Food For Thought Podcast
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The Vegan Police: How to Speak Up for Animals without Talking Down to People


A small subset of opinionated, passionate, well-intentioned people perpetuate the stereotype of the angry, self-righteous, perfection-focused animal rights vegan when they spew invective at anyone who is not “vegan enough” in their eyes. They are otherwise known as The Vegan Police.

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Of course I’m very well aware of how judgmental people can be — we’re all guilty of it — and nothing tastes better than sweet self-righteousness, especially when it exists in the name of justice. But self-righteousness,  arrogance, and meanness are just ugly regardless of what inspires them. And of course I’ve been keenly aware of the existence of the perfectionist vegan for as long as I’ve been vegan — probably since before I was vegan.

But I’ve been seeing it so much more invective on social media – not much of it directly because I won’t venture into territory that is filled with self-righteousness and piety and name-calling.  But I’m hearing about it a lot more because my audience comes to me and tells me what they see and hear, and frankly…forgive my naivete,  I find it shocking. I’m shocked at the things people say and how they say them. These comments are filled with so much scorn and unkindness, and I have to believe that the people writing it aren’t aware of how toxic it is for everyone — including for the animals.

As I see it, this toxic self-righteousness is coming from two groups — and this is a broad generalization, but there seems to be:

  1. some well-intentioned ethical vegans who are concerned that veganism as an ethical way of living is watered down by the media and celebrities who position veganism as a temporary, trendy diet. Hooked on the ideology, the badge, the label, the purity, this is the group that acts as if veganism is the end rather than the means to an end. 
  2. some well-intentioned health-oriented plant-based eaters who excoriate the consumption of oil, sugar, flour, wheat, gluten, or soy.  This is the group of dietary purity that scorns anyone as a “junk food vegan” who doesn’t fit their prescribed notion of what vegans should eat (and look) like. 

I bring up both of these groups because I see policing on both sides. It’s really more than acting like the police; it’s also playing judge, jury, and executioner. Today, I’m going to talk only about the first category and save the second for an upcoming podcast episode.

In the first category, those folks attack:

  • Vegetarians who are not yet vegan.
  • People who identify as vegan but who “cheat” or eat animal products occasionally.
  • People who identify as vegan but who have stopped eating animals and animal products for health reasons. The feeling is that if they’re not doing it for the animals, then they shouldn’t call themselves vegan.
  • People who don’t identify as vegan but who have stopped eating animals and animal products for health reasons and thus call themselves “plant-based.” The feeling is that if they’re just “plant-based,” then it’s not about the animals and they’ll still be contributing to animal exploitation.
  • Non-vegans (including celebrities) who have vegan companies or sell vegan products. (Even though many of us live in the real world where we buy vegan products from non-vegan grocery stores and plants harvested by non-vegan farmers and eat in vegan restaurants owned by non-vegans, when a non-vegan celebrity (ahem, Beyonce) announced that she’s creating a vegan food delivery service, the Interwebs went nuts — accusing her of appropriating the vegan ethic.)

But it’s not just the non-vegans who are targets of their scorn. It’s also vegans — it’s vegans who are pregnant or who have children (“breeders”). Vegans who have companion animals (“perpetuating animal slavery”). Vegans who are religious. Vegans who celebrate Christmas. Vegans who celebrate Valentine’s Day. Vegans who aren’t intersectionalists. Vegans who aren’t activists. Vegans who share recipes. Vegans who aren’t angry all the time. Vegans who aren’t Level-5 vegans.

In a famous Simpson’s episode called “Lisa the Tree Hugger,” Lisa meets animal/enviornmental rights activist, Jesse. She falls head over heels in love and wants him to notice how conscious and ethical she is.  

Lisa: Oh, the earth is the best! That’s why I’m a vegetarian.
Jesse: Heh. Well, that’s a start.
Lisa: Uh, well, I was thinking of going vegan.
Jesse: I’m a level 5 vegan — I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.

Ah, yes. It’s funny because it’s so true.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love people who have opinions. I’m one of them. I love people who stand up for what they believe in. I’m one of them. I love people who speak up for the animals and act on their behalf. I’m one of them. But we can do all of that without being cruel. I feel like I’m constantly talking about walking the line between this and that: walking the line between speaking up for what we believe in and not being attached to the outcome. Walking the line between asking for what we want without being demanding. Walking the line between expressing our opinion without attacking other people. We can do it all. We can. It takes practice, and it takes time, but it can be done.

I think we humans — especially opinionated or justice-oriented humans — are not good at living in the grey areas or at least areas we feel are places of contradiction. For instance, I think what happens for so many animal rights activists and ethical vegans is that we feel so acutely aware of how much animals are suffering that we think if we don’t demonstrate outrage about this fact all the time, then we’re not being true to them. We’re not being good advocates. I think we think that if we’re not in a constant state of anger about how animals are treated, we’re letting the animals down. We feel that if we don’t speak UP for animals, we’re letting them down, but speaking up for the non-human animals doesn’t mean we have to speak down to the human animals. 

