Compassion Fail: How Militancy Hurts Veganism


In 1971, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California conducted one of the most controversial psychological experiments of all time, now well known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

You can revisit the details of this now famous experiment here. This experiment was pivotal in shaping our contemporary understanding of power. It is said that power corrupts, and this experiment showed how abominably true this is among people.

This experiment was also illustrative of the way conformity or a cultural idea of a ‘norm’ can keep us from speaking up, even when we know something is obviously wrong. The simple matter of sounding like an outsider or saying something no one else will acknowledge feels like a heavier burden than simply staying quiet and minding your own business like everybody else.

Critical Mass and Social Justice

Many social justice movements started with only a few loud voices, passing on their cause over generations until they eventually reached a critical mass of people, acquiring better resources, social credibility, and pathways to massage their manifestos into a society that had gradually become a tad more receptive.

While we still face a plethora of social issues — war crimes, poverty, patriarchy, and child labour, just to name a few — most of us can feel comfortable in taking a fierce position against these commonly accepted ills, at least in opinion if not action.

A large majority of the world will agree that slavery is bad. Rape is bad. Child abuse is bad. These opinions have been formed, crystallized, and transmitted in different ways throughout history, and most people’s conformity in embracing them stems from the social acceptability of such values and the fact that people want to feel ‘good’ about themselves.

So, in theory at least, most of us would say we like the idea of fair wages and safe working conditions for all factory workers. And yet, on a daily basis we consume from a market so complex that we often have no idea where our clothes and goods come from, and frankly don’t have the headspace to think about the working conditions and wages of the people who made them.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with vegan militancy, let’s get into it. Let’s call militant vegans “purists” from here on out.

Militancy in Action

This past week I witnessed a couple of vegan purists who started bashing a person on Facebook, because he questioned veganism on intellectual, philosophical and Marxist grounds. There was some merit in the questions he asked, though I didn’t agree with many of his points. That said, all his questions were respectful (although unrelenting). But these vegans could not get past using the same tired rhetoric, such as accusing him of being a mass murderer. Once they calculated that this person would not ‘change’, then they started to insult his looks, insult his regional roots, curse his mother and father, and downright bully him with homophobic slurs. Their justification? ‘What does language matter when the animals are suffering?’ When I commented, telling them they were hurting the movement, they pounced back by saying, ‘oh but you are a vegan apologist’, and did everything they could to discredit me. Even though I am ‘vegan’ myself.

Of course after chuckling at the absurd logic of it all, I started thinking it through a bit. Not only were they okay with going against every value they stood for when it came to animals, but they thought their oppressive bullying was morally justified when practiced against humans.

The sad thing is that vegans are a tiny part of our population. And within that very tiny population, only a small minority of people resort to dogma. But they are the loudest, and it is their voices that get imprinted on the rest of the world, making the rest of us prone to insensitive jokes and silly questions about our ethical choices.

I’d go on to say, the more fundamentalist a person is, the less the cause’s ability to grow matters to them. It’s the idea of being oneself in the ‘right’, or having ‘authority’ over what is right, that attracts such people to this kind of rhetoric. And it’s downright dangerous in any movement.

The Legitimate Need for Awareness

I bet that most people reading this don’t like the idea that meat and dairy today come from animals who are tortured and kept in unfathomable conditions. Within India, we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that, same as in the West, factory farming is becoming a reality. We’d rather not know, because knowing gives us the burden of doing something about it… and doing something in this era means doing something absurd like going vegan, right?

Awareness of the truth of farming is what vegans advocate for, and yes, awareness is needed. But the moral framework of the vegan purists errs in calculating people’s compassion based on a single metric. From a purist’s perspective, if you care about the horrendous (and growing) reality of conditions and practices animals are subjected to, then your only choice is to go vegan. Get on it now, or else you are a ‘douchebag’ with no compassion — especially if you’ve seen the YouTube videos.

This weekend, I’ve been reading my favourite vegan activist’s new book, How to Create a Vegan World – A Pragmatic Approach. Tobias Leenaert has been a vegan advocate for almost 20 years, but he remains controversial in some vegan circles. The vegan purists can’t wait to attack and accuse him of being a vegan apologist. Purists send him hate mail accusing him of holding no integrity to the cause, and pandering to ‘non-vegans’.

His book basically aligns with my own approach to veganism, what it should mean to all of us, and what we can all do to promote the cause. If you read the book you’ll find one recurring theme: If we can relax our understanding of what it means to be vegan, and start to appreciate and acknowledge smaller changes in lifestyle, we’ll have far more impact and be able to create sustained behaviour changes that will lead to a much better world when it comes to animal rights.

