28 June 2017

A Rebuttal to Matt Ball’s Vegan Bash

By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

Vegans often blame one another for the fact that society resists going vegan at the speed of enlightenment that we seek and that billions of animals desperately need. The question of how to get people to care about chickens, cows and other farmed animals, let alone enough to quit eating them, is an ever-present source of hope and despair among those of us who advocate on behalf of these animals.

There is a spectrum of viewpoints, tactics, strategies and insights on how to create a world in which one day no animals will ever again be dragged into a slaughterhouse and made to endure the indignities and miseries we inflict on them for “food.”

Drawing of a 17th century vegan

Matt Ball, the founder of Vegan Outreach, who was formerly with Farm Sanctuary, posted a video on YouTube on May 27, 2017. Titled “Want to save animals’ lives without going veg? Eat beef, not chicken,” the video, which he narrates, makes four main points: that radical vegan activists alienate the mainstream; that the vegan movement is a failure; that pitting chickens and cows against each other avoids alienating people while helping the largest number of animals; that enlisting the support of a chef (Anthony Bourdain), who compares vegan activists to “dangerous fundamentalists like Hezbollah” (an Islamist militant political party in Lebanon), is appropriate.

Points one and two suggest that the reason most people are not vegan, or are even anti-vegan according to Matt, is that radical vegan activists have alienated society with their (our) insufferable militancy. Forget that vegan advocacy has many faces and voices, and that animal rights vegan advocacy seldom involves screaming and rudeness as a public strategy. How much accusatory yelling have you heard – or done – at the ever-growing number of increasingly popular vegan festivals in the United States and elsewhere?

Matt accepts and repeats, as if it were true, Anthony Bourdain’s claim that vegans have disturbing similarities with dangerous fundamentalist groups like Hezbollah, because of how, in Matt’s words, “many of us act.” This statement takes the actions of a small group of radical, nonviolent vegan activists and attributes their actions to many vegans although there is no evidence to support the claim that most vegans are perceived by the general population as dangerous or even antagonistic. Popular media suggests the opposite – that because of well-known vegan celebrities in sports, music and Hollywood, being vegan now has the reputation of being cool, and vegans are not seen as “fanatics,” as Matt claims.

If most people still consume animal products, there are many reasons having little or nothing to do with how our vegan message is being conveyed. Many people still don’t care enough, know or even think about farmed animals and vegan food as part of their daily routine. Put it this way: McDonald’s is everywhere on the landscape; we’re still barely visible. This is not to say that how we frame and deliver our message doesn’t count. It does. But to blame society’s moral and dietary inertia, ignorance and capriciousness on radical vegan advocates, to impugn vegan activists for “driving people away” and acting like “absolute fanatics” for our cri de Coeur on behalf of mother cows and their suffering calves, as depicted in the video, seems a stretch.

Let us please keep in mind that the animal advocacy movement is barely fifty years old and that vegan advocacy per se didn’t really get started until the 1980s. And a factor in the mix has always been our movement’s anxiety about alienating the public and fear of “going too far.” It could be argued that the desire not to offend people, a certain diffidence on our part, has contributed to society’s overall sense that our issues are not urgent.

Matt claims that “80% of those who go vegan go back to eating animals. Half go back because they can’t stand the pressure to maintain a pure diet.” Whether or not “80%” is accurate, the implication that the pressure to return to meat eating comes mainly from the annoyance or “militancy” of other vegans ignores that the more likely source comes from family, friends and coworkers who pressure vegans to eat the familiar food and fall back into the familiar patterns. If as Matt says, only a tiny portion of the population is vegan, who is the more likely source of the pressure to eat animals: vegans or meat eaters? He stresses in the video that society is saturated with meat-eating messaging.

He goes on to say that by not eating chickens, animal eaters can have a profound impact on the number of beings who suffer. The number of beings who suffer would be greatly reduced. While I agree with this statement, the only action I encourage is to stop eating all animals and eat veggies instead. Some argue that this is the more difficult path, but I believe it is the easier path with a greater chance of bringing lasting effect. The message that no cruelty is okay is easy to understand and to feel good about. Who is going to feel good when, after being convinced that eating animals is cruel, they are then told to continue being cruel, just do less of it?

As much as the “stop eating chickens” message appeals from the standpoint of eliminating the largest number of land animals from food production, I question whether this approach will ultimately benefit animals. The world thus envisioned is a world where a smaller number of different animals will likely suffer in slaughterhouses and where the majority of people will, with our blessing, switch to eating other animals – more cows, pigs, sheep and goats, more turkeys, ducks and quails, more aquatic animals, more ostriches and emus, more factory-farmed insects. To the extent that the call to “make A suffer instead of B,” kill cows, not chickens, reaches consumers, it is not likely to reduce the number of chickens being consumed.

For us to agree that the vegan message has failed and that therefore we should promote abstention from chicken consumption only – doesn’t this amount to conceding that we are no longer a movement for all animals, but have opted instead to be marketing strategists for non-chicken products? How can we help people to conceive and to care how many more small animals suffer and die for food compared to large animals – 20 or more chickens for every cow, for example – while maintaining the integrity of our message?

(Back in the 1980s, U.S. activists focused almost exclusively on “veal” ban campaigns with the result that for years, people felt they had done enough by quitting veal. Instead of a step, it became a stop that did nothing to reduce or eliminate the number of “veal” calves being born, since the root cause of the calves’ existence was and is the public’s consumption of their milk, which activists are now boldly addressing with encouraging results.)

Why give up on vegan? Why denigrate ourselves? Why abase ourselves before an animal-abusing chef sneering at “veggens”? Especially with the signs that veganism is making headway. There are signs in food stores and restaurants. An article states that in Britain, the number of vegans rose 360% in the last 10 years and another article says that the number of vegans in the United States, which in 2009 was 1 percent, rose to 2.5 percent in 2012. Top Trends in Prepared Foods in 2017 observes that 6% of U.S. consumers now claim to be vegan, up from 1% in 2014. The health insurance company Kaiser Permanente advises cardiac patients to adopt a plant-based diet, and the July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine has an article about the rise of vegan culture. Very significantly, the American Medical Association has just passed a resolution calling on hospitals to serve plant-based meals and to eliminate all processed meats. See: AMA Comes Out Against Serving Processed Meats in Hospitals!

To encourage the suffering of any animal is a betrayal and surrender of my responsibility. I refuse to negotiate with cruelty. I refuse to say “eat this animal instead of that one.”


KAREN DAVIS is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns. Join us at the Animal Rights National Conference August 3-6! We look forward to seeing you.


The English Hermite published 1635