We need more meat-eating animal-rights advocates

Here’s the beef.
Here’s the beef.
Image: Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler
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One evening, after work, I stopped by my favorite restaurant in Manhattan—Chipotle—for an early dinner. The chain is inexpensive, fast without compromising nutritional quality or taste, and friendly to all dietary preferences. On this particular visit I ordered a veggie burrito (opting for half guacamole and half tofu instead of beef, poultry, or pork), but after only a few bites I noticed a group of protesters gathering in the serving area. They held up images of tortured factory farmed animals, speaking confidently but quickly about their mistreatment and Chipotle’s culpability in supporting these cruel practices.

Within 60 seconds, they were gone, much to the relief of a clearly irritated staff. Most of my fellow customers, too, seemed annoyed by the encounter. I overhead one young woman remark that the episode was just “one more reason to be thankful we’re not crazy vegans.”

To be clear, I deeply admire the passion and bravery of vegans; few others are as committed to consistently exposing the cruel realties of the dairy, egg, and meat industries. But sitting there in Chipotle, I was reminded of the uphill battle vegans and animal-rights advocates have when it comes to making their message palatable to a mainstream audience—say, someone who enjoys the occasional steak burrito. (It’s worth noting that in fact Chipotle, while guilty of overusing oxymoronic and dishonest terms like “humane animal husbandry” and “responsibly raised” meat, adheres to animal welfare standards arguably better than competing fast food brands like Starbucks or KFC.)

As someone who believes strongly in many of the core principles espoused by vegans and vegetarians, I’ve thought a lot about how to prevent the kind of reaction symbolized by that woman sitting next to me in Chipotle. To that end, I’ve co-founded a whole new campaign designed to encourage people to eat less meat without trying to force them to quit cold turkey. We called this new philosophy, “reducetarian,” and view it as an attempt to unite vegans, vegetarians, and those who were simply eating less meat (no matter the motivation) under an inclusive and empowering identity.

Our idea was born from a few simple observations:

  • Despite decades of activism, few people are vegetarian (and even fewer are vegan).
  • Most vegans and vegetarians stop being vegan and vegetarian.
  • Many vegetarians aren’t actually vegetarian.
  • The general public perceives vegans in a less than ideal light. (In the words of vegan comedian Myq Kaplan: “Vegans live up to 15 years longer cause we’re not invited to anything fun or dangerous. So we sit at home crying and drinking, being careful not to cry into the drink, because tears are a product of animal suffering.”
  • Those who reduce their meat consumption are more likely to become vegetarian, and those who become vegetarian are more likely to become vegan.

Given these facts, we concluded that the animal rights community’s current non-pluralist message of “go vegan” is unrealistic and unnecessarily alienating for the vast majority of people who are (unfortunately) unwilling to completely eliminate animal products from their diets. This preoccupation with increasing the number of vegans rather than focusing on decreasing the total amount of meat consumed by our society may be the biggest failure of the animal liberation movement to date.

Not to mention the fact that arguments championed by vegan moralists like Gary Francione—that a person is either a moral vegan or a murderous meat-lover—end up hurting farmed animal more than it helps because of its immediately polarizing effect.

Thankfully, public health and environmental campaigns, such as Meatless Monday, Weekday Vegetarian, and Vegan Before Six, are far more nuanced in their approaches to fostering incremental, sustainable behavioral change (and, in turn, increasing consumer demand for and access to plant-based alternatives.) After all, the more meatless or meat-reduced meals we eat, the fewer animals we harm. One USDA study found that 400 million fewer animals were killed for food last year than in 2007, mostly because of the growing population of people who cut back on meat.

When it comes to the success of a social movement, inclusiveness and likeability matter. In fact, they matter a lot. People don’t want to feel inferior. They don’t want to feel like a bad person for not living the way another person tells them they should live.

So, please, fellow animal advocates: if you are overwhelmed with an urge to disrupt, whether in a Chipotle or at a Chris Christie support rally or a college lecture, put down the megaphone. Remember you’ll catch (and compassionately release) much more bees with honey.