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On Applied Linguistics and Vegan Education

I revel in those few moments each year when I get to use the education I paid so dearly for through both work (doctoral fellowship) and loans.

You can always tell if you've miscommunicated by the responses you receive. It's clear from the responses I received to "On the Seemingly Silly Questions I Ask" that I could have done a better job explaining myself. I'll try again, as I think this is an important issue (it's my personal lens, so it's more important to me than anyone else, I'd imagine).

First, a note on Stephen Baker's The Numerati, which is about people who are decoding the patterns of human behavior. Outliers are, by definition, difficult to figure out because they don't follow the rules. Using a computer system to find the pattern in an outlier group could take considerable time, and it's not as if that's an option for vegans anyway, so I was trying to come up with some ideas with your help.

The pattern, I want to emphasize, does not equal the path. I'm sure there are dozens of paths to veganism, and that's a different issue. The pattern is the "why" that a significant number of those paths share–not the "what."

So we are critical thinkers, maybe. But why?
We include animals in our circle of compassion. But why?
We don't follow the herd. But why?
We don't exhibit blind obedience to authority. But why?

And this is where Applied Linguistics comes in. It's the study of native and second language acquisition and how the way we approach the learning of a language applies to the learning of other things. And in this case, it seems that language itself is an important component.

A brief story that is unbelievable, yet not . . .

A childhood friend is now a professor of philosophy and ethics at what is probably the world's most famous university. He eats animals and sees no reason not to. He is not moved by Bentham or Singer. He has never heard of Francione, but I suspect he'd have the same reaction. Here's why (or at least a symptom of why): He doesn't view nonhumans as "somebodies." He views cows as food and thinks they are tasty and finds nothing wrong with eating them. Despite his chosen field of study, and his considerable education, his language is where he gets stuck. A cow isn't "someone," therefore the statement, "I don't hurt anyone unless I have to" is true for him (don't even get me started on workers rights). In this way, despite his education and profession, he is quite like the average omnivore. So education and interest in ethics are irrelevant, as no one has helped him redefine "humane" (he thinks it's fine to eat animals as long as we treat them "humanely"), compassion, sentient being, nonviolence, social justice, etc . . . I haven't heard from him since I raised the issue of how he defines these words (but it ain't over yet).

Years of studying ethics and philosophy haven't triggered anything in this man's mind, and he, by the way, was always an outlier in some way. Trust me when I say you'd never have guessed what his beliefs are. He even has the stereotypical vegan look about him. It's fascinating and makes me wonder how we can better frame our message. If we haven't convinced him, whom I would think would be easily convinced (and clearly that theory was a mistake), what hope have we of convincing John and Josie Q Public?

From The Numerati:

  • Regarding your community, "For some, our community extends to animals. Yet just imagine the blank looks a politician will receive in certain quarters if she evokes a community that includes pigeons and pilot whales. Some voters will write her off as an alien. Yet for others, she's a kindred soul" (71).
  • "For some, the word justice means executing murderers. For others, it's giving poor children equal opportunities in school" (71). And of course, for yet others, it's not about execution, it is about equal opportunity, and it's also about not killing anyone when you don't have to.
  • "People now shop for neighborhoods, religions, and cuisines that suit their lifestyle. Should you keep preparing the chimichangas or goulash your grandmother made or become a vegan? It's a choice" (74). If you have chosen nonviolence as a lifestyle, you would become vegan (and that's not the only lifestyle marker that would lead to that, of course). But the outlier question is: why does someone choose nonviolence or social justice or compassion as a lifestyle choice?

In The Outliers, Gladwell discusses what the best hockey players in Canada have in common. They're the strongest, the most agile, the best players, but why? They received the best training. But why? They were good at hockey since early childhood. But why? He travels back and back and finds that they were born in January, February or March. But how on Earth does that make them better? It doesn't. What makes them better is that fact, combined with the fact that they have one league, based on the calendar year. So the kids born in January are with the kids born in December, and when you're seven-years old that's a big difference in physical and mental maturity. So the kids born in the first quarter have an advantage that is repeated year after year, giving them a compounded advantage. They get more and better attention and training and become better because of that, and because they started with an advantage.

