Abolitionism vs. Incrementalism: an objective analysis

What's more important: abolitionism or incrementalism?

1. Distinguishing Abolitionism, Incrementalism & Welfarism:

There are two distinct types of animal rights/vegan activists: abolitionists, and incrementalists. These two groups share the common goal of eliminating all use of other animals by humans.  

It is important to note that incrementalism is not the same as welfarism. Welfarists do not have a vegan world, animal liberation, or anti-speciesism in mind as their goal. Their intent is to reform certain practices to improve the living conditions of animals, not primarily focused on the largest abused group: farmed animals. [A good example of an animal welfare organization would be “Four Paws;” while their work is valuable and important, their focus is on cats, dogs and endangered wild animals.]

Now that we have clarified the terminology, we can hopefully all agree that vegan activists – whether so called abolitionists or so called incrementalists – all share a common goal: animal liberation. The terms used to differentiate the two groups describe their methods, not their stance on animal liberation. This is important.

2.    The Spectrum

I, in general, do not prefer to categorize activists into the binary of abolitionist or incrementalist, since I feel that methods can differ depending on the situation. Therefore, I have created the following spectrum:

- unwavered abolitionist: uses solely abolitionist methods. They criticize anyone who does not exclusively use a specific kind of abolitionist activism, and often consider those people welfarists or not 'real vegans' for that reason. See Example 1 below.

- unwavered but appreciative abolitionist: uses solely abolitionist methods. They understand the importance and *logic of incrementalist methods but do not feel comfortable using them.

- mostly abolitionist: uses mostly abolitionist methods, for personal or strategic reasons. They understand the importance and *logic of incrementalist methods and also use them from time to time.

- flexible activist: uses different methods depending on the situation. They prefer neither method over the other.

- mostly incrementalist: uses mostly incrementalist methods for personal or strategic reasons. They understand the importance and **logic of abolitionist methods and also use them from time to time

- unwavered but appreciative incrementalist: uses solely incrementalist methods. They understand the importance and **logic of abolitionist methods but do not feel comfortable using them.

- unwavered incrementalist: uses solely incrementalist methods. They do not like to use the word 'vegan' at all, and they consider all people that use abolitionist methods to be irrational, ineffective and damaging. See example 2 below.

*logic of incrementalist methods: motivate people to take steps since every step in the right direction is important and to be encouraged

**logic of abolitionist methods: encourage people to go entirely vegan, hopefully leading to step by step or total behavior changes

Example 1: A lot of activists and organization that utilize incrementalist methods are falsely placed into the welfarist or not 'real vegan' and speciesist categories by unwavered abolitionists. Organizations that use incremental methods are often falsely accused of welfarism due to their campaign strategies. They frequently support and promote meatless Monday iniatives, flexitarianism, and reducetarianism, which are all initiatives that may be considered welfarist nature. These organizations know and agree that eating dairy, eggs or meat on 6 instead of 7 days is neither entirely ethical nor animal friendly, but they encourage these small steps, because it saves other animal lives. Additionally, it pushes people closer to the end goal of veganism. People are more likely to start doing research on meatless dining, try out new recipes and generally think more about what they are putting into their bodies. These organizations would not actively promote “humane” meat, dairy or eggs, which is also important to note. On the other hand, they might run campaigns to abolish the cheapest and most cruel forms of factory farming like caged-eggs, which would ultimately drive up the production price and decrease some amount of suffering.   

Example 2: There are activists criticized by unwavered incrementalist for talking to people in one to one conversations about veganism, when instead, for example, they could have handed out more leaflets. Criticizing people for making a personal impression - which is much more effective for the individual than handing them a leaflet - is not only extremely unreasonable but also highly discouraging. Talking one to one not only makes it easier for people to be encouraged, and also gives activists a better way of measuring their impact, which will result in more motivated and dedicated activists down the road. Criticizing these activists is similar to an unwavering abolitionist criticizing someone who already tries to make some change in their diet, even though they may not be entirely vegan. This behavior is completely ineffective and does not help anyone.

3.    Using both methods in a non-intrusive and encouraging way

First of all, I implore anyone who considers themselves unwavering incrementalists to let go of their belief that abolitionist methods are irrational, ineffective and damaging. I also implore anyone who considers themselves unwavering abolitionists to let go of their belief that incrementalist methods are speciesists, welfarists, damaging, or that the people that use them are not 'real vegans.' This judgmental behavior inhibits calm and reasonable discussion between activists. In general, it devalues people's activism, puts them down and ultimately hurts animals.

What are regular incrementalist and abolitionist methods in terms of diet and farm animals?

- abolitionist methods: encouraging people to eliminate all animal products off their plates: promoting the end goal and in this regards often point out righteously that “humane” meat, dairy and eggs are not any better

- incrementalist methods: encouraging people to take small steps: promoting step by step change towards the end goal: often fight against specific forms of factory farming like caged eggs

According to the psychology of behavioral change, change almost always happens in small steps. This is the reason why such a small percentage of vegans went vegan overnight. It is the same reason why you are not starting to go to the gym every day from tomorrow on (given you would have the resources to do so). Going to the gym seven days a week seems ridiculously hard for the majority of people. So does going vegan. Such things ask for serious commitment, at least at first. Going vegan not only asks for commitment, but also to live an ideology that goes against society, family and friends, which is often a challenge. Our system advantages non-vegans on all levels of society, for example when dining at schools or hospitals or simply when trying to find something vegan to eat on the go. On top of all that vegans are often judged, confronted and criticized, which does not at all help our case.

Using incremental or abolitionist methods in a non-intrusive and encouraging way is the key for effectiveness.

