Friday, February 11, 2011

The Agony of Winning Hearts and Minds: A few thoughts on a recent Facebook exchange...

I had a wonderful Facebook exchange with the good folks at LiveVegan. It was a debate, of sorts, about how best to win the Hearts and Minds of non-vegans. How best to win omnivores and vegetarians over to the cause?

A lot of us not only ask this question, we feel this question very deeply. We know the clock is ticking, and with each passing hour, millions of animals around the world die violent deaths, the victims of customs and traditions and economic markets that have robbed them of their dignity and reduced them to commodities, food, clothes and so forth.

The initial post on the Facebook exchange got me thinking. It said:
Gary Francione's twitter reponse to Woodstock Farm Sanctuary's post about a new study shows sheep are highly intelligent even smarter than primates in some respects: "This suggests that intelligence is morally necessary for personhood. It isn't. Only sentience is." -- GLF

Those of you who have read this Blog in the past know by now that "GLF" - Gary L. Francione - is one of my idols. I've always had huge amounts of respect for him. I always will. There are so many things I admire about him: His brilliance, his humanism, his consistency, his unwavering principles.

But I also know that a lot of omnivores don't know who Gary is, and unless they're looking to convert to veganism (like I did), they're probably not going to ever want to read his work or understand his point of view. Omnivores, with honorable exceptions, tend to circle the wagons. They don't want to hear things that go against their customs and traditions, their ways of doing things. Many wish to continue consuming food and clothing made of animals and they aren't willing to give those things up. Again, there are exceptions - omnivores teetering on the edge of going vegetarian or vegan - but most keep the walls high.

So I posted the following reply:
I agree with Gary Francione that intelligence is not morally necessary for personhood. But I also believe these kinds of studies make omnivores pause and rethink why it is OK to eat some animals (e.g., sheep) and taboo to even consider eating others (e.g., primates).
It triggered a very friendly debate, with the moderator emphasizing the importance of a consistent abolitionist vegan message. I don't disagree with that position necessarily. But I do feel that some flexibility is needed when it comes to winning over omnivores. Hence my follow-up post on Facebook:
Well, I was speaking from personal experience, as someone who went from being an omnivore to being a vegan. When I was thoughtlessly stuffing my face with meat (and other animal products) and I found out how intelligent pigs were... and then I learned that chickens understood math... and I learned that cows formed emotional bonds... (et cetera, et cetera), it did not "reinforce speciesism" in me, Far from it. It made me start to become aware about the centrality of sentientism.

In purely practical terms, I don't know what these sorts of studies do for other omnivores. Back when I was one, this kind of information helped me embrace veganism in a way that simply saying, "This being is sentient, therefore you have no right to use her/him or destroy her/him" could not have accomplished.
The exchange went on - congenial from start to finish - but in the end, I came away feeling despair because it is so hard to get through that Great Omnivore Wall. So many of the people in my life that I love and cherish are omnivores and show no signs of giving it up, despite having a "Black Sheep" vegan in the family. I can tell you one thing: As someone who grew up in a Red State where people love their meat and their eggs, their ice cream and their cheese, talking about "sentient beings" won't likely win them over to the cause. Will anything else win them over? I don't know.

I've heard lots of vegans attack "baby steps." Purists favor an all-or-nothing commitment. I can see why. I concur that strict veganism is the way to go.

But practically speaking, we are dealing with people who don't want to change their ways. The thought of giving up animal-based products - whether meat or cheese or milk or yogurt or cottage cheese or fish or lobster or leather jackets or whatever - seems more stark to them than the suffering of animals. Call them selfish. Call them "set in their ways." Call them destructive. Call them whatever you want. This is the reality that we must confront.

But every day of the week, I read about wonderful animal rights activists struggling to get their message across. They beam their message in a hundred different ways. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stages protests and organizes advertising campaigns that are very "in-your-face." Groups such as Woodstock Farm Sanctuary issue studies about the intelligence of sheep and provide loving safe havens for beautiful animals. Gary Francione crisscrosses North America (and the world) giving lectures, he Blogs, he Twitters, he works endlessly. Philosopher Steven Best, based at the University of Texas at El Paso, advocates more militant forms of direct action. And there are some vegans who press for "flexible veganism" or "flexitarianism" (a.k.a., semi-vegetarianism), thinking that some animal product reduction is better than no animal product reduction.

So who's right? If you think about it, these struggles take on elements of religious and political debates. People argue. Some critique moderates and "welfarists." Others embrace sectarian positions and try to police the tiny vegan movement that does exist. And voices of moderation in the movement lament the presence of militants. Adherents of nonviolence argue with those who advocate more extreme forms of resistance.

Do you know what that makes us? A lot like every other social protest movement in modern history. This is a "Big Tent" movement, or as Walt Whitman might say, "A movement of movements." And yet, I think at the end of the day, most of us in the movement feel - at the very deepest level - the sorrow of losing these beautiful animals who are being obliterated en masse by a brutal social order.

In the end, my final post on Facebook read:
I really like this debate. I think it's a wonderful exchange (and very friendly, which I love). I do consider myself an abolitionist, and I ultimately reject welfarism. I suppose I'm trying to grapple with some of the complexities of winning hearts and minds (which we can all agree isn't easy). There are lots of issues to think about. But I'm glad this is such a lovely community of kindred spirits and we can talk about these things. And I also think veganism has made huge gains in recent years, thanks to lots of wonderful people like you and Gary Francione. I know we're all trying to grapple with the best way to spread the message. And, at the end of the day, I'm not even sure what I said above is right. It breaks my heart to think about all of those animals who are born into such a hellish short and violent existence. I think knowing what's happening to these sentient beings while I'm struggling with how best to convince omnivores of the error of their ways (the clock is ticking, precious lives are being taken) is what's most agonizing in this whole equation.

1 comment:

  1. A very thought provoking and interesting post, thanks for writing it.

    You wrote: "A lot like every other social protest movement in modern history." A truism indeed.

    I remember attending a meeting for going to a voter registration drive in Mississippi, during the civil rights movement heyday, and being astonished at the cacophony of differing opinions about almost everything imaginable. It was rather off-putting.

    Such interactions are, I suspicion, a characteristic of our species (maybe of all sentient beings)...who is going to agree perfectly with someone else(?) (from volunteering at a rabbit rescue shelter, I know damn well rabbits don't do that).

    My notion is that the goal (as you wrote) is to stop "losing these beautiful animals who are being obliterated en masse by a brutal social order." and no one has come up with THE way (because there likely isn't a THE way) to convince folks to do this.

    Part of the reason there is so much resistance is because of the ubiquity of the using of animals by humans. Folks do not like learning that what they think or do is wrong ( and often resist such information.

    Not everyone actively oppressed black people, not everyone actively oppressed women, not everyone owned slaves, therefore there was a group that could support elimination of such oppression or practices without having to also admit they were "wrong" or change what they were doing. Animal use and its elimination may well be a different phenomenon simply because of how widespread it is.

    Knowing the goal means recognizing that there are lots of paths that can be traveled on to arrive there and who cares what path you take as long as you get there....problems will arise, however, when confusion occurs about what is a path and what is a destination.

    Anyway, in the end no one has once and for all, figured out how to get people to change their minds (with all due respect to GLF or anyone else). If such had been discovered...everyone would already think the same way because their minds would have been changed by the wielders of that discovery.