Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Social change and veganism for animals
Anyone who seriously sets to work on solving some of the most pressing, complex, and contentious social problems of our time - environmental, political, or economic issues - wrestles with fundamental questions about social change.
No subject is more difficult or more urgent to understand. How is it that people who were once adamantly opposed to changing their behaviour suddenly change? How can we create changes in behaviour, relationships, and identity? These are social change questions. Answering these questions has never been more important, and this is especially true in veganism, a social movement that aims to eliminate the exploitation and suffering of up to a trillion animals globally and annually.
Veganism and social change
For vegans, it is oddly difficult to know how to orient the issue of animals around social change. Some animal charities have theories of change, even Direct Action Everywhere has a theory of change in animal liberation, but most vegans are part of a social movement that is divided by camps and struggle to articulate clear social change actions in the context of goals for animals. In much vegan advocacy, what tends to provide the substitute for questions about social change is the goal of creating more vegans. The dominant message in veganism, especially in the United States, or in social media forums, is that when people become vegan, and vegans who are strict, the rest takes care of itself.
Veganism often has a kind of conversionary bias when it tackles animal issues, followed by football team championing. Lock away the 'moral baseline' of veganism, and you win success - for team vegan. As if it only takes more vegans to create social change. Go vegan. The strangeness of such a formulation of veganism as a social movement becomes apparent if we compare it to human social movements. Most human social movements do not hold as their chief or only goal the creation of more people who identify with the movement. For example, the goal of feminism is not to simply create more feminists, but to create a more equal society that addresses social injustice and transforms unequal outcomes that no simple rhetoric of equality of opportunities can address. The movement is turned outwards, becomes intersectional, and social injustice and addressing that becomes more of the goal than turning inward and converting identities or policing small communities of advocates. It is perhaps because of the barriers in addressing animal issues that veganism has arguably never matured as a social movement. There is a quote from the late and great activist Norm Phelps that perhaps puts this in context:
Animal rights is the only social movement in history whose beneficiaries cannot participate in it and whose participants cannot benefit from it.
What if, however, we think of veganism as many do, as not animal rights, but as a lifestyle? In this case, the participants in veganism may actually be its chief beneficiaries. We all know veganism is not purely sacrifice and can mean health and wellbeing benefits. It can also, certainly, mean status and other forms of benefit in a small community of passionate advocates. And when a vegan doesn't eat an animal, or wear it, is it really the case that the animal benefits? What if, rather, it is that the animal is simply not needed, and that the vegan and veganism benefits? Such questions may seem paradoxical or flawed, but they point to a kind of concerning gap in veganism as a social movement, one that makes it hesitate. In the gap, we may become wedded to creating a social movement that, while seemingly aligning veganism with its beneficiaries, animals, may promise more benefits to its participants in the form of a lifestyle for its own sake, rather than focus on concrete goals like animal rights or other outcomes for animals.
The paradox points to the way that enjoying the vegan lifestyle, consuming it, is not always the same as building successful alternatives. In some cases it may be, but in others, the social movement doesn't lead us to the shared goals that other movements have successfully turned into outcomes. Now because vegans advocate for animals, who cannot participate in veganism, there is a certain inbuilt barrier to some of the inclusions and collaborations that go on in other social movements. More than that, there is a potential lack of urgency and exposure to social change due to the fact that the participants in veganism are not benefiting from the end to the slaughter of animals.
Collaboration is one action that seems at once a great difficulty and a necessity for the success of the animal rights movement and for outcomes for animals. Due to the separation that exists in the animals rights movement, however, the mutual benefit that underpins successful collaboration seems too intangible to locate or identify.