As I have suggested, it’s the purists who are doing the movement a great injustice by relying on self-righteous methods of getting people to care. What do we know about fundamentalists in general? Let’s take quick stock:

  1. They are rigid in mindset and married to a narrow view of the world and how it ought to be.
  2. They will reason, intellectualise, and proselytise their belief in depth to the public — but when challenged or questioned, they resort to name calling, guilt-tripping, character assassination, and ad hominem responses.
  3. They rely on manipulating emotions in order to reinforce their ideas. If you fail to ‘act’ accordingly, they will dismiss or attempt to discredit you.
  4. They feed off each other, eroding their own personal values, and resort to abuse if their attempts to discredit an alternative view challenge them beyond the capacity of their prescribed rhetoric to address.


There is a reason why fundamentalist thought and ideology thrives in activist circles. No matter what the cause is, fundamentalist ways of looking at issues seek to make membership exclusive. Exclusivity has a social charm. Unfortunately, that charm is a perception of power. Vegan fundamentalism holds tight to its moral authority, then uses it potently to dismiss you if you can’t get on board.

Militant Conversion Works (But Poorly)

Because humans are a diverse lot, we’ll always have a certain section of society receptive to any one kind of solution. One part of the population will always see merit in it, have the temperament for it, or simply be wired to see a particular idea as easy or logical. This is why vegan activism using traditional methods (graphic images, telling people we are raping cows, using animals as objects, etc.) will absolutely succeed in converting some people. But for the masses, these techniques simply won’t work. If veganism was as simple as showing the world how terrible our system is at the moment, then we’d have millions and millions of vegans all over the place.

So what’s the problem here? For every few people that are converted through this measure, many more people will actually be repelled by veganism, because the only memories of the term they will take home are that they are personally responsible for the world’s problems, and that they are inhumane for not making the change.

Then they are thrown right back into the normal world, where no one is making a fuss over the treatment of farm animals, and will thrive in the safety of this cocoon. Their dissonance with veganism, meanwhile, has just increased. It’s largely evident that a single solution doesn’t work, because we are human, and humans are complex creatures that love to feel comfortable.

I’d argue that when we live in a complex capitalistic society, it’s really hard to see the multitude of ways in which we support animal abuse, from agricultural farming to animal testing. Any large dairy or meat company will jump on the chance to serve vegan customers if they see a critical mass (just 3% of the Indian population would present a huge market opportunity, a percentage that we are very very far from). This means that simply ‘going vegan’ will not stop big industries from exploiting animals — the same companies will just push forward new products to serve the vegan niche market.

This is already happening in the West, where dairy companies are selling almond mylk because it’s profitable, and there is a significant population of people who are either vegan, lactose intolerant, or weary of milk products (but eat meat).

Hypothetically, if more vegans cropped up, we’d buy lots of vegan products from non-vegan establishments because of the convenience of accessibility. At the same time, the continued demand for regular non-vegan products by the rest of the populace would ensure that these product manufacturers do nothing on the grand scale to reduce their exploitation of animals.

We could, of course, then nix everything — become anti-capitalist, anti-big industry, anti-consumerist hippies and make everything at home. But then we wouldn’t attract numbers, and most people would never switch because it wouldn’t be a realistic way of living.

In fact I advocate (right now) for vegans buying ‘accidentally’ vegan products from non-vegan companies — Amul (dark chocolate), Oreos, etc. — just so people can see that there are plenty of ‘vegan’ foods out there. Companies won’t advertise them as vegan because they don’t have a big enough market to make the effort. So at the cost of making a concession, I think that the easier it is for people to find vegan products that give them the comforts and satiety they are used to, the more likely people are to consider veganism, or at least reductionism. The issue of the market and its inherent ironies will eventually arise no matter what.

In this era, getting people to think about a ‘vegan world’ shouldn’t be limited to demanding people change their lifestyle. I’d rather encourage people to deconstruct the merits of our moral foundations: why are we making such mindless choices, when we know sentient beings are suffering in ways that, if we saw them, would make us sit in a corner and sob till sundown?

Going vegan isn’t something that will happen en masse or suddenly, given the way people do things at scale. But at least thinking about it? Acknowledging the problem? Trying to see where our own inconsistencies lie? Talking to our children about the fact that we all ‘feed ourselves a little bit of nonsense everyday’? These things are for everyone. These things are essential to set up the scaffolding for an era when we can start to manage and repair the damage we’ve done.

My objective is to move the needle. How do we start to work on this effectively in this lifetime? We can’t solve it, but we can be productive about it.

Slow Opinions & Fast Morals

How to Create a Vegan World talks about the value of ‘slow opinions’ in a world that tells you to make fast judgments. Sometimes it’s best to let one idea develop in your head, and look at it from many angles before making a complete decision. Regarding veganism, we must acknowledge that there are many challenging issues at stake, and even if someone is very compelled by the vegan perspective, it may take a whole lot of time for the person to understand their own place in the narrative. The decision they reach may not always be to go vegan themselves. But it could mean another important change. It might mean greatly reducing their consumption of animal products, and openly telling people they have reduced their consumption (making more people responsive to adopting smaller changes themselves). It might mean investing money in vegan ideas and products. Or it could mean making deliberate decisions about where their meat is sourced from.

