Are you advocating cruelty in your vegan activism and outreach? When we offer “humane” alternatives or “Meatless Mondays,” we’re doing a disservice to non-vegans. We’re deciding for them that they can’t handle the full truth.
Table Of Contents
- When Increasing Accessibility Leads to Advocating Cruelty
- When What’s NOT Said Is the Most Damaging
- Calling for "Better Regulations" Leaves Us Running in Place
- So, What Should We Say in Vegan Outreach & Activism?
- In Closing
In navigating language within animal rights activism, education and advocacy, there are countless potential pitfalls, distractions, diversions, and counterproductive “traps.” The most dangerous of these are often wrapped in the guise of making veganism more approachable.
In our effort to increase the accessibility of veganism, we may inadvertently compromise our convictions and soften our ethics—offering gradations of change, incremental reductions in animal product consumption, or “humane” alternatives.
This is often born from the belief that we must take either a firm—even militant and polarizing—or a soft, conciliatory approach to our outreach. But this is a this false dichotomy. The real challenge is walking the line of staying firm in our convictions and uncompromising in our message while still helping people lower their guard enough to listen, hear, and make the connection.
Within the vegan movement, a major approach activists take is the social normalization of veganism. What I mean by this is: making a vegan lifestyle accessible, affordable, easy—even mainstream. This is a very logical tactic, especially when considering that one of the strongest deterrents to going vegan is social ostracism and rejection from friends and family.
I am the last person to decry increasing the accessibility of veganism—it is something about which I am intensely passionate and is one of the foundational aspects of Bite Size Vegan. However, in attempting to “bridge the gap” and meet the general public where they’re at, there exists the risk of reducing the ethical imperative of veganism to a socially acceptable lifestyle choice.
This is why it’s so vital that we be mindful of our language choices as activist, lest we end up advocating the very things we are fighting against.
A very common approach activists take to provide an “entry point” to veganism is encouraging people to reduce their intake of animal products, like “Meatless Mondays.” Such an incremental option is obviously more palatable to non-vegans; it allows them to make a minor change while still providing the emotional benefit of doing something good. But it’s equally alluring for us activists.
Perhaps we’re afraid of coming across as extreme and want to provide a less intimidating suggestion. Perhaps we ourselves are intimidated to ask for something “so big” as going fully vegan. Perhaps we believe that any change is better than no change at all.
While it’s understandable for such fears and beliefs to arise, we must take a step back and recognize their implications. Believing that going fully vegan is too much to ask simply reinforces that very misconception. Offering gradations of change, in essence, endorses the idea that there are “acceptable” levels of cruelty.
When I spoke in Dublin, I met Sandra Higgins, the founder of Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary in Ireland,1 who is also a psychologist.2 I remember her making the rather apt analogy, saying something along the lines of: if she had a patient who was beating his wife or children, she would never advise him to try to reduce the frequency of his violence or stop beating his wife and children on Fridays.
The message has to be that violence is always unacceptable and has to be eradicated.
When we take this approach of “reductionism,” we’re not only doing a disservice to the animals, but also to the non-vegans. We’re deciding for them that they can’t handle the full truth. We’re deciding for them that they can’t—or won’t—make the decision to go vegan.
This is similar to the way in which the American Heart Association approached its official dietary recommendations: the DASH diet, which stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.”3
While decades of research have demonstrated that consuming animal products is “highly significantly associated”4 with elevated blood pressure, the DASH diet still includes dairy and meat.
In his book “How Not to Die” Dr. Michael Greger explains why this is the case, saying:
“The reason that the DASH diet was modeled explicitly after vegetarian diets but was not meat-free itself might surprise you. The primary design goal of the DASH diet was to explicitly create eating patterns “that would have the blood pressure lowering benefits of a vegetarian diet yet contain enough animal products to make them palatable to nonvegetarians….”— Dr. Michael Greger, How Not to Die
[The doctor who chaired the DASH diet committee] had even shown that the more dairy vegetarians consumed, the higher their blood pressure appeared to rise. But he figured there was no point in calling for a diet he believed few would follow.