Collaboration in social change theory
Because of the difficulty of identifying benefits in collaboration, it seems important that veganism as a social movement learn about social change among humans in order to create change that works for animals. The researcher and social entrepreneur Scott Sherman has identified three basic steps in successful social movements and programs:
These steps are characterised by nonviolent communication, and involve showing empathy and building alliances with people who may seem to be enemies. You can read about these steps in an introductory piece by Sherman. In order for positive social change to occur, enemies have to begin changing the way they see each other (through step 2), and start working together on new outcomes (step 3). In veganism today, we rarely see step 2 and 3 happening or, if it does, it creates controversy. Phrases and labels such as "throwing people under the bus", "collaborating with the enemy", "corporate sellout", and "apologist", begin to matter for people who perceive enemies. The controversial part of this theory of change is that it would mean that vegans need to listen to farmers, listen to corporations, work with capitalism, use technology and science, and so on. The difficulty with which vegans have in considering this action is testament to how much veganism as a social movement is lagging behind other human social movements that have succeeded. Some vegan advocates on the street might see that they are practising step 2, but by focusing on lifestyle changes, are they really moving us to step 3? The step of social aikido is extremely important. Social aikido involves the metaphor of the martial art that turns the force of enemies against them, and involves disarming them through positive communication and affirmation. There's a book called Speak in a World of Conflict in which social aikido is ,summarised and an example of it is given, in which Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of nonviolent communication (NVP) method, uses the technique in order to completely disarm an opponent of social change who was seeking to close down an alternative school in the US that operated on the basis of nonviolent communication. The discussion between Rosenberg and his powerful opponent is a masterful example of social aikido, and you can read the full exchange in this summary of Scott Sherman's arguments. Rosenberg explains that what he needed to do to defeat his opponent is, paradoxically, to humanise him. To do this, he needed to get rid of the 'enemy image', to stop reflecting back the image of an enemy. By doing the difficult labour of humanising his opponent, and seeing the positive motivations of his opponent, he was able to create a friend of change. The school survived. The difficult work of reflecting on the way we are caught up in enemy images is something that anyone in a social movement needs to begin to do to start creating transformative action. We can distract ourselves with our own lifestyle, and expose social injustice, but then we need to start creating an alternative. Social aikido is a tool of communication that helps us create this alternative. The step to communicate using social aikido or to lead us to alternatives is lost if we if we are only looking for an “all or nothing” solution to the animal question. Negotiation and conflict resolution requires something other than a win-lose strategy. We cannot simply make our enemy lose, or get them to shift to our side, without giving something up. The trick is, to give up something that we can afford to give up - like our addiction to creating an enemy, or holding on to our interests as an vegan, to our ideological purity as a veganism.
What price collaboration?
Some vegans would despair, of course, that all this collaboration and positive communication aimed at social change is too little to address the problem and may make the problem worse. The apparent intractability of animal issues seems difficult to overcome. The reasons to stop using and abusing animals in our diet or in industrial systems have never been so clear and apparent as they are now, across ethical, health and environmental domains. And yet never before in history have humans eaten so many animals.
The more we consider the facts and evidence, the more we realise how difficult it is to solve the problem of animal agriculture and arguably the most horrendous crime in our history. Eating meat and consuming animal products is the only life that billions of people have known. This is not going to easily change, and in fact it appears to be only getting worse. The situation is so dire that animal advocate Paul Shapiro recently took time out promoting the clean or cellular meat revolution for a devastating reality check. He presented a series of facts:
Americans are now eating more meat per person than ever before. Same with China. Even in Israel, which has garnered headlines for its plant-based progress, per capita meat consumption is extremely high. And globally, meat production has exploded 400–500 percent over the past half-century.
Despite a decline in dairy cow herds, countries like the US are raising and slaughtering more animals for food today, and cattle only represent less than one percent of American farm animals, with virtually all animals used for food being poultry and fish. [Because it takes over 200 chickens to make the same amount of meat as a cow, there has been an astronomical increase in animal suffering caused by the meat of choice in countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia: something One Step for Animals advocates against.]
About 60 percent of self-identified vegetarians include meat when asked to list everything they ate during two non-consecutive 24-hour periods. And 84 percent of people who become vegetarian or vegan eventually abandon the diet.
The drama of facts such as these is that despite the work of vegan advocates since the emergence of veganism in 1944, the number of vegans has plateaued and doesn’t seem in any case to be having any substantial impact on either the qualities of social change or the actual scale of the problem of the use and abuse of animals. It is easy for vegans to ignore or downplay the problem, even when presented with these facts. In social movements aiming for change, there is a certain tendency to assume a kind of win-lose strategy in the identity of social change agents: only more vegans, competing better for veganism, will solve the problem. And for participants in social change - advocates and change agents - this tendency leads to a particular challenge in leading change without being seen to ‘sell out’ or be a traitor to a movement. This challenge is summed up in the dynamic of collaborating with the enemy.
