Speaking in Hof Narr in Zurich on 14th December, Ed Winters (better known as Earthling Ed) gave a typically articulate and well-crafted speech in which he addressed some of the issues of how to be a vegan activist. In it, he spoke to the point that simply being a vegan is in itself not enough.
He urged activists to use the emotion of anger in a constructive way. It is acceptable to get angry, but the important issue is how to use that anger. We live in a society in which eating animals has been accepted as the norm pretty much forever. So it is therefore not necessarily fair to blame the person that an activist might be talking to. It is the system that needs to be changed says Earthling Ed, and people who are raised in this society will say things without thinking or without the knowledge to confront that way of thinking. “We are lied to and tricked into thinking in conventional ways by labels and advertising,” he says.
Ed spoke of his shock as he was gradually becoming aware of these issues once when 1,500 chickens had died in a road crash. How much he had been cut off from reality became clear to him when he realised that the remaining 4,500 chickens who had not died, were also suffering – they were being taken to a slaughterhouse and their deaths.
“We’re so blinded by our willful ignorance and how much we are lied to,” he said. He constantly reminded the audience that the antidote to ignorance is education and awareness.
Think for yourself and become informed
When he first went vegetarian he thought vegans were “a bit crazy”, quite militant, and a bunch of humourless people who forced their views on others. Why did he think that? Well, because that’s the way the media often portrays vegans. Unwittingly, he had accepted this very stereotypical vision of who a vegan is without any real critical thinking.
Eight months later after watching the Earthlings documentary he felt “devastated” and promptly went vegan. But for a year or so he was very quiet about it because he did not want to be viewed as preachy and militant. He would eat with this vegetarian friends and keep quiet about his veganism.
An early event when he got stumped about vegan issues taught him the power and necessity of becoming informed. After watching Cowspiracy on Netflix he became more aware of the food system’s impact on the environment. In a discussion about this with a woman, she told him that whilst it was great that he was a vegan, as a personal choice, he should stop talking about the environment. “You eat soya products and they’re ruining the world,” she said looking very smug. He became confused and tongue-tied.
So the lesson was simple: he went home and googled “is soya bad for the environment?” He discovered that yes soya is bad for the environment due to the fact that 70% of it is used for feeding farming livestock and thus a major factor in deforestation. The consensus is that eating soy is almost always more environmentally friendly than eating meat. Consequently, he was better informed and therefore better able and more confident for the next time he spoke up as an advocate.
Earthling Ed’s lesson was that he needed to learn more, to teach himself more. “If I will talk, I must be prepared,” he said to himself as he set out to learn how to be a vegan activist, and more importantly an effective one.
Be responsible and accountable
He then called on the activists to develop a sense of their own responsibility. If they know the truth then they have an obligation to do, and say, something about it. He used the analogy of a blind person walking down the road. At the end of the road is a hole and someone who can see. If the blind person falls into the hole, then it is the fault of the person who can see because he watched idly by as the blind man fell in.
We know that the trucks are carrying animals to slaughterhouses, he says. “The masses are blind to what we did not know before” so, according to Earthling Ed, “it’s our fault if we do nothing because they haven’t yet had the chance to see the other side of the story”.
The responsibility involves taking ownership of the process, as well as our bodies. The activist can see what is going on, so it is his or her responsibility to do something about it. Being a bystander is to some degree to be complicit in the violence that is being perpetrated. Being a vegan is one thing, and it’s passive. But activism is the next step: to actively intervene and stop it.
He said that at the beginning of his advocacy he often was not very skilful. He was often overly aggressive and confrontational, would choose poor language and more often than not shut a conversation down. This was a disservice to the cause.
“So be mindful about activism” he cautions. If the consequence of the advocacy is that opposite of what is intended, then there is quite simply no point to it.
He urges people in responding to excuses to be mindful in how people use their words and their body language. He found early on that pointing his fingers at people was unhelpful – “people pick up on our body language”.
He also suggests as a powerful learning experience to debate the opposite of what you believe to be true. This enables you to understand the arguments people use, and in his words discover “how silly” they often are. He recently did this studied a particularly vocal opponent of veganism, and mentally debated him – this led Ed to the conclusion that that person had no valid arguments and it made him “feel better”.
But how did Ed learn to cope when he was on a street protest when a person walks by and says “I love bacon” without stopping? Ed used to be angry about this, but he learnt that there was no point in yelling something aggressive back.
He found the work of the clinical psychologist, Dr Melanie Joy particularly helpful. It helped him respond more skilfully. It helped him respond to his family members who were confused by his activism. He has learnt the need for humility and respect in dealing with others including his mother who worried that her son needed cheese for protein and calcium. He realised that when he told her that he was adopting a moral position, his mother may have felt that he was implying that she had not raised him with moral values. The realisation was humbling for him.
It is so easy for people to shut down when having vegan activist conversations. So on street protests, he no longer answers back to the person who tells him how much he loves bacon. It’s better to feel sorry for that person.
He also claims that there is a massive irony in men’s attitude that they have to “eat meat to be masculine”. The paradox is that their masculinity is rather fragile.
Activists should remember in their conversations that many people are not emotionally mature. People say hurtful things and deal with guilt in different ways, and activists can distance themselves from this. They do not have to feel those emotions. Remember he says, good people can do bad things too, and bad people can do good things too.
No one size fits all for the long haul
It is important to not be condescending and to feel a sense of responsibility. There is after all no “one size fits all” to being an activist. He or she needs to do lots of different things and not forget that some forms of activism are more effective, though it is not immediately obvious which are which. What is important is to do a variety of things and do them regularly.
He urges a sense of responsibility “for the long haul” and for activists to continually reminding themselves to be accountable, particularly “when we don’t feel like it”.
Ed reminded the activists that it will take decades to overcome this – it won’t all be done in a couple of years. “It will take a lot of our lives, so we do not want to put ourselves in a position where we are full of despair. We can have conversations and then feel empowered as we are bringing positive change, but it won’t ever be easy,” he says.
He describes that it can be a great experience going to a sanctuary – but it can be bittersweet too. This brings into relief a life of suffering and pain of other animals. That will always be there, and an activist cannot save them but can contribute to saving many others in the future. “That’s why we do it, to foster a better world for the future, for us humans are well as animals too. Others will reap the rewards of what we do now”.
He stresses the importance of activists looking after themselves in some way – doing something they enjoy, perhaps finding a guilty pleasure! duty to bring about positive change! Burn out can be very real so “have fun, don’t punish yourself,” he says.
“We have all seen footage, and we are aware of what’s happening. It makes us sad but if we doubt what we can accomplish, he encourages us to “put ourselves in their shoes.
“Then ask yourself: ‘what would I then do?’ For this is “why it is that we do what we do”.
It is important for activists to remind themselves of this from time to time.
Beware of self-doubt which can be crippling – it’s worse than other people’s judgements. So “always believe that you can do what you can do. We can make incremental change and don’t doubt your abilities for a second. We are each vital, every time we speak up and when we do we normalise things.”
We live in communities, and people feel safe being like others. People are scared to be different – to be mocked or teased. But “everything we do can impact this – it can be subtle.”
A precious reminder of a cow’s wonderfully mysterious life
Ed once visited a dairy farm and saw a calf being taken from its mother. He watched the mother and looked into her eyes. At that moment he “saw everything”. He saw into her “wonderfully mysterious life”. An animal’s desires may be simpler than ours, but nevertheless they are very real. He saw that cow’s pain, fear, anguish and terror as her calf was put into an actual prison.
That cow would be impregnated again – it was irrelevant if it was her first time or her fourth time. Ed could not bear it and at that moment he made a promise to himself that every time he feels down about his work he remembers that cow’s eyes. He owes it to that cow to put his self-doubt away, to put his ego away and to continue his work.
“Life is a gift. Be grateful that we are born into our bodies and not one of those trillions of bodies that suffer” he says.