Does Advocating For Being ‘As Vegan As Possible’ Help People Stay Vegan?

February 6, 2019
Changing ingrained behaviors can be challenging (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Dr. Melanie Joy is one of the most recognized and respected advocates in the global vegan movement. Author of three books (so far) that have become key to the movement’s growth and development, she is also the founder of Beyond Carnism, the organization committed to exposing and transforming the invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals; and is co-founder with Tobias Leenaert of CEVA, the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy.

In between a meeting with her publishers in Los Angeles about her forthcoming books (watch this space for news…) and heading to Brazil to conduct CEVA training, I caught up with Dr. Joy to look in detail at the recent Plant Based News examination of recidivism in the vegan movement: is it, as the famous Faunalytics study suggests, as high as 84 percent of those who try veg*n diets return to eating animal products. Or is it, as the EPIC-Oxford Study counters, much more likely the other way round, with 73 percent of vegans and vegetarians sticking with their choice?

Beyond the Statistics

For Dr. Joy, we shouldn’t start with the statistics.

“One thing I want to say,” she said, “is that these figures, like 84 percent, even if that were accurate, it doesn’t concern me. I’ve never been concerned about high rates of recidivism, for several reasons.

“To begin, recidivism is normal in the world. When people try to change their behaviours, they often don’t stick to it. And when we look at those who are most likely to try veganism or that lifestyle, it’s young people, people in college, students. If we looked at rates of recidivism for everything that young people start and try out as they’re growing and learning who they are and how they want to be in the world, we’d find the vast majority of things they do start they don’t follow through on. And that’s especially if there’s a lot of obstructions to the change, a lot of dominant social pressure not to continue. So, it’s not surprising to me.”

More vegan than before

If that’s the case, what should we be looking for in people’s behaviours around vegan lifestyle and practice? In effect, what should we be measuring? For Dr. Joy, it is the direction of travel in which people’s habits are moving that is important.

“What I look at, and what I’m curious about,” she said, “is whether or not these vegans who have gone back to eating animal products. Are they now ‘more vegan’ than they were before? If they are part of the reducers group, then they are continuing to support the kind of change that’s necessary for bigger shifts to happen. So my question is: are people moving in the right direction to support this change?”

As the detail of the Faunalytics study makes clear, this is the case: beyond that dramatic 84 percent headline is the evidence that many of those who tried the diet were willing to do so again; and that, for a majority, they did indeed reduce their ongoing meat and dairy intake.

Is reducetarianism enough?

But is this enough? If the majority of people are only ever reducers, how do we overcome carnism and reach the goal of living in vegan social worlds?

“From a strategic perspective, real substantial social change for animals is not only going to happen because one person after another becomes vegan,” explains Dr. Joy. “It’s going to happen because institutions change. That isn’t to say individual action isn’t important. Institutions are made up of people. But shifts in institutions are a much, much bigger, more significant level of change.”

Supporting people to become vegan is, strategically, critical, but in the sense that the more vegan people there are, the more likelihood institutions have to change. We’ve seen this in the consumer world, with supermarkets and restaurants changing radically to offer more vegan options as standard. This needs to move into other areas, too: local government, education, social care, and non-food consumer practices.

But it’s important, Dr. Joy suggests, that the numbers of reducetarians and those who are open to veganism and supportive of veganism, if not wholly vegan themselves, continue to rise.

“I can only speak to what I see,” says Dr. Joy. “My experience with the vegan movement and ways we can reduce recidivism is to create a more attractive movement. And one of the things we want to consider as a movement, one of the things I always recommend when talking about advocacy, is to encourage people to be as vegan as possible.”

As vegan as possible

But what does ‘as vegan as possible’ mean?

“Whatever that means to them,” she explains. “It’s more sustainable, and it’s more respectful. People can only do what’s possible for them. So, how vegan can you be at this next meal? This next week? There’s a lot less resistance to this, and it creates a more sustainable model to operate within. And hopefully leads to veganism.

“I have known people who are former vegans who stopped being vegan because they believed ‘either I’m 100 percent vegan 100 percent of the time or what’s the point. I’ll just go back to full-on carnism’. So in terms of the movement, what we could do as a movement to reduce recidivism, where it’s possible, anyway, is to try to create an environment where vegans and people who are as vegan as possible, feel safe, feel part of the community.”

This is where Dr. Joy’s training as a psychologist comes into its own for analysing change in the vegan movement as a movement, locally and globally. For Dr Joy, the problems we face in the vegan movement are mirrored across other social arenas, in that we are currently experiencing a tidal wave of relationship dysfunction.

A lack of relationality

“I very deeply believe that a key issue causing the problems we’re experiencing in the world today is a lack of relationality, a lack of relational literacy, which is about communication,” says Dr. Joy.

“We need to work on our relationality. A healthy relational dynamic is one where people feel secure and connected. And many people in the vegan movement do not feel safe with other vegans, and do not feel connected to the movement. There are ways of relating among certain vegans – and vegans are just people of course – which are not respectful and drive people out of the movement. I wrote my book Beyond Beliefs not only to help vegans with their relationships with non-vegans, but with other vegans too. We need to create a movement that is attractive and supportive, so people are more likely to stay in the movement.”

One of the best ways of improving one’s relational intelligence is to take a relationship-first approach, rather than see the issue as a conflict between vegan and nonvegan. If you think about how to practice good relating as the starting point, then the relationship has a much better chance of healing and growing. That, says Dr. Joy, is what is needed for growing a secure and connected vegan movement. It is that security and connectedness that will reduce recidivism over the long-term, building the overall number of vegans.

Compassionate witnessing

How do we do that? At the heart of Beyond Beliefs, as it is at the heart of Strategic Action for Animals and Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, is the practice of compassionate witnessing.

“Yes, compassionate witnessing is the heart of the work,” says Dr. Joy. ‘”t is developing an inner observer, it’s what great spiritual teachers have been talking about for centuries. Compassionate witnessing is about developing awareness, it’s about developing the ability to really be present in the moment.

“When we’re witnessing, we’re committed to awareness, practising this compassionate witnessing, you’re activating your inner observer, simply to attend to what is going on outside but also inside. And then you decide how you want to take action.”

This is not only bearing witness to animal suffering, such as attending vigils, standing in a Cube of Truth, or protesting live exports. This compassionate witnessing is the act of relating to others.

“When you’re in a state of presence, you’re more likely that the people around you are able to come into a state of presence. On a psychological level, when you’re with someone who is paying attention to you, who is showing up for you, compassionately, you are much more likely to do the same and be less defensive,” explains Dr. Joy.

Show up for others

Put simply: what activists do for animals, we must also do for fellow humans. Show up, pay attention, don’t judge, and model your vegan beliefs rather than proclaim them. This, says Dr. Joy, is the powerful heart of advocacy work.

“There’s this belief that witnessing is an act of passivity,’ she says. ‘But it’s not. It’s one of the most active things you can do. It’s not turning away. It’s helpful for people to think of compassionate witnessing on a spectrum. It’s not that you are or are not; the question is: how compassionately witnessing are you? How present are you in this moment, how much of this experience internally and externally are you taking into your consciousness? Seeing it on a spectrum can be helpful because it makes it easier to be less perfectionistic, and easier to ask yourself if you can increase your compassion and presence while you’re doing activism.”

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview. Part 2 takes a closer look at Dr. Joy’s book Beyond Beliefs and also offers an exclusive insight into the not one, not two, but three new books she is publishing in the next twelve months.

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