Those who are successful in making the world a better place are students of human nature. They understand that each of us is born with a certain intrinsic nature, raised to follow specific beliefs, and taught to hold particular prejudices. Over time, we discover new “truths” and abandon others, altering our attitudes, principles, and values.
Even though we can recognize that our belief system changes over time, at any given point, most of us believe our current opinions are “right” – our convictions well founded, our actions justified. We each want to think we are, at heart, a good person. Even when, years later, we find ourselves reflecting on previously held beliefs with a sense of bemusement (or worse), it rarely occurs to us that we may someday feel the same way toward the attitudes we now hold.
Effective advocates understand this evolution of people’s views. They also recognize they can’t change anyone’s mind. No matter how elegant an argument, real and lasting change comes only when others are free to explore new perspectives. Of course, there is no magic mechanism to bring this about. The simplest way to encourage others to open their hearts and minds is for our hearts and minds to be open, believing in our own potential to learn and grow. I believe sincerity and humility are imperative for advocates, because no one has all the answers.
In his book Painism, Richard Ryder points out, “At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure can dominate pain.” Because of this, I believe reducing suffering is the ultimate good, and must be our bottom line.
As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings, such as revulsion and outrage, are understandable and entirely justified. However, the question isn’t what is warranted, but rather, what actually helps animals. I have known hundreds of outraged activists who insisted, “Animal liberation by any means necessary! I’m willing to do anything!” Yet few of these people are still working toward animal liberation today.
If we truly want to have a fundamental, lasting impact on the world, we must deal with our emotions in a constructive way. We need to ask ourselves:
- Are we willing to direct our passion, rather than have it rule us?
- Are we willing to put the animals’ interests before our personal desires?
- Are we willing to focus seriously and systematically on effective advocacy?
It is not enough to be a vegan, or even a dedicated vegan advocate. We must remember the bottom line – reducing suffering – and actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. Just as we need everyone to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our sorrow and anger to optimal advocacy. We must learn “how to win friends and influence people,” so that we leave everyone we meet with the impression of a joyful individual leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.
I’m not saying we should put on an act of being happy. Rather, as thoughtful activists, we can truly be happy!
Looking at the long arc of history, we see how much society has advanced in just the last few centuries. It was over two thousand years ago that the ideals of democracy were first proposed in ancient Greece, but only during the eighteenth century did humanity see even the beginnings of a truly democratic system. Not until late in the nineteenth century was slavery officially abolished in the developed world. In all of human history, only in the last hundred years was child labor abolished in the developed world, child abuse criminalized, women given the vote, and minorities given more rights.
Many people worked diligently to bring about those ethical advances for humanity. Because of the number of individuals suffering and the reason for this hidden brutality, I believe animal liberation is the moral imperative of our time. If we take suffering seriously and commit to optimal advocacy, we too can bring about fundamental change. We can already see progress in just the past decade – public concern for farmed animals’ interests and condemnation of factory farms leading to countless welfare reforms, as well as more near-vegetarians and vegetarian products. Our advocacy’s focus, tools, and programs have also improved immensely during that time.
Animal liberation can be the future. As the magazine The Economist concluded, “Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than ‘civilized’ behavior requires.”
We can be the generation to bring about this next great ethical advance. We should revel in the freedom and opportunity we have to be part of something so profound, something fundamentally good. This is as meaningful and joyous a life as I can imagine!