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Revisiting the Spectrum

Part of my day yesterday was spent at Caring Fields Animal Sanctuary, about 30 minutes (because you can drive 80 mph on the Turnpike) north of me. I was there because Rae Sikora was facilitating a workshop on communication, and I’ve been wanting to meet her ever since I heard her on "Vegans on the Hot Seat: Rae Sikora and Gary Francione Respond."

The topic for today is the spectrum idea I raised earlier in the week that, as they say, went over like a lead balloon ("Can vegetarianism be on the spectrum of respect toward nonhuman animals, with omnivores being on the way left, and the impossible perfect vegan on the way right?" I asked.) Rae, coincidentally, conducts an exercise around the idea of the spectrum, the point being that we were all at the opposite end of the spectrum once, and we moved toward where we are today. Now, I haven’t done the research so I don’t know whether most people do indeed progress toward veganism. I don’t know how many people make the switch overnight. My guess is that there’s more progressing than not, though.

Personal story for those new to Animal Person: Last year my husband says to me, while I’m cooking him honey mustard chicken, wild rice and asparagus, "The only reason I still eat meat is because you keep buying it and cooking it for me."

My response? "I’m feeling really generous today and if you’d like me to give you the opportunity to take that back I’m delighted to do so. But in the unlikely event that you think you’re prepared to follow through on what you just said, I promise you I’ll never buy or cook another animal part for you ever again."

Poof, no more animals for him. Just like that. No stepping across the spectrum. One big leap.

I think the sheer number of vegetarians versus vegans can be seen as further evidence of the spectrum. The question really becomes: What do you do with it?

I raised the topic of congratulating people for baby steps yesterday, and the entire room (some of whom were vegetarians) agreed–Rae included–that congratulations were in order. I’m sure many of you know Rae and that’s perfectly in line with how she presents herself. The idea is to support others in their journey and provide encouragement.

Of course, the terrier that I am, I couldn’t let go of the point and asked the group: If someone stops eating "red meat," before I offer up any congratulations I want to know what they’ve replaced the red meat meals with. Did they swap chicken for beef, or are they eating vegan meals when they used to eat beef? If they’re doing the latter, then I think congratulations of some kind are in order. That one met with some blank stares and we moved on.

With the exception of Rae, I was the only abolitionist in the group, which was disappointing. It was clearer than ever that there’s another spectrum involved: welfare to abolition-with-reforms to abolition-without-reforms (how’s that for a new way of wording it?) that often plays out as a continuum at the level of the individual. I attempted to begin the abolition discussion without using the word, and I told a personal story from 15 years ago that led me to the idea that dominating and controlling other sentient beings was wrong. I did a terrible job with the story and I don’t think I got my point across, which is a shame as perhaps it would have helped someone with their thinking.

Opportunity lost . . . .

I’ll leave you with two helpful ideas that Rae presents (and I’m paraphrasing):

  1. Asking someone to act on what you believe after you’ve introduced them to the idea is like asking someone to turn a corner they haven’t even reached yet. They don’t see that there’s a corner, and you want them to turn.
  2. Approaching your interactions as potential conversion opportunities isn’t productive (uh-oh. I do that all the time.). Instead of trying to get the other person to move to your side (from their side), try to get the other person to go to an entirely different place with you. That way, you both have to move–you’re not asking them to do all the work.

I’m not sure where that other place is. Any thoughts? Anyone approach their interactions that way?

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Let me get into some raw, abolitionist "claims making"… just to make sure the perspectives are available to all Animal Person readers.

    If you take animal interests seriously, you don't have any choice but to be vegan. Vegetarianism has absolutely nothing to do with veganism, it is an entirely different enterprise. Vegetarians are omnivores with a strange food preference. Something akin to omnivores ethically opposed to grain, who only eliminate corn from their diet. "Ovo-Lacto" vegetarian makes no more sense than "Carne-Ovo" vegetarian, or "Lacto-Carne" vegetarian. Anything less than veganism is an inappropriate response to questioning our relationship with non-humans. We shouldn't have a relationship with non-humans.

    Furthermore, omnivore is not even an appropriate antonym for vegan. Remember that veganism is not a diet, but the principled rejection of all non-human exploitation. Omnivore basically means "one that EATS everything". Veganism is partly about what one eats, but it also encompasses a broader underlying commitment and lifestyle. The only suitable antonym for vegan, is non-vegan.