This dynamic is obviously counterproductive. While it seems to be designed to hold a movement together, or to protects one’s friends, it actually resists or holds off social change. This resistance to social change takes as its basis a friend and enemy distinction; a distinction that is not the essential political distinction, as jurist of Nazi Germany Carl Schmitt put it, but more specifically the basis for authoritarian movements that seek to contain and limit social change. This distinction is maintained by a dogmatic understanding of relationships (specifically public ones). It has no way to appreciate the way in which social change is enabled by nothing if not a new way of collaborating: a new way of working with people when fixed distinctions do not hold. Modern literature sets about complicating friend and enemy distinctions, where the drama of the past often simplifies them to create conflict, the essence of drama. It is important for the sake of veganism to become a social movement that creates positive outcomes for animals, and to do this, we need to remove the drama of these distinctions.
Friend or Foe
Recently, I read a book on the subject of collaborating with enemies: Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust. It seemed like a perfect chance to learn more about "complex and conflictual situations" (p.31), as the book puts it, and to understand social change by better understanding collaboration. Written by a former corporate planner at Pacific Gas and Electric Company and at Royal Dutch Shell in London, Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy comes stocked with examples of complex global issues that Kahane has worked on in his career and as a celebrated consultant at Reos Partners.
In Collaborating with the Enemy, Kahane summarises three options for anyone who wants to collaborate with people they don't trust or think are moral enemies: 1. Don't engage or exit the situation 2. Use force or violence to create change 3. Adapt and use communication to create change If the risks of collaborating seem to great, we can always refuse to engage (1). We each make this call for ourselves. But we should remember that there may be situations that taking option 1 is also sacrificing a chance to make a great change that will help vulnerable lives or allow us to make progress in an issue. If the situation is one of immediate and unambiguous (or non-complex) violence, perhaps option 2 is available. Of course, we do have to consider that if we take option 2, and society does not condone our action, we may lose any chance to participate in society in the future. This again is our individual choice, although many people in social change do subscribe to a philosophy of nonviolence unless the situation requires an immediate defence of lives. Finally, we can choose to collaborate with the enemy in option 3. We adapt to our situation and we use communication, and even controversy with civility where possible, to create change or influence others. These options continue to exist in any point in our collaboration. However, the goal of collaboration is, in a normative sense, to arrive at outcomes that do not require violence. Otherwise we are engaged in other forms of negotiation and struggle. After giving these useful options, Adam Rahane sets about in this book Collaborating with the Enemy to change the traditional model of collaboration based on the need to adapt to new conditions in the world. This model, he suggests, only works in simple and controlled circumstances. In complex circumstances, we need a new model. And lo and behold, we arrive at ‘stretch collaboration’, a way of collaborating that bends the laws of the old model. Although the concepts are useful, these are some of the least impressive or compelling parts of the book, and much of the book drifts through material that is not particularly incisive.
The book is much more interesting when, in passing, it hits on some of the unspoken reasons for moving away from old models not just of collaboration but of relationships forged in conflict:
A question about collaborating that I am asked most frequently is, “How do we get them to...”. This question betrays a hierarchical and black-and-white mind-set: us versus them, friend versus enemies, heroes versus villains, good versus bad, innocent versus guilty. (Kahane 92)
The friend and enemy distinction discussed earlier underpins authoritarian movements. It also enables and protects forms of collaboration that are radically polarised. When friends collaborate, there is always the possibilities they will create enemies. When enemies collaborate, there is the possibility they will create friends. This intriguing dynamic of social change deserved a better elaboration than Kahane was able to give it.
Kahane points out that there is no simple starting point to solve a complex problem by assuming a certain truth to a situation or right or wrong as a basis for collaboration. He contends that the conventional collaboration model is obsolete. The need to collaborate without a dogmatic understanding of relationships is the central thesis of the book, and the way in which the book offers this thesis provides at once a welcome respite from the caustic vicissitudes of identity politics and a new way of working that addresses the issues identified by identity politics. Most of the book is a call to embrace a ‘readiness to to go beyond the enforcement of one established strategy and ... start to experiment fluidly with different new strategies’ (74).
