Have you ever told a meat eater they don’t love animals because they eat them?
Then you may very well have engaged in a behaviour psychologists call ‘defining reality’ – and this can be inefficient or even counterproductive - when it comes to vegan advocacy.
The idea of how to promote the vegan movement more effectively was the question at the heart of a recent workshop in Manchester, hosted by new vegan organisation ProVeg, presenting the work of two of the movement’s most eminent thinkers – Dr Melanie Joy, a Harvard-educated psychologist and author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, and Tobias Leenaert – better known to many as The Vegan Strategist. Together the two are part of CEVA – The Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy.
CEVA ‘aims to empower the vegan movement by empowering vegan advocates and organizations’. It offers on-site training, grants, and a strategy resource centre, all of which are aimed at ‘increasing the effectiveness of vegans and vegan organizations and therefore to increase the impact of the vegan movement as a whole’.
Using carefully curated research and ideas, the pair offered a number of sessions during the two-day workshop, each one focused on how to understand the world and people better in order to advocate better for the animals. As they believe, understanding the psychology of eating animals is important for effective vegan advocacy.
First, it is important to understand the ideology we have inherited. According to Dr Melanie Joy: “Carnism, which is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals, is the dominant ideology.
“Carnism is invisible, so people rarely realize that eating animals is a choice, rather than a given. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.
“As long as we remain unaware of how carnism impacts us, we will be unable to make our food choices freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice.”
Tobias Leenaert pointed out: “We are dependent on using and abusing animals. The industry is very big. We are thriving on abusing other species. We are so dependent on them it is not going to be an easy task to stop that, and we need more than moral arguments.
“The victims we are trying to help can not fight for themselves. In other movements, the victims are part of the fight (i.e. feminism). It’s humans versus animals and most people do not see animals as being as important as humans.”
The value of having strong principles shouldn’t be underestimated. According to Tobias Leenaert: “If you have principles in your life it becomes easier to deal with different things. There are so many issues you can help with. Some people say we should help people not animals but that argument is speciesist – saying only humans are worth helping because of their species.”
Dr Joy believes that once we understand how insidious the carnist ideology is (‘it has a two pronged approach – to promote itself and attack veganism’) we are better placed to understand rather than judge non vegans, and are therefore better placed to advocate.
While this theory created a backdrop for the conference, much of the material was devoted to practical advice about how to avoid activist burnout self-care techniques, how to communicate effectively (useful teachings for advocacy and life in general) and how to choose where to devote your activist resources, be they time, money or something else. The balance between theory and practical was excellent. The section of communication (and how to listen compassionately) was particularly inspiring for lots of the attendees.
Jimmy Pierson, director of ProVeg, said: “This information has really made all of us activists think about the way we speak to other vegans and non vegans, and really focus on the impact of how we communicate. I can’t eulogise enough about these two speakers, who really are two of the brightest advocates in the movement.”
One of the cornerstones – and undoubtedly the most controversial ideas – of the conference is the support for the reducetarian approach. Reducetarian, as the word implies, cut down on their intake of animal products – whether independently or through initiatives like Meat Free Mondays. What is key to point out is that these advocates support this approach as part of the journey to a vegan lifestyle. But as Tobias Leeneart pointed out, a large number of Reducetarian will have a bigger impact than a small number of vegans.
He said: “We are trying to destroy something that is very old, very ancient, and very primal. We want people to go vegan for the animals but it won’t always happen like that. That’s where we have to make the distinction between being pragmatic and idealistic – asking for something other than what we want because it is more realistic, and may lead to us getting what we want in the future.
“When it comes to promoting Reducetarianism, people are more likely to do something if you don’t ask for too much. We know that behaviour can affect attitude, so once they are eating less animal products, they become receptive to the ideas of why – and therefore may become vegan. Reducers together can reduce suffering more – and many reducers may tip the system faster than a few vegans, by creating more demand for plant-based products, and less demand for animal-based products.”
As this idea can sit uncomfortably with the abolitionist approach, he added: “We should encourage every step for every person. But if you don’t feel comfortable in advocating meat reduction – don’t.”
Attendee Angie from Three Valley Vegans, said: “I came feeling very sceptical about the reducitarian message because I am an abolitionist. But it’s been very interesting to hear the very well put together arguments for it. I am still an abolitionist but I have realised I need to make some changes in the way I communicate – as well as the way I look after myself as an activist.”
After covering the economic and moral arguments in more depth, talk turned to sustainable activism, and understanding your own reaction to a carnist world was something Dr Joy talked about, saying: “Your grief at the atrocity of carnism is appropriate, normal and healthy.” She described the survivors guilt that some vegans feel, as well as the trauma of witnessing the horror of animal agriculture – and how to deal with this.
“Ideally get support to help you maintain your practice,” she said. “Friends, family, colleagues and if necessary a therapist. It’s much easier when we can get someone to support us.”
Zoe, who works in marketing, said: “I think this weekend was about positive influence and how you can make subtle changes to make a big difference. The most important thing is you are true to yourself and your values. The presenters were really effective.
Even host Jimmy Pierson of ProVeg added: “What a great weekend – and great feedback so far. The speakers are so inspirational it’s been a privilege to spend time with them – they have shared such essential info.”
Despite the intensity of the topic and the scale of the challenge, the final mood was very positive and determined as Dr Melanie Joy said: “I have no doubt that veganism will displace carnism as the dominant ideology one day. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.”