Skip to content

On Why Vegan Education Isn’t Considered Direct Action

I had no idea that anyone thought vegan education was direct action until yesterday (thanks, Elaine!).

What is Direct Action?

Direct action is activity that fights for a cause dynamically and directly for immediate change. You can view direct action as a strong form of civil disobedience with a capacity for acting illegally. Activists employing direct action aim to create a situation whereby their opponents have to yield significant concessions to the activists’ cause. Direct action campaigners often tend to disown the methods of the less dramatic and slower mainstream who advance social change through education and legislative procedures.

Last year’s Animal Rights Conference had a session called: Paths to Animal Liberation (welfare vs. abolition, legislation & education vs. direct action). I wasn’t there, but that doesn’t matter. While many terms are indeed up for interpretation (nonviolence, anyone?), I didn’t think that was the case with direct action.

I think pattrice jones‘ quote from "Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF" (in TOFF) is worth repeating:

"Direct action includes only activist tactics that, like boycotts and sabotage, are intended to have an immediate impact on a problem or its causes. In contrast, indirect action aims for future change through more circuitous routes, such as education, legislation, and symbolic demonstrations of opinion. . . . Ideally, direct action will illustrate or illuminate the problem at the same time as it interferes with its causes or effects. The very best direct action contributes to a long-term strategy for future change even as it offers tangible results in the here and now. . . . People who have integrated segregated lunch counters, put their bodies int he paths of troop transport trains, distributed illegal clean needles or birth control devices, boycotted chocolate or Coca-Cola, staged rent strikes, or built ‘tent cities’ for the homeless have all taken direct action against one or another form of oppression. Direct action for animals is similarly diverse" (137-8).

Last night I watched Morgan’ Spurlock’s 30 Days. George, a hunter from North Carolina, lives with Melissa Karpel’s family (she works for PeTA), who are vegans, for 30 days. He participates in some demonstrations, rescues a calf, goes to a dairy farm, and works at a farmed animal sanctuary. As you might imagine, he is belligerent at first and has a difficult time, but with time he opens up and softens.

At the end, he says he’s not going to stop hunting, but he also calls himself an animal rights activist. My poor husband thought I’d find this all very encouraging but I didn’t. George is still going to hunt (we won’t even get into how he’s an animal rights activist, but I can tell you that it has to do with the mixed message that animal rights is about suffering).

My husband came down hard on me and said that though he doesn’t agree with PeTA, how can you expect someone to spend 30 days learning about something so completely alien to him, and become a different person on the spot. After all, it took SEVERAL YEARS of me educating my husband for him to finally change his behavior. And he was much farther along than George!

"You have no idea what George is going to do when he gets back to Carolina," said my husband. "Maybe because of the interaction with the calf, he won’t eat beef anymore. Maybe he won’t be able to hunt, despite what he says. We don’t know. But we do know that he’s thinking differently than he did before, and if he has some support (and it appears that he doesn’t), maybe he’ll jump on the fast track. They planted the seed."

That’s education–indirect action. It’s not immediate.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. "welfare vs. abolition, legislation & education vs. direct action"
    Ugh. I'm tired of all the dichotomies. The world isn't so black and white.

    From context I assume one of your basic premises is the assumption that vegan education doesn't convert people to vegan or if it does, it does so only in the future. Well, that's just not the case. Some (albeit few) people go vegan immediately after learning about veganism.

    I went vegetarian (no, not vegan, but vegetarian is still something) when I was six years old just because I learned where meat came from. That was pro-animal education that had an immediate effect.

    You also assume that all 'direct action' has immediate effects. Well, that's just not the case. Sometimes the police (or others) intervene and the action intended to have direct consequences transforms into indirect action through the legal system, hopefully giving more rights and press to activists.

    It's just not all so black and white. We shouldn't label actions purely based on their consequences, because a) we can't predict the future, and b) we're talking about ethics here, so we should focus just as much or more on the means, than the end.

    June 18, 2008
  2. Elaine,
    This is about my beliefs or assumptions. It's about the way the terms are customarily used. I was simply providing the information, and an example I thought might be helpful.

