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How to be a Successful Vegan Advocate

All advocates are faced with 2 main challenges:

  1. How to open people's hearts and minds, so that they might deliberately and conscientiously consider new ideas;
  2. How to remain dedicated and motivated.

A Meaningful Life

Don't get boxed in, learn how to be a successful vegan advocate

Each of us is born with a certain intrinsic nature. We are then raised to follow certain beliefs, and taught to hold specific prejudices. Over time, we discover new "truths" and abandon others; we mix and match, supplement and refine, continually altering our collection of attitudes, principles, and values.

Even though we can recognize that our belief system changes over time, at any given point in time, most of us are likely to believe that our current set of positions and opinions are "right", our convictions are well founded, our actions justified, and that we are a good person at heart. This is most often self-delusion.

Effective advocates understand that real and lasting change comes only from opening a person's heart and mind, allowing them the freedom to explore new ideas and new ways of viewing the world. Of course, there is no magic way of doing this or one method that will work in all cases. The simplest way is for our own hearts and minds to be open. We must be truly open, willing and able to sincerely consider anything and everything that is said during interactions with others, because no one person has all the answers.

Vegan Advocacy to Human Nature

Virtually all our advocacy begins with a desire to decrease the amount of suffering in the world. But how can we make a difference in a world where suffering is so widespread?

People have an affinity for the known and the immediate. Most people working for a better world concentrate on those closest to them, geographically and/or biologically. They tend to focus on either the familiar or the fantastic, with a disproportionate amount of resources and effort spent on cats and dogs, endangered species, or individual animals in high-profile situations.

This is not surprising, given our basic human desire to have a visible impact on the world. We all want to feel like we are accomplishing something, that we've been victorious. It often doesn't matter how significant the accomplishment is, but rather that something tangible has been achieved.

Understanding human nature and recognising the primacy of suffering has led us to formulate 2 guiding principles for advocacy:

  1. We should strive to identify and set aside our own personal biases and needs as much as possible and adopt an approach to advocacy that is motivated solely by the suffering of others.
  2. When we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do others. The people who want to create a better world have extremely limited resources and time. So instead of choosing to "do something, do anything," we pursue actions that we believe will lead to the greatest reduction in suffering.
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Where is the Most Suffering?

Based on the 2 principles above, we choose to focus on exposing the cruelties of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, while providing honest information about how to pursue a cruelty-free lifestyle. Our emphasis on ethical eating has no value in and of itself. Rather, the importance of promoting cruelty-free eating is that it allows us to have the maximum impact on the amount of suffering in the world.

There are 3 basic reasons for this:

  1. The number of animals raised and killed for food each year in the USA alone vastly exceeds any other form of exploitation, involving numbers far greater than the total human population of the entire world. 99 out of every 100 animals killed in the United States each year are slaughtered for human consumption.

    If these billions of animals lived happy, healthy lives and had quick, painless deaths, then our concern for suffering would lead us elsewhere. But animals raised for food must endure unfathomable suffering.

  2. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of advocating on behalf of these animals is trying to describe the indescribable: the overcrowding and confinement, the stench, the racket, the extremes of heat and cold, the attacks and even cannibalism, the hunger and starvation, the illness ... the near-constant horror of every day of their lives. Indeed, every year, hundreds of millions of these animals - many times more than the total number killed for fur and in laboratories - don't even make it to slaughter. They suffer to death.
  3. If there were nothing we could do about these animals' suffering, if it all happened in a distant land beyond our influence, our focus would be different. But we don't have to overthrow a foreign government; we don't have to forsake modern life. Exposing factory farms and advocating ethical eating is the most readily accessible opportunity for making a better world!

    Inspiring someone to change leads to fewer animals suffering on factory farms. By choosing to promote cruelty-free living, every person we meet is a potential major victory.

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Promoting Compassion for Maximum Change

We must seek to achieve the greatest reduction in suffering per dollar donated and hour worked. The best way to accomplish this is to present the optimal message to our target audience. But who is our audience, and what is the message that will elicit the greatest change?

Our target audience is students, for 3 main reasons:

  1. The Relative Willingness and Ability to Change - Of course, not every student is willing to stop eating meat. But relative to the population as a whole, college students tend to be more open-minded and in a position where they aren't as restricted by parents, tradition, habits, etc.
  2. The Full Impact of Change - Students can save more animals because young people not only have more meals ahead of them, but also have more opportunities to influence others.
  3. The Ability to Reach Large Numbers - College students are typically easier to reach in large numbers. IN a relatively short time, an activist can hand out leaflets to hundreds of students who otherwise might never have viewed a full and compelling case for compassion.
Our message for this audience is the suffering on factory farms and in industrial slaughterhouses. This simple message has many benefits, including the following:
  1. Honesty - In general, people can sense insincerity. The tactic of appealing to self-interest doesn't work.
  2. Impact - Does anyone really believe that an hour spent holding a sign outside a furrier does more to help animals than spending that hour handing out factory farming brochures?
  3. Motivation - We don't want to get people to just consider changing their diet. We want them to change and maintain that change.

We know that exposing what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses isn't going to appeal to everyone. But we don't want people to nod in agreement and continue on as before. It is far better if most people turn away revolted but some people open their minds to change, than if everyone smiles politely and continues on to McDonald's.

Trying to appeal to everyone hasn't worked, and it won't work. Feel-good arguments that avoid the horrors of meat production are simply not compelling enough. Conversely, showing people what goes on behind the walls of factory farms and slaughterhouses does work! We have found cruelty to animals to be the most compelling reason to change one's diet, and maintain that change, in the face of peer pressure, tradition, the latest fad, etc.

