Does Advocating For Being 'As Vegan As Possible' Help People Stay Vegan?

It's important that the numbers of reducetarians and those who are open to veganism and supportive of veganism, if not wholly vegan themselves, continue to rise, according to Dr. Melanie Joy
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Changing ingrained behaviors can be challenging (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Dr. Melanie Joy is one of the most recognized and respected advocates in the global vegan movement. Author of three books (so far) that have become key to the movement's growth and development, she is also the founder of Beyond Carnism, the organization committed to exposing and transforming the invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals; and is co-founder with Tobias Leenaert of CEVA, the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy.

After a meeting with her publishers in California about one of her forthcoming books (watch this space for news…) and heading to Brazil to conduct CEVA trainings, I caught up with Dr. Joy to look in detail at the recent Plant Based News examination of recidivism in the vegan movement: is it, as the famous Faunalytics study suggests, as high as 84 percent of those who try veg*n diets return to eating animal products. Or is it, as the EPIC-Oxford Study counters, much more likely the other way round, with 73 percent of vegans and vegetarians sticking with their choice?

Beyond the Statistics

For Dr. Joy, we shouldn't worry too much about the statistics.

"One thing I want to say," she said, "is that these figures, like 84 percent, even if that were accurate, it doesn't concern me very much. I've never been too concerned about high rates of recidivism, for several reasons.

"To begin with, recidivism is normal. When people try to change their behaviours, they often don't stick to it. And when we look at those who are most likely to try veganism or that lifestyle, it's young people, people in college, students. If we looked at rates of recidivism for everything that young people start and try out as they're growing and learning who they are and how they want to be in the world, we'd probably find the vast majority of things they do start they don't follow through on. And that's especially true if there are a lot of obstacles to sticking with the change, like a lot of social pressure not to continue. So, it's not surprising to me."

More vegan than before

If that's the case, what should we be looking for in people's behaviours around vegan lifestyle and practice? In effect, what should we be measuring? For Dr. Joy, it is the direction of travel in which people's habits are moving that is important to examine.

"What I'm curious about," she said, "is whether or not these vegans who have gone back to eating animal products are now 'more vegan' than they were before. If they are reducing their consumption of animals, then they are continuing to support the kind of change that's necessary for bigger shifts to happen. So my question is: are people moving in the right direction to support this change?"

As the detail of the Faunalytics study makes clear, this is the case: beyond that dramatic 84 percent headline is the evidence that many of those who tried the diet were willing to do so again; and that, for a majority, they did indeed reduce their ongoing meat and dairy intake.

Is reducetarianism enough?

But is this enough? If the majority of people are only ever reducers, how do we overcome carnism and reach the goal of living in vegan social worlds?

"From a strategic perspective, real substantial social change for animals is not going to happen simply because one person at a time becomes vegan," explains Dr. Joy. "It's going to happen because institutions change. That isn't to say individual action isn't important. Institutions are made up of people. But shifts in institutions are a much, much bigger, more significant level of change."

Supporting people to become vegan is, strategically, critical, but in the sense that the more vegan people there are, the more likelihood institutions have to change. We've seen this in the consumer world, with supermarkets and restaurants changing radically to offer more vegan options as standard. This needs to move into other areas, too: local government, education, social care, and non-food consumer practices

So it's important, Dr. Joy suggests, that the numbers of people reducing their consumption of animals and those who are open to veganism and supportive of veganism, if not wholly vegan themselves, continue to rise.

"I can only speak to what I see," says Dr. Joy. "Based on my experience in the vegan movement, one of the ways we can reduce recidivism is to create a more attractive movement. And one of the ways to make our movement more attractive is to to encourage people to be as vegan as possible when we’re advocating veganism."

As vegan as possible

But what does 'as vegan as possible' mean?

"Whatever that means to a given individual," she explains. "This request is  more sustainable, and it's more respectful than telling people to just ‘go vegan.’ People can only do what's possible for them. So, one can ask themselves: how vegan can I be at this next meal? This next week? There's a lot less resistance to this framing, and it creates a more sustainable model to operate within. And hopefully it leads to veganism.