    The spectrum view is a complete, unmitigated disaster of no uncertain proportions. It is the direct result of welfarist thinking and the utilitarianism that informs it. This kind of "anything goes"/"just do a little better" approach has kept us mired in mediocrity for decade after decade.

    Veganism must become a moral imperative within the life of anyone who claims to recognize that non-human animals have morally significant interests. You simply don't USE morally significant individuals. Our advocacy and daily social interactions must reflect this perspective unequivocally. Otherwise, we can anticipate more of the same.

    When the spectrum view has been marginalized, and veganism becomes the baseline stance of anyone who is serious about discharging their moral obligation to non-humans, progress will be at hand. Getting there will require that we leverage the power of expectations, the spirit of unequivocal thought, and the ease of going vegan. We should never allow people to feed us bullshit excuses, and we must counter the normative influence of society by applying our own pressure in favor of becoming vegan. To expect veganism in those around us, is not asking very much, and does not require any nastiness.

    For anyone intrigued by what I have said, I would recommend that you listen to this interview, by the Vegan Freaks, with Professor Gary Francione:

    March 28, 2008
  2. Nathan,

    First, not one person in the room yesterday would say that "nonhuman animals have morally significant interests" except Rae and I. They don't want to hurt anyone, and that's their motivation.

    Next, I completely disagree with: "To expect veganism in those around us, is not asking very much." We are expecting a paradigm shift of epic proportions for them. We are asking them to revise the way they think about their relationship with nonhumans.

    Finally, as far as "bullshit excuses" go, anyone who hasn't gone vegan overnight has had their share of them.

    Humans are gravely flawed and profoundly hypocritical. I don't know one vegan whose actions are completely aligned with their beliefs once you consider human rights and the environment. Anyone can look like a hypocrite if asked the right questions, and though I agree that vegetarianism in all its forms is highly hypocritical, it's simply difficult for most people — IN THEIR OWN MINDS, WHICH IS THE ONLY PLACE THAT MATTERS — to change their lives in so many ways, with the speed we'd like to see.

    March 28, 2008
  3. Additional thoughts and claims: We must take vegetarianism, and all other omnivorous diets, off the table (so to speak). Full-bodied veganism should be the only option people see when they investigate their relationship with non-humans. Terms such as "veg*n" and "vegan/vegetarian" must be eliminated immediately. Veganism is a completely unique approach to non-humans that is dissimilar from everything else that appears to address the issue. Let's stop coddling people and being enthusiastic about their "baby steps". Does this suggest insults and being mean? No. Let's be unequivocal and take this issue more seriously. Let's speak our truth. Let's be enthusiastic about how easy and fulfilling veganism is. If people must transition, let's help them make it as brief as possible, and maintain throughout that nothing less than veganism is morally acceptable. Let's not underestimate the human potential for transformation.

    If we are not 1000% clear on exactly what veganism is, and what place it has, we will remain utterly lost and feckless.

    March 28, 2008
  4. "First, not one person in the room yesterday would say that "nonhuman animals have morally significant interests" except Rae and I. They don't want to hurt anyone, and that's their motivation."

    They might not use that particular language, but I suspect they would agree with it upon explanation, particularly if they think non-humans are beings capable of being hurt, which is something they don't want to participate in. In fact, "I don't want to hurt anyone" (when anyone = non-humans) and "nonhuman animals have morally significant interests" are roughly equivalent statements. If being-X can be hurt, being-X necessarily has interests, which are indicated as "morally significant" to being-Y, when being-Y wants to avoid hurting being-X.

    "We are expecting a paradigm shift of epic proportions for them. We are asking them to revise the way they think about their relationship with nonhumans."

    Yes, I agree. My point is that we shouldn't shy away from going after what we want. Also, that veganism is really a rather simple and conservative proposition, when it comes down to it.

    "Finally, as far as 'bullshit excuses' go, anyone who hasn't gone vegan overnight has had their share of them."

    Right, and back when I was making them, it would have been helpful if a vegan advocate was there to set me straight. Or if the groups and information available would serve the same purpose.

    March 28, 2008
  5. Angus #

    Mary is right: going vegan is a big and not very easy step for most people. So is going vegetarian. And by the way, since vegetarians are people who don't eat meat, vegans are vegetarians who don't eat any animal products. (Whether it is really a moral imperative to refrain from consuming any animal products at all, including say honey, is questionable, since it is doubtful that insects are sentient.)

