Our Voices, Our Movement: How Vegans Can Move Beyond the “Welfare-Abolition Debate”

For years I have remained silent on the “welfare-abolition debate,” believing that my limited time and energy as an activist were best directed elsewhere. But recent events have compelled me to witness the profound anger, confusion, guilt, weariness, and despair this issue triggers in vegans – vegans whose commitment and compassion never cease to astound and inspire me. So I could not, in good conscience, avoid contemplating this issue and sharing my reflections.

Much has been written about the content of the issue – the specific ideas and arguments that comprise each position. In fact, virtually all that has been discussed in regard to the “debate” is content-based, and one would be hard-pressed to find new content to add to a “debate” that has been at a stalemate since its inception. So I am not going to argue for a position here, but, rather, suggest a different way of thinking about this issue – a reframe that I hope will help free up some energy that’s been spent in a gridlock, so that our lives are more peaceful and our activism is more effective.

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What I suggest is that we turn our attention from the content to the process of the issue. The process is the how, rather than the what; it is how we engage with the content, the way we communicate (e.g., we can be argumentative or cooperative). And our process is informed by our consciousness. Our consciousness is our mentality; it is the intentions, principles, and state of mind that drive our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and determine how we relate to ourselves, others, and our world. Our consciousness and process can mirror the speciesist-carnist culture we are working to transform, thus reinforcing, for instance, ideological rigidity, black-and-white thinking, defensiveness, bullying, self-righteousness, and hostility. Or it can reflect the core principles of veganism – principles such as compassion, reciprocity, justice, and humility – the essence of a “liberatory” consciousness (and process), a way of being (and relating) that is fundamentally liberating and that I believe can significantly empower the important strategic conversations we need to continue to engage in.

Equating Difference with Deficiency: Framing Healthy Disagreements as Divisive Debates

There are many ways in which we, as individuals and as a movement, embody a liberatory consciousness. I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of vegans around the world, and of witnessing the courage and conviction they carry through their lives. They hold firm to their values despite the daily hostility and discrimination they must contend with, the isolation they experience, the frustration they feel when perceiving the blatant irrationality in others’ attitudes and behaviors toward nonhuman animals, and the pain and sorrow and exasperation they feel at the ubiquitous reminders of brutality and injustice that surround them. And I have also had the opportunity to witness the global unfolding and burgeoning of the vegan movement. Given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we have much to be proud of.

And given the depth and breadth of the atrocity we are up against, we also have much work to do.

Although we have been able to bring a liberatory consciousness to many areas of our activism and our movement – in particular, to our areas of commonality – we often bring a non-liberatory consciousness to our areas of difference. Given that our diversity is our strength – the more ideas and experiences we bring to our movement, the richer and more multidimensional it becomes – when we equate difference with deficiency, when we believe that differences are obstacles rather than opportunities, then we relate to our differences in a way that weakens rather than strengthens ourselves and our movement. Our disagreements become framed as divisive debates rather than constructive conversations.

The core problem is not our differences; it is the way we relate to them. In other words, although there may well be differences in terms of how effective various strategies are for ending animal exploitation – some strategies may even be counterproductive – we cannot determine which approaches to focus our efforts on if we are unable to discuss such differences openly. We must approach our areas of difference in such a way that cultivates the kind of productive dialogue that enables us to fully explore the most expedient methods by which to stop the tide of horrific brutality toward nonhuman beings that does not pause while we argue with each other.

Debate versus Dialogue: Radically Different Processes

The debate model, though widely accepted in academia and beyond, has also been criticized by a number of intellectuals, ranging at least as far back as Socrates. In general, when we debate, we seek to “win” an “argument,” to “defend” our position, to demonstrate that our position is “right.” Thus, our goal is inevitably to make the other(s) “lose” and demonstrate that their position is “wrong.” The goal of debate is typically not to learn, to develop to a broader and deeper understanding of an issue, but to further our own existing view against an “opponent” who is equally invested in furthering her or his view. Debate is based on and encourages dualistic, either/or thinking: we are often forced to choose between two (opposing) views and can therefore fail to see the many alternative views that may exist. We can also fail to appreciate the nuances of the issue, or that there may be multiple and equally valid interpretations of the same situation.

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The goal of dialogue, on the other hand, is to share ideas and to become aware of multiple perspectives. It is to understand and be understood by the other to garner broader awareness. Through dialogue we are encouraged to examine our own assumptions, consider the limitations of our perspective, and contemplate alternative explanations or courses of action to the issue we are exploring. The dialogue model is much more reflective of a liberatory consciousness, as it requires curiosity, empathy, and compassion, and its objective is mutual understanding and collective empowerment rather than creating “winners” and “losers.”

Apart from the consciousness engendered by each model, if we consider the sheer practical value of these approaches to ending animal exploitation, we can appreciate how debate can pose a serious obstacle to this goal: Achieving our objective of animal liberation depends on developing a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and flexible strategic approach to targeting a comprehensive, complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing form of institutionalized oppression. It is unlikely that the reductive, black-and-white rhetoric of debate can ever produce such nuance and analytical richness. Our differences are our strengths.

