiny philosophy department's main "ethics guy" being very adamantly pro-utilitarianism.

Crystal said...

I think that by going vegan it's almost impossible to avoid talking about veganism. People will ask you questions i.e. (is that hard? why are you vegan?) and you'll have to provide them with some kind of an answer. Often they're leading questions that suggest that veganism is too hard or extreme. You can chose to let them get away with this, or you can do everything you can to shoot down their misconceptions.

Anonymous said...

Loved it!

M said...

FYI, some things to consider on the topic:

Prof. Gary L. Francione via Twitter:

From Dave Langlois via Twitter:

Vincent Guihan's blog post on the subject: