Letter To a Young Matt Ball...from Matt Ball 2009

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Letter To a Young Matt Ball...from Matt Ball 2009

By Matt Ball, co-founder Vegan Outreach

One thing long-time vegans often forget is how hard it can be to be vegan in this society. I’ve forgotten to a large extent, because I’m married to vegan, have a vegan daughter, and have literally thousands of vegan friends and colleagues.

But if I think back to when I went vegan about two decades ago, I do remember some of how hard it was. Not so much finding vegan food (although it was much harder then), but living in a nonvegan world. I had finally come to recognize the brutality that went on behind the scenes, but it seemed that no one around me cared. Even worse than that, they mocked and attacked me for being vegan! I mean – not only did they support cruelty, they ridiculed me for not eating animals!

Of course, I had to show them – show them how ethical I was, how much cruelty I could purge from my life, how far I would go for the animals. Being vegan became my defining characteristic, and I became obsessed with justifying and glorifying veganism (and, thus, myself). Debates about language, philosophy, hypotheticals all took on vital importance. I had to take part in any protest that came along – driving long distances, being out in sub-zero weather, getting arrested, etc. I couldn’t “turn my back” on the animals – I was just that dedicated!

I’m afraid that if my 21-year-old self met my 41-year-old self, prior me would loathe current me. Young me would consider older me an intellectual coward, a pathetic sellout, a traitor to veganism. I fear there is nothing I could say to change my mind – I was so self-righteous, so angry, so obsessive.

But sometimes, I do think about what I would say, if I had the chance.

The single most important lesson I’ve learned in the past 20 years is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering. Back then, although I was sure I knew everything, I really didn’t know anything about suffering. Since then, though, I’ve developed a chronic disease, and experienced times when I thought I was going to die, times when I wished I would die. Back then, I worried about abstractions and words and principles; I argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation, etc. I didn’t take suffering seriously. Now, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem –well, to put it kindly, ridiculous.

I don’t know how I could convey this to my younger self, who had never really known suffering. Yet it seems clear to me now – when we make a decision, we should decide based on what leads to the least amount of suffering. This is the bottom line – that something is good and right and ethical if it causes less suffering than the alternatives.

Obviously, 80s Matt would crow, “Of course I make ethical choices – that is why I’m a vegan!” But here is what I couldn’t get back then – what I put into my mouth is only a tiny fraction of what is important.

Being surrounded by mocking meat eaters back then, I became obsessed over what I could control – my personal purity. It was only later I came to realize that, despite all my talk about “the animals,” I was really only protecting and promoting myself.

It literally took me years to realize that there can be so much more to life than my own righteousness. But things that seem painfully obvious to me now – like the fundamental, irreducible importance of suffering – never made it through my anger and self-absorption.

As the saying goes, a smart person learns from their own mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others. Another mistake I had to make for myself was the trap of “do something, do anything!” If there was some action going on “for the animals,” I had to do it. It never occurred to me to consider exactly what constructive purpose the action served, how much actual good was going to be accomplished, or what were the alternative uses of my time and resources. I thought only of showing my dedication, of expressing my outrage.

But of course, expressions of outrage aren’t going to bring about animal liberation. I finally realized that if I really cared about something more than venting my anger, my actions had to be a part of a reasoned, logical strategy. And the plan must be realistic, not based simply on my desires, my demands of what “must” happen. This strategy has to be grounded in how the world actually is, learning from what history teaches us about how societies change, what psychology and sociology teach us about human nature, and what our capabilities are at the time.

Understanding our capabilities is vital. We don’t have infinite resources – we actually have incredibly limited time and money, especially compared to the industries that exploit animals. Vegan Outreach’s budget isn’t even a million dollars a year. It’s true that PETA’s is bigger, and HSUS’s is over a hundred million dollars. But compare this to the companies that exploit animals: in 2007, just two of these companies – Tyson and Cargill – had revenues of over $115 billion.

After years of unfocused, self-centered, angry activism, I finally came to realize that if I really cared about the animals, I had to maximize the amount of good I accomplished with my limited time and resources. And to do so, I had to set aside my ego, and stop focusing on what most outraged me, personally. Rather, I needed to start from the two fundamental lessons that took me so long to learn:

  1. Suffering is irreducibly bad, and thus eliminating suffering is the ultimate good.
  2. Every time we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another.

I’ve read a lot and debated a lot, but as much as I’ve tried, I’ve just not been able to get away from the simple truths:

Eliminating suffering is the ultimate good, and, every time we choose to do one thing, we are choosing not to do another.

From these two facts comes Vegan Outreach’s first principle, our bottom line and guide: eliminating as much suffering as possible. Everything we do derives directly from that – we make our choices based on which option will lead to the least amount of suffering.

Based entirely on this first principle, we choose to focus on exposing the cruelties of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses, while providing honest information about how to pursue a cruelty-free lifestyle. Let me repeat – our emphasis on ethical eating derives from our first principle, not vice versa. No specific diet has any value in and of itself. Rather, the importance of promoting cruelty-free eating is that it allows us to have the maximum impact on the amount of suffering in the world, for three reasons:

The Numbers

The number of animals raised and butchered for food each year in the United States alone is far greater than the total human population of the entire world. Factory farming vastly exceeds any other form of exploitation: about ninety-nine out of every 100 animals killed in the United States each year are slaughtered to be eaten.