This is a recurring theme in official dietary recommendations. Instead of simply telling you what the science shows and then letting you make up your own mind, experts patronize the population by advocating what they think is practical rather than ideal.
By making the decision for you, they undermine those willing to make even greater changes for optimal health.”5
In the same way, when we preemptively offer non-vegans gradations of change rather than the entirety of the truth, we deprive them of the opportunity (and I believe, the right) to have all of the facts and make a decision for themselves.
The same holds true for what I believe to be the most insidious pitfall for activists and non-vegans alike: humane labels and animal welfare regulations.
Humane language and concepts have easily gained a stronghold by appealing to all sides—for the vegan afraid as coming across as militant, they provide a more approachable suggestion to offer; for activists fighting for animal liberation, they give the possibility of better conditions, progress towards the ultimate goal; and certainly for the non-vegan, who now has a way to keep doing what they want to do, but feel good about it.
It can sound odd coming from an animal rights activist, but I find that humane labels and animal welfare regulations are often detrimental to animals.
In fact, the entire concept of animal welfare is antithetical to animal rights. Welfare regulations are designed to spare animals any “unnecessary” suffering—the unspoken implication being that some suffering is necessary when it benefits humans.
Still, even if animal liberation is the ultimate goal, isn’t there value in improving the conditions for those currently in our systems of exploitation? While this thought process is understandable, we must again take an honest look at what welfare regulations actually mean for the beings they are designed to protect.
A striking example of the true impotence of welfare regulations is the battery cage ban within the European Union. In 1999, The Council of the European Union set a directive that banned all “barren battery cages” by 2012.6
While media coverage at the time focused on the end of battery cages in the EU, what the directive actually did was replace barren battery cages with “enriched”—meaning furnished—battery cages.
Yes, hens would now be provided more space and given furnishings like perches and laying nests—certainly an improvement over barren cages. However, while reports extolled that hens would now each be afforded 750cm², rather than the 550 cm² in conventional battery cages, they neglected to clarify that—due to the new furnishings—only 600cm² would be usable.
Meaning—in the end—that this revolutionary step forward for the rights of laying hens granted them less than a single playing card of additional space.
Even more maddening: in 2012, over twelve years after the directive, thirteen Member States had still failed to comply with the ban.7
But as the media celebrated the victory for animal welfare, the public ate even more eggs—reassured by their higher standards—and the individuals this entire charade was supposed to be for remained just as exploited.
The execution of the barren battery cage ban is far from a single failing. In 2001, the EU outlawed gestation crates—single-sow enclosures constructed of metal bars and hard flooring, in which mother pigs are confined during their pregnancies.
As always, the ban came with ample fine-print exceptions, and over a decade for implementation. Twelve years later, nine member states had still failed to comply with the ban.8
The most absurd thing about this is that several of the Member States that failed to implement the battery cage and/or gestation crate bans are rated amongst the best countries in the world for animal welfare.9
As alluring as the idea of better conditions for animals may be, animal welfare legislation is based upon the presumption that we have a right to use non-human animals for our own purposes. Rather than condemn the breeding, enslavement, mutilation, and slaughter of sentient beings, welfare legislation simply codifies precisely how we may breed, enslave, mutilate, and slaughter them.
In 2007, the European Union historically declared non-human animals legally sentient—deserving freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, distress and mental suffering.10 Having recognized their capacity to feel the same emotions and sensations as we do, the EU proceeded to draft landmark legislation for their humane treatment.
The resulting Council Regulation11 was—and is—viewed as a victory for animals. For those of us in countries without regulations, it’s natural to think that the systematic abuse of farmed animals results—at least in large part—from the total lack of oversight.