Just a few other parts of the book are worth considering if you are an advocate for social change. Kahane introduces a simple and elegant distinction that he has explored before and that he took from Martin Luther King’s speech on power and love: 'power without love is reckless and abusive, and ... love without power is sentimental and anaemic'. Unlike Martin Luther King, Kahane doesn’t see love as leading simply to the emotional, but also to another form of abuse of power. Both love and power can be generative and degenerative. Love taken to an extreme is manipulation, and power taken to an extreme is imposition.
What we have here is another kind of model of the friend and enemy distinction. Without a balanced approach to collaborating with friends and enemies, Kahane suggests, we are prone to fall into abuses of power and love. Movements for social change are obviously threatened by this tendency to become inward looking or unbalanced, and to fall back into distinctions that may impose and manipulate an identity but lose any generative ability. Animal advocates would recognise this feature of veganism all too well.
One last interesting feature of Kahane’s book is its focus on different ways of talking and listening in collaboration. In social movements, when love and power become unbalanced, there is a strong tendency to go into downloading and debating mode. For Kahane, this is “re-enacting existing realities”; the quality of listening and talking has a connection to social change. Other forms of collaborating have a stronger connection to change: they enact new realities. Presencing and dialoguing enable social change.
One of the disturbing things about so much celebrity animal advocacy, is the way it is dominated by downloading and debating and assumed truth. We see this in vegan campaigners across the board: Gary Francione, Gary Youfoursky, Earthling Ed, James Aspey or Emily Moran Barwick (the Bite Sized Vegan), or on social media. Animal advocates who do not take this stance do not get the same attention among vegans as the downloaders and debaters, but perhaps this generation is starting to develop better strategies and there's a difference between a Youfoursky and an Earthling Ed. Perhaps we are transcending the issues that beset lone wolves, but one wonders in an age of YouTube whether this is possible. The way much veganism and animal advocacy positions itself in relation to social change appears to need to change. Prescensing and dialoguing the problem of animal issues to a general audience appears to be a crucial strategy for social change that carries over into creating alternatives. A veganism that reenacts existing realities, that gets stuck in one step of social change, rather than enacting new realities is one that finds no need to collaborate or learn off an enemy, because everything is already at hand and the only truth is veganism. Adam Kahane’s book is useful for vegan advocates to reflect on and provides a way of positioning us in social change that can only allow for more positive change. I would recommend vegans read it, but the question is, would anyone who is vegan and an environmentalist be caught dead reading a book by someone who worked for fossil fuel companies?
One of the starting points for Kahane’s book is finding a way to respond appropriately to problems of social change. As he is able to identify, some forms of collaboration appear to reenact existing realities, where others enact new realities.
What is more, the complexity of social problems requires different forms of collaboration. In 1973, Hurst Rittel and Melvin Webber, a professor of design and city planning respectively at the University of California, usefully defined the concept of a ‘wicked problem’ in social policy:
The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitely described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about "optimal" solutions to social problems. Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.
As Rittel and Webber defined them, wicked problems have no definitive formulation, let alone a definitive solution. Examples of such wicked problems can be found across economic, environmental, and political issues: climate change, waste, racism, epidemics, health care, immigration, inequality, wage growth, drugs, and so on.
There is no easily discernible set of rules to solve wicked problems, no true or false solutions, and no stopping rule or easy way of deciding to stop solving the problem. What is more, he solution itself frames the problem, and part of the difficulty of solving wicked problems is how many frames can be put on them. Despite the complexity, the solutions proposed to wicked problems are usually “one-shot operations”, because trial-and-error is difficult to accommodate. Contrast these problems to the problems of science, puzzles, mathematics, or physics. By contrast, we can begin to appreciate what is so wicked - as in intractable, or resistant - about problems involving social change.
