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I am a politically-progressive, ethically-herbivorous anthropoid pursuing a paleontology education in the Los Angeles Basin. I am largely nocturnal, have rarely been photographed, and cannot thrive in captivity.

30 April 2012

Conversational Intolerance: See, It Works!

Some people didn't quite like the position I staked out that more vegans and animal advocates should subject carnists to conversational intolerance. I was told, in both comments and through some private communications, that it was counterproductive.

Well, here's one account of a situation where it actually worked.  I'd never presume to universalize this evidence, but I think it speaks for itself.  Sometimes the cold shoulder and the scornful gaze are more effective than any amount of fact-slinging or heart-tugging.  It depends on the circumstances, of course.  Still, there's more than one way to peel a banana.


  1. I think there's a difference between giving an argument serious intellectual weight and mockery or dismissal.

    All my experience as an activist tells me that if I'm going to have any chance of convincing someone to even listen to me, I have to treat them with respect. That means letting them speak their piece and responding politely, even when I think what they're saying is nonsense.

    It's fairly rare for me to find someone who seriously argues that animals cannot suffer. I wouldn't take this argument very seriously, because only a true psychopath would believe this sort of thing, but I'd still treat the *person* seriously.

    But really, my experience with 10+ years of animal advocacy tells me that arguing with people is really not part of it. There's so many people out there who will change their diet after being handed a leaflet that spending a lot of time engaging with people who want to argue just seems counterproductive.

  2. So often the people giving "advice" on how to talk convincingly about veganism, do only little or no vegan education themselves.

    And often it’s just a derailer to shift the focus of the conversation away from their (obviously uncomfortable) engagement in animal exploitation towards the way vegans should or should not talk.

  3. Here's the problem. The person who wrote this essay is intellegent, thoughtful, and open-minded which I believe cannot be said about everyone. He could just have easily gone ahead with his research on the internet, and after reading the ridiculous claims that some omnivores make about the necessity of eating animals, taken thier word as gospel and ended his search righ there. Then, he could go on making the sam ridiculous claims, feeding those around him the same nonsense. This would all have been because some vegan was rude to him. It would have been much more effective for that vegan to plant a compassionate seed or two.

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  5. Well, Jessica, that's not what actually happened, is it? A rude vegan caused this guy to go vegan himself. Seems pretty darn effective to me.

    But conversational intolerance isn't about being rude, per se. It's about refusing to engage in debates about nonsense. Sometimes, that calls for rudeness; others, a polite cold shoulder or joke.

    And it's also about picking one's battles. The first vegan in this story apparently had the presence of mind to recognize that, in this case at least, a little bit of assholery could go a long way. And he was right, wasn't he?


    I'm not just talking about the argument that animals don't suffer, though that's part of it (and I suspect it's an unspoken and perhaps unconscious foundation for almost all other arguments); I'm also talking about anthropocentrism itself, the argument that humans are naturally different in some morally relevant way. That's a nonsense position, too, and I generally treat it as one.

  6. I think you give the first vegan a bit too much credit. :) From my reading of the essay, it seems like he was semi-offended by the carne asada remark and just didn't feel like dealing with an argument at that very moment. In other words, it was not a deliberate strategic move to convince his friend.

    Of course, there is no question that it did work to that end, in this case at least. But I'm still skeptical about the general efficacy of this tactic. Going back to your religion comparison, do theists really come to accept atheism as a consequence of being ignored? The whole reason New Atheism has made any traction at all is because atheists went from silence to making a big fuss about it all.

  7. Will,

    I'm not advocating this as a tactic for converting people to veganism. I'm talking about laying the groundwork for a future in which carnist ideology is simply not given any consideration because of its obvious nonsensical content. Like I said, doctors at medical conference feel no need to convert the crystal healers outside the door. They simply ignore the kooks and get on with business. I'm just saying that animal rights advocates have sufficient justification to take the same attitude with speciesists; trying to convert them is a waste of time. Just get on with the business of changing institutions and paradigms, and the rest will take care of itself.

  8. I'm with you, THH. Mockery, disdain, outright comtempt, these are effective tools in the face of irrationality, and often the only thing that will ever work to create fractures in the bulwark of societal dogmatism. Those directly opposed may never come around, and may in fact become more entrenched and hostile, but the change in perception from your wider audience is what is important. Speciest thought needs to be treated as patently ridiculous, not as a reasonable opposing viewpoint.

  9. There's some evidence to support the idea that ridicule does work. Steven Pinker talks about it in his latest book, in this case regarding duel culture. But I think if one reads his book completely and has some sense of perspective on the evolution of ethics through the centuries, one can see how it might work (or have worked) for other behaviours.

    Also, much intuitive psychology is just plain wrong, so I laugh at the fact that people think that what they are doing is right just because they've done it repeatedly over the years and win over some people into veganism. Of course it will look that way, how could it not? How could it look any other way. If I were to do absolutely nothing I bet people would still turn to veganism or vegetarianism around me and I would end up convinced my approach is the one that works. That is not science.

    In fact, what got us into veganism anyway? I'm sure we look back and knit this lovely narratives that lay a justifying ground for our own little epic we call life, but that's probably mostly just post-hoc rationalization.


  10. Any claims that a particular form of animal advocacy is "counterproducitve" ought to be met with extreme skepticism. To prove such a claim requires ruling out all other possible causes for the slow progress of animal rights. Good luck with that.

    If one wants to promote a type of advocacy that is kinder, gentler, "more compassionate", etc. then there are much better ways to do that than to use shaky claims of efficacy. For example, avoiding backlash is a pretty good reason. Or simply a personal preference. Or a set of ethics that requires a particular etiquette.

    I say choose whatever method of animal advocacy you feel drawn towards and just don't get in the way of the advocates who don't use the same style. We have the same goals so let's remember we're on the same team.

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