Sebastian Joy is the CEO of VEBU, an animal charity in Germany that is expanding internationally under the name “ProVeg.” He is among the most important representatives of the vegetarian and vegan movement in Europe and I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with him recently at Addis in Cape and ask him for his take on the vegan movement in South Africa. The following is a summary of our conversation…
CTV: You’re in South Africa to connect with us regarding ProVeg coming to our shores. Why South Africa specifically?
SJ: We’re expanding to many different countries, such as China, Austria, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Because the population on the African continent is growing and South Africa is one of the leading countries on the continent, and because of the CEVA (Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy) training a year ago and our connection with Brett Thompson, who now works for us, and is originally from South Africa – we thought it might be a good idea. Donovan Will (from The Fry Family Food Co.) contacted us and seemed to be eager to make a connection which we were happy to do!
CTV: Veganism has been defined as one of the biggest ‘trends’ of late. Is the word ‘trend’ appropriate.
SJ: I think it’s good. We just need to make sure it turns into a long-lasting development. It needs the initial boost of a ‘trend’ but then needs to keep going so that it’s not just a fad.
CTV: With regards to major corporations/companies/brands, etc. that are not vegan who start producing vegan products/options – do you think that the South African vegan community should support them?
SJ: Yes. The large corporations are often in a better position (in terms of infrastructure) to cater to consumers, particularly the people who start their vegan journey. It’s too easy to have a vegan ‘bubble’ for example a vegan restaurant that no meat eaters go to. You want to have a vegan world, not a vegan club.
CTV: There is often this notion of a person either being 100% vegan or not vegan at all. It seems to be generally frowned upon if someone calls themselves 90% vegan or flexitarian. What are your thoughts?
SJ: We have to make veganism more accessible. When someone asks, “What is a vegan?” one tends to list all the things you don’t eat and some people take pride in being able to spend 5 minutes talking about everything they don’t eat. But this is not the best way to get people excited about veganism. There’s a saying, “Don’t cut it out, crowd it out.”
CTV: In my 2 years of being vegan I have witnessed many approaches to activism as well as advocacy (which I deem to be a softer approach). What is your opinion on the use of graphic imagery as a tool for converting non-vegans?
SJ: I think it can work to some extent, although we have to be careful about it. You have this triangle of the Perpetrator, the Victim, and the Witness. When vegans show these graphic images to meat eaters, they tend to view the meat eaters as the Perpetrator, the animals as the Victims, and themselves as the Witness. But people (meat eaters) may perceive it as if it is being forced upon them and then they see themselves as the Victim and the vegans as the Perpetrators who made them watch something that makes them uncomfortable. In the logical world, meat eaters should not complain that they are being shown the footage if they are the ones who are causing it, but this is not how the human psyche works. The default is to usually react by thinking, “You (the vegan) made me watch something awful, so you are the bad guy.” More than anything, this is something that people (vegan activists/advocates) need to understand. There are of course resources such as iAnimal (Through the Eye of a Pig, 2016) virtual reality glasses which sometimes make people excited and they want to try them on and then they are warned that the imagery may be disturbing – although it doesn’t really even have to be too graphic. There are studies out there that state that if it is too over-the-top that it may cause people (meat eaters) to shut off from it completely. Sometimes a sad animal story or a picture that isn’t necessarily gory or bloody to which people can better relate to, can actually be more powerful. Sometimes less can be more. Everyone is different and people resonate with different messages. It’s often a structural problem – for example – if there is a particularly “aggressive” message that convinces someone to become vegan, that person will then naturally assume that if it convinced them, it will convince others – so the activism is spread in that way. The problem is that certain messages (and how they are conveyed) can turn off people. For example, there are certain religious orders that may come knocking on your door trying to convince you to convert. 99% of people who see these kinds of people don’t automatically think, “Oh, I want to follow that religion.” They don’t even want to hear the message. But once in a while, someone is convinced by this approach, and then that person who has been knocking on hundreds of doors goes on and uses exactly the same approach because of that one victory, sometimes not seeing that 99% are turned off by his/her attempts. I think this is really important and we have to ask ourselves firstly: how many people is our message reaching, and what is happening with the other people (who don’t hear what it is we are trying to say); is our approach maybe counterproductive? Because then in total it could be even worse.
CTV: What advice do you have for new vegans?