What led to them being the best was an accident of birth and the way the league is set up.

My question is: We have vegans from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, many faces and ethnicities. If we go back and back and back and discover what made them have a propensity toward veganism and why/how that propensity was created, that helps us design a vegan education program that increases the odds of being successful.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Mary, haven't been commenting, but I still read regularly. I found today's post evocative.

    First things first, what is veganism?

    According to IDA:
    "A vegan is someone who chooses not to eat any food that comes from animals (i.e., meat, dairy and eggs)."

    I completely disagree with IDA's definition. I'm open to writing the idea down in different ways, but veganism is about far more than food. It calls into question the entirety of our relationship with other sentient beings.

    In a poster I recently created, I offer this definition:
    "Veganism is a straightforward moral position. Vegans object to the murder, exploitation, enslavement, and use of nonhuman animals for food, clothing, entertainment, transportation, education, or any other purpose."

    If your inquiry ultimately relates to vegan education, simple preliminary questions arise: What are we trying to educate humans about? What direction would we like to point them in? *What is veganism?*

    Is the goal to have people change their eating habits… or develop respect for nonhumans and stop exploiting them?
    Is veganism "just a diet", as some describe it? Is veganism nonmoral?.. Merely behavior that can be conditioned by any number of concerns?

    There are many different kinds of "vegans" out there. Each (or just one) must be defined and isolated if an investigation/study is to make any sense.

    Finally, using the word omnivore when referring to non-vegans, puts veganism into dietary/food terms. Some might welcome that, though I do not.

    It's sort of like saying "males who hit their female partners" when referring to non-feminists. While feminists certainly reject such physical violence, feminism is about more than physical violence. Similarly, vegans reject omnivorous food consumption, but veganism is about more than food. I recommend that vegans are vegans, and humans who are not vegan are simply "non-vegans". Those transitioning to veganism, are just that.

    December 31, 2008
  2. rnmsalem #

    I don't know if this helps but I'm pretty sure my empathy for animals started when my mother started reading books like Puff the Magic Dragon and The Velveteen Rabbit to me as a child. Granted they're not real animals but they are books about animals in trouble, specifically animals mistreated by children (temporarily) and they really got to me when I was little. I also have my suspicions about the effects of bullying. Nothing like a little bullying as a child to teach you empathy for the weak.

    December 31, 2008
  3. I honestly believe it's habit. Even if you were successful at convincing your friend that animals matter, he might not go vegan for years. He might not ever make that change. He might simple agree that veganism is a good idea, but be unable to convince his body to follow his mind/heart. There are plenty of "vegan-sympathizers," people who 'would go vegan if…'

    Habits are determined by all kinds of things including what our parents do, what our teachers say, what our friends do, what's available to purchase, what opportunities we have… I think our goal as vegans, in order to create more vegans, is this:

    Make it easy for people to do the right thing.

    We should make it easy for people to go vegan. We ought not worry about why someone puts trash in the trashcan rather than litter the street. We should only care that he or she does. Would he or she do it if the trashcan weren't available? Most people wouldn't. It's more than littering penalties or worries about the environment that keep people from littering. Mostly, they see a trashcan and use it. The city made it easy for them to do the right thing, so they did.

    Thus, I think the majority of our vegan outreach should focus on overcoming obstacles to practicing veganism, not necessarily getting people to adopt an animal rights perspective. Granted, in the long haul, that will be necessary, but in the short term, it's not. For example, we needed not eradicate racism in order to integrate schools. In fact, integration is part of the process of eliminating racism. If more and more people become vegan because it's easy to do so, more and more people will adopt a vegan mindset.

    Essentially, I see the issue of convincing other people to go vegan as a marketing problem. I think if we simply marketed it well enough, we'd see a shift in social consciousness. We just have to market veganism well. What is 'well'? Eh, that's a little fuzzy. We figure that out through trial and error. So far, I think what Vegan Outreach does is excellent. I think getting more vegan characters in books and movies is great. Celebrity vegans are good. Vegan food and recipe blogs, books, shows are good.

