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Animals, Not Arguments

When I went vegan 20+ years ago, a common theme was to “win an argument with a meat eater.” Every topic was fair game, and every question or theory – no matter how tangential or absurd – was argued fanatically.

I fell into this trap, too, believing and parroting the most outrageous claims about impotence, water usage, etc. It took me a long time to realize the point isn’t to show how many claims I had memorized, or to glorify my veganism, or to “defeat” a meat eater.

Rather, the bottom line is to help animals by helping more people make informed, compassionate choices.

However, many dubious “pro-veg” claims continue to float around today, undermining effective advocacy for the animals.

For example, some vegans feel the need to claim that veganism is “natural” (whatever that might mean). To this end, the vegan diet (as though there is a single vegan diet) has to be perfect in and of itself, no planning required, and no supplements.

This leads to one of the most harmful fantasies: that we don’t need to worry about particular nutrients, especially vitamin B12.

Jack Norris has worked against this delusion for as long as Vegan Outreach has existed. But still, there are people more committed to dreams than reality, as evidenced by Jack’s continual need to address the latest incarnation of this insidious myth. (If you aren’t familiar with Jack’s research on B12, please be sure to check out his post, and the links therein.)

Of course, I understand the desire to believe that veganism is our natural diet (and would cure baldness, feed the hungry, bring world peace, etc.).

But our goal isn’t to show how awesome veganism is; what is important is saving animals. To do this requires an honest evaluation of reality, from the nutritional aspects of veganism to the possibilities and psychology of how people can and do change.

Still, many activists think, “If one argument for vegetarianism is good, then ten are better, and 100 are even better!”

But this is actually the opposite of how human psychology works. An argument for significant change isn’t strengthened by volume. Rather, any case for change is a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Every additional argument offered to a non-vegetarian both dilutes and distracts from the strongest argument for making compassionate choices.

So instead of being left with the concrete, indisputable connection to cruelty, the case presented by many activists leaves meat-eaters thinking, “Yeah, maybe I should get a chicken sandwich instead of that burger;” “What I eat isn’t really going to impact someone starving in Africa;” “What I eat isn’t really going to affect global warming;” “This reminds me of that story explaining how chicken is so much more environmentally friendly than beef;” “Gawd, what a fanatic – like I’m gonna eat only unprocessed fruits and vegetables;” “They think animals are more important than people!”

As we’ve said before, meat-eaters are the only ones in a position to save animals in the future. We have to engage them in a realistic, constructive, and honest manner, not glorify ourselves or impress other vegans.

Just as I appreciate the desire to believe veganism has magical powers, I realize that it can be hard to be vegan in this society. For example, I recently heard one woman’s story of being harassed at work by people deliberately eating meat right in front of her, sending crude anti-animal emails to her workgroup, etc. So I understand the desire to defend our personal veganism with an endless litany of arguments, so as to “win an argument with a meat-eater.”

But again, defending ourselves / winning an argument is actually the opposite of how best to create real change for the animals in today’s society. Any time we offer an argument that can be debated (caloric conversion ratios, water usage, mortality / disease rates, relative carbon footprints / nutrition quality, etc.), the animals lose.

Whenever I mention that we must stay focused on the indisputable bottom line of cruelty to animals, some folks reply: “But my Uncle Bubba doesn’t care about animals! I have to appeal to his self interest! Suzy at Meetup said she went veg for health reasons, so it obviously works!”

It is hard to accept, but in the best case scenario, Uncle Bubba is irrelevant to our current work for the animals – he will be dead long, long before he could possibly become the impediment to a vegetarian society.

But more likely, our insistence on searching for and promoting the “magic” argument that “appeals to everyone” will lead Uncle Bubba to eat many, many more animals, for “health” reasons – as well as reinforcing the idea that we should only do what we feel is in our best interest.

When I stopped eating animals, about five billion birds were killed in the US each year. Now it is almost ten billion – all because of “self interest.” We advocates obsess over the fact that “the health argument” convinced raw foodist Suzy at Meetup, and we conveniently ignore our culpability for the near doubling of animals slaughtered for “healthy” food.

It is simply wrong, on every level, to turn a blind eye to the huge increase in the number of animals suffering, and the reason behind that horror.

Let me emphasize again: I want to do whatever I can to reduce the number of animals suffering. I totally sympathize with the desire to find the perfect self-centered argument that will appeal to more people.

But we can only help animals by being more interested in reality than our personal desires. How powerful an argument seems to us is irrelevant. Only by working in the real world and convincing more non-vegetarians to make net positive change can we really help animals.

The facts are simple, stark, and indisputable:

1. At this time, there simply is no magic argument that will convince everyone – or even a majority – to go vegan.**

2. The health argument, as it is actually interpreted and acted on in the real world by non-vegetarians, has killed many many more animals than it spared.

3. Every additional argument we present to meat-eaters gives them more distance between themselves and their real and immediate connection to the brutality on factory farms.

The question we must each ask is: Will we work for the animals in the world as it is, or live in the feel-good vegan echo chamber? Each of us can make a real, significant difference. But we can’t afford to make my past mistakes or try to win an argument. Rather, we must focus on the animals.

-Matt Ball

** To be clear: the point is not that we must use multiple arguments to reach different people. Rather, for the majority of people today, there is no argument at all that will convince them to go vegan.

For the reasons discussed above (e.g., the chain example), trying to use multiple arguments (even if they were valid) makes us less effective advocates with the people who actually are open to making changes for the animals. Furthermore, as disussed in some of the links above (and here and here), many of these arguments can do active harm to the animals, when their overall net impact is assessed. Again, these arguments often reinforce the idea that everyone should be motivated only by self interest, and lead enough people to change from eating large animals to smaller animals to more than offset the good of those who do change for non-cruelty-related reasons.

Therefore, we must always assess the total impact of our advocacy on all animals – not just whether an argument sounds good to us or a few individuals we happen to know. Regardless of how a story, study, or claim sounds to us, if there is any chance it could lead non-vegetarians to eat more chickens and/or fish, we should not promote it.