Why the rise in 'militant' vegan activism is likely hurting the cause
Veganism has long been considered a worthy ethical lifestyle choice, and many believe it has finally entered the mainstream. But are extreme anti-meat tactics doing more harm than good?
Veganism, they tell us, has gone mainstream. It’s no longer a fringe movement reserved for hippies and Hare Krishnas; even Beyoncé is singing the praises of a plant-based diet.
It’s estimated that more than two million Australians now avoid eating meat, and the figure appears to be rising. Some of the country’s hippest restaurants, like Sydney’s Otto and Melbourne’s Attica, have caught onto the trend, embracing vegan food on their normally carnivore-focused menus.
The anti-meat movement has come a long way since the publication of its unofficial bible, Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which in 1975 sparked a radical change of attitudes towards the consumption of animal-derived products.
Take a minute to browse some recent headlines and you’ll come across nuggets such as, “The unstoppable rise of veganism”, “Vegan trend takes hold in Australia”, and “The surprising reason why veganism is now mainstream”.
But beyond the headlines, Australians are still, along with Americans, the world’s most enthusiastic meat-eaters, consuming a whopping 90 kilograms of meat per person in a year.
And while veganism may be more popular and widespread than in the past, it still has an image problem.
“Given how pervasive meat-eating is in the culture, and given the strong anti-vegan sentiment that I’ve found both in the United States and here in Australia, I think it's very easy for people to dismiss vegans as crazy, self-righteous social justice warriors that don’t need to be taken seriously,” said Dr Tyler Paytas, a research fellow in moral philosophy at ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
“I am not someone who endorses this anti-vegan view, but because it’s so prevalent, I think we should be very careful about doing things like occupying restaurants and vandalising butcher shops, things that will make the anti-vegan sentiment even stronger.”
In a recent ABC article, Dr Paytas argued that the extreme measures used by some vegan activists — like storming a steakhouse in Melbourne’s CBD, or harassing butchers in France — were counterproductive to the cause.
A special feature on SBS’s Dateline program, titled “The Vegan Wars”, also documented the “rise in extreme vegan activists”.
“Not only is the movement growing,” said Dateline reporter Dean Cornish, “it’s also becoming what some describe as ‘militant’, and farmers are finding themselves in the vegan firing line”.
“If you take the view that what's happening to animals in factory farms is a complete and utter atrocity, your initial reaction might be to confront the perpetrators and to use aggression to try to stop them,” Dr Paytas told Impact.
“In one sense it's understandable to have that type of emotional reaction, but if someone is doing an egregious harm, the goal is to find an effective way to get the harm to stop. And I would argue that when vegan activists use extreme methods like vandalising, intimidating and harassing, it only exacerbates the problem.”
A free-range egg farm
Dr Paytas pointed to the recent spat between PETA and Impossible Foods, the maker of a product that’s been described as “the best fake meat burger in the world”, as another example of “extremism that is directly counterproductive to the cause”.
PETA decided not to back the famous Impossible Burger because one of its main ingredients was tested on rats. The food company responded by criticising “PETA extremists [who] are undermining their own mission”.
“The Impossible Burger has the potential to do an unimaginable amount of good for animals,” Dr Paytas said. “The fact that PETA is reacting in this way is mind-boggling … and also has the effect of making people view vegans as fanatical and unreasonable.”
The ethics of meat eating
Whether or not it’s wrong to kill animals for their meat is a complicated ethical question, and it’s an argument that has raged since the 1970s.
The vegan movement owes a great debt to the aforementioned Animal Liberation, a groundbreaking book that has even been praised by some of Peter Singer’s critics. Like the food author Michael Pollan, who first read the book while “trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare”, and later described it as “one of those rare books that demand that you either defend the way you live or change it”.
Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has since declared he had “almost” given up on eating meat, describing himself as “a reluctant carnivore”.
“Because Singer is so skilled in argument, for many readers it is easier to change,” Pollan wrote in 2002. “His book has converted countless thousands to vegetarianism, and it didn’t take long for me to see why: within a few pages, he had succeeded in throwing me on the defensive.”
Dr Paytas, who has taught Singer in environmental ethics and bioethics, said he tends to agree with his views on animals and vegetarianism. He declared that Singer, though controversial, is “probably the most important intellectual in the last 50 or even 100 years”.
“I find a lot of his arguments on animal ethics quite compelling,” he said. “My general view is that there is really no adequate justification for animals being made to suffer for the sake of meat, mainly because there are so many viable alternatives available.”
Beef cattle calf
While many animals need to kill other animals in order to survive, humans do not.
