Home Columns When our passion dilutes our message

I would love for the world to be vegan. I would love to wake up one day and know that factory farms, vivisection labs, fur farms and all the other forms of animal exploitation are confined to the dark pages of history books. This utopian exercise of my mind is fueled by my passion; by my desire to help others see what I refused to see.  The burning reality that as I live my life the lives of countless others are ending unnecessarily. But passion can be counterproductive, in our attempts to make this utopia a reality we can lose sight of our objective and end up with the dilution of our message.

I recently attended the National Animal Rights Conference in Los Angeles, through a grant from Northwest Animal Rights Network. It was a highly energizing experience meeting so many people committed to Animal Liberation, listening to speakers and learning new perspectives and tactics. One of the things that I learned that is still resonating in my mind is the statistic that three out of four people that go vegan do not stay vegan.  I even learned there’s a name for that: vegan recidivism. Learning this was highly discouraging, to say the least. But it sent my mind into a maze trying to find out why.

So down the rabbit hole I went, to find some answers. During the same conference I learned about the multiple existing barriers to veganism. Food Empowerment Project taught me the concept of food deserts, vast low-income urban and suburban areas where there’s no access to healthy foods. Direct Action Everywhere discussed the lack of racial diversity in the animal rights movement and how that is intrinsically linked to the affordability of vegan food. In summary it was easy to see that there are a lot of social justice issues that permeate into the animal liberation movement, preventing those that want to be vegan from getting there, which should come as no surprise. After all we are not free until all of us are free.

But the question remained. How much of that 75% recidivism is a movement self inflicted wound? Is it possible that in our desire to do as much outreach as possible we are just not doing a good job at promoting veganism? My personal view is that we, as a movement, aren’t. We celebrate vegetarianism, or only Meatless Mondays, as ends because we feel that those people are ‘at least doing something’. We oversell veganism’s health benefits without mentioning potential challenges. We turn the other way when the word vegan is misused by the media, celebrating the mention of ‘occasional vegans’ because ‘it brings the discussion into the mainstream’. We try to entice young adults by promoting celebrities that decide to ‘go vegan’, even if just for 22 days, or even if they are famous for their use of fur; and then keep quiet when they go back to omnivorism. And in the most ironic fashion we declare a ‘victory’ when meat suppliers make inconsequential changes that we deem to improve animal welfare, or when meat-centered restaurant chains decide to offer a new vegan option.

I asked one of the speakers at the conference about this and their answer was ‘every step in the right direction should be celebrated’. I think it is pretty clear that I disagree; every firm step in the right direction is a step closer to animal liberation. Yes, we should encourage vegetarianism and Meatless Mondays as paths that lead to veganism, and we should certainly remind the media and everyone else that veganism is the basic expression of animal rights advocacy, not just a diet nor something you do occasionally or for 22 days. And as much an improvement a bigger cage can be, we should not forget that what we want is not to even get rid of the cages, but get rid of farms where animals are brutalized day in and day out. And we should not stop short and settle for ‘vegan-friendly’ businesses. But instead we as a movement publicly celebrate and promote incomplete and temporary changes, yet we feel discouraged to learn three quarters of those we reach only make temporary changes to their lives. Really, should we expect any different? Let’s take every small step taken by people and the industry for what they are, small steps. Nothing more, nothing less. Do not let our passion for animal liberation dilute our message and blur our goals, the ones that brought us here are counting on us to keep the course clear and the pressure on.

Go vegan, live vegan, stay vegan.

About Fernando Cuenca

Fernando Cuenca was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. He was active for a number of years in local anti-bullfighting campaigns before co-founding the vegan advocacy group Verdadera Compasión (True Compassion). After moving to the Pacific Northwest, he’s currently active, along with his wife Christina, as co-organizer of the Seattle Vegan and Vegetarian Families Group. Together they raise vegan-since-birth son Luciano. Fernando also does volunteer work to raise Vegetarianism Awareness at his workplace.

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