The Debate Stalemate: Strategy in the Guise of Ideology

Given the problematic nature of debate, why do we continue to apply this model to dealing with our differences? One reason is because we have conflated ideology with strategy, believing that our differences are ideological rather than strategic. Ideology is morally loaded, often engendering a “right/wrong” mentality, and it is subjectively interpreted, which can lead to endless deliberation and ultimately stalemate.

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While ideological differences among vegans do of course exist, for many vegans there is often a lack of clarity around when and how ideology and strategy overlap. For instance, when we debate whether it is more effective to campaign for institutional reform than to conduct vegan outreach (assuming these are mutually exclusive approaches, which they are not) the assumption is often that the disagreement is purely ideological, that one is either “abolitionist” or “welfarist.” However, most vegans do in fact share the goal of the abolition of animal exploitation and when we untangle ideology from strategy we can redirect the conversation to how best to bring about this end without getting sidetracked by moral argumentation.

When we wrap ideology around strategy we lose the objectivity necessary to develop a sound strategic analysis. For instance, we treat theory as though it were fact, vehemently arguing for an approach based on no empirical evidence whatsoever. Historical examples of other abolition movements, such as the movement to end African slavery, are useful references but they in no way approximate the hard data necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of a strategic approach to abolishing contemporary animal exploitation. Nor do we have any reliable data proving that welfare reforms will ultimately bring about abolition and do not actually undermine efforts toward that end. And we also treat fact as though it were theory, dismissing, for instance, the plethora of research examining motivational and behavioral factors influencing individual and social change: It is truly astonishing how Nick Cooney’s Change of Heart, a 220-page compilation of psychosocial studies, has at times been treated as though it were mere conjecture.

Strategic analysis is one of the – if not the – most important efforts we can engage in as vegans. Questioning how to most effectively and expediently bring about change for nonhuman animals is vital to our mission. It makes sense to ask whether, for instance, welfare reforms that raise awareness about farmed animal exploitation yet provide another justification for such exploitation are more beneficial than consequential. These are valid questions that require ongoing dialogue. The debate model, however, is not useful when discussing strategy; our investment in being right can prevent us from being effective.

The Myth of the Great Debate: “Welfarism versus Abolitionism”

Another reason vegans employ the counterproductive debate model is because many of us believe that there is a fundamental “welfare-abolition debate” dividing our movement and that we are therefore automatically on one side or the other. In other words, we have bought into The Myth of the Great Debate.

However, while there are those who do seek to debate this issue, the debate itself is largely a construct. A debate, in general, assumes there are (at least) two “opposing” sides, each which is equally invested in promoting its position as right. And to be invested in promoting one’s position, one must generally be identified with that position. A debate is like a soccer match: there have to be two groups, identified as teams, which are both committed to “winning” the game.

If we examine the history of the “welfare-abolition debate,” however, we see that the vast majority of vegans do not see themselves on a “side” of the “debate” because they are not identified with a particular position – they have not labeled themselves or their position and they have not constructed an identity around it. They simply see themselves as “vegans.” Often they will only consider their position in the “debate” when they are confronted with “choosing” a “side,” but generally they don’t feel any identification with their supposed “side,” nor do they perceive those on the other “side” as in opposition to them and their efforts. Identification with a position has largely been the province of a small group of vegans who have constructed an identity around their strategic-ideological approach and who have constructed labels for both themselves and the other “side.” In our soccer analogy, it’s as if there is only one team trying to win the game; the rest of the individuals don’t even think of themselves as a team and are simply moving across the field, only kicking the ball when it gets in their way.

To be fair, just because only a minority of vegans have a “team” identity, this does not mean that the majority play no role in constructing the debate. It is entirely possible that the small, vocal minority have developed a cohesive group identity because they have felt that their valid and pressing concerns have not been taken seriously by the broader vegan culture. Both “sides” must work to defuse the Myth of the Great Debate.

The Myth of the Great Divide: United and Divided We Stand

One of the dangers of buying into the Myth of the Great Debate is that it can lead us to believe in the Myth of the Great Divide – that there is a deep rift in our movement which is crippling our efforts and undermining our activism. And while it is true that “the debate” is divisive and poses an obstacle to our growth, a cursory analysis of the evolution of the movement over recent years demonstrates without a doubt that we are growing exponentially in size and strength. The rift is not a chasm.

We may also believe in the Myth of the Great Divide because, as ideological minorities, we are often portrayed by the dominant culture as a one-dimensional, homogeneous group. And, like other non-dominant groups, we can feel pressured to present a unified front in order to obtain social power. So it is important for us to remember that we are no less diverse than non-vegans, and we don’t have to – nor should we – share all the same values and beliefs and approaches. When we look at ourselves through the lens of the dominant culture we can fear that if we are not united, we are divided, and act this out in a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we can be, and are, both similar and different.