In the United States, for example, there are no federal laws governing the treatment of animals in our food industry.12 The Animal Welfare Act of 1966,13 like so many welfare acts around the world, excludes animals raised for food—as do the majority of state anti-cruelty regulations.14
Many US activists and organizations stress the need for regulations to end such atrocities as routine mutilations without anesthetic, the maceration (grinding up) of male chicks in the egg industry, and the blunt-force “euthanasia” of piglets—often pointing to the European Union as a shining example.
However, within the EU legislation and supplemental documents, those very same atrocities are not decried, but codified.
So, instead of male baby chicks being ground up alive because there are no regulations to stop it, they are ground up alive because regulations declare it as the preferred method for male chick disposal. There are even detailed specifications for blade speed and sharpness to avoid “gumming up” the works.15
We’d like to think that humane regulations are driven by what’s best for the animals. But the animal products industries are—after all—industries; they are profit-driven.
A preliminary report for the European Union’s legislation found that while gassing the estimated “335 million day old male chicks” killed in the EU annually would cost 1,665,000 Euros, the cost of using “rotating or whirling knives which are mincing the chicks in a split second…can be considered not to be substantial.”16
The decision had nothing to do with what was most humane—it was simply a matter of what was cheapest.
The maceration of baby chicks has been exposed time and again in undercover footage,17 which brings me to another pitfall I wanted to address: the presentation of undercover exposés. While I do believe that undercover footage is of vital importance in the fight for animal liberation, we must be mindful of the framing and presentation.
When it comes to undercover exposes, it’s often what’s not said that’s the most damaging.
Every time undercover footage has captured workers—from one country or another—tossing live baby chicks into a grinder, news outlets dramatically recount the unbelievable cruelty. And every time, the public is appalled, outraged, and disgusted. And every time, they assume that it’s an isolated incident of extreme cruelty; and they continue to eat eggs, confident they’re not supporting such brutality.
The most important message of all is left unsaid: that this is not a barbaric practice isolated to corrupt, abusive facilities or industrialized farms; that grinding up live babies is a welfare regulation; a worldwide “standard practice.”
The fact that the lines between overt abuse and standard industry practice are so indistinguishable highlights the absurdity of animal welfarism and human concepts.
In my essay “The Harm of Humane” from the book Vegan Voices, I opened with a specific example of this from my home state of Iowa:
In September 2008, an undercover video documenting routine abuse at an Iowa pig breeding facility made international news. The footage and investigators’ notes18 captured workers kicking and beating pregnant pigs with metal objects, and sexually violating them with rods; they were also shown cutting off the tails and tearing out the testicles of piglets without anesthetic, and slamming sick or deformed piglets against the ground, leaving them to die slowly, piled on top of one another in giant bins.
While these acts of cruelty were exposed by vegan activists, the egregiousness of the abuse rightfully sparked outrage from meat-eating consumers. Hormel, the food company supplied by the farm, received over 10,000 calls in two days.19
In the wire report issued by the Associated Press, a Hormel spokesperson called the abuses “completely unacceptable”; the farm’s owner emphasized “We condemn these types of acts,” calling them “completely intolerable, reprehensible” and vowed to “investigate and initiate corrective action immediately.”20
Anyone reading the report would be left with the impression that this was an isolated incident of overt cruelty, or—at the very worst—a regular occurrence isolated to large factory farms. Amidst the catalogued horrors, the troubling implication of a single sentence was easily overlooked; following the description of the workers’ treatment of piglets, the report stated:
“Temple Grandin, a leading animal welfare expert who serves as a consultant to the livestock industry, said that while those are standard industry practices, the treatment of the sows on the video was far from it. ‘This is atrocious animal abuse,’ Grandin said…”— The Associated Press 2008; emphasis added
To be clear, the treatment of the mother pigs was what Grandin deemed “atrocious animal abuse”; the acts she waved away as “standard industry practices” were the unanaesthetized mutilation of newborn piglets, and the brutal—and ineffective—slamming of “defective” piglets against the concrete floor.