    In my lifetime I've seen a tremendous shift. I've noticed how differently people view animals today than they did when I was a kid. I think the trend will continue. It just takes time…

    December 31, 2008
  4. Dan #

    I don't know about what the best design of VE is, but I do know that professional philosophers can be just as dishonest with themselves and others as carnival roadies or anyone else.

    December 31, 2008
  5. Mary Martin #


    Hmmmm. I'll start with this: I think that though my goal is worldwide veganism, for the individual, I think targeting food is the best place to start (assuming there's no rodeo-going or horse racing involved), because that covers the largest number of animals and requires a shift in attitude. I know plenty of "strict vegetarians" who wear leather and silk, and to that I say: I'm glad they've stopped the biggest problem, now let's work on the rest. If the idea of veganism is something they're receptive to off the bat–GREAT!

    I get what you say about omnivores, and I can get used to saying nonvegans (though some people don't know what vegans are so you have to deal with that), but the comparison with domestic abuse is where I get stuck. Because that's not a socially acceptable horrible thing, and eating animals is a socially acceptable horrible thing, I find the parallel difficult.

    But that's me.

    *rnmsaklem: I do think that we might find, if we looked, that our culture's children's stories are important in moral development and in our empathy for animals. I'd love a bunch of money to study that.

    *Elaine: I agree that there's habit in there. My dad (shocker) just told me he wants to stop eating meat to lose weight. Of course I was delighted. He immediately began listing the reasons why he can't, beginning with his meat-eating wife, at which point I reminded him that my husband ate animals for the first 6 years of my marriage, and that it is indeed possible. But I'm going to "make it easy," as you say. I'm sending him books and going to NY to teach him how to shop (hey, he's 75). He of course wants to believe he can't get what he needs on suburban Long Island (Nassau County), which is laughable. I shall disprove that. As you say, I'll be overcoming obstacles (that aren't really obstacles) until I've reached a tipping point.

    I too have seen the shift. It's a big glacial for my taste, but at least there's movement in attitudes.

    *Dan: Yeah, you're right. Sometimes I have an expectation disorder. And it's quite elitist–I expect well-educated people to think more critically and see through the BS (their own and others'). But alas . . .

    December 31, 2008
  6. re: the philosopher friend, I’ve found people capable of thinking the most complex thoughts are the people who come up with and fall prey to the most convincing rationalizations.

    January 1, 2009
  7. Hey Mary,
    From informal surveys I've conducted among animal rights people, the most consistent narrative I found was that present vegans and animal rigths activists first become vegetarian. I interpret this transition stage as a gateway into veganism because one basically opens the gates, let's down one's defense (ie rationalizations) for one's own lifestyle because one no longer *needs* to argue that animals are objects (food) and exist for humans.

    Also, I personally believe the abstention ( vegans do not eat or wear…) and the abolitionist (vegans are opposed to all animal exploitation…) definitions for veganism will fall short of popular success. Veganism is not a separate movement in which there are vegans and non-vegans. Veganism is an anti-oppression philosophy that is incusive of all justice movements.

    As I recently wrote on my blog, the success of veganism will rely on veganism growing *within* multiple social and environmental movements. Framing veganism as primarily about "animal rights" I think is misguided and alienating (especially since most American AR activists are white and middle-class). It's not important to define who is and who isn't vegan. More important is how fully people live in accordance to veganism as an anti-oppression theory in practice (which also includes promoting civil rights, racial, gender, sexual equality, and ecological conservation and health).

    In short, veganism will succeed by emerging from participants in social and ecological justice movements, not by participants who are solely focused on the animal rights movement/community.

    January 1, 2009
  8. Josh Cogliati #

    Just out of curiosity, let's say that everyone in the world became vegan. What do you think would happen to all the farm animals?

    January 1, 2009
  9. Welcome, Josh. "Farm" animals exists because we create them. Where there is now an abundance of places for slaughter, sanctuaries could be formed. The animals currently being used for food could live out their lives (if they are well enough to do so, as many are near death when they are slaughtered and tens of millions would likely be euthanized), in peace. And with no more breeding, within probably a handful or two of years, the animals that exist will do so not because humans have created them, and there will be far, far less of them. Thanks for stopping by.

    January 1, 2009

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