    June 18, 2008
  3. The person you quote as your source for a definition of direct action also claims that civil disobedience is legal activity. He wrote:
    "Where is the border between direct action and civil disobedience? Civil disobedience tends to be peaceful and within the law, although is not inevitably so."
    But by definition, civil disobedience is illegal activity. It's characterized by nonviolence, but the essence of civil disobedience is that it's illegal activity. It's generally about breaking laws that are unjust and breaking those laws in a nonviolent manner. Moreover, civil disobedience is one type of direct action, not something differentiated from direct action.

    That source doesn't seem reliable to me. The writer neither coined the term nor uses the term in ways "generally understood" by the majority. If we're going to talk about how terms are "generally understood" then let's use definitions from general sources, like wikipedia. Or if we want to get to the root meanings, let's go to the original sources and the people who coined the term. Or if we want to just quote people who seem like they know what they're talking about, fine, I'll add some quotes to the list…

    Friends of Animals has a slogan: "Veganism is direct action." Others agree. Example: "as a form of international direct action, you honor February 15 as a Day of Peace-a day of global solidarity-and go vegan on that day…and every day thereafter." (from: Another example: "As a form of direct action, veganism puts the power is in our hands, as opposed to us relying on institutions, like industry or government, to make change. In this way, we are altering the relationship of power. We don't need to wait for the legislature or corporate executives to do the right thing, because we are using our own power to promote change directly." (from:

    Clearly, many people in the pro-animal movement understand the term "direct action" differently than you.

    June 18, 2008
  4. Elaine,
    That says veganism is direct action, not vegan education. Did someone say veganism wasn't direct action?

    June 18, 2008
  5. I agree with Elaine about veganism being a form of "direct action"; however, Mary's argument is well-taken.

    Returning to the "30 Days" program for a moment, I was upset with the show from the first moment it began. Spurlock begins the show by caricaturing the animal liberation movement: He asks, "Should animals have the same rights as human beings…the right to vote, the right to bear arms, the right to not be deep-fried, battered and eaten." Collapsing these "rights" under the same tent therefore making all rights holders capable of realizing them, is nonsensical. His initial statement make's nonsense of the philosophy of animal rights. Indeed, I was stunned that a seemingly intelligent person would make such a logically indefensible statement.

    I found the show in its entirety somewhat interesting, and I was happy with the overall message. However, Spurlock really displayed his ignorance – it was so apparent it is reasonable to argue that he was consciously attempting to mock our posistion. I would expect this from hunters' associations or from the agribusiness community, but I was not prepared to hear this from him.

    June 18, 2008
  6. Sorry if I'm not being clear.

    My point is that I see direct action as more related to the type of action than to the consequence. That is, I'm concerned more by the means than the ends.

    By your definition, vegan education would become direct action if the immediate consequence was veganism.

    By my definition, I see vegan education as direct action because it's
    a) by the activists directly to the opposition (because all meat-eaters are animal exploiters, thus all meat-eaters are the 'opponents' of veganism)
    b) without use of intermediaries like the legislature or big name organizations.

    June 18, 2008
  7. "That says veganism is direct action, not vegan education."
    That's like saying a boycott is direct action, but encouraging a boycott isn't. The difference, if there is one, is insignificant.

    One cannot be a vegan without doing some vegan education. It goes hand-in-hand. (Unless, of course, you have a very narrow definition of "education.")

    June 18, 2008
  8. As my husband says when he believes we're not communicating well: "Holy sh*t, is this real?"

    Veganism is direct action. In my mind, choosing your food, clothing, etc…, is direct action. It's about your choices that affect the lives of sentient nonhumans.

    What you do with with other people, in your conversations and potential conversions, to me, is education. You are setting out to inform or educate someone. My choices alone don't educate anyone (though they affect animals). I'd have to explain myself for education to occur.

    My veganism is for me. When I set out to educate others, that's vegan education.

    You'll probably disagree with me, but I'm done addressing this.

    June 18, 2008
  9. Dave #

    "You'll probably disagree with me, but I'm done addressing this."

    I hope so…

    June 18, 2008
  10. Dave,
    Wow. That's either very rude or a joke. I'm going to choose to believe it was a joke.