Within my essay, I implore the reader to ask themself: were you to have watched that video, heard the piercing screams of the mother pigs and their babies, would you have spotted the difference between the “atrocious animal abuse” and “standard industry practices”?
When we fail to explain and emphasize that the horrors depicted in these videos are not only legal, but actually government-sanctioned, humane-legislation-dictated practices, we leave the public with the impression that this was the result of a few malicious, sociopathic workers or poorly regulated facilities. Just a few “bad apples.”
Far from considering veganism, the public is left thinking that “luckily, the perpetrators were exposed and will surely be punished. Thank goodness the eggs, meat, or dairy we eat isn’t contributing to that kind of abusive behavior.”
Invariably, when horrific acts are exposed to the public, there is a call for stronger regulations and higher welfare standards. As activists, we can become caught in this self-perpetuating cycle—believing we’re fighting for progress when we’re simply running in place.
An example of this cycle is the rise of cage-free eggs. I recently published an article, video and eCourse on cage-free eggs. As always happens when I dive into researching a topic—even one I’ve previously covered—I found so much new information.
I’ve stated in several videos and speeches that cage-free hens have been shown to have twice the mortality rate of battery caged hens. This is a seemingly damning inditement of the idea that such humane labels as “cage-free” are improvements for animals.
When I began re-researching this statistic, I found that it’s far more complicated After coming across a meta-analysis that seemed to indicate mortality rates have been on the decline worldwide in cage-free systems, such that the difference of death rates between caged and non-caged hens is nearly non-existent, I worried that this worked against the point I’d been making in the past.
Something I find so incredibly important in my activism, though, is never shying away from new information. Even it if seems like it may go against what I’m aiming to say, it’s so important to evaluate and present what’s true.
Invariably, once I go deeper into research I find that what may initially seem to be a contradiction, or something in support of an agricultural practice—the underlying reality of anything within the animal products industry cannot help but be problematic.
So, I’d like to take you through my own journey with researching the question of hen mortality rates in different housing systems—at least in brief.
Laying hens were originally moved into battery cages for a number of reasons, including profit and management-oriented benefits such as: reduced labor requirements, greater efficiency of space (meaning more birds housed in a given area), and lower feed requirements. However, there were also perceived benefits to the hens themselves, including: a reduction in disease transference, injurious pecking, and cannibalism.24
As demand rose for cage-free systems, multiple studies found the mortality rate in non-cage systems to be higher than in battery cage systems due to those very issues.25 One of the more comprehensive studies that I’d quoted in the past found cage-free hens to have 2.5 times higher mortality rates than battery-caged hens.26 To be clear, this finding was not isolated to that study or even one country.27
So, it would seem that cage-free eggs actually result in more deaths than conventional battery cages. However, in more recent years, researches have pointed out that the reason for higher mortality may not have anything to do with the housing system per se. Instead, the rates appear more reliably tied to the genetic strain of hens within the facilities, the experience level of managing staff, and whether flocks are debeaked.28
Researchers argue that as producers have become more familiar with managing non-cage systems, and have started using more “appropriate” breeds, the mortality rates have been on the decline; and they believe this decline will continue.29
At first glance, I was worried I’d been conveying faulty data. That perhaps decline in mortality rates in non-cage systems was a promising trend in support of such humane labels as cage-free eggs.
But the more I read, the more I found that, rather than pointing to reasons for hope, the causes of mortality decline actually highlighted the reality that within the animal products industries, the solutions are the problems.
Every time our breeding, confinement, mutilation and slaughter of non-human animals invariably cause ethical, environmental and health problems, we strive to solve them with different variations of breeding, confinement, mutilation and slaughter.
We continue this cycle over and over again—addressing problems of our own creation with solutions that will eventually become our next problem—rather than stepping back and questioning our use of animals in the first place.
