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