A Moment of Silence for Donald Watson, Founder of The Vegan Society
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Gary Francione, Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach
July 2014

A moment of silence for Donald Watson. That is the least we can do for someone whose progressive vision and message of nonviolence has been betrayed and abandoned.

Donald Watson, together with some others, founded The Vegan Society in 1944. Here my entry on Watson from the Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism:

WATSON, DONALD (1910–2005)

Born September 2, 1910, in Mexborough, South Yorkshire, England, Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” to describe individuals who abstain from the consumption and use of animal products and founded the Vegan Society to promote this idea. Watson spent much of his life as a woodworker or teaching woodwork. His father was a headmaster of a nearby school. His uncle and grandmother ran the family farm, and, at an early age, Watson, who had thought of the farm as an idyllic place, witnessed the slaughter of a pig. This began his reassessment of the human-nonhuman relationship, which continued through Watson’s adolescence.

In 1924, at age 14, Watson became a vegetarian. Twenty years later, in 1944, he founded the Vegan Society, although he had already been practicing a vegan diet and lifestyle for a few years prior. “Vegan” comes from the beginning and ending letters of the word “vegetarian.” Watson thought that veganism was the logical conclusion of rejecting animal products for reasons of morality and health. He maintained that dairy products, such as milk and cheese, and eggs, were every bit as cruel and exploitive of sentient animal life as was slaughtering animals for their flesh: “The unquestionable cruelty associated with the production of dairy produce has made it clear that lacto-vegetarianism is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilised diet, and we think, therefore, that during our life on earth we should try to evolve sufficiently to make the ‘full journey.'” He also avoided wearing leather, wool, or silk and used a fork, rather than a spade, in his gardening to avoid killing worms.

Watson was opposed to hunting, fishing, blood sports, and the use of animals in experiments or for testing purposes. Although he claimed to have respect for those who liberated animals from laboratories or engaged in other forms of direct action, he expressed concern that such activities were counterproductive. He was an advocate of organic farming and was critical of genetic modification of plants and animals.

Watson touted and exemplified the health benefits of a vegan diet, but he clearly saw veganism primarily as a moral principle. He regarded the vegan movement as “the greatest movement that ever was” because it provided a solution to the crisis of greed and violence that affected and afflicted humankind and that threatened ecological disaster. Although he was not religious in a traditional sense, he had deeply held spiritual beliefs that included the idea that being a carnivore violated natural law and that violence against nonhuman animals was a violation of spiritual laws that brought psychological unhappiness and ill health. Watson maintained that compassion was the only useful part of religion and that veganism involved practicing compassion.

Watson was committed to nonviolence in general. He had objector status during World War II. He lived an active and healthy life until his death in 2005 at age 95. Watson predicted, as did playwright George Bernard Shaw about his own funeral, that it would be attended by “all the spirits of all the animals” that Watson had never eaten.

Gary L. Francione

I hope that my profound respect for Watson, and his progressive vision, is apparent even from this brief entry.

I wrote this entry on Watson in 2010. In 2011, I was actually banned from the Vegan Society’s Forum because I was promoting veganism after I started a discussion you can read here.

And now, The Vegan Society has decided to “rebrand” itself through a campaign–You Don’t Have to Be Vegan–costing £6000. The Vegan Society has explicitly and deliberately abandoned veganism as a moral baselines in favor a most flexible version of flexible veganism that is described by The Vegan Society as “vegan consumerism”:

vegan society

An article about Ruth Semple, Head of Communications, Public Policy, and Research for The Vegan Society had this to say:

Semple, who joined the charity in October 2012, knew she had a serious problem to solve. Not only was the visibility of the charity low – among the public as well as journalists – but the branding and identity no longer reflected its aims. Rather than existing solely to provide information to help individuals become vegans, the society now wants to engage with policy-makers at a higher level on a wider range of issues, such as international development and climate change.

So Semple embarked on the charity’s biggest-ever rebranding project, which cost £6,000. “At first some staff were resistant because they didn’t see the need for it,” she says. “They asked why we were spending so much money on design work when we should be doing other things.”

Nevertheless, she went ahead with the project, drawing on pre-existing academic research examining the portrayal of vegans in the media – typically, says Semple, they were seen as ascetics or faddists – and analysing the 2013 membership database, which found the average age of members was 56.

“We realised that we needed to attract the next generation and find out what they wanted,” Semple says.

And what is that “pre-existing academic research” to which Semple refers?

It is one study: M. Cole and K. Morgan, Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers, British Journal of Sociology 2011 Volume 62 Issue 1.

And what does that one study say?

It says that newspapers in Britain portray vegans and veganism in derogatory ways–as “ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or, in some cases, hostile extremists”–in order to perpetuate speciesism and to disconnect discussions of veganism from the moral and ethical issues presented by animal exploitation.

Is that any surprise? Any surprise at all?

Newspapers are owned by corporations that have vested economic interests in perpetuating all sorts of injustice, including, but not limited to, animal exploitation, and in keeping discussion focused on the most superficial level so that we avoid discussing the real issues of morality and injustice.

