Effective activism: vegans as creators, not critics

Ask any non-vegan what vegans are good at, and they’ll probably say preaching. Vegans are world-class critics. If you want to know what’s wrong with your diet, we can tell you. Have you wondered about the ethics of what you’re eating? We’re at the ready with a playlist packed with slaughterhouse videos.

effective activism protestor megaphone

Is this how you communicate?

But when it comes to creating, we’re not as good. You know that old saying, “those who can do, those who can’t…teach.” We are great at teaching – strike that – preaching about veganism. But as a community we  aren’t quite as prolific at creating.

I have nothing against providing education and constructive criticism. That’s the lion’s share of what you’ll find on my YouTube channel. People can learn a lot from the content vegans produce. But if all you do talk AT people, it’s not effective activism.

The Problem

The problem with being a critic is that if all you do is point out flaws, all you’ll get are excuses. Ask a kid why they hit their sibling. You’ll get an elaborate set of reasons – none of them very good.

Tell someone eating a steak that they’re participating in the mass slaughter of innocent animals. You’ll get the same weak excuses:

  • “where will I get my protein?”
  • “I could never give up bacon”
  • “I feel bad, but it tastes so good”

The words change, but the song remains the same. Sometimes the person might agree what they’re doing is wrong.  They might even try to go vegan. But they’ll be looking for a reason – any reason – to quit. Or they’ll just find it too hard.

Vegans often get characterized as “cultish,” But Veganism isn’t a cult – it’s an ethical stance against unnecessary exploitation and cruelty. The problem isn’t veganism, it’s how veganism is presented.

What I’m not saying

I’m not talking about watering down Veganism and trying to hide what it means. This is not about dropping Veganism as a goal and encouraging meatless monday and Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” concept instead.

Veganism’s goal is working to eliminate exploitation and cruelty to animals. It’s more than just a diet.

The negativity and drama in the vegan community is prominent. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on Veganism. When people ask me why identify as vegan, not plant-based, I tell them that Veganism is still the answer. Being plant-based is about what you eat, Veganism goes deeper.

Effective activism means crafting a solution

Stop asking people why they aren’t vegan, and start by asking yourself what you can do to help.

But before we can craft a solution, we need to ask ourselves some important questions.

First, what do we have to offer? Every vegan has different strengths and abilities. Some people are activists, some are advocates, and others won’t mention Veganism unless someone figures out they don’t eat meat. It’s important to understand who you are to be effective. If you are going to add value, you should use your strengths.

Secondly, we need to think about what Veganism has to offer. In order for people to choose a vegan lifestyle, they need to find a reason that resonates with them. Health, ethics and the environment are three things that often draw people to Veganism.

Humiliation is dangerous

When people feel humiliated, they rarely respond well. The worse they feel, the stronger and more defensive the reaction will likely be. And this might be the goal of some vegan groups. But it’s not effective activism. When you’re dealing with the people in your life, you probably won’t get too far by dousing them with red paint and calling them murderers.

Dale Carnegie put it well in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People:

You can tell people they are wrong by a look or an intonation or a gesture just as eloquently as you can in words—and if you tell them they are wrong, do you make them want to agree with you? Never! For you have struck a direct blow at their intelligence, judgment, pride and self-respect. That will make them want to strike back. But it will never make them want to change their minds. You may then hurl at them all the logic of a Plato or an Immanuel Kant, but you will not alter their opinions, for you have hurt their feelings.

Again, this isn’t about protecting people from the seriousness of what they’re doing. It’s about giving them the chance to come to that realization on their own, before they get defensive.

In fact, it’s really about shifting the accountability firmly onto the shoulders of your audience.

If they have the chance and the motivation to get defensive, they will. Don’t give them that chance. A large part of effective activism is effective communication.

Instead, start by trying to genuinely like and listen to them. If you can’t do this, it’s honestly better not to speak with them about veganism. You’re better off hoping someone else will be able to speak with them about animal rights. If you hurt their feelings, you not only make them more defensive, you make it harder for the next person who has to talk to them about these issues.

If you can find some common ground, or at least some respect for them as people, start asking them WHY. You will get some lame excuses, of course. But remember: it’s their story that interests you. Not the outcome. Try asking them what WOULD make them vegan, not what prevents them from doing it. Share what works for you. They might just recognize the disconnect between what they believe and how they act. That’s how effective activists and communicators operate.

How the vegan consumer activists are getting it right

Some vegans are really good at this. I see a lot of effective activism going on in vegan food, particularly. Vegan chefs create cookbooks and blogs that inspire their audience with colourful photos and creative recipes. Vegan food companies, like Gardein and Daiya make attractive products that have mass market appeal.

Most people creating vegan products want to reach as wide a market as possible, so they present their goods in a way that doesn’t shame consumers. The message is “try this” not “shame on you.” And surprise! It works really well.

For a vegan product to succeed, it must appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike.

Most people who buy Matt & Nat purses do so because they like the designs. A while ago I saw a woman carrying one and asked her about it. Not only was she not vegan, she didn’t even know the purse wasn’t leather! But when she realized the purse was synthetic, she admitted it was just as good as her other purses. She even said she’d buy exclusively non-leather purses if more designers carried them.

Veganism is not a religion, and the long-term goal is not converting people

Sometimes I think vegans can get a bit confused about the real goal of Veganism. We are trying to save the planet and the animals. This won’t be accomplished by turning people vegan (although of course it helps). In reality, Veganism will become the norm when animal products are no longer used or consumed.

This might seem a bit confusing at first.

Gary Francione, for example, believes that the only way to accomplish animal liberation is through “creative non-violent education” – which is great, don’t get me wrong.

But it isn’t the only way to accomplish animal liberation.

“Converting” the entire population isn’t possible, and it’s not even desirable. We aren’t trying to create a planet full of vegans, we are trying to create a vegan planet. There’s a BIG difference. And hopefully, practicing effective activism will get us there sooner.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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