Vegan Elitism: Ronnie Lee on “Ordinary People”

A very typical message we get from many “animal advocates” is that we can’t say that veganism is a moral baseline. That is, we can’t say that veganism is a moral obligation and a moral imperative. We can only promote reducing suffering. People just won’t understand it or be able to process the vegan position. People must be manipulated and not educated. And we understand their inability “get it.” After all, they’re not as smart or as good as we are.

Would you like an excellent example of this completely reactionary, elitist, and patronizing attitude?

Ronnie Lee, who founded the Animal Liberation Front, and who calls himself a “socialist animal liberationist,” responded in a blog post to a suggestion that animal advocates promote vegetarianism rather than veganism because the latter is just too “radical.”

Lee had this to say:

I feel there’s a strong case for the toe-in-the-water approach you suggest, Mark. Nick Cooney mentions this in his excellent Science of Animal Advocacy talk ( I attended a similar presentation by Nick in Birmingham a few months ago and was very impressed by what he had to say because, like myself, he believes we need to take into account the limitations of ordinary people and understand how they really operate in order to change their behaviour, rather than bestowing intellectual and moral abilities on them that they don’t, in reality, possess.

Here’s a screenshot from the actual blog post in case you find the quote as unbelievable as I did:

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So “ordinary people” don’t possess sufficient “intellectual and moral abilities”?

That is, as the Brits say, bollocks. And coming from someone who calls himself a “socialist.” Lee’s comment is about as reactionary as reactionary gets.

I don’t expect more from Nick Cooney, who works for Mercy for Animals–a group that openly promotes “happy” exploitation and that joined Peter Singer in inaugurating the “happy” exploitation movement in 2005:

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Mercy for Animals regularly partners with industry to peddle the fantasy that we can exploit “compassionately.” Here’s a recent advertisement promoting Walmart sent out by MFA Executive Director, Nathan Runkle:

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The business model of these groups involves rejecting veganism as a moral imperative in favor of promoting the idea that veganism is just one way of reducing suffering–along with crate-free pork, cage-free eggs, vegetarianism, Meatless Monday, etc. They all are all equally valid. And they trot out Cooney, who cites studies and doctrines that he either does not understand or that he blatantly misrepresents so that he can assure everyone that not promoting veganism as a moral baseline will eventually get people to see that veganism is the moral baseline. But it will take time and manipulation and promoting “happy” exploitation in the meantime.

That’s a great business model if you want to keep your donor pool as large as possible. And I do understand that these corporate charities need to bring in a great deal of money so that they can employ lots of people who have jobs as paid “activists.” These groups, in effect, sell licenses so that people can continue consuming animals with a stamp of approval from these animal welfare groups. All any nonvegan has to do is to buy crate-free pork from Walmart and make a donation and they can be “compassionate” consumers. They can be “animal advocates.”

That’s a terrible model if you want to shift the paradigm away from animals as property and toward animals as persons and educate people about why veganism is the only rational response to recognizing that animals matter morally.

But I expected more from Ronnie Lee. I don’t agree with Lee about a number of things but I am really disappointed to see him buy into the completely reactionary and elitist idea peddled by the bloated corporate charities–that the “ordinary people” are just not smart enough or moral enough to be at “our” level. Lee claims to be a supporter of social justice. How about justice for “ordinary people”? How about not buying into the corporate welfarist view that people are all stupid and immoral? How about educating people in an honest and straightforward manner that respects both their intelligence and their moral sensibilities?

In 2010, I did a blog post/podcast in which I outlined the Abolitionist Approach to Education:

Principle #1: People are good at heart.
Our default position when we talk with people ought to be that they are good at heart, and interested in, and educable about, moral issues. There is a tendency among at least some advocates to have a very misanthropic view of other humans and to see them as being inherently immoral or uninterested in issues of morality. I disagree with that view.

Principle #2: People are not stupid.
There is a tendency among animal advocates to believe that the general public is not able to understand the arguments in favor of veganism and that we must “go easy” and instead of talking about veganism, we should talk about vegetarianism, “Meat Free Monday,” “happy” meat and animal products, etc. I disagree with this very elitist way of thinking about other people. There is no mystery here; there is nothing complicated. People can understand if we teach effectively.

Principle #3: Do not get defensive; respond, don’t react.
Yes, some people will try to provoke us or will ask questions or make comments that we find insulting or that we take not to be serious. If someone is really not interested in what we are saying, they will, as a general matter, walk away. Treat every comment and question—even the ones you find abrasive, rude, or sarcastic—as an invitation being offered to you by someone who is more provoked (in a positive way) by you and engaged than you might think.

Principle #4: Do not get frustrated. Education is hard work.
You will get the same question many times; you will be asked questions that indicate you must start at the beginning with someone. But if you want to be an effective educator, you have to answer every question as if it is the first time you heard it. If you want others to be enthusiastic about your message, you have to be enthusiastic about it first.

Principle #5: Learn the basics. You have to be a student first before you become a teacher.
Many animal advocates become excited about abolitionist veganism and the next thing that happens is that they set up a website or start a blog that is motivated by the right feelings but not informed by clear ideas. Before you teach others, learn about the basics.It’s not hard to learn the basics; anyone can do so.

In any event, one of the things I have learned is that “ordinary people” get it. They get it just fine. The arguments for veganism as a moral imperative are perfectly intelligible to anyone who cares enough to listen. Indeed, most people understand the idea that it’s wrong to inflict suffering on animals for reasons of pleasure or amusement, or convenience even if they don’t otherwise accept the egalitarianism of a true animal rights approach. That is precisely why people respond the way they do to people like Michael Vick and Mary Bale.

If we are going to change the world, we need to encourage critical thinking and not support the business model of the large, bloated welfare corporations, which portrays “ordinary people” as too stupid or too morally depraved to understand a simple message:

If you agree that animals matter morally, if you agree that animals aren’t just things that don’t matter morally, then, at the very least, you cannot justify imposing suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure, including palate pleasure, or mere convenience.


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University

©2015 Gary L. Francione


At my debate with Tony Wardle of Viva! in London at VegFest on October 11, 2015, Tony declared that “single mums” could not understand veganism as a moral principle. You can watch the debate here:

Tony tells us about “single mums” at at about 5:40 into this fascinating debate.