Interestingly, the authors conclude that media effort to discredit veganism may reflect the

...view that human violence towards nonhuman animals is deeply problematic to most humans. If it were not, there would be little purpose to the vegaphobic discourse as it was manifested in our research findings. (page 150)

That is, the corporate media portray vegans and veganism negatively precisely to deflect attention away from the moral beliefs that most people have. That is, we all think that what Michael Vick or Mary Bale did was wrong, but the media discourage our making the deeper connections between what they did and what we do in our everyday lives.

The authors conclude:

Therefore, the effort to continually reassert the connection between veganism and nonhuman animal liberation remains worthwhile, and the temptation to promote veganism under the non-confrontational guise of convenient healthy lifestyle choice may be unwise. This is not to argue that education about the practicalities of living a nonviolent life is not important, but it is prey to co-option. (page 150)

Have you fallen off your chair yet?

The Vegan Society is relying on academic research for its “You Don’t Have to Go Vegan” campaign where that research supports the opposite conclusion. That research indicates that media are trying to discredit veganism precisely because people care morally about animals, and that would support the idea that we should continue to emphasize the moral point and to talk about the practicalities of nonviolent living. The Vegan Society is using this research to justify abandoning the moral argument and to abandon any talk about the practicalities of nonviolent living in favor of the message of flexible veganism and “vegan consumerism.”

The “co-option” has already occurred.

Here are three of the new Vegan Society campaign posters:

vegan society

vegan society

vegan society

I wonder what Donald Watson would think about the new campaign. I wonder if he would have been pleased to see his Vegan Society producing these sorts of posters.

In 1944, in the first newsletter of The Vegan Society, Donald Watson said this:

A common criticism is that the time in not yet ripe for our reform. Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination? Did Wilberforce wait for the ‘ripening’ of time before he commenced his fight against slavery? Did Edwin Chadwick, Lord Shaftesbury, and Charles Kingsley wait for such a non-existent moment before trying to convince the great dead weight of public opinion that clean water and bathrooms would be an improvement? If they had declared their intention to poison everybody the opposition they met could hardly have been greater. There is an obvious danger in leaving the fulfilment of our ideals to posterity, for posterity may not have our ideals. Evolution can be retrogressive as well as progressive, indeed there seems always to be a strong gravitation the wrong way unless existing standards are guarded and new visions honoured.

In 2014, Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society says:

Developed after a long period of research and meaningful dialogue, the campaign shows that we have really been listening to the views of vegetarians and meat eaters. Some people can make the jump to veganism overnight, but we understand that for others, the “Go vegan. Now!” messages are lost.

As if the choice were between a simplistic slogan, “Go vegan. Now!” and abandoning veganism as a moral baseline through promoting flexible veganism and “vegan consumerism.”

CEO de Boo continues:

Everyone is now free to embrace veganism, not only those who are already vegan, but those who are thinking about it and want to start bringing more plant-based dishes into their diet, or replace their leather shoes with vegan versions. Vegans can choose from a wide range of different food and products in supermarkets and online. It’s never been easier, in fact.

We are not here to tell people what to do or how to live. We are giving people the choice and the chance to join us. We are here to support anyone moving towards a more ethical and sustainable lifestyle. It’s not all-or-nothing. It’s about starting a conversation, or planting a seed.

In other words, The Vegan Society was doing a thoroughly incompetent job getting people excited about veganism. Rather than trying to figure out how to reinvigorate Watson’s message of interspecies justice and nonviolence for a new generation and for a world that desperately needs to hear that message, The Vegan Society decided to abandon that message in favor of the idea that if people buy vegan products, it’s all okay. And given that everyone buys some vegan products, The Vegan Society can declare victory, make everyone feel good for buying vegan products, and get donations and bequests of gratitude because the Society is putting its stamp of approval on their non-veganism; on their flexible veganism; on their “vegan consumerism.” It’s all great for the Society’s business and it’s great for consumers who can buy their indulgences for exploiting animals by making a donation. Only the animals lose.

Is it hard to educate about morality in 2014? Yes, it most certainly is. But it was also difficult in a different way in 1944, when Donald Watson was trying to deal with these issues in a world that was just emerging from the horrors of World War II, the rise of dictators and tyrants, and the nightmare of the Holocaust.

Watson met the challenge in 1944. The Vegan Society in 2014 has not. In fact, it has capitulated to defeat. The Vegan Society claims that its message of “vegan consumerism” is the only way to get young people to become interested in veganism, claiming that

Facebook “likes” on the charity’s page now exceeds 1,000 a week, compared with 100 to 200 previously.

But the Abolitionist Approach Facebook page, which promotes veganism as a moral baseline, is at almost 60,000 likes, has gone up about 40,000 in the past year or so, and a big chunk (almost 40%) is the age group 18-34. And not one paid boost.

The idea that a strong moral message does not appeal to the public in general, or to young people in particular, is nonsense. The Vegan Society has just decided that it can bring in more money by selling it all out and putting a stamp of approval on non-veganism, flexible veganism, and “vegan consumerism.”

A moment of silence for Donald Watson. That is the least we can do for someone whose progressive vision and message of nonviolence has been betrayed and abandoned.

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

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