The Suffering

Of course, if these billions of animals lived happy, healthy lives and had quick, painless deaths, then our goal of reducing as much suffering as possible would lead us elsewhere. But animals raised for food, as we all know, must endure unfathomable suffering. Just consider this: every year, hundreds of millions of farmed animals don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.

The Opportunity

If there were nothing we could do about these animals’ suffering – if it all happened in a distant land beyond our influence – then, again, our focus would be different. But exposing factory farms and advocating ethical eating is the most readily accessible option we have for reducing as much suffering as possible. We don’t need to forsake modern life. We don’t have to overthrow a government. We don’t have to win an election or convince Congress of the validity of our argument.

Everyone eats every day, so every person we meet is a potential major victory for the animals. For each and every person you convince to go vegetarian – through your own action or by funding focused advocacy – you double the impact of your life’s choices. Choose to be a part of a dedicated outreach program, and every single person who changes because of your outreach and donations will save as many animals as you will save with every choice you make every day for the rest of your life.

For these reasons, Vegan Outreach works to change as many people’s diets as much as possible per dollar donated and hour worked. The way to accomplish this is to present the optimal message to our target audience. This leads to two obvious questions: Who is our audience, and what is the message that will elicit the greatest change?

Of course, with infinite resources, we could reach out to everyone. Given our reality, though, the goal of maximum change leads Vegan Outreach to focus primarily on young people – especially college-age – for three main reasons:

The Relative Willingness and Ability to Change

Of course, not every young person is willing to stop eating meat. But relative to the population as a whole, college students tend to be more open-minded and in a position where they aren’t as restricted by parents, tradition, habits, etc.

The Full Impact of Change

Even if students and senior citizens were equally open to change, young people not only have more meals ahead of them, they have more opportunities to influence others.

The Ability to Reach Large Numbers

College students are typically easier to reach. For a relatively small investment of time, an activist can hand a copy of Even If You Like Meat or Compassionate Choices to hundreds of students who otherwise may never see a full and compelling case for ethical eating.

Because we take suffering seriously, the message we choose to present to this audience is the cruelty to animals on factory farms and in industrial slaughterhouses. We have found this simple and straightforward message to have many benefits, including honesty and strength of motivation.

Inside a broiler house, where chickens are raised for meat.
Of course, we know that exposing what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses isn’t going to change everyone. But at this time, there simply is no magic argument that will change everyone. Although there are always exceptions, we have found that arguments that avoid the horrors of meat production are generally not compelling enough to create consistent change. We don’t want people to nod in agreement and continue on as before. At this time, it is far better if 95% of people turn away revolted and 5% consider the animals’ plight, than if everyone smiles politely and continues on to McDonald’s for a “healthy” chicken sandwich or salad.

Here is another lesson it took me years to learn: Trying to appeal to everyone hasn’t worked, and it won’t work. It is well past time to give up the fantasy that there is some perfect self-centered argument that will magically compel everyone to change. Thinking this way is, at best, an inefficient use of time and resources, and thus hurts animals.

Conversely, revealing modern agribusiness’ lies by showing people what is concealed behind the walls of factory farms and slaughterhouses does work! Our detailed, documented, and illustrated booklets have proven to be effective and efficient at convincing people to eat fewer or no animals – and maintain that change – in the face of peer pressure, tradition, the latest fad, etc. Every semester, Vegan Outreach activists find many students interested in learning the hidden truths, along with details about vegetarianism. Indeed, awareness and interest is growing every year. We constantly receive feedback like, “I had no idea what went on! Thank you so much for opening my eyes!”

And yet, there are many, many more people to reach. The simplest way to get booklets to interested people is to stock displays in your area: possible locations include libraries, music and bookstores, co-ops and natural food stores, coffeehouses, and sympathetic restaurants.

But instead of waiting for people to pick up a booklet, we can take the animals’ message right to them. Vegan Outreach’s Adopt a College program, where activists leaflet at local campuses, concerts, and other venues, serves to reach out methodically to our prime audience. Activists go directly to individuals – people who may never otherwise learn the realities of modern agribusiness and the compassionate alternative. This is the first systematic plan for bringing about animal liberation by going directly to our most receptive audience. We know this works, and you can join with the others who support and are taking part in this powerful, effective activism. You don’t need to start a group, or publish a website, or organize anything – you just need to take suffering seriously and choose to be a part of this work.

And if we want to be the best possible advocates for the animals, we can’t give anyone any reasons to ignore the terrible and unnecessary suffering on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. It is absolutely essential that we stay focused on the animals. We are not the issue. Although it took me years to accept this, veganism is not an end in itself—it is only a tool for reducing suffering. Our purpose can’t be to “win an argument with a meat eater.” Our goal has to be to get people to open their hearts and minds to the animals’ plight. It all simplifies to this:

Buying meat, eggs, and dairy causes unnecessary suffering.