When hens injure and kill one another due to their breeding and living conditions—both of which have been imposed upon them—the solution is to cut off their beaks and alter their breeding.
This has happened before in the reverse. In Denmark, laying hens were not moved into cages until 1980.30 At the time, the dominant breed of hens was adapted specifically for non-cage systems. When moved into cages, their mortality rate increased five times over31—the same trend observed when moving hens bred for battery cages into non-cage environments.
The problem isn’t really the housing, the label, the stocking density, or whatever we want to point to: the problem is us and how we relate to these beings.
I also want to note that in all the research I came across about mortality rates not being down to the housing system, the importance of debeaking hens to reduce injurious and cannibalistic behavior was strongly emphasized.32
Even if using the “appropriate” breed of hen and having more experienced management, whether a flock was debeaked or not was often the deciding factor in mortality rates. Of course, debeaking is a painful mutilation in which a portion of a bird’s sensitive beaks is cut or burned off.33
I found a statement from Ian J.H. Duncan, Professor Emeritus and Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, Canada, that illustrates this predicament. He said:
“If [producers] do not trim beaks, then feather pecking and cannibalism may cause enormous suffering. If they do trim beaks by conventional methods, the birds will suffer from acute and chronic pain…
Chopping off parts of young animals in order to prevent future welfare problems is a very crude solution.”34— I found a statement from
His proposed instead that “likely…the long-term solution to this problem will be a genetic one…”35 While certainly less objectionable than debeaking on a visceral level, genetic manipulation of sentient beings to serve our purposes is not only extremely ethically problematic, but—once again—what got us into this position in the first place.
When we as activists push for welfare reform, higher standards, better regulations—we are participating in this cycle. We are participating in a system built upon a faulty and unethical premise: that animals are ours to use. That there is a right and acceptable way to use them. That the solution to their suffering is to further control and manipulate their very beings.
After covering examples of what not to say in our activism, I wanted to touch on some approaches of what to say—and how to say it—as well as ways to remove common barriers that arise when speaking with non-vegans.
As activists, we must stay focused on the universal truth underlying any use of sentient beings. Even if we imagine an idealized small farm, where animals are given ample space outdoors, their every need cared for—there will still come a time when their life is cut short. Their entire existence is still based upon an owner-product framework; their value not viewed as inherent, but rather calculated down to the dollar.
One way of effectively cutting to this core truth for non-vegans is to place it within a familiar emotional framework. We may have them envision this idealized small farm, but, imagine, in place of the happy farmed animals, a beloved family pet.
Would it be acceptable to end their pets life? What if it was guaranteed they wouldn’t feel a thing; that it would be quick and humane? Instantly the unacceptability is clear at a visceral level. From that connection, we can explore with them what the difference is between a pet and the sentient beings in the food industry? Do they not also feel pain and fear?
When she is sexually violated yet again to induce yet another pregnancy and give birth to yet another child who will yet again be taken—how can that not take an emotional and physical toll? There’s a reason dairy cows’ bodies generally give out around age four to five, despite a natural life span of twenty years or more.36
Applying such emotionality to non-human animals is often criticized as anthropomorphic—an objection that illustrates the contradiction of humane concepts.
Humane regulations are an inherent admission of animals’ ability to suffer and feel pain. How can we claim that our animals are healthy and happy—then deny they possess these capacities when asked to see from their perspective? We cannot have it both ways.
This is how profoundly illogical our thinking is when it comes to animals. Knowing better but doing wrong anyway is worse than having no knowledge.
Yet we have the audacity to hold the legislative recognition of non-human sentience on high as a giant step forward for the rights of animals, as if systematically exploiting individuals with fully admitted knowledge and comprehension of their capacity to suffer is something to commend.
Highlighting this faulty logic and focusing on the fundamental truth we’ve all known since childhood—that it’s not okay to hurt others—cuts through all the convoluted justifications and diversions, allowing people to re-connect with their own values.
