A Time For Pragmatic Vegan Advocacy
Weaning society off meat is a massive task. As individuals and a society, we’re incredibly invested in and dependent on using animals. This truth—combined with the unique challenges of vegan animal advocacy—makes change slow and difficult. Even though we’re growing and professionalizing our organizations, vegetarians and vegans occupy no more than a couple of percent of the adult population in even the most “advanced” countries in this respect.
Although our experience might feel different, the number of vegans hasn’t risen spectacularly in the last few decades (VRG). Hal Herzog’s assessment is not one we can be cheerful about: “In spite of what you sometimes hear, over the past thirty years, the animal rights movement has not made much of a dent in our desire to dine on other species.” Veganville seems to be impossibly far away for most people, on a mountain too high to climb. Meanwhile, our opponents are trying to prevent people starting the trek, investing literally billions of dollars in advertising to keep them hooked on meat.
In the present context, therefore, focusing only on trying to make people go vegan for animals or to tell them to become anti-speciesists won’t be enough. Norm Phelps, writing in 2014, says:
“This is not a time when we can expect direct strategies to bring success. This is a time for indirect strategies; for planting seeds that will bear fruit in the future… This is a time for gathering strength and laying the groundwork for future success.”
It is, in short, a time to be highly pragmatic. Pragmatism, according to the Cambridge Essential English Dictionary, is the quality of dealing with a problem in a manner that suits the conditions that really exist, rather than following fixed theories, ideas, or rules. Being pragmatic, then, is about reality rather than rules. Finding a good word for the opposite of pragmatism is difficult. Dogmatism has too negative a connotation, while another candidate, idealism, seems overly positive. I suggest we consider a spectrum like this:
Moving too far along the spectrum in either direction can be problematic. Dogma is dangerous and unproductive, but if you go too far in the other direction you risk compromising too much or being unethical in achieving your goals. I will use the word idealistic as the opposite of pragmatic, keeping in mind that dogmatism may always be just around the corner.
Let me illustrate the difference between pragmatism and idealism with the example of the Meatless (or Meatfree) Monday campaign. I write more on this later, but for now let’s assume there are good reasons to believe this campaign can bring us closer to our goal. Those with a pragmatic attitude would then be in favor of it, as they are most concerned with the question, Does this work?
Those on the other side of the spectrum, however, may have problems with asking people to go meatfree for one day a week. If we believe that killing animals is morally wrong, so the reasoning goes, we can’t implicitly condone it by implying that it’s OK to eat animals the other six days of the week. (The same argument could be made in terms of vegan versus vegetarian. Meatless doesn’t mean vegan.) This doesn’t conform to the idealists’ belief. They’ll say asking for Meatless Mondays isn’t right, and therefore shouldn’t be advocated for.
Now, although these different positions may lead to two different outcomes, such as supporting the Meatless Monday campaign or not, it’s important to note that the idealists—who are focused on “rightness”— don’t necessarily ignore effectiveness. Indeed, they may think that the campaign doesn’t work. What’s more, idealists often believe that doing what’s morally right will lead to the best result, or conversely, that something that is not right in their eyes cannot work. But this is fantasy rather than fact. Similarly, pragmatists—who are focused on “effectiveness”— agree with the principle of not using animals and don’t ignore “rightness.”
So, we can see that both pragmatists and idealists find both effectiveness and rightness (the results and the principles) valuable. It’s only their focus that’s different. No one is purely focused on results, and no one is purely focused on rules or principles. Everyone but the most ruthless pragmatist has principles that they’ll never break. All but the most dogmatic idealist will agree that in certain situations we may need to prioritize impact and temporarily suspend a principle.
It’s unfortunately quite typical for social movements to become polarized. The more idealistic camp takes a position against the more pragmatic, and vice versa. Idealists may tell pragmatists they’re sell-outs, that they’re resorting to means that aren’t justified by the ends, or that they’re deviating more and more from the objective. Erik Marcus on his website vegan.com writes that “one of the costs of being a pragmatist is that others are always questioning your integrity and your motivation.”
Pragmatists, for their part, may tell idealists they’ve gotten mired in their own set of rules and have lost touch with the real world, which makes them ineffective. In the worst case, people on different ends of the spectrum will actively oppose one another.
When I argue that this is a time for considerable pragmatism, I mean a time will come when a more idealistic approach is appropriate. How pragmatic or idealistic a movement can or should be depends to a large extent on what phase it’s in. Over time, as public support for our cause grows and dependence on the use of animals decreases, the importance of pragmatism will diminish, and idealistic messages will become more productive and necessary. We can present this as follows:
The question of what works and what doesn’t always need to be answered in the light of circumstances: What is happening where you are and when? Any strategy that works well today may not in ten years’ time. Conversely, some strategies or campaigns may not be ideal today, but may become useful in the future—when there is, it might be hoped, more public support for more radical action.
Because of humans’ extreme dependency on using animals, the uniqueness of the animal advocates’ challenge, the fact that we’re relatively few in number, and the great opposition to our cause, vegans need a high dose of pragmatism. Within that context, I suggest in the (book’s) chapters that:
- We are pragmatic in what we ask of people
- We are pragmatic in the reasons we give people to change
- We create an environment that facilitates change
- We apply a more relaxed concept of veganism
It’s easy to be a philosopher and say true things about the rights of animals. It’s much harder to get your hands dirty and do the right things at the right time truly to make a difference. That’s the art of high-impact advocacy.