    Going vegetarian, but not yet vegan, is a major step forward, in practical and moral terms, in my view. And once someone has become a non-vegan vegetarian, there's a good chance they will go on to become a vegan vegetarian. It's important to understand that the real world and real people, as distinct from theory, are complex and that progress is seldom an all-or-nothing affair. It's important not to lose sight of this and unwittingly turn veganism into a cult of personal purity. All of us, vegans included, are up to our necks in the exploitation and abuse of humans and animals: both via the products we use daily and the support we lend to social and political institutions by abiding by laws or merely by breathing and staying alive. The point is to be aware of this and try to keep moving forward, albeit imperfectly, toward a better world.

    March 29, 2008
  6. Roger Yates #

    A few thoughts. I am in that potentially uncomfortable position of agreeing with both Nathan and Mary on this. ~I~ think veganism is pretty easy in many societies [impossible in some probably] and yet, when people first learn that I am a vegan, they react as if it MUST be incredibly hard and I might be some sort of special person (or religious nut).

    I think, therefore, that an outsider's view of veganism makes it seem hard. People growing up in a culture in which something like "meat and two veg" is the norm apparently mentally erase the meat part of an imaginary plate of food and wonder what the hell fits in the gap. This may explain why cheese seems to "make sense".

    I do think Nathan is absolutely correct about the "veg*n" and "vegan/vegetarian" point. I shudder to think what could be a human rights equivalent of that. The bottom line is that veganism should be the AR baseline position and we assist people to make their steps toward it. "Baby steps", I think, can be acknowledged as what people do often but not always – but I think it should be obvious to anyone that vegetarianism is not being consistent with AR theory.

    Personally I was lucky to have made the transition quickly in an era when veganism was rare and relatively hard. I never got "stuck" in a vegetarian phase like many apparently do. Should we be sympathetic to those who do get "stuck"? Yes, but our sympathy is bound to be shaped by how "happy" a person is in their vegetarianism. As ever with social mammals, who we are with and their attitudes and opinions are extremely important.

    Final uncomfortable thought: what do fruitarians think of vegansm as the appropriate ethical baseline of animal rights?


    March 29, 2008
  7. the bunny #

    "Poof, no more animals for him. Just like that. No stepping across the spectrum. One big leap."

    Your husband is fortunate in that he has someone (you!) so close to him who is very knowledgeable about veganism to help him in his journey…in terms of cooking vegan meals, buying vegan products, etc. It makes going *poof!* that much easier. Many new vegans do not have a *real* hand to hold, particularly at the beginning of the journey.

    Like you say about it being difficult "in their minds" – veganism is a mindset change just as much as it is a lifestyle change. The more I am reading your blogs, the more I am pondering that aspect. That it simply takes time to grasp the concepts of veganism when it is all new. My ideas about animal exploitation have evolved so much over the past two years. In fact, it seems like every month I've developed a new layer of ideas. And one idea maybe couldn't have developed without the other ideas that came before it – perhaps one builds upon the other. That's not to say that there needs to be any linear path in which AR ideas evolve – but rather that one can't grasp ALL the ideas at once. That's also not to say that one can't simply make the choice to become vegan on the spot. One can. But that doesn't mean that that person understands all that you and I do about veganism and the ethical viewpoints on various areas of animal exploitation. Look at how fractured some of us vegans are just within our own "community" – with various "camps" and all their terms (abolitionism, welfarism, militant groups, utilitarianism, etc.). It takes time to explore all these ideas, these theories, etc. in order to make up one's own mind regarding what they truly believe. What seems like the complete obvious truth to us because we've spent many many hours chewing on these ideas, may not seem like complete obvious truth to someone who is just being berated with new information that they have never known or been familiar with before.

    The more I think about it, the more I wonder if our words and logic get in the way of our passion – that which first sparked our reasons for becoming vegetarian or vegan. Our love for animals. Granted some people have come to vegetarianism and veganism through other routes (this I have learned in the past six months and it astounds me sometimes), but many of us stopped eating meat and then consuming other animal products because we "felt" for animals. We empathized with them. Felt their pain. Tears were brought to our eyes. Despite all the AR theories, the logic, the coining of phrases, the debates over semantics, the debates over approach…take all that away…what have you got left at the very root? What feeds all of us and drives us to move on? Compassion.

    1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

    Here's another definition I think I like the best:

    "the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it"

    So simple.

    PS – Thank you so much for introducing me to Rae Sikora in this blog entry. I searched out more of her writing and interviews as well. She is amazing. She is such a positive force in a world where negativity is the norm. What a lovely woman. She is a truly inspiring example of activism.

    March 29, 2008

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