Divisive Labeling

Our perception of ourselves as fundamentally divided is reinforced at least in part through the construction and appropriation of labels for vegans. While linguistic analysis and accuracy are essential to the continued growth of any social movement, when labels are created and applied unilaterally – when those on the receiving end have been neither participants in the process nor consenting recipients of the labels ascribed to them – the result is confusion, frustration, and a profound undermining of personal dignity and group solidarity.

Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than through the use of the labels “abolitionist” and “welfarist.” Many vegans find these labels offensive because they are involuntarily either ascribed or denied such labels – they are told they are not who they perceive themselves to be or that they are who they perceive themselves not to be. For instance, the technical definition of “abolitionist” is one who favors the abolition of a practice or institution; in the case of veganism, it would mean anyone whose end goal is the abolition of animal exploitation. And while the majority of vegans arguably perceive themselves to be abolitionists, this term has been redefined to apply to a small group of those who favor a particular ideology and strategic approach to bringing about that end. Thus, anyone whose approach differs, even if their goal is the abolition of animal exploitation, is labeled “welfarist,” which suggests that they simply seek to alleviate, rather than eliminate, such exploitation. While there are certainly animal protection advocates – and greenwashing agribusiness executives – who do not seek abolition, the vast majority of vegans do and are thus rightly offended when they are denied the right to self-identification.

A simple way to address the problem of divisive labeling is to choose terms that are more inclusive and accurate. Indeed, it is likely that such terms were originally constructed to foster greater accuracy and that exclusion has been an unintended consequence. However, the process by which such labeling has been implemented is of even greater concern than the labels themselves. Imposing on others unsolicited labels that are incongruent with their own self-concept is defining their reality. It is denying others the right to their own philosophical orientation. When we define another’s reality, we essentially state that we know better than they do what their core motivations and goals are. Defining another’s reality is a fundamentally disempowering (non-liberatory) process. Whenever we appoint ourselves the expert on another’s experience, we strip the other of their subjectivity, rendering them objects of our projections. We erase their being, projecting onto them our own assumptions about their internal world. This kind of consciousness is antithetical to all we stand for as vegans. Think about it: our advocacy is predicated on preventing humans from defining the reality of other animals, from dismissing or minimizing other beings’ sentience and suffering. We strive to understand the subjective experience of other animals and to encourage others to do the same. This witnessing of other beings, validating rather than defining their reality, is the basis of a vegan consciousness – a liberatory consciousness.

A Vegan Consciousness of Liberation: Beyond the Debate and Across the Divide

Veganism is founded on the principles that inform a liberatory consciousness, and the essence of vegan philosophy is respecting the intrinsic worth of all beings, humans included. There is no way we will create the kind of world that mirrors our principles if we practice our philosophy selectively rather than holistically. We must commit to bringing a liberatory consciousness to our minute-to-minute lives, to our closest relationships as well as our interactions with strangers, to those with whom we may vehemently disagree as well as those we call comrades. In such a way, we model for non-vegans the principles we are asking them to espouse, we cultivate more fulfilling and sustainable lives as vegans and as activists, and we create a more unified and empowered movement.

A liberatory consciousness reflects curiosity – an open mind – rather than ideological or intellectual rigidity and defensiveness. The goal is to seek truth, to learn and understand, rather than to be “right.” If we value curiosity as a core principle of a liberatory consciousness then we value, rather than disparage, those whose truth-seeking may engender ideas we disagree with. For instance, James McWilliams has come under harsh criticism for changing his stance on certain issues after examining them more fully. Yet, regardless as to whether we agree with his ideas, McWilliams’ openness to information that challenges his existing views and his commitment to seeking (and speaking) truth over being “right” reflects true intellectual integrity.

A liberatory consciousness reflects compassion – an open heart – rather than judgment, shaming, and bullying. The goal is to connect, to empathize with the other, and to empower her or him. Judgment is always shaming, as it reflects an attitude of superiority and causes the other to feel inferior, “less-than.” And bullying is the use of aggression to intimidate another into doing (or believing) what one wants. We may champion a belief system of total liberation, but if our actions are judgmental, shaming, or bullying, we are oppressing rather than liberating. Moreover, when we practice compassion we defuse our anger, and anger is a serious obstacle to productive dialogue. Anger is a normal, appropriate response to injustice, but when we fail to examine and process our anger, it can grow and become chronic. And when we communicate from a place of anger, we inevitably project hostility. Our words – spoken or written – are pregnant with vitriol, righteously indignant. Anger is a profoundly disconnecting emotion; it creates defensive walls in ourselves and in those with whom we are communicating. If our goal is to be heard, we need the other to be open to us, to feel a connection with us – to sense our compassion.

And a liberatory consciousness reflects the courage to practice curiosity and compassion in our interactions, and our lives. Any interaction that does not reflect curiosity and compassion is inherently non-liberatory.

As vegans, we are asking of the world something that has never been asked of it before. We are seeking radical social transformation, a true revolution of consciousness. Our movement, our voice, is critical to talking the world off the ledge on which it stands. And although we are making our voice heard over the din, just imagine how much our louder our message would be if we stopped yelling at each other. And just imagine the kind of world we could create if we committed to speaking the language of liberation.

Image Source: MckaySavage/Flickr