As I stated in the opening of this speech, activists often fall into the trap of offering gradations of change or “humane” alternatives when seeking a more approachable “entry point” to offer non-vegans.
I’ve long believed that one of the main reasons people don’t go vegan is the immense pain and guilt of accepting our part in horrific atrocities. Confronting the true impact of our choices is incredibly daunting, so instead we shut down, attack, or throw out any number of the standard objections you’ve no doubt heard countless times: lions, desert islands, protein.
It’s human nature to raise our guards when we’re on the defensive—we close off and shut down. It would seem logical as activists to avoid upsetting our audience in order to keep their receptivity open—however, this is a perfect illustrative example of walking the line.
It’s not about making sure not to upset anyone—if they’re grasping the truth, they should be upset! It’s making sure that the push-back to the truths we reveal are aimed at their rightful sources, leading to constructive, well-deserved outrage.
When we present them with solid factual information about the industries in an educational setting, we supply a “buffer” of sorts—providing a target for their outrage other than themselves, thus sidestepping shut-down and channeling their outrage to action. I do want to note that this is not an attempt to excuse participation in exploitation.
When I speak to a non-vegan audience, I always tell them that they deserve to know the truth about what they’re putting in their body—about what they’re feeding their children. They deserve to know how what they eat impacts their planet. And that they certainly deserve to know what they are paying others to do to animals in their name.
Approaching vegan outreach from this perspective helps defuse the “charge” of defensiveness and resistance. There is no need to pander, sugarcoat, or offer more palatable outlets. I simply present them with factual evidence, allowing them to evaluate whether they want to continue supporting actions out of line with their values.
Another barrier I strive to eliminate in my activism is the issue of trust. There are many reasons non-vegans may dismiss the vegan message, not the least of which is the messenger. This is why, when I speak with non-vegans, I am sure to present information put forth by their own agricultural industries and governmental bodies.
This not only helps defuse the potential defensive charge of some random vegan telling them how bad things are, but it also allows me to show that even the proposed ideal—which is of course never met—is absolutely horrifying.
This is a particularly important approach when speaking to audiences in other countries and cross-culturally. When I spoke in Dublin, Ireland, I dove deep into the humane legislation of both Ireland and the European Union.
Ireland is a powerful case study—it’s essentially the humane concept embodied in country form. Cows graze outside in picturesque fields, lending support to the common refrain that “it’s not like that here.” And by all appearances and accounts, it’s not. Even after some digging, I only found a single undercover video of abuse.
However, I didn’t want to focus on abuse. I wanted to focus on the ideal standards. I told the audience, “the facts I’ll present today are not of my creation—I’ve sourced them from primarily Irish governmental and industry documents, the European Union,” and stated that they didn’t even have to believe me, as I’d be providing a link to a full transcript of the talk with citations for every fact, a bibliography and additional resources.
This not only provides opportunity for further learning, but also removes the significant potential barrier of requiring someone to trust in me personally on issues about which they’re already guarded.
As animal activists, we do not have to fear presenting the bare facts. We don’t have to try to sensationalize or exaggerate: the truth is bad enough. The ideal—the very best we have to offer—is bad enough.
And more importantly, we do not need to—and should not—compromise the integrity of our ethics in an effort to make veganism more approachable. When we do so, we’re supporting the very things we are fighting against.
We do not have to fear sharing the truth with others—it’s not only vital for the sentient beings we are defending, but it’s also the most respectful approach for the non-vegan with whom we’re speaking. They deserve to know. And they deserve to make a choice with all the facts at their disposal.
I hope that this has been a helpful exploration of the importance of language in activism, and how to avoid compromising the integrity of your message through respecting everyone’s right to the truth.
— Emily Moran Barwick
This speech was delivered at the Humane Hoax online conference. Learn more about the Humane Hoax Project.