The simplest way to get information to interested people is to stock displays in your area: libraries, music and bookstores, co-ops and natural food stores, coffeehouses, and sympathetic restaurants.

The animals can't afford our continued reactionary, try-everything-and-anything campaigns. We know what works, we just need the dedication to do it!

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Pitfalls of Vegan Advocacy

Anyone who has been vegetarian for more than a few minutes knows the many roadblocks - habit, tradition, convenience, taste, familiarity, peer pressure, etc. - that keep people from opening their hearts and minds to consider the animals' plight. Our message must overcome all of these!

Life is no stroll in the meadow for factory farm animals - photo courtesy of Johnny Greig:

When it comes to advocating for the animals, people are looking for a reason to ignore us. No one sits around thinking, "Wow, I really want to give up all my favourite foods and isolate myself from my friends and family!"

To be as effective as possible, it is absolutely essential that we recognise and avoid common traps. Remember: Our message is simple. We shouldn't distract people from it by trying to present every piece of information that sounds vaguely pro-vegetarian.

Nor should we try to answer every tangential argument. We can't, for instance, let the discussion degrade into an argument over sterility and impotence, third-world starvation, Jesus' loaves and fishes or abortion. Whatever is said cannot counter the fact that eating animals causes unnecessary suffering.

Similarly, we can't afford to build our case from questionable sources. Factory farms and slaughterhouses are hidden from view, and the industry's PR machine denies standard animal agriculture practices ("Animals are treated well, slaughterhouses are well regulated"). The public won't believe otherwise just because we say so. However, there is no need to cite "biased" sources; the cruelties of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses are well documented by non-partisan third-party sources and the industry itself. Our case must be based on sources most people will regard as indisputable.


  • We don't want to attack anything or anyone.
  • We don't want to express our rage at how animals are raised and killed.
  • We don't want to show how smart and enlightened we are.
  • We don't want to "win an argument with a meat eater."

We want people to open their hearts and minds to change. It all simplifies to this:

  • Buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering.
  • We can each choose not to cause this suffering.
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Staying Healthy

For many, maintaining a change in diet is a far more significant undertaking than most advocates admit or realise.

As we know, even a moderate health argument doesn't hold much sway over most people, especially young people. But the health argument is not only an inefficient use of our limited resources, when we regurgitate extremist-sounding propaganda, we hurt animals.

Everyone who tries a vegetarian diet because of its "magical properties" will quit if they don't immediately lose weight and increase their energy. They will then tell everyone how awful they felt as a vegetarian, and how much better they feel now as a meat eater. Just one failed vegetarian can counter the efforts of many well-spoken advocates.

We must learn and present a complete, unbiased summary of the nutritional aspects of a cruelty-free diet, including uncertainties and potential concerns. Doing so not only leads people to trust that we are not just partisan propagandists, but also creates healthy spokespeople for the animals!

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Countering the Stereotype

Perhaps the biggest problem for advocates is society's stereotype of vegans. The word is often used as shorthand for someone young, angry, deprived, fanatical and isolated. In short, 'vegan' = 'unhappy'. This caricature guarantees that veganism won't be considered, let alone adopted, on a wide scale.

Regrettably, the "angry vegan" image is based in reality, and fighting this stereotype just reinforces it. Self-righteous indignation gave many people a lifetime excuse to ignore the realities of factory farms and the compassionate alternative.

We must actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. We must learn "how to win friends and influence people." We must, regardless of the sorrow and outrage we rightly feel, leave everyone we meet with the impression of a joyful person leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. The animals can't wait until we get over our despair.

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Summary of Successful Advocacy

To maximise the amount of suffering we can prevent, we must:

  • Focus on preventing animals from being bred for factory farms.
  • Accept that, at this time, only a minority will listen, and many others will react with disdain.
  • Avoid extreme claims, absolutism, and self-righteousness.
  • Accept and admit to uncertainty.
  • Be a friendly, upbeat, and respectful "people person."
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The Final Challenge: Dedication and Motivation

In many ways, remaining dedicated and motivated is a harder challenge than opening other people's hearts and minds. It is not easy.

Is the situation hopeless? Although it is frustrating how slow the pace of progress can seem to us, the rate of change has been unprecedented in the past few centuries. Bruce Friedrich: "Socrates, considered the father of philosophical thought, was teaching more than 2,500 years ago. It was thousands of years later that we saw the beginnings of our democratic system. Not until the 19th century was slavery abolished in the developed world. Only in the last century was child labour ended, child abuse criminalised, women allowed to vote, and minorities granted wider rights".

When viewed in this context, it seems clear that today we have the great and singular opportunity to make The Economist's prediction come true: "Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than civilised behaviour requires" (read more on the case for animal liberation).

Is this enough to keep an activist going, especially while not surrounded by other activists to provide support? We aren't robots. We each want to be happy.

Yet our desire for happiness can be the answer to the final challenge. Ultimately, happiness isn't to be found in materiality. While the USA is the richest country on earth, Americans aren't the happiest people on earth. Happiness is the result of a meaningful life, and meaning comes not from things, but from accomplishment.

Matt Ball: "I believe that meaningful accomplishment comes from living life beyond ourselves, viewing our existence beyond the immediate. Doing my thoughtful best to make the world a better place is as meaningful a life as I can imagine".

Compiled by Sheldon Hey from a series of extracts from A Meaningful LifeOpens in a new window, by Matt Ball.

You can join Matt's vegan advocacy programme at: VeganOutreach.orgOpens in a new window

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