This is always a very difficult question to answer, because there is no one method which is guaranteed to work for everyone, or even for the majority of people. I am by no means an expert on this and there is no real research data to draw on in terms of why people went vegan and whether or not they were persuaded by a particular approach, so all I can really do is draw from their own experience and advise on that basis. I don’t claim to be any authority on this, but I can tell you from experience that these things are effective.
1) Remember that many people already agree with us.
I think that the first truth to acknowledge when you’re trying to be an effective advocate is that most people are at least in partial agreement with us about the fundamental principles of veganism. The vast majority of people do believe that animals should never be harmed unnecessarily, the issue is that they don’t apply that logic to eating animals or make the connection that if we don’t need to consume animals, then any harm caused to them so that we can eat them is by definition unnecessary. Establishing the fact that most people don’t need to eat animals is therefore one of the first steps, luckily there is a wealth of research available to prove that beyond reasonable doubt. Further to this is that many people just don’t apply normal ethical reasoning to their food in the way they do about any other purchase, so it is necessary to remind people that food choices are subject to the same ethics as anything else we consume.
2) Try to relate to people.
I have always found that by the time someone has a conversation with a vegan, they have already made vegans very “other” in their minds. They imagine that vegans are very different to them, that they have some special quality which allows these strange people to be vegan but which they themselves somehow lack. Usually this is what is behind those “I really respect your discipline” or “you must really love animals” statements; they’re not compliments so much as re-enforcement of the idea that we are different than they are in some key way, and therefore that’s why we’re vegan and they’re not. Relating to non-vegans is therefore incredibly important, and we must work very hard not to give them more reason to believe that we are somehow just better, or more disciplined than they are, or that we love animals more than anyone else. When they talk about how much they used to eat meat, tell them that you did too, tell them how you were convinced you could never give up cheese too, but what happened when you did and why you decided to.
3) People respond to stories more than stats.
In terms of methods, I find that people respond to narrative far more than they respond to statistics. Telling someone how you went vegan, what that was like and how it makes you feel to be vegan is generally far more effective than telling them how cruel they are. Stories of farmed animals really tend to resonate with people; things like rescued animal stories, or the lives of specific animals and what they endure when they are being farmed or slaughtered can be very effective. Sixty billion land animals slaughtered per year is a hard figure to even grasp, and even harder to empathise with, whereas Lucy who was rescued from an egg farm and is walking on grass for the first time is easier to feel emotionally connected to. Draw on those existing stories, one of the key reasons people cite for not going vegan is that it won’t make a difference, but these remarkable animals in sanctuaries, or even those who didn’t make it out, are living proof of the consequences of our choices.
4) Don’t assume that people don’t already know.
I find that many advocates tend to assume too little of the knowledge of the people they’re talking to. When you first find out about animal suffering, your first instinct is that if you can just tell everyone about this thing that you learned, they’ll have the same response as you did and they’ll be so horrified that they’ll want to go vegan. The truth is though that everyone makes the connection for different reasons, and what you were utterly horrified by may have no impact on someone else, or they may already know. People generally know far more about how animals suffer in the meat, dairy and egg industries than they like to admit, so often you’re not actually telling them something new. Jonathan Safran Foer once said that whenever he told anyone he was writing a book about eating animals, people always assumed it was a book about vegetarianism, which is deeply revealing, and he concluded from that assumption that people already know that any in-depth look into how our food is produced will inevitably end up making the case for vegetarianism or veganism. It’s like that knowledge is already there, somewhere, disavowed and hidden from ourselves. This will resonate with many of us who have given up animal products, we often think to ourselves, how could I have ever not known? The truth is, we probably all at least suspected it, we just didn’t let ourselves know these truths we knew would force us to re-evaluate our lives and our choices.
5) Don’t assume bad intent
When people engage with your posts, talk to you personally or start an online conversation, one of the fastest way to stop a potential conversation dead in it’s track is to assume bad intent. People don’t always usually comment on vegan posts just to troll them, people don’t usually approach protesters or question vegans over dinner just to antagonise them, they often feel attacked, are questioning their own morals or are trying to justify the fact that they don’t believe what you do. Even when someone is rude and aggressive, more often than not they sincerely believe that what they are saying is ethically the right thing. It isn’t always obvious, but these are advocacy opportunities. It is so tempting to believe that because our “side” is so obviously right that we don’t need to defend our position, and that anyone who disagrees with us must be a bad person. But try to remember that many non-vegans feel exactly the same way as we do, that it is so obvious that there is nothing wrong with eating animals, sometimes that means they respond to our advocacy with mockery or derision, because they just cannot understand how we arrived at our position, just as we can’t understand how they arrived at theirs. It is our job as advocates to breach that divide and help them understand.
6) Help them connect their actions to the harm being caused.
However you get their attention, the real difficulty is getting people to go from admitting that this is wrong, to realising that they should go vegan. It is such a strange phenomenon, but people can view footage of a pig being slaughtered, be horrified and saddened by it, but never for a second think that they are in any way responsible for it. Either they believe that this is something happening far away, or a long time ago, or they assume it is an isolated case of animal cruelty and that the bacon they eat couldn’t have possibly been produced in this way. This is why obtaining up to date footage from the country you are advocating in is so important, it means you can say to people that this is happening here, right now, in our country and it is happening all the time. Earthlings is powerful stuff, but it’s very easy to dismiss it as being old, or something that just happens in America. It’s worth mentioning here that almost every country thinks their animal welfare is significantly better than anyone else’s, so people will always assume that whatever is happening in that clip would never happen where they are.
7) Ask questions.
Once you do have their attention, ask questions rather than making assumptions about what they behave and why. Asking questions helps people feel heard, and it helps establish where your values are similar, and where they are different, giving you a framework for constructive dialogue. It also gives the other person in the conversation permission to ask you questions in turn, and learn more about animal rights. So ask them, what do they believe in? How did they arrive at the conclusions they’ve arrived at? Why do they feel it is justified to eat animals? Should they be treated a certain way? Why? Is there any animal rights issue they do care about? Seaworld, poaching, chick culling, eating dogs? If they care about these, what is the difference between those things and eating pigs? Is that distinction a legitimate one? If you can lead someone to their own conclusions by tracing out their logic, they’ll be much less resistant than they are when they’re just told what they should believe.
8) Be patient.
While you’re engaged in these conversations, be mindful of your tone and how you’re putting yourself forward. It is sometimes incredibly difficult to maintain your cool when someone is expressing harmful views or is being rude to you, but I can’t tell you the amount of times someone has messaged me with something abusive, I’ve responded with manners, questions and offers of resources, and the tone of the conversation has completely changed. People tend to mirror the person they’re speaking with, and it is surprisingly difficult to be cruel to someone who is being kind to you. Don’t escalate, don’t resort to personal attacks and don’t simply try to “win” the argument by putting the person down with some witty but hurtful one-liner. Our goal shouldn’t be to shut people down, but open them up. It is completely understandable to lose your cool when dealing with such an emotive issue, and by rights we shouldn’t have to tone police ourselves when speaking up on behalf of animals, it should be perfectly legitimate for us to be upset. While it is understandable to behave that way, patience is much more effective. This is easier said than done, and it is something I am continually having to work on myself, but it is up to us to set the tone of these conversations since we are the ones with something to prove.
9) Be sceptical of our arguments as well as theirs.
The “fake news” of the right is discussed often, but less so the fact that this can be a real problem in socially progressive movements as well. There are a whole range of false claims put forward by the vegan community, from the idea that you can’t be fat on a vegan diet and it will solve all of your health problems to dairy making the blood acidic or “causing autism.” There are other claims which are less obvious in their falsity, things like the idea that the dairy industry refers to the device used for artificial insemination as a “rape rack.” This may well be true, but as a general rule if you can’t source it you shouldn’t say it, and no one has ever been able to show me any credible evidence that this is a real term that that the dairy industry uses. Animal agriculture industries spend millions of dollars on propaganda and trying to discredit vegan arguments, so we need to have our claims accurate and properly sourced. This is why we should avoid saying “all” when it comes to the treatment animals endure, as there are always exceptions, and if they can show you even one then your argument falls apart. Nothing will turn someone off what you are saying faster than them being able to find out that one of your claims isn’t true just from a quick google search.
10) Don’t shame people.
In terms of what doesn’t work, I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone effectively “shamed” into going vegan. Calling people out on their behaviour and holding them to account isn’t the same as shaming them, but offering condemnation with no advice, help or alternatives offered to them will only make people bitter towards veganism. You can win the argument, everyone will like and share it and you’ll feel great, but what you’ll have created is someone who is wrong but will never go vegan. The key is to show them what they’re doing is wrong, why they should stop, then how to stop. If you just hit step one and skip the rest then you just end up with someone who is angry and possibly ashamed, but is not changing their behaviour. Sometimes it is a case of treating people in a way that is most likely to result in them being vegan, rather than treating them in a way you think they deserve. That is not to say that we have to be super nice to everyone all the time, and there is a genuine place for anger and passion in activism, but it has to be applied intelligently, rather than just hurling abuse at people without any real argument being made. We have to be honest with people about the fact that we think what they’re doing is wrong, but also acknowledge that we used to do it too, and offer them help on changing.
11) Have difficult conversations.
On that point, and I cannot emphasise this enough, if you want to be an effective advocate you must be willing to have difficult conversations with people who disagree with you, and maybe even people who are unkind to you. That sounds obvious, but our online world is now almost wholly made up of echo chambers, and it’s really easy to find reasons to just shut someone down and refuse to engage with them because they have caused us offence. Regardless of the fact that you find the views of these people abhorrent, if you don’t listen to what these views are, you will never be able to dissect them and effectively argue against them. That isn’t to say that you should waste your time on people who will never listen to you in return, or will personally attack and abuse you, but we cannot dismiss people out of hand solely on the basis that they think it’s okay to consume animals, at least not if we expect them to ever change. End a conversation which is going nowhere by all means, but make sure they know that if in a week, a month or a year they changed their minds, they could come to you and you’d still help them out.
12) Accept that you can’t win them all.
A final thing to keep in mind is that you just cannot allow yourself to take it personally when people will not go vegan. You can have all the best arguments, offer extensive resources and be polite and thoughtful during the entire exchange, yet still get told to fuck off. Some people just aren’t ready for the message yet at this point in their lives, and no amount of arguing with them is going to change that. As advocates we need to be able pick our battles, and not allow ourselves to become jaded and bitter by using up all our energy on people who don’t care about animal suffering and won’t listen to anything we have to say. You will burn yourself out if you fight every fight and try to shoulder responsibility for every person you speak to who doesn’t go vegan because of your arguments. The truth is that you can’t “make” anyone go vegan, all you can really do is plant seeds, offer your help and hope for the best.
So keep trying, keep advocating for animals and above all try to remember what it was like when you weren’t vegan. When people are unkind to you or express views you find abhorrent, it is so tempting to respond with righteous indignation, and it’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself on many occasions. But we have to remember that it isn’t about us or our pride, it isn’t about being right, it’s about what is most likely to help them go vegan. Be the kind of vegan you would have wanted to meet when you weren’t one, and offer the kind of help that you wish someone would have given you.