Sunday, September 06, 2009

Corey Wrenn's critique of Vegan Outreach literature

Roanoke Vegan Examiner

A critique of Vegan Outreach literature

6, 9:37 PMRoanoke Vegan ExaminerCorey Wrenn

Downed calves
                   Downed calves:  direct result of the dairy industry.

Popular utilitarian welfarist group, Vegan Outreach, maintains that in order to help non-human animals now, we must adopt a strategy which aims to reduce suffering, regardless of means.  However, there are critical inconsistencies, misconceptions, and outright misuses of terminology which undermine any real benefit to non-human animals.  Despite their self-designation as a “[…] nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing animal suffering by promoting a vegan lifestyle,” Vegan Outreach in fact hinders veganism with notions of extremism and promotion of reductionism or vegetarianism.

Veganism as Extremist

Vegan Outreach states in their 2009 “Why Vegan” pamphlet:

Being vegan isn’t about being perfect or pure—it’s about reducing suffering (14).
The 2002 version states:

Being vegan isn’t about avoiding a list of ingredients […] (14).
The 2008 Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating furthers that veganism can be difficult:

[…] especially if you try to change too fast or hold yourself to too high a standard.  The important thing is to do the best you can (30).
It’s a good thing that society doesn’t hold the same low standards for rapists.  It would be great news for molesters everywhere if they could avoid moral obligations by simply doing the best they can.

Remember:  Continuing to eat cheese while avoiding meat and eggs does much more good than scrapping the whole idea because you can’t be completely consistent (Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating 30).
The implication in the above quotes is that veganism is somehow difficult, unobtainable, militant, or even utopian.  Rather than defining veganism as a moral refusal to participate in violence or the absolute baseline required for taking the exploitation and use of non-human animals seriously, veganism, is instead framed as one of many opportunities for reducing suffering.  In effect, this statement refutes the moral necessity of veganism and opens the door to reductionism.  If veganism isn’t about being perfect or pure, what’s the harm in sneaking a donut with your morning coffee?

Sneaking that whey-tainted donut might be acceptable for Vegan Outreach:

For instance, it can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to shun every minor or hidden animal-derived ingredient.  More importantly, avoiding an ever-increasing list of these ingredients can make us appear obsessive, and thus lead others to believe that compassionate living is impossible. This defeats our purpose:  ending cruelty to animals!” (Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating 2008: 24)
Apparently having moral consistency and absolute abstinence against an evil is obsessive.  Does the same go for child abuse, rape, murder, or cannibalism?  Would it be acceptable to beat a child to avoid appearing obsessive?  Is it impossible to completely abstain from beating a child?  Of course it is, and there’s nothing obsessive about holding abstinence from violence and wrongdoing as the absolute baseline.

Vegetarianism and Reductionism as Progress

We can already see progress in just the past decade—public concern for farmed animals’ interests and condemnation of factory farms, as well as more vegetarians, near-vegetarians, and vegetarian products (A Meaningful Life:  Making a real Difference in Today’s World 2008: 14)
Is reductionism and vegetarianism really progress?  Is the underlying moral injustice being addressed if we continue to participate in non-human animal use?  Is the focus on factory farms and the ignoring of exploitation in “humane” farming progress?

Despite the organization’s name, “Vegan” Outreach, the organization is merely an animal advocacy organization which utilizes veganism as one of many tools to reduce suffering:

In order to prevent the most suffering, it’s important we each take an approach we can sustain.  After reviewing this booklet, some people may decide to go vegan immediately; others may choose to eat fewer animal products and explore more vegetarian meals.  […] …veganism is best viewed as a tool for reducing suffering (Why Vegan 200914).
The notion of veganism, vegetarianism, and reductionism as mere tools is perhaps most evident in their publication and distribution of the “Try Vegetarian!” pamphlet:

[…] eating vegetarian is likely the most effortless—and enjoyable!—way to have a profoundly positive impact as often as every day” (Try Vegetarian 2003).
As an organization that openly advocates vegetarianism, is it really appropriate to operate under the name, “Vegan Outreach?”

Vegan Outreach’s 2008 “Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating,” intended for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans alike, presents a results-based approach:
When you first discover the reality of modern animal agriculture, avoiding all producers from factory farms might seem too big a change.  But don’t be overwhelmed—just take small steps.  For example, you could eliminate meat from certain meals or on certain days.  As you get used to eating less meat and find alternatives you enjoy, it may become easier to eliminate meat altogether (Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating 2008: 3).
As a vegan outreach organization, it seems strange that veganism is not promoted as a baseline, but here, reductionism is suggested to be morally acceptable and consistent. Furthermore, this statement specifically targets factory farming.  Support of “humane” farming, then, could logically be assumed by readers to constitute a “small step.”  After all, it’s all about reducing suffering, right?

Ultimately, living with compassion means striving to maximize the good we accomplish, not following a set of rules or trying to fit a certain label.  From eating less meat to being vegan, our actions are only a means to an end:  decreasing suffering (Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating 2008: 3)
Can reduction of suffering ever truly be accomplished and can abolition of non-human animal use ever be reached so long as so-called vegan organizations maintain that the exploitation of non-human animals is sometimes acceptable?

For every person you persuade to become vegetarian, dozens of farmed animals will be spared from suffering each year! (A Meaningful Life 2008: 23)
The argument that vegetarianism somehow makes a real difference for non-human animals is an empirical fallacy.  There is no continuum whereby vegetarians necessarily progress to veganism.  Further, vegetarianism does nothing to challenge the property status of non-human animals.  Often, vegetarianism causes more suffering than it reduces in that many vegetarians simply replace non-human animal flesh with non-human animal excretions.  Milk, eggs, and other non-flesh non-human animal products involve far more suffering than that of flesh.

Veganism as the Moral Baseline

Vegan Outreach posits:

The question isn’t, “Is this vegan?” but, “What is best for preventing suffering?” (Guide to Cruelty-Free Eating 3)
The answer to that question is:  “GO VEGAN.”  Veganism is the only moral choice if we truly want to reduce suffering, respect the moral standing of non-human animals, and ultimately reach total abolition of non-human animal use.  There’s nothing hard about it, there’s nothing obsessive about it, and there’s nothing inconsistent about it.
More About: abolition · animal rights · welfarism

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At 9:44 AM , Blogger Burntsugar said...

Highly savvy mass marketers (who have been so successful at altering and shaping consumer behavior) understand the psychology of human decision-making and change. Advertisers work to move consumers along the stages of change which are sometimes defined like this:

1. Unengaged (no interest, no thoughts of change)
2. Dabbler (some interest, no action)
3. Dabbler Plus (some interest, some action)
4. Engaged (interest plus action)

These marketers recognize that people most often do not "change overnight" but rather go through periods of transition. They understand the psychology behind each stage of "readiness" and adjust their messaging in order to maximize conversion to the next stage.

In my opinion, Vegan Outreach is trying to reach the "unengaged" and the "dabblers" and move them along the process towards becoming fully "engaged" (i.e. vegan). While their material focuses on reducing suffering, they are quite clear that eggs and milk and even "humane" products cause tremendous suffering. They are cleverly asking very little of the reader (reduce suffering) while providing them evidence of how their diets cause suffering and leaving the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. And most people, once made aware of the horrific suffering we inflict on animals, will not be satisfied at causing only "less" of it.

Change is more lasting and sincere when it results from the reasoning of an individual's own logic, and they are less likely to be defensive or reject the argument because they have drawn the connections themselves.

Can we reach the "unengaged" and "Dabblers" with messages of pure veganism? Abolition? Animals as Persons? This remains to be seen. In my experience, leading with this argument only brings up a host of complex defenses about abortion, God, animals getting the vote, cancer research, and so on.

While so many people still think that animals are "objects" and believe that we'd die without meat and seems like a big leap to make. Whereas focusing on animal suffering is something most people can understand and will want to prevent.

The abolitionist argument is ideal for retaining vegans, but not necessarily for recruiting them. It's just too many steps ahead, imo.

And while I completely understand the desire to compare eating animals to murder and rape and to say, "well, do we encourage LESS rape? Is it ok to encourage FEWER murders?" the fact is that rape and murder are considered to be societal evils -- whereas eating animals is (unfortunately) not. So people immediately get defensive when we link those behaviors together.

People want to think of themselves as kind. By pointing out that our diets cause needless suffering to animals, Vegan Outreach is hoping to tap into that consciousness and start people on the path towards the abolitionist message.

Most of us who have arrived at the stage of understanding and embracing abolition, did so after a period of transition and reflection, study and thought. Often, most of us came to veganism the same way - starting first by reducing our consumption of certain animal products, then going vegetarian, then vegan.

Of course, this is not true for everyone, but I believe it's true for the majority. The problem is that our exploitation of animals is so entrenched in our minds, that it often takes multiple messages and revelations before we can arrive at fully comprehending and embracing the abolitionist approach.

Vegan Outreach strives to reach the "unengaged" and the "dabblers" while Francione appeals to the "dabbler-pluses" and the already "engaged."

Instead of criticizing Vegan Outreach's approach, abolitionists should be grateful for the awareness they are promoting and get ready to "accept the pass" and carry the ball to the next stage of understanding.

At 12:55 PM , Blogger VeganGirlInTheWorld said...

I fervently agree with this essay. I received a similar pamphlet when I was a vegetarian. I took the loop hole the pamphlet offered me, and I bought free range eggs. It wasn't until later that I discovered the loop hole was indeed a lie, and veganism was the ONLY option if I truly took animals seriously. Why are we promoting ANYTHING that involves animal torture, death and exploitation?! Rather than trying to appeal to people who are not ready, or who don't care all that much, lets appeal to the people who ARE ready and who DO care. There are A LOT of those people! They just haven't made the connection yet. And never will as long as we are NOT giving them the truth and NOT making veganism the moral base line. Veganism IS easy. I know people who HAVE gone vegan literally overnight. The truly frustrating fact, is that some of these people are not even animal advocates. So, WHY are there still SO many "animal advocates" who aren't vegan?!!! If you give people a loop hole, (and a false one at that,) they will take it.

At 3:01 AM , Blogger Burntsugar said...

Vegan Outreach materials do not endorse "free range" or "happy" meat and actually disclose how those labels are misleading (and how male chicks & calves are still disposed of as unwanted byproducts of the industry, etc....)

I agree with you that veganism is the only option if we truly take animals interests seriously. The question then, is: what is the most effective way to get 99% of the population (who are not vegan) to start taking animals interests seriously? I believe Vegan Outreach does a good job by focusing on something we can all immediately understand (and which most people oppose) which is animal suffering.

I disagree that we should only appeal to those who "ARE ready and who DO care." (And we might ask ourselves, how did those people get to that stage anyway? What did they see/read/hear that caused them to care? For me, it was a flier outlining the link between dairy and veal -- not the more abstract ideas of use, personhood or rights. I simply wouldn't have been ready to absorb those concepts back then.) That's why I believe we need to have distinct and effective messaging designed to reach people at every stage of readiness help move them towards being vegan and taking animal interests seriously.

BTW - I share your frustration over "animal advocates" who are not vegan. :-(


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