I understand the urgency. I understand the desperation, the outrage, the anger. It’s why I talk about this in the podcast series I did called The 10 Stages You Go Through When You Stop Eating Animals (and it’s the subject of my upcoming book The Joyful Vegan’s Guide to Life). It’s not that we shouldn’t be outraged and motivated and angry, but I think some people lose the plot. Or maybe they haven’t lost the plot at all. Maybe the problem is they see nothing but the plot, but that’s a problem because when you see only one thing through one lens, you become incredibly myopic. Animals are victims of horrific violence at our hands for the sake of our pleasure and convenience. That is true. That is real. But that’s not all that’s real. That’s not all that’s true. As human beings, we don’t live in a vacuum.

We are complex people who live in a complex world with many, many inputs determining who we become and what we do and what we believe and what we buy and who we eat. Forces are in play every day conditioning us, reinforcing belief systems, influencing our decisions, and affecting our relationships.

It’s neither realistic nor fair to expect everyone to see through the same lens we do. And as advocates, we want to speak up and help guide people toward embracing their empathy and compassion for animals and not contribute to this violence. In fact, the word “advocate” is built from the word “vocare” – to call – which is related to the word “vox” – voice. As advocates we MUST use our voices in order to be voices for animals, but we have to be mindful of HOW to use our voice so that we’re not only compassionate but effective. We must speak up, but we don’t have to be cretins to do so. 

I will emphasize the word “effective” for those who don’t think they have to be compassionate to people when the stakes (for animals) are so high, but I will tell you that if you think people will be attracted to venom and invective, then I will just say I vehemently disagree.

People join groups and befriend people they’re attracted to, and I guarantee you that very few people are attracted to self-righteousness, especially when something is new to them and they’re already feeling vulnerable and exploring unfamiliar territory. And when the attack comes publicly, that’s even worse, because nobody likes being humiliated. That should just go without saying, but I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. Nobody likes being humiliated.

I’m not saying everyone has to agree or have the same viewpoints. But that doesn’t mean in disagreeing or having conviction or having opinions we can’t do it in a way that is constructive rather than destructive.

Of course, you can say that in the end, the person who happens upon a negative comment and chooses not to be vegan because of it is really their own blocks and they’re just using it as an excuse to not change their behavior. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Yes, I believe very much that we’re ultimately responsible for our own actions, but we’re also social creatures and psychological creatures, and some things really are just a turn-off for people, and if you don’t know that you have an effect on people for better or for worse, then you’re just lying to yourself.

You’re lying because if you’re any kind of activist, you’re ACTING to affect someone else’s behavior, so you’re at least aware that there’s a relationship taking place, that there’s a cause and effect. And what I’m saying is that mean, nasty, self-righteous posts mostly have the EFFECT of turning people away.

Now, in the end, my little lecture isn’t going to change much. It will probably receive approval from those who already agree with me and scorn from those who don’t. In the end, I can’t control how others represent veganism and animal advocacy. And that’s part of the point. We can’t control how people — the media, celebrities, the public, vegans, plant-based eaters, etc. —  will use or represent what “vegan” is!

We can’t control the message, because there is no single voice. My voice is singular; it’s my own, and I use it. Your voice is singular; it’s your own. Use it wisely and intelligently and effectively. How I represent myself as a vegan and animal activist is all I can control, and in being able to control that, I’m going to be the best, most steadfast, most compassionate, most effective voice for animals I can be. 

“Vegan” isn’t a trademark that any of us own. It’s a means for achieving my goal of living in a way that doesn’t contribute to violence against animals. We can help clarify what vegan means, because it does mean something, but we don’t get vegan certification when we become vegan. Being vegan is not about being perfect or pure, and I think this expectation of perfection is what stops many people from even trying to be vegan.

Their fear is justified when they proudly declare to someone or in a message board that they’ve become vegan, and they’re met with smug responses from non-vegans that the shoes they’re wearing are made of are leather or from vegans that the machines on which their peanut butter was made were also used to make non-vegan food products.

That isn’t to say that in this imperfect world I don’t accidentally contribute to the suffering of human or non-human animals, but that doesn’t make me less vegan. It just makes me human: an imperfect human in an imperfect world using this thing called VEGAN as a pretty fantastic way to reflect my values of compassion and wellness.

And that’s the message I want to convey when people are trying to do the right thing. I want them to know that there’s so much they can do in their own lives to not contribute to violence against animals and though they, too, are imperfect humans in this imperfect world. Imperfection is built into being vegan. But so is compassion. And without that, it’s just ideology.  

All of this is in today’s episode — speaking up for animals — online and in person — without alienating people who are trying to make compassionate choices. I’ll be addressing it in this year’s Compassion in Action conference as well as in my upcoming book.

Thank you for your support and for sharing. 

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