"I have known people who stopped being vegan because they believed 'either I'm 100 percent vegan 100 percent of the time or what's the point. I'll just go back to full-on carnism'. So in terms of the movement, what we could do as a movement to reduce recidivism, where it's possible, anyway, is to try to create an environment where vegans and people who are as vegan as possible, feel safe, feel part of the community."

This is where Dr. Joy's training as a psychologist comes into its own for analysing change in the vegan movement as a movement, locally and globally. For Dr Joy, some of the problems we face in the vegan movement are mirrored across other social arenas, in that we are currently experiencing a tidal wave of relationship dysfunction.

A lack of relationality

"I very deeply believe that a key issue causing the problems we're experiencing in the world today is a lack of relationality, a lack of relational literacy, which includes how we communicate," says Dr. Joy.

"We need to work toward healthy relationality. A healthy relational dynamic is one where people feel secure and connected. And many people in the vegan movement do not feel safe with other vegans, and do not feel connected to the movement. There are ways of relating among certain vegans – and vegans are just people of course – which are not respectful and drive people out of the movement. In fact, I wrote my book Beyond Beliefs not only to help vegans with their relationships with non-vegans, but to help them with other vegans too. We need to create a movement that is attractive and supportive, which will make people more likely to stay in the movement."

One of the best ways of improving one's relational literacy is to take a relationship-first approach, rather than see the issue as a conflict between vegan and nonvegan. If you think about how to practice good relating as the starting point, then the relationship has a much better chance of healing and growing. That, says Dr. Joy, is what is needed for growing a secure and connected vegan movement. It is that security and connectedness that will help reduce recidivism over the long-term, building the overall number of vegans.

Compassionate witnessing

How do we do that? At the heart of Beyond Beliefs, as it is at the heart of Strategic Action for Animals and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, is the practice of compassionate witnessing.

"Yes, compassionate witnessing is the heart of the work," says Dr. Joy. '"t is developing an inner observer, it's what great spiritual teachers have been talking about for centuries. Compassionate witnessing is about developing awareness, it's about developing the ability to really be present in the moment.

"When you’re witnessing, we're committed to awareness, practising this compassionate witnessing, you're activating your inner observer, not simply to attend to what is going on the outside but also the inside. And then you are in a better position to decide if or how you want to take action."

This is not only bearing witness to animal suffering, such as attending vigils, standing in a Cube of Truth, or protesting live exports. This compassionate witnessing is the act of relating to others.

"When you’re more present, it’s more likely that the people around you are able to be more present. On a psychological level, when you're with someone who is paying attention to you, who is showing up for you, compassionately, you are much more likely to do the same and be less defensive," explains Dr. Joy.

Show up for others

Put simply: what activists do for animals, we must also do for fellow humans. Show up, pay attention, don't judge, and model your vegan beliefs rather than proclaim them. This, says Dr. Joy, is the powerful heart of advocacy work.

"There's this belief that witnessing is an act of passivity,' she says. 'But it's not. It's one of the most active things you can do. It's not turning away. It's helpful for people to think of compassionate witnessing on a spectrum. It's not that you are compassionately witnessing or you aren’t; the question is: how much compassionate witnessing are you engaged in? How present are you in this moment, how much of this experience internally and externally are you taking into your awareness? Seeing compassionate witnessing on a spectrum can be helpful because it makes us less perfectionistic about doing it, and it’s also more realistic to try to increase our compassion and presence rather than to try to be perfectly compassionate and present."

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Part 2 takes a closer look at Dr. Joy's book Beyond Beliefs and also offers an exclusive insight into the not one, not two, but three new books she is publishing in the next twelve months.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are prepared in the author's capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Plant Based News itself. 

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Dr. Alex Lockwood is the author of 'The Pig in Thin Air' (Lantern Books, NY), a vegan memoir and study of new animal advocacies, as well as an academic and activist. He is a Fellow of the RSA and a member of the Vegan Society Research Advisory Committee, and has recently conducted interviews with 40 vegan men exploring their journeys into plant-based lifestyles. You can follow him on Twitter @alexlockwood

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