Jon Bockman of Animal Charity Evaluators (formerly Effective Animal Activism) interviewed me last month. The full interview (in two parts) is here; excerpts:
2. You’ve classified some of your methods as utilitarian. Why do you take that approach?
As mentioned in Letter to a Young Matt, after I went vegetarian and got involved in activism, I took the “everything and anything” approach to animal advocacy. I cared about words, philosophy, “consistency.” I wanted to be “right.” It was only after I developed a chronic disease that I came to understand that what we’re doing isn’t a game. It isn’t an argument to be “won.” Activism isn’t a forum for expressing my opinions or demanding my personal desires.
Rather, suffering is real. Suffering is the bottom line, and reducing suffering as much as possible must be the singular goal. To choose the best tactic for reducing suffering as much as possible, all other considerations need to be set aside.
Reducing suffering provides a specific metric by which to set goals and measure progress. Just consider the alternative: no matter how compelling or immediate another campaign might seem, there will be more suffering in the world if we do not pursue utilitarian goals.
I now know, first-hand, that I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to have lived and leave the world with more suffering than if I had made different choices.
3. Lots of people are in favor of reducing animal suffering but consider veganism to be an extreme step that they’re unwilling to take. How do you involve those people?
In his interview with Vegan.com’s Erik Marcus, author Jonathan Safran Foer explained the two motivations for his bookEating Animals: To be useful (not thorough), and to get new people to focus on the first step, not the last.
This is a perfect summary of my view as well. The optimal advocacy tools – booklets, videos, food samplings, etc. – are explicitly focused on getting people to take the first step toward helping animals. And then the next step. And to be able to maintain and expand those changes.
11. If you were to start over in your advocacy career, what are two or three things that you would do differently?
1. Be very careful with what you believe and choose to present to the public. There aren't many honest sources of information, and, as humans, we're quick to believe what we want to believe, and dismiss anything else.
It would have been hard for me to learn this 25 years ago, because I was the epitome of this problem. I was singularly concerned with defending myself / my veganism, rather than actually pursuing effective advocacy to help animals. I believed, and parroted, everything and anything that seemed remotely pro-veg or anti-meat.
Unfortunately, this continues today, with many vegans focused on what makes them feel justified and/or popular with other vegans. For example, Ginny Messina, RD, checks studies promoted by various animal advocacy groups. When she actually reads the anti-red-meat papers (this one, for example), some of these studies also say eating chicken is health-neutral or even beneficial! Think about that – animal advocates promoting studies that show eating chickens is beneficial, just because the study showed negative consequences for red meat.
2. Realize we are going to win. It won't come about from some vegans demanding others go vegan. Rather, we will create the new world we desire through continued constructive and realistic outreach that helps more people take the first steps to help animals. And then the next steps. And to maintain those changes.
Change is occurring and will continue to occur through outreach that is psychologically sound, based in the real world, and integrated into our capitalist society. And then we build methodically on every step and change the world piece by piece.