SJ: Keep your decision a personal one to begin with, because when you learn about it (the atrocities surrounding animal agriculture) you want to tell everybody about it and you want everyone to become vegan. First, make peace with yourself and with your family and friends (that aren’t vegan yet) and don’t be tempted to influence them. Be positive about your journey but make sure to have boundaries regarding anyone who tries to get you to eat meat. This can be way more positive and powerful. You will naturally have some influence in your “inner circle” – but start small – even a leaflet on your car promoting veganism is far more positive and can reach more people than having a fight for the tenth with your brother or dad at Christmas. It’s very important to make peace with others – as you may have these “gory” images that you have witnessed on your journey to veganism which may make you perceive everyone in your life as the “Perpetrators” or as the “Criminal”. Whilst this is understandable, the situation is far more complicated than the face value. People are on their own journey and in hindsight, that journey may look way shorter than it is. For example, in Tobias Leenaert’s book, How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (2017), he refers to it as the “vegan amnesia” – that people actually forget what it’s like before they were vegan. To explain this, I’ll use the examples of vegetarians who become vegan: even though they were vegetarian for ten years, they feel the need to want to suddenly focus on telling everyone about the horrors of eggs and dairy which becomes the main focus of their advocacy when they go vegan virtually overnight.
CTV: Okay, so if you had to choose the most effective way to convince someone to become vegan, what would it be?
SJ: I would not use the word “convince.” You can just plant seeds and you shouldn’t expect more. It’s like a marketing message: you need to hear the message 21 times and not from the very same person standing in front of you 21 times saying, “Go Vegan! Go Vegan! Go Vegan!” There are so many nuances which is why it should essentially be about planting seeds. It’s far more important how you live and how you relate to people because they won’t remember what you said, but rather how you said it and how you made them feel. And if they feel “shitty” about you they won’t want to emulate you. But by being approachable, nice, friendly and leading a happy life (without framing yourself as Mother Theresa or some martyr) you will be far more successful in your objectives.
CTV: Can we chat for a moment about vegans who are constantly at war regarding the palm oil debate and the honey debate.
CTV: Is it a bad question to ask? I witness it so often with people fighting on Facebook groups.
SJ: As they say, “Choose your battles wisely.” Focusing on the big topics, in the beginning, makes more sense and being more relaxed about other issues – although it really depends on who you are talking to. If you are giving a talk in front of seasoned vegans, it is a different case. If it’s the first time someone is exposed to veganism, rather stick to the stuff that intuitively makes sense at first. People are very quick to put people into boxes: “If you don’t eat honey you are extreme” or “If you do eat honey you are a hypocrite.” Nobody has to be “perfect”. Do your best and understand that everyone is going to go at their pace and that pace needs to be practical for them and whatever set of variables or circumstances surround them.
CTV: If you could offer advice to me, as a vegan – what is the biggest difference you think I could make?
SJ: It really depends on your skillset. Become more active, by becoming an advocate. In the effective altruism community, it’s all about using your resources to help others. If you are working on Wall Street as a trader or any other high-paying business, you may be able to do more good by donating so that other people can do activism. That’s the beauty of being vegan – you are already a part of the solution just by simply being. But that’s only the beginning. That only has so much of an impact. Hypothetically – even if you don’t go vegan yourself, but you create two other vegans it has more impact than being vegan yourself than not ever reaching anyone else. Supporting groups and the cause (the people who are working on the issues) can be highly impactful. That’s the beauty of having a “movement” – there are so many activities one can do. Ask yourself what are you really passionate about or interested in and what is needed. This can be very impactful.
CTV: Last question: What can we as South African vegans do to support this growth in the trend of veganism?
SJ: One of the ideas of ProVeg coming to South Africa is to bring more and more campaigns and activities to South Africa that already work in other countries to ideally speed up the whole process. Getting involved in those kinds of projects would be my recommendation to help speed up the process to help ensure it’s sustainable and has a lasting impact – this could include creating businesses that don’t only rely on donations but are self-sustainable whilst still helping the cause. You don’t always have to stand in the wind and hold a sign – there are many ways you can get involved in many professions. Just be aware. It’s not enough to not actively participate. We have to stand up (in a nice way) and support, even if it is carrying a few leaflets – any act, big or small can be easy things. If it’s your birthday and you aren’t keen on presents you can have a fundraiser on your website, things you can share on Facebook, –
DW: Taking Fry’s nuggets to a braai…
CTV and SJ: Yes!
CTV: Does that mean you’re giving us some?
DW: (nervous laugh)
CTV: Thank you, Sebastian. You’ve been amazing!
A big thank you to Donovan Will from The Fry Family Food Co. for organizing the interview.