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Be Joyous and Humble: An Interview with Matt Ball

This 2002 interview with Matt Ball, cofounder and executive director of Vegan Outreach, is reprinted from an independent zine; it’s also available in traditional and simplified Chinese.

See also: Interview with Matt Ball by EarthSave Portland.

What do you feel are the most successful forms of activism and spreading the message to people about veganism?

Anything that gets thorough information to people in such a way that they can "digest" it at their own pace and on their own terms. We don’t want to "Win an argument with a meat eater." As Dale Carnegie says in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, "The only way to win an argument is to avoid it."

The information must be compelling to the extent that it can overcome habit, peer-pressure, convenience, etc. Additionally, the information must be delivered in a way that will not make people skeptical. In other words: If a person can dismiss even one sentence as "propaganda," they can use it as a psychological wedge to ignore the entire message.

Matt Ball

Finally: our goal isn’t to have people simply stop eating animals for only a brief period. We need people to stay vegetarian. From honest nutritional information to addressing issues of convenience, stemming the tide of failed vegetarians is vital.

Do you feel the vegetarian/animal rights movement is moving in a positive or negative direction?

This is a complicated question that can’t really be addressed in this space without resorting to simplifications and stereotypes.

To some extent, I think one could distinguish between the "vegetarian" and the "animal rights" movements. About six years ago, I was interviewed regarding the former, and I said that I didn’t think there was a vegetarian movement – just a lot of standing around. I think there is some movement now, but, unfortunately, this has brought along with it people trying to "out-pure" one another. Often, vegetarian gatherings and conferences are reduced to the raw foodists and the ingredientists (those seeking ever more connections to animal products in apparently vegan foods and products) trying to outdo each other. And then there are the vegans who consider non-vegan vegetarians “the enemy.”

I think the more interesting developments have been on the animal rights / liberation side of things. Of course, I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the animal advocacy movement has started to realize that 99% of the animals killed in the U.S. die to be eaten. The annual increase in the number of land animals factory farmed each year has been greater than the total number of animals killed in laboratories, for fur, and in shelters – combined.

Although the numbers are numbing, and advocacy on the issue more complicated, more and more activists are realizing that the suffering of these farmed animals – especially birds and pigs – rivals that of any other animal. I think it is possible that 2001–2002 will be recognized as when the U.S. animal rights movement shifted its focus to farmed animals. Professor Singer’s keynote at AR2002 is a good example.

Do you feel vegetarianism is gaining more popularity?

In one respect, sure. I think more young people are vegetarian than ever. But I fear that the number of older people staying veg is not changing. Despite the much greater visibility and convenience of vegetarianism and veganism, it would almost appear that it is difficult (but not impossible) to be a mainstream middle-aged vegetarian. One either reverts to a more standard diet, or one tends to marginalize themselves. Luckily, Vegan Outreach has a great core of members of all ages who are dedicated to alleviating and reducing suffering through positive, constructive outreach.

Matt Ball What does the future hold?

I’m afraid that the near-term holds more of the same, with moralizing vegans defending their religion / superiority against the impure – the impure being anyone not as "vegan" as they. For example, I got the following message recently: "I consider you a traitor to our cause. Your theories and rationalizations are ridiculous. You claim to be a proponent of veganism, but you never fail to criticize veganism. You attack those elements of the Animal Rights movement who actually have courage, something you lack completely. One day, we will all account for our lives. I pity you on that day."

On the other hand, I am encouraged by all the selfless, dedicated people who are working to make the animals’ case. More people are realizing that we aren’t going to chant and scream animal liberation into existence.

Do you believe that one day we will all be vegans?

Humanity will one day view killing animals as we currently view human slavery. A mixture of ethics, economics, and technology will bring this about. When this will happen – I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Looking at the failures of many who have tried to predict the future is very humbling.

What are some of the most recent achievements of Vegan Outreach?

I believe that our new Vegan Starter Pack makes an excellent case for practicing the type of "veganism" that will succeed in spreading a vegan ethic to more than a handful of people.

The new version of Why Vegan? will be, I’m sure, a more effective advocacy tool. Many vegans may not like it because we cut a number of sections from it. But from a marketing / psychological perspective, throwing everything pro-veg into a booklet is a recipe for confusion and unreadability.

What types of arguments or points do you suggest bringing up when talking to a person about veganism for the first time?

Don’t argue. Offer information, and be honest and humble. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People (or at least the excerpts we’ve included in Vegan Spam [VO’s enewsletter] over the last few months).

Matt Ball

What types of things do you suggest NOT be done when reaching out to people or doing activism?

Don’t be self-righteous. No one is perfect, no one has all the answers.

Is there any reason whatsoever to eat meat?

Meat isn’t the issue. It isn’t "evil" or "wrong" or "poison."

Similarly, veganism is not nirvana. It is not "good" – it is only a tool, one tool among many, by which to reduce suffering.

The suffering of animals that become meat is the bottom line.

Any final comments or suggestions for those helping to spread the word about veganism?

Be joyous and have humility. Be an example of a life that others would admire and be interested in understanding.