Rittel and Webber's article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, remains a useful reference point for understanding complex social policy, but it also provides some useful pointers for thinking about everything from planning in a general sense to management and leadership. The importance of wicked problems to understand how and why animal advocacy should consider collaboration is one way we can think about transforming veganism.
Lessons for Veganism and Animal Advocacy
If we have absorbed some of the the lessons of understanding social change here, we can begin to understand the need to change the way in which veganism operates.
Too much veganism as advocacy appears to be dominated by “one-shot operations” which reduce the complexity of the animal issue to a simple decision by individuals, and in much veganism, love and power are unbalanced, there is much reenacting of existing realities, and little appreciation of the intersectional complexity of the problem and various oppressions.
The problem of social change should lead us to reconsider the traditional model of vegan advocacy. By understanding collaboration in a new way, new forms of animal advocacy may emerge that, no longer necessarily identifying as vegan, lead to more social change and more collaborations. Veganism may lead to stretch collaboration, or even stretch itself.
Can veganism encourage and support a new form of animal advocacy that embraces the complexity of the issue, the wickedness of the use of animals as a social problem? In the vegan movement, wicked animal advocates already have a name: apologists. Let's imagine if veganism embraced collaboration. What names can we give to these advocates then, who collaborate with the enemies and humanise them and lead us away from dramas to solving complex problems? Perhaps then we no longer call out names and labels. We no longer ask, ‘Who is the enemy?”
Such an advocacy is not simply at all times complex, however: it needs to recognise the simplicity of interests in order to aid rather than hinder collaboration and move to that step of social aikido. Why are so many people happy with enslaving and slaughtering animals for their pleasure? The answer is quite simple, as Norm Phelps point out: "We enslave and slaughter animals because we enjoy the results and can get away with it." There is nothing sophisticated about eating and consuming animal products. Our desire to enslave and slaughter animals shapes our beliefs. Our beliefs don't cause us to slaughter and enslave. There is no ideology brainwashing people to eat animals, as Melanie Joy has it. Most people don't want to do radically harmful acts. They never easily admit to choosing the option that condemns animals to dreadful conditions and lives of suffering, before cutting throats or cutting them up for our pleasure. If they had a more pleasurable, accessible, and permissible option, they would pick it in the silence of desire without hesitation and - preferably - without thought. Permissibility, accessibility, and pleasure make radical harm possible. This is the banality of the act that social changes that enacts current realities affords us. There are no hidden beliefs or great depths that destroy lives. Which is why it should be a priority for vegans to move from simply exposing injustice, or presencing the present, and move to enacting alternatives, making harm minimisation permissible, accessible, and pleasurable.
Permissible - animal friendly choices that are accepted, tolerated, licit and normal to the point of invisible.
Accessible - animal friendly choices that are immediately available to make in the moment, easy to hand, and ubiquitous.
Pleasurable - animal friendly choices that provide both personal and public pleasure, great tastes, substitutes, new collective jokes, entertainment, and shareable joy.
It takes much collaborating to bring about the states above and make vegan options the better options for people who care about these things for their friends and families. Collaborating with those who have made entertainment out of the misery of animals is a great place to start. Collaborating with scientists and biotechnologists is another place. Collaborating with governments, farmers, and industrialists. Collaborating with families, mothers and fathers. Collaborating with humans. Collaborating to replace the joys of enslaving and slaughtering animals. Cellular meat, meat analogues, and vegan cheeseburgers are great examples of this. But these are only the beginning. We have to use our social aikido to acknowledge that desire for the good life is not a quality we need to attack or resist. We have to build the alternatives with our former enemies. We have to stretch in our collaboration. Each outcome here is as important as a goal like animal rights: to make a world in which the interests of animals can be considered because they are no longer just pleasurable and accessible objects of consumption. Even considering the interests of animals can be made accessible and important to the interests of humans.
The exploitative treatment of animals can become obsolete with great design, systems thinking and institutional change. By working this way, the benefits of the social movement of veganism become closer aligned with both participants and the animal beneficiaries. This is why it is a priority today that we continue to find more ways to collaborate to make animal friendly choices more pleasurable, accessible, and permissible. There is no single, right or wrong, all or nothing answer to animal issues. Find and embrace the wicked problems. Let’s collaborate with the enemy.