Nov. 2022 Update: Please see the chapter "The End of Veganism" in Losing My Religions for a more thorough discussion of this topic. Thanks!
The first mistake many of us made is that we have poisoned the brand.
Of course, knowing what happens to animals every day, we are totally and completely justified in being angry.
Rage, fury, and even hatred – these emotions are entirely understandable.
But turning this fury onto people is not the way to have anyone open their heart or mind to the idea of considering their culpability and contemplating change.
This is dead-simple obvious to anyone who has studied psychology or surveyed vegetarians. (“How many of you stopped eating meat because someone yelled 'Go VEGAN, you MURDERER!'? Anyone?”) And yet for the three decades I've been an advocate, there has always been a segment of vegans who have built vast and elaborate rationalizations for basing their “activism” on screaming and hatred (and attacking anyone who is not sufficiently pure and dogmatic).
Thus it is not surprising that research at the University of Arizona's Eller School found that the general public thinks that vegans are annoying (to put it mildly). This recent survey found that vegans are viewed more negatively than atheists, immigrants, homosexuals, and asexuals. The only group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts. Labeling a product “vegan” causes its sales to drop by 70%. (July 2017 update: When Vegan Is a Dirty Word. August 2017 update: Meat-eaters are being put off going veggie because of certain aggressive vegans, says survey. More update: how horrible is this? October update: what vegans think of vegans. May 2018: “Vegan” is the single worst word you can possibly use to describe a product.)
If we are honest, it is clear that the “vegan” brand is damaged beyond repair. And yet many of us insist on pushing the vegan message (and only pushing the vegan message) knowing full well that the vast majority of the populace will reject it without consideration.
Even though most people oppose factory farms, and would be willing to take some step to cut back their support of factory farms, many vegans refuse to take the opportunities we have to offer up a constructive, achievable, and sustainable ask.
For example, when we're making a specific case about certain animals – e.g., that birds are brutalized horribly on today's factory farms, and in numbers far beyond any other species – many of us just can't help but end with a “Go VEGAN!” message, nullifying any chance we had of making a real connection and difference.
Furthermore, even when we don't use the word "vegan" explicitly, we use arguments that, when heard in the real world, leads to many more animals suffering. When we argue health, what people hear is that chicken is much, much healthier than red meat. When we argue the environment, people note that beef is orders of magnitude worse than chicken. Even arguing compassion has pitfalls, as people generally identify much more with mammals.
Although these arguments can seem effective within our community, in the bigger picture, they lead to a lot more animals suffering. The push to replace red meat with chicken – supported by all our arguments – has driven the huge increase in the number of animals factory farmed every year.
However, promoting a poisoned brand and using counter-productive arguments are not even the half of it.
As has been found by a number of surveys, the vast majority of people who go vegetarian eventually go back to eating animals. More than four out of every five individuals who go veg eventually quit!
It would be bad enough to realize that we’re throwing away more than 80% of advocacy efforts. But it is actually worse than that. Everyone who quits being veg becomes an anti-spokesperson against making compassionate choices – a public (and often loud) example opposing taking any steps that help animals.
And why does nearly everyone who goes vegetarian go back to eating animals?
One main reason is that people don't feel healthy. Again, this has been a failing of many of us in the vegan advocacy community. We vigorously insist that all animal products are deadly poison, and promise that eating vegan will cure all our ills. We fail to give people a complete understanding of nutrition, and we also fail to provide them with a reasonable guide to what they can eat that they'll find familiar and satisfying, as well as easy to shop for and prepare.
So it isn't surprising that so many people revert to eating meat. But we go out of our way to make it even worse.
We continually police our little club, attacking everyone who isn't vegan enough, who isn't vegan for the right reason, who isn't outspokenly vegan. We rain our most awful fury on people who have taken steps to change their diet, but aren't yet “fully vegan” (“Dairy? Why are you pro-rape?!?!?”)
Now of course, this doesn't matter if all we care about is the exclusivity of our little club. And we've done a good job of that, given that the percentage of vegetarians has basically not changed in decades, with all the fluctuations within the margin of error.
But if we care even the tiniest amount about the suffering of farm animals, then we simply must admit that the outreach we vegans have done has been an absolute and utter failure.
The facts are stark, and they are brutal. This year in the US, more animals will suffer horrific cruelty on factory farms than ever before. This year, the average American will eat more factory farmed animals than ever before.
Luckily, I believe there is a better way. I hope you will click and consider it.