This is a guest post by James Burford who went vegetarian in 2011 and vegan in 2015. We previously worked together as young school goers at… KFC. Yep… you read that right.
Vegans aren’t averse to controversy. In fact, it seems the two often go hand-in-hand. For many, the contemporary view of Veganism is tantamount to opinionated outspokenness, leftist ideology and an unrealistic and overdramatised worldview. Conversely, this leaves many Vegans pushing even more ferociously for their utopian view of a compassionate and kind world, free of animal oppression and exploitation.
All too often, this clash of ideals results in time consuming and fruitless slinging matches via social media, with either side refusing to budge as they deliver – often inevitably – vulgar criticisms of one another. In the aftermath of all this, the Vegan walks away repulsed by the mentality of people to whom they share this planet with, while the non-Vegan leaves with a sense of accomplishment, knowing they were able to permeate the skin through which their antagonism won out. Worse than this, the non-Vegan departs with an even greater rejection of the Vegan philosophy. Subsequently, the battle is lost.
This method of spreading the Vegan message is a prime example of why Vegans are doing it all wrong. This is a sentiment shared by animal rights activist and Voiceless 365 founder James Aspey, who continually advocates for non-violence in both his Vegan message and his method of delivering this message.
I first met James in early 2014, when my wife and I invited him to speak to students at our school. Since then I have followed James’ journey and his rise to celebrity status among the Vegan community and beyond. Beneath his obvious charisma and general ‘nice guy’ persona, I am constantly in awe of how his message of brutality and violence is always delivered so expertly with the parallel notion of love and understanding for those that support and contribute to this very same violence. The two of course, for most, are incongruent. Nevertheless, it is this unlikely pairing, as well as a peaceful and passive approach to his activism, that makes the ‘Aspeyist’ approach to Vegan education and advocacy the most effective I have ever come across. This hybridity between a passion for one’s cause and a respect for thy enemy is changing the face of Veganism in Australia and is proving far more effective than more traditional forms of animal advocacy.
Like many Vegans, I have found myself losing sleep over ethical confrontations. It starts out with good intentions – an innocent Facebook post, a thought provoking meme. Six hours later with sore thumbs, a headache and a yearning in my chest to assault someone, I have gone to sleep in the wee hours of the next morning having only succeeded in jeopardising Veganism.
While in every facet I know I am morally, scientifically, environmentally and ethically indestructible in my views, I found myself wondering what I had achieved in trading blows with some guy on social media who thought he’d share his hunting photos under my Animals Australia post. In essence, nothing. Admittedly I never instigated the aggression, however I actively chose to embrace and engage in it, should it seek me out. It is a highly emotive thing for the Vegan, when people don’t simply show ignorance towards an industry or practice that we find morally reprehensible, they actively celebrate it. Instinctually, like many, my response is to go straight for the jugular with my arsenal of facts, studies and research which unequivocally prove that not only are my choices morally and ethically right, they save the planet too. Irrespective of this, I failed time and time again in proving what I deem to be a flawless case, because there was nobody left on the other end to hear it. Clearly, my aggressive tactics only sufficed to increase the division in our viewpoints, not reduce them. My sense of moral superiority – while I believe to be justified – only served to hinder, ultimately, the outcome for animals. As da Vinci explains, ‘The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.’
Aspey’s approach defies this method of debate. Its cornerstone is the concept that we can respect the person to whom we disagree with, while concurrently disrespecting their choices. A person is far more likely to listen to someone who affords them respect and delivers credibility, compared to a person who resorts to name calling and judgment. ‘Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others’ – Aristotle. Herein lies the key to a great activist – one who abstains from aggressive name-calling, no matter how tempting or deserved. Those who watch James operate, both in person and on social media, can sometimes find it perplexing as to how he remains calm and respectful in the face of such – at times – vicious filth. Whatever the secret formula, he does just this, and in doing so champions the cause for so many innocent beings.
Inspired by his approach, I found myself using his language and phrases. Upon being asked one of the usual monotonous questions we Vegans are plagued with day-to-day, like ‘Where do you get your protein from?’ or ‘Aren’t plants living things too?’ I suddenly found myself responding with ‘Hey, that’s a great question!’ This was a far cry from my usual snigger and an under-the-breath muttering of ‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’ All of a sudden, when someone tells me they love animals but couldn’t give up meat because it tastes too good, I hit back with ‘I used to love the taste of meat too, but…’ I had become… peaceful and respectful in my advocacy. More importantly, I no longer viewed these people with utter distain. Rather, I appealed to their sense of decency and conscience. People started to take my opinions on board, rather than dismiss them. They even started turning to Vegetarianism and Veganism. Instead of trading insults, I began to trade ideas. While I of course don’t convince everyone, the seeds of thought and compassion are planted, where previously there was nowhere to sow.
Inevitably, I am still met with those who fly the flag of disrespect, close-mindedness and aggression, although I no longer reciprocate this. Instead, I ‘Aspey’ them with a calm, respectful and informative message. Pleasingly, many are responsive to the concept of a cruelty free life, although not everyone is so forthcoming. Despite this, I still cling to the notion, albeit perhaps naively, that if the seed sprouts for one in every thousand, that’s a whole lot better than my old ineffectual method. JFK explains that ‘Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.’ With this in mind, it is important that Vegans everywhere promote the irrefutable benefits of a Vegan lifestyle for mind, body and the environment. Some may take time to transition, while others will be consumed by their conscience, make the change overnight and never look back. Nevertheless, achieving equality for animals must coincide with an Aspeyist approach to advocacy if Veganism stands any chance of shedding its existing mainstream reputation.