We can each choose not to cause this suffering.

We must also recognize that society’s stereotype of vegans is a significant roadblock to widespread change. No longer does “vegan” need to be explained when referenced. But unfortunately, the word is often used as shorthand for someone young, fanatical, and isolated. In short, “vegan” = “unhappy.” This caricature of vegans guarantees that veganism won’t be considered – let alone adopted – on a wide scale.

Regrettably, the “angry vegan” image is based in reality – thanks young Matt! My self-righteousness gave many people a lifetime excuse to ignore the hidden realities of factory farms.

Again, I want to point out that as a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, revulsion and fury are entirely justified. Although understandable, being ruled by our rage does little to help animals and move society towards being more compassionate. If we take suffering seriously, we must deal with our anger in a constructive way.

It is not enough to be a vegan, or even a dedicated vegan advocate. If we want to maximize the amount of suffering we can prevent, we must actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. The animals can’t wait until we get over our despair. We must learn “how to win friends and influence people.” Regardless of the sorrow and outrage we may understandably feel, we must show everyone we meet that we are a joyful person leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Remember our ultimate goal: reducing suffering. To change the world, we need to convince others to open their hearts and minds and think beyond themselves. We must do the same. If I claim that I can’t be happy because of the suffering in the world, I am saying I am not in control of my own life. If I can’t be happy as a vegan, how can I expect others to be interested in veganism? Just as we want everyone to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our anger to the meaningful action of optimal advocacy.

Of course, there is a lot more to discuss in terms of the hows and whys of optimal advocacy. Bruce Friedrich and I have distilled the lessons of our decades of activism and the insights of hundreds of other activists into The Animal Activist’s Handbook. But Thoreau summarized it all in one sentence: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

So let me conclude with the reason to be the one in a thousand who is dedicated to creating real, fundamental change, and that is because we will prevail.

I know this might seem absurd, but if we look at the long arc of history, we can see how much society has advanced in just the last few centuries. It was over two thousand years ago that the ideals of democracy were first proposed in ancient Greece. But only during the eighteenth century did humanity see even the beginnings of a democratic system. Not until late in the nineteenth century was slavery abolished in the developed world. In all of human history, only in the last hundred years was child labor abolished in the developed word, child abuse criminalized, women given the vote, and minorities given more civil rights.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once common and respected.

Bringing about an end to factory farming will, in many ways, actually be easier than previous advances in social justice. People don’t like cruelty to animals – indeed, the vast majority of people oppose it! What they like is eating familiar, convenient foods. And this shows how we can win:

Every single day, our grassroots advocacy efforts are creating more vegetarians, leading to more vegetarian products arriving on the market every month. Having convenient vegetarian options is vital, as it makes it easier for more new people to try and stick with a compassionate diet. As more people buy veg meats and other vegetarian products, competition will continue to increase the supply and varieties, improving quality and driving down prices. This cycle of increasing numbers of vegetarians and the increasing convenience of vegetarian eating creates a feedback loop that accelerates progress.

The faster the growth in people choosing vegetarian, the faster vegetarian products will improve in taste, become cheaper, and be found in more places. Our challenge now is to expand the vegetarian market by explaining to more meat eaters the reasons for choosing meatless meals, while exposing them to new – though familiar – products. The more rapidly we do this, the sooner cruelty-free eating will be widespread.

This work is really only just getting started. Twenty years ago, animal advocacy in the United States was dominated by fur and vivisection campaigns; very few people pursued advocacy on behalf the 99% who are slaughtered to be eaten. Things have changed, but only recently. For example, Adopt a College was only launched in 2003. In large part because of the recent shift to vegetarian advocacy and our efforts to reach people directly, factory farms – unknown to most people only a decade or two ago – are now commonly vilified as ethical abominations. Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word “vegan.” Finding decent vegetarian foods was often impossible. Now you can find soymilk, veggie burgers, and various other vegetarian convenience foods in nearly every grocery store! This might not matter to your Uncle Bubba, but it will to his kids and, certainly, his grandkids – especially when they go away to college.

Despite all the current horror and suffering, if we take the long view – and are willing to devote our limited time and resources to the work that needs to be done – we should be deeply optimistic. If we take suffering seriously and are committed to optimal advocacy, we can each create real, fundamental change, every single day.

Because of the number of individuals suffering and the reason behind this hidden brutality, I believe that animal liberation is the moral imperative of our time. We can be the generation that brings about this next great ethical advance. We should revel – really revel! – in the freedom and opportunity we have, the chance to be a part of something so profound! This is as meaningful and joyous a life as I can imagine.

We have no excuse for waiting. Taking meaningful, concrete action for the animals doesn’t require anything other than our choice. You don’t need to start a group. You don’t need to pass a law. You just have to make the choice to be a part of this vital work.

In the end, in our hearts, we know that, regardless of what we think of ourselves, our actions reveal the kind of person we really are. We can each make the choice, right here, right now, to join together and dedicate our lives to a larger purpose, to maximize the amount of good we accomplish, to really change the world for the better.

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