Mainstream Animal Advocacy Messages Framed By Those Doing The Harm
I recently spoke with a highly respected activist connected to those who lead the largest animal advocacy organizations, discussing how these groups are now only asking others to “go vegetarian” and “cut down on” consuming animals (reducetarianism), rather than promoting veganism. He told me something that I intuitively knew but never fully digested: these organizations inform their advocacy decisions based on market research. In other words, when determining how best to encourage people to stop exploiting animals, they ask those doing the exploiting how we should craft our message to them.
Let that sink in for a moment and ask yourself how that would look with any other social justice movement. Do you think the Black Lives Matter folks conduct surveys with white racists in an effort to determine how we can end racial injustice? Do feminists conduct focus groups with sexist men about how we can best end patriarchy and violence against women? Of course not! It is absurd to ask those doing the oppressing how we should talk to them to encourage them to stop the oppression.
Of course, when we ask a non-vegan how we should engage in advocacy, they will tell us that we should only ask them to cut down on eating animal “products.” They would prefer that we never mentioned the word “vegan” at all because it makes them uncomfortable. This is why mainstream animal advocacy organizations are now calling for reducetarianism and vegetarianism rather than veganism. They can engage in their advocacy while not upsetting a very large potential donor base that funds their organizations and salaries.
We should not stop short of asking others to go vegan by suggesting that they go vegetarian or reducetarian instead because it makes them more comfortable. Being comfortable does not bring about the radical shift that we need for animals. We need to help the broader society step out of its comfort zone and ultimately reject the injustice we expose animals to in our use and abuse of them. Nonhuman animals deserve justice and an end to their use, not market researchers who are asking those engaging in the injustice how we can best talk to them.
Let’s do a thought experiment, just for the vegans. Think back to before you were vegan, when the plight of nonhuman animals wasn’t even on your radar. Maybe you willfully ignored what was happening to them or maybe you were just uninformed and unaware. Now imagine that a large animal advocacy group randomly contacts you, asking that you help lead a heavily funded campaign to end nonhuman animal exploitation. Do you think you are qualified to lead such an effort? Or do you think that your present self, as a vegan with a different perspective, might be more up to the task? Of course one is better positioned to know how to frame an animal rights message when we have some concept of the injustice that animals experience.
We have our greatest success in helping others go vegan if we discuss the implications of what we do to animals; the ethical argument is by far our strongest one. Large advocacy groups with access to considerable resources and large followings tell others that we should be asking people to reduce – rather than end – their exploitation, diluting our collective vegan message of social justice and undermining the ethical argument. Too many people are being taught that animal exploitation is okay in moderation, and that the best approach to having a vegan world is to not talk about veganism at all. Be aware of the source of this wrong-headed advocacy approach: pandering by large animal advocacy groups to those engaging in the exploitation.
Our movement should not be guided by the preferences of those who never want to see the end to exploitation of animals. It may help bring in donations to the large groups by those who are thankful that we don’t ask them to go vegan, but it is certainly not good for nonhuman animals. It’s time we as a movement collectively treat animal use as an issue of social justice.
Casey is co-owner of Vegan Publishers, Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, and staff psychologist at the National Center for PTSD in the VA Boston Healthcare System. He’s an internationally recognized researcher in the area of violence prevention, winning prestigious awards for his work from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific reports, and has a book forthcoming on trauma-informed violence prevention, published by the American Psychological Association.