    June 18, 2008
  11. OK, we can agree to disagree. It's just a term and regardless of what either of us think, we're both living as vegans, encouraging veganism, and working towards a vegan world, so it probably doesn't matter all that much anyway 🙂

    June 18, 2008
  12. Roger #

    I have heard and made the claim that veganism is direct action for years. It is one of the reason one assumes that those who also take other forms of DA are vegan – it is a surprise to find out otherwise.

    Thinking of veganism as DA has a positive psychological effect, I feel, because – even if a particular meal is not especially enjoyable – one is still actively campaigning by having it and one can know that at least no-one died for the meal (to the exent that that is true of course).


    June 19, 2008
  13. Wow, Mary. I was just, while doing my morning sanctuary chores, thinking how dangerous it is that much of our movement has come to think of vegan education as *the* path to animal liberation rather than one important component in an integrated strategy of diverse tactics.

    At first blush, it can seem like just getting everybody to go vegan is *the* answer. But the practical difficulties of doing that make it an unrealistic strategy for timely change: (1) there are neither enough of us nor a sufficiently diverse pool of us to advance credible and culturally appropriate arguments for veganism to everybody in the world; (2) we don't even (yet) know how to get everybody like us to go vegan, as evidenced by all of the non-vegan friends, neighbors, family members, and coworkers of vegan advocates; (3) as the ongoing history of religious warfare demonstrates, it's exceedingly difficult (and perhaps impossible) to get everybody to think the same thing about even relatively minor ethical questions much less big life-changing questions like whether everybody ought to be vegan for ethical reasons.

    That's why vegan advocacy ought to include environmental, health, and social justice arguments along with ethical arguments about animals and also why vegan education must be accompanied by other kinds of activism, including direct action. The vivisection and animal agriculture industries are profit-driven enterprises. Profit-driven enterprises can and have been driven out of business by a *combination* of efforts to reduce demand and efforts to increase the costs of production. In my view, it's past time for animal advocates to be thinking about such strategies, particularly in the context of current economic conditions that are already raising the costs of meat/dairy/egg production and therefore making those products more expensive (and less attractive to consumers).

    Such strategic thinking, by the way, is the context for the paragraph of mine that you quoted, which appears in an essay that advocates for ALF-style as *another* important tactic in such a strategy. There's no either-or in my thinking. Indeed, I argue strongly, there and elsewhere, for activists to recognize the importance of tactical biodiversity and quit denigrating allies who are attacking the same problem from a different angle. The direct-indirect distinction is important only in the context of thinking through the question of what different kinds of things need to be done in order to conceive a comprehensive strategy.

    June 19, 2008
  14. Roger,
    I always thought veganism was direct action, too. And I used to tell people to live to eat rather than eat to live, and that the taste of meals wasn't a big deal to me. And that's true. But it didn't go over well (for me) as it perpetuated the myth that what we eat isn't tasty, or that we aren't concerned with taste, so I stopped saying it.

    My strategy is always to remember who I'm talking to (or quickly figure out what's important to them) and then present veganism in a way they'll be most receptive to. The drawback is that it might lead to "happy meat," and then I have to deal with that (which is fine). I believe the only argument that doesn't lead to happy meat is that animals aren't ours to use, and I can safely say though I used to think that was the "right" way to do my advocacy, I have since revised that, as I find it's ineffective because most people simply don't relate to it at all.

    As far as tactical diversity goes, I find it far more realistic-sounding than vegan education alone. To sort of paraphrase you, I can't even get my own parents to go vegan. Plus I look around me and how interconnected this issue is to many others and I feel like it's a mistake to: a) concentrate on animal rights as if they were in a vacuum and unrelated to other issues and b) view vegan education as the only solution (and no, that doesn't mean I want to hurt anyone or blow up anything).

    Now, it took me a while to get comfortable with A and B, and it appears I am losing some readers and annoying others, but they have plenty of places to go that fully support their beliefs, I'm sure, and I'm just grateful that my personal journey has helped vegans and nonvegans with theirs.

    June 19, 2008

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS