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How Animal Welfare Advances Veganism and Animal Rights

03/17/2014 11:51 am ET | Updated May 17, 2014

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Over a decade ago, when I learned of the institutionalized cruelty under which billions of animals suffer, I gave them my word that I would devote my life to trying to help them. I soon realized that while changing my own eating and clothing habits and being involved in rescue work makes a difference, the ability to influence other people's behavior can multiply my impact exponentially. No wonder I am currently rereading the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

There is so much in there for activists for any cause. Carnegie discusses how effectively we can reach people if we make them feel good rather than bad about themselves, for example by complimenting what they are doing well. He guides us to take a real interest in others and frame things in terms of their interests, their desires, rather than our own. He recommends that we show respect for others' opinions and never say "You're wrong." And he suggests that we emphasize the things on which we agree.

On that point, Carnegie writes: "Get the other person saying 'Yes, yes' at the outset. Keep your opponent, if possible, from saying 'No.'"

He further explains:

"The skillful speaker gets, at the outset, a number of 'yes' responses. This sets the psychological process of the listeners moving in the affirmative direction. It is like the movement of a billiard ball, propel in one direction and it takes some force to deflect it; far more force to send it back in the opposite direction. ... Hence the more 'yeses' we can, at the outset, induce, the more likely we are to succeed in capturing the attention for our ultimate proposal."

With that in mind, yesterday I sent out, in my DawnWatch newsletter, a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof. In the last few years he and another columnist, Mark Bittman, have brought to New York Times readers an awareness of horrors in our food system that had largely been hidden from the public over the decades in which factory farming had become the food production norm. Yet despite numerous articles on animal suffering, neither writer has taken the argument to the logical conclusion. Neither man suggests that we stop eating animals. So when I send out their work to my subscribers, mostly vegan, recommending that we commend and share it, I receive, predictably, a few irate notes suggesting that Kristof and Bittman, who highlight the suffering but continue to support it by eating some meat, are unworthy of commendation.

I understand my readers' frustration, their wish that Kristof and Bittman would just go vegan completely and tell their readers to do the same. But for now I think we should accept that such a stance might be a sure way to get the vast majority of their readers to say no. The focus on the egregious cruelty of factory farming, however, has their readers saying yes, saying that they agree that something is wrong and that they care about animal suffering. We might see Kristof and Bittman as "capturing the attention," as Dale Carnegie put it, of New York Times readers for our (rather than their) "ultimate proposal."

Indeed, if you look at the comment section next to Kristof's latest piece you'll find many people making that ultimate proposal and getting dozens of thumbs up. Without Kristof's work we would not have had that New York Times forum waiting for us with the groundwork already laid for recommending plant-based diets.

There's an early section in my book, Thanking the Monkey, in which I argue for welfare reforms on behalf of the individual beings who are suffering right now, whose pitiful hope of some relief cannot be sacrificed for the cause. Advocating veganism does not preclude support for a more humane meat system any more than advocating abolishing the death penalty precludes support for better conditions or painless execution methods for death row inmates. I won't revisit that argument in depth now but I wanted to make sure to stress that even just the face value of welfare campaigns, the alleviation of suffering, is value indeed.

It so happens that my own advocacy straightforwardly touts veganism as a healthy and joyous lifestyle. That feels best for me. I put forward what I truly believe and am rewarded with a feeling of integrity. But is what feels best for me what matters most? I notice that some of the animal advocacy groups, whose leaders are vegan, run some campaigns asking the public to oppose factory farming and that those campaigns don't always discuss and recommend veganism. And those groups have some brochures with titles that promote "vegetarianism" even though the recipes inside are in fact vegan. I've been impatient with them at times and have seen them pilloried from within our movement for their soft stance, for their unwillingness to just call it how it is. But Dale Carnegie has taught me that those campaigns aren't halfhearted or gutless -- they are smart. They are about getting a yes, where the "Go Vegan" message straight off the bat, at least for some demographics, might get a fast "no" ball rolling that would be hard to stop. Those softer campaigns get people to take that first step in the right direction. They are therefore invaluable because every journey starts with a step.