“If you don't eat meat, you're not going to starve or be sick or inadequately nourished,” Dr Paytas added. “You could argue that you’ll get more pleasure and enjoyment in the meat meal versus the vegetarian or vegan meal, but it's not going to be a very substantial difference and the cost of that is the suffering of a sentient creature, and — assuming that animal lives in decent conditions — depriving it of all the future pleasurable experiences it could have had, just for that tiny increase in pleasure for yourself. And that's where it seems to become unjustifiable.”
Meanwhile, more than 40 years on, and despite the media’s declarations that veganism has “taken hold”, the most optimistic estimate is that 13 per cent of Americans have taken up a meat-free diet, with larger surveys suggesting it could be as low as three per cent.
“I think the main reason for that is that meat-eating is just so deeply engrained in our culture,” Dr Paytas said.
“You might read Animal Liberation and find it quite powerful, but then you look around and see your sweet grandmother, all your teachers and friends and coaches and community leaders and everybody around you, they're all eating meat, and that makes it harder to accept that this is a deep moral wrong. And even if you do accept it, it's easier to let that thought drift away and get back into the habit of doing what you’re used to doing.”
Using reasoned argument to enact change
So if militant veganism isn’t the best way to convince carnivores to change their ways, then what is?
Dr Paytas recalled the experience that converted him from “being an avid carnivore to giving up meat immediately”. It was 2006. He was at university and had been contemplating the animal welfare issue for a while. He came across an activist handing out pamphlets and stopped to talk to him.
“This pamphlet was compelling for a few reasons,” he said. “Firstly, it showed that it's not such a big sacrifice to become a vegetarian. Secondly, it laid out the reasons why becoming a vegetarian was a really good thing from an animal rights perspective. And thirdly, the guy himself was friendly, and there was something that struck me as admirable about the way he dedicated his time to promote this cause, but not in a way that was confrontational or judgmental or self-righteous.”
This, says Dr Paytas, is one example of a tactic that has more chance of success, and less risk of facilitating anti-vegan sentiment, than some of the more extreme measures.
Vegan activists do have a decent message to sell; but there might be a better way of selling it. To quote Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, “vegans are absolutely right when they say that a plant-based diet can be healthy, varied and exceedingly satisfying, and that — not for nothing — it spares animals from the serial torments of being part of the human food chain”.
There are many vegans, like anti-factory farm activist Paul Shapiro, who advocate a less dogmatic approach to animal welfare.
“The reason I’m vegan is because I see it as a tool to help reduce animal suffering,” Shapiro said, adding that he agreed with groups like Vegan Outreach, who say veganism is “not a dogma or religion, nor a list of forbidden ingredients or immutable laws – it is only a tool for opposing cruelty and opposing suffering”.
This raises the question: Can you reduce cruelty and suffering while continuing to eat animal flesh, if you restrict yourself to consuming meat produced on humane, ethical and sustainable farms?
“If the farmer raises the animal humanely, ensures it has reasonably high quality of life and that after a certain amount of time, it has low pain death, I don't have very strong intuitions or any certainty as to whether that is morally wrong,” Dr Paytas said.
“It might be the case that it is still wrong to eat meat, but at the very least, it’s not an egregious wrong in the way that factory farming is, where the animal is kept in horrific conditions its whole life.”
Back in 2002, Michael Pollan argued it was not the principle of farming and eating animals that was wrong; rather, it’s the practice of intensive industrial farming.
“What this suggests to me is that people who care should be working not for animal rights but animal welfare – to ensure that farm animals don’t suffer and that their deaths are swift and painless,” he wrote.
Even Peter Singer seems to have softened on this point.
“I suppose when I wrote Animal Liberation … I did think there was a really powerful argument that should appeal to people,” he said in 2006. “I still think that’s true, but given that we haven’t got anywhere near where I hoped we would be … I think we do have to look for other things.”
Which means he is prepared to cut meat-eaters some slack, provided they make an effort to ensure the animals they eat have had a decent life.
“We might be more effective by being somewhat more tolerant of people who consume animal products … and not be too fanatical about insisting on a purely vegan life.”
So while converting more people to veganism might still be a worthy goal, there are other ways to help reduce the suffering of animals. And as Dr Paytas noted, being vegan does not mean you’re morally superior to all carnivores.
“Someone who has adopted a vegan diet on ethical grounds has done something admirable and good, and it speaks very highly of their character, but it’s not moral superiority,” he said.
“A vegan might be doing better in this one domain of life, but a carnivore might be doing better in 20 other domains, so you can't just make a blanket statement about a person's virtue based on the fact that they're vegan.”
Dr Tyler Paytas is a research fellow in the IRCI philosophy program at ACU in Melbourne. His primary research interests are in ethical theory and the history of ethics.