We can’t be moral absolutists in a time like this. Some action now rather than none sets up the world for much larger impact in the future. Gradually, small changes early on might lead a person to go vegetarian or vegan after a period of time. The value of the slow opinion cannot be overstated. It is critical to creating a world that doesn’t depend on the taking of animal life for everyday human existence.

Social media and politics in the age of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi illustrate how divisive rhetoric can be. Our allegiance to a particular agenda on one specific issue often results in us taking sides along conservative or liberal lines in general. This prevents us from taking the time to notice what may be gaping holes in our preferred ideology. I can afford to be vociferous in expressing my liberal political opinions on the Internet, because there exists a critical mass of people who think along the same lines as I do when it comes to human issues. People are responsive to thinking further about things that already matter to them. Yet when you have a mass audience to cheer on all your solution-driven opinions, you run a high risk of contradicting your own values without noticing – or, alternatively, facing severe backlash if you express views that contradict the popular consensus of your audience.

No matter where you are when it comes to animal rights, remember that your thoughts on the issue can always evolve, and that evolution relies on constant engagement and awareness.

Most Of Us Care. We’re Limiting Engagement by Giving All or Nothing Verdicts

As I’ve mentioned before, humans want a better world. Despite our differences, despite our diverse life experiences and circumstances, we all want better. But vegans can often limit engagement by asking for an all or nothing approach.

In fact, many vegan purists think that their job is over whenever they do get people to become vegan. Leenaert mentions in his book that in the United States, 84% of people who become vegetarian or vegan later go back to their original diet. Why is that? Very possibly because the main message of vegan propaganda is for people to make a quick change based on quick moral judgement.

Purists might have created the idea that your effort don’t count unless you are invested in practicing veganism. I see it otherwise. Got social privilege? Then you can do something, even if it’s just talking about the issue, educating yourself more about it, or making a new lifestyle change — whether it’s becoming fully vegan, or another, smaller positive step. And this brings me to the issue of social privilege.

Social Privilege Counts

It is necessary to address the many, often unaccounted social privileges involved in practicing and promoting veganism. I am able to write this article today thanks to various privileges of my own. I have an education, and the ability to read, research, and formulate my thoughts in English. I have the health and the time to think, watch, read, and not worry about critical emergencies. I live in an urban area with access to supermarkets, healthcare, and housing, and have a reliable amount of money to spend. I could go on, but if you are reading this, suffice to say you likely have a lot of the same social privileges as well.

Those who have social privilege have the onus of making ground change. We have the onus to be the most informed.

Veganism in its current form makes no sense to apply or expect from the entire world indiscriminately. There are common sense reasons why. For example, people in many places may not have access to veganism’s language of choice (English), information about veganism, or suitable substitutes for animal products; or may be suffering under a wide variety of pressing human rights issues.

This is not to say that animal rights is not a worthy enough cause to be given priority. In fact I think the very opposite, and will go out on a limb to say that the day humans everywhere understand the value of animal life, will be the day we also come to terms with many of the oppressions against human beings. I believe all forms of oppression intersect, and continue largely because of our ability to turn our heads away when it is most convenient to us. When we can so easily choose to ignore a system of oppression that tortures animals every single day in direct support of our ‘normal’ everyday living, is it so hard to make the leap and see why so many other oppressions exist as well?

The problems of the world can feel overwhelming, but there is value in slowly finding new answers for oneself day by day. My own journey towards adopting a vegan lifestyle took an entire decade. And I very much think that I will stick to it, because it came from a long process of self-evaluation. The path to a more compassionate world is not simple, rigid, or short.

This is why thought leaders like Leenaert will be highlighted in later years with profound appreciation. It’s precisely why vegans who think of the movement holistically and inclusively need to speak up more.

Non-vegans shouldn’t be made to feel threatened, weird, or embarrassed to engage with the vegan movement in ways other than becoming vegan themselves – whatever that may be. We want to work with you. At least I do. Any movement is shortsighted without new perspectives and unexpected helping hands. We’re only specks in this grand old mystery called the universe. We’ll need everyone working together to bring about a better world. Jump on and keep moving.

Did this essay resonate? Read my previous article on my blog, which talks about the problem of singular solutions: “I am Vegan But Veganism Is Inconsistent and Arbitrary”.

I highly recommend anyone who found this essay compelling to read How to Create a Vegan World. It discusses in inclusive and intelligent terms the issues at stake, and how we are all capable of working through the problems in tangible, effective and, most importantly, inclusive ways. Tobias Leenaert has been at this for 20 years, and his perspective and empathy are riveting.

Featured image credit campact, CC BY-NC 2.0 / cropped

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