Some Thoughts on Vegan Education

I am going to try to tackle in a preliminary way a subject that generates a fair amount of controversy and about which I get quite a bit of email. The subject, broadly speaking, is how vegans should relate to omnivores given that ethical vegans regard the use of animals as involving serious violations of their rights not to be treated as human resources. Do ethical vegans have an obligation to be confrontational with omnivores and to relate to them the way in which we would relate to those who engage in serious crimes against humans?

In one sense, you can anticipate my answer to this question given that I argue that the primary obligation of animal advocates is to engage in creative, nonviolent vegan education.

It is difficult to educate people about anything if you are confrontational with them. This does not mean that you cannot challenge people. As a law professor for almost 25 years now, I certainly try to challenge my students, but I avoid confronting them as this is the most effective way to ensure that the educational process will not work.

Confrontation is a particularly ineffective way of communicating when people do not even understand the meaning or context of your position. And when it comes to the matter of animal use, most people are entirely in the dark. Taking the position that people should not consume any animal products is similar to telling them that they should not drink water or breathe air.

Think about it.

Most people have been raised to think that it is “natural” or “normal” to eat animal products. They have grown up in homes where an important part of family life has involved sitting around a table and consuming animal parts. Their memories of a deceased and beloved grandparent or other relative are connected to some meat dish that the relative prepared for holidays. They have been raised in religious traditions that have taught them that nonhumans lack “souls” or otherwise are spiritually inferior to humans.

In certain respects, our speciesism is, as a sociological matter, more deeply embedded—and thereby more “invisible”—than some forms of discrimination against other humans. Someone with deeply held racist beliefs may not accept racial equality but understands the concept. Most humans cannot even process the idea of life without any animal products.

To the extent that the animal movement has sought to increase awareness of the problem, its efforts have, for the most part, focused on issues of “humane” treatment. That is, the animal movement does not propose veganism as the “default” position. On the contrary, veganism is characterized as the “difficult” or “heroic” choice. As I discussed in my essay earlier this month (and in other essays on the blog), the animal movement actively encourages the consumption of “happy” meat and animal products.

So when vegans confront omnivores about this issue, they do so not only in the context of a strong cultural and religious tradition that regards animal use as completely normal, but in the context of an animal movement that also regards use as normal and focuses primarily on treatment. Thanks to the modern animal welfare movement, which has appropriated the “animal rights” label, vegans can be dismissed as extremists and confrontation is necessarily counterproductive and not merely ineffective.

If we are going to make progress toward a greater acceptance of veganism, we must educate. And we must educate in a nonviolent, non-confrontational way that takes into account the social, religious, and “movement” realities. This does not mean that our use of animals is anything but a moral outrage; it means only that our efforts to educate about that moral outrage must take into account how the vast majority of humans see this issue.

And that brings me to a final comment. Many of those who support a confrontational approach have friends who are “animal people” and may be “vegetarians” but are not vegans. Perhaps those are the people with whom to take a less flexible approach!

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione


I have been contacted by Jennifer Greene, a Director at Melanie Joy’s “Carnism Awareness and Action Network.”

Ms. Greene apparently thinks that by saying in this essay that “speciesism is, as a sociological matter, more deeply embedded—and thereby more ‘invisible’—than some forms of discrimination against other humans,” I am agreeing with Joy that the ideology that facilitates animal exploitation is “invisible.” Therefore, Ms. Greene does not understand why I am critical of “carnism.”

Ms. Greene fails to note that, as I have written specifically in the context of discussing “carnism,” the ideology that facilitates our exploitation of animals is the animal welfare ideology, which Joy promotes. She is a supporter of the new welfarist groups. Indeed, Joy claims that the abolitionist/welfare divide is a “myth” and that promoting welfare is not a matter of ideology but only a matter of strategy.

I could not disagree more.

The ideology of animal welfare normalizes our speciesism. The welfarist ideology is itself speciesist because it assumes that, other things being equal, it is morally acceptable to use and kill animals and that the primary issue is our treatment of animals. That is an idea that goes back to Bentham and continues through to Singer and is represented in the campaigning of all of the major animal groups. This idea privileges humanlike self-awareness and maintains that animal life has less moral value than human life. To claim that this is not ideological is absurd. If animal exploitation is not morally justifiable, promoting supposedly “humane” exploitation is not a matter of “strategy.” It is a matter of ideology.

Had Ms. Greene bothered to read the entire essay above, she would have seen that in the very next paragraphs, I identified the welfarist ideology as the normalizing speciesism.

To say that the animal welfarist ideology normalizes speciesism and makes speciesism less obvious than some other forms of human discrimination is not to say that the ideology that facilitates exploitation is “invisible.”

I am sorry that Ms. Greene apparently got confused a about my use of “invisible” in this 2007 essay, but I think that the differences between me and Joy are transparently clear.