Evolution Of A Veg*n Advocate
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about grief. My father passed away earlier this year, with my paternal grandmother dying shortly thereafter. It’s been a difficult year, emotionally, and I’ve spent a lot of time grieving those losses. Part of my recovery process (being a research geek) was to study the stages of grief to understand how long I might be mired in negative feelings.
Even after the grief reduced to a functional level, I kept researching the process because of intellectual curiosity. It turns out that the well-known “five stages of grief” offer a remarkable parallel to how many of us process the information we receive on the way to becoming a vegetarian/vegan (veg*n) advocate. I think it may also provide a useful lens to explore advocates’ stages of change.
Before I go further, I should be clear: I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I’ve been studying animal advocacy for almost 20 years, but much of this blog is beyond the scope of that experience. This is all just speculation based on my personal history and anecdotes from others. If there’s sufficient interest, it may be a topic we explore in future research.
Back to the topic at hand, the most commonly known stages of grief are outlined by the Kübler-Ross model, first developed about fifty years ago. The model describes five stages of emotional response felt by people who are either terminally ill or grieving the loss of a loved one: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (“DABDA”). In my analogy, what veg*n advocates are grieving is their new understanding of the scope of animal suffering.
Speaking for myself, I was in denial of the scope of animal suffering prior to being veg*n. I became aware and then quite angry. I was frustrated with everyone who consumed animals and even with the advocates who had failed to stop it. I bargained with myself that I could personally make a bigger difference for animals, and more quickly than others could.
When I realized that wasn’t true, I became something like depressed; “disenchanted” might be a better word for it — with the lack of progress for animals and with my inability to stop the suffering as it continued all around me. But many years ago, I accepted that animal advocacy is a long-term social justice movement and that I’m just one small piece of the solution.
For some of you, this probably sounds like a familiar story. And while I have only anecdotal evidence, I think this process is similar for many other veg*n/animal advocates. I thought it could be valuable for some advocates to explore the DABDA analogy further and look at each stage in more depth.
This is analogous to the pre- veg*n stage, currently representing a clear majority of the population. While most of these people would say they abhor animal suffering, many would also deny that there is an ethical problem with eating meat or other animal products. As Faunalytics has covered many times before, cognitive dissonance can be a powerful force.
In his book, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen explores how human atrocities such as genocides and war crimes can take place without anyone intervening. While Cohen doesn’t cover animal issues, the same concept can be applied to many current forms of animal use and abuse, particularly institutionalized animal abuse.
Overcoming denial for a behavior as “normal” as consuming animal products is a challenge, to put it mildly. This is why veg*ns remain a small segment of the population (for now). And let’s face it: it sucks being in the minority when it comes to ethical issues. For many of us who get past the denial stage and become veg*n, our first response is to become angry.
When someone initially learns of the full scale of animal suffering and adapts their own diet and life choices to minimize it, they often become what some people call an “angry vegan.” This is understandable, though probably not effective. As a new veg*n, you realize that animal suffering is everywhere, and that almost everyone you know is complicit.
I argued angrily with hunters on the old bulletin board, EnviroLink. I was arrested for protesting at a KFC location. I wore a balaclava and shouted profanities at fur traders. And I was sometimes intolerant of and argumentative with friends and family, even irreparably damaging a few of those relationships. None of this was effective. It wasn’t even particularly cathartic.
I don’t think we can stop new veg*ns from being angry, nor should we try. But from an effectiveness standpoint, I hope we can empower advocates to shorten this phase of their development. The alternative is to risk not just being ineffective, but also succumbing to “outrage fatigue” and burnout. Anger can be motivational, but it’s not sustainable and doesn’t accomplish much for animal advocacy.
The third stage is when we start to think we can change things. Not someday, but tomorrow. People just need to know the truth and they’ll understand why they should become veg*n. We bargain with ourselves: the scale of suffering may be massive, but we can fix it! And not just eventually, but now! After all, “the world is vegan if you want it,” right?
Wrong. But that’s the appeal of ideological thinking, which in animal circles is often disguised as “abolitionism.” When we’re already angry, the “all or nothing” approach can be especially seductive. Some of us then latch onto a single form of advocacy (such as veg*n education) and decide that all other forms of animal advocacy are a waste of time or even counter-productive.
Of course, this is silliness. As I wrote almost ten years ago, “The only advocates who have it ‘wrong’ are the ones who believe that their approach is the only one that’s ‘right.’” But advocates who get stuck at the bargaining stage often cling to this myopic view, and some of them go so far as to attack other veg*n advocates who aren’t similarly ideological in their approach.
When the world doesn’t become vegan overnight, or within a year or ten years, some of us start to feel depressed (stage four). Despite our best efforts, only a few of our friends and family members have become veg*n. We may have spent months or decades in the bargaining stage, but it’s no longer convincing. We’ve come to understand that social change can be painfully slow.
This is the stage where many veg*n advocates burn out. The lofty hopes and expectations developed during the bargaining stage clash against the realities of advocating against something as ubiquitous as eating animals. It’s difficult to learn that, no matter how hard we work, we can only make a modest dent in the suffering. Some people respond by returning to anger, others by feeling hopeless.
This is a critical stage for veg*n advocates. I would guess that a substantial proportion of advocates become inactive due to some form of depression, but I have no data to back this up. It’s a topic worthy of more research, despite the challenges of reaching lapsed advocates. If we understand how many veg*n advocates experience depression, burnout, or compassion fatigue – and why – we have a better chance of helping them sustain their activism.
Finally, many of us settle into the role of a long-term advocate. We remain veg*n (hopefully!), but we stop working 24-7 on animal issues. Instead, we start to balance our activism with other interests. We take vacations. Some of us get married. We catch up on three years of Game of Thrones. We begin to accept that we’re the seeds that may not see our own flowers. But we continue the fight.
This process of acceptance is easier for some people than it is for others. Those with a pragmatic mindset and those who support incremental advocacy, including welfare reforms, probably move toward acceptance more easily. On the other hand, those with an ideological view (“abolition now, or nothing”) may never accept that animal advocacy will be a long-term struggle.
Personally, I hope that we can find ways for veg*n advocates to move through this process more quickly. Some advocates do amazing work as they spend time in the earlier stages, while others lead with anger and use tactics like shame and intimidation. In general, I think we’re all more effective when we accept that things won’t change immediately and choose our strategies with clear eyes.
What do you think? Has this been your experience too? What about other veg*n advocates you know? Please share your stories and opinions in the comment section below.