THE BLOG

The Rise of Non-Perfectionist Veganism, Part III: Solutions to Perfectionist Veganism and Vegan Activism

10/01/2012 01:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

Last article in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.

How to Build Your Compassionate Objectivity

You can overcome your perfectionism and build your own compassionate objectivity using these techniques:

1) Work consciously to replace perfectionist thinking and speaking with compassionate objectivity. As per the cheese example noted in part two, the first few times you consciously interrupt a perfectionist thought and replace it with a compassionately-objective one, it might feel weird and artificial, but keep at it. Eventually it will become automatic -- and you'll also see that it's self-reinforcing, since compassionate objectivity doesn't just lead to better outcomes, it feels way better than harsh, self-abusive perfectionism.

2) Journal to uncover root causes and develop a problem solving mentality. Write out your fears, confusions, questions, and concerns about your veganism or vegan activism in as much detail as possible, and also write out potential solutions. These can include the challenges you face within yourself as well as those involving your family, workplace, and friends. The list should also include constraints on your information, time, and other resources, as well as any ambivalence you feel around the goal. (For instance, if you're afraid that your becoming more activist is going to alienate friends or family members.)

This is a private exercise, and you don't have to, and probably shouldn't, show it to anyone. The key is to be thorough, recording as much of the nuances of each topic as possible and censoring nothing. Especially don't censor your "small," "fleeting," or "trivial" fears because those are often much bigger than we initially realize.

What you'll probably discover is that: (a) you have many more fears, constraints and ambivalences than you realize (most people come up with a list of between two and three dozen), and (b) many will be small and easily dealt with (refer again to the cheese example). This leaves the harder ones (such as, for instance, those involving an unsupportive family or community), but better to characterize them sooner rather than later so you can get started problem solving. The great news is that the more barriers you identify and overcome, the easier it will become to deal with the rest.

3) Community. Compassionate objectivity will come much more easily if you hang around people who live and practice it. There are plenty of compassionately-objective vegans out there: Look for them online and offline, in veg groups and elsewhere. And don't limit your interactions to other vegans: Carnists can also be compassionately objective, even if they haven't yet woken up to the vegan imperative. Let them model compassionate objectivity for you, while you model the joys of vegan compassion and non-violence for them.

Non-Perfectionist Veganism Is the Path to Abolition

Non-perfectionist veganism isn't opposed to abolition; it's the quickest way to get there. By acknowledging the reality of our human needs and challenges vis a vis veganism, it provides a realistic route to creating and sustaining change. Of course we want everyone to go as close to 100 percent vegan as quickly as possible. But perfectionist judgment and coercion don't work, and are immoral anyway.

There's a method and a science to persuasion, and it doesn't involve shaming or guilting your audience. McDonald's, Coke, Nike, etc. didn't build their enormous customer bases by conveying, "You're an uncool jerk if you don't buy our product," but rather the more inspiring and motivational statement that "you'll be cool if you do buy it." Another reason these companies don't coerce is that coercion usually achieves only short-term compliance, not long-term commitment and behavioral change. As Nick Cooney writes in his book on the psychology of activism, Change of Heart: "As a general human characteristic, people accept inner responsibility for a choice only in the absence of a strong external pressure to make that choice."

The only time it might make sense to use coercive tactics is when you're dealing with members of a corporate or government power structure. Even then, however, you need to tread lightly. In his book Ethics Into Action, Peter Singer quotes journalist Nicholas Wade on renowned animal activist Henry Spira:

"I think he was effective because he was such a friendly, outgoing moderate sort of person. He wasn't strident. He didn't expect you necessarily to agree with everything he said. But he was very bubbly and full of ideas, and just interesting to listen to. So I found him an engaging character to cover. I thought he had lots of good points, so I was ready to run with them and bounce them off his adversaries."

And Cooney writes:

"The Humane League has experienced many occasions where our street protests led to an angry response from the target company; but when I afterwards met with company representatives and was very polite, a policy change was made."

Vegans who vent their anger non-strategically at individuals or organizations are probably achieving very little, and may very well be helping the opposition, who are all too happy to paint all vegans as being angry fringe types.

In The Lifelong Activist, I quote activist and sales experts on the importance of forming a bond with your audience, often based on common language and ideas. Here's Dale Carnegie in the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People:

"Begin by emphasizing -- and keep on emphasizing -- the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose."

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of Don't Think of an Elephant!, discusses the "frames" of information and associations we all carry around in our heads and that are often automatically invoked when we hear a word like, say, "vegan." Some people will hear that word and immediately think of concepts like compassionate, healthy, delicious, and ecological, while others will think of concepts like weird, unhealthy, boring, and un-American. (A major purpose of meat industry advertising is to reinforce that latter frame.) Lakoff says the first step in helping someone embrace a new frame is to build a "bridge" encompassing both his frame and your own. Health could be one such frame, and the fact that your listener is a self-professed "animal lover" could be another.

The vital importance of developing a common language is why, when I hear someone describe themselves as 80 percent vegan, or 50 percent, or 30 percent, I don't despair but celebrate. They're using the vegan frame! The hard work is done. Instead of bashing them for the steps they haven't taken, let's work with them to take one of those steps. And then another. And another....

The Rise of Non-Perfectionist Veganism

Fortunately, there are many strong advocates for non-perfectionist veganism, including:

Popular vegan cookbook author and advocate for joyful veganism Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, who in her writing and speeches reminds her audiences that, "Veganism isn't about getting it perfect; it's about doing your best."

Animal rights media blogger Karen Dawn, who writes in her fun book Thanking the Monkey: "I have met people who tell me they went vegan for a while and then gave up because it was too hard. Now they eat absolutely anything -- even bacon double cheeseburgers made with factory-farmed pork. That's crazy! It comes from the rigid idea that if one isn't totally vegan, one isn't helping at all, so one might as well do nothing -- and that just isn't true."

Former Vegan.com blogger, Erik Marcus, who routinely advocated for pragmatic, non-perfectionist approaches to veganism and vegan activism that work in the real world.

And vegan dietitian Ginny Messina and blogger Jacqueline Frasca, whom I quoted earlier.

Of course, there are also countless less-famous examples.

I myself am not a perfect vegan. (I lapse once in a while with a candy bar, usually during times of emotional or physical stress.) Nor am I a perfect vegan activist (whatever that means) -- far from it. But I will always seek to do better, both in my personal veganism and as an activist. And I have to tell you that each time I encounter a vegan or vegan activist my heart swells. There is plenty to condemn humans over, as a species and (often) as individuals; however, so much of our predicament is due to nature, which created us to live at others' expense. In this context, I think veganism is one of our species' most glorious accomplishments. I hope more full and partial vegans realize this as well, and take pride and joy in what they have wrought in their own lives, and for the animals and planet.

And I hope that pride inspires them to try to do better.

One step at a time, we'll all get there -- and probably faster than we all realize.

For more by Hillary Rettig, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.