It is easier for people to initially cut out chicken and turkeys from their diet than cutting out all animal products at once. Asking people to take small steps in a non-intrusive way may encourage them to take action. Asking people to cut out all animal products from their diet in a non-intrusive way may also encourage people to take action. In other words, it is not the methods, but the approach that will effect change.

What is the intrusive and discouraging way?

The intrusive and discouraging way is the judgmental way. As soon as you judge people, their defense walls shoot up. Saying something along the lines of, “unless you don't participate in meatless Monday and at least try, I am not going to talk to you anymore” does not get through to people. Most people won't be encouraged, but discouraged, by this kind of aggressive language. From an abolitionist perspective, it is also ineffective to ask people to go vegan immediately by telling them that they support things like murder and rape.  

I believe that the kinds of methods used are not that important, as long as it is done in a non-intrusive and encouraging way, so people do not feel the need to defend themselves.

Non-intrusive and encouraging ways of telling people what to do:

- abolitionism: “Work towards eliminating all animal products off your plate”; “Try to cut out all animal products off your diet”; “Consider cutting out all animal products off your diet” are preferable to saying “Go vegan” or “Stop eating animal products now.”

- incrementalism: “Consider reducing your meat consumption today”, “Try to start cutting meat out of your diet”, “Try a few meat free days a week” are preferable to saying “Stop having meat on Mondays”

4.    Importance of incorporating both methods

A subgoal of a lot of incrementalists I have talked to is to shift the whole of society towards a more animal friendly way of life, which eventually would lead to veganism becoming easier and more accessible. When a large amount of people move a small step forward, this can lead to massive change: a lot of other animals being saved.

But maybe focusing on creating vegans is more crucial at this stage? Maybe once we have reached the critical mass/tipping point, veganism will raise exponentially by itself? Maybe effectiveness should be measured in ‘how many vegans created’ at this stage? These are questions unwavering incrementalists should ask themselves.  

It is definitely good that we have this divide in the two methods used in the movement, because we simply do not know which way is THE way to go. Imagine there were only incrementalist organizations and activists that mostly ask people to just take small steps? There would no one be there telling people that there is more they can do. This way, these two methods complement each other very well. Large organizations can reach a wider audience, yet on a less personal level. They are effective in getting people started to take first steps towards veganism. Later on, these may be more receptible to an abolitionist message on the personal grassroots level.

Measuring effectiveness should first and foremost be about the number of other animals being saved, because this is what this movement is all about: saving the ones that cannot speak for themselves. But maybe saving less today results in saving a lot more down the road?

The Question That Caused This Divide: Should we be focusing on making vegans to reach the tipping point, or focusing on reducetarianism to shift society? Both are important.

5.    Abilities determine methods used

Activism methods chosen by individuals differ largely on their strengths, which may lead some people to think that their most effective method works for everybody. Let's say you are a great speaker, and are able to convince and motivate people very easily. Talking to people about veganism and imploring them to go vegan might work for you incredibly well, because that is what you are good at - convincing people. Another person who does not have as strong communication skills may not be as drawn to this method because they are not as confident and direct when talking to people. These people can have a much higher impact encouraging others one-on-one to take smaller steps towards veganism (i.e. starting by reducing meat consumption).

6.    Impact of activism

It is important to note that not all forms and kinds of activism have a solely positive impact. When I first got invested in activism, I thought that no matter WHAT people were doing, it could not have a negative impact. Now I realize that there is a spectrum. There are kinds of activism with a positive, neutral, or even negative impacts. I want to illustrate my point with Facebook post strategies:  

·       Post with supposedly neutral impact:

If you do not provide any emotional or thought-provoking content, and just ask people to do something without providing any motivation to do so, it will not have any impact at all.

Ex: “Stop eating meat” “Go vegan” “Please only eat meat one time a day from now”

·       Post with supposedly negative impact:

Criticizing people for being 'just' vegetarian, accusing them of being murderers or rapists, or generally scolding people for buying meat would simply offend your readers.

“If you are a vegetarian, or think you are a better person for buying humane meat, think again. Vegetarianism still supports rape and murder of cows, and humane meat is just as bad as regular meat.”

·       Posts with supposedly positive impact:

If you post pictures of an animal sanctuary and describe the personalities of the individuals living there, post some cruel footage of a factory farm investigation, or a delicious looking food picture, adding a caption with context helps:

“Please consider cutting down or out on meat” or “Consider eliminating all animal products off your plate.”

Keep in mind that approaches/posts with a supposedly negative impact might still make some people move towards veganism, but certainly not the majority. The examples examine the supposedly total impact of your posts. So even though a more aggresive way of communicating pulled few of your friends and maybe even you closer to veganism, it probably pushed a lot more even further away from it.

Note - People should not only worry about their total impact they are having online, but also offline.

It is important to note that a lot of people do not really know HOW to take first steps, or how to go entirely vegan. This is why I always link some resource pages alongside my posts. Choose whatever transition aids you believe work best. Some of my favorites are www.chooseveg.com, which provides specific courses of action for transitioning, and www.veganuary.com, which is a highly effective initiative that uses abolitionist methods. (This past January 2016, 23,000 people pledged to go vegan for a month, and 81% of them expressed intent to stay vegan!) Regardless of the resources you provide, it allows your audiences to have a tangible game plan to change their lifestyle, instead of the unsettling feeling that they are doing something wrong with no way to fix it. It can also never hurt to offer to help these people with the transition yourself.

7.    Conclusion

First of all we need to all become more aware of the total impact we are having on people, focusing on communicating in anon-intrusive and encouraging way. Second of all, no matter where you are on the spectrum, we need to stop the fighting within the movement, start appreciating and supporting each other more and therefore recognizing the importance of each method. As I have already mentioned, fighting against each other does not do any good for the ones we are fighting for – the animals.

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PBN Contributor:

Christoph is a passionate